Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Southampton: Wake up in February Makeup

When Arsenal welcome Southampton on Tuesday to start the month of February, the Gunners can hope to ride two trends.

During manager Arsène Wenger’s tenure, his teams have displayed a tendency to surge in the final months of league campaigns. As Amy Lawrence explains in “Arsenal Could Be Blown All the Way to Glory by Trademark Second Wind,” Wenger’s title-winning sides went on long successful runs, sometimes overhauling league leaders, in the second halves of seasons.

Indeed, in the past 10 seasons, only twice have Arsenal have dropped spots in the table during a season’s second half--in 2013-14, when the Gunners fell from first to fourth, and in 2007-08, when they dropped from first to third. On three occasions, Arsenal maintained its league position, and five times the club moved up the table.

After 19 matches of the current season, having played each league opponent once, Arsenal were top of the league. A month later, they sit third, three points behind leaders Leicester City.

The midweek date with Southampton looks like the moment to commence the characteristic charge. A victory here would also follow Arsenal’s odd and arbitrary, on-again-off-again pattern of monthly results. The Gunners went unbeaten in the league in October, then won none of their three league matches in November. December brought four wins in five, followed by a January in which the only league victory (in four matches) came on the 2nd of the month against Newcastle.

It’s also a potential watershed match because Southampton have posed Arsenal difficulty in recent years. There’s of course the 4-0 loss at Saint Mary’s on Boxing Day, following other lackluster showings on the South Coast. At home, Arsenal haven’t exactly overwhelmed the Saints, either, needing a late Alexis strike to see off the visitors last season and an 86th-minute Olivier Giroud penalty to secure three points the season before.

Expect this to be another tight affair. After a shaky period, Southampton appear to have sorted out the defensive issues. The Saints have held Manchester United, West Bromwich Albion, and Watford scoreless in their last three league fixtures. Those performances—and the way they shut out Arsenal in December—will probably serve as the model for Tuesday’s game plan.

The difference this time out is that Southampton won’t be able to concentrate so much attention on Mesut Özil. In the previous fixture, Southampton’s Jordy Clasie man-marked Arsenal’s playmaker and creative hub, while defensive midfield partner Victor Wanyama controlled everything else.

The return of Alexis Sanchez, whose hamstring injury preventing him from playing in December, poses problems for Southampton’s approach. If the Saints focus too much on Özil, Alexis could find more room to drive at goal. He’ll also help Arsenal harry the opposition defenders, increasing the likelihood of turnovers that he and Özil can quickly turn into threats.

Arsenal executed a similar plan to perfection against Manchester United in early October. There’s evidence that Southampton’s defenders are just as susceptible to such aggressive pressing: Pressing sides Tottenham and Liverpool both overwhelmed the Saints on their home ground in December.

A resurgence of similar energy levels and renewed focus from Arsenal, fueled by the returns of Alexis and Francis Coquelin, would change the dynamic on Tuesday. More to the point, these improvements would bode well for Arsenal’s three other important league fixtures in February and for the 11 subsequent contests to close the season.

Key Matchup


Jordy Clasie and Victor Wanyama against Mesut Özil. Without dwelling on the result, the Arsenal players and coaching staff will have studied Southampton’s approach in December and noted the focus on Özil. The German playmaker will have devised ways to free himself or to use Southampton’s attention to provide more space and time to his teammates.

That’s a less complicated task in a home match than it is on the road, and teams that come to the Emirates planning to man-mark any member of the Arsenal midfield usually regret it. Making Southampton pay for that choice, should they make it, will be important for Arsenal on Tuesday.

Where to Worry


Southampton are dangerous with crosses, headers, and set pieces. They’re the league’s most prolific crossers, with 436 in 23 matches, they have headed in 10 goals to lead the league, and their 10 goals from non-penalty set pieces rank second. Arsenal’s center back pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny will need to be attentive to this threat, and goalkeeper Petr Cech will need to continue his outstanding command of his penalty area.

