Thursday, January 12, 2017

Are Arsenal Prepared for Life after Wenger?

Earlier this week, the German publication Kicker published an interview with Arsenal playmaker and record signing Mesut Özil. In it, Özil stressed his readiness to sign a new contract with the club.

The only sticking point, he said, is the uncertain management situation. With manager Arsène Wenger’s own contract set to expire in June, one of the team’s star men has simply asked the club for an indication of who his boss will be if he commits his prime years to Arsenal.

“The club knows that I am here especially because of Wenger, who brought me, whose trust I enjoy,” Özil said. “The club also knows that I firstly would like clarity on what the manager is doing.” (See Arseblog’s full English transcript here)

In one sense, Özil’s declarations are reassuring: He seems content with his life and work and reluctant to jettison that for greater riches elsewhere.

On the other hand, his doubt is troubling. It suggests one of Arsenal’s greatest assets is as much in the dark about the manager’s position as the rest of us. A reasonable inference from Özil’s plea is that the club’s executives have not shared the outlines of a succession plan with him.

Given the discretion with which Arsenal conducts business, we shouldn’t be surprised that all the details haven’t emerged. We won't see a five-person managerial short list, for example.

But we don’t even have reassurances, a succession philosophy, or indications of a decision structure to hint that the club is prepared for the possibility of life after Wenger.

The outlines of a plan


Three years ago, we lived through a similar scenario. Until Arsenal secured the FA Cup that spring, Wenger’s future remained much in doubt.

The risks of that state of affairs did not disappear; they were only deferred. As a result, the observations I made in my October 2014 piece “Arsenal After Arsène” are still germane.

In particular, we should look at the steps Arsenal have taken to prepare for the managerial transition. Have the Board and club executives implemented practices that would produce an effective succession? According to executive recruiting experts David Larcker and Stephen Miles, organizations should, among other actions:
  • Add succession expertise to the board, particularly the search committee chair
  • Develop a robust succession architecture to cover needs from immediate emergencies to a five-year horizon
  • Use external advisors to assess candidates and work closely with the board
  • Prepare to shuffle the current management team if any members block the development or advancement of others
  • Expose promising internal candidates to the board

Although the club won't engage in all these activities in the open, we can expect the Board and Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis to reflect on these needs and to describe their preparations broadly.

Not only have Arsenal’s leaders failed to substantiate their thinking and actions on the matter, they have not answered the critical question—who is primarily responsible for the appointment.

Supporters, observers, and the media don’t know, despite the experience of 2014, who’s leading the club in this critical respect or how the leadership is approaching the decision. More troubling, the players don’t know.

The shortcomings of an insider Board


These developments, or lack thereof, do not inspire confidence that the Board has overcome its one obvious flaw. That’s the narrowness of experience and perspective of its members.

Six men. All white. Three grandees of the club. A father and son pair with no football background. And the CEO.

Even if we acknowledge that some members of this group have participated in bold, forward-thinking decisions in the past, the Board’s homogeneity and its implications are unavoidable.

First and foremost, the lack of breadth and diversity. A substantial body of organizational research indicates that the most effective decisions emerge from groups with a broad range of experiences and identities.

Not only do those perspectives bring new ideas, the very inclusion of difference sparks more careful decision making. (See “Better Decisions through Diversity” from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.)

As Katherine W. Phillips wrote in Scientific American in 2014, “Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table. Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior.” (“ How Diversity Makes Us Smarter”)

There have been no additions to the Arsenal Board since Wenger’s last contract renewal. No apparent changes of behavior, either.

As a result, the club doesn’t inspire confidence that it can make the optimal preparations for Wenger’s departure. 

The task that awaits

These preparations are vital to the club’s future because a monumental challenge faces the next manager.

During his 20-year tenure, Wenger has evolved into something of a Chief Football Officer. He’s an executive with both strategic and daily tactical responsibilities.

