Saturday, March 10, 2018

Match Preview, Arsenal v Watford: Strangers in a Strange Land

Arsenal’s Premier League match with Watford on Sunday takes place in rarely traveled territory.

The Gunners have not won a league match since the 5-1 mauling of Everton on February 3. That five-week gap is the longest period between league wins since the 2007-08 season. Back then, Arsenal recorded four draws and a loss in February and March between victories over Blackburn and Bolton.

The current first team are also trying to avoid their fourth consecutive league defeat. Manager Arsène Wenger has never experienced that long a losing streak at the club.

To add to the uncharted character of this encounter, Arsenal do not have a meaningful league objective to play for. The Gunners are 13 points behind fourth-placed Tottenham with just nine games to play and trail fifth-placed Chelsea by eight. As a result, qualifying for next season’s Champions through their league finish is unlikely.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to see how Arsenal would not qualify for the Europa League. Because Manchester City won the League Cup and is just one victory away from securing a top-four position, sixth place in the league guarantees a European spot. If one of the top-five finishers (Manchester United, Spurs, or Chelsea) also wins the FA Cup, then seventh place in the league gets Arsenal a European bid.

In essence, Arsenal, currently five points ahead of seventh-place Burnley, would have to avoid an even more historic collapse to miss out on Europe.

All that to say that there’s not a tremendous amount riding on Sunday’s match.

What import it does carry relates to its timing. Three days after a crucial 2-0 win in Milan in the Europa League’s round of 16 and four days before the return leg, Wenger will be balancing the objectives of building the players’ confidence and facilitating their recovery.

What lineup changes might we see as a result? Much depends on the health of the fullbacks. Preferred starters Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal aren’t fit to play, and backups Calum Chambers and Sead Kolasinac both left Thursday’s match with injuries. In all likelihood, Ainsley Maitland-Niles will replace one of them on Sunday.

It’s also possible Rob Holding or Mohammed Elneny will come into the defense. If it’s Elneny, that leaves very little scope to give midfielders Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, or Jack Wilshere a break. Perhaps Alex Iwobi gets a game—but it’s all speculation.

This uncertainty and the absence of precedent could make this an interesting match. Serendipity, which is always at work in elite athletic contests and the primary reason I watch, may figure more prominently than usual.

Here’s hoping it favors the Gunners for the first time domestically in quite a while.

Trends to Watch

One notable development in the Milan victory was the use of a more defined midfield trio. Xhaka, Ramsey, and Wilshere were structurally cohesive; none ranged far enough forward to constitute a 4-2-3-1. This provided greater support for the defense and improved the flow of the attack. Watford’s strength is in midfield, so a similar approach from Arsenal might make sense.

How the Match Plays Out

No way to know. The contest over the midfield could determine the outcome.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Arsenal’s big-money striker showed his flair in the penalty area in an otherwise unsightly performance at Brighton. He didn’t play on Thursday, so his zip and knack for goals could stand out.

Watford. Abdoulaye Doucouré. In the Hornets’ win over Chelsea, the Frenchman was imperious in midfield. He and compatriot Etienne Capoue make up a formidable duo.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Theo Walcott Sendoff

As Theo Walcott prepares to leave Arsenal for Everton, we can reflect on his tenure in North London.

Some observers have taken this as another opportunity to criticize a player or manager Arsène Wenger. I don’t see any value in that. Instead, I want to offer some impressions and memories of Walcott’s time as a Gunner.

A Professional for the Media Age

In some ways, Walcott was the leading edge of the modern footballer at Arsenal. When he arrived from Southampton 12 years ago this month, the club had just four months left at its Highbury home.

Among his new colleagues were Emmanuel Adebayor, himself fresh from Monaco that January, Ashley Cole, and Pascal Cygan. I mention those three former Arsenal players because they put very little effort into image management. Adebayor and Cole cared not a jot what fans thought of them; if they did care, they addressed that concern ineptly.

