Monday, August 31, 2015

Newcastle 0 Arsenal 1: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal dominated 10-man Newcastle on Saturday but needed a Fabricio Coloccini own goal to secure a 1-0 victory at St. James’ Park.

A speedy attacking lineup, featuring Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, struggled to provide much more excitement than the more conventional group that had started the scoreless draw with Liverpool. The lack of stimulation largely resulted from Newcastle’s defensive stance after the 15th-minute red card to striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.

His expulsion and Arsenal’s long numerical advantage make it hard to draw any broad conclusions from the match. Still, we learned a few things about Arsenal; here are three.

Arsenal cede possession only in extraordinary circumstances


In the first 15 minutes of the match, Arsenal posed a real threat, primarily because Newcastle were aggressive offensively. When they weren’t committing fouls in an effort to win back the ball quickly, the home side sent players forward and presented Arsenal with the space to pass and move.

This dynamic changed with the Mitrovic red card. Newcastle then retreated, allowing Arsenal freedom over three quarters of the pitch and clogging the final quarter with ten defenders. Arsenal had two basic choices in this situation:
  1. Control possession and try to pick apart the Newcastle defense
  2. Cede a bit of the possession and exploit the space Newcastle had left open

It’s not a surprise that Arsenal chose option #1. It capitalizes on the Gunners’ quickness of passing and thought and is the less risky choice.

The problem is that it requires extreme precision because the opposition can foil the attack with proper determination and positioning. Those qualities have proven Newcastle’s strengths early in the season, for example in the excellent rear-guard action against Manchester United at Old Trafford the previous week.

Option #2 would have been a riskier proposition. Imagine the outcry—“We were up a man! Why did we let them have so much of the ball?!?”—especially if Newcastle had used the possession allowed them to threaten the Arsenal goal. For that reason, we witnessed the familiar sight of Arsenal making short passes from side to side around the Newcastle penalty area.

And the exceptions to that rule, such as those we saw at Manchester City and West Ham in the 2014-15 season, will continue to stand out.

Theo Walcott’s days on the right are over


Walcott got the nod over Olivier Giroud as Arsenal’s starting center forward, which manager Arsène Wenger explained had anticipated a different approach from Newcastle:
I expected more space for Theo Walcott. At the start, it looked quite promising, but after 15 minutes, it was a different problem for us. There was no space behind their defenders, the service through their lines was very difficult, and they defended well.

Walcott had two good looks at goal, failed to convert either of them, and did not get involved much otherwise.

But this isn’t about Walcott as a center forward. If he was struggling there, Oxlade-Chamberlain was just as ineffective on the right side of Arsenal’s attack. His touch seemed off, his passes went awry, and his efforts to win back the ball were halfhearted. Oxlade-Chamberlain failed both his take-on attempts, completed only 89 percent of his passes compared with the team’s 92 percent rate, and made only one tackle and one interception.

Under those circumstances, a plausible move would have been to introduce Giroud and move Walcott right. Walcott’s minimal defensive contribution wouldn’t have caused major issues because Newcastle wasn’t attacking much and Hector Bellerin was putting in a solid performance at right back. His quickness and knack for a cross could have opened the Newcastle defense in a different way from the right.

Wenger’s decision, though, was to substitute Giroud for Walcott after 70 minutes. That’s a hint that Walcott’s three-year campaign to play center forward has been successful, but at the price of any involvement on the right side.

No one is making a strong case to lead the Arsenal line


This might be an obvious point about an attacking contingent that’s scored just once in four matches. It’s worth emphasizing, because despite Arsenal’s improved shooting accuracy against Newcastle, it was still found wanting.

After three matches in which only 30 percent of Arsenal’s shots were on goal, the team got nine of 22 on frame in Newcastle. That’s a 40 percent rate of accuracy. Many lacked conviction, though, with Walcott’s two first-half attempts and Giroud’s late lob job standing out as especially weak.

