Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Aston Villa 0 Arsenal 2: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal produced a controlled performance that dispatched Aston Villa 2-0 on Sunday in Birmingham.

First-half goals by Olivier Giroud from the penalty spot and Aaron Ramsey from a sweeping counterattack sent Arsenal to the top of the Premier League table, pending the outcome of Monday’s Leicester City-Chelsea encounter.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Arsenal’s depth can deliver

Arsenal, depleted by injuries and suffering especially the losses of starters Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla, and Francis Coquelin, faced its third test in eight days. The Gunners won all three and outscored their opponents 8-1.

Granted, there will be tougher opposition than Sunderland, Olympiacos, and Aston Villa in the next few weeks, but you can only beat the team that’s facing you. Arsenal have done that and rebounded from a rough November.

Sunday’s accomplishment is nothing to be sniffed at, even though Villa sit at the bottom of the league table. Arsenal returned from Athens in the wee hours of Thursday morning, then had to recover and travel again in advance of the early Sunday kickoff at Villa Park.

This could have created an uncomfortable scenario, as manager Arsène Wenger admitted after the match: “I was a bit anxious today as we had given a lot on Wednesday and came back very, very late on Thursday morning. I know that Villa was fighting to survive and it was maybe a set of important points to win against a team low on confidence.”

Arsenal came through it comfortably and became the only English team to run this kind of European gantlet successfully this week. Of the five Premier League teams playing in European competitions—Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea in the Champions League and Liverpool and Tottenham in the Europa League—only Arsenal won away in Europe in midweek and away in the league at the weekend. Meanwhile, Manchester United lost both its away contests, and Liverpool and Tottenham suffered late in their league matches on Sunday and dropped points.

In this context, the ability and determination of Arsenal to get the result against Aston Villa, particularly with a starting lineup still acclimating to each other and to different individual roles, are evidence of the side’s title potential.

Arsenal’s speed kills

When Arsenal’s attackers see green in front of them and kick into high gear, few defenders can keep up. With Ramsey deployed in the center of midfield, Theo Walcott on one flank, and Mesut Özil in the playmaking position, the Gunners can flash into action and pose an immediate threat.

This dynamic led to both Arsenal goals. For the first, Walcott got past Villa’s lumbering Alan Hutton and gathered a long pass from midfielder Mathieu Flamini. Hutton bumped then grabbed Walcott and sent him to ground in the penalty area. Giroud slotted home from the spot.

The second goal showed the aesthetics and athleticism that the Gunners can offer. Ramsey tackles the ball away from Idressa Gueye about 25 yards from the Arsenal goal. Giroud recovers it, passes quickly to Özil, who finds Walcott just off the center circle on the left. Ramsey’s on his feet by then and at top speed, in a sprinting phalanx with Özil and Giroud.

Walcott takes one touch and sends a beautiful pass through to Özil, who is by this point about 25 yards from the Villa goal. Joleon Lescott, the lone defender still in the play, goes to close down Özil, so the German simply squares it to Ramsey to put into an open net.

Here’s how Ramsey described the passage of play, in his typically understated fashion:
It was nice to be there to finish the move. It was a great move from us. We saw them losing [the ball] as an opportunity to get forward and it was a great ball by Theo in the first place. Then the vision of Ozil to play me in for a simple tap in was delightful as well. I’m delighted that I could finish it off.

These two bursts of speed proved sufficient to secure the victory over Villa. A few subsequent surges, such as Walcott’s run off Giroud in first-half injury time, a foray by substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Ramsey’s incredible dispossession of Lescott all the way on the Villa goal line in second-half injury time, could have added another goal with a bit of luck or composure.

Taken together, these moves show the threat Arsenal’s speed presents. Even without Alexis.

Ramsey returns as a midfield dynamo

Observers of Arsenal have long acknowledged that the central midfield position brings out Ramsey’s individual strengths. His energy, inventiveness, vision, and nose for goal, among other qualities, really emerge in the middle of the park.

Wenger hasn’t always deployed Ramsey there, largely because the overall balance has required his services elsewhere.

Against Villa, the Welshman made a case for basing the balance on him in central midfield.

He started and finished the play for Arsenal’s second goal. He was also the Gunners’ top passer, completing 71 of 78 for a 91 percent rate, according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone app. Ramsey was active on defense as well, making more ball recoveries (nine) than any other Arsenal player and succeeding with five of six tackles, both game highs.

It’ll be interesting to see Ramsey’s collaboration with Flamini develop—it isn’t perfect and might not work as well against top teams—and to examine the questions Ramsey’s performances raise for the club’s transfer priorities. Will they, for example, encourage Wenger and his staff to identify other midfielders who can further bring out Ramsey’s strengths? That should generate much discussion into the January transfer window and beyond.

Extra time

Nacho goes solo.

The way the Gunners were set up on Sunday and after 20 minutes against Olympiacos on Wednesday meant that left back Nacho Monreal had hardly any support. Walcott on the left flank doesn’t have the keen defensive instincts of Alexis or Joel Campbell, while the midfield pairing of Ramsey and Flamini doesn’t shift laterally to protect the fullbacks as much as Coquelin and Cazorla do.

As a result, Monreal found himself covering a Villa attacker, often Scott Sinclair and the fullback Hutton. Several dangerous Villa attacks resulted.

Arsenal will likely need to adjust as they prepare to face Manchester City’s more effective strike force next Monday.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Match Preview, Olympiacos v Arsenal: Not the End of the World

At this point, there’s no secret about Arsenal’s objective in this evening’s Champions League encounter at Olympiacos: The Gunners must win by two goals or by any score except 1-0 or 2-1 to advance to the competition’s knockout stage.

Falling short would mean Arsenal wouldn’t advance from the Champions League group stages for the first time in 16 years. It would also cast the club into the Europa League, with its potentially awkward Thursday matches in far-flung locales.

We’re at this point because the Gunners fell to Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia and Olympiacos at home in their first two matches, so any talk of failure should really focus on those two performances. Winning today by the required margin represents a much tougher task.

That’s particularly true because Arsenal will be far from full strength. We won’t rehash the team’s injury problems but will only note that the absence of Alexis, when goals against a compact defense are essential, could be decisive.

In those conditions, it won’t surprise us if the Gunners don’t succeed to the necessary degree. And that outcome won’t be a harbinger of the apocalypse.

Yes, winning is preferable, and this team needs to get back in the habit after its difficult November. Joining Europe’s best in the Champions League knockout stage also bolsters Arsenal’s reputation, its finances, and fan enthusiasm. We’re not arguing any of those points.

But, in and of itself, an exit from the Champions League will not be cataclysmic.

That’s mainly because Arsenal don’t have a realistic chance of winning the Champions League. Even if they receive a kindly draw in the first knockout match and buck the recent trend of losing to that initial opponent, the likelihood of taking out Bayern Munich or Barcelona or even Juventus or PSG over two legs is remote.

The Europa League, on the other hand, is a competition Arsenal might actually win.

Aside from that calculation, there’s a far worse outcome than failure in Athens—additional injuries. If any more first team midfielders or forwards are forced off this evening and then are ruled out for any of the busy festive schedule, Arsenal’s prospects in the Premier League will look grim. That would actually be disastrous, given the tight competition at the top of the table and the Gunners’ legitimate chance of overtaking current leaders Leicester City in the next few weeks.

How much will manager Arsène Wenger account for these implications when he sends his team out this evening? He’s not the type to shirk a challenge or to take a tactical loss; that’s why such matches as the 2004 FA Cup semifinal against Manchester United, when he dipped into his squad to rest several starters for their run at invincibility and history, sticks in the memory.