Cygan may not have shared that apathy, but he certainly wasn’t able to shape his image: Despite his contributions to the Champions League finalists that season, he’s still trotted out as an example of poor Arsenal defenders.

Walcott paid considerable, perhaps inordinate, attention to his image. He presented himself as a thoughtful, friendly figure and eventually as a devoted family man. He may well be all those things. But he certainly let us know that through careful image management.

One could say that Walcott, in this fashion, paved the way for Mesut Özil, who, thanks to his own instincts and skillful management of image managers, has crafted a public persona to support his distinctive set of athletic gifts.

Speed and Scoring

Of course, we’ll also remember Walcott for his speed. He was the fastest Arsenal player for much of his time here. In his prime, he threatened to embarrass defenders so much that many set up to avoid him exposing them.

The top example was the 2015 FA Cup Final. That day, Aston Villa fielded a lumbering back line which Arsenal’s attack pushed deeper and deeper. In the 40th minute, Villa's line got so deep that Walcott was able to attack a looping header by Alexis Sanchez in front of the defenders and fire home the opening goal. The Gunners cruised from there to a 4-0 defense of the Cup.

That was one of Walcott’s 108 goals as an Arsenal player, ranking him 15th, level with Frank Stapleton, on the club’s career goalscoring list.

Among that bunch were some memorable strikes. His curling effort from outside the penalty area in December 2015 against Manchester City ranks as one of his most skillful goals.

But for sheer joy, I’d note his headlong run, featuring a pratfall and recovery, in Arsenal’s come-from-behind 5-3 win over Chelsea in October 2012.

Later that fall, another deceptive fall befuddled the Newcastle defense, capping Walcott’s hat trick in a 7-3 Arsenal victory.


Over the years, Arsenal supporters and bloggers have filled bandwidth with critiques of Walcott. I’ve no intention of adding to this mass. Even if he never fulfilled my hopes of increased contributions when he signed his latest and last Arsenal contract in August 2015. (See “Walcott’s Deal: A Good Ting for Arsenal.”)

Instead, I’ll remain slightly disappointed. Not because Walcott did anything wrong or because his shortcomings or performances had any effect on me personally. But because, just as he was emerging as a vital and distinctive part of the Arsenal attack, he suffered a debilitating knee injury.

As the Premier League turned away from its festive period in January 2014, Walcott had notched five goals and five assists in 13 league matches. This built on a stellar 2012-13 campaign, when he had scored a total of 21 goals and made 16 assists.

Then, Walcott collided awkwardly with Tottenham’s Danny Rose in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup, and his progress halted.

There’s still a great memory of Walcott, Arsenal loyalist and image manager, from that encounter. As he was being carried off in front of the Spurs away section, he raised two fingers with one hand—not in the insulting fashion, that would’ve been too controversial for our Theo—and made an empty circle with thumb and index finger of his other hand.
Two-nil, Walcott was driving home to that lot.

He did so, probably knowing he faced months out of action, with a smile on his face. Many of us will remember that moment fondly and wish Walcott happy trails with the curmudgeon Sam Allardyce at Everton.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Match Preview, Arsenal v Newcastle: The Depth of Presumption

One of the most maddening aspects of following Arsenal is the presumptuousness of its online fan base. So many supporters seem to be able to read the minds of the manager and players; there’s also a know-it-all contingent that enjoys lecturing the club’s representatives on the proper exercise of their professional duties.

As a result, I hesitate to generalize about the priorities, motives, or mindsets of Arsenal executives, manager Arsène Wenger and his staff, or the players.

That said, I think it’s fair to say that Wenger prefers an entertaining style of football, one that encourages the attacking players to express themselves. This is both an aesthetic choice and a business choice: Fans pay for style and goals, and it’s easier to recruit great players by promoting their freedom.

For those reasons, my guess is that the manager is not likely to persist much longer with the approach that produced lackluster performances at Southampton and West Ham. One goal in those two matches, regardless of the opposition’s preference to thwart Arsenal rather than assert themselves offensively, is not the return Wenger wants to deliver.

