Friday, April 8, 2016

Match Preview, West Ham v Arsenal: Iron On

When I woke up this morning,
It was raining
Yeah, it was pouring again
Still I think the birds were singing
I couldn’t hear them through the din
Couldn’t hear them

Will you send me a picture, so I can remember?
Will you send me a picture, so I can?

- Superchunk, “Iron On”

These lyrics by the standout 90’s group Superchunk might well depict Arsenal’s visit to West Ham on Saturday.

It’ll be the Gunners’ last match at West Ham’s Boleyn Ground, and they may want a picture to remember the site of some favorable results before the Irons’ (get it?) decamp to the Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 Premier League season. And spring might well bring inclement weather for the kickoff just after noon local time.

But the strongest connection for me is the potential of birds singing amidst the din, the birdsong being a stylish Arsenal performance drowned out by the noise of supporter dissatisfaction. The remoteness of Arsenal’s chances of winning the Premier League dominates the story, while moments of beauty and discrete accomplishments get ignored.

A dominant display by the Gunners on Saturday might level those two narrative hooks.

One reason is that West Ham are a formidable opponent, especially at home. The Irons have not lost in their last 13 matches in Upton Park and sit sixth in the table, just three points off a Champions League spot.

Knocking off West Ham at home will be a sign that Arsenal are capable of winning their remaining six matches. That’s likely to be the only hope Arsenal have of catching league leaders Leicester City.

Another reason the aesthetics of the match might receive more attention after Saturday is the confirmation such a performance would give this particular Arsenal side. After the creditable showing at Barcelona, the controlled performance to beat Everton 2-0, and the dominant 4-0 home win over Watford, a victory over West Ham would show that manager Arsène Wenger has aligned the players, structure, and style.

Indeed, Wenger has revealed that he’s loathe to mess with the current mix, telling his pre-match press conference that

I’m always reluctant to change what works. [It is] down to the confidence gained from our last two games. Team play has improved in those games and our game is based on mobility, speed and technique. We have found a good balance in our game.

Critical in this discovery has been the work of Mohammed Elneny in midfield. The newest Arsenal player, the Egyptian has enhanced the flow of the attack while supporting the defense. He completed 122 passes against Watford, the highest number in the League this season, 36 of them to playmaker Mesut Özil, according to FourFourTwo StatsZone. That means that Elneny was able to move the ball efficiently and with regularity to the man Arsenal want to have it.

Despite their strong record, West Ham look vulnerable to the quick, effective passing and movement that Elneny, Danny Welbeck, and Alex Iwobi have brought to Arsenal’s starting lineup. The Irons’ defense was sloppy last week against Crystal Palace, and their fullbacks’ predilection for attack left central defenders Winston Reid and Angelo Ogbonna exposed.

Welbeck and Alexis can exploit those gaps, and Özil and Iwobi will find their teammates if they’re free.

This won’t be a simple task, because West Ham manager Slaven Bilic has no doubt recognized this threat and drilled his charges to limit it. He can also summon the memory of the Irons’ opening-day victory at the Emirates and inspire his team to repeat that performance for the home crowd.

So expect each team’s game plan to be similar to the ones that day, with Arsenal trying to bamboozle their opponents with quick passing and movement and West Ham trying to thwart those efforts. The outcome will rest on the execution.

Key Matchup

Mesut Özil against Cheikhou Kouyaté. Arsenal’s pass master hasn’t provided an assist in four league matches, during which Arsenal have scored 10 goals. To inch closer to the league record of 20, Özil will have to evade the attentions of Kouyaté, who received a reprieve when the FA rescinded the red card he received last week.

Where to Worry

This is perhaps the Premier League’s easiest scouting report: Don’t give West Ham free kicks anywhere near the Arsenal area. Dimitri Payet is a wizard with direct free kicks, having scored two stunning ones for West Ham and France in recent weeks. And we witnessed in the season opener the danger West Ham poses on free kicks sent into the box. One goal came in this scenario, while the second came after Arsenal failed to clear a free kick properly.

Match Verdict

A nervy affair in a tight, febrile atmosphere hinges on the first goal. If Arsenal can get ahead, West Ham will struggle in open play.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Alex Iwobi. The youngster has made a significant mark in his first two Premier League starts, providing the team’s second goal in both. He’ll have the opportunity to contribute again because West Ham’s right back, Michail Antonio, is a wide midfielder by trade and therefore doesn’t always defend diligently.

West Ham. Mark Noble. It might seem odd to emphasize the workmanlike West Ham midfielder when Payet is capable of such sumptuous free kicks, but Noble has the responsibility to hold down the midfield. If he and Kouyaté can keep Arsenal’s attack from flowing through that area, they’ll give their  team the advantage.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Watford: Can We Kick It?

Arsenal return to action on Saturday against Watford with no margin of error to achieve the team’s top performance objective, the Premier League title.

To have any hope of overtaking leaders Leicester City and second place Tottenham, the Gunners must win all of their remaining eight matches. They would  then finish the season with nine consecutive wins, commencing with the impressive victory at Everton two weeks ago.

It’s an unlikely proposition, but consider this: Arsenal are actually four points better off than they were from parallel fixtures in the 2014-2015 season. If they repeat their results against their last eight opponents – all victories last season – they’ll finish with 79 points, versus 75 last season.

The players seem to understand the task and the stakes. Left back Nacho Monreal remarked to the official website this week:

We’re aware that we don’t just depend on ourselves - that’s obvious. Right now we’re in third place, so I think the only objective we need to set for ourselves is winning the eight matches we have left, and then what will be will be. It’s not just down to us. Even if we do win all eight games, that doesn’t mean we’ll be champions, but what does depend on us is winning those eight games.

How the Gunners arrived at this position is well analyzed territory. Among the many reviews, playmaker and likely Player of the Year Mesut Özil’s take, delivered to the German website this week, was particularly interesting. He said: 

Considering the season, we have to admit that we have botched it. We’ve not brought out against the smaller teams what we actually can. That will carry an immediate penalty in the Premier League. Nevertheless, we still have all the possibilities. We have to watch for Leicester and Tottenham to slip up and then be there.

There’s a chance to right that mistake, at least partly, on Saturday against Watford.

Not only are the Hornets the type of team Arsenal have dominated in seasons past, one in the bottom half of the league table, but they’re the team that ousted Arsenal from the FA Cup just three weeks ago. The Gunners should therefore have ample motivation on Saturday.

Monreal acknowledged this, saying, “We know it’s going to be difficult against Watford because we only played them recently, and they knocked us out of the FA Cup. But we’re hungry for revenge.”

If Arsenal can channel that spirit and execute a plan similar to the one against Everton, the performance could be eye-catching. In particular, the energetic and synchronized pressure applied by Danny Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez, and Alex Iwobi can disturb Watford’s defenders and midfielders and prevent them from launching long balls to holdup man Troy Deeney.

Watford are also susceptible to quick ball movement on the flanks and in the channels between their central and wider players – the kind of activity that led to Danny Welbeck’s opening goal against Everton. They’d prefer to coax Arsenal to build up play methodically through the middle or to lob in hopeful crosses.

Not allowing Watford to dictate these terms should give Arsenal a strong chance of winning its first home match since the famous victory over Leicester City in mid-February. That’s a necessity for the Gunners to finish the season strong.

Key Matchup

Alexis’s switch to the right side of Arsenal’s attack has enhanced his contributions of late. Against a mentally and physically roaming left back, as Everton’s Leighton Baines was on the day, Alexis can be devastating. He doesn’t seem as predictable on the right as he was on the left, and Watford’s left back Nathan Aké appears to be a promising target.

Where to Worry

Watford’s main threat lies in the old-school holdup play of Troy Deeney. Both the goals the Hornets scored in the FA Cup quarterfinal win resulted from Deeney’s interventions in the Arsenal penalty area. Arsenal’s central defenders and deep-lying midfielders will need to harass Deeney and minimize the service to him.

