Saturday, May 23, 2015

Match Preview, Arsenal v West Brom: Pre-Final Finale

Arsenal faces an odd scenario as it closes its Premier League campaign against West Bromwich Albion Sunday at Emirates Stadium.

It's comfortable but not totally secure in a third-place league finish, which would allow the Gunners to avoid a Champions League qualifier in August. Comfortable thanks to a three-point advantage over Manchester United; not totally secure because two bizarre results, say a 3-0 Arsenal loss and a 5-0 United win at Hull, would see United pip Arsenal for third on goal differential.

Then there's the matter of the FA Cup Final against Aston Villa six days later. Manager Arsène Wenger will likely decide Sunday's personnel to set the stage for a top performance from his first-choice team in the cup final. Given that many of those preferred players have looked less than energetic in Arsenal's last three matches, Wenger has to weigh giving them a rest against the risks of upsetting the team's chemistry and perpetuating the team's indifferent recent form.

After a run of eight consecutive wins between February and April, the Gunners have won only one of their last five matches. In the three of those matches, Arsenal failed to score at home against opposition organized to foil the Arsenal attack.

That's standard operating procedure for West Brom manager Tony Pulis, who has saved another team from relegation by instilling discipline in defense. It will therefore come as no surprise on Sunday when the Baggies allow the Gunners possession, force them into crowded central areas, hope for a moment of brilliance from leading man Saido Berahino, or try to catch the Gunners napping on a set play.

These principles have paid off in West Brom's recent matches. The Baggies are unbeaten in their last five, including wins over champions Chelsea on Monday and Manchester United at Old Trafford.

These results--and the manner West Brom have achieved them--will give Wenger, his staff, and his players plenty to contemplate. In particular, West Brom pose a significant aerial threat: 15 goals from headers is tied with West Ham for most in the league. Meanwhile, Arsenal have conceded the league's largest proportion of goals from headers (35 percent).

Given all these dynamics, Wenger's team selection will be interesting. He only introduced two new starters against Sunderland on Wednesday--left back Kieran Gibbs for Nacho Monreal and midfielder Jack Wilshere for Francis Coquelin--but those changes were not the ones most observers expected. Defender Laurent Koscielny, midfielder Santi Cazorla, and forwards Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud all seemed likelier candidates for a game off.

Should we expect all four to get a break on Sunday? Wenger has suggested not. "Will I rest one or two players?" he asked in his pre-match press conference. "Certainly." But he didn't say he'll make wholesale changes to inject energy.

Now, Wenger probably wouldn't admit plans for major lineup turnover. The last time he made more than two outfield changes between league matches was between the early February loss at Tottenham and the home victory over Leicester three days later.

The selections against Leicester might, in fact, help us anticipate some changes for Sunday's match. Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky have a solid chance of repeating their starting appearances. Both came on as substitutes against Sunderland on Wednesday, when they introduced quickness and drive to the Arsenal attack. Expect them to do something similar from the outset against West Brom.

We might also see Gabriel replace one of the two center halves. The Brazilian's aggressiveness in the air and alertness to counterattacks would help offset West Brom's two major threats. The aerial threat might also encourage Wenger to prefer the more imposing Calum Chambers to Hector Bellerin at right back.

Also of interest is the choice in goal. In last season's final match against Norwich City, Lukasz Fabianski got the nod in preparation for his start in the FA Cup Final. Will similar thinking give Wojciech Szczesny the start on Sunday?

Whatever the selection, energy and tempo should be the priorities. Arsenal have the talent to end the campaign successfully; the questions are about imagination, vigor, and will. West Brom will present a test of all three.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Match Preview, Arsenal v Sunderland: Points All Around

Arsenal returns to action against Sunderland on Wednesday, with both teams needing one point to secure their immediate objectives. For Arsenal, a draw would be enough to guarantee a third-place league finish and a straight path into next year's Champions League group stage; Sunderland can make sure it stays in the Premier League for the 2015-16 season by not losing at the Emirates.

For that reason, Black Cats manager Dick Advocaat is likely to place the priority on defense. This approach has produced clean sheets against Leicester City and Everton in Sunderland's last two matches.

The performance against Everton at Goodison Park will serve as Advocaat's blueprint. Sunderland relinquished possession to Everton, contenting itself with 30 percent, and completed just 146 passes to Everton's 511 (Stats from OptaSports via The Black Cats camped in their own half and profited from two fortunate second-half goals from Danny Graham and Jermaine Defoe.

Sunderland will be encouraged by this success--and the manner of it--as they face Arsenal on Wednesday. That's only nine days after Swansea used a determined defense and opportunistic offense to hold the Gunners scoreless in a 1-0 win in London. And it's only three days after Arsenal failed to register a first-half shot against Manchester United, another sign that its offense is not humming.

Getting his attacking players to rediscover some of their verve will be a priority for Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. Not only will he want a strong finish to the league campaign to set the tone for next season's preparations; he'll know from his five previous FA Cup triumphs how difficult it is for a team to regain its energy and goal-scoring form for final crucible. Arsenal can also send Aston Villa, its final opponent, a strong message about the risks of a deep defensive approach.