Match Verdict


Both these teams will put in maximum effort. Southampton have climbed to eighth position in the league and will try to advance further. Arsenal know the necessity of reasserting home dominance if their title challenge is to persist. A gritty battle in the midfield, decided by a moment of brilliance in the forward line, seems how this match is likely to unfold. In Alexis, Arsenal again have that difference maker in attack.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Francis Coquelin. The Frenchman returned to action after a two-month layoff in Saturday’s FA Cup win over Burnley. He wasn’t in top form, as you’d expect, but his awareness and effort helped Arsenal largely control the midfield. Coquelin will be important in the same respect on Tuesday, and his lateral work should reduce Southampton’s threat from crosses. His relatively untried partnership with Aaron Ramsey in the center of the park will also be worth watching.

Southampton. Charlie Austin. The former Queens Park Rangers front man enjoyed a Southampton debut to remember last weekend, scoring the game-winning goal at Old Trafford as a substitute. If manager Ronald Koeman is reluctant to use regular starter Graziano Pellè after his three-week injury absence, Austin could lead the line; or he could come off the bench and pose a legitimate threat. After all, he scored both times Arsenal faced QPR last season.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Burnley: In Search of a Spark

Arsenal host Burnley in the FA Cup 4th Round on Saturday, when the Gunners will look for their first victory since their 3rd-Round triumph over Sunderland on January 9.

These three winless winter weeks have left Arsenal if not desperate for, then certainly in need of, a strong performance and a positive result. A home cup tie against a Championship side presents an opportunity to spark 2016 to life.

In addition to the overall urgency and the theoretically ripe opponent, the return of several important players should provide the impetus for improvement on Saturday.

In his 30 minutes of action against Chelsea last Sunday, the dynamic Alexis Sanchez showed flashes of the energy, skill, and imagination that pose opponents such problems. He’ll be available from the start on Saturday, offering a threat that Burnley defenders aren’t accustomed to.

Saturday’s match will also signal the easing of Arsenal’s midfield crisis with the reintroduction of Francis Coquelin, out since injuring his knee at West Bromwich Albion in late November, and Tomas Rosicky, who hasn’t appeared in a first-team Arsenal match since a nine-minute cameo against Sunderland in May 2015.

The midfield will be further bolstered by the appearance of the newest Arsenal player, Mohammed Elneny. Observers, supporters, the coaching staff, and his teammates are all no doubt interested to see what the January acquisition can bring to the squad. Indications are the Egyptian will have an opportunity to show that from the start.

Thanks to this improving personnel situation, manager Arsène Wenger has more luxury to choose his lineup against Burnley, and supporters have reason to be optimistic. There are several reasons to be cautious, however.

First, the Gunners have a challenging league date with Southampton on Tuesday. Wenger will want to position his team for optimum performance that evening, for three reasons:
  1. To stay in close contention for the league lead
  2. To cleanse the psyche of the 4-0 drubbing at Southampton’s hands in December
  3. To rebound from recent lackluster results

As is so often the case with cup competitions, the manager must balance what’s needed for success on the day with his longer-term objectives and the freshness of the playing squad.

In that context, how much leeway does the manager enjoy to field players who are new to each other or who have little recent experience together? Although there are now several legitimate candidates for starting roles, a midfield completely remade from recent matches in front of a central defensive pairing that is, by necessity, not first choice seems risky.

Not least because Burnley are no pushovers. The Clarets are one of the form teams of the Championship, having gone five games unbeaten in the league to reach third position. They’re coming into Saturday’s fixture on the heels of a 4-1 dismantling of fellow contenders Derby County. And they’re not that far removed, either in personnel or time, from the team that gave Arsenal a real test at Turf Moor last April.

Statistically, Burnley aren’t remarkable. They have taken relatively few shots per game (11.4, ranking 21st of 24 Championship teams) and allow relatively high numbers of shots per game (14.4, ranking 3rd). They stand last in tackles per game and don’t commit that many fouls, relatively speaking.

Where the Clarets have made a mark is on set pieces. They’ve scored 13 goals from corners, crossed free kicks, and direct free kicks and four goals from penalties. That suggests that Burnley will try to copy the trend among less accomplished Premier League sides, described by 7amKickoff here, and draw fouls in areas whence they can launch dangerous free kicks.

If Burnley succeed in this effort, they’ll test the organization of Arsenal’s rejiggered defense. But if Arsenal can limit those opportunities and keep the game flowing, the Gunners should pass this test, move to the last 16 of the competition, and establish a foundation for the important matches to come.