Wenger has also sounded the charge in his comments before the match, saying “There is one positive thing for us - we know exactly what we have to do. We know that we have to go for it from the start. So let's do that and hopefully we can get through.”

An indication of Wenger’s aggressiveness will be his deployment of Theo Walcott. The forward played 25 minutes against Sunderland on Saturday after more than a month on the sidelines with a calf injury. Does the manager give Walcott the start on the right side of Arsenal’s attack and again send out Olivier Giroud as the team’s center forward? That would be the most attack-minded team Arsenal could field at the moment.

It would also be risky in the short- and medium terms. Walcott won’t provide much defensive cover for right back Hector Bellerin, and fielding both Giroud and Walcott, the only two healthy options to lead the Arsenal line, courts injury danger.

Wenger is a risk taker, but he’s not crazy. He’ll acknowledge the significant downsides and, more than likely, keep one of Giroud or Walcott in reserve.

There’s not much choice to make elsewhere in the Arsenal setup, meaning Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey will continue their partnership in midfield. Theirs was a significant combination offensively on Saturday—Flamini-to-Ramsey was the team’s top passing connection—but their focus forward left gaps in the defense that Sunderland exploited on the counterattack.

Because Olympiacos must only avoid defeat, it can sit back, stymie Arsenal’s attack, and look to break. Arsenal’s midfielders will therefore need to be more attentive than they were on Saturday.

A more solid midfield will mark an important development for Arsenal’s league campaign as well. Whatever the outcome in Athens, home is where the focus should be.

Players to Watch:

Olympiacos. Esteban Cambiasso. The experienced midfielder will be the man to control the tempo and keep Arsenal’s playmaker Mesut Özil from finding space. If he can shut down the approaches to the Olympiacos penalty area and move the ball to attack quickly, Cambiasso will put the Greek side in a strong position to advance.

Arsenal. Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman has been producing the goals, ten in Arsenal’s league and European matches so far this season, and can trouble Olympiacos on set pieces. If Wenger prefers Theo Walcott’s speed and movement against the home side’s defensive setup, Giroud can be a decisive substitute.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Arsenal 3 Sunderland 1: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal's 3-1 victory over Sunderland on Saturday was welcome if not vintage.

Olivier Giroud's headed goal put the Gunners in front midway through the second half, and Aaron Ramsey's scrappy finish in injury time sealed the team's first league win since October 31. The result moved Arsenal back to second place, two points behind surprise leaders Leicester City.

Although the outcome was positive, particularly given the injury-enforced changes in the lineup, the performance will give manager Arsène Wenger, his staff, and the players much to contemplate as they turn to the busy December schedule.

Here are three things for us all to consider based on Saturday's match.

Arsenal's leads seem precarious

For the third consecutive league match, Arsenal scored the first goal. Such early leads would frequently be decisive, because they allow the team with the advantage to focus on thwarting the opponents and launching counterattacks.

Arsenal have not been able to capitalize of late, however. Just as they had done at West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City, the Gunners failed to hold their lead through the half. Joel Campbell's clean strike of Mesut Özil's sublime pass was negated by a Giroud own goal just before halftime.

The specifics were different in each match, but a common thread is defensive instincts that, in the moment, were not precise enough. In this case, Laurent Koscielny's move to nip the ball from Sunderland's Duncan Watmore along the touchline wasn't necessary and proved a split-second late. The subsequent free kick saw Giroud attempt a clearance with the wrong foot, given his relationship to goal; the equalizing goal was the result.

In truth, level terms looked shaky at times on Saturday, too. Arsenal's midfield was bypassed far too easily, leading to clear chances for Sunderland attackers Watmore and Fabio Borini. The new midfield partnership of Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey didn't support the defense enough, especially when one of the fullbacks had made a foray forward.

Arsenal will need to address this weakness before sterner tests ahead.

Arsenal's difference makers again made the difference

The shakiness didn't undo the Gunners because, in Özil and Petr Cech, the Gunners could call on world-class players to see them through.

In the absence of Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez, Özil took on more responsibility for the Arsenal attack. The German playmaker attempted 107 passes, 15 percent of Arsenal's total on Saturday. As a point of contrast, the previous match in which Arsenal's first choice lineup attempted at least 600 passes was against Stoke City; Özil's attempts made up 10 percent that day. (Stats from FourFourTwo's StatsZone app)

He misfired on 22 passes, a week after failing on just one pass at Norwich City. But his influence was profound. He had the highest number of passes in the attacking third, created five chances for teammates, had more successful dribbles, and suffered the most fouls.

Özil's brilliant assist for Campbell's opener was his 12th in 14 league games this season. That's an absolutely blistering pace. He has twice as many assists as the next highest providers in the league.

At the other end of the pitch, Cech continues to prove his worth. He made three crucial saves, two of what StatsZone calls "big chances" when the attacker has only the keeper to beat. Cech also scrambled away two other potential own goals.

The goalkeeper is shoring up Arsenal's defense and its position near the top of the Premier League table.

Aaron Ramsey's energy was telling

Last week's injury to Santi Cazorla meant that Aaron Ramsey, himself only a week back from an injury layoff, returned to the center of Arsenal's midfield. It's the position he prefers and one in which he thrived during the 2013-14 season.

Despite Ramsey's time on the sidelines--and perhaps despite the sleep deprivation accompanying his new fatherhood--his energy and influence grew as the match went on. His runs overloaded dangerous areas and helped move Sunderland's defenders from their posts.

The assist for Giroud's goal came from one such occasion, when Ramsey shifted left to adjust to left back Nacho Monreal's dribble infield, received Monreal's pass, and found Giroud just in front of Sunderland's Younes Kaboul. He closed the deal by getting into the box and bundling home Calum Chambers's deflected shot.

Overall, Ramsey was almost as involved as Özil in the attacking third, completing 39 of his team-high 114 passes there. He also attempted seven shots and created four chances for teammates.

We'd perhaps like to see a keener focus on the defensive side from Ramsey--he tried and failed his one tackle attempt and made just one interception--but as a second game back from injury, in a different position, with a different partner in midfield, Ramsey's influence was sizable.

Extra time

Arsenal's movement from outside to inside created the first two goals. For the first, Campbell ran outside wingback DeAndre Yedlin and was open for Özil's pass. For the second, Monreal carried the ball from outside to inside, scrambling Sunderland's defense just enough for Ramsey and Giroud to find space.

These attacks from the flank proved more productive than attempts to play through Giroud against Sunderland's three central defenders. It's something to watch as Theo Walcott returns to the side from injury.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Norwich City 1 Arsenal 1: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal’s difficult November came to a close with a 1-1 draw at Norwich City on Sunday.

For the second week in a row, the Gunners could not hold a 1-0 lead into halftime. Mesut Özil’s lovely opener gave Arsenal the advantage for just 13 minutes, before Norwich’s Lewis Grabban nabbed a 43rd-minute equalizer.

There was additional discomfort with injuries to key players Laurent Koscielny, Alexis Sanchez, and Santi Cazorla. Their absences may prove more damaging than the result in the long run.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

The manager was betwixt and between with Alexis

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has been sending the message that Alexis might be overworked. You can understand why: The Chilean whirlwind has hardly rested in two years: 43 games with Barcelona in 2013-14, the 2014 World Cup with Chile, 51 matches with Arsenal in 2014-15, the 2015 Copa America, and 20 appearances for Arsenal so far this season. That doesn’t even include international friendlies and World Cup qualifiers.