Walcott and Giroud were the top candidates for the striker role entering the season, and neither has made the position his own. Will Wenger keep faith in the pair, give Danny Welbeck a shot when he returns from injury, or move Alexis to the tip of the attack? All seem reasonable options given the trends.

Unless, of course, all evidence to the contrary, Mr. World-Class Striker appears at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground by 1800h GMT on Tuesday, the close of the transfer window.

Extra Time: This is what happens when referees respond properly to bullying tactics


There’s no more irritating sight in sport than a manager fulminating against referees when his own team’s illegal acts are called out. Newcastle’s Steve McLaren is the latest culprit. He gesticulated, grew more red-faced than normal, and later complained to the media about the red card and the six other cautions issued his team by referee Andre Marriner. But any observer not bloodthirsty saw that the deliberate aggression was rightly punished.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Match Preview, Newcastle v. Arsenal: Find a New Tune upon Tyne

Arsenal’s visit to Newcastle United on Saturday will challenge the Gunners to get unblocked in front of goal.

The major similarity between this campaign’s first three matches and previous seasons’ starts has been the Gunners' ineffectiveness in front of goal. In general, Arsenal have been much more active offensively, taking 61 shots. (As 7AM Kickoff points out here, Arsenal have the highest shot total of any club in a top-five European league.)

A substantial majority of those shots (41) has come from within the opposition penalty area; that’s more dangerous shooting than Arsenal have produced during the first three matches of any of the past five seasons, according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone app. The overall result has been 18 shots on goal in three matches, a high absolute number by the standards of the past five seasons' starts.

The problem is Arsenal’s low proportion of shots on frame. By managing just 30 percent of shots on goal in its first three matches, the team has, for the fifth time in the past six seasons, failed to put more than 35 percent of its shots on target. By contrast, over the full 2014-15 season, Arsenal put 37 of its shots on goal.

Newcastle is a tricky opponent under these circumstances. The Magpies have allowed 53 shots in three matches, with 18 of those (34 percent) on goal; they’ve blocked 19 shots (36 percent), including eight last weekend when they held Manchester United to a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford.

Given this dynamic, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger may make some changes to his attacking lineup. He has the speedy options of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to unsettle the Newcastle defense, which has been already troubled by the quickness of Swansea’s Jefferson Montero and Manchester United’s Memphis DePay.

Wenger could also add some zest from the midfield in recognition that Newcastle have not presented much of a scoring threat: Their 25 shots rank lowest in the Premier League. This might tempt Wenger to move Aaron Ramsey from his spot upfield into one of the central midfield positions.

The riskiness of that decision depends in large part on the health of Arsenal’s two first-choice center backs. At last report, Per Mertesacker remained ill, and Laurent Koscielny faced a fitness test on his back. Some accounts suggest that Koscielny trained with the first team on Friday and should replace Calum Chambers in Arsenal’s lineup at Newcastle.

Would that provide enough stability for Wenger to break up the central midfield pair of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla?

Or, perhaps more to the point, does Mertesacker’s continued absence dictate the retention of Cazorla to aid Arsenal’s transition from defense to attack? Without Mertesacker’s clever passing, Arsenal probably need Cazorla’s trickery to move quickly upfield.

But Cazorla doesn’t offer the threat on goal that Ramsey does from the center of midfield. Cazorla’s two shots on goal in six attempts in the first three matches are in line with the team’s ineffective rate thus far.

Whatever players Wenger sends out early Saturday, bucking the trend and (re)discovering the knack in front of goal will be the charge. Another scoreless display will intensify the questions.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Arsenal 0 Liverpool 0: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal's scoreless draw with Liverpool was as intriguing and engaging a nil-nil result as you are likely to see. Each side enjoyed periods of dominance and came close to scoring the decisive goal. There was an unexpected--and unwelcome--lineup change; the action was both end-to-end and tight; the tactics from Liverpool's supposedly progressive manager were retrograde.

