Saturday, February 27, 2016

Match Preview, Manchester United v Arsenal: Day One of Ten That Define

Arsenal’s visit to Manchester United on Sunday commences a defining ten-day stretch.

Between February 28th and March 8th, the Gunners will play four matches. Their three Premier League encounters with Manchester United, Swansea, and Tottenham are separated by just three days each. Then, three days after the North London Derby, Arsenal travel to Hull for a replay of the FA Cup 5th Round match, seeking to advance toward an historic third consecutive trophy in that competition.

The league matches—two at the grounds of other top-five sides--present a challenge that a title-winning team must rise to. As manager Arsène Wenger said, “It is the key period. We work the whole season for this period and that’s where you’re really tested, but it’s where you have an opportunity to show your quality as well. On that front, that is the most interesting period of the season.”

So far, Arsenal have fared well against direct rivals for the league crown, having won four, drawn one, and lost none against Leicester City, Tottenham, Manchester City, and Manchester United.

Four of those five matches were at home, however, including the 3-0 thrashing of Sunday’s opponents in early October. How instructive will we find that contest in our efforts to understand what might happen on Sunday?

In brief, Arsenal had the right tactical plan that day and the personnel to execute it; Manchester United did not. (See Arsenal’s Tactical Triumph for more detail.)

But the personnel will definitely change on Sunday, and the plans will probably shift, too. Both teams have suffered injuries to vital players. For Arsenal, the most telling loss has been that of Santi Cazorla, the architect of the October victory. His ability to dance out of the visitors’ midfield pressure in the first half opened the attacking space that Arsenal exploited.

In response to Cazorla’s absence, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal may again decide to press Arsenal’s midfield. That’s a tactic most opponents have tried since Cazorla’s November knee injury, and Arsenal have often sputtered as a result. Van Gaal does have two players, Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera, who can harry the Arsenal midfield.

The problem is that pressing requires synchronization, persistence, conditioning, and a strong last line of defense. The Red Devils have not had a settled midfield since the turn of the year, raising questions about both their ability to coordinate the press and their capacity to stick to the physical and mental task. Furthermore, due to injuries across the back four, the United defense lacks stability.

Given those factors, van Gaal may opt for the risk-averse, possession game that has characterized much of his team’s play this season. With Michael Carrick and Juan Mata, United do have the players to implement this approach. How aggressively and effectively Arsenal disrupt the hosts’ efforts in this respect will influence the dynamics of the match.

Its outcome, though, will probably be decided up front. Manchester United lack a proven match-winner because Wayne Rooney is out with injury; Arsenal don’t have a player in any kind of goal-scoring form. Indeed, the Gunners have been held scoreless in five of their last eight matches. So both teams could stumble at the critical moment in front of goal.

If Arsenal can convert just one of the many chances it might get—as the league’s most creative team in terms of clear goal-scoring opportunities—that could do the trick. And at the outset of this critical sequence of matches, a positive result is all that matters.

Key Matchup

Aaron Ramsey against the Manchester United midfield. Restored to his preferred position in central midfield, Arsenal’s Welshman has performed creditably. Perhaps those performances haven’t met expectations, but were those expectations reasonable? As Tim Stillman observes in his Arseblog column “Sacrificial Ram,” Ramsey has been doing three jobs at once, supporting his deep-lying midfield partner, making up for the absence of a ball-control specialist on the right, and sparking Arsenal’s preference for attacking to the left.

Ramsey will face skillful and intelligent opponents in Scheiderlin and Herrera. The extent to which he can slip their attentions and initiate Arsenal’s attacks will shape Arsenal’s threat overall.

Where to Worry

Arsenal’s defensive focus flagged on just a few occasions against Barcelona on Tuesday evening. Two of those lapses proved fatal. The injury-riddled Manchester United don’t possess the proven attacking threats of Barcelona—no team does, in truth—but at this level, with these stakes, the slightest mental error can be a killer. Wenger and his team will need to turn all their attentions to the task at hand on Sunday.

Match Verdict

Most of the accomplished talent on display will be in the midfield, with Manchester United’s Schneiderlin, Herrera, and Juan Mata facing off against Ramsey, Mesut Özil, and Alexis Sanchez. Those two trios will be at the center of the action, but this one comes down to the two defenses. Arsenal’s, anchored by the impressive Petr Cech, has been more stable than Manchester United’s, who may have to cope without its standout keeper David de Gea.