Both aspects weigh on him. He has said, for example, that he considers the financial well-being of all the current staff when he is making decisions about major outlays on new players.

“What matters to me is that when you have a club with 600 employees, you make sure you can pay everybody at the end of the month.”

That was his response to a question last August about Arsenal’s perceived hesitation in the transfer market.

In addition, very little seems to happen on the sporting side without Wenger’s okay. For an indication, read the engrossing account of 2014 loanee Kim Källström. Arsenal’s physicians diagnosed him with fractures in three vertebrae as he was on the verge of moving to North London.

After the medical assessment, Källström remembers, Wenger said:
’The transfer window shuts in a few hours. It’s impossible to find a replacement. Either I take you or no one.’ Surprised, the others turn to the big boss. No one knows how he’ll continue, but they know that his words are law. It’s evident that he has not anchored his decision among the rest of the staff. He decides. ‘You’ll stay, heal, and train. I’ll take you when you’re fit.’

When this one figure who has made so many decisions, the one to whom so many people have deferred, departs the scene, Arsenal faces a cultural and structural upheaval. Wenger’s replacement will have to coach the entire organization through that challenging transition.

Indeed, even taking into account a restructuring of Wenger’s responsibilities, the new manager will have to be comfortable with an executive’s perch.

Wenger described the evolution of his responsibilities at length in a conversation last March:
I remember I was manager at the top level [in 1983]. It was me, 20 players, and a part-time physio. Today, we are in 2016, I have a real team around me, a team of assistants, specialists of all kinds—statistical analysts, video analysts, scouting, physios, doctors, dieticians. So my job today has, of course, changed.
And I get so much information, that the problem of the modern manager is more to select the three, four [pieces of] information about the multitude he gets which are really significant.
Today you are much more in selection mode and decision mode.
Today you have other problems, to manage your own team of consultants … That creates human problems as well.

Here, Wenger is talking about his responsibilities in terms most executives would find familiar. He has to identify meaningful points amidst a flood of information and make important decisions on the basis of that selection.

Add explaining those decisions with equanimity to agenda-driven writers and broadcasters, demanding supporters, highly compensated players, colleagues within the club, and its leadership, and you have a colossal undertaking on an almost daily basis.

Given the magnitude of this work and its effects on Arsenal’s success, those in position of authority should be better prepared to handle life after Wenger than they seem to be.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Match Preview, Preston v Arsenal: An Old-Time Cup Tie

Arsenal travel to the Northwest of England on Saturday to open the FA Cup campaign against Preston North End.

It’s a throwback to 18 years ago, when the clubs last met at Deepdale. Arsenal recovered from a 2-0 deficit to win 4-2 the Third Round contest that day.

The 2017 encounter is likely to jog memories in other ways. First, it’s a classic setup—a top Premier League club, not yet recovered from the major exertions of the festive period, visiting a determined Championship side.

That dynamic makes Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger wary. As he told his pre-match press conference, “We know as well that after a congested Christmas period that the third round is always a tricky game. That is why I believe it is a mental challenge for the Premier League teams to prepare well and not have a bad surprise - especially when you go to a Championship team, as it is always difficult.”

The second reflection of the past will show in Preston’s style. Even in the context of the less technical Championship, manager Simon Grayson starts his team with the traditional English playbook.

The Lilywhites attempt the seventh highest number of long passes in the division and close to the fewest (22/24) number of short passes (Stats from whoscored.com). They both engaged in and won the second-highest aerial duels in the league, while they have suffered the fewest fouls.

These numbers suggest that Preston will make little attempt to contest Arsenal on the ground and will try to bypass the midfield.

In the attacking zone, Grayson’s men are relatively effective on set pieces, having scored 10 goals off stoppages, sixth most in the Championship. That’s another old-school approach Arsenal will need to prepare for.

On the defensive side, Preston lean to the aggressive, ranking seventh in the league in tackles and sixth in interceptions. They’re also effective at reducing danger in their own penalty area: The league’s third-highest number of clearances point to that.