So plenty to hold the interest, just not a result to get excited about.

Here are three things we learned from the encounter.

Peter Cech is actually as advertised


After two uncomfortable performances in his first two starts for Arsenal, marquee signing Petr Cech showed his bona fides against Liverpool. He took a certain goal off the feet of Liverpool front man Christian Benteke, pouncing at the absolute last second, and he stretched every inch of his frame and wingspan to tip Philippe Coutinho's curling effort off the post. Those two saves bailed out a shaky first-half defense and avoided a disastrous result.

Cech also conducted the less eye-catching work flawlessly. He commanded his penalty area, punching or claiming crosses intended for Benteke. Like Wojciech Szczesny in the FA Cup Final, Cech did a lot to negate Benteke's aerial threat.

Cech's positioning was excellent as well, so several threatening shots went right at him. His success kicking away Roberto Firmino's first-half effort owed to perfect positioning and quick feet.

This might have been more activity than Cech has been accustomed to--as 7AM Kickoff noted in his "By the Numbers" piece for Arseblog, Cech hadn't made this many saves in a club match since May 2013. But Arsenal's new number one showed he is the difference-maker many portrayed him as when Arsenal acquired him.

Arsenal feels Mertesacker's absence more than Koscielny's

Most observers consider Laurent Koscielny the more indispensable of Arsenal's two center backs. A few even dubbed him Arsenal's player of the season in 2014-15 for his quickness, timely interventions, and control of opposition strikers.

His partner, the frequently derided Per Mertesacker, seems more vital to the team, though. For one thing, Koscielny has an able replacement in Gabriel, who showed on Monday that he possesses quickness and guile to rival Koscielny's. Gabriel also cottoned to Benteke's approach early on and limited his threat to the Arsenal goal in the second half.

Another reason that Mertesacker is essential is that his deputy, Calum Chambers, hasn't yet developed the calm or comfort with quick decisions that the big German brings. Although the 20-year-old was not caught out of position much, save his one unwise foray forward, Chambers's poor decisions with the ball brought on danger.

It's a huge contrast with Mertesacker. Arsenal's on-pitch captain and World Cup winner not only reduces the danger, he initiates many Arsenal attacks with his incisive passing. Without him, Arsenal struggles to move from defense to attack. In particular, it's hard to use deep-lying midfielder Francis Coquelin as a decoy to drag opposition midfielders out of position. This means more narrow passing lanes from Arsenal's defenders to their attacking teammates.

The consequence is more predictable passes, which Liverpool were primed to pressure. More responsibility and Liverpool attention fell on Santi Cazorla, and Arsenal saw the deception and speed of its transitions reduced. Mertesacker makes a critical contribution to this aspect of Arsenal's play, important to be effective at the Premier League level.

Alexis needs Ramsey's vertical threat


Debate has swirled around Aaron Ramsey's position on the right side of the Arsenal attack. The argument is that he doesn't offer the speedy, wide threat to stretch the opposition defense. Instead, he offers more of a horizontal threat, roaming from right to left between the opponent's midfield and defense.

Ramsey's activity was effective against Liverpool, as it had been against Crystal Palace: He generated four chances and made eight ball recoveries and four tackles.

The issue, though, is that Ramsey's movement from right to left reduces Alexis's liberty. First, when he moves toward Alexis, Ramsey brings defenders with him. And there are already more than a few paying attention to Alexis. Liverpool, for example, surrounded Arsenal's top scorer from last season with a fullback, center half, and midfielder, or with two midfielders and a fullback. This stymied him as he approached the corners of the penalty area where he's most threatening.

It also forced Arsenal to beat Liverpool with several short, quick passes in congested areas. There's little room for error in that approach, because one of many nearby Liverpool players or a slightly misplaced pass can foil the move. On the few occasions when Arsenal can find a way through, the finishing has to be expert. It was not on Monday, just as it wasn't late last season when Swansea and Sunderland held Arsenal scoreless.