Expect, then, a different Arsenal when Newcastle visit the Emirates on Saturday.

Again, I don’t presume to read the manager’s mind here or to tell him what to do. God forbid.

Instead, I’m just taking him at his word. For example, reflecting on the match at West Ham, he said, “I will adapt a little bit to the problem we face. I played a back four at West Ham because I thought we’d have a lot of the ball and wanted one more offensive player in the team.”

He also noted that he expected Newcastle to approach the match from a similarly defensive posture, so it’s not crazy to conclude that we could see four at the back again on Saturday.

The question is, who will constitute the attack? The starting center forward (Olivier Giroud), one attacking midfielder (Alex Iwobi), and a central midfielder (Jack Wilshere) were all different against West Ham than they had been against Southampton. Those three have largely been part of the “A-Prime” team that we’ve seen in midweek cup matches.

Although perhaps none of those put in such a poor performance individually on Wednesday, the collection certainly did not amount to a scintillating attack. Sometime star man Alexis is also far from his best—for whatever reason. Would Wenger keep his game-changing qualities on the bench when Arsenal really need a spark?

I’ve no idea what the manager will or should do. But I’m fairly confident that the answer will be interesting.

Trends to Watch

Much of the discomfort Arsenal have experienced this season has come on the road. Performances at the Emirates have been much more pleasing, in general. That despite most visitors setting up to defend in the final third. Can the Gunners leave their frustrations where they happened—away from home? Can they overwhelm Newcastle during one exceptional period and then manage the game from that point? And which group of 11 players, and what playing structure, are most likely to produce those outcomes?

How the Match Plays Out

This topic calls for presumption, but here goes: Arsenal are aggressive from the first whistle, closing down the Magpies and jumping on mistakes. The free flow is back, orchestrated by Mesut Özil, and some of the clinical goalscoring edge returns.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Alexandre Lacazette. Arsenal paid a record fee—and commensurate wages—to acquire the Frenchman from Lyon. It made those investments precisely for conditions like this, when the team is struggling to score. Maybe that’s not fair, but that’s the business.

Newcastle. Isaac Hayden. The former Arsenal prospect will be motivated to show his worth to his former club, and his position at the base of the midfield might allow him to do that. His responsibilities won’t be eased by the absence of partner Jonjo Shelvey.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Match Preview, Southampton v Arsenal: Anger Managed

Earlier this week, Andrew Mangan from Arseblog explored the less angry, if not muted, reaction to Arsenal’s defeat by Manchester United. It’s worth thinking about this collective psychological shift as Arsenal prepare to visit Southampton on Sunday.

Although I have disagreed with Andrew from time to time, in general I find him a thoughtful, measured, and articulate observer of the club. I would certainly trust his read on the mindset of Arsenal supporters online.

So when he notes that – apart from those outlets that traffic in outrage – the reaction to Saturday’s home loss was “less acute,” that seems like a reasonable statement about a changing mentality.

He goes on to speculate about the reasons for this change: A combination of Manchester City’s breakaway form, “weary resignation” or apathy over past perceived failures, fatigue with what some view as the same story unfolding, anticipation of the end of manager Arsène Wenger's era.

All could be true.

What I’ll say is that whatever the source, this represents a healthy turn. The vitriol of yore certainly didn’t do the Arsenal players any service – all the research on sports psychology indicates that a supportive environment is one of the elements grounding elite athletes’ success.

What’s more, I don’t think it’s particularly functional for those up in arms, either. We are talking about a sporting endeavor here, something that’s supposed to be at least entertaining and at most enjoyable. Individuals don’t survive very long hating what they should be enjoying.

In that light, for the love of Bergkamp, please try to find something to relish about the Gunners’ encounter with the Saints on Sunday.

We probably have the genius of Mesut Özil and the superhuman drive of Alexis Sanchez for a short amount of time, so take pleasure in what they do. We haven’t seen a striker like Alexandre Lacazette at Arsenal in a good while; watch his movement and guile. We’re blessed with one of the world’s top all-around midfielders – do yourself a favor and be amazed at the skill and stamina of Aaron Ramsey.