The payment finally came due in East Anglia on Sunday. Alexis chased the ball in the Norwich penalty area, didn’t quite get to it, then grabbed his hamstring.

Because Wenger went public with his deliberations over continuing to field his star, he opened himself up to critics. The manager clearly recoiled at the criticism during his post-match press conference: “Nobody is scientifically developed enough, not even the press, to predict exactly when a guy would be injured. I must say that with all humility we are not in position to predict that.”

It’s easy to say in hindsight that the manager should have given Alexis a rest, but given his impact, the other attacking options available, and the need to improve Arsenal’s form in the league, one can understand why Wenger sent him out on Sunday.

Indeed, it was Alexis’s energy and quick thinking that created the Arsenal goal. He pounced on a heavy touch by Norwich’s Gary O’Neil and swiftly swung the ball left for Özil to beat the onrushing John Ruddy.

Arsenal will go as far as Mesut Özil takes them

Arsenal’s top signing has to carry this team now. Due to Alexis’s impending absence, Özil will have to provide and produce if Arsenal is to have a successful season.

It’s a heavy individual burden in a team sport, particularly one like football whose dynamic favors defense over creativity. There’s no Premier League player I’d choose to entrust with this responsibility over Özil, though.

He has delivered impressively so far. The German playmaker has 11 assists and four goals in the Premier and Champions leagues this fall. According to whoscored.com, Özil has made 58 key passes in league matches this season. That’s 11 more (23%) than West Ham’s Dmitri Payet, who ranks second on the list.

Although his assist streak came to an end on Sunday—and his key passes were below his season average—Özil distributed the ball dangerously and effectively. He completed 67 of 68 passes (98.5 percent), including 33 of 34 in Arsenal’s attacking third.

Then there’s his newfound nose for goal. Özil said after scoring against Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League that he doesn’t need goals to fuel his ego, but perhaps his team ethos makes him realize that the group needs him to contribute goals as well. He made his mark in that respect again on Sunday and led Arsenal with five shots in total.

Expect that trend to continue.

Arsenal could not overcome Norwich’s tactics

Norwich manager Alex Neil drew some lessons from watching Arsenal’s last two matches. He saw West Bromwich Albion stifle the Gunners by packing as many defenders as would fit into their own penalty area, and he witnessed Dinamo Zagreb delay Arsenal’s attack with a high press.

The Canaries combined those approaches on Sunday, and Arsenal did not have a compelling answer.

Norwich put just enough pressure on Arsenal’s main ball distributors, Cazorla and Per Mertesacker, to slow the Gunners’ transitions from defense to attack. Then, as Arsenal advanced, Norwich crowded its penalty area and forced the Gunners to find a way through. They couldn’t.

In reaction, Arsenal sent the ball wide and looked for fullbacks Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin to stretch Norwich’s defense laterally. The pair attempted a total of 40 passes in Arsenal’s final third, according to FourFourTwo’s StatsZone app. That was more than Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady, Norwich’s forward-looking midfielders, tried between the two of them in their final third.

Arsenal weren’t dangerous from these positions on the flanks. The Gunners sent 28 crosses into the penalty area, but only connected on five of those. That was the same number of successful crosses that Arsenal put up at West Brom, where they attempted 23.

We can make a reasonable guess about the tactic Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce will employ when his team visits Arsenal on Saturday.

Extra time

If you're a Premier League player in a game being refereed by Jonathan Moss and you're nearing the pitch boundaries, you'd best watch your back. Moss officiated Arsenal's encounter with Stoke City last January, when Marko Arnautovic caused Arsenal's Mathieu Debuchy a separated shoulder by shoving him into the advertising hoardings. He was also in charge on Sunday, as Norwich's Ryan Bennett pushed Alexis into a camera well. In neither case did Moss take action.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Match Preview, Norwich City v Arsenal: Have the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor?

When Arsenal midfielder Francis Coquelin's injured his knee ligaments in last week's loss to West Bromwich Albion, a large contingent of Arsenal supporters morphed into members of Delta Tau Chi fraternity.

Like the fictional residents of Animal House expecting expulsion from Faber College, these defeatist Gooners wrote off Arsenal's season. Coquelin's three-month absence, so runs the story, makes the season pointless. Arsenal can't compete for honors without the Frenchman's distinctive combination of physicality, keen sense of danger, positioning, concentration, and skill on the ball.

One player won't be able to replace Coquelin's traits. That's no doubt.

The questions are how do the team address his absence and how do we as supporters react. Do we resign ourselves to an unattractive fate or do we rally to John Blutarsky's inspiration, "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor"?

On the first question, manager Arsène Wenger has decided on a close facsimile of Coquelin, rather than an overhaul of the team's structure. For Wenger, maintaining the balance and flow of the team points to the selection of Mathieu Flamini to play beside Santi Cazorla in central midfield. That move disrupts the team the least.

The alternatives involved moving Aaron Ramsey from his more attacking position to one in deeper midfield. Wenger has said this would weaken Arsenal's stability and reduce Ramsey's effectiveness.

"Ramsey is more an offensive player," Wenger said. "I will use him sometimes there [centrally] when the game demands, but is he naturally with Cazorla a balanced pair? Defensively, certainly, it's an adventurous one!"

"He is not afraid to tackle, but he likes to go in the box, and he has good timing of runs, and he wants the ball, and he wants to go forward. If you take that out of him, and you say, 'Look. You have to sit now. Sit there and wait,' you kill his strengths."

The response to the second question--on the fans' reaction--will be predictable to anyone who's followed the club in the past decade. A vocal group will take the obvious, self-satisfied, and psychologically easy way of anticipating the worst and criticizing the manager before that outcome even happens.

That technique does provide comfort in the face of uncertainty and the knowledge that Arsenal's chances of winning the title--never overwhelming due to the correlation between financial outlay and final league position--have shrunk with the absence of one of the team's essential players.

But I'd ask why these people follow sport in general, and the Arsenal in particular, if they're looking for certainty. The basis of the drama and its attraction lie in the unpredictability.

Plus, just because the ultimate prize might well escape Arsenal's grasp, does that render all the proceedings moot?

Arsenal finished the 2014-15 league campaign in third place, far behind champions Chelsea. If you had anticipated that outcome at the beginning of the season and dismissed anything that happened in the meantime, you'd have turned your nose up at the captivating Alexis Sanchez, ignored the surprising emergence of Hector Bellerin and Coquelin himself, and missed out the joy of beating Manchester City, Liverpool, and Manchester United in the FA Cup.

To say nothing of the moments of sublime skill and brilliance that these elite and compelling athletes can deliver.

The next opportunity bear witness comes in Sunday's match at Norwich City. There, the Gunners start the "WC" (Without Coquelin) period in the Premier League against the 16th-placed Canaries. The hosts have lost four of their last five matches, but three of those have been by one-goal margins.

Norwich are in the middle of the pack on most statistical measures, though they do rank low on tackles and interceptions. This suggests that the Canaries don't aggressively go after the ball when they're not in possession, choosing instead to keep their shape.

Arsenal will be familiar with this approach: It's similar to the one West Brom employed in defeating the Gunners last weekend. This time out, Arsenal players must learn from their mistakes at the Hawthorns, especially the lapses in defensive concentration, and unsettle Norwich with swift movements.

Even without Coquelin, Arsenal have the players to succeed at those tasks. And to produce unforgettable moments, such as this. It's worth staying behind the team for that reason alone.

Players to Watch:

Arsenal. Santi Cazorla. The diminutive Spanish director looked majestic against Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday night, wriggling through traffic as only he can and launching Arsenal's attacks. How he combines with Mathieu Flamini and picks apart the Norwich defense could well determine Arsenal's prospects Sunday and beyond.

