Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Basel: Roll On

When Arsenal host FC Basel in the Champions League on Tuesday, the Gunners can establish a strong position in their Champions League group and continue their good form.

The Match Day One draw in Paris, on paper the most difficult of Arsenal’s group stage matches, gives the team a slight advantage in its qualifying campaign. Three home wins all but guarantee progress to the knockout phase.

A positive result would also extend the promising trend the Gunners have set since their opening-day league loss to Liverpool. They’re on a seven-match unbeaten run with a relatively attractive schedule until early November.

Basel will not be an easy target—the Swiss side has slain English giants in the past. They have also dominated the Swiss Super League, having won nine of nine matches while conceding just seven goals.

With respect, that competition will have not had the quality of Arsenal.

That’s the case even though we can expect manager Arsène Wenger to adjust his starting XI. Midfielder Francis Coquelin will miss out, having re-injured his right knee on Saturday. That means a start for Granit Xhaka against his former club.

Although Wenger did not rotate his side against Paris-Saint Germain, this looks like an opportunity to deploy some members of his strong squad. Based on their performances against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup, Kieran Gibbs, Mohamed Elneny, and Lucas Perez merit consideration.

Will Wenger go for this scale of change in a Champions League match? It would break from his usual practice, but four goals by the second string at Nottingham Forest point to a wealth of worthy attacking options.

The incoming quartet would bring a slightly different style of play from that of the vanquishers of Chelsea. A little less aggression and a little more flow in midfield, primarily. Lucas and Alexis Sanchez interchanging in attack could also cause problems for a Basel defense unaccustomed to their levels of speed and tenacity.

Of course, the XI Wenger sent out against Chelsea, with just Xhaka in for Coquelin, would be just as daunting a proposition for the visitors.

Key Matchup

Mesut Özil against Taulant Xhaka. Arsenal’s playmaker ran the show against Chelsea. His skills and smarts pose a constant menace to opposition defenders. Xhaka, facing his brother’s new team, will have to marshal his midfield teammates to minimize the space Özil can exploit.

Where to Worry

Arsenal’s biggest concern should be overconfidence. The Gunners look convincing but can’t take any match for granted. They’ll need to bring comparable intensity and swiftness of thought to this encounter, even if on paper the opposition is weaker. Because we’ve seen the consequences of not doing that in the past.

Match Verdict

I’m not entirely convinced by the momentum factor in football; I’ve never seen statistics to support the narrative of a team on a roll. So in this case, the focus, form, and quality Arsenal can showcase in 18 players will most likely be too much for Basel.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Granit Xhaka. Arsenal’s Swiss acquisition will have a chance to run this match from deep in the midfield. He launches attacks in a different way than Coquelin does—incisive passing vs. aggressive interception—and it will be interesting to watch Arsenal’s attack flow with Xhaka in charge.

Basel. Seydou Doumbia. Basel’s Ivorian striker, who has been rotated like Swiss clockwork with target man Marc Janko, will likely get the call with his teammate injured. Doumbia has six league goals in eight league appