Thursday, July 14, 2016

How Can Arsenal Get the Most from Three Summer Stars

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger faces a fascinating set of decisions as he prepares for the 2016-17 season.

Although much attention at this time of year goes to player acquisitions and departures, the plans for existing players are just as interesting. In particular, how can Wenger and his staff get the most from Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, and Alexis Sanchez?

The complications of success

The three were the standout performers on the international stage this summer. Alexis earned the player of the tournament honor for Copa America champions Chile; Ramsey took Wales to the Euro semifinals and himself onto the all-tournament team; Özil pulled the strings for the German Euro semifinalists yet inexplicably missed out on the accolades.

They all excelled in free roles in their teams’ attacks, moving into and out of dangerous positions behind the lead strike force. They can’t do the same for Arsenal. There’s just not enough room, time on the ball, or exemption from defending. (See Tim Stillman’s recent column, “Arsène’s Agenda,” for a look at the Özil-Ramsey relationship.)

A further challenge is that none of them will be ready to start the season on August 14. Each will be taking a break before returning to Arsenal, with the second league match—against champions Leicester City—looking like their earliest reasonable action.

As a result, pre-season and early match dynamics may not reflect Wenger’s intentions for his three best attacking players. Ultimately, here are some ways the manager might shift the personnel or system to maximize their contributions.

Playing in the band

It’s of course difficult to separate individuals from the structure that guides their actions. As an exercise in analysis, I'd identify three main developments in the team that will influence the impact of Özil, Ramsey, and Alexis.

First, the arrival of Granit Xhaka has the potential to reorient Arsenal’s approach. His distinctive mix of skills and aggression can enhance partnerships in the midfield and change the flow of the attack. (See my article “Which Midfield Mix Will Work for Arsenal.”)

One particular beneficiary of Xhaka’s arrival should be Ramsey. His new Swiss teammate has the ability both to patrol the base of midfield and to keep the ball circulating. This means that Ramsey could take a freer role than he could with, say, Francis Coquelin; he could concern himself less with initiating the transition and protecting the defense.

That is, if Ramsey takes up a midfield position beside Xhaka.

The second important development in the playing contingent, the return of Santi Cazorla, will influence Ramsey’s role. Cazorla can serve as another transition instigator and has allowed Özil to thrive in the past. The German’s outstanding start to the 2015-16 season, when he set a record-setting assist pace, was possible because Cazorla orchestrated the play from deeper and gave defenders another playmaker to worry about.

But instructing Cazorla to take up this role again would probably displace Ramsey from a position in the center, where he excelled for Wales. A knotty problem.

The third personnel-related factor affecting the star trio’s contribution is the center forward’s style. Olivier Giroud is a particular kind of center forward; he’s an effective target man, deft passer, and clever operator near goal. These qualities have made him a great foil for Ramsey, who attacks with vigor from midfield: Watch Ramsey’s epic FA Cup winner from 2014 for an example.

What Giroud isn’t is a speedy killer, the type of mobile, clinical striker that Alexis might thrive with. Although analyses suggesting that Alexis and Giroud can’t jibe are poorly founded, we have often seen Alexis at his best playing with quick center forwards like Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck.

Welbeck offers a flexibility that would serve Alexis, Özil, and Ramsey all well. He darts into channels and opens space that all three can exploit and is an indefatigable defensive presence who helps recover the ball in dangerous areas. Stylistically, Welbeck is an excellent fit; he’s just out for a long period with injury and historically not the most clinical finisher.

Possible formations

Given the players at Wenger’s disposal right now, which formation makes Arsenal most effective? Offensively at least, the setup would emphasize the attacking talents of Alexis, Özil, and Ramsey. The three options examined below might accomplish that objective. Others, such as the 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, don’t seem to appeal to the manager.


The fallback structure in recent seasons has been the 4-2-3-1. Although it balances midfield presence, playmaking, and defensive cover, that setup may not bring about the maximum offensive production from the three.

It certainly works to Özil’s strengths because it gives the playmaker the most license. And there’s a case for an attacking midfield of Alexis-Özil-Ramsey, which played a large part in Arsenal’s top performances of 2015.

