Thursday, 24 January 2013

Square Peg in a Square Hole

Sometimes in football you can make things as complicated or as straightforward as you like. Managers on occasions seem to convince themselves that their decisions are right by persistently playing players out of position. Sometimes this can happen through injury, which was the case when Arshavin moved to centre forward or when you try to complaint things, such as when Nasri played at defensive midfield in a Champions League Semi Final. You may initially strike gold but in the long run players need to play in the position of expertise. Which brings me onto a topical subject - Aaron Ramsey.

The Wing Man

Now I'm not going to say that Ramsey is ready to hold down a first team place on a regular basis, but he can at least offer depth and variation in an area of the field that we struggle with at times. Let's digress a moment though, Aaron has been featuring a lot but out of position. If my memory serves me right then this became a feature because we won a game against Everton at Goodison Park in March and Aaron had quite a decent game. He offered cover and was genuinely impressive going forward on a night where we should have notched three or four. Sadly, this move wasn't to be an isolated incident, ten days later we went to Loftus Road and Aaron had an absolute nightmare and the boo boys came steaming in. He was the first to be substituted and he was replaced by Gervinho (no wonder we lost that game). This then became a re-occurring theme and it was summed up with Wenger's tactical naivety to play Aaron on the wing against Manchester United at Old Trafford in November,which is argueably the toughest away game in the league. It was one of our darkest days of the season hidden by a 'close' 2-1 scoreline. Ramsey offered nothing that day (as illustrated above) but then he was playing against a fine full back in Patrice Evra.

The Issues

This often goes unmentioned that despite playing out of position, we put Ramsey up against quality full backs or at least full backs that play full back,. I'd fancy my chances if I got to mark the likes of Michael Carrick or Frank Lampard if they were deployed to right/left wing for the day. Does Ramsey have the characteristics of a wing man? No. He doesn't have great pace or any form of acceleration, he doesn't have an array of tricks or the ability to know where to be to make a run. It has been a grim period for Ramsey and at times I'm sure we've all been frustrated by his performances because it has been annoying but he is still a top level footballer and things like his control and vision should still play a part but he just lost confidence with every passing minute. You could see the fear in his eyes as the ball makes it's way to his feet. That's not a good place to be in as a player and it's hard to show for the ball when 60,000 are all about to simultaneously groan and embark on abusing you. Of course this doesn't mean to say we have to parent him through his days at the club but at least allow him to flourish in his position.

The Centre Midfielder

Less than two weeks ago we played against Man City and with the game seemingly out of reach and a bit of a damage limitation exercise Wenger gave Ramsey a run out in centre midfield. Now Ramsey didn't rip up any trees but he pressed and he drove us on, which culminated in him carving open City's defence for Walcott to shoot straight at Joe Hart. It is sometimes forgotten that Ramsey and Walcott do have quite a good understanding on the pitch and with both tied down to new deals, the signs could be promising. However, on this day was a minor positive. Then we moved to the Chelsea game, which in all honesty I was little surprised to see him not get the start as Wenger preferred to play both Diaby and Coquelin. Diaby played poorly (understatement) and he was replaced with only 15 minutes to go. In which time Ramsey achieved half of what Diaby had been trying to do. Ramsey was 5/8 for attacking third passed whilst Diaby was 12/16 for the game. These aren't earth shattering numbers but for Ramsey, it's a step in the right direction. This all built up to Aaron getting the start against West Ham but as our deep lying midfielder,a role which Arteta has played for most of this season. As the game grew fans started to realise that Ramsey was having a pretty good game and the stats don't half back that up. He also won every tackle (admittedly he only made three), he cleared Carlton Cole's shot off the line line and he only committed one foul. If it wasn't for the explosive perform of of Lukas Podolski he'd have been up there for man of the match. His doubters will probably point to the fact it was only West Ham but Rome wasn't built in a day and if Ramsey's performance last night is anything to go by then maybe Arteta has some genuine competition and at no point last night did I think "ooh, we missed Diaby". Ramsey is a centre midfielder, nothing else. If we stick with him then I'm pretty sure he'll continue to develop and who knows what heights he'd reach if we bought a defensive midfielder.

Monday, 14 January 2013

"Ten Men, We Only Had Ten Men"

It's been a while since that song was sung with any gusto hasn't it? There was a time under Wenger when a red card used to get a positive reaction from the side and we'd see increased work rate, players over performing out of position, a calm approach to our play and invariably we'd get three points.

I am of course not referring to this present Arsenal side. Despite playing in front of 58,000 of their own support they never believed for a second that they could get anything from the game once Koscielny had stupidly seen red. Players didn't seem to know what was expected of them and we took the lazy option of sitting deep and inviting pressure. Even if we had nine men we shouldn't have conceded that first goal, it was schoolboy stuff. We were too busy throwing our toys out of the pram instead of focusing on the task at hand. Our players were like statues when City were in possession and they toyed with us at times, much like we did with them in our 3-0 win at The Manchester City Council Ground a few years ago.