Key Matchup


The Arsenal midfield against Joey Barton. In all likelihood, Burnley manager Sean Dyche will arrange his team in a 4-4-2 formation with strikers Sam Vokes and Andre Gray combining for the offensive threat. That will leave Burnley a man light in midfield, where veteran instigator Joey Barton will be charged with minimizing the impact of Arsenal’s superior numbers and skill. It’ll be a rude inaugural for Elneny, and the ability of the Egyptian to thrive in that situation will tell us a lot about his potential.

Where to Worry


Burnley are experts at set pieces, and if Barton and his teammates manage to draw Arsenal into a chippy, stop-start encounter, a strike from a dead ball is a possibility.

Match Verdict


It’d be unwise to assume an easy Arsenal win here. Burnley have quality and application that could trouble the Gunners, even at home. But I think Arsenal will be both energetic and persistent, and the Gunners’ superior talent will carry the day.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Alexis. The Chilean seemed raring to go when he entered the Chelsea match. Although he was rusty, he pushed the team forward and hustled back when defensive cover was necessary. Burnley won’t have seen his like in the Championship and will find him hard to handle.

Burnley. Andre Gray. The 24-year-old Welsh forward has notched 15 goals in 23 appearances for Burnley, including five in his last five matches. Three of his 15 goals have come from the penalty spot. He’s the Clarets’ main attacking threat and will work with teammate Sam Vokes to divide the attentions of Arsenal’s two center halves.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Arsenal 0 Chelsea 1: Three Things We Learned

A first-half red card induced by Chelsea’s Diego Costa and a goal by the Chelsea striker sent Arsenal to a 1-0 home defeat on Sunday.

With the loss, the Gunners dropped out of first place in the Premier League and now sit just two points ahead of fourth-placed Tottenham.

The incident in the 17th minute, when Per Mertesacker found himself on the wrong side of Costa and tried a last-ditch tackle, obviously changed the dynamic of the match and rendered most analysis meaningless. Still, here are three things we learned from the encounter.

Arsenal paid for the risks of its high line


The potential of a disastrous defensive moment is real when Arsenal employ a high line. The coordination between Mertesacker and his partner Laurent Koscielny has to be perfect, and their teammates higher up the pitch must put pressure on the ball to prevent the easy pass. If either of those elements is missing, the opposition has an opportunity to break beyond the Gunners’ defense.

That’s what happened when Chelsea’s Willian lost Aaron Ramsey in midfield, saw Arsenal’s other midfielder Mathieu Flamini back off, and picked the pass to Costa as he ran off Mertesacker’s shoulder. Koscielny and Mertesacker stepped up a smidge in an effort to catch Chelsea’s striker offside, but that was the wrong decision, taken in a split-second with no room for error.

We’ve seen similar series of events in previous matches this season. At Swansea, Jonjo Shelvy pushed the ball through the midfield and connected with Bafetimbi Gomis, who skirted Mertesacker while Koscielny stepped up. Against Newcastle, Ayoze Perez captured an errant pass in midfield and found an open Georgino Wijnaldum. In both those cases, Arsenal keeper Petr Cech came to the rescue, and Arsenal went on to win.

Mertesacker’s challenge, Costa’s theatrical tumble, and referee Mark Clattenburg’s red card prevented Cech from having the opportunity to save the day again.

In matches that turn on such small margins and instantaneous individual decisions, the risks of the high line require better collective management.

No one should fault Arsenal players for their effort


Even reduced to ten men with Mertesacker’s expulsion, the Gunners looked livelier than their opponents. They amassed 47 percent possession, which is remarkable for a team suffering a numerical disadvantage for 70 minutes, fashioned six corners, and found themselves with decent looks at goal on several occasions.

The problem was that Chelsea’s defenders kept most of Arsenal’s activity in front of them. When one of Arsenal’s wide players got the ball in the attacking third, there were no credible targets for a cross into the penalty area.

So Arsenal’s fullbacks often carried the ball long distances, particularly Hector Bellerin, who was a frequent threat on the right. He succeeded in bypassing several Chelsea players on occasion but ran into resistance as he got nearer goal. From Arsenal’s left, Nacho Monreal found himself open in the penalty area late in the match but couldn’t create a shot.