If you’re also, like myself, interested in the interactions of the complex organism that is a professional football side, take a few minutes during the match to focus on the interplay among Özil, Ramsey, and Granit Xhaka. The understanding of space, the timing, the skill, and the synchronization of movement by these three are a joy to behold.

It’s a human endeavor, though, which means it won’t be perfect and may not meet our expectations. Accepting that fact may, indeed should, reduce the emotional stakes. All the better.

Trends to Watch

Center half Shkodran Mustafi won’t play due to a thigh strain. Until the self-destruction against Manchester United, Mustafi was part of a defensive trio that had not lost a match.

Will the manager replace Mustafi with a member of the squad, Per Mertesacker, Rob Holding, Calum Chambers, or will he restructure the defense as a back four? He did that in the no-risk setting of Thursday’s Europa League contest with BATE Borisov. As a consequence, the flow through midfield was noticeable.

Such a setup would also be a way to reintroduce Jack Wilshere to the Premier League XI. Wilshere can’t do much more to prove he’s worthy of a league start than he’s done in his cup outings.

The guess here is that, away from home less than 72 hours after the previous match, Wenger sticks with three central defenders and goes with Mertesacker in the middle.

How the Match Plays Out

Southampton took the imperious Manchester City to the brink of a draw in midweek last week, so the going won’t be easy for Arsenal. Despite their less-than-prolific goalscoring record this season, Saints can feature Charlie Austin again up front. The former QPR man has troubled the Gunners in the past.

But midfield is the key to this one. Arsenal set the platform there to permit the attacking talent to thrive; this happens on Sunday, giving one of the Gunners’ relentless attackers enough support to find the Southampton net.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Mesut Özil. The German is in the top form of his Arsenal stay, just as his contract winds down. Watch and cherish his wizardry while you can.

Southampton. Oriol Romeu. Southampton’s noteworthy performances in recent years have come when the Spaniard has ruled the midfield. If he dominates that crucial area the way he can, Saints will have a foundation to trouble Arsenal.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Match Preview, Arsenal v Swansea City: What Matters

When I started writing about Arsenal five years ago, I thought I had something distinctive to say about the club. Having read and been inspired by several blogs for years, I believed I had identified a way to contribute something different to the discussion.

In particular, the business and management of the club, from its corporate strategy to its financial performance to its brand strategy to its management of its human capital, were aspects that I could shed some light on.

I’ve thought a lot and helped others think about such matters over the course of my career. Examining and synthesizing them for such an admirable enterprise as Arsenal Football Club seemed like a worthwhile undertaking.

Today, I’m not going to say that assessment was wrong – this is supposed to be a match preview, not a navel-gazey blog post. But too many of us are paying attention to the business and management of the club at the expense of the actual sporting endeavor.

This week provides an excellent example. Instead of relishing the emergence of Eddie Nketiah, the 18-year-old savior of Arsenal’s Carabao Cup run, the story turned to the conduct of the Annual General Meeting of Arsenal Shareholders. Which, capitalism being what it is, meant absolutely nothing.

What will mean something is the Gunners’ next Premier League match, against Swansea City at Emirates Stadium.

May I suggest, though, that this meaning has little to do with Arsenal’s prospects for the near term, as the team tries to establish consistent performance before some challenging November fixtures? Or with its ultimate position in the 2017-18 Premier League table? Or with the futures of star men Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil? Or with the collective desire of 14 professional athletes who would never have reached the pinnacle of their profession without desire?

Those will doubtless be storylines peddled by paid and amateur analysts during and after the match. And they will largely miss the point of sport.

To me, an observer who's ruminated on the bigger picture for some time, the point now is the enjoyment of sublime athleticism, the appreciation of genius, the surprise at the unexpected. The minute developments or actions that I have never seen before and will likely never see again.

If you view the story through that composite lens, you’ll avoid the jaded, hackneyed, “same old Arsenal” perspective that seems to drive some people near insanity.