Expect them to try to stymie Arsenal with a similarly assertive—though not overly physical--approach.

These tactics won’t be news to Arsenal’s staff and players, who recently faced Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce in the Premier League. The question is, will the lineup Wenger selects have the chemistry, focus, and patience to succeed.

Chemistry or synchronicity tops the priority list because Arsenal’s first XI may have had little game time together. Mainstays Laurent Koscielny and Alexis Sanchez will definitely get a breather, while playmaker Mesut Özil continues to recover from his respiratory ailment. Rob Holding and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should get chances to play as a consequence, with Alex Iwobi or Aaron Ramsey candidates for the #10 role.

There’s little question that whomever Wenger sends out will have the necessary quality. As we saw, though, in the 2-0 EFL Cup defeat to Southampton, untried relationships don’t always blossom.

The second question concerns the attention those selected will apply to this match so soon after the roller-coaster 3-3 draw with Bournemouth on Tuesday. The poor performance of that match’s first hour owed more, I think, to mental rather than physical fatigue only two days removed from the team’s win over Crystal Palace.

Another psychological test will come on Saturday.

Finally, given all those tactical, personnel, and mental factors, the team might need patience to see off the hosts. It’s a quality we’ve seen the Gunners display often this season, most recently in the win over West Brom. Can they replicate that in the maelstrom of a classic cup tie when the opposition’s emotions are running high and the terraces are rocking?

Key Matchup


Alex Iwobi against Ben Pearson. Again, in the absence of Özil, expect Arsenal’s creative burden to fall to Iwobi. He did not look up to the task against Bournemouth on Tuesday, but he certainly wasn’t alone in this respect. A return to the form he showed against Crystal Palace will be most welcome.

Iwobi will probably come up against Manchester United product Ben Pearson in the midfield. The 22-year-old is not afraid to put a foot in, as his eight yellow cards in 16 appearances indicate. Iwobi will have to deal with that physical resistance to keep Arsenal ticking.

Where to Worry


Headers from set pieces are Preston’s bread and butter and a combination Arsenal seem susceptible to. The 12 goals Arsenal have conceded from headers represent the most in the Premier League (Squawka.com).

Match Verdict


This is not going to be as easy as the clubs’ statures and positions suggest. In the end, though, Arsenal’s quality and patience should carry the day.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Lucas Pérez. There’s a question about the Spaniard’s availability, as Wenger said he’d picked up a slight injury during his turnaround substitute appearance against Bournemouth. If he can play, his combination of clever movement and clinical finishing could be the difference for Arsenal’s attack.

Preston. Callum Robinson. Much of Preston’s offensive activity comes via the 21-year-old Englishman. Robinson leads the team in shots; his total of 75 more than doubles that of his second-ranking teammate. And no Lilywhite has more goals (five).

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

AFC Bournemouth 3, Arsenal 3: Three Things We Learned

For the first time in the Premier League, Arsenal rallied from three goals behind to grab a point from an eventful 3-3 draw at Bournemouth.

Again, Olivier Giroud provided the decisive touch. His deft header in stoppage time capped a furious final 20 minutes. Though it might not be enough to sustain Arsenal’s title challenge, the result avoided what looked to be an embarrassing defeat.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Alexis will not surrender


The Gunners needed a hero. Up stepped their Chilean leader.

With his team trailing 3-0 midway through the second half, Alexis kept driving his teammates forward. He dribbled at the Bournemouth defense. Attempted more through balls and crosses. Harried Bournemouth players when they had the ball.

Alexis’s goal to get Arsenal off the mark was all desire. He ran past Bournemouth right back Simon Francis just as Giroud was flicking on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross. He got to the ball at point blank range and buried his header past keeper Artur Boruc.

The stats bear out the dynamo’s influence: No player created more chances for teammates (three) or attempted (38) or completed (25) more passes in the final third.