All this attacking from the fullbacks left the Gunners open to counterattacks, and Chelsea did get into spaces that more clinical teams would have exploited for the killer blow. Some acknowledgement is due Koscielny and Gabriel, Mertesacker’s replacement, for their work managing these late Chelsea attacks, though the pair must share some responsibility for Costa’s goal.

Arsène Wenger does not shirk tough decisions


The Arsenal manager’s call to sacrifice center forward Olivier Giroud in order to introduce Gabriel sparked considerable debate. Would Arsenal have been better served with the target and ball control Giroud offers, rather than the speed provided by Theo Walcott?

It’s a reasonable question. Just as Wenger’s choice of Walcott over Giroud--made with much more information than we have--was a reasonable one.

Overall, the manager had to account for the three fourths of the match that remained after Mertesacker’s red card. He had to consider the fitness of the players, the likely approach of his opponents, and his team’s best chance to succeed.

Reports that Giroud had suffered an injury in training may have factored in the decision. If that injury would have forced Giroud off at some point anyway, it made sense to replace him early.

Let’s also remember that the match was scoreless at the time, making it more likely that Chelsea would push forward and leave themselves vulnerable to a counterattack. This dynamic would have worked to the strengths of Walcott, not Giroud. Wenger did not foresee that Chelsea would score so early and then, despite a man advantage, sit back and soak up Arsenal’s pressure. That pattern of play would have favored Giroud.

Extra Time


Normally I turn the sound off when I’m watching matches. I don’t find NBC’s commentators insightful or instructive, as a general rule. On Sunday, I wanted to get a sense of the atmosphere, so I didn’t mute the sound.

I wish I had.

The main reason was the insistence of analyst and ex-Chelsea man Graeme Le Saux that Mesut Özil’s “body language” was the giveaway to a poor performance by the German. Rather than examine the setup of the Arsenal team once reduced to ten men or explain how Chelsea were containing Arsenal’s creative players, Le Saux harped on the appearance or carriage of Özil.

This is armchair psychology masquerading as analysis and absolutely no help to understanding a match.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Match Preview, Stoke City v Arsenal: The Alexis Conundrum

Arsenal’s tests shift to England’s Northeast from its Northwest with Sunday’s visit to Stoke City. It’s a challenging fixture under any circumstances—Arsenal have just one win in seven Premier League matches there—and so soon after Wednesday’s grueling, frustrating draw at Liverpool, Stoke is a truly trying trip.

The good news is that the Gunners move on from disappointments much more quickly than their supporters do. We’ve seen recent evidence of this, when the 4-0 pasting at Southampton led not to a collapse as 2015 turned to 2016 but instead to three victories in short order.

And even if the legs remain weary, the prospect of Alexis Sanchez’s return is energizing. Although results have been solid in his absence (W7, D1, L1), Arsenal could certainly benefit from the Chilean’s infectious verve. A midwinter match at Stoke City seems like the perfect occasion.

In this occasion, as in all, perfection may elude us. Manager Arsène Wenger would be taking a major risk by immediately calling on Alexis. A re-aggravation of his hamstring injury, a problem related to compensating for his original injury, or consequences of Stoke’s infamously physical play could restrict last season’s star man from contributing substantially to Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge.

Wenger is well aware of the difficulty of this decision. He told his pre-match press conference:
Alexis, I would say has a 60:40 chance to be available and be back in the squad. He has two decisive days - Friday and Saturday. He is fit, he has worked very hard, and the decision we have to take is whether to take a gamble or not on his injury.

One of the manager’s clear considerations is the threat Alexis adds to Arsenal’s attack. Without him, opponents can focus on playmaker Mesut Özil, even man-marking the league’s top provider out of the game, as Southampton did. Alexis’s unpredictability, quickness, and determination will punish a team structured to stop anyone else.

Equally important is Alexis’s contribution to the Gunners’ efforts without the ball. He’s the key to Arsenal’s press in forward areas and forms an effective partnership with left back Nacho Monreal when opponents advance. Alexis can also help defend the middle of the pitch, where the midfielders Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini have shown they’d benefit from additional cover.

Despite the myriad ways in which Alexis strengthens this Arsenal team, the feeling here is that the manager will deploy him as a substitute. Wenger fancies a gamble, but perhaps not now with a prize asset he needs for as many of the remaining 16 league matches as possible.