You also might appreciate the speed and guile of the Gunners’ attackers against a Swansea defense set up to stymie them, the subtle orchestration of midfielders Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, the dynamism of wingbacks Sead Kolasinac and Hector Bellerin, and the timely aggressiveness and attention to transition of the team’s defenders and goalkeeper.

Trends to Watch

See above, in particular the timing of Ramsey’s runs to join the attack. Last weekend against Everton, the Welshman synchronized his moves almost perfectly with those of Özil, Alexis, and Alexandre Lacazette. Swansea may be more diligent opponents, but the interactions of Arsenal’s four attackers can be unstoppable.

How the Match Plays Out

This was not a straightforward affair last season, owing primarily to the unjustified dismissal of Xhaka. I expect him to avoid such a fate on Saturday and to dictate the play from the base of Arsenal’s midfield. Farther forward, the Swans may be more resolute than Everton was. Still, I don’t see them resisting the athleticism, skill, and synchronicity of Arsenal’s attack.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Mesut Özil. After his display at Everton, the German playmaker looks primed to dominate matches with his skill and vision. As Swansea set up to thwart him, he’ll need to move and think just as quickly.

Bournemouth. Lucasz Fabianski. The former Arsenal man between Swansea’s sticks has a worldy in him; he also has a clanger. He’ll be busy.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Match Preview, Arsenal v Bournemouth: Embrace the Uncertainty

Anyone who comes up with a definitive preview of Arsenal’s match against Bournemouth on Saturday lacks good sense or humility or both.

There’s just no way to predict how this encounter is going to unfold. Now, at a fundamental level, that’s true of any sporting contest, which is why we pay such rapt attention. Those unexpected moments of brilliance and joy carry most of the appeal.

If something can be even more unpredictable than normal—a question perhaps for the grammarians and philosophers out there—this Arsenal match would qualify.

First, Arsenal’s level of intensity is difficult to see ahead of time. The requirement on that front certainly wasn’t met in the last match against Liverpool, and despite exceeding the quality of Stoke and Leicester City, the Gunners haven’t exactly overwhelmed any opponents with a full match’s worth of effort.

Without suggesting the behavior and performance of previous teams have any bearing on this still-forming one, I will observe that manager Arsène Wenger has noted his teams often adopt caution after comprehensive defeats. Then again, the international break may have mitigated that tendency a bit.

Whatever Arsenal’s mental approach, the composition and playing style remain mysteries. We do know that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will not be taking up a position in Arsenal’s starting XI. And it’s a pretty good bet that Wenger will pick Petr Cech, Laurent Koscielny, Alexis Sanchez, and Mesut Özil; their talent dictates their inclusion.

As for the other seven starters, you would think there’d be spots for Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, and Alexandre Lacazette, but you’d have tipped Lacazette for a start at Liverpool given he posed the greatest goal threat in the team’s first two matches. You’d have been wrong.

It’s also not 100 percent certain that Wenger will retain the structure of three central defenders. The manager has never expressed a firm commitment to that approach, and it hasn’t achieved its main purpose—defensive stability—in Arsenal’s first three league matches. Hosting Bournemouth might provide just the occasion to reintroduce the back four.

If such a return is in the offing, might we see stability provided by the inclusion of a more defensive midfielder, say, Francis Coquelin? The Frenchman could patrol the approaches to the central defense while Xhaka and Ramsey work the transitions. This might get the best out of all three.

Or it might not.

The point is, we don’t know what’s going to happen. As in our own lives, we can choose to fear that uncertainty, or we can embrace it. I know not what course others may take, but, as for me, give me serendipity.

Trends to Watch

Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud has scored 14 goals as a substitute; only three Premier League players have scored more. One of those, Jermain Defoe, now plies his trade for Bournemouth. Will one of these deliver the decisive blow on Saturday?