Match Verdict

This will be a telling contest for Arsenal. An energetic performance and positive result will maintain the remote hope of a title miracle and strengthen the hold on a Champions League spot, while a lackluster one will render the final seven games mundane. The thinking here is that Arsenal can summon the energy and quality to defeat Watford and start the run-in with a surge.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. The front man has energized Arsenal’s attack and has delivered the end product, with three goals in five league matches since his return from injury. Welbeck’s speed and savvy could unnerve Watford’s rather stationary central defense.

Watford. Troy Deeney. When Watford succeed offensively, the play has flowed through their big man up front. He’s strong, persistent, and clever and has played a role in 15 of the Hornets’ 28 league goals.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Match Preview, Hull City v Arsenal: The Match No One Wanted

Neither Arsenal nor Hull City had this on a list of preferences—an FA Cup 5th Round replay in the middle of crucial fixtures in other competitions. Yet Tuesday’s meeting at the KC Stadium appeared on the agenda after neither side could score at the Emirates on February 20th.

In that contest, a combination of tame Arsenal finishing and an outstanding performance by Hull goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic prevented the Gunners’ dominance from being decisive.

Tigers’ manager Steve Bruce’s approach was a little odd, changing his team’s setup to a very defensive 3-5-1-1 even though a draw didn’t suit him. He may have figured that going for a sucker punch was the best way to knock Arsenal out at home.

This time, Hull has no reason to play more assertively. Another 90-minute clean sheet, followed by extra time and potentially a penalty shootout, would give Bruce’s team a reasonable chance of advancing to host Watford in Saturday’s quarterfinal.

A priority on defending makes even more sense in light of Hull’s own recent struggles in front of goal. The Tigers have scored just once in their last five matches, including the first leg against Arsenal, despite shooting 72 times.

That relative impotence has contributed to Hull’s fall from the Championship’s top spot to third place, outside the top-two positions that secure promotion to the Premier League.

Of course, Arsenal are no strangers to inefficient finishing, scoring just 46 goals from the 356 chances (12.9 percent) they’ve created in league play. The gap between the Gunners’ Expected Goals (xG) and their goals scored is the widest in the league.

Perhaps Arsenal’s better than expected performance on that measure against Tottenham on Saturday will be the start of an improving trend: Two goals, one at a numerical disadvantage, from an xG measure of 0.7.

There were other encouraging signs from Saturday’s combative 2-2 draw in the North London Derby.

Despite Francis Coquelin’s dismissal in the 55th minute, the Gunners held their own statistically, with passing numbers comparable to their opposition’s. The midfield seemed more coherent as well, as Mohamed Elneny’s inclusion in the center and Aaron Ramsey’s return to the right resulted in quicker ball movement and enhanced defensive cover. And once they had pulled level through Alexis Sanchez’s first league goal since mid-October, Arsenal created the chances most likely to produce a match-winning goal.

Do these indications of progress tell us anything about the team’s prospects for Tuesday? After all, a fair number of Saturday’s starters won’t see action against Hull. Don’t be surprised, though, if Wenger gives Alexis another go in an effort to build on the Chilean’s spirited and successful showing against Tottenham. He’ll help the Gunners put greater pressure on Hull’s back line and help them win their first FA Cup replay since eliminating Swansea in the 3rd Round in 2013.

Key Matchup

Arsenal’s fullbacks against Hull’s wide defenders. Hull succeeded in funneling Arsenal’s attacks into central areas in the first leg, so the onus will be on the Gunners to widen their play on Tuesday. Without any true, touchline-hugging wingers, Arsenal will rely on its fullbacks to stretch the Hull defense.

Calum Chambers will probably get the nod on the right, while either Nacho Monreal, if he’s shaken off the minor injury that kept him out Saturday, or Kieran Gibbs will play on the left. All are capable on the ball; they’ll need to be quick, clever, and dynamic to offer the variety and danger that seemed lacking in the home fixture.