Despite the Gunners’ recent goal-scoring struggles, their chances of getting an unmissable opportunity against Manchester United’s makeshift back line seem strong.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. The ex-Manchester United man has looked lively and dangerous since his return from injury. He’s shown he can rise to the occasion—both here in last season’s FA Cup quarterfinal and in his match-winning substitute appearance against Leicester City two weeks ago. If he’s physically ready, he merits a start, and that can’t be a tantalizing prospect for these opposition defenders.

Manchester United. Juan Mata. The Spaniard now pulls the strings for Manchester United, a role that suits him. He can also find dangerous spaces in the opponents’ penalty area, avoiding the attentions of defenders and midfielders. Arsenal’s Francis Coquelin will need to be especially diligent tracking Mata’s movements.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Arsenal 0 Barcelona 2: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal succumbed to the title holders as Barcelona took a 2-0 Champions League victory at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday evening.

Lionel Messi’s two second-half goals, the first on a counter-attack in the 71st minute and the second from the penalty spot 12 minutes later, sealed Arsenal’s first-leg fate and, in all probability, a sixth-consecutive exit at this stage of the competition.

It’s not worth wallowing in or overanalyzing a loss to such a talented, accomplished, and dominant side, but here are three things we can take away from this match.

Arsenal lacked the required precision

Against opponents of this caliber, Arsenal had to be almost perfect in both planning and execution. The overall approach—to defend with diligence and coordination and to take opportunities on the break—kept the Gunners level through three quarters of the match.

In the early stages, Arsenal actually posed a threat, suggesting that manager Arsène Wenger thought an early goal could have been decisive or, barring that, an assertive stance might give Barcelona some doubts about its own defensive solidity.

This plan worked reasonably well. Through 65 minutes, the two teams had the same number of shots on target.

Then the execution wavered, just for a moment, all the ruthless attacking trio of Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez needed.

A headed clearance from the Barcelona area goes left, with all 11 Arsenal players inside the Barcelona half. Right back Hector Bellerin, midfielder Francis Coquelin, and center half Per Mertesacker converge on Neymar, who avoids all their attentions and passes to Suarez on the touch line. Laurent Koscielny is there with Suarez but fails to prevent his return ball to Neymar. From that point, the gig is up.

As Wenger said after the match, there were several ways to stop or slow that move, and the Gunners took none of them. More precise thought and action by Mertesacker, Coquelin, and Koscielny, in particular, might have snuffed out that particular attack. If that came at the expense of a yellow card, well, that would have been a worthwhile sacrifice under the circumstances.

The second goal resulted from another sequence of imprecise decisions and actions, these by Mertesacker and substitute Mathieu Flamini. Messi, as he does, exacted the punishment.

Arsenal’s goalmouth contagion shows no signs of subsiding

Most everyone expected that Arsenal would get few chances to score against this dominant Barcelona side. The directive, then, was to put away those opportunities that did come. The problem was that this objective ran against the Gunners’ recent attacking habits.

They finished goalless for the fifth time in the last eight matches.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had the most obvious chance, when Bellerin’s shot rebounded to him right in front of goal in the 22nd minute. With Barcelona keeper Marc-André ter Stegen already prostrate, Chamberlain kicked straight at the keeper when it may have been easier to score.

That was one of Arsenal’s three “Big Chances,” according to FourFourTwo StatsZone. The others fell to Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey. Giroud forced a decent save from ter Stegen with a contested header in the 60th minute, while Ramsey couldn’t poke home the equalizer from Danny Welbeck’s knockdown.

The suffering was more widespread in Arsenal’s scoreless FA Cup draw with Hull City last weekend, when eight Gunners took a total of 15 shots inside the Hull penalty area. Someone needs to overcome this grippe soon.

Hector Bellerin is the real deal

Bellerin’s emergence isn’t news. But on the biggest European stage, against the most formidable European opponent who happen to be his former employers, the young Spanish right back excelled.

When he came face-to-face with the tricky Neymar, Bellerin held his own. He was also able to wriggle out of pressure and made mostly sound decisions to clear the ball or to work it to a teammate. Bellerin’s speed also enhanced Arsenal’s counter-attacking threat, as in his blocked shot that fell to Oxlade-Chamberlain.