For those reasons, we shouldn't expect Arsenal to play for a gentlemanly draw. The Gunners can prove both a specific point--that they're ready to defend their FA Cup title--and a general one--that they're capable of breaking through a determined defense.

Which players will Wenger select to make these points?

The thinking here is that he'll change the lineup a bit. After sending out the identical starting XI for six straight league matches, after witnessing that group's collective effectiveness wane in its last two outings, and after seeing fatigue hamper some of the individuals just three days before, the manager will likely employ some different starters on Wednesday.

Midfielder Jack Wilshere is a prime candidate. The Englishman helped assert Arsenal's control over the midfield when he entered the game against Manchester United. This followed energetic substitute performances against Swansea and Hull. He could replace Santi Cazorla in the heart of the midfield or take one of the interchanging roles in attacking midfield.

If Wenger suspects Sunderland won't attack at all, he could use Aaron Ramsey and Wilshere in the heart of midfield, as he did late against Swansea and Manchester United. He'd thus open a forward spot for Theo Walcott or Danny Welbeck, if the latter is fit. This would be a bold move for a side needing only a draw to nail down a third-place league finish.

More likely, Wenger will keep Francis Coquelin at the base of the midfield and use substitutes to change the dynamic if Sunderland's approach keeps Arsenal in check.

There's depth elsewhere that could be brought to bear, such as Gabriel, who will replace the ill Laurent Koscielny at center back. Kieran Gibbs at left back and Tomas Rosicky in any number of positions could also see action, but one lesson of the FA Cup semifinal against Reading is that significant changes risk stalling the offense as much as lineup uniformity does. That's why we expect no more than three changes on Wednesday.

With this scope of rotation, Arsenal should be in position to continue its dominance of the Premier League's bottom 10 teams. In 18 matches against the current bottom half, the Gunners have won 16 and drawn two.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Match Preview, Manchester United v Arsenal: Minimal Mystery

Arsenal's visit to Old Trafford won't carry the drama that seemed likely when the fixture list was released. Originally the penultimate match of the league campaign, the contest could have decided the two sides' Champions League fates or one of their title aspirations.

Neither remains in the balance. Arsenal have already amassed enough points to secure a top-four league finish, while United would have to give up a plus-14 advantage in goal differential to lose its own Champions League spot. Meanwhile, Chelsea have won the title.

The two teams won't hold any major surprises for each other, either. They met two months ago in the FA Cup quarterfinal, a 2-1 Arsenal victory that signaled further improvement against top competition away from home.

Still, no Arsenal-Manchester United contest is devoid of drama, and this one will be interesting on several levels.

For one thing, the implications for the final league table remain important. Arsenal need a win to maintain any hope of finishing second, which was a realistic--and stated--objective prior to Monday's loss to Swansea. A victory would also guarantee the Gunners third place and a pass on next season's Champions League qualifying round.

A United victory keeps open the possibility of a third-place finish for Louis Van Gaal's team, while a draw would give Van Gaal the points for a fourth-place finish and Arsenal almost all it needs for third. It'd be out of character for both Van Gaal and Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger to play for that result, so their approaches will be interesting in light of their objectives for the season.

Second, this is the final opportunity for Arsenal to consolidate its away performances against top opposition. The victory at Manchester City, the FA Cup win at Old Trafford, and to some degree the loss at Chelsea have shown that Arsenal are no longer naive travelers.

Although Arsenal played energetically in all three matches, the manager and the team did not take a uniform approach. They placed priority on solid defending in their own half against City and Chelsea, while they pressed United's midfielders and defenders assertively.

Lacking Michael Carrick's ball retention and passing efficiency due to his injury, is United vulnerable to a similar pressing approach on Sunday? Or will Wenger see West Bromich Albion's and Chelsea's recent rear-guard victories over United and his side's result at Manchester City as suggesting a more defensive stature? Will Wayne Rooney's exclusion bear on the Arsenal manager's thinking at all?

All those questions lead to a third interesting point. Based on Wenger's priorities for this match and his judgment of how to realize those, which players does he select? The team looked less than energetic against Swansea, particularly in the first half, and there may be a temptation to bring some variety to the lineup. After all, it was the fifth consecutive appearance for the identical starting eleven, an unprecedented run in Wenger's tenure.

Midfielders Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky are the most likely candidates to join the starters. They'd each add verve to the Arsenal attack, though Wenger will weigh their energy going forward with defensive necessities. In particular, Arsenal's right-sided attacker will have to assist right back Hector Bellerin in marshaling United's Ashley Young, a primary agent of Van Gaal's directive to send crosses into the opposition's penalty area.

A healthy Danny Welbeck or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might have expected to join the Arsenal XI because they'd bring speed in attack and defensive tenacity, but neither is ready to return to the scene of his outstanding FA Cup performance.