If Ramsey were running from the center of midfield, though, he would distract the opposition midfield from its focus on Alexis and offer an option for Mesut Özil to make a decisive pass forward. He's also more of a dynamic target for striker Olivier Giroud's lay-off passes. No doubt manager Arsène Wenger will weigh this need against defense-minded teams.

Extra time: Officials still haven't grasped the offside rule


Ramsey's goal was wrongly waved off. Even if it were a borderline case, isn't the advantage supposed to lie with the attacking player? And if, as Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers quipped, "his shirt looked offside," it was his shirt sleeve, attached to his arm, not a part of his body that can trigger the infraction.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Walcott's Deal: A Good Ting for Arsenal

Arsenal's July 31 announcement that forward Theo Walcott had signed a new four-year contract was a positive development in just about every respect.

As with any club news, particularly involving players and salaries, enthusiasts and detractors emerged. Some pointed to Walcott's production since his last pay increase in early 2013 and argued he didn't deserve a boost. Others said that the deal changed nothing about Arsenal's attacking needs. A few worried about the implications of placing Walcott among the club's top earners.

Those aren't idle considerations, but they're certainly not revelations to Arsenal's leadership. Weighing those factors against the benefits of this agreement--and its timing--CEO Ivan Gazidis, manager Arsène Wenger, and their colleagues concluded that re-signing Walcott on enhanced terms was in the club's interest.

You can see their logic: A Walcott deal reduces the risk to team chemistry, it makes a down payment on Walcott's potential, and it fits the wage environment in which the club operates.

Mitigating the risk of chemical reaction


As the 2015-16 Premier League season approaches, the message throughout the Arsenal camp has emphasized team chemistry. I explored this phenomenon--and in modern, elite football it does appear to be one--in "Arsenal's Pre-Season Cohesion." The most recent expression was Wenger's comment after the win over Chelsea in Sunday's Community Shield: "Our game is based on togetherness."

Imagine the threat a protracted contract saga would pose to this camaraderie. Stories and questions about Walcott's future would dominate the early season. Although professional athletes are adept at compartmentalizing such distractions, all the efforts to build and communicate the team's togetherness would be at risk. Just look at Jack Wilshere's expression when Walcott was asked about his contract status after the Emirates Cup win (1:12 of this video). That's not a man who wants to keep hearing about this drama.

Its persistence could have undone a major component of Arsenal's competitive advantage for the season ahead, the shared long-term mindset. For that reason, it was wise for Gazidis and Wenger to finalize Walcott's contract before the season starts.

Paying for potential


There was also wisdom in Arsenal's decision to reward Walcott for his potential contributions, more than for his production so far. Instead of making the real error of overpaying for past performance, Arsenal are placing a high value on the impact Walcott can have in the future.

For one thing, he's guaranteed to widen the manager's attacking options. As Wenger observed to the press after the Community Shield,

I tried to see the options I have through the season. I felt today that I wanted to use Theo’s pace to go in behind. In the first half he worked very hard, didn’t get too much service, but he worked very hard. In the second half when Giroud came on I think he gave us a physical presence that was needed at that time as well. (Arsenal.com)

Walcott's teammates have also made note of what he might bring. Aaron Ramsey: "He is a goalscorer. He has a load of goals for Arsenal, and I think he can carry that on and, I think, maybe get into the 100 [goal] club this year." (Arsenal.com) That would take 24 goals, quite a few more than the 10 to 15 Wenger has said the team needs to add this season.

Wenger's target would, though, be in line with what Walcott's distinctive combination of speed and goal-scoring has delivered. As I detail in "In Search of More Arsenal Deals," Walcott's output from his 32 league starts in 2012-13 and from his limited action in 2014-15 compares favorably with the numbers of several strikers currently fancied by Arsenal supporters.