The stats reveal Bellerin’s solid performance. He succeeded on three of four tackles, made both the clearances he tried, and logged seven ball recoveries, tied for the most on the team with Koscielny. Bellerin also got past his man with four of seven dribbles, second on Arsenal behind Alexis, who was six of nine.

Extra time

Danny Welbeck is making a strong case for a regular starting spot. The forward, just three matches back from injury, played almost 20 minutes on Tuesday after 67 minutes three days earlier and brought a combination of speed and strength that troubled Barcelona. He outwitted and outran Javier Mascherano for one long ball, and his strong yet adept header to Ramsey nearly produced the equalizing goal.

It may not matter whether Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury forces him to the sidelines; Welbeck, his own fitness permitting, should get a run in the team.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Hull City: Win and Advance

Arsenal’s Last 16 FA Cup encounter with Hull City gives the aesthetic purists another occasion to miss the point.

Much is expected of the Gunners when they face theoretically inferior opposition at home in this competition. Not only must they win, they must do so with ease and style.

So when the team did not glide past Premier League strugglers Sunderland in the 3rd Round or Championship side Burnley in the 4th Round, a large contingent of supporters and observers criticized the players and managerial staff. This reaction ignored the nature and objective of knockout competition.

In one-off contests, the only thing that matters is to win. That’s especially been the case for Arsenal in these early FA Cup rounds because the matches have come when the team hasn’t been in top form. Its January doldrums, featuring three weeks without a win, accompanied by the unfamiliar lineups fielded in the Cup, rendered style irrelevant. Victory was paramount.

The scenario is slightly different for Saturday’s meeting with Hull City. The Gunners have won two league matches in succession, including the inspirational comeback over league leaders Leicester City on Sunday. Rather than using the FA Cup to return to winning habits, Arsenal can now see it as a way to accelerate their momentum.

A victory can put the Gunners into a confident mood as they face a crucial and busy two weeks. First, there’s the visit of seemingly indomitable Barcelona in Tuesday’s Champions League Round of 16. The following Sunday, they commence a seven-day league gantlet at Manchester United, followed by a midweek home match against Swansea, and closed with a trip across North London to take on their traditional and (whisper it) title rivals Tottenham.

Hull City have an even busier schedule, having won at Blackburn on February 13th and drawn with Brighton on February 16th, and facing matches at Ipswich Town on Tuesday the 23rd and against Sheffield Wednesday on Friday the 26th.

As a result, manager Steve Bruce won’t send his first choice, Championship-leading starting XI onto the Emirates pitch on Saturday. “Making changes is the only option I’ve got,” he said.

This means the Tigers’ very good performances—producing the third-highest goals total while conceding fewer than all but one other team in the Championship—may not be all that relevant. One theme that might be worth watching on Saturday is Hull’s attention to high-quality shots on goal. They’ve scored more often than any other Championship side from shots within the opposition penalty area.

That’s been a focus of Arsenal, too. But the Gunners’ biggest threat inside the area, center forward Olivier Giroud, isn’t likely to play on Saturday. Instead, the speedy duo of Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck, along with two players who’ve displayed a taste for the longer-range shot, Joel Campbell and Mohamed Elneny, will probably get starts.

It will be interesting to see how these players combine, particularly in the transitions from attack to defense to attack. With the speed of Walcott and Welbeck, Arsenal may well press Hull’s makeshift defense in an effort to force turnovers. That’s been an approach employed by manager Arsène Wenger at home, particularly when the right players are available and the opposition seems vulnerable.

Although this choice of style would be interesting, it won’t carry too much importance. What will matter on Saturday, as with all knockout matches, is the victory.

Key Matchup

Alex Iwobi against Hull City’s holding midfielders. The newest addition to Arsenal’s first-team squad has caught the eye in his appearances in this competition. Taking on the playmaker responsibilities from the Premier League’s top assist man Mesut Özil is a daunting prospect for a 19-year-old, but Iwobi has displayed the quickness of feet and thought to continue making Arsenal dangerous.

Despite manager Steve Bruce’s priority on rotating his outfit, Hull City will probably feature two experienced figures in the center of midfield, from the trio of Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone, and David Meyler. Livermore and Meyler, in particular, are physical, and Iwobi’s ability to deal with those attentions could determine how creative and effective Arsenal will be on the whole.

Where to Worry

Hull City possess wily wide players, including Sam Clucas, Sone Aluko, and Ahmed Elmohamady. They can dribble at isolated fullbacks and find teammates in dangerous positions farther forward. Arsenal will need to coordinate defensive coverage to minimize this threat.