Where to Worry

This Arsenal side seems its own biggest challenge at times, in the sense that bad decision-making and lackluster displays have kept it from fulfilling its potential. Its task on Tuesday is twofold: Re-energize itself after a physically and emotionally taxing derby, and combine effectively as a selection that hasn’t played together much. This will not be easy work against a determined and accomplished Championship side on an iffy pitch.

Match Verdict

Arsenal moves the ball quickly and succeeds at moving Hull City’s defenders out of position. Joel Campbell and one of Alexis or Ramsey bring ingenuity to the proceedings, and Alex Iwobi keeps things flowing to his attacking teammates. Hull are stubborn but can’t hold out.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Alex Iwobi. Arsenal’s latest young talent has caught the eye in home cup matches, receiving the ball on the turn, slipping past defenders, and picking some dangerous passes. If he can keep the ball moving away from home, the Gunners will get good chances to score.

Hull City. Edin Jakupovic. It was his blinder in London that made this replay necessary. If the Hull keeper can stop Arsenal early, the favorites might start to doubt their prospects while the hosts gain confidence.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Match Preview, Tottenham v Arsenal: The Vermaelen Moment?

Since the trip to Liverpool in mid-January, our match previews have been exhorting Arsenal to stand and deliver. To stake a claim to the Premier League title.

It’s no revelation that they haven’t done so. Eight points from seven matches is the proof.

Now, the Gunners’ visit to the most threatening Tottenham side in half a century carries some major implications. Those include losing a third consecutive league match for only the fourth time in manager Arsène Wenger’s 20-year tenure, falling nine points behind leaders Leicester City with only nine matches to play, casting serious doubt on another St. Totteringham’s Day due to a six-point deficit, and raising the risk of finishing below the Champions League positions.

Given these massive stakes and the toothless performances produced by the team recently, the question arises—Does Wenger see this as another Vermaelen moment? A point in the season that necessitates a radical move?

You’ll recall that after a 2-1 defeat in the March 2013 North London Derby left Arsenal 10 points adrift of the rivals, Wenger benched club captain Thomas Vermaelan and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and rode the new central defensive partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker to eight wins and two draws in the season’s final 10 matches. That run, during which the Gunners gave up just five goals, allowed them to pip Spurs for third place and that season’s last Champions League spot.

A similar shakeup seems needed to push this team to a strong finish. Even that might not be enough to grab the league title, but it could aid Arsenal’s efforts to win a third straight FA Cup and to quell a supporter revolt.

Wenger can consider several options. As was the case when midfielders Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin were injured in the fall, the manager could change the formation and work different personnel into the mix.

Because the midfield hasn’t seemed coherent in Cazorla’s absence and because Tottenham may be the best English team at exploiting that particular weakness, Wenger could switch to a 4-3-3 with Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey, and Mohammed Elneny offering physicality, energy, and better flow in the midfield. An even more extreme solution, explored by Dave Seagar in “The New Formation to Best Use Our Fit Players, Re-energize Alexis, and Beat Spurs,” would be a 4-3-1-2 with the midfield just described and the striker pairing of Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez.

That such overhauls seem like reasonable responses shows the extent of Arsenal’s struggles.

There’s also the option of adjusting the personnel within the current framework. This is the choice Wenger made after the Coquelin and Cazorla injuries, an approach that proved neither optimal nor fatal through November and December.

With the players available now, a similar lineup adjustment seems less problematic. Elneny could come into the midfield beside Coquelin in the 4-2-3-1, helping to break pressure with his canny movement and clean passing. Ramsey could move forward and right, whence he served the midfield and attack well in the fall. Indeed, that deployment, with Olivier Giroud or Danny Welbeck as the lone striker, looks closest to the one that appeared so strong in October.

It would be a bit harsh for Joel Campbell, who was Arsenal’s brightest player in the midweek loss to Swansea, but he’ll see action either Saturday or Tuesday in the FA Cup replay at Hull City.