In the absence of playmaker Mesut Özil, Alexis ran the show. And he dragged his teammates along with him.

This group deals with adversity in a novel way


This match could easily have ended as one of Arsenal’s most humiliating defeats in recent years. Just two days removed from their previous, victorious, outing, the Gunners looked vulnerable from the start.

Although the end of the festive period often produces such a strained dynamic, manager Arsène Wenger's starting lineup seemed to point to a more solid setup. Francis Coquelin returned to the midfield and should have created a better shield with Granit Xhaka. Aaron Ramsey, usually more defensively aware than other forward options, got only his third league start.

However, a defensive lapse led to Bournemouth’s first goal. Ramsey failed to cover Bournemouth left back Charlie Daniels. The late, ineffective intervention of Hector Bellerin gave Daniels a sight of goal he didn’t forsake.

Surrendering the opening goal—bad, but not insurmountable. The early deficit didn't revive the Gunners, whose scuffling play continued.

Then, referee Michael Oliver delivered two decisions that went against Arsenal. The first was a penalty against Xhaka, who tangled with Bournemouth winger Ryan Fraser just inside the area. Callum Wilson shot straight down the middle for a 2-0 Bournemouth advantage.

Later, Oliver ignored a more egregious foul that Fraser himself committed, which left the Bournemouth man one-on-one with Arsenal keeper Petr Cech. 3-0.

Add an injury to Coquelin and the exit of captain Laurent Koscielny, and you’d be forgiven for fearing the worst.

But Arsenal did not cave. Alexis’s goal energized the team, while substitute Lucas Perez’s cracking volleyed finish across Boruc provided a realistic hope of avoiding defeat. A red card to Francis for an overly aggressive tackle on Ramsey enhanced the opportunity.

This Arsenal team delivered a message, of sorts, when they took this chance when many of their predecessors would have wilted.

Petr Cech rescued his performance--and this point


Rarely can you credit a goalkeeper who sees his net bulge three times in a match. In this case, though, Arsenal’s Petr Cech deserves some recognition.

The veteran faced six shots on target and saved three. None was more critical than his stop of Harry Arter’s drive in stoppage time, after Arsenal had pulled level.

Goalkeeping experts can decide whether Cech’s inability to get close to any penalties this season—he’s faced six—should be a concern. He will also be disappointed that his string of two shutouts came to an end and perhaps upset that he didn't do better with Bournemouth's two goals from open play.

Still, at the end of an intense nine-day period, with pride on the line, Cech stayed focused and stood tall.

Extra time


On the heels of an outstanding performance against Crystal Palace, Arsenal’s fullbacks would probably prefer to forget this game.

Bellerin, normally such a weapon, struggled to get involved in the offense. He completed just 34 passes (76 percent of those he attempted) and had just 64 touches, second lowest among Arsenal’s outfield players in action the full 90 minutes.

On the defensive side, Bellerin had problems as well. He failed on both his attempted tackles, he picked up a first-half yellow card, and all of Bournemouth’s goals emanated from his side of the pitch.

After the match, Wenger said his right back was playing with a minor injury.

Nacho Monreal didn’t have a banner game on the left, either. The Spaniard, 30 years old next month, looked off the pace so soon after his previous outing. He might not be able to bear such regular exertions; the club’s inquiries about left back targets suggest as much.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Arsenal 2, Crystal Palace 0: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal began 2017 in some style, with a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace highlighted by the adjective-defying goal from Olivier Giroud in the 17th minute.

At the culmination of a free-flowing Arsenal move—more on that anon--the French striker, at full speed, stretched his left leg behind himself to connect his heel with Alexis Sanchez’s slightly imperfect cross. The contact was impeccable. The shot rattled the underside of the bar and caromed in.

