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

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

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.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Arsenal 2 Bayern Munich 0: Three Things We Learned

On an incredible night at Emirates Stadium, Arsenal overcame Bayern Munich 2-0, recharging the Gunners’ UEFA Champions League campaign with a victory over the team anointed best in the world.

A scrappy set-piece goal by substitute Olivier Giroud and a stoppage-time clincher by Mesut Özil, assisted by the irrepressible Hector Bellerin, undid Bayern and made imaginable another qualification for the competition’s knockout phase. That prospect seemed remote prior to Tuesday.

Calming down enough to analyze a such an emotional match takes effort, but here are three things we think we learned from the encounter.

This Arsenal team can produce the memories

Supporters follow sport for scenarios like this: Arsenal faced a mighty opponent in a headline affair, performed solidly but without much of its trademark creativity for much of the match, then struck when the opportunities arose.

This is what so many of us look for on European nights, recognizing that the Gunners may not win the competition in the end but hoping for transcendent performances to remember. The turnaround of fortunes—the likes of which Arsenal have certainly experienced from the other side—made the magic all the more memorable.

If you can’t take a few days to enjoy that, well, you need a different pastime.

It was a different plotline from the other indelible memory of the season so far, the 3-0 dismantling of Manchester United. Unlike in that contest, Arsenal did not carry the play against Bayern. The quality of the passing, the quickness of thought and movement, the incomparable skill were not what won the day.

Instead, the Gunners were unified, determined, organized but flexible, and opportunistic. They seized the game's three decisive moments—Petr Cech’s save on the heretofore unstoppable Robert Lewandowski, Giroud’s headlong commitment in case Bayern suffered a defensive lapse, and Bellerin’s late steal, surge, and perfect pass to Özil. In the process, they generated happiness among supporters, confidence for themselves, and respect from opponents and neutrals.

No matter what happens in Munich or Athens, where qualification will likely be decided, we’ll always have the Emirates on 20 October.

This Arsenal defense is a match-winner

Tuesday's success required a comprehensive defensive performance. And that's what Arsenal delivered.

The Gunners controlled the dangerous spaces throughout the match and rendered sterile Bayern's advantage in possession. As a result, Arsenal's defensive statistics were not particularly impressive: 24 tackles, 19 interceptions, 18 clearances. (Numbers from Opta via FourFourTwo's StatsZone app)

But eight blocked shots were evidence of Arsenal's commitment and contributed to Bayern's laboring to get a clear sight of goal. The Bavarian side enjoyed just two "Big Chances," in the parlance of the StatsZone app, Lewandowski's effort midway through the second half and Thiago's pointblank shot early on. Cech was equal to the task both times.

Meanwhile, despite making just one pass for every three made by Bayern, Arsenal created four big chances and scored two of them.

Bayern looked dangerous many times, particularly left winger Douglas Costa in the first half. But when Costa escaped Bellerin, an Arsenal player was there to intercept the pass or snuff out the dribble.

On Arsenal's left, Bayern tried various approaches and personnel against Nacho Monreal. None succeeded. Thomas Müller, the lethal forward, got so little out of his battle with Monreal that he surrendered his spot on the right to Arturo Vidal, whom Monreal controlled as well. Efforts to outnumber the Gunners on that flank similarly came to nothing.

In the center, Per Mertesacker controlled the airways and Laurent Koscielny made several critical interventions as Lewandowski threatened. Just ahead of them, Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla attended to the dangers in Bayern's buildup play.

Those attentions did not always prove adequate, but Cech was an impregnable last line of defense, stopping all six shots Bayern put on goal.

Arsène Wenger pulled all the right levers

The Arsenal manager sent out his charges with clear directions: Control the space, not the ball. Try to frustrate Bayern. Then hit on the counterattack.

When the initial formation, with Alexis on the left and Özil farther forward, showed some vulnerabilities, the setup shifted. Alexis moved upfield closer to Theo Walcott, Özil retreated to work with Monreal on the left, and Arsenal took on a deep-lying 4-4-2 shape.

As Wenger explained, "When we were playing halfway, they opened us up too much, so I decided to drop Ozil a bit deeper and to make it tight around the box and catch them on the break because we have the pace to do it and to find some space with the game going on."

This freed Alexis, Arsenal's danger man, from the challenging defensive situation on Arsenal's left, where Müller, Thiago, and right back Philipp Lahm tried without success to overwhelm Monreal, and allowed the Chilean to pose an additional threat to Bayern's high defensive line.

Worn down by Arsenal's speed, perhaps, Bayern's central defenders had difficulty coping with the physical presence of Giroud when he replaced Walcott in the 74th minute. Three minutes later, Giroud drew a foul, fought his way through the defensive line, and capitalized when goalkeeper Manuel Neuer failed to claim Cazorla's free kick.