Norwich City. John Ruddy. The Norwich keeper can keep matches close. But he's also capable of letting in six goals, as he did at Newcastle in mid-October.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Arsenal 3 Dinamo Zagreb 0: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal worked out some of its recent discomfort with a professional 3-0 victory over Dinamo Zagreb in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday.

The Gunners’ star men--Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez--accounted for all three goals in Arsenal's first win in four matches. Alexis clinched the result in the 69th minute, having moved to center forward when starter Olivier Giroud was replaced just a minute earlier.

The win clarifies Arsenal’s task as it seeks to qualify for the competition’s knockout stages for the 16th consecutive year. A victory by two goals in Athens over Olympiacos, 4-0 losers at Bayern Munich Tuesday, will put the Gunners into the Round of 16 yet again.
Here are three other things we learned from the match.

Özil and Alexis drove and delivered

Arsenal’s two top signings looked as if they don’t want to leave the Champions League. Not only did the pair produce the goods in front of goal, but they provided the energy, tenacity, and talent to overwhelm Zagreb at the crucial moments.

Özil’s opening goal in the 29th minute was an excellent example: After some skillful interplay in the Arsenal half among Santi Cazorla, Özil, and Giroud, Cazorla found Mathieu Flamini, who got the ball quickly to the streaking Alexis on Zagreb’s left flank. Giroud and Özil kept sprinting toward goal, Giroud’s run to the near post creating space for the German playmaker to run into. Alexis lifted a pass to Özil, who connected headlong and sent the ball past Zagreb keeper Eduardo.

A goal of speed, skill, and desire.

Those qualities seem to have returned to Alexis’s game in his last two matches. Alexis made the highlights with two goals, breaking a month-long drought, and the assist for Özil. He also harassed Zagreb’s defenders and midfielders, making 3/3 tackles and seven ball recoveries, tied for second on the team, according to FourFourTwo StatsZone.

Özil matched Alexis’s drive and scoring intent, especially in the first half. As manager Arsène Wenger said after the match, “I think Mesut Özil had an outstanding first half, he has got the taste for scoring now. I have never seen him in the box so many times as in the last five or six games.”

Arsenal’s ostensibly retiring playmaker attempted four shots from inside the penalty area and put three on target. The influence diagram on FourFourTwo.com shows how keen Özil was to get forward--he took, generally speaking, the most advanced position in Arsenal's attack.

On the day, the talents and dedication of these two world-class players made up for injury absences and proved too much for Zagreb.

Arsenal made Zagreb pay through transitions, not possession

Whether by design or by Zagreb’s more assertive approach, Arsenal allowed their opponents more possession than we expected. The usual pattern is for visitors to the Emirates to pack their defenses and force Arsenal to find a way through.

That didn’t materialize on Tuesday. Zagreb exerted pressure early and chased the game late. As a result, Arsenal finished the match with only a slight advantage in possession, 53 to 47 percent. Instead, the Gunners created dangerous situations by turning defense to attack with speed.

The first two goals played out this general scenario in a four-minute stretch of the first half. Özil’s goal came from a counterattack over three quarters of the pitch, while Alexis’s first resulted from a Nacho Monreal interception near the Zagreb penalty area and his centering pass.

In each situation, the Gunners moved and thought more quickly than their opponents and, as a result, found space right in front of Zagreb’s goal. A repeat of that idea and execution in the Premier League would be welcome indeed.

The Cazini midfield worked

There were ample discussions before the match about Arsenal's midfield structure and personnel due to the injury-induced absence of Francis Coquelin. His partnership with Cazorla, the thinking went, couldn't be replicated by another midfielder, so Wenger had to consider a revamp, perhaps even moving from the 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3.

As it happened, Flamini moved alongside Cazorla but didn't try to imitate Coquelin. He made only one tackle and three interceptions; by contrast, Coquelin was averaging 3.2 tackles and 2.7 interceptions per game in the Premier League before his injury. (Stats from Opta via whoscored.com)

Perhaps even more interesting, Flamini didn't combine with Cazorla nearly as often as Coquelin typically done. Passes from Flamini to Cazorla did not number among the Arsenal's top 11 combinations during the match, while Cazorla connected with his French teammate 12 times, the fifth most frequent Arsenal combination.

Instead of replacing Coquelin's defensive stance, Flamini made a greater creative impact. He picked precisely the right pass to Alexis to send the attacker on his way to assist Özil's opening goal, and his flick along the touch line to Joel Campbell started the move that ended with Alexis's clincher.

Against different opposition, Flamini-as-attacking-hub might not be the most desirable formula, and he might need to deliver more discipline in front of the defense. Here, though, such license paid off.

Extra time

In just 22 minutes of action, Aaron Ramsey showed how valuable he is to the team's workings. Although he wasn't completely fit, his movement made Arsenal's attack much more dynamic. There was space for others and a renewed zip to the passing with Ramsey on the pitch; he also helped solidify the midfield when Zagreb had the ball. Not a moment too soon, Ramsey's return.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Match Preview, Arsenal v Dinamo Zagreb: 72-Hour Revenge Therapy

Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Dinamo Zagreb might be the ideal occasion for Arsenal. With an overwhelming display, the Gunners can ease the disappointment from their rotten performance and luck in Croatia and their unfortunate Premier League result on Saturday against West Bromwich Albion.

The payback will be all the sweeter against a known offender of performance-enhancing drug rules. Dinamo midfielder Arijan Ademi failed even UEFA’s superficial drug test after the home leg in September. UEFA has suspended Ademi for four years, a verdict that’s been appealed.

That development makes the timing perfect for Arsenal. Ademi’s absence will affect the muscularity--ahem--of the Dinamo midfield, and it will emphasize the points Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has made recently about doping in football.

Wenger has embarked on a solo campaign on the issue, beginning with his fascinating interview with L’Equipe Sport & Style’s Erik Bielderman (translated for Arseblog here). Wenger told Beilderman:
In 30 years as a manager, I’ve never had my players injected to make them better. I never gave them any product that would help enhance their performance. I’m proud of that. I’ve played against many teams that weren’t in that frame of mind.

The European governing body doesn’t seem to have appreciated the manager’s forthrightness. According to Wenger, UEFA has stepped up its oversight all right—of Arsenal.

“What I do know is that I came out on that [issue], and as a result we had a doping control from UEFA on Friday!” Wenger revealed at his pre-match press conference on Monday. “We had 10 people on Friday to control us!”

And he returned UEFA’s fire, saying the rule permitting victories to stand despite positive doping results “means you basically accept doping.”

There’s no better way for Arsenal’s players to support their manager than by laying waste to Dinamo Zagreb.

Certainly, the gap in talent makes Arsenal capable of doing that. Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez, in particular, provide an offensive threat that the Croatian side rarely sees.

The complicating factors facing Arsenal aren’t novel. The Gunners will have to cope with an extensive injury list, which since Saturday includes midfield linchpin Francis Coquelin, and they’ll be facing an obdurate defense.

Dinamo Zagreb’s plan at home was to frustrate the Arsenal attack and take advantage of any mental lapses. It worked the charm, as lazy tracking by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, inattentive defending of a corner, and Olivier Giroud’s red card doomed Arsenal to a 2-1 defeat. Manager Zoran Mamic will rely on an intensified version of this approach in London.

Mamic will be encouraged by Arsenal’s inability to break through West Brom’s deeply packed defense on Saturday. Arsenal had 73 percent possession but managed just three shots on target (of 11 shots total), according to FourFourTwo's StatsZone. And one of those, Giroud’s headed goal, came from a free kick.