How the Match Plays Out

Arsenal start tentatively. Bournemouth mostly foil the Gunners early on and may enjoy a chance or two. Arsenal grow more confident and determined late in the first half, and their technical superiority and application eventually carry the day.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Alexandre Lacazette. The Frenchman seems to have a nose for goals, and his savvy in the area will trouble Bournemouth.

Bournemouth. Ryan Fraser. The Scottish winger caused Arsenal all sorts of problems in the frantic 3-3 draw at Dean Court last January. Whatever defensive framework the Gunners use, Fraser will create danger.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Match Preview, Southampton v Arsenal: Don't Believe the Hype

Occasionally, after particularly positive Arsenal results, I’ll break with pattern and review some immediate post-match analysis. I figure in so doing I can revel in the good feeling, which is one of the reasons I devote my time to following the club.

Such was my decision after the Gunners’ 2-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday. And I regretted it.

NBC Sports spent the first segment of its studio show talking about Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Nothing about who had performed well for Arsenal. Or about tactical adjustments that might have worked to Arsenal’s advantage. Nothing, even, about the Gunners’ ability to seize the moments that were presented them.

I then turned to The Guardian’s match report, hoping the hour or so of reflection had allowed its writer to reflect more substantively on the proceedings. Same story, essentially.

What’s this got to do with Arsenal’s match against Southampton on Wednesday?

It’s relevant because the obsession with the easy, popular narrative can make us miss some interesting developments. We’ll hear, for example, about the long odds of Arsenal’s qualification for the Champions League and about the club’s poor record at Southampton.

Both accurate observations, but not at all interesting.

Instead, we could be thinking about Danny Welbeck. He scored another winner against his former club on Sunday, and his attributes were part of Arsenal’s solution to an opponent’s blocking intentions. (Watch Adrian Clarke’s excellent Breakdown of some of the other moves, such as the deliberate movements of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil.)

Will Welbeck’s fitness permit another start so soon?

Or can the midfield partnership of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey continue to flourish? Again, fitness will play an essential role in the answer, what with Xhaka’s ongoing lower-leg woes. If the Swiss can go, that can only boost the team’s efforts to establish some flow through the midfield.

In defense, there’s a doubt about the availability of linchpin Laurent Koscielny, according to manager Arsène Wenger. Given his impressive contributions on Sunday and the wily play of Southampton striker Manolo Gabbiadini, Arsenal will be hoping the on-pitch captain can play. Without him, can Shkodran Mustafi come straight back from his own injury into a new system, and who’s going to marshal the defense from the central position in the back three?

These are all much more compelling questions to me than the unanswerable ones about the manager’s future, the team’s Champions League prospects, transfer needs, and history on the South Coast.

They’re drawn from the actual stuff of professional football—two groups of 11 elite athletes competing and, if we’re lucky, providing some surprises with their determination, physical gifts, and intelligence.

Like those two moments on Sunday when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Özil skipped over ham-fisted attempts by Wayne Rooney to tackle them.

Key Matchup

Manolo Gabbiadini against Arsenal’s central defenders. There’s been a noticeable improvement in Arsenal’s defense since the introduction of the 3-4-2-1 structure. Gabbiadini, despite being in woeful goalscoring form, creates a tricky challenge, with the likes of Nathan Redmond and Dusan Tadic supporting him.

Where to Worry

If Xhaka can’t play due to injury, Arsenal’s transitions will suffer. That’s especially concerning against Southampton because the Saints midfield is very skilled at disrupting the opposition’s flow. Would the response be a double pivot of Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain?

Match Verdict

I have no idea what to expect. Both teams had successful outings at the weekend. Arsenal still have something to play for but an abysmal road record of late. Southampton have little obvious motivation and problems scoring goals, but they enjoy the home support. Let’s just accept the uncertainty and see what happens.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. The England man scored twice here in the FA Cup this year. He also delivered the coup de grace to his old team on Sunday. He can make his case to lead the line for the rest of the season and, perhaps, beyond.

Southampton. Oriol Romeu. Southampton’s defensive midfielder has put in some standout performances this season. He’s a formidable barrier to the Saints’ somewhat makeshift back line.