Match Verdict

Hull will be diligent and canny defensively and will test Arsenal’s patience. In the end, though, the Gunners’ speed will lead to a similar outcome to those of the clubs’ two FA Cup meetings since May 2014, an Arsenal victory.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Theo Walcott. Walcott broke his scoring drought with the critical equalizer against Leicester City on Sunday. He’ll likely start this match at the tip of Arsenal’s attack, where his speed will concern the Hull City back line. If he and Danny Welbeck can synchronize their movements, expect at least one of them to hurt Hull with a goal.

Hull City. Nick Powell. The Manchester United loanee gets a chance to jumpstart his career at Hull City, and he’ll be looking to impress in his debut.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Arsenal 2 Leicester City 1: Three Things We Learned

For those justly annoyed over football's accelerating mutation into a mode of corporate consumption. For those unjustly condemnatory of a longtime, brilliant steward of Arsenal Football Club. For those weary of winter midnights and pre-dawns across the globe to witness our dreams for 20- to 35-year-old men meet the harsh realities of elite competition.

I give you Danny Welbeck in the 95th minute against Leicester City.

When the English forward returned from his 10-month injury absence and headed home to give Arsenal a critical 2-1 win over league leaders Leicester City, he joined us all in the euphoria. The joy we shared is the fundamental reason we follow sport.

Let's all pause and recognize that this Arsenal team has provided us with four such occasions already this season, in four different fashions, really: The first-half swamping of Manchester United, the brilliant rearguard action against world powers Bayern Munich, the makeshift inspiration against Manchester City, and now this, a dramatic infusion of faith.

Gratitude for those moments should be the primary thing we learned from this match. From an analytical perspective, here are three others.

Arsène Wenger's gambling instincts can still come up aces

The Arsenal manager showed he hasn't lost his taste for a bet. Instead of establishing a game plan to negate Leicester City's counterattacking strengths, Wenger sent his team out to do what they do best. The Gunners moved the ball quickly, attacked the Leicester defenders at speed, and kept plugging even when the breaks went against them.

This approach brought the rewards.

Arsenal had the better of the play in the first half, particularly in the opening 20 minutes, when the objective was obviously to score and force Leicester to spend the bulk of the match outside its defensive comfort zone. The goal didn't come, as often it doesn't, and Leicester got the break it needed when Jamie Vardy conned referee Martin Atkinson into awarding a penalty, which he dispatched.

Rather than sulk over this injustice, Arsenal started the second half assertively. The key, it turned out, was Alexis taking on Leicester right back Danny Simpson. Simpson's regular fouling of the Arsenal dynamo eventually led to a yellow card for a body block and a second yellow and expulsion for tugging back Olivier Giroud.

This handed the initiative squarely to the Gunners. Wenger took it and placed an even more substantial wager on his attackers. He replaced deep-lying midfielder Francis Coquelin with the dangerous but lately powerless Theo Walcott, who provided the cool finish that leveled the score on 70 minutes.

Then, knowing his team needed to win to legitimate their case as contenders for the league title, he sent on yet another forward, Welbeck, a player whose only action since last April consisted of 45 minutes with the Arsenal youth team.

As a result, Arsenal were fielding a goalkeeper, four defenders, one central midfielder with attacking instincts (Aaron Ramsey), playmaker Mesut Özil, and four forwards. Against a team deadly on the counterattack, even with 10 men.


Arsenal can achieve top intensity

Leicester reached the Premier League summit with a combination of persistent intensity and clinical finishing. Arsenal rose to the challenge, matching the league leaders' energy and desire.

These are impossible qualities to quantify and therefore overused by those who review matches. Mentions of "desire" and "mental strength"--or the lack thereof--usually signal laziness, ignorance, or at least the absence of analysis.

In this case, though, the manager had a supportable point when he said:
We put the intensity in from the first to the last minute. It was as well a mental test for us, because to find yourself down 1-0 at half-time to a team who defends so well, you need to keep going in your head. And we came back in the second half with relentless energy. And we took as well all the risks to win it. We knew a draw was not good enough. In the end it paid off, down to the mental desire of the team to give absolutely everything to win it.
The Gunners did not let up, producing nine of their 24 shots in the last 10 minutes of the match. The last one was the best.