The Gunners will need to move the ball more quickly and more imaginatively, ideally early in Tuesday’s match, to give Dinamo Zagreb what they have coming and to put recent flat performances behind them.

Regaining energy in this way may even be a more important objective than retaining hope of qualifying for the Champions League knockout stage. Arsenal need a victory against Dinamo and an Olympiacos loss at Bayern Munich to keep that possibility alive. If those two outcomes happen, Arsenal would need a two-goal win over Olympiacos in Athens in two weeks to reach the competition’s final 16.

In other words, in so many respects, this match calls for the maximum from Arsenal.

Players to Watch:

Arsenal. Alexis. Improbably, the Chilean devil rediscovered his verve against West Brom. If he can summon similar energy on Tuesday, Dinamo Zagreb won’t be able to handle him.
Dinamo Zagreb. Domajoc Antolic. The club captain returns from injury and must replace Ademi’s physical presence in midfield if Dinamo’s plan to frustrate Arsenal is to work.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Is This Arsenal's Year?

This international break is even less exciting than most, what with just four competitive ties in Europe among pedestrian national sides, World Cup qualifiers far in advance of the actual competition, and a host of friendlies. The main benefit of the current hiatus is the opportunity to assess Arsenal’s start to the season and the club’s prospects.

Arsenal have played 12 matches in the Premier League and return to action on Saturday with 26 points, the same as league leaders Manchester City. Will the Gunners be there in May?

A more favorable feeling

Because the dynamics of each campaign are different, obsessing over parallels with seasons past isn’t especially productive. Still, there might be lessons supporters and the players can draw from the 2013-14 league season, for example, when Arsenal topped the table after 12 matches.

“The second half [of that season], we dropped,” left back Nacho Monreal told Arsenal Player. “So we need to learn about that. The team is different now. We have different players—more competitive. I think the level of the team is better now.”

It’s hard to argue that point. The additions of Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech and the acclimatization of Mesut Özil brought three game changers to the side; recruitment in the summer of 2014 gave the squad needed depth; and the emergence of Francis Coquelin and Hector Bellerin added to the dynamism in the playing style.

Much has also been made of the team’s camaraderie and mindset. As Cech observed from his many successful seasons with Chelsea,
You never win things without being focused, without being right in the training ground. So far, I have to say that the team are focused on what we are doing every day, and I have to say, this is the key.

The results, at least in the League, provide the evidence. Arsenal have what it takes to compete with the top sides. The 3-0 demolition of Manchester United, still the team with the league’s best defensive record, is a clear sign of the Gunners’ ability to dominate a match at the summit.

They’ve also summoned the quality of winning when they’re not at their best, such as the 2-1 victory over an energetic Everton side, and have been able to grind out draws that in years past may have turned into losses.

The sample size is small, but two performances after taxing Champions League ties illustrate a possible difference between the seasons. In 2013, Arsenal traveled to Germany, endured the indefatigable pressing of Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund side, and escaped with a 1-0 win. Four days later, a drained Arsenal team lost 1-0 to Manchester United at Old Trafford. This season, the Arsenal team, exhausted by a 5-1 battering in Munich and seemingly overwhelmed by illness, injury, and Mauricio Pochettino’s midfield press, rallied to secure a 1-1 draw with Tottenham and finished that match its more likely winners.

A comparison of results

Beyond such anecdotes, do the numbers indicate that this team has reached a higher level of competitiveness?

In total, the 26 points from the first 12 matches (W8 D2 L2) is two fewer than the Arsenal of 2013-14 compiled over the similar opening period. The difference, really, is that of one draw in 2015 that was a win in 2013.

Given the strength of the two schedules, though, that’s a good outcome. At this point in the 2013 campaign, the median position of the Gunners’ first 12 league opponents was 11.5; this season, it’s 9.5.

Indeed, in 2013, nine of Arsenal’s first 12 opponents found themselves in the 11th to 20th league positions after 12 matches. Arsenal won seven of those nine matches, drew one (at West Bromwich Albion), and lost one, the opener against Aston Villa. That’s a total of 22 of 28 points, or 79 percent, from matches against the league’s poorer sides.

Among the first 12 opponents this season, by contrast, only five occupied a bottom-half spot after 12 matches. Arsenal won four of those matches and lost one (at Chelsea), amassing 12 of 26 points, or 46 percent, against teams below the current league midpoint.

The majority of Arsenal’s points, then, have come against teams in the top half of the league. There have been two decisive victories against teams in the top four, two wins and two draws against teams in positions five through 10, and the opening day loss to West Ham, currently sixth in the table.

In short, although the points total is slightly lower this season, the results are more encouraging, considering the competition.

Relative performance to date

How do these early results look in comparison to those of the other main title contenders?

The degree of difficulty in Manchester City’s schedule has been much lower than Arsenal’s, yet City haven’t accumulated any more points. The median league position of its opponents after 12 matches is 12.0.

They’ve played every team in the bottom six except 19th-ranked Sunderland and built their goal differential advantage with a five-goal win over Newcastle (#17) and a four-goal win over Bournemouth (#18).

At this point, the other main challenger for the title appears to be Manchester United. They’ve amassed 24 points from their first 12 matches, against opponents with a median position of 9.5. That’s identical to Arsenal’s strength of schedule.

The breakdown of matches against top-four opponents, those in positions five through 10, and those in the bottom half of the table is identical for Arsenal and Manchester United. The performance gap between the two is small, but so far Arsenal have fared better against the top four, winning two and losing none to Manchester United’s one draw and one loss.

Other statistics, such as expected goals (xG) and the difference between expected goals for and against, put Arsenal squarely in contention for the Premier League title.

The preliminary conclusion

More than two thirds of the season remains, and developments both foreseeable and unforeseeable will influence the final outcome. Health, particularly of Özil, Alexis, Coquelin, and Santi Cazorla, is probably the most important factor.

Injuries and other factors may favor the Gunners in ways they haven't in years past, or they may not. It’s that unpredictability that drives interest in sporting endeavors.

The most we can therefore do is give a “qualified yes” answer to the question “Is this Arsenal’s year?” Anything more definitive would just ruin the fun anyway.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Arsenal 1 Tottenham 1: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal fought back from a goal down to secure a 1-1 draw with Tottenham in the 161st installment of the North London Derby.

Mesut Özil again provided the crucial pass, finding substitute Kieran Gibbs with a cross at the far post. Gibbs got enough of the ball to bundle it past Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris, negating Harry Kane’s first half strike for Spurs and Tottenham’s superiority during the middle section of the match.

Here are three things we learned from the contest.

Arsenal now have the players to deliver the points

Although Spurs controlled much of the play, Arsenal had enough quality to make the key moments count. Özil and goalkeeper Petr Cech, players with international pedigree, exerted their influence at the right times to prevent defeat.

The German playmaker delivered an assist in his sixth consecutive league game and his 10th in 11 league appearances. The former is an unprecedented feat for a player on one Premier League team. His assist total could have been even higher, but for some slightly wayward finishing by striker Olivier Giroud. Overall, Özil created seven chances for teammates, according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone app.

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger hailed his silky midfielder’s progress and contribution after the match. “He was outstanding again,” said Wenger. “He has grown into a very great player as he has added commitment, leadership qualities, and responsibility, and I’m very pleased with his development.”

Another experienced hand earned widespread praise for keeping the Gunners in this match. Cech had to stop goal-bound shots by Christian Ericksen and Toby Alderweireld in the match’s third quarter; otherwise, Arsenal would have trailed by two goals with little prospect of recovery.