Alex Iwobi’s header after halftime and a controlled performance overall delivered the result that the Gunners needed to match their top rivals’ wins earlier in the weekend.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Giroud is more than capable on the counterattack


Artful descriptions of Giroud’s goal abound. Have a look at Arseblog’s account and Barney Ronay’s encomium in The Guardian. Or watch it again here and find your own words of praise.

In addition to the audacity and skill of the goal itself, what stood out to me was how it defied the consensus about Giroud. That he’s an immobile, classic center forward adept only at hold-up play and headed goals.

Here, he scored at the end of a blistering counterattack. The move involved six Arsenal players—Lucas Perez, who tracked back to intercept a Palace pass just outside the Arsenal penalty area, Hector Bellerin, Giroud, Granit Xhaka, Iwobi, Alexis, and Giroud again.

As manager Arsène Wenger put it, “I think it was an exceptional goal because it was at the end of a fantastic collective moment, which is what our game is about.”

Giroud was essential, not just for the final blow, but for the flick near the halfway line. This deft play opened space and lines of vision for his teammates. Then Giroud took off, reaching the Palace area just as Alexis readied his cross. Perhaps Giroud actually got there too quickly: Alexis’s pass went just behind him.

But that was just what Giroud’s genius needed in that moment.

Arsenal’s fullbacks had a fiesta


New Year’s Day was a festive occasion for Arsenal’s Spanish fullbacks. Bellerin and Nacho Monreal were especially effective in attack.

Bellerin was everywhere along Arsenal’s right flank, making 96 touches, third-most on the team behind Xhaka and Alexis. He also completed the second highest number of passes (57) and succeeded on all his attempted dribbles, tackles, and clearances. Bellerin led the Gunners with 14 ball recoveries and put in five crosses (Stats from Arsenal.com and FourFourTwo Stats Zone).

The young Spaniard exercised his defensive responsibilities well, to boot. He nullified the sometimes troublesome winger Wilifred Zaha and coped decently with the aerial threat of Christian Benteke.

Meanwhile, Monreal made a real impact on the left. Returned to the starting lineup, he was frequently dangerous going forward. He participated in the team’s second most frequent passing combination, with Alexis. And his early first-time cross deserved a better finish by either Giroud or Perez.

It was another pass Monreal fizzed across the Palace area that created the chaos that ended with Iwobi’s headed goal.

In all, Sunday’s fullback play was reminiscent of what we saw in the 2015-16 campaign, when the Arsenal pair was tops in the league.

Petr Cech deserved this clean sheet


In relative and absolute terms, Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech was not busy in this match. While his counterpart Wayne Hennessey faced 22 Arsenal shots, seven on target, the Czech veteran had to cope with just seven shots, none before the 37th minute. Four of Palace’s attempts ended up on target.

Three of those came in a sequence soon after Iwobi’s goal. Cech saved a strong Benteke header, then backpedaled to push aside Yohann Cabaye’s effort from distance. The ensuing corner created a disturbance in Arsenal’s area, and Cech had to be ready again for Andros Townsend’s drive to the goalkeeper’s right.

Those three saves and some other commanding interventions were instrumental in Arsenal’s second shutout in as many matches. As were the solid performances of center halves Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel.

Extra time


The deputies did their duty admirably.

Iwobi was influential in the playmaker role, creating five chances for teammates and completing a game-high 27 passes in the attacking third.

Perez buzzed around Arsenal’s right flank and got himself into some dangerous areas. He was a little imprecise once he reached those positions, but he responded to Gabriel’s criticism of his defensive laxness after the previous game against West Brom. His interception commenced the sequence leading to Giroud’s goal.

And Mohammed Elneny was a steady presence in midfield. The Egyptian worked well with Xhaka—they were the team’s top passing combination—and helped establish the foundation for Arsenal’s attack to thrive.

With the Gunners’ next outing only a day away, such contributions from the squad could prove important.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

FC Basel 1, Arsenal 4: Three Things We Learned

Lucas Perez’s hat trick decided Arsenal’s 4-1 win over FC Basel in the Champions League and, in an unlikely outcome, clinched the top spot in Group A for the Gunners.