Key Matchup


Joel Campbell against Erik Pieters. Arsenal’s once forsaken Costa Rican has risen to impressive form of late, creating danger with timely runs and clever passes from the right of Arsenal’s attack. He’ll need all his decisiveness and skill to outmaneuver Stoke’s well-drilled defensive unit and experienced and physical left back.

Where to Worry


Stoke have bombed Arsenal with crosses in the past, and the Gunners will need to limit that supply. But this season, the Potters have added speed and creativity to their weaponry, as their quick strikes against Manchester City showed. Keeping playmaker Bojan Krkic in check and marking the runs of Marko Arnautovic will be extremely important.

Match Verdict


It takes little perspicacity to see this match as a physical and mental gantlet. Even without the tricky Xherdan Shaqiri, Stoke have enough in attack to hurt Arsenal. And the Potters still deploy a solid, physical, potentially frustrating defense. But this Arsenal team has a way of succeeding despite the obvious obstacles, and we think they’ll do so again.

Players to Watch:


Arsenal. Olivier Giroud. The front man took a beating against Liverpool, got patched up, and returned to score two exquisite goals. That increased his total to 18 in all competitions this season. If he can outwit (not difficult) and outmuscle (more difficult) head Orc Ryan Shawcross, Arsenal will succeed.

Stoke City. Ibrahim Affelay. Several Stoke players may grab the camera’s attention more than the Dutch midfielder does, but his deployment will dictate the match’s dynamic. If he works deeper in the midfield, he’ll be assigned to control Özil, meaning manager Mark Hughes is placing the priority on defending. If he takes a more advanced role, that will reveal Hughes’s attacking intent.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Sunderland: A Cup in Time or Ill-Timed?


Arsenal’s FA Cup match against Sunderland on Saturday presents an interesting interpretive choice.

There’s the historical angle, focusing on the club’s unparalleled success in the competition. With last May’s demolition of Aston Villa in the final, Arsenal became the most frequent winner of the FA Cup, and manager Arsène Wenger lifted the trophy for the sixth time, more than any other manager in the modern era.

This perspective also features the fillip the FA Cup has been to the club in recent years. After a decade without a title, Arsenal marked a true revival with the 3-2 win after extra time over Hull City in the 2014 Final. The joy of players, staff, and supporters worldwide was memorable and meaningful, and the performance set the stage for the team to master big occasions in 2015.

We therefore must acknowledge the influence the competition has had on Arsenal’s trajectory. Navigating the current cup campaign to a third consecutive trophy, a feat not accomplished since Blackburn Rovers did it in 1886, would seem a fitting next chapter in that narrative.

Wenger has paid homage to his own and Arsenal’s FA Cup record, while turning his gaze, as ever, to the challenge in front of them.

It’s a good challenge [to try to win three in a row], and we’ll take it on. We have the desire to do well and to do it again. Let’s see how we get on in the first test, and let’s deal with that. We have enough confidence, enough desire, so let’s turn up with a positive performance.(Arsenal.com)

Here Wenger is turning to the second angle of interpretation, the one focusing on the immediate. Arsenal are in position to grasp a bigger prize, the Premier League title, and face two difficult road matches in the eight days after Saturday’s cup contest—at Liverpool on Wednesday, January 13, and then at Stoke City on Sunday, January 17. Given the grueling schedule the team just endured over the holiday period, the FA Cup encounter looks less of a priority.

Sunderland has its own reasons for de-emphasizing Saturday’s match: The Black Cats are fighting for survival in the Premier League and have two daunting matches of their own, a trip to Swansea that could reshuffle the relegation deck and another visit to London against Tottenham, in the next week.

As a result, the speculation is that both sides will rest vital players on Saturday.

That will present opportunities for some squad players to stake claims to more first-team action and for a few first teamers to gain some form and confidence. Prominent in the latter group at Arsenal is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the subject of considerable jawboning as he experiences a difficult season. An energetic and intelligent performance against Sunderland may be just the thing to spark Oxlade-Chamberlain into contributions commensurate with his talent.

Meanwhile, it’ll be interesting to see how Wenger uses youngsters Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide. The pair of attackers has made the substitutes’ bench in recent Premier League fixtures due to the raft of first-team injuries, and Saturday’s contest seems an appropriate occasion to increase their involvement.