The save of Alderweireld’s shot was especially important. The Spurs’ defender got himself free to receive a corner kick and directed a strong header at goal. Cech’s positioning and reflexes were exactly what they needed to be for the moment; this intervention gave Arsenal the chance of equalizing.

As Wenger put it, “He has shown again how important he is and that maybe goalkeeper is maybe the most underrated position in football, because there is a moment he can keep you in it. If you go 2-0 down, it’s bye-bye.”

Thanks to Cech and Özil, Arsenal did not have to depart this match with nothing.

A depleted Arsenal can survive—and nearly thrive

The Arsenal injury list consisted of seven players, three starters among them, prior to the match. That was actually a slight improvement from earlier in the week, due to the returns of Laurent Koscielny and Mikel Arteta to the squad.

But the strain was still significant. Midfielder Santi Cazorla, whose partnerships with Özil and Francis Coquelin are so important to the team’s flow and defensive solidity, was suffering from dizziness and nausea and could hardly kick the ball straight. Wenger replaced him at halftime.

Offensive dynamo Alexis doesn’t seem right, either. He’s been playing with some combination of a groin strain and fatigue for a month, and his knack for goals has left him.

Right back Mathieu Debuchy, himself a replacement for the injured Hector Bellerin, took a knock in the second half and had to come off just after the Gibbs goal. As a result, the team spent the ultimate period of the match with Mathieu Flamini, inserted for Cazorla in midfield, at right back and Gibbs at left wing.

Yet this ragtag bunch looked the more likely winners in the end, even though Spurs had fielded its first-choice lineup playing to the top of its capabilities. That’s an indication of this team’s desire and potential.

Mathieu Debuchy should stop talking

Anyone who pays the slightest attention to Arsenal knows that Mathieu Debuchy is dissatisfied. The Frenchman suffered the misfortune of two long-term injuries last season, his first at the club, and encountered the emergence of the phenom Hector Bellerin. As a result, Debuchy, who wants a spot on the French national team for the European Championships on home soil next summer, found himself on the Arsenal bench.

When Debuchy has gotten the opportunities to regain his place, he hasn’t made the most of them. To a certain extent, that’s understandable: It’s hard for many professional athletes to perform at their best with sporadic playing time.

But rather than knuckling down and improving his performances, Debuchy has made strong public hints of his desire to leave Arsenal for playing time elsewhere. That’s not optimal public relations work from a player who’s been involved in the team’s worst outings this year. To use a term from hockey, Debuchy has a plus/minus of minus-9, capturing the losses to West Ham, Dinamo Zagreb, and Bayern Munich.

A better approach than voicing his discontents would be to capitalize on the slight progress he made on Sunday. Debuchy succeeded on nine of 10 tackles and displayed an improved awareness of his position relative to those of his teammates. He’ll need to show improvements like these when he gets further opportunities if he’s going to catch the eyes of any suitors or French manager Didier Deschamps.

Extra time

Francis Coquelin does not surrender. With his comrade Santi Cazorla playing at peak peaked, Coquelin was practically alone in Arsenal midfield as Tottenham pressed. The Frenchman held his own, making nine ball recoveries, tied for most in the match, and succeeding on six of eight tackles. He also committed no fouls. Without Coquelin’s clever, stalwart play, Spurs would likely have enjoyed a comprehensive and insurmountable advantage.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bayern Munich 5 Arsenal 1: Three Things We Learned

Bayern Munich swamped Arsenal 5-1 on Wednesday, putting the Gunners’ hopes of qualifying for the Champions League knockout phase for the 16th consecutive season in considerable doubt.

With Bayern’s dominant, three-goal first half, this result was foregone by halftime. The night’s meaningful question was what would happen in Athens, where Olympiacos trailed Dinamo Zagreb and gave the Gunners hope that they might still control their European destiny.

Olympiacos scored late to win, though, meaning Arsenal must win its final two matches, including at least a two-goal win on the group stage’s last night in Athens, and trust Bayern to beat the Greek team, to move on.

That’s the big conclusion of the night. Here are three other things we learned.

Arsène Wenger has the Premier League in his sights

The Arsenal manager invariably speaks about his focus on the next game and how it’s the most important. There was a hint of something else prior to this match, though.

Wenger kept star defenders Laurent Koscielny and Hector Bellerin out of Wednesday’s action, allowing them to recover from “small” injuries in advance of a major Premier League test against Tottenham on Sunday.

That decision is worth noting.

It suggests the manager and his staff sense an opportunity to compete for the league title and that they’re willing to put the European campaign aside to enhance that domestic opportunity. Doing so requires wisdom and restraint, particularly because Wenger has long coveted the top European trophy.

No doubt he expected a less damning result in Munich, but as long as he and his players can put it in the vault, this continental setback won’t be any more consequential for their league prospects than was the 3-2 loss to Olympiacos. We shouldn’t forget that that defeat immediately preceded Arsenal’s 3-0 destruction of Manchester United.

The first goal was the killer

The early moments of the game were actually promising for Arsenal. The Gunners had a shot in anger in the opening minute, passed crisply when they had the ball, and forced Bayern into shots from distance.

Hope of another upset was largely snuffed out by Robert Lewandowski’s 10th-minute header. The Polish striker slipped the attentions of Gabriel, who was alone among the Arsenal back line in dropping deep when Thiago had the ball near the right corner of Arsenal’s penalty area. Lewandowski’s well-placed effort gave Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech no chance.

This early goal meant Arsenal could not absorb the Bayern pressure as the Gunners had so successfully done two weeks ago. They had to seek a tying goal, creating the space and time on the ball that Bayern was designed to exploit. The only question was how ruthlessly they would do so.

Having lost to Arsenal, the German giants weren’t inclined to let up. That intensity—plus Arsenal’s sub-par defensive effort and ill fortune with officiating—sealed the Gunners fate on the day.

Arsenal’s first-choice defense is a well-oiled machine

Replacing Bellerin with Mathieu Debuchy and Koscielny with Gabriel shrank Arsenal’s margin of error. Indeed, the changes caused enough instability for Bayern’s talent to thrive.

A poorly synchronized back line left Lewandowski onside for the opening goal, and Debuchy’s tendency to drift into the center gave Bayern’s dangerous wide men the run of their left flank. The Frenchman wasn’t even effective at clogging the middle, failing to clear a pass that then fell to Thomas Müller, who fired off Per Mertesacker and into the net for Bayern’s second goal.

On Arsenal’s left, Bayern finally found a way to isolate left back Nacho Monreal, using runners from midfield to occupy Arsenal’s central midfielders Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla. This often left Monreal trying to cover two men on his own, Philipp Lahm and Müller or substitute Arjen Robben, because left forward Alexis was understandably focused on attacking. As a result, Bayern always had an outlet and frequently produced uncontested passes into more dangerous areas.

It was quite a contrast from the defensive performances Arsenal’s preferred lineup has delivered this season. The unit of Cech, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Monreal has won all of its matches while conceding just three goals, one at Crystal Palace and two at Leicester City. Crucially, though, the group has played together in just five of Arsenal’s 17 matches in the Premier League, Champions League, and Capital One Cup.

The ability to field that unit consistently might well determine Arsenal’s fortunes in the Premier League.

Extra time

Fair play to Mathieu Debuchy and Olivier Giroud, who kept plugging despite the obvious outcome of this match. Debuchy scampered back to rob Robben of a goal after the Dutchman had rounded Cech, and Giroud produced an exquisite chest control and lashing finish. Such moments were all the more noticeable because they were rare.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Champions League Match Preview, Bayern Munich v Arsenal: Use Their Anger Against Them

Arsenal confront an apparently enraged Bayern Munich in Germany on Matchday Four of the UEFA Champions League.