What I didn't quite understand was Wenger's adapted formation. Ox was scarified (not literally)probably due to inexperience but maybe on reflection Cazorla might have been the one to lose out because our lack of work rate would have been upped had Ox stayed on. In the successful Wenger years we used to adopt a very straightforward 4-4-1 formation, that one was a superb finisher and we'd see players like Kanu playing centre midfield. We've won difficult games in the past with ten man for an entire second half. Ones that stick out:

Newcastle 1 Arsenal 2
Lee Dixon gave us an early lead before Shearer levelled. Then not long after Adams was dismissed and we faced an uphill battle at one of the then top sides in English football. Ian Wright popped up in the second half with the winner and we saw out the rest of the game, even with nine men (Dixon needed treatment) for a few minutes.

Liverpool 1 Arsenal 2
Remember the infamous van Bronckhorst 'dive'? The game poised at 0-0, days after losing 3-1 at home to Newcastle, we'd have been forgiven for caving in but that wasn't in this sides make up.  As it seemed to do time after time it galvanised the side and before you knew it we were in the lead. Ljungberg was chopped down by Dudek, when presented with a clear goalscoring opportunity but the Liverpool keeper didn't see a card, instead he had to settle for picking the ball out of his net. Minutes after half time and it was 2-0, Pires rinsed Gerrard and searing in like freight train was Ljungberg to make it 2-0 and mental scenes in the away end *one of my favourite all time celebrations. Litmanen got a goal back but it was to be Liverpool's only shot on target and that was even with Stuart Taylor in goal. That side went on to win the league.

Arsenal 2 Everton 1
Maybe the best time to catch Arsenal with ten men would be on the opening day, when forward are lacking that match sharpness. Campbell saw red after 25 minutes but nine minutes later we took the lead through another Henry penalty. Then on the hour mark Pires doubled our lead and if you check the clip out it's easy to forget how we'd still have players flooding the box in search of another goal. We did conceded to a late Radzinski goal it was a pretty comfortable three points and we'd not lose a game all season.

Now I could go on but you get the point. We used to have strong characters and big performers. Players like Parlour, Ljungberg, Lauren, Cole etc would give everything, you'd literally have to peal them off the pitch. I only felt Wilshere put a shift in yesterday but there we too many that appeared happy to play it safe and not force the issue. This is something that is problematic when we have eleven players, so I wasn't filled with optimism or any form of hope after ten minutes yesterday. It's as if Wenger has forgotten what used to work so brilliantly for him, even the papers don't bother with the old Hall of Shame red card count. We used to have physical talent footballers but now we are lightweight and on occasions found wanting. Players of former sides believed in the manager and I'm not sure this current squad have the same amount of faith in Le Boss. It's a while before we have a week off but with Swansea and Chelsea in our next two games it could be a catastrophic few days, let's hope we turn it around.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

An Attack on Defence

For too long the achilles heal of the Arsenal starting XI has been the defence. We rarely keep clean sheets and therefore we need to score at least two goals in any game in order to pick up three points. In my last blog I broke down the goals for and against versus Newcastle and it wasn't until our fifth and the games eighth goal that I thought there wasn't much a defence could do to stop a world class cross meeting a perfectly timed run, it was in a way unavoidable due to talent displayed in that sequence of play. So after our game on Sunday at Swansea I was thinking when do we ever conceded well constructed goals or ones that you simply think fair play to the opposition. So here's a breakdown of our latest defensive shenanigans dating back to the beginning of December.

Arsenal 0 Swansea 1 Michu 88' - An incisive attack that drew Vermaelen out of position, Michu played a one-two before finishing with aplomb.

Arsenal 0 Swansea 2 Michu 90' - Jenkinson started with the ball on the touchline parallel with the edge of the Swansea box. Dyer pressured him back down the field and towards his own goal. Dyer tackled Jenkinson five yards shy of the halfway line which set Michu away to coolly slot home. Only Tomas Rosicky offered any form of desire to attempt to get back but his efforts were in vein.

Olympiacos 1 Maniatis 65' Arsenal 1 - We initially cleared a corner but the ball was lofted back into the box and Ramsey was left three on one at the back post. The initial header ricocheted of his chest and the Greeks levelled.

Olympiacos 2 Mitroglou 73' Arsenal 1 - A superb strike from the substitute who'd only been on the field a matter of minutes. He curled in a shot from the edge of the box into the bottom right hand corner of Mannone's goal. Vito didn't really anticipate the shot and dived as the ball flew past him but still a good finish nevertheless.