Olivier Giroud's fortitude founded this performance

Arsenal's overall persistence and desire took form in center forward Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman, sometimes too demonstrative in his expressions of discomfort, more than held his own in the physical battle against Leicester's hulking center halves Robert Huth and Wes Morgan.

Giroud won 13 of 20 aerial duels, according to FourFourTwo's StatsZone app, and created four chances for teammates. One of those was the strong but cultured knockdown that invited Walcott to slot home the equalizing goal.

Giroud also made two tackles, including an eye-catching one as Arsenal increased the pressure after Walcott's goal. He chased down Leicester's tireless midfielder N'Golo Kanté well into the Arsenal half and nipped the ball to Alexis.

This was one example of Giroud's willingness to leave his predictable post; at other times, he ran left and unsettled Leicester's defense. Indeed, that was where Giroud spun Simpson and drew the decisive second yellow on Leicester's right back.

Extra time

A word here for Nacho Monreal. Arsenal's outstanding left back fell victim to Vardy's machinations for the penalty. Based on his overall performance, though, he deserved to be on the winning side.

The Spaniard shut down Leicester's dangerous Riyad Mahrez for the second game, this time without the concerted assistance of midfielder Santi Cazorla. He succeeded on five of seven tackles, made nine ball recoveries, and won all three of his headers.

Monreal was also Arsenal's second most prolific passer on the day, completing 72 of 80 (90 percent). His combination with Alexis, the second most frequent for the team, and his interplay with Ramsey, tied for the third most frequent combination, suggest the team may have found a new route from defense to attack.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

How Arsenal Can Beat Leicester

When league leaders Leicester City visit the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, the onus will be on Arsenal to accomplish what only one other Premier League team has done this season: Defeat the formidable Foxes.

Leicester’s story is now well-known. Nearly relegated into the Championship last season, the Midlands team hired veteran manager Claudio Ranieri and have rampaged through the league campaign to date. Thanks partly to a relatively clean injury record—Leicester have lost fewer player weeks to injury than all but one other team—and to a style that suits their personnel perfectly, the Foxes sit five points clear of Tottenham and Arsenal.

They visit London just after an impressive 3-1 away victory at Manchester City, and for Arsenal to reduce the five-point difference in the standings and energize their own push for the title, the Gunners must find a way to stop the Leicester juggernaut.

When the two sides met in September, Arsenal produced a swashbuckling 5-2 win. But a game plan that relies on outracing Leicester might not be wise here. For one thing, Arsenal haven’t been efficient recently, having failed to score in three straight league matches before notching two first-half goals against Bournemouth on Saturday. Leicester are also less generous than they were in September, with five clean sheets in their last seven matches.

There are several other approaches that could position Arsenal for victory on Sunday. Some are restrained; others, radical. This article examines some of the options available to manager Arsène Wenger and his team.

Let Leicester have the ball

Leicester have shown a preference for playing without possession. In 25 league matches, the Foxes have had more of the ball—that is, made more passes—than their opponents only twice, according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone app. One of those occasions was against a Bournemouth side reduced to 10 men by a 57th-minute red card.

This tactical choice plays to Leicester’s strengths. The Foxes have a skillful distributor in N’Golo Kanté, quick attackers in Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, and Shinji Okazaki, and a killer instinct in front of goal. That last attribute has given the team the best results in converting shots within the penalty area. (See 7AM Kickoff’s "Leicester are winning the league through superior finishing” for an analysis.)

One way, then, for Arsenal to mitigate Leicester’s strengths would be to relinquish possession to the visitors. This would need to happen in a controlled way with Arsenal’s players organized, coordinated, and positioned behind the ball.

Although such an approach would mark a departure from Arsenal’s overall playing philosophy, there’s considerable precedent for it. In important matches against accomplished opponents, such as Bayern Munich and Manchester City, the Gunners have sacrificed possession for the sake of controlling dangerous spaces.

Granted, Bayern and Man City are possession-based sides and were more than happy to take Arsenal up on the offer. It’s not clear how a possession-averse side like Leicester would respond.

Still, last season Arsenal went to West Ham, managed by defense-and-long-ball aficionado Sam Allardyce, compiled just 42 percent possession, and came away 2-1 winners. A similar approach and result would be welcome on Sunday.