The Gunners’ 2-0 win over the previously omnipotent side two weeks ago seems to have stirred up Pep Guardiola’s charges. Star striker Robert Lewandowski, who had two goal-bound shots saved by Arsenal’s Petr Cech at the Emirates, said, “We desperately need the points. We have to show who is the better team.”

Bayern’s motivation isn’t lost on Arsenal. According to Per Mertesacker, who likely enjoys some back-channel communications with several compatriots in the Bavarian side, “They will be angry I guess. We are the first team who really challenged them, so they will be on the ball and try to show that they are back and better than us.” (Arsenal.com)

There’s no question of Bayern’s quality. They’re the Bundesliga’s juggernaut and one of the two best teams in Europe. Guardiola has skillfully mixed the experience of players like Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso with the guile of Douglas Costa and Arjen Robben and the firepower of Thomas Müller and Lewandowki.

Arsenal witnessed the threat in Matchday Three, but the Gunners did not cower. Bayern’s skill in and dominance of possession failed to carry the day. That’s largely because Arsenal stayed disciplined in defense, forced Bayern to pass around the perimeter, and intervened only at the most opportune moments.

It’s likely to be the same approach at the Allianz Arena, perhaps with a slight variation. If Bayern let too much emotion affect their style and decisions, they’ll be vulnerable to a martial arts-style response from Arsenal. Frustrate them for another period of time, and they might be more prone to mistakes. Particularly on set pieces.

Arsenal also can’t allow changes in personnel to affect the proceedings too much. A different Gunner will have to summon the energy and intelligence of Aaron Ramsey on the right side of midfield. That’s especially important given the wide threat posed by Costa and Robben, who missed the London leg due to injury.

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger may rejigger the midfield, bringing in Mathieu Flamini as part of a 4-3-3 formation, but a more likely choice will be to replace Ramsey with Joel Campbell. The Costa Rican had an excellent Premier League debut at Swansea on Saturday, scoring the team’s third goal and displaying a keen will for defending. He’ll have to match that performance—if not improve it—against Bayern.

As if facing Bayern’s wide men weren’t enough of a challenge, Campbell will have to manage the threat with a different right back. Due to Hector Bellerin’s groin injury, Mathieu Debuchy will get the start. The French international has the pedigree to compete in such a headline game; the question is his form. His performances so far this season, including in last week’s Capital One Cup loss at Sheffield Wednesday, have been rusty and unimpressive, to put it charitably. For Arsenal to stay in this contest, Debuchy will have to rise to a very big occasion.

At stake is the Gunners’ control over their own Champions League fate. Escaping Munich with a draw would mean Arsenal could qualify for the knockout phase with wins in their final two matches, regardless of the other results. A win would put them in even better position, level on points with Bayern and holding the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage.

Losing tonight, though, would hand the initiative to Olympiacos. If the Greek team beats Dinamo Zagreb in Athens this evening, a draw against Bayern in two weeks would secure passage to the knockout stage and destroy Arsenal’s chances of progressing.

There’s still a lot of football to be played and therefore a variety of possible outcomes in the competition. But those outcomes will look a lot more promising if Arsenal avoid losing this evening.

Players to Watch:

Arsenal: Olivier Giroud. Arsenal’s center forward changed the complexion of the match at the Emirates, winning the physical battles with Bayern’s central defenders and scoring the decisive goal. The Frenchman, who has six goals in his last six matches for club and country, has also scored at the Allianz Arena before. Another opportunistic goal would strengthen the Gunners immeasurably.
Bayern Munich: Arjen Robben. You can’t take your eyes off that pointy, bald head anyway, so you might as well watch the Dutchman. Although everyone knows his signature move, he’s so quick and wily he’s still difficult to stop. Debuchy and/or Nacho Monreal, and importantly, the assistance they get from Arsenal’s midfielders and forwards, will be sorely tested.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Swansea City 0 Arsenal 3: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal emerged 3-0 winners over Swansea City in a match suitably bizarre for the day.

Although the Gunners looked out of it for most of the first half, second-half goals from Olivier Giroud, Laurent Koscielny, and Joel Campbell secured the victory. Koscielny's goal, prompted by a borderline foul on/error by Swans and former Arsenal goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, and the score by Campbell in his first Premier League start were oddly fitting on Halloween.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Mesut Özil is the Premier League's most dangerous man

We're still early in the Premier League campaign, but it's becoming clear that Arsenal's playmaker and record signing can push the Gunners to contend for the title. In the 10 matches Özil has played, he's tallied nine assists and created 47 chances, according to Squawka.

As 7AM Kickoff has pointed out in his "By the Numbers" articles for Arseblog, Özil has a real chance to deliver more than 20 assists this season. He's on an unreal pace of 0.96 assists per 90 minutes so far.

He picked up two more assists on Saturday, finding Giroud with a corner in the 49th minute, then working an intricate move with Alexis Sanchez on the left before fizzing a pass across the box to Campbell for the final Arsenal goal.

Özil also started the sequence that led to Koscielny's goal. When no Swansea player closed him down on Arsenal's right, he spotted the chaos in the Swansea penalty area and sent in the cross that Ashley Williams failed to clear properly. Fabianski, Giroud, and Koscielny were all waiting for the ball to come down, and Koscielny came away with it.

At the source of all these passages were Özil's ability to recognize the way to cause Swansea the most danger and the skill to execute the decisive play. It's a deadly combination.

Joel Campbell keeps the balance

A major question leading up to the match addressed the right attacking midfield position in Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 formation. With six more likely candidates for that role injured, manager Arsène Wenger gave a league debut to Campbell, who, despite some credible performances on loan and on international duty, had never shown he could reach the level required at Arsenal.

Campbell's calm finish, if not his celebration, certainly showed he belonged, but more than that, he slotted seamlessly into the existing Arsenal framework.

The Costa Rican helped move the attack forward, exchanging tidy passes with right back Hector Bellerin and the central midfielders. With Swansea understandably focusing on the threat Alexis posed on Arsenal's left, Campbell proved willing to take a shot when he had a sight of goal.

He also hustled to reach the right defensive positions. That was especially important due to the danger posed by the tricky Swansea winger Jefferson Montero. Although Montero caused a few nervous moments, Bellerin and Campbell managed the threat admirably.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Arsenal team could proceed as normal. In light of the successful recent performances, allowing his teammates to stick to their roles and strengths was Campbell's most important contribution.

Arsenal can survive risks and wobbles

This was as shaky a 3-0 victory as you're likely to see.

Particularly in the first half, Arsenal seemed vulnerable. The choice to use a high defensive line seemed overly risky given Montero's wiliness, the ability of Jonjo Shelvy and Ki Sung-Yeung to pick a pass, and the Gunners' struggles against Swansea last season.

The high line nearly proved calamitous midway through the first half, when Shelvy found Bafetimi Gomis and sent the striker clean through on Petr Cech's goal. Only the experience of Cech and the speed of Bellerin prevented Arsenal from going 1-0 down.

Giroud's goal early in the second half steadied things somewhat, but, even then, Arsenal made some odd choices. The defense was less coordinated and diligent than you'd expect from a team looking to protect a lead and counterattack. A few times Swansea players found space just outside the Arsenal area and took a crack at goal or nearly worked a teammate free.

Still, Swansea managed just eight shots on goal and only two in the penalty area. When the three Swans' shots did work Cech, he was more than ready.