Whichever selections Wenger makes, his charges will face a stern test. Tottenham are energetic, physical, and well-drilled. They too lost on Wednesday, but that was a dip in an otherwise impressive run of results. They might be susceptible to being pressed themselves and have shown some weakness defending set pieces—cue Mesut Özil and Danny Welbeck on the latter. Otherwise, they seem designed to overwhelm Arsenal in its current state.

And yet, these matches aren’t played in theory, on keyboards, or on lifelike video games. As long as that’s the case, possibilities abound until the final whistle blows.

Key Matchup

Francis Coquelin against Delli Alli. As Adrian Clarke observed on the club’s weekly podcast, the confrontation of the teams’ energetic youngsters may determine the shape of the match. Alli is the trigger of the Spurs press whose quickness forces opposition midfielders into hasty decisions. He latches onto turnovers and launches Tottenham’s attack.

Coquelin will certainly need technical assistance breaking that Alli-led line of pressure, but he should have no problem in the physical battle. The Frenchman gives as good as he gets and has shown signs of strengthening form against Manchester United and Swansea.

Where to Worry

Honestly, the signs from Arsenal’s recent performances are not encouraging. Goals have been lacking, the midfield has been disjointed going forward and retreating, experienced defenders have made poor decisions. The savior, goalkeeper Petr Cech, has come up lame, so David Ospina will have to keep Spurs out.

Match Verdict

Spurs apply an uncomfortable amount of pressure for 70 minutes and hope that pays off in a lead that they can ride the final 20 minutes. Arsenal go back to basics, show some professional pride, and produce a disciplined performance. The match turns on a set piece or the referee’s decision.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. He starts on the right or leads the line. His speed, physicality, desire to make up for lost time, and growing confidence in front of goal could make the day extremely difficult for Tottenham’s defenders, who, though organized, can’t match Welbeck’s athleticism.

Manchester United. Christian Eriksen. The Dane creates from the flanks for Spurs and is a crafty deliverer of set pieces. Arsenal’s midfielders need to track his movements, and defenders can’t give away silly free kicks to him.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Arsenal's Problems Aren't Mine

If you’ve read any of my writing on Arsenal, you’ll have gathered that I approach the subject with an analytical eye and attempt to offer a reasoned perspective. This suits my demeanor and I hope makes my efforts distinctive, if probably not unique.

This piece will be a departure from that style and outlook.

The context is, of course, the team’s three consecutive losses and its apparent squandering of a reasonable shot at the Premier League title. But the focus isn’t on the team’s performances, its needs in the short- and long-term, or manager Arsène Wenger’s competence. There are myriad voices discussing those matters, few in edifying ways.

Instead, I want to address—feel compelled to address—two characteristics of the Arsenal supporter mindset, aggrievement and resignation, and the unhealthy and pointless application of these characteristics.

Let go

Let’s establish the main premise first. We supporters have virtually no control over what happens at the club. There is some evidence to suggest that match-day fans can, through positive reinforcement, strengthen players’ states of mind. Their psychological advantages, which escape those who haven’t excelled in elite athletic competition, are strengthened when they perceive they’re being supported.

Other than that, we are powerless. The Arsenal board does not consider us when it’s taking action, Wenger and his staff don’t factor our perspectives into their planning, and the players don’t ultimately feel responsibility or anything toward us.

Now, I understand that there’s a direct line between this feeling of powerlessness and outrage. Any observer of politics, particularly US politics, has to acknowledge that. But I think we have a choice individually and collectively over how we handle the lack of control. Actually, our reaction is the only thing we can control.

It helps to recognize that when a group of 20- to 33-year-old men fail in an athletic endeavor, that’s no reflection on my worth as a person. Maybe they didn’t provide the uplifting distraction we were looking for. Maybe we’re disappointed because we expect better when we invest our time, money, and emotional energy.

Does that mean my family doesn’t value me, my associates don’t respect my contributions, my friends no longer enjoy my company, my other pastimes don’t fulfill me? No.