Wenger has been cagey about the scope of squad rotation, though. He has said “At the moment, I make two or three changes maximum,” while at the same time he’s described Reine-Adelaide as “mature enough to cope with the challenges of the Premier League, and he has technique as well.”

Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce has been far less coy. He has called the schedule “diabolical” and argued, “Don’t give me stick when I change the side at Arsenal.” Whether this is an adept feint or revealing only Saturday’s teamsheet will reveal.

Because identifying the starters is so difficult—and knowing each other isn’t straightforward for the makeshift teams, either—it’s tough to foresee the dynamics of the match. In general, Arsenal will probably enjoy more possession, while Sunderland tries to maintain its defensive organization and pose danger on the counterattack. Neither manager will want a replay, though, so the teams will attack to force a result.

If that means that an Arsenal player or two emerge with a more positive view of their skill and potential contribution, this match could become another memorable mark in the club’s FA Cup history.

Players to Watch:


Arsenal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. This match offers prime conditions for Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’ll go up against replacement defenders and midfielders unaccustomed to his speed and strength in a relatively low-pressure contest. He’s shown a knack for scoring in cup games as well.

Sunderland. Duncan Watmore. The speedy winger might be a regular starter that Allardyce sends out on Saturday as well. That’s because he hasn’t played a full season and poses a serious threat on the counterattack, as evidenced by his work in the sides’ Premier League encounter.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Arsenal's Midfield in Midwinter

The aesthetics of Arsenal’s 2015-16 Premier League campaign certainly turned on that moment in Norwich when midfielder Santi Cazorla unwittingly swung his leg into Norwich City’s Gary O’Neill. In that split second, Cazorla ruptured a knee ligament and joined midfield partner Francis Coquelin on the sidelines until early spring.

When the severity of Cazorla’s injury became known, there was no question manager Arsène Wenger would have to change personnel: The only two plausible midfielders available were Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey. The issue was whether Wenger would rethink the team’s formation and style to adjust for the absence of two essential players.

Evolution of the status quo


Flamini and Ramsey have now played six matches together—against Sunderland, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Southampton, and Newcastle in the league and against Olympiacos in the Champions League. Halfway through those fixtures, it appeared that the differences between this midfield of necessity and its preferred predecessor were subtle but not substantive. The formation remained a 4-2-3-1, for example, with the likely candidates simply replacing their injured colleagues.

Over the festive period, however, the differences became more pronounced. In particular, where Coquelin and Cazorla had emerged as a well-coordinated, if unlikely, pairing, Flamini and Ramsey grew less and less synchronized. Their divergence was made clear by the performance of Calum Chambers in Flamini’s stead against Bournemouth: In his first outing as Ramsey’s midfield partner, the neophyte looked more integrated and influential than Flamini did against Southampton or Newcastle.

Let’s be clear about two things, though: 1. The sample size remains small, particularly when it comes to Chambers’s involvement; and 2. The effects have not been the catastrophe many expected.

Since Coquelin’s injury against West Bromwich Albion, Arsenal have played nine matches, winning seven, drawing one, and losing one. That’s a successful run, accomplished in large part (six of the nine matches) without last year’s top scorer Alexis Sanchez.

Any criticism of “Flamsey” can’t rest on the results, then.

Instead, the critique seems to focus on the aesthetics. This isn’t meaningless, because we follow the Arsenal in part for the team’s artfulness and because those style points might reveal imperfections that, on other days, could cost the Gunners points in the league table.

In an effort to analyze the dynamics of the current midfield, the rest of this article examines the team’s orientation, its movement from defense to attack, and its defensive framework.

Orientation


Although Arsenal’s setup has remained a 4-2-3-1, there’s often much more space between Flamini and Ramsey than there had been between Coquelin and Cazorla. The average position graphics for each match on Arsenal.com make this point clear. Keep in mind these are composite renderings, so that at any given moment a player might be operating far from his indicated location.

For example, against Watford, the map shows Coquelin and Cazorla almost on top of each other. They were a little farther apart against Everton (map) and against Swansea (map), but in all three cases they took up central positions connected to each other and to their teammates.