The sixth clean sheet in 11 league matches--and the lowest number of goals conceded in the league--are evidence of the stability Cech has brought to the Arsenal defense.

Extra time

Hector Bellerin doesn't just have a future; he has a present. As one-half of the league's best fullback tandem, the young Spaniard has brought quick interventions, sound positioning, and a real offensive threat to Arsenal's right side.

Against Swansea, he figuratively busted a gut to prevent Gomis from scoring and later literally busted one, throwing himself into the post to clear André Ayew's offside effort off the line.

Bellerin's contributions already and his clear talent warrant a long-term contract.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Match Preview, Swansea City v Arsenal: Beware the Welsh Bogeyman

A Halloween trip to South Wales should be a scary enough prospect for Arsenal.

Swansea City have sent shivers down Gunners’ spines under current Swans boss Garry Monk, who took over in February 2014. Monk has an undefeated record against Arsenal, having won both league encounters last season and drawn the match at the Emirates in March 2014.

That recent record is just one ominous sign for the fraidy-cats among Arsenal supporters. They’re also trepidacious about the prospect of fielding an ill-equipped attacker on the right side due to the injuries of six first-team players capable of playing that position. With Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, and Tomas Rosicky all out, manager Arsène Wenger has hinted that he’ll choose between Joel Campbell and Alex Iwobi.

The thinking here is that Campbell will get the nod. The Costa Rican international has at least some pedigree at the senior level and the defensive experience to help right back Hector Bellerin cope with Swansea’s tricky winger Jefferson Montero.

Although Swansea’s recent success against Arsenal and the instability at one position figure prominently in the pre-match horror stories, the prospects might not be that frightening after all. That’s because Swansea have struggled to create a consistent offensive threat.

Yes, the Swans famously came from a goal down to beat Manchester United in late August. But since then, they’ve won just one of six league matches. In that stretch, they’ve been held scoreless by Stoke, Everton, and Watford.

As Adrian Clarke noted in this week’s Official Arsenal Weekly podcast, Stoke stifled Swansea by funneling their hosts’ attacks to the center of the pitch. From there, the Swans could not generate anything incisive. They put just two shots on target of the 14 they attempted.

Swansea’s inefficiency grew out of the source of their shots: nine of the 14 came from outside the penalty area. That’s consistent with the team’s choices and production throughout this league campaign, during which they’ve taken 67 of 131 shots (51 percent) from outside the area. Only Watford has tried a higher proportion of shots from that inefficient part of the pitch. (Stats from whoscored.com)

Given the provenance of these attempts on goal, it’s perhaps not surprising that Swansea have scored just nine non-penalty goals on their own. Two penalties and an own goal take the total to 12.

By contrast, Arsenal have netted 16 goals, none from penalties and two from opposition own goals. The secret has been a heightened focus on shooting from dangerous areas: According to Squawka, the Gunners’ 142 shots from within the penalty area (of 197 total shots) lead the league and are 27 percent higher than shots from similar positions by Manchester City, which ranks second.

This set of statistics shows how Arsenal can survive a visit to the Liberty Stadium—maintain defensive discipline, force Swansea’s dangerous wide attackers André Ayew and Montero into the middle, and continue to take high-quality shots on goal.

Players to Watch

Arsenal: Francis Coquelin. If Arsenal succeed at directing Swansea’s attack to the center of the pitch, Coquelin will be the player to stop the moves and start Arsenal’s offense. His distribution has improved greatly this season (see 7AM Kickoff), so that the creative geniuses of Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla have been able to shine.

Swansea City: Ki Sung-yueng. Ayew is the Swans’ top goal scorer, but the Korean midfielder seems the side’s most influential player. He adds control, energy, and the right passing choices to the mix and will be crucial to the contest in the midfield.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Arsenal 2 Everton 1: Three Things We Learned

Headed goals separated by 90 seconds by Oliver Giroud and Laurent Koscielny and another late save from Petr Cech secured Arsenal's hard-fought 2-1 win over Everton.

Although the Gunners enjoyed more possession and created more danger than the Toffees, the indigestion was still there among Arsenal supporters as the visitors came close several times to drawing level. Stout defending saw off the challenge and sent Arsenal, perhaps temporarily, to the top of the Premier League table.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

This Arsenal side can dig deep

Arsenal's third intense match in a week's time required considerable fortitude. The conditions were unpleasant, to say the least. Rain made the ball slick and the pitch slow.

Everton played with the energy and intent of a team with something to prove after the 3-0 home defeat to Manchester United last week. Their physical and mental readiness wasn't affected by midweek European action, either.

The Gunners, meanwhile, were four days removed from a grueling, emotional win over Bayern Munich, which came after a patient but taxing victory at Watford.

Arsenal showed the effects of this schedule--the fullback pair of Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal in particular seemed to flag--but in the moments that mattered, the concentration and performance reached a high level.

Central defenders Koscielny and Gabriel were especially effective during critical passages of play, intercepting threatening passes for Everton striker Romelu Lukaku. We'll not soon forget Gabriel's late tackle away from the Belgian and primal scream that showed his desire to finish the job.

The intervention of Cech was also crucial. His 86th-minute scamper to block Gerard Deulofeu's open shot prevented the dangerous but divey Spaniard from yet again snatching a point for his team at the Emirates.

A goalkeeper with that kind of focus must provide both an example and confidence for the rest of the team.

Cazözil is a distinctively spectacular midfield combination

Maybe this match didn't teach us about the skill and influence of Arsenal's two midfield geniuses. Most knowledgeable supporters and observers already recognized the special qualities of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil.

Against Everton the duo's mastery was on full display.

Each notched an assist with perfect passes into the dangerous area in front of Tim Howard's goal. Those were two of the ten key passes, five each, that Cazorla and Özil made during the match.

That's strong evidence of their incisiveness. In the attacking third, Cazorla completed 28 of 33 passes (85 percent), while Özil connected on 30 of 34 (88 percent). Unbelievable efficiency in the most crowded part of the pitch.

The pair also worked together to propel Arsenal forward. According to FourFourTwo's StatsZone app, Cazorla and Özil were involved in the match's two top passing combinations, finding each other a total of 36 times.

The offensive flow that Arsenal achieves owes to the influence of these two remarkable players.

Arsenal's match management is a work in progress

It's a test of the physical, mental, and psychological, individually and collectively, to succeed consistently at the high level at which Arsenal competes. Naturally, the players and the team don't earn perfect grades on every such examination.

On Saturday, Arsenal showed it has room for improvement in managing the dynamics of a match. Instead of consolidating its lead by placing priority on defense just before halftime, the Gunners kept moving forward. A perhaps ill-advised shot by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain helped Everton launch a dangerous counterattack, from which an unlucky deflection brought Ross Barkley's goal.

The thought could have been to score a third goal before the break in order to demoralize Everton and put the game beyond much doubt. But the risk associated with that decision, especially against a team so effective in open spaces as Everton, probably outweighed the reward.

What's encouraging is that the lesson did not prove damaging. And the match showed Arsenal's capacity for another type of victory.

Extra time

If Arsenal add set-piece goals to the repertoire, they'll be devastating. The Gunners have three goals from corners, crosses and throw-ins in this Premier League season, half as many as the top performers in that category, Leicester City, West Ham, and Crystal Palace. (Stats from Opta via Squawka.com)

We know how effective the Gunners can be on the counterattack, with intricate passing moves, and with individual moments of brilliance. The high expected goals stats are evidence of that. Delivering more set-piece goals would make Arsenal a diversified, and difficult to stop, offensive force.