So outrage, particularly in the form of abuse, is twisted and pointless. It’s also boring.

The quest for fun

Second premise: Sport is entertainment.

I know many people are making a statement of cultural affinity when they support a team. So the connection is a deep psychological one that may seem impossible to separate from who we are.

I also acknowledge that entertainment means different things to different people. I personally prioritize enjoyment and inquiry in my entertainment, which means I prefer pastimes that I learn something from, laugh at, or feel taken away from myself in some way.

Others see entertainment as a way to relieve their frustrations, often connected to an impulse to voice criticisms. There’s also a belief among some that they can criticize sources of entertainment and seem smart or clever, especially in the era of social media.

We’re free, of course, to choose types of entertainment and to react in a way that matters for us individually. The problem is that some of those reactions, distributed and intensified by the Internet, reduce the value for others. That provokes another choice—keep paying attention or seek the benefits somewhere else.

It’s really a question of how we want to spend our limited time on this earth, a choice which might, I believe, extend our time here. We can wallow in the negativity, think we’re smarter because we notice the problems, and resign ourselves to the worst-case scenario.

Embrace the uncertainty

This resignation, in the form or low-stakes gallows humor, is a popular choice in the British Isles. Stiff upper lip and all that. I understand how it helps cushion the blows when unwelcome events, such as losses by one’s preferred sports team, occur. I also understand how resignation and its interpretive offshoots predictability and inevitability help brains process random, complex, and uncontrollable events.

Indeed, all of the post facto observations about predictability are just methods of self-soothing. “We saw that coming.” If you saw the worst coming and you still paid attention, you are sick.

Or maybe outcomes of human endeavors, including sporting competition, aren’t predictable at all. Although chances of specific results are better or worse based on correlations in the past, each event is new and could conclude in many ways.

That is why more and more people watch the Premier League, for example, because despite the correlation between expenditures on salaries and transfer fees and final position in the league table, the end is not at all predictable. We can’t foresee the champion, and we certainly can’t know the winner of each individual match.

If your method of coping with this uncertainty is to identify the most uncomfortable outcome and make quips about it, okay. I guess that can be entertaining and funny in small doses. As a persistent tone and unyielding point of view, though, it’s tiresome.

What’s the healthy response? Well, I’d say maintaining perspective, respecting others’ decisions if ignoring their tedious expressions, and focusing our energies on things we can control.

My hope is that the Arsenal first team will respond to its recent setbacks in this mature way. If they can't, I'll recognize that it's no reflection on me personally.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Match Preview, Manchester United v Arsenal: Day One of Ten That Define

Arsenal’s visit to Manchester United on Sunday commences a defining ten-day stretch.

Between February 28th and March 8th, the Gunners will play four matches. Their three Premier League encounters with Manchester United, Swansea, and Tottenham are separated by just three days each. Then, three days after the North London Derby, Arsenal travel to Hull for a replay of the FA Cup 5th Round match, seeking to advance toward an historic third consecutive trophy in that competition.

The league matches—two at the grounds of other top-five sides--present a challenge that a title-winning team must rise to. As manager Arsène Wenger said, “It is the key period. We work the whole season for this period and that’s where you’re really tested, but it’s where you have an opportunity to show your quality as well. On that front, that is the most interesting period of the season.”

So far, Arsenal have fared well against direct rivals for the league crown, having won four, drawn one, and lost none against Leicester City, Tottenham, Manchester City, and Manchester United.

Four of those five matches were at home, however, including the 3-0 thrashing of Sunday’s opponents in early October. How instructive will we find that contest in our efforts to understand what might happen on Sunday?

In brief, Arsenal had the right tactical plan that day and the personnel to execute it; Manchester United did not. (See Arsenal’s Tactical Triumph for more detail.)

But the personnel will definitely change on Sunday, and the plans will probably shift, too. Both teams have suffered injuries to vital players. For Arsenal, the most telling loss has been that of Santi Cazorla, the architect of the October victory. His ability to dance out of the visitors’ midfield pressure in the first half opened the attacking space that Arsenal exploited.