Still, an average of eight goals and less than six assists over the last five Premier League campaigns wouldn't justify elevating Walcott to the club's top echelon of earners. (Stats from OptaSports via whoscored.com.) But that's hardly any of the rationale.

Accounting for the environment


Finally, we need to understand the agreement in the Premier League's financial context. Although the wages and contract terms of individual players remain opaque, there's little question that top players' pay has risen considerably. In particular, the expenditures on wages among the top six clubs (Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham) appear to have increased, on average, by five percent per year since 2011, following several  years of double-digit annual surges. (I've pieced this information together from several sources, including Sporting Intelligence, the Total Sportek blog, and the BBC.)

Reports of Walcott's new salary range from £110,000 per week (£5.7 million per year) to £140,000 per week (£7.3 million per year). It's been suggested the club retains image rights as part of the package, a higher-value proposition for the club.

In any case, at the top end of the reported salary range, Walcott would earn about as much as recent Liverpool acquisition Christian Benteke, Chelsea arrival Radamel Falcao, and Manchester City's Samir Nasri. At nearer £110,000 per week we'll find Liverpool's Mario Balotelli, Manchester United's Ashley Young, and Manchester City's Eden Dzeko. It's not unreasonable to say that Walcott has delivered more and promises more than any of those attacking players.

Inflation expectations also make the investment in Walcott appear sound. If salary growth continues at the recent rate, the average for top six clubs will increase 20 percent by 2019. Teammates' and competitors' pay will adjust upward, and Walcott will no longer have such a high relative standing. By my calculations, a £110,000 weekly salary in 2019 will look like £88,000 per week in today's pay, while £140,000 in 2019 equates to today's £112,000.

One last point of comparison. Liverpool paid £32.5 million to Aston Villa for Benteke, while Raheem Sterling cost Manchester City £44 to £49 million. By 2019, Arsenal will have paid Walcott £29 million (£140,000/week over four years). So its total expenditure will be less than the initial outlay top-six clubs have made in 2015 to acquire forwards with Premier League experience; that's even before accounting for their salaries.

This financial context, the management of risk to team spirit, and the assessment of future performance make Arsenal's investment in Walcott a thoughtful, constructive move.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Community Shield: Three Things We Learned About Arsenal

Arsenal's 1-0 victory over Chelsea in Sunday's Community Shield capped a perfect pre-season in fine style.

The sun shone on Wembley, supporters were in mid-season voice, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain delivered a lovely goal, and Chelsea manager José Mourinho was irritated. In other words, success.

Although we shouldn't draw any definitive conclusions from the match, we can make some inferences to guide our thinking in advance of next Sunday's Premier League opener against West Ham. Here are three things that stuck out:

1. This team can adapt to the occasion


Arsenal showed it knows more than one way to achieve its objectives. As in last season's watershed victory at Manchester City, the Gunners conceded much of the possession to accomplished opponents, rather than taking a more assertive offensive approach. Chelsea had 57 percent possession to Arsenal's 43 percent. (Stats from Opta via whoscored.com.)

Manager Arsène Wenger praised this tactical move, suggesting in his post-match press conference that the players made this adjustment. "They were more concerned with protecting our lead against Chelsea rather than playing attacking football," he said. "We have to accept that, and I don’t think that’s giving up your philosophy, it’s a punctual fact that we wanted to win a game like that. I’m quite proud of that."

It wasn't a physical, rear-guard defense that suggested a huge gap in quality between the sides; Arsenal simply controlled the passing lanes with a midfield line that made the most of the energy of Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey. The setup started out like the 4-1-4-1 that manager Arsène Wenger had introduced early in the 2014-15 campaign, then after Oxlade-Chamberlain's goal it often looked like a 4-4-1-1 with Mesut Özil just behind Theo Walcott.