Make Leicester’s defense move

In September, Arsenal succeeded in unsettling Leicester’s back line. They’re less susceptible to speed now because they’re less adventurous and better protected by Kanté and Danny Drinkwater. That certainly showed in last week’s win over Man City, when Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Raheem Sterling failed to make a telling mark despite their quickness.

But, as Adrian Clarke points out on the Official Arsenal Weekly Podcast, Leicester center backs Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are not the fleetest afoot and might not cover a midfield run from Aaron Ramsey or Mesut Özil if Arsenal center forward Olivier Giroud can occupy both of them for an instant.

Similarly, the Leicester fullbacks, Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs, are not all that fast by the standards of the Premier League. They rely on sound positioning and organization to control wide attackers. Counterattacks at speed by Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or the kind of direct play Tim Stillman described on this week's Arsenal Vision Post-Match Podcast could stake Arsenal to an advantage.

Double up Riyad Mahrez

Mahrez is the Foxes’ creative genius and, with Vardy, their one-two goal combination. Keeping him quiet will go a long way, though not all the way, to squelching Leicester’s attack.

Arsenal largely succeeded at this task in September by skillful defending on its left. Fullback Nacho Monreal had an excellent day and received consistent support from midfielder Santi Cazorla. The two didn’t allow Mahrez to surge into attack, and they limited the space through which he could dribble. Mahrez began to work the other flank in response.

Cazorla’s absence complicates Arsenal’s effort to reprise this performance. Ramsey is capable of the diligence required, as he showed against Bournemouth last weekend and in prior seasons as Mikel Arteta’s midfield partner. But his work will have to be in synch with Monreal’s and with that of either Mathieu Flamini or Francis Coquelin. Flamini, who started alongside Cazorla at Leicester, hasn’t developed the most seamless partnership with Ramsey, while Coquelin has hardly played with the Welshman.

Defending against the threat posed by Mahrez will therefore be a real test.

Match Leicester’s formation

This would be a radical and unlikely choice.

Leicester’s setup is described as a 4-4-2, but it’s more of a 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-5-1. Okazaki plays behind Vardy and serves as both a second striker and as an additional midfielder. His energy and ability in the tackle permit him to execute these dual roles.

Arsenal could send out a mirror image of this formation, which would give the Gunners more security to relinquish the ball (as in the option above). It would also put Arsenal players in better position to pressure Leicester’s long passes from midfield.

Those are both reasonable objectives, but committing to this structure would involve several major personnel changes. First, to match not only Leicester’s formation but its energy, Arsenal would most likely position Ramsey further forward. He’d be the best equipped to execute the Okazaki role, as he does for the Welsh national side.

With Ramsey in a more advanced role than normal, Arsenal would need a different partnership in central midfield, some mix of Flamini, Coquelin, and Mohammed Elneny. Playmaker Mesut Özil would shift to one flank with Alexis on the other. Giroud could still lead the line in this setup, but the attack would be more static than is customary.

I don’t think we’ll see this structure or lineup on Sunday. It would take Arsenal away from its strengths, disrupt the flow, and dislodge the team’s best player this season. Wenger isn’t likely to take such a gamble in this crucial encounter.

There are other, more tested, ways of making the most of Arsenal’s advantages while minimizing Leicester’s considerable threats. No doubt as Sunday’s critical encounter approaches, Wenger and his staff are weighing these options with more experience and wisdom than Arsenal bloggers and twitterati would.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Bournemouth 0 Arsenal 2: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal won its first league match in five outings, defeating Bournemouth 2-0 at the Vitality Stadium on Sunday.

First-class goals by Mesut Özil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, separated by just 90 seconds of the first half, proved enough for the Gunners to secure their first away league victory in almost two months and to position them for a push at leaders Leicester City when the two sides meet next weekend.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Mesut Özil brings calm

Knowing they needed a win to keep pace with Leicester and recognizing they hadn’t delivered one since downing Newcastle on January 2, the Gunners were edgy at the start. Their passes seemed rushed, their touches were a bit off, and their one look at goal, via Alexis Sanchez, lacked quality.

Özil calmed everyone down.

His finish ended a passage of play that displayed several Arsenal players’ strengths. Aaron Ramsey, afforded time and space about 30 yards from the Bournemouth goal, looked to his right, then lobbed a pass toward the back post. There, both Alexis and Olivier Giroud attacked the ball, Giroud winning it and heading just outside the six-yard box.

Özil ran onto the ball and, as it bounced, clobbered it with his right foot into the roof of the net. An absolute no-doubter that gave Arsenal the comfort of an early lead.