In response to Cazorla’s absence, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal may again decide to press Arsenal’s midfield. That’s a tactic most opponents have tried since Cazorla’s November knee injury, and Arsenal have often sputtered as a result. Van Gaal does have two players, Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera, who can harry the Arsenal midfield.

The problem is that pressing requires synchronization, persistence, conditioning, and a strong last line of defense. The Red Devils have not had a settled midfield since the turn of the year, raising questions about both their ability to coordinate the press and their capacity to stick to the physical and mental task. Furthermore, due to injuries across the back four, the United defense lacks stability.

Given those factors, van Gaal may opt for the risk-averse, possession game that has characterized much of his team’s play this season. With Michael Carrick and Juan Mata, United do have the players to implement this approach. How aggressively and effectively Arsenal disrupt the hosts’ efforts in this respect will influence the dynamics of the match.

Its outcome, though, will probably be decided up front. Manchester United lack a proven match-winner because Wayne Rooney is out with injury; Arsenal don’t have a player in any kind of goal-scoring form. Indeed, the Gunners have been held scoreless in five of their last eight matches. So both teams could stumble at the critical moment in front of goal.

If Arsenal can convert just one of the many chances it might get—as the league’s most creative team in terms of clear goal-scoring opportunities—that could do the trick. And at the outset of this critical sequence of matches, a positive result is all that matters.

Key Matchup

Aaron Ramsey against the Manchester United midfield. Restored to his preferred position in central midfield, Arsenal’s Welshman has performed creditably. Perhaps those performances haven’t met expectations, but were those expectations reasonable? As Tim Stillman observes in his Arseblog column “Sacrificial Ram,” Ramsey has been doing three jobs at once, supporting his deep-lying midfield partner, making up for the absence of a ball-control specialist on the right, and sparking Arsenal’s preference for attacking to the left.

Ramsey will face skillful and intelligent opponents in Scheiderlin and Herrera. The extent to which he can slip their attentions and initiate Arsenal’s attacks will shape Arsenal’s threat overall.

Where to Worry

Arsenal’s defensive focus flagged on just a few occasions against Barcelona on Tuesday evening. Two of those lapses proved fatal. The injury-riddled Manchester United don’t possess the proven attacking threats of Barcelona—no team does, in truth—but at this level, with these stakes, the slightest mental error can be a killer. Wenger and his team will need to turn all their attentions to the task at hand on Sunday.

Match Verdict

Most of the accomplished talent on display will be in the midfield, with Manchester United’s Schneiderlin, Herrera, and Juan Mata facing off against Ramsey, Mesut Özil, and Alexis Sanchez. Those two trios will be at the center of the action, but this one comes down to the two defenses. Arsenal’s, anchored by the impressive Petr Cech, has been more stable than Manchester United’s, who may have to cope without its standout keeper David de Gea.

Despite the Gunners’ recent goal-scoring struggles, their chances of getting an unmissable opportunity against Manchester United’s makeshift back line seem strong.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. The ex-Manchester United man has looked lively and dangerous since his return from injury. He’s shown he can rise to the occasion—both here in last season’s FA Cup quarterfinal and in his match-winning substitute appearance against Leicester City two weeks ago. If he’s physically ready, he merits a start, and that can’t be a tantalizing prospect for these opposition defenders.

Manchester United. Juan Mata. The Spaniard now pulls the strings for Manchester United, a role that suits him. He can also find dangerous spaces in the opponents’ penalty area, avoiding the attentions of defenders and midfielders. Arsenal’s Francis Coquelin will need to be especially diligent tracking Mata’s movements.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Arsenal 0 Barcelona 2: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal succumbed to the title holders as Barcelona took a 2-0 Champions League victory at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday evening.