The personnel is already flexible, too. Santi Cazorla occupied the left of the midfield, a position he hadn't taken up for at least a year, and Ramsey returned to the center of midfield, his preferred spot but not one where he's regularly featured since the middle of last season. Top scorer Alexis will eventually return, and the players will shift again.

Indeed, adaptability -- both in the starting lineups and in the positioning of players in games -- could be a feature of the season. Wenger has the opportunity to vary his selections to fit the opposition because the players at his disposal, in just about every position, are of high quality.

2. This defense looks ready and savvy


Arsenal conceded just one goal in five pre-season matches, as a variety of defenders and goalkeepers, not including last season's eventual first choice David Ospina, shut down several dangerous opponents.

On Sunday, Chelsea managed two shots on target. They had two other real opportunities, Ramires's first-half header and Eden Hazard's rushed sky job in the second half, but Arsenal's efforts rendered Chelsea's offense largely ineffective. The midfield's work in the passing lanes stymied Cesc Fabregas, and when Chelsea did reach the spaces just outside the penalty area, where they were most dangerous last season, Arsenal crowded the space and blocked any progress.

Longer approaches were handled by Arsenal center-half Laurent Koscielny. He seemed in top form, shepherding Chelsea's front men and attending to any danger. Koscielny made 16 clearances and won four aerial duels, both top figures on the team.

With Koscielny, his central defensive partner Per Mertesacker, and goalkeeper Petr Cech, Arsenal have an experienced, knowledgeable defensive core. That's a strong foundation for a run at the Premier League title.

3. Arsenal didn't act friendly


This was an exhibition that Arsenal came to win. From the kickoff, the Gunners asserted themselves and did not shirk the physical, psychological, or tactical contests inherent in facing a Mourinho team.

That willingness became especially evident late in the second half. Wenger's substitutions were designed to shore up the defense: the more robust Olivier Giroud for Theo Walcott, deep-lying midfielder Mikel Arteta for playmaker Özil, and fullback Kieran Gibbs for Oxlade-Chamberlain. All three made an impact, with Giroud and Gibbs threatening the Chelsea goal and Arteta throwing himself into challenges, particularly with Chelsea substitute Radamel Falcao.

Also noteworthy was left back Nacho Monreal's canny professionalism. Twice in the first half, he got mixed up with Chelsea's Gary Cahill, once resulting in a bloody nose and then sending Cahill into teammate Branislav Ivanovic right at the Chelsea post. Later, Monreal outmaneuvered Falcao (admittedly not a move with a high degree of difficulty) to draw a foul that eased the pressure, and he made a late clearance to kill even more time.

Applying this savvy and effort in a so-called friendly shows how ready this team is for the season ahead. Given Arsenal's talent, that application can put Arsenal in position to defeat just about any opponent. In close matches against top sides, they're required. Add a moment of brilliance, like Sunday's from Oxlade-Chamberlain, and you've got a recipe for success.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Community Shield Match Preview, Chelsea v. Arsenal: Full of Sound and Fury

Arsenal's Community Shield meeting with Chelsea on Sunday carries interest but no meaning.

The English media's reliance on the lazy and hackneyed narrative -- Wenger and Mourinho square off! -- just shows the insignificance of the Wembley affair. It's a glorified friendly, the last live-action preparation for the start of the Premier League campaign the following weekend.

Although Arsenal supporters would like to see the Gunners continue their impressive pre-season form, close out their spotless record, and lay down a marker with the league champions, none of those accomplishments will have any bearing on the season to come.

Let's not forget that Arsenal blitzed Manchester City 3-0 in last year's installment, then won just two of its first eight league matches. By January 1, 2015, it had compiled the fewest points (33) from its first 20 matches in the 19 years of Wenger's tenure. The year before, Manchester United won the event and went on to a seventh-place league finish.

So we should draw no conclusions about Arsenal's prospects from Sunday's outcome.