Unlikely because Paris Saint-Germain, heavy favorites at home, could only draw with Ludogorets Razgrad. As a result, Arsenal’s won the group for the first time in five years.

The Gunners blitzed Basel at the beginning of each half and warded off most of the hosts’ pressure to secure the victory.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Arsène Wenger still goes for it


The talk leading up to the encounter focused on whether the Arsenal manager should and would give his important players a rest. After all, PSG was almost certain to secure the group’s top seed at home, and the Gunners face a challenging Premier League calendar.

If you needed reminding of Wenger’s unpredictability and his respect for the Champions League, his team selection should give you all you require. Yes, he made six changes from the lineup that dispatched West Ham on Saturday; those six, though, did not include Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez. Arsenal’s two stars played long enough to secure the result, then left for substitutes.

Elsewhere, the manager picked an aggressive starting XI, fielding Aaron Ramsey in midfield beside Granit Xhaka and Lucas with Alex Iwobi, Özil, and Alexis farther forward. The priority was clearly on the attack, a focus that proved smart as Arsenal’s speed on the break overwhelmed Basel.

This risk-taking did mean that, early 2-0 lead in hand, this was not the team to lock it down. But the group, particularly central defenders Laurent Koscielny and Rob Holding, did enough to keep Basel from getting too close.

Lucas Perez gets to the right place at the right time


The two goals Lucas scored in early the first half displayed his opportunistic streak. He recognized the threat that left back Kieran Gibbs was posing on Basel’s right, and he got himself into can’t-miss positions in front of goal.

For his first, Lucas sneaked in as Alexis released Gibbs to the byline with a delicate chip in the eighth minute. Gibbs drew the Basel keeper Tomas Vaclik’s attention then slotted the pass to Lucas. The Spaniard waited a split-second, Alexis style, for the last Basel defender to commit, then eased the ball into the net.

Eight minutes later, Lucas scored a poacher’s goal, jumping on the rebound of Gibbs’s stinging shot to sweep home.

He had more work to do to finish off the second Arsenal hat-trick in as many matches. Again, Gibbs was instrumental. His intervention and strong pass upfield was deadened by Alexis into Lucas’s path. Lucas swung his weaker right foot, didn’t make clean contact, but had the angle perfect to beat Vaclik.

That’s five goals in just nine Arsenal appearances for the late summer arrival from Deportivo La Coruna. An excellent return.

Gibbs and Iwobi jelled well


Arsenal enjoyed a smooth combination on its left. Unlike in the last match against PSG, Gibbs and Iwobi synchronized their movements and reached dangerous positions.

Gibbs played much of the match practically as a winger, getting forward at every opportunity. Of his 62 completed passes, Gibbs directed the plurality (26) forward and connected on 13 of 14 passes in the final third. (Statistics from FourFourTwo StatsZone)

Gibbs could influence the match in this fashion because Iwobi frequently moved in from the flank to overload the midfield. Running from that central position onto Özil’s cutback, Iwobi scored Arsenal’s fourth goal of the night.

Meanwhile, Basel couldn’t exploit the resulting gaps on Arsenal’s left. Center forward Marc Janko wasn’t mobile enough to run into that channel, and right back Michael Lang, though 15 of 15 on passes in the attacking third, could not produce the decisive quality.

Extra time


Until the point in the 78th minute when Rob Holding surrendered possession, leading to Basel’s goal, his partnership with Laurent Koscielny at the heart of Arsenal’s defense performed impeccably.

Koscielny succeeded on seven of seven attempted clearances, while Holding was five for five. Koscielny also made a game-high four interceptions, while Holding completed 93 percent of his passes. All added up to solid contributions from a novel partnership.