Lionel Messi’s two second-half goals, the first on a counter-attack in the 71st minute and the second from the penalty spot 12 minutes later, sealed Arsenal’s first-leg fate and, in all probability, a sixth-consecutive exit at this stage of the competition.

It’s not worth wallowing in or overanalyzing a loss to such a talented, accomplished, and dominant side, but here are three things we can take away from this match.

Arsenal lacked the required precision

Against opponents of this caliber, Arsenal had to be almost perfect in both planning and execution. The overall approach—to defend with diligence and coordination and to take opportunities on the break—kept the Gunners level through three quarters of the match.

In the early stages, Arsenal actually posed a threat, suggesting that manager Arsène Wenger thought an early goal could have been decisive or, barring that, an assertive stance might give Barcelona some doubts about its own defensive solidity.

This plan worked reasonably well. Through 65 minutes, the two teams had the same number of shots on target.

Then the execution wavered, just for a moment, all the ruthless attacking trio of Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez needed.

A headed clearance from the Barcelona area goes left, with all 11 Arsenal players inside the Barcelona half. Right back Hector Bellerin, midfielder Francis Coquelin, and center half Per Mertesacker converge on Neymar, who avoids all their attentions and passes to Suarez on the touch line. Laurent Koscielny is there with Suarez but fails to prevent his return ball to Neymar. From that point, the gig is up.

As Wenger said after the match, there were several ways to stop or slow that move, and the Gunners took none of them. More precise thought and action by Mertesacker, Coquelin, and Koscielny, in particular, might have snuffed out that particular attack. If that came at the expense of a yellow card, well, that would have been a worthwhile sacrifice under the circumstances.

The second goal resulted from another sequence of imprecise decisions and actions, these by Mertesacker and substitute Mathieu Flamini. Messi, as he does, exacted the punishment.

Arsenal’s goalmouth contagion shows no signs of subsiding

Most everyone expected that Arsenal would get few chances to score against this dominant Barcelona side. The directive, then, was to put away those opportunities that did come. The problem was that this objective ran against the Gunners’ recent attacking habits.

They finished goalless for the fifth time in the last eight matches.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had the most obvious chance, when Bellerin’s shot rebounded to him right in front of goal in the 22nd minute. With Barcelona keeper Marc-André ter Stegen already prostrate, Chamberlain kicked straight at the keeper when it may have been easier to score.

That was one of Arsenal’s three “Big Chances,” according to FourFourTwo StatsZone. The others fell to Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey. Giroud forced a decent save from ter Stegen with a contested header in the 60th minute, while Ramsey couldn’t poke home the equalizer from Danny Welbeck’s knockdown.

The suffering was more widespread in Arsenal’s scoreless FA Cup draw with Hull City last weekend, when eight Gunners took a total of 15 shots inside the Hull penalty area. Someone needs to overcome this grippe soon.

Hector Bellerin is the real deal

Bellerin’s emergence isn’t news. But on the biggest European stage, against the most formidable European opponent who happen to be his former employers, the young Spanish right back excelled.

When he came face-to-face with the tricky Neymar, Bellerin held his own. He was also able to wriggle out of pressure and made mostly sound decisions to clear the ball or to work it to a teammate. Bellerin’s speed also enhanced Arsenal’s counter-attacking threat, as in his blocked shot that fell to Oxlade-Chamberlain.

The stats reveal Bellerin’s solid performance. He succeeded on three of four tackles, made both the clearances he tried, and logged seven ball recoveries, tied for the most on the team with Koscielny. Bellerin also got past his man with four of seven dribbles, second on Arsenal behind Alexis, who was six of nine.

Extra time

Danny Welbeck is making a strong case for a regular starting spot. The forward, just three matches back from injury, played almost 20 minutes on Tuesday after 67 minutes three days earlier and brought a combination of speed and strength that troubled Barcelona. He outwitted and outran Javier Mascherano for one long ball, and his strong yet adept header to Ramsey nearly produced the equalizing goal.

It may not matter whether Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury forces him to the sidelines; Welbeck, his own fitness permitting, should get a run in the team.