That's not to say we shouldn't be interested in what transpires, as long as we keep it in the proper perspective. Any time Arsenal is in action, we can deepen our understanding of the team and how it plays. Here are some questions to keep in mind during Sunday's encounter:

1.  Will this be a real workout?


It'll be interesting to see whether Mourinho constructs and instructs his side to thwart Arsenal's offense. That would be true to form but counterproductive in this preparatory exhibition match. A cagey affair, in which neither side gets the chance to stretch its legs, wouldn't serve the objective of improving physical readiness for the season ahead.

A free-flowing encounter would contribute to better fitness; it would also favor Arsenal, provided the Arsenal defense maintains its discipline. The Gunners' speed of thought, movement, and passing generally exceeds Chelsea's, so the more open the play, the more likely Arsenal's advantage.

2.  What influence will Petr Cech have?


Arsenal's headline summer acquisition will face his longtime bosses and teammates straightaway. Any specific insights he might share about Chelsea's approach may not determine the outcome of this match; after all, the managers and the players know each other fairly well.

What will be interesting to watch is Cech's interactions with Arsenal's defense. If he provides calm leadership and deals with the threats to his goal in this high-profile but low-pressure encounter, then he could bring stability throughout the league campaign. That will make the difference that Arsenal sought when it acquired him.

3.  What clues will we have about the manager's preferred starting XI?


In the pre-season matches so far, Wenger has varied his selections, working on the fitness of all the players and experimenting with combinations. These mixes of players have been intriguing and successful in the context of the pre-season. The four  matches have also emphasized the substantial depth Arsenal enjoy at just about every position, even with leading scorer Alexis Sanchez yet to return from holiday and Danny Welbeck sidelined with injury.

But we still don't have much of an idea of Wenger's thinking on several personnel decisions. In particular, how does he balance the contributions of both Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey, who bring different strengths to the central midfield role? There have been occasions when they functioned as a midfield pair, but that required the removal of Francis Coquelin and his defensive energy and skill. Not the best setup against high-quality opposition.

Jack Wilshere also has to fit into the puzzle somehow. He's taken up a more advanced position frequently this pre-season, following a brief stint on the flanks as last season ended. Wenger may reveal more of his intentions for Wilshere, and for the first XI overall, on Sunday. He did send out the same starting lineup in last year's Community Shield and in the league opener against Crystal Palace six days later. Then again, several key players -- Olivier Giroud, Per Mertesacker, and Mesut Özil -- weren't ready.

4.  What will happen at center forward?


The different strengths of Giroud and Theo Walcott allow Wenger some flexibility in his choice of center forward. Walcott is less tested in that role against top-level defenders, but his speed could trouble Chelsea as it has in the past.

Another benefit of a Walcott center forward run-out would be to shield Giroud from the battering he'd take from Chelsea's galoots in central defense. The Frenchman will endure beatings from defenses for 10 months, including physical tests in the first two weeks of the league season, so limiting his exposure in this exhibition match makes some sense.

On the other hand, Wenger may want to prime the chemistry and relationships in attack for the league campaign, which would point to a Giroud start. A peach of a goal like the one he scored in the 2014 affair might send him off to a strong scoring start.

"Might" is the operative word in all these observations, because the connections between Sunday and the league campaign are iffy at best. The day could be mildly informative and enjoyable should Arsenal notch a win over Chelsea, but it signifies nothing about the team's prospects.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Arsenal's Pre-Season Cohesion

Arsenal is approaching the 2015-16 Premier League campaign with a sense of calm.

Unlike the disquiet bordering on panic that has characterized some recent summers, the club's representatives and most supporters seem comfortable and content. The main sources of this feeling are the continuity in the playing squad and the clear camaraderie that exists among the players.

Off-field chemistry


We saw that spirit on Arsenal's successful visit to Singapore for the Barclays Asia Trophy. Its most striking expression came in the hotel swimming pool, where Santi Cazorla completed 14 headers in a row with encircled teammates. Here's the video. That's genuine glee among individuals who enjoy each others' company.