The positions of their teammates are also interesting. As we’d expect from watching Wenger’s recent teams, fullbacks Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin offer the width, while the wide attacking players Alexis and Ramsey drift inward. And, as would befit standard operating positions, playmaker Mesut Özil works just behind the center forward, whether that’s Olivier Giroud or Theo Walcott.

For comparison, let’s look at the typical positions with Flamini and Ramsey in midfield. As Adrian Clarke pointed out on his ever-excellent Breakdown segment, acres of space separated Flamini and Ramsey against Newcastle (map). But in their other matches together, the distances, on average, are comparable to what we saw from Coquelin and Cazorla. Perhaps mental fatigue played a part in this development last Saturday, prompting Flamini to retreat slightly and Ramsey to advance, truer to their instincts.

With the Flamini-Ramsey midfield so far, Özil often finds himself in the most advanced position, even ahead of Giroud. This change might partly be a result of Giroud’s enhanced and more adept involvement in the buildup of play. Ramsey’s instincts forward might also be a factor; with Ramsey pushing up, Özil does not need to drop deeper to receive the ball.

Distribution


Indeed, we see different patterns of distribution and circulation with Flamini and Ramsey in midfield. Though the destination, as before, is Özil.

Cazorla served as the hub, receiving passes from both center backs, Per Metesacker and Laurent Koscielny, in comparable proportions and working the ball forward to Özil. Against Watford and Everton, Cazorla-to-Özil was Arsenal’s most frequent passing combination, while against Swansea it was tied for third. Meanwhile, a pattern developed on the left, where Monreal linked with Alexis frequently. (Stats from FourFourTwo's StatsZone)

A less diversified pattern has emerged since the Flamini-Ramsey pair debuted against Sunderland.

Ramsey has replaced Cazorla as the conduit to Özil, but he’s less likely to receive the ball from both center backs. It’s more often Koscielny who passes to Ramsey from defense; Mertesacker has been much less involved than he was with Cazorla.

This may have little to do with Cazorla’s exit and Ramsey’s arrival. Instead, the opposition may be putting pressure on Mertesacker so that he can’t jumpstart the offense, which he does so effectively. That’s opened lanes for Koscielny to exploit.

Cover


While the relationships between defenders and midfielders are important to the attack, they’re probably more important when Arsenal don’t have the ball. Midfielders support their rear guard to fend off opposition attacks by intercepting, tackling, blocking, or just outnumbering the offense.

In these duties, Coquelin excels. But Cazorla is no slouch defender. His collaboration with Monreal was particularly effective, as shown by their shutdown of Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez in Arsenal’s 5-2 win in September.

Cazorla and Coquelin also adeptly patrolled the approaches to Arsenal’s penalty area, reducing the threats of through-balls and shots.

Ramsey and Flamini seem to provide less security. That’s not just a general impression; it’s apparent in the diagrams of defensive interventions and heatmaps. It’s also evident in the statistics, as this “By the Numbers” analysis by 7AMKickoff details.

There are several forces at work here. One is that Ramsey’s attacking instincts take him into the opponent’s third more frequently, leaving him with a longer retreat if Arsenal lose the ball. Another is that he and Flamini switch sides without the ball, so at some points Ramsey is supporting Monreal on the left and at others he’s working with Bellerin on the right. This might inhibit the development of a comfortable defensive relationship. It also has to be said that the 31-year-old Flamini has a narrower area of activity than Coquelin, 24.

The result is that opponents have found more areas to exploit, both centrally and on the flanks.

Implications


Thus far, these variations and imperfections haven’t prevented Arsenal from succeeding. The Gunners now top the table, whereas they sat fourth after drawing with Norwich. Despite what is essentially a 15-player senior squad, Arsenal secured nine points from the 12 available during the festive period, bettered only by Tottenham’s 10 from 12.

We should not forget those bare facts amidst the concerns, criticisms, and dissatisfactions about the aesthetics of the team’s play. At the same time, this analysis might help us understand the manager’s priorities, decisions, and instructions as other challenging matches approach.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Arsenal 1 Newcastle 0: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal labored to a 1-0 victory over Newcastle on Saturday to close the busy festive schedule with three wins in four matches.

In the 72nd minute, Laurent Koscielny slipped behind the Newcastle defense after a corner kick and stabbed home Olivier Giroud's header for the game's lone goal. This scrappy goal--and some heroics from goalkeeper Petr Cech--were enough to secure the Gunners' place at the top of the Premier League table after 20 matches.