If the attacking midfield becomes even more fluid, the 4-2-3-1 could still serve Arsenal well. The speed of movement and thought among the three confuses defenders and creates openings. The catch is that turnovers leave Arsenal’s fullbacks exposed because their forward support has moved away from their flanks.


The second option is a 4-3-3. In this, one can see Xhaka with Ramsey and Cazorla in a midfield three. Ramsey could thrive with such skilled and clever midfield partners, using their varied transition play to get himself quickly into dangerous forward positions.

The 4-3-3 has promise for Özil as well. It allows him to drift into promising spaces, where he can play a killer pass, which has been his general operating mode for Germany. Whether this arrangement works for Özil in Premier League play, given the defensive implications, is a question.

The fundamental problem with such a formation, though, has to do with the strengths of Arsenal’s available center forward options. Giroud would not be as effective if he had to make quick moves into the gaps between opposition defenders or if he had to lead the Arsenal press. These seem like core striker responsibilities in a 4-3-3, more aligned with Welbeck’s strengths.


Third, we might see a resurrection of the 4-1-4-1. It’s a slight variation on the 4-2-3-1 that Wenger tried early in the 2014-15 season.

This formation seemed to suit Alexis because his energy and quickness allowed him to cover offensive and defensive space on the flank of the advanced midfield four. He could also get forward quickly and support the center forward.

Xhaka’s arrival makes this setup workable. He could hold the base of the midfield and distribute long passes to the wings or shorter ones to Ramsey and Özil in two attacking midfield roles.

The gap in the 4-1-4-1, given Arsenal’s current roster, is the other wide attacking midfield position. At the moment, the candidates would be Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alex Iwobi, and Joel Campbell. Does any of those players have the combination of skills to elevate the team’s play consistently?

More experienced and insightful figures than myself or other bloggers will be assessing this question and others as the season approaches. Perhaps Wenger and his staff will reveal some of what they think about the intriguing possibilities when pre-season friendlies start at the end of next week.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Arsenal's New Midfield Mixes

The acquisition of the Swiss international Granit Xhaka will change the mix in the Arsenal midfield. That’s an indisputable and welcome development.

It’s easy to see Xhaka as a Mikel Arteta 2.0, a cultured distributor of the ball, an adept transition figure between defense and attack. The new boy also carries physical aggressiveness, as his disciplinary record in the Bundesliga shows.

But the Xhaka effect will be decisive only in the relationships he develops with teammates. These aren’t necessarily duos; the 4-2-3-1 formation recently preferred by manager Arsène Wenger favors the two-player combination, but Xhaka’s abilities might just encourage Wenger to experiment with other setups.

This piece looks at some of the potential combinations and tactical structures involving Xhaka.

Granit Xhaka-Santi Cazorla

If the choice of midfielders to ground the 4-2-3-1 relied on demonstrated skill levels alone, the strongest case probably lies with Xhaka and Spaniard Santi Cazorla.

This pair would offer several advantages, especially two effective styles of transition play, Xhaka’s long ball accuracy and Cazorla’s dribbling. Opponents would find it difficult to press this midfield because the close control and speed of ball movement would leave pressing midfielders chasing the play rather than influencing it.

The “Cazaka” combination would also be savvy and strong defensively. Although he arrived at Arsenal as a more forward-minded player, Cazorla has shown a knack for positioning himself to defend and for joining forces with teammates to limit opponents’ danger. His work with left back Nacho Monreal on Leicester City’s dynamic Riyad Mahrez in the 5-2 destruction of the eventual champions stood out in this respect.

Where this pairing might struggle is in offensive production. Yes, Cazorla was one of the team’s most prolific providers of key passes before his knee injury in early November 2015. So there’s little question the offense has flowed better with him than without.

The issue is actually putting the ball into the back of the net, a vital component of the game that Arsenal largely lacked in comparison with its competition last season. Cazorla scored no goals from 23 non-penalty shots in the 2015-16 Premier League, after having taken 87 shots to score one goal that wasn’t a penalty the season before. Xhaka’s goal output wasn’t much better: two goals from 32 shots, excluding one penalty, in the 2015-16 Bundesliga and two goals from 61 shots the season before. (Stats from

Granit Xhaka-Aaron Ramsey

Can Xhaka, in his similarities to Arteta, help Aaron Ramsey regain the form of his breakout year of 2013-14? That’s the compelling prospect many Arsenal supporters have been entertaining since the club secured Xhaka’s services. The theory is that Xhaka can serve as both anchor and distributor, allowing Ramsey to take a freer role, whether in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation.