Bradford 1 Thompson 16' Arsenal 0 - We conceded a needless free kick next to the corner flag. Jones whipped it across the face of goal, it got flicked on and there was Thompson, who was completely unmarked (initially Sagna's man but he was ball watching) and he finished in style giving Szczesny no chance.

Reading 1 Le Fondre 66' Arsenal 4 - Kieron Gibbs played a suicidal ball from left back into the centre of our half and this left us two on two at the back. Tabb played a defence splitting pass and Mertesacker stood motionless from the moment the ball was misplaced and Le Fondre rounded Szczesny to tap home.

Reading 2 Kebe 71' Arsenal 4 - Robson-Kanu seemed to be running down a blind alley before turning back inside and threading through Kebe and with Mertesacker stood ball watching he finished coolly to reduce the deficit further.
Arsena 1 Newcastle 1 - Ba 43' - Newcastle won a free kick on the edge of the box after a very poorly timed challenge from Sagna. Ba stepped up and Wilshere cost Arsenal a goal by turning his back on the ball in the exact fashion Nasri did it against Manchester United. This left Szczesny clutching at thin air. 1-1 HT and both goals could have been easily avoided.
Arsenal 2 Newcastle 2 Marveaux 59' - The second equaliser of the day and a catalogue of errors. First up Bacary Sagna, if you offered me Sagna v Obertan I'd take that match up all day without any worries at all. However it appears Bac's head is elsewhere at present and his performances are suffering. Obertan breezed past him and got the yard he needed to get his cross in. Koscielny got a foot on the ball but I'm not convinced his position was as good as it should have been. Then you have Marveaux stood all alone at the back post in about ten yards of space with seven Arsenal players standing watching. Pathetic defending but that would get worse soon after.
Arsenal 3 Newcastle 3 Ba 69'- Marveaux turned creator this time and he picked out Ba with a superb outside of the left foot pass. Gibbs was once again beaten and after watching replays he actually looked at Ba before the ball came in but he completed ignored the threat of one of the hottest strikers in the league and we were punished yet again. 
Southampton 1 Ramirez 34' - Arsenal 0 - Podolski played a ball to Koscielny, which instantly had the Frenchman under serious pressure. He was closed down and Schneirderlin won possession, he worked to Lambert and just as it looked like Sagna was going to clear the danger he lashed it across the box and the ball finally fell to Ramirez who had the simplest of finishes.
Swansea 1 Michu  58' Arsenal 0 - A long punt down field saw Dyer out jump Gibbs (it appeared to be that Dyer wanted it more) and Koscielny failed to deal with Graham which allowed Michu to run at Mertesacker who was too square on and the rest is history.
Swansea 2 Graham 87' Arsenal 2 - A corner that saw several players from both sides miss attempt headers, it fell to Graham on the edge of the six yard box and he had time (with approximately nine Arsenal players in the box) to set himself before lashing home. Arteta was the closest player to Graham at the time of the shot and he seemed reluctant to put his body on the line and eventually turned his back on the shot.
So that's a total of thirteen goals in approximately six weeks and I think we could have avoided eleven of them. I accept that there will be times when players make mistakes but this should be few and far between fora team that regularly competes in Europe's elite club competition. I wrote a blog earlier on this season about the 'Bould Effect', which has come back to haunt me somewhat. It was foolish of me to think that three league games into a new season that we would have solved several years of poor positioning and ball watching in one summer with Steve Bould. Look at Reading's first goal against us, it's Gibbs' mistake but watch Mertesacker throughout that attack, he doesn't move. I still our sides started the season with some drive to defend but that has almost disappeared of late. Arteta's lack of desire to throw his body on the line in order to win us a game has contributed towards us having to replay a game we can ill afford to play at present. I've always been a bit over the top in terms of the amount of players that we need in order to genuinely compete at the highest level again but all of our defenders at present aren't doing the basics and if you wanted to look at areas to improve we could replace them all. I know Sagna is suffering from poor form but when you couple that with the noises that he wants to leave in the summer it doesn't inspire confidence.
Good defending can be as infectious as free flowing attack and we must ensure we lose this mentality of having to score a minimum of two goals to win a match.  I've seen a couple of blogs focus on Arteta's play at defensive midfield, again something I thought that worked at the beginning of the season but are we really getting the best out of him as a player? I'm all of the stats relating to interceptions and blocks etc I don't see any other top defensive midfielder in there because their sides tend to control matches and they show discipline when you have to adapt to the harder side of the game. I'm sure I'm not the only one that is sick of our uncanny ability of finding new ways to concede goals but as it was pointed out to me tonight, you rarely here Arsene comment on defensive issues, it usually centres around our offensive play. Hopefully with games upcoming against City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Bayern Munich we'll up our game but I'm not holding my breath.