Here are three things we learned from the encounter.

Arsenal can win without humming


This was far from a scintillating Arsenal performance. You can understand the reasons: A fourth league match in 13 days with a squad reduced by injury to 15 senior players.

Manager Arsène Wenger admitted his team struggled. "Our legs were heavy, I must say," he told his post-match press conference. He elaborated on the implications: "To not drop points with the way we played today, I think it is very important. It helps the team as well because you go through moments where you don’t play well. The memory of having done that before and still having won the game, helps you to hang on sometimes."

Indeed, it wasn't the first time this season the Gunners have won despite not being at their best. League victories over Everton and Aston Villa soon after tough European fixtures come immediately to mind.

Some will view those performances as concerning; others will say that one mark of champions is to win while playing relatively poorly. What can't be in dispute is the immediate consequence of this victory, three points that give Arsenal two points more than second-place Leicester City at the top of the Premier League table.

And a total of nine points from the 12 available during the holiday period. That's a solid return, as good as any team's over that stretch, pending the outcome of Tottenham's match at Everton late on Sunday.

As Wenger said, "I think we have given a lot during Christmas and we have had games before over Christmas. At the end of the day what do people look at after Christmas? Four games and how many points you have made. Nine points is acceptable or even good."

Petr Cech delivered another victory


After the opening ten minutes, Arsenal posed very little attacking threat until Koscielny's winning goal. Meanwhile, Newcastle grew stronger and had several decent looks at Cech's goal.

In fact, the Magpies produced more shots on goal (six) than did Arsenal (three). Cech parried them all, the most impressive his one-on-one stop of Georginio Wijnaldum in the 48th minute.

Because this save established the conditions for Arsenal to secure all three points, it's worth describing it in some detail.

Newcastle's Ayoze Perez picks up Aaron Ramsey's errant pass at the halfway line, then storms toward the Arsenal penalty area. He draws enough attention from Arsenal's Mathieu Flamini, Per Mertesacker, and Koscielny that Wijnaldum finds himself open to the right of Cech's goal.

Cech anticipates Perez's pass, comes out to close down Wijnaldum, then goes down to smother the shot.

It was similar to his late save on Everton's Gerard Deulofeu that clinched Arsenal's 2-1 victory in October. Overall, Cech produced another performance indicative of a title-winning goalkeeper.

Arsenal's midfield makeover showed some flaws


Saturday's contest saw the return of the midfield pairing of Ramsey and Flamini. It was the duo's fifth league match together since the November injury of Santi Cazorla, and the relationship still displays some imperfections.

Individually, Flamini and Ramsey made substantive and positive contributions. Flamini was the team's leading tackler, succeeding on six of nine attempts according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone app. And Ramsey was in many ways the team's offensive hub, completing the highest number of passes on the team and figuring in four of its five top passing combinations.

The problem is that as a unit Flamini and Ramsey don't seem to jibe well. This shortcoming is most evident in the pair's dynamic without the ball. Unlike Cazorla and Francis Coquelin, Flamini and Ramsey sometimes have difficulty coordinating their defensive movement, both with each other and with the defenders behind them.

As a result in this match, Newcastle found considerable space to exploit in the midfield. That was the source of Wijnaldum's early second-half chance, and it was the platform for passes to the flank from which dangerous crosses were launched. A team with better finishing than Newcastle's would have made the Gunners pay for their generous midfield spacing.

Extra time


One might reasonably ask under the circumstances if Calum Chambers is a better midfield partner for Ramsey. Acknowledging that Chambers is a neophyte in the holding role and faced less-than-elite competition in his one outing there against Bournemouth, we did see him gel with Ramsey in an encouraging way.

In particular, Chambers shouldered some of the burden of distribution, completing 53/59 passes against Bournemouth, or 10 percent of the team's total completions, while Ramsey hit on 60 of 70 (13 percent). Against Newcastle, Ramsey's proportion rose to 17 percent (67 of the team's 400 completed passes), while Flamini connected on just 30 (7.5 percent).

Flamini brings considerable experience and an unblemished record at the Emirates Stadium, but energy and flow make a case for Chambers.