In addition to that goal, Özil settled the play with his work on the ball throughout the match. He completed 52 of 56 passes (93 percent), according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone app, including 22 of 25 in Arsenal’s attacking third. He also made 11 ball recoveries, tied for most on the team with Ramsey.

Perhaps Özil recognized the need for control and took fewer risks. That did affect his creative output a bit, as he created just two chances for teammates, a low number by his standards.

But his influence was critical and solidified his status as Arsenal’s most important player so far this season.

Aesthetics don’t matter at this point

Arsenal needed to earn points in the league table, not style points, from this match. That’s exactly what they did.

Conditions didn’t favor an eye-catching display anyway. Bournemouth were energetic hosts with experience knocking off top teams on the South Coast. The Dean Court pitch was choppy, and a strong wind swirled around the small ground. Late on, a squall blew in and worsened the elements.

These factors did have an effect. Arsenal’s defenders had trouble judging long balls, and iffy moments with the wind from Gabriel and Nacho Monreal led to threats on Petr Cech’s goal. The Czech keeper had an uncharacteristically bad day distributing the ball, as the wind caught several of his throws and goal kicks and took them out of play.

Arsenal played through these potential distractions and kept focus. When the defense lapsed, Cech was ready to make several crucial saves. In other instances, his teammates threw themselves in front of Bournemouth shots, making six blocks, or chasing down their opponents, as fullback Hector Bellerin did when Gabriel couldn’t deal with the long ball to Bournemouth’s Marc Pugh.

It was far from a scintillating display, but in context it was precisely the effort and execution required.

Arsenal’s center backs are still adjusting

Laurent Koscielny, captain on the day, and Gabriel, preferred again to Per Mertesacker, were strong in some respects and less so in others. They did the basic job of central defenders, keeping the opposition strikers quiet, very well. Former Gunner Benik Afobe, leading the Bournemouth line, did not get off a shot. Koscielny, in particular, ably marshaled Afobe and was well positioned to deal with other threats.

Where he and Gabriel struggled was in the effort to move Arsenal from defense into attack. It’s been observed in many places that Santi Cazorla’s absence in midfield has affected the Gunners’ transitions, and here without Mertesacker’s knack for a pass from the back, Arsenal again sputtered.

One passage of play in the first half showed the struggles clearly. Gabriel retrieved the ball and came under a bit of pressure from Bournemouth. He sought a way out via Mathieu Flamini in midfield, but Flamini just passed the ball right back to Gabriel. Gabriel then tried right back Hector Bellerin, who could do little more than find Flamini in the center of midfield again. Flamini went back to Gabriel, who had no choice but to lump it up field and out of play.

Sequences such as this have been all too common in recent weeks. There are signs that Arsenal are looking for other ways forward, such as from Monreal to Alexis, which was the team’s second highest passing combination on Sunday, or, thanks to Alexis’s return, more energetic efforts to win the ball closer to the opposition’s goal. Arsenal will need to explore these avenues as opponents continue their clear approach of putting pressure on the Gunners’ center backs and central midfielders.

Extra time

Oxlade-Chamberlain showed a flash of genuine quality with his goal. It might not have been as eye-catching as Özil’s, but his strike was very difficult. His first touch of Ramsey’s pass got him away from the defender, but his angle on goal was narrowing quickly as he ran slightly away from goal. He released his shot at the last possible moment, created decent power, and placed it precisely.

This was evidence of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s athleticism, and we’re all hoping the confidence he gains from scoring his first league goal since September 2014 will enhance his contributions to Arsenal’s title challenge.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Southampton: Wake up in February Makeup

When Arsenal welcome Southampton on Tuesday to start the month of February, the Gunners can hope to ride two trends.

During manager Arsène Wenger’s tenure, his teams have displayed a tendency to surge in the final months of league campaigns. As Amy Lawrence explains in “Arsenal Could Be Blown All the Way to Glory by Trademark Second Wind,” Wenger’s title-winning sides went on long successful runs, sometimes overhauling league leaders, in the second halves of seasons.

Indeed, in the past 10 seasons, only twice have Arsenal have dropped spots in the table during a season’s second half--in 2013-14, when the Gunners fell from first to fourth, and in 2007-08, when they dropped from first to third. On three occasions, Arsenal maintained its league position, and five times the club moved up the table.