The chemistry is also evident in the statements players are making to the media. In an interview after soon after his arrival, goalkeeper Petr Cech, who has participated in many teams, emphasized the camaraderie. "I've only been here a few days, but I can feel the team is together," he told the club Website.

What's more, Cech seemed to draw an implicit contrast between this Arsenal team and his previous club Chelsea when he said, "I found that the team spirit is extraordinary in the way that everybody pulls in the same direction." One interpretation of this observation is that even in Chelsea's title- and Champions League-winning sides, he hadn't experienced this quality.

That will surely encourage manager Arsène Wenger, who has placed a clear priority on common understanding and togetherness. In almost every interview of the pre-season, Wenger has emphasized the point. For example, after watching his team score six goals against Lyon in the Emirates Cup, he noted, "We have more cohesion than at the same period last year," when the World Cup, multiple acquisitions, and injuries hampered development of the collective.

He had also identified this dynamic very soon after the team assembled in July, observing after its victory over Everton in Singapore, "It's very satisfying, and it look like everybody shares the way we see the game."

Early evidence on the pitch


Many will point to Arsenal's demolition of Lyon as proof of this vision in action, and, indeed, the 10-minute first-half period in which Arsenal scored four goals featured some scintillating signs. Three of those goals came from free-flowing offensive moves that required precise passing, knowledgeable positioning, and common understanding.

That followed the fine display against Everton a week earlier and half a world away. During the Barclays Asia Trophy final, Arsenal befuddled and exhausted its Premier League counterparts with sustained movement, control, and passing that usually happen only with a team on the same wavelength.

Although these pre-season offensive displays have caught the eye, the defensive performances have been just as encouraging. Arsenal have conceded just one goal in four matches and displayed both solidity and flexibility in the most recent match against Wolfsburg.

The first half of that encounter was particularly interesting because Arsenal did not dominate possession and weave its passing around Wolfsburg. Instead, the group maintained its collective defensive positioning and generally forced the opponents into wide areas. From there, Wolfsburg did serve up some crosses, but the Arsenal defense ably dealt with all but one of those, which reached former Arsenal man Nicklas Bendtner at an awkward height in front of goal.

A notable aspect of this performance, for me, was that it came after Wenger had completely changed the team's back five. The group of Cech, Hector Bellerin at right back, center backs Calum Chambers and Gabriel, and left back Nacho Monreal had never played together before.

What this signals for the League campaign


Granted, we shouldn't read too much into pre-season performances, tactics, or personnel combinations. Fitness is the priority.

The strengthening of collective understanding is promising, though, because it's enhancing the players' confidence and self-image as real title contenders. Captain Mikel Arteta: "We have been together a while now, and we have this belief now that we are capable of achieving something important. It took time to build this cohesion, this momentum." (Arsenal.com)

The year-to-year continuity of the playing staff and its sense of togetherness are vital because Arsenal face the stark correlation between expenditures on wages and transfers and final league position, a relationship favoring Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United. For this reason, Wenger, his staff, and the players must get the intangibles exactly right. Those include player relationships, a relatively clean bill of health, immediate responses to setbacks, and better performances against opposition in the top half of the table. (See "Arsenal's Title Ambitions" for a more extensive examination.)

In other words, the chemistry and understanding we've seen so far are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for an Arsenal title challenge. If fortune and other factors favor the Gunners, there's a real possibility of a title challenge, by which I mean leading the league or trailing the leaders by less than six points as April arrives.

If those conditions don't fall into place, though, Arsenal may well fall short. That's just the reality of the connection between finances and success.

We should accept this as a plausible, though not inevitable, potential outcome; it needn't be a result of poor planning, transfer errors or oversights, player apathy, or failed chemistry.

Setting the expectation in this way will make Arsenal's accomplishment that much more satisfying.