In a 4-2-3-1 with Arteta three seasons ago, the Welshman scored 10 league goals and provided eight assists. He also succeeded in 3.3 tackles per game of 5.0 attempted, both career league highs. Ramsey's energetic defending has been on display at Euro 2016, where he and Xhaka were the top two players through four matches in regaining possession in the final third. On that evidence, the potential of a “Xhaksey” midfield combination looks enticing.

One wonders whether it could unlock deep-lying defenses in the way a grouping with Cazorla might, because the Spaniard’s creativity is impossible to duplicate and nearly impossible to repress for a full 90 minutes. Xhaka and Ramsey might also be less adept against a midfield press.

Those risks aren’t likely to prevent Wenger from experimenting with Xhaka and Ramsey together, possibly even with Cazorla (“Cazakasey”?) or Jack Wilshere (“Cazakashire”) as a midfield three. Either alignment would depend on the traits additional acquisitions bring to Arsenal’s forward line.

Granit Xhaka-Jack Wilshere

Wilshere could join with Xhaka in ways that neither Ramsey nor Cazorla could by themselves.

Like Ramsey, Wilshere can be a dynamic presence in midfield. He propels Arsenal forward by running at defenders and unsettling them. Wilshere also possesses vision, particularly in attack, and the ability to orchestrate intricate passing moves in the manner of Cazorla.

This partnership would be a particularly spiky one: Both Xhaka and Wilshere have displayed a tendency to mix it up with opponents and a willingness to voice displeasure with teammates. Their collaboration would definitely revise Arsenal’s “too nice” image.

Francis Coquelin-Granit Xhaka

In a similar way, aesthetic and interpersonal nicety would not characterize a pairing of Xhaka and Francis Coquelin. Together, they’d form a physical, combative midfield.

We know what we have with Coquelin—a player quick into the tackle, disciplined in his positioning, and underrated in his passing. His qualities have shone in away matches against top opposition, when Arsenal needed to absorb pressure and thwart creativity; his outstanding performance at Manchester City in January 2014 is a prime example.

Similar scenarios might call for his inclusion alongside Xhaka. In addition to their defensive tenacity, Coquelin and Xhaka can find target man Olivier Giroud with long passes to relieve the pressure. But they wouldn’t bring much attacking dynamism.

Granit Xhaka-Mohammed Elneny

Fluidity would be the watchword of Arsenal’s two newest (as of this writing) midfielders in a tandem. Both are clever in the use of space, frequently moving to provide a passing option to teammates.

Depending on the match or season scenario, playing with Xhaka might encourage Elneny to take a few more risks with his own passes. He seemed restrained after he joined Arsenal during the January transfer window, which is understandable for someone in a new league and a new team itself struggling for consistency. Perhaps the stability of Xhaka would make Elneny into a more dynamic passer; we already know he’s a dynamic runner without the ball.

Other possibilities

Midfield lineups featuring existing Arsenal players have varied styles and track records, and we’ll not delve into those here. The most successful was the duo of Coquelin and Cazorla, which established the platform for the Gunners’ strong 2015.

The intrigue now surrounds Xhaka. In particular, will he and any other arrivals enable a change in formation? On the surface, he seems the type of midfielder who doesn’t need a close partner, at least against some opponents. If that’s the case, we may well see a midfield three featuring him with two of Ramsey, Cazorla, and Wilshere or a 4-1-4-1 with different personnel.

These are all exciting prospects, even without the arrival of attacking talent, as Arsenal’s 2016-17 season approaches.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Who Will Fire Arsenal Forward as Captain?

Arsenal’s new and potential players are dominating the discussion at the moment, but transfer talk doesn’t make issues facing the club’s existing playing staff any less important.

In particular, there’s the club captaincy, soon to be vacant with the departure of Mikel Arteta.

Arteta served in this capacity for two seasons. Despite the injuries that limited his involvement on the field, he was an influential figure behind the scenes and a classy representative of the club in public.

