Friday, March 4, 2016

Match Preview, Tottenham v Arsenal: The Vermaelen Moment?

Since the trip to Liverpool in mid-January, our match previews have been exhorting Arsenal to stand and deliver. To stake a claim to the Premier League title.

It’s no revelation that they haven’t done so. Eight points from seven matches is the proof.

Now, the Gunners’ visit to the most threatening Tottenham side in half a century carries some major implications. Those include losing a third consecutive league match for only the fourth time in manager Arsène Wenger’s 20-year tenure, falling nine points behind leaders Leicester City with only nine matches to play, casting serious doubt on another St. Totteringham’s Day due to a six-point deficit, and raising the risk of finishing below the Champions League positions.

Given these massive stakes and the toothless performances produced by the team recently, the question arises—Does Wenger see this as another Vermaelen moment? A point in the season that necessitates a radical move?

You’ll recall that after a 2-1 defeat in the March 2013 North London Derby left Arsenal 10 points adrift of the rivals, Wenger benched club captain Thomas Vermaelan and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and rode the new central defensive partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker to eight wins and two draws in the season’s final 10 matches. That run, during which the Gunners gave up just five goals, allowed them to pip Spurs for third place and that season’s last Champions League spot.

A similar shakeup seems needed to push this team to a strong finish. Even that might not be enough to grab the league title, but it could aid Arsenal’s efforts to win a third straight FA Cup and to quell a supporter revolt.

Wenger can consider several options. As was the case when midfielders Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin were injured in the fall, the manager could change the formation and work different personnel into the mix.

Because the midfield hasn’t seemed coherent in Cazorla’s absence and because Tottenham may be the best English team at exploiting that particular weakness, Wenger could switch to a 4-3-3 with Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey, and Mohammed Elneny offering physicality, energy, and better flow in the midfield. An even more extreme solution, explored by Dave Seagar in “The New Formation to Best Use Our Fit Players, Re-energize Alexis, and Beat Spurs,” would be a 4-3-1-2 with the midfield just described and the striker pairing of Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez.

That such overhauls seem like reasonable responses shows the extent of Arsenal’s struggles.

There’s also the option of adjusting the personnel within the current framework. This is the choice Wenger made after the Coquelin and Cazorla injuries, an approach that proved neither optimal nor fatal through November and December.

With the players available now, a similar lineup adjustment seems less problematic. Elneny could come into the midfield beside Coquelin in the 4-2-3-1, helping to break pressure with his canny movement and clean passing. Ramsey could move forward and right, whence he served the midfield and attack well in the fall. Indeed, that deployment, with Olivier Giroud or Danny Welbeck as the lone striker, looks closest to the one that appeared so strong in October.

It would be a bit harsh for Joel Campbell, who was Arsenal’s brightest player in the midweek loss to Swansea, but he’ll see action either Saturday or Tuesday in the FA Cup replay at Hull City.

Whichever selections Wenger makes, his charges will face a stern test. Tottenham are energetic, physical, and well-drilled. They too lost on Wednesday, but that was a dip in an otherwise impressive run of results. They might be susceptible to being pressed themselves and have shown some weakness defending set pieces—cue Mesut Özil and Danny Welbeck on the latter. Otherwise, they seem designed to overwhelm Arsenal in its current state.

And yet, these matches aren’t played in theory, on keyboards, or on lifelike video games. As long as that’s the case, possibilities abound until the final whistle blows.

Key Matchup

Francis Coquelin against Delli Alli. As Adrian Clarke observed on the club’s weekly podcast, the confrontation of the teams’ energetic youngsters may determine the shape of the match. Alli is the trigger of the Spurs press whose quickness forces opposition midfielders into hasty decisions. He latches onto turnovers and launches Tottenham’s attack.

Coquelin will certainly need technical assistance breaking that Alli-led line of pressure, but he should have no problem in the physical battle. The Frenchman gives as good as he gets and has shown signs of strengthening form against Manchester United and Swansea.

Where to Worry

Honestly, the signs from Arsenal’s recent performances are not encouraging. Goals have been lacking, the midfield has been disjointed going forward and retreating, experienced defenders have made poor decisions. The savior, goalkeeper Petr Cech, has come up lame, so David Ospina will have to keep Spurs out.

Match Verdict

Spurs apply an uncomfortable amount of pressure for 70 minutes and hope that pays off in a lead that they can ride the final 20 minutes. Arsenal go back to basics, show some professional pride, and produce a disciplined performance. The match turns on a set piece or the referee’s decision.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. He starts on the right or leads the line. His speed, physicality, desire to make up for lost time, and growing confidence in front of goal could make the day extremely difficult for Tottenham’s defenders, who, though organized, can’t match Welbeck’s athleticism.

Manchester United. Christian Eriksen. The Dane creates from the flanks for Spurs and is a crafty deliverer of set pieces. Arsenal’s midfielders need to track his movements, and defenders can’t give away silly free kicks to him.

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