A brief word about Granit Xhaka, too, upon his return to his original club: The Swiss international pushed Arsenal forward from midfield, completing 41 of his game-high 104 passes forward. He was also alert defensively, intercepting four Basel passes, making 14 ball recoveries, and succeeding on three of five attempted tackles. No player was more effective on those measures.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Southampton: Changes Coming

We can expect another change in complexion for Arsenal's EFL Cup quarterfinal match with Southampton on Wednesday.

Manager Arsène Wenger made seven alterations to his starting lineup between last Wednesday’s Champions League draw with Paris-Saint Germain and Sunday’s 3-1 league win over Bournemouth. The only holdovers were central defenders Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi, playmaker Mesut Özil, and center forward Alexis Sanchez.

Selecting that quartet for two high-profile matches shows its importance to the current Arsenal team. In all likelihood, Koscielny, Mustafi, Özil, and Alexis will get a deserved rest against Southampton. They will have few opportunities for days off before the return fixture against Bournemouth on January 2.

In their places, Wenger will send out young players and squad stalwarts—Rob Holding and Gabriel in the center of defense, for example, and Alex Iwobi in the attacking midfield.

The center forward choice will be an interesting one. Recent league supersub Olivier Giroud would get the nod up front, but he tweaked his groin on Sunday and may need more time to recover. Lucas Perez will be in the squad after a month-injury absence; he might not be ready to start, though.

The other options would be Theo Walcott, replaced by Giroud after 75 minutes on Sunday, Iwobi as part of a fluid front four, or debutante Stephy Mavididi. None ideal. As a result, Wenger may have to fend off arguments from the indefatigable and insistent Alexis for another run-out.

We’ll also see Kieran Gibbs return to left back and Francis Coquelin to the center of midfield. Other candidates for starting roles include Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Chris Willock.

All have earned playing time in Arsenal’s two wins in this competition. They’ll be backed by goalkeeper Emi Martinez.

This group will face its stiffest test in this competition so far. Not only are Southampton the first top-flight side to play Arsenal in this year’s cup, the Saints have posed serious challenges to the Gunners of late. Arsenal’s 2-1, stoppage-time, league win in September was just their second in seven outings against Southampton. That included a 2-1 loss in this competition two years ago.

Like Wenger, Southampton manager Claude Puel should adjust his starting XI from the one that defeated Everton 1-0 at the weekend. The Saints’ schedule is just as busy as the Gunners’, with a return to London against Crystal Palace and a crunch Europa League matchup with Hapoel Be’er Sheva in the next eight days.

There’s also precedent for Puel to rotate for this competition. He switched nine starters between Southampton’s league draw at Manchester City and the 1-0 home win over Sunderland in the last round.

Key Matchup


Alex Iwobi against Harrison Reed and Jordy Clasie. If Özil does get the break as anticipated, much of Arsenal’s creative burden will fall to Iwobi. He has not made much of an impact recently—as is normal for players who burst into the first team. Southampton are a difficult team to unlock, largely because their deep midfielders and defenders work so well together. Iwobi will need to find his daring and execution to create chances for his teammates.

Where to Worry


Shane Long annoys Arsenal every time he faces them. The Irish striker is tireless both in his running and in his niggly fouling. He’ll try to get under Gabriel’s skin and hope for a mistake from the relatively inexperienced defensive partnership of Arsenal.

Match Verdict


This one has the makings of a cagey and uneven affair. Because both teams will have relatively new makeups, synching the attacks might prove difficult. The heightened, if only mildly, pressure of a quarterfinal with Wembley on the distant horizon might also have a psychological effect on the players.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. His double propelled Arsenal to a 2-0 win over Reading in the last round. The incentive of facing his former club, plus his improved performances aside from his North London Derby cameo, could push him to make a telling impact here.

Southampton. Stuart Taylor. The ex-Arsenal man, now 36, may get his Southampton debut in goal in the absence of Alex McCarthy. He’ll need all that experience and good relationships with his back four to keep Arsenal’s youthful attack from bamboozling him.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mesut Özil and Arsenal's Midfield Misadventure

When Arsenal's offense hums, playmaker Mesut Özil orchestrates it. But neither he nor the team got into a rhythm in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United. The Gunners’ inability to register a shot on target until Olivier Giroud’s equalizer in the 89th minute seems like clear proof of the team’s ineffectiveness on the day.