After 19 matches of the current season, having played each league opponent once, Arsenal were top of the league. A month later, they sit third, three points behind leaders Leicester City.

The midweek date with Southampton looks like the moment to commence the characteristic charge. A victory here would also follow Arsenal’s odd and arbitrary, on-again-off-again pattern of monthly results. The Gunners went unbeaten in the league in October, then won none of their three league matches in November. December brought four wins in five, followed by a January in which the only league victory (in four matches) came on the 2nd of the month against Newcastle.

It’s also a potential watershed match because Southampton have posed Arsenal difficulty in recent years. There’s of course the 4-0 loss at Saint Mary’s on Boxing Day, following other lackluster showings on the South Coast. At home, Arsenal haven’t exactly overwhelmed the Saints, either, needing a late Alexis strike to see off the visitors last season and an 86th-minute Olivier Giroud penalty to secure three points the season before.

Expect this to be another tight affair. After a shaky period, Southampton appear to have sorted out the defensive issues. The Saints have held Manchester United, West Bromwich Albion, and Watford scoreless in their last three league fixtures. Those performances—and the way they shut out Arsenal in December—will probably serve as the model for Tuesday’s game plan.

The difference this time out is that Southampton won’t be able to concentrate so much attention on Mesut Özil. In the previous fixture, Southampton’s Jordy Clasie man-marked Arsenal’s playmaker and creative hub, while defensive midfield partner Victor Wanyama controlled everything else.

The return of Alexis Sanchez, whose hamstring injury preventing him from playing in December, poses problems for Southampton’s approach. If the Saints focus too much on Özil, Alexis could find more room to drive at goal. He’ll also help Arsenal harry the opposition defenders, increasing the likelihood of turnovers that he and Özil can quickly turn into threats.

Arsenal executed a similar plan to perfection against Manchester United in early October. There’s evidence that Southampton’s defenders are just as susceptible to such aggressive pressing: Pressing sides Tottenham and Liverpool both overwhelmed the Saints on their home ground in December.

A resurgence of similar energy levels and renewed focus from Arsenal, fueled by the returns of Alexis and Francis Coquelin, would change the dynamic on Tuesday. More to the point, these improvements would bode well for Arsenal’s three other important league fixtures in February and for the 11 subsequent contests to close the season.

Key Matchup

Jordy Clasie and Victor Wanyama against Mesut Özil. Without dwelling on the result, the Arsenal players and coaching staff will have studied Southampton’s approach in December and noted the focus on Özil. The German playmaker will have devised ways to free himself or to use Southampton’s attention to provide more space and time to his teammates.

That’s a less complicated task in a home match than it is on the road, and teams that come to the Emirates planning to man-mark any member of the Arsenal midfield usually regret it. Making Southampton pay for that choice, should they make it, will be important for Arsenal on Tuesday.

Where to Worry

Southampton are dangerous with crosses, headers, and set pieces. They’re the league’s most prolific crossers, with 436 in 23 matches, they have headed in 10 goals to lead the league, and their 10 goals from non-penalty set pieces rank second. Arsenal’s center back pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny will need to be attentive to this threat, and goalkeeper Petr Cech will need to continue his outstanding command of his penalty area.

Match Verdict

Both these teams will put in maximum effort. Southampton have climbed to eighth position in the league and will try to advance further. Arsenal know the necessity of reasserting home dominance if their title challenge is to persist. A gritty battle in the midfield, decided by a moment of brilliance in the forward line, seems how this match is likely to unfold. In Alexis, Arsenal again have that difference maker in attack.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Francis Coquelin. The Frenchman returned to action after a two-month layoff in Saturday’s FA Cup win over Burnley. He wasn’t in top form, as you’d expect, but his awareness and effort helped Arsenal largely control the midfield. Coquelin will be important in the same respect on Tuesday, and his lateral work should reduce Southampton’s threat from crosses. His relatively untried partnership with Aaron Ramsey in the center of the park will also be worth watching.

Southampton. Charlie Austin. The former Queens Park Rangers front man enjoyed a Southampton debut to remember last weekend, scoring the game-winning goal at Old Trafford as a substitute. If manager Ronald Koeman is reluctant to use regular starter Graziano Pellè after his three-week injury absence, Austin could lead the line; or he could come off the bench and pose a legitimate threat. After all, he scored both times Arsenal faced QPR last season.