Activity in those spheres will be priorities for Arteta’s successor. As I wrote during the 2014-15 season in "The Passion of Mikel Arteta," the Arsenal captaincy has evolved during Arsène Wenger’s tenure from favoring firebrands on the field (Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira) to rewarding the first-team’s stars (Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie) to focusing on players with professional management qualities (Thomas Vermaelen and Arteta).

It’s likely that Wenger and his associates will be looking for another ambassador who can speak to all the club’s audiences from boardrooms to the terraces. The financial and cultural positions of the club demand that kind of professionalism from its playing spokesman.

We should keep this notion in mind as we evaluate the candidates to succeed Arteta as Arsenal captain. Although a dark horse might arrive, the following players seem the most likely nominees.

Per Mertesacker

Arteta’s chief deputy, Mertesacker was the smiling bailiff of the first team’s kangaroo court, enforcing team rules and collecting fines. The German was also the on-field captain for the majority of Arsenal’s Premier League matches in 2015-16. Arteta and Vermaelen before him served as vice-captains before being elevated to the captaincy, so that pattern would put Mertesacker first in line.

Mertesacker is comfortable in his own skin, skilled with the media, and an instigator of much camaraderie as well as honest talk. Those qualities would make him an effective club captain.

However, his influence on the field waned as the 2015-16 campaign concluded. He ceded his spot in the center of Arsenal’s defense to Gabriel, as Wenger explored the potential of a more aggressive pairing of Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny. Mertesacker will turn 32 in late September, meaning his playing time probably won’t increase, and Wenger may prefer to name a more likely starter as captain.

Laurent Koscielny

As the French national team prepared to kick off the European Championships, reports emerged from France that Koscielny had been tapped to take over the Arsenal captaincy. It’s not a crazy notion: He’s been the team’s most consistent performer in the area of the pitch that seems to grow captains.

Indeed, Koscielny started 33 Premier League matches, second most on the team after Nacho Monreal, and wore the captain’s armband as the season concluded, even when titular vice-captain Santi Cazorla returned for the final match.

The question is whether leadership by example on the field of play is sufficient in this captaincy era. By his own admission, Koscielny is not one to rally his teammates vocally, nor does he seem in his element with the board, the media, and supporters. He’d be a reserved, but perhaps an effective, spokesman.

Petr Cech

Cech warmed quickly to the Arsenal club culture and presented the image of a thoughtful, articulate, and responsible man to supporters and the media. His is the level of professionalism we have come to expect from Arsenal captains.

The Czech keeper is accomplished – having won the Premier League and the Champions League with Chelsea – and commands the respect of his teammates. He developed an easy rapport with Mertesacker, in particular, and visibly supported others during several difficult stretches of games. He was also, despite some shaky moments on long-range shots, one of the team’s top performers overall.

Still, he’s been at the club only a year and plays in a position whose occupants have never served as club captain under Wenger.

Santi Cazorla

The Spanish midfielder was Arteta’s other vice-captain. He led the team in matches early in the season when Arteta and Mertesacker did not play. Cazorla suffered a lengthy injury absence from November until late in the season, and when he returned to the starting XI on the last day, he did not regain the captain’s armband.

Cazorla would be a jovial and unruffled captain, imparting his good humor on teammates and onlookers. He’d certainly be able to charm audiences and set an example of skillful play, but his laid-back demeanor and serviceable English might not contribute to a successful club captaincy.

Aaron Ramsey

Ramsey is an intriguing candidate. He’d be a young captain, like Fabregas in that respect, one who’s not visibly vocal, and one who hasn’t yet made a solid starting position his.

All that said, he possesses the professional qualities that the club has valued in its recent captains. You can see Ramsey being equally comfortable in conversations with board members, the media, teammates, and fans. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t take many risks in those interactions. Yet he’d represent the club very well.

Jack Wilshere

A Wilshere captaincy would be all about passion. He loves the club and relates to its fans, as his two famous taunts toward Tottenham showed. Wilshere’s also not afraid to make his point to more senior teammates.

Naming Wilshere captain would buck the trend of professional management, though. He’d cause controversy at some point, and that eventuality is probably enough to dissuade the club from making him one of its most visible public figures.

Our choice

As with any group of candidates, these potential Arsenal captains each bring strengths and weaknesses. My own preference, knowing nothing about how the whole team interacts on a daily basis, would be for Cech. He seems to instill confidence in others, represents the club expertly, and brings a distinctive, winning perspective.