Combine that reality with the hosts’ crisper passing and effective defending, and you get a rather unpleasant display for Arsenal fans. A pleasing result, no doubt, but not with the aesthetic quality we would like to see.

Pause from the monocause


As ever in this era of reductive outrage, many observers laid the responsibility at the feet of either Özil or Aaron Ramsey. The attacking midfielders carried the creative potential in this particular starting XI; the other members of the front six tended to the direct (Alexis, Theo Walcott) or the risk managers (Francis Coquelin, Mohammed Elneny).

It’s true that neither Özil nor Ramsey created a chance for a teammate. Between them, they completed only one pass in the opposition penalty area. And neither took a shot.

So at one level you can see why Arsenal’s two talents took criticism for the pedestrian display overall.

But those complaints, true to our age, oversimplify complex developments.

Kelly Wood’s defense of Ramsey, “Aaron Ramsey! He is Great,” hammers the Ramsey critics effectively, so I won’t restate her points here. What I will do instead is try to understand the dynamics that brought on this performance, particularly from Özil.

So, what’s Özil’s scenario?


First, the statistics don’t reveal anything out of the ordinary. Özil completed 58 passes against Manchester United, just one fewer than his season average. His passing accuracy of 86 percent was only one percentage point lower than his norm so far this year.

The difference was where Özil did this work. Instead of combining with Alexis and Walcott on the edge or in Manchester United’s penalty area, the German playmaker operated much closer to midfield. The heat maps on whoscored.com show Özil frequenting the middle third. That was a change of his sphere of influence, given that he’s one of the Premier League’s most prolific final-third passers.

Not only did this shift of activity take Özil away from where he’s most dangerous, it jammed him into an area where others were operating. In particular, Alexis dropped deep from his center forward position to receive the ball—note the overlap with Özil on the heat map.

Rather than creating triangles to facilitate quick passing, the Gunners’ close proximity to each other in midfield allowed Manchester United’s midfielders to clog the spaces.

There was another team on the pitch


That was central to Jose Mourinho’s brutal design.

The Manchester United manager set out to deny Özil opportunities on the ball. The German genius often found himself surrounded by three opposition players—center backs Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones pushing up and midfielder Michael Carrick shielding passes into him. When he ventured to the left, right back Antonio Valencia and a central midfielder usually had him cornered.

Loosening these defensive shackles proved difficult. It required guile and skill from Özil's midfield teammates or a dangerous distraction elsewhere.

For all their positive qualities and contributions, Coquelin and Elneny could not provide the craft to free Özil. The central pair focused on breaking up the hosts’ attacks and making the simple pass out. These two responsibilities were difficult enough, what with the harassment they received from Ander Herrera.

To find the well-marshalled Özil, they needed more daring.

Creative responsibility wasn’t their brief, though, as manager Arsène Wenger admitted afterward. “I knew it would be a bit more of a physical battle, so I chose players who have experience and fight,” he told Arsenal.com.

Method to the midfield


There’s a logic to this approach. Many factors weighed against Arsenal in this match, even if this wasn’t the most fearsome Manchester United lineup of all time.

Early kickoff. Return from the international break. The Mourinho hoodoo. A 10-year league victory drought at Old Trafford. Injuries to dynamic players like Hector Bellerin and Santi Cazorla.

In that context, you can understand a more circumspect approach from Arsenal. Wenger was right that midfield robustness was important; it’s just that his charges didn’t cope superbly with the aggressiveness of Manchester United in that area of the pitch.

They handled it well enough to get a draw. If the players’ post-game comments are a true indication, they’ll be honest in their assessment of the performance and optimistic that better outings lie ahead.