Extra time

Giroud is a game-changer. He delivered his fourth goal in his last six substitute appearances. He could have had another later but wasn't able to generate the necessary power to his free header. The Frenchman was also an outlet for Arsenal's back line for the 17 minutes in the lead and shored up Arsenal's set-piece defending during the final stretch of this famous victory.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Match Preview, Watford v Arsenal: Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Here’s the thing about sport in the Internet 3.0 age: It both fulfills and warps our need for drama.

Because the desire for a narrative to provide excitement and emotional succor is limitless, and the means to sate that desire always available, we raise otherwise tedious affairs to an undue level of importance. The Arsenal Annual General Meeting is a perfect example—who really thought that gathering would reveal anything of substance about the club?

Of course the presentations from the homogeneous board and executives were pro forma. Of course manager Arsène Wenger was the star of the show. Of course interrogators did their self-important best to put themselves at the center of this manufactured drama.

Fortunately, the slog through that story lasted less than a day. Now we can return to the reason to follow sport, the actual competition: Arsenal make the short yet unfamiliar trip to Vicarage Road to face Watford on Saturday.

The prospects in general and in particular are encouraging. The Gunners emerged from a challenging three-game stretch in a improved league position. Stirring and convincing wins over Leicester City and Manchester United, the fourth- and first-place teams in the league before their losses to Arsenal, have lifted the Gunners to second place.

And performances against Watford-like opponents have pushed Arsenal to top league finishes in recent years. In 2014-15, the Gunners racked up 54 of 60 possible points against the bottom half of the Premier League, only dropping points in draws with Everton, Leicester City, and Hull City. The total from the previous season was 53 of 60, marred by the opening-day loss to Aston Villa.

The outcome of any sporting endeavor is not inevitable, however. That’s the source of the drama.

This matchup with Watford has several elements of a trap. It’s an away game right after an international break against a team whose players did not labor intensely, if at all, for their national teams. Just four Hornets, Austrian Sebastian Prödl, Ecuador’s Juan-Carlos Paredes, the Greek José Holebas, and Odion Ighalo of Nigeria, played for their senior national teams during the most recent break.

More Arsenal players (seven) scored during international matches than that, while a total of 11 Gunners were away on senior international duty.

In addition, Watford is a physical and effective defensive side, ranking in the league’s top five for fouls and interceptions. The Hornets have allowed just one goal at home, in a 1-0 loss to Crystal Palace, and held the potent offenses of Southampton and Swansea scoreless there.

That approach will test Arsenal’s collective concentration and patience. Will the Gunners be able to fire right from the start, as they did against Manchester United? As is often the case in the Premier League, an early goal would be a boon. It would force Watford to adjust its defense-first plan and open space for the speed and skill of Arsenal’s attacking players to thrive.

But this team has shown that it can grind out the results, particularly on the road, as well. The wins at Newcastle and Crystal Palace, achieved when the Gunners were struggling to score goals, might be experiences that they can draw on this weekend. Then again, now that Alexis and Theo Walcott are firing more effectively, the pattern might be less labored on Saturday.

Regardless of the method, a win is crucial for Arsenal’s title aspirations. It would represent a positive kickoff to the upcoming series of eight winnable Premier League matches, it would bank three points, and it would keep the story where it belongs—on the team’s on-field success.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Theo Walcott. It was tough to take your eyes off the new Arsenal front man against Manchester United. He pulled the defense around without mercy, harried them when they had the ball, and twice set up teammates for goals. A similar performance away from home against less-headlining opposition would strengthen his center forward bona fides.

Watford. Odion Igalho. Watford has scored just six goals in eight league matches, and Igalho has five of those. His combination with Troy Deeney has produced three goals and makes them one of the top provider-goalscorer combinations in the league.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Arsenal's Tactical Triumph

While we marvel in the sublime skill and breathtaking speed Arsenal displayed against Manchester United on Sunday, we should also praise the team’s tactical triumph. The flexibility that manager Arsène Wenger and his players displayed bamboozled the visitors and their supposed tactical genius of a manager, Louis van Gaal.

In fact, van Gaal’s approach played right into Arsenal’s hands, permitting the Gunners to emphasize their strengths and to exploit Manchester United’s weaknesses. Once Arsenal had secured the three-goal advantage, they adapted to various situations and remained the superior force.
Let’s look at how the game plans unfolded.

Early onslaught

Arsenal showed every intention of starting the match assertively. This not only represented a response to the poor midweek showing in the Champions League against Olympiacos, but it also conformed to the patterns of this Premier League season. In particular, the home team takes the initiative early to gain the superiority it needs to play on the counterattack. (See Danny Higginbotham’s column in The Independent for a clear explanation of this trend.)