Those might be misperceptions, or they might be qualities that Wenger sees in other candidates as well. Whoever the captain, the new dynamics of leadership will be interesting to watch.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

When to Expect Arsenal's Next Transfer

Last week’s arrival of the skillful and feisty Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka seemed perfectly coordinated with the unlikely St. Totteringham’s Day of May 22nd to tamp down unrest in the Arsenal fanbase.

Yet after the revelations of this spring, you have to wonder how widespread that unrest is.

The situation on the ground and in the ground

In particular, all the hullabaloo and lobbying from three supporter groups resulted in only the most tepid and amateurish of protests during Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Norwich on April 30th. This led some observers, Arseblog’s Tim Stillman prominent among them, to suggest that social media produce an inaccurate representation of Arsenal support.

That certainly jibed with my experience at the Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion matches earlier in April. There was localized grumpiness and limited encouragement during the uninspired display against Palace, but I would describe the environment as disinterested rather than toxic. Two early goals against West Brom and a different fan demographic made that a more festive affair.

The atmosphere at these matches surprised me a little, because with my support restricted by distance to television, blogs, and Twitter, I had feared outright revolt in person. What I got instead was more evidence that the self-regard, outrage, and hyperbole we witness through social media aren’t pervasive among our fellow supporters.

How time rolls

In addition to attitude, social media tends to warp the sense of time. The immediacy of the vehicle, especially Twitter, creates an endless desire for news and feedback. But, in the real time experienced by most people, revelations and faux-revelations are not constant.

It’s worth remembering the different dynamics of virtual and earthbound existence during the close season. The patterns of the league and cup competitions aren’t there to guide us through the summer months, but the appetites and expectations driven by social media don’t abate.

To satisfy these desires, many fans look to the club’s player acquisitions. Intensified by print and broadcast media, supporters’ hunger for transfer news has further distorted reality. Now, we’ve reached the point where some observers expect their own needs for news to drive the club’s decisions. As if solipsism and ceaseless satisfaction of the Arsenal twitterati should somehow guide the business.

When manager Arsène Wenger responded to questions about fan discontent by saying “I’m sorry if I can’t keep [everyone] 100 percent happy,” he was referring to the team’s overall performance and its inability to sustain a challenge for the league title. But he could just as easily have been speaking about the way the club conducts its business activities.

Alternatives to PR priority

It doesn’t, for example, let public relations become the dominant priority during the transfer season. That might be an obvious point, considering the futile clamoring of supporters and observers for the acquisition of a top center forward since 2013. Still, Arsenal officials do very little to manage perceptions of what positions need to be filled, and they certainly don’t measure acquisitions to fit the social media news cycle.

More important are the club’s background work, the clarity of negotiations, and the preferences of incoming players. In the case of Xhaka, Arsenal’s scouts “have been watching him for a long time,” in the words of Wenger; Xhaka confirmed that the manager had made the initial contact in mid-2015: “It was a year ago, I was almost speechless when he called!”

From the outside, we can’t know how straightforward the negotiations with Xhaka’s representatives and former club Borussia Mönchengladbach were. The news cycle and popular appetites encourage misinformation, as when stories emerged that Arsenal had lowballed the German club. All we can assess is the outcome, which suggests very little fuss.

The timing also depended on Xhaka’s interest in concluding the move before the start of the European Championships on June 10.

So if any fans are thinking that their own desires and perceptions had anything to do with these events—the position Arsenal are filling, the player’s identity, the unfolding of negotiations, the arrangement of the announcement--all the evidence indicates other factors drove the business.

At the other end of the transfer period, when moves are about to be cut off for four months, the forces could be different. Even so, Arsenal isn’t likely to act based on fans’ longings. Opportunities might materialize, such as when playmaker Mesut Özil became available in late summer 2014. Now that the club has greater, perhaps unprecedented, financial stability, we can expect it to be a buyer more often than a seller in those situations.

No matter what the scenario, the plan for the business and the sporting strategy will guide decisions. Our own personal or collective preferences of what position, which player, or when won’t.

Although a football club’s business is entertainment, Arsenal’s genre isn’t fantasy.

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.