Even without Welbeck's desire to show his old employers again what they've forsaken, and even without the high stakes these encounters have carried in the past, Arsenal-Manchester United will always have its intrigues. It's each club's most prominent fixture as the season draws to a close, so the result could shape the storylines and tone for several months. Worth the attention.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Arsenal's Defining Mindset

As the 2014-15 Premier League season draws to a close, Arsenal's manager Arsène Wenger and his players have begun talking about the prospects for next season. One underlying theme of their statements is the type of players the club is likely to retain and recruit, a topic always of interest to supporters.

The easing of the financial burden associated with the Emirates Stadium construction means that Arsenal are again in the market for top-flight talent and will compete with other elite clubs for those players. Among those clubs, physical skill is almost a given and, on balance, does not separate the teams much: For an Eden Hazard at Chelsea, there's a Mesut Özil at Arsenal and a David Silva at Manchester City.

What does set the clubs apart from each other is a finely honed mentality. An exacting mindset, combined with a fortunate-bordering-on-sinister injury record, drove Chelsea to the league title.

At Arsenal, players' mental constitution is emerging as the decisive factor in Wenger's selections for his starting lineups and squads. This filter identifies players based on three major aspects:
  1. Decision-making
  2. Response to pressure
  3. Long-term outlook

Make mature and quick decisions

The players who've earned the manager's trust over the course of this season have been able to strike a balance between patience and decisiveness. Relying on both maturity and agility of mind, they wait for the appropriate moment to act and know what to do when that moment comes.

The prime example of this dynamic is midfielder Francis Coquelin. Loaned out three times, virtually forgotten, and seemingly destined to leave Arsenal this summer, Coquelin was an emergency recall from Charlton in December and by January had made himself essential to this Arsenal team.

He's a combative character in matches, but he has also shown the levelheadedness that Wenger values. As the manager said in describing Coquelin at a recent Barclays event, "It's unbelievable how patient and open-minded you have to be." (, "Coquelin sticks to what he's strong at")

The counter-example is goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. His nicotine-fueled indiscretions after his poor performance in Arsenal's 2-0 defeat at Southampton laid bare his poor decision-making, prompted Wenger to bench him, and cast doubt on his Arsenal future.

Thrive under pressure

A second psychological requirement of Wenger's players is their willingness to embrace pressure. I have written about this quality, which psychologists call "resilience," in "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not." In short, Arsenal favors players who view the intense attention and stakes of elite competition as opportunities to improve performance.

It's a mindset now common in the team. Center forward Olivier Giroud, the object of considerable scrutiny during his Arsenal career, spoke about the group's response to pressure in a feature on the club Website. He said: "Nowadays you have to deal with that pressure. There is more media now, and social media as well - it is more than in the 1990s. But I like pressure, and the boys do as well." (" You must be able to deal with pressure")

As a result, we see the team panic less often. For example, when Chelsea visited the Emirates in April with the clear intention of preventing Arsenal scoring, the Gunners did not go headlong into attack and leave themselves exposed to a counter-attack. This patient approach has been at work for much of 2015 when Arsenal have failed to establish an early lead in matches.

Take the long view

Meanwhile, on an individual level, we've seen players bounce back quickly from poor performances. Giroud's response to his nightmare Champions League outing against Monaco--seven goals in his next seven starts--was not out of character for him or this team. They've been able to put specific performances, particularly subpar ones such as Monday's loss to Swansea, into the proper perspective. One reason is that, unlike fans and the media, Arsenal's players are viewing their work as part of a long-term effort.

Tim of 7amkickoff has frequently noted that Wenger manages for the long term. That description is backed up by the manager's own statements, such as "Sometimes in the modern professional game [it] is, 'OK. I go two years to Arsenal, I go two years to Real Madrid.' But that doesn't make a club. You need a core of people who want to live there and want to make their lives with the club."

This philosophy seems like a fatal weakness. After all, it runs against the overwhelming trend among professional footballers, who by and large focus on their immediate, individual prospects. That's the conclusion of Bobby Warshaw, a former Stanford player currently in the Norwegian first division, in his intriguing piece, " Understanding the European Players' Mindset is Key to Understanding Klinsmann."

But what if, rather than weakening Arsenal's position, Wenger's preference for players committed to the long-term cause helps identify exceptional contributors? What if this highly refined filter gives Arsenal a competitive advantage in a business characterized by short-term prestige and financial gain?

Identifying players in this way and showing long-term faith in them are having an effect on their progress and perspective. Coquelin, for instance, recounted his difficult days on loan at the German club Freiburg in an interview with The Observer's Amy Lawrence: "Mentally it was tough. Then one day I woke up and realised: ‘OK, I am not going to play. Now I am training to be ready for next season at Arsenal.'" ("Francis Coquelin is the new Arsenal king of counter-bling")

Coquelin's statement provides evidence that Wenger's long view is present among players as well. Listen carefully to their statements as summer transfers approach. If they hint at a longer time horizon, emphasize the value of pressure, or talk about patience, those players could be in Wenger's plans. If they ignore those mental aspects and stress near-term reward, their short- and long-term futures may lie away from Arsenal.