Two goals before the 10-minute mark are the proof Arsenal succeeded. Here’s evidence of the intention: Deep-lying midfielder Francis Coquelin’s position just before Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring.

Coquelin helps start the attack, then follows Hector Bellerin and Mesut Özil up the right side of the pitch into an advanced position for a defensive midfielder. From where he is, he can trouble three of United’s possible escape routes, via Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger, or Memphis Depay.
Coquelin joins attack but positions himself to thwart any possible United counter-attack

As it happens, Manchester United does intercept Bellerin’s centering pass, but Coquelin beats Memphis to the ball and gets it back to Özil. That’s when Özil’s quick interchange with Aaron Ramsey and sprint to the byline scramble the Manchester defense and create the scoring opportunity.

Manchester United’s susceptibility

The buildup to this play also reveals Manchester United’s vulnerability and the flaws of its game plan.

Van Gaal apparently decided to man-mark Arsenal in the center of the pitch. Schweinsteiger covered Santi Cazorla, Rooney was assigned Coquelin, and Michael Carrick was on Özil.
United's man marking the midfield put them at a distinct disadvantage in controlling the match

This setup handed the initiative to Arsenal. Schweinsteiger is 31 years old; Cazorla is only a year younger but a magician with the ball. Rooney is 29; Coquelin, 24. Carrick is 34; Ozil, 26. Add the speed of thought and passing to the age difference, and Arsenal were just too quick in the midfield.

A word here, too, about the role of Per Mertesacker. Schweinsteiger leaves Cazorla and tries to close down the Arsenal captain, but Mertesacker outfoxes him with a one-touch pass to Coquelin, who has eluded Rooney. This springs the attack.

Flailing fullbacks

Another consequence of Manchester United’s man-marking in the midfield was that its fullbacks had very little support defending the spaces on the flanks. Alexis took advantage of this situation, running Matteo Darmian ragged.

The situation titled even more favorably toward Arsenal because Manchester United central defenders Chris Smalling and, in particular, Daley Blind were sensitive to the threat of Theo Walcott. Walcott’s speed and movement upset the defensive balance and, just before the third Arsenal goal, forced Darmian into a narrow position, leaving Alexis free to receive Walcott’s pass and move into a threatening position with the ball. (See Adrian Clark's analysis of this passage of play on The Breakdown on the official Arsenal website.)

With Ashley Young defending like a winger playing fullback on Manchester United's left, the effectiveness of Arsenal’s Bellerin and Nacho Monreal was a stark contrast.


Immediately after Alexis drove home his second goal of the first 20 minutes, Arsenal’s objective changed. A three-goal lead made controlling dangerous spaces the priority. Manchester United’s ponderous play helped Arsenal in this respect, as did the shift to a 4-4-1-1 formation.

Coquelin and Cazorla moved together closer to the center of the pitch and Arsenal’s center backs, while Alexis and Ramsey dropped deeper from their attacking initial positions.
Arsenal move to a 4-4-1-1 to protect the lead

Alexis is slightly advanced here because he’s engaging Darmian on Arsenal’s left, but overall this is the compact shape Arsenal used to protect its lead and start further counterattacks.

It’s a perfect response to the game situation, Arsenal having earned the right to play on the counter with its early three-goal blitz.


At halftime, Van Gaal replaced Darmian with Antonio Valencia and Memphis with Marouane Fellaini. The latter brought his physical-bordering-on-fouly presence into the center of midfield. This change spurred the visitors to become more assertive in midfield, creating two shots on target midway through the half.

Wenger and his team adapted. He instructed Ramsey to leave his post on the right and join Coquelin and Cazorla in the center of midfield. Özil went right, and Arsenal took a 4-3-3 shape.
Ramsey tucks in to form a 4-3-3 to adjust to United's halftime changes

This adjustment largely succeeded in upsetting Manchester United’s rhythm.

Later, Wenger made one final shift, introducing the more physical center forward presence of Olivier Giroud and returning to the 4-2-3-1 shape from which Arsenal had started the match. Only this time, Ramsey took the playmaker role and joined Giroud in defending from the front of the formation. Substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain became the main threat on the counterattack, nearly capping the scoring with a chip off the bar in injury time.

Had that gone in, the final score of 4-0 would not have flattered Arsenal. With a clear game plan, tactical flexibility, expert execution, a focused mentality, and physical commitment, the Gunners dispatched one of its bogey teams and made manifest their potential to mount a title challenge.

(Graphics courtesy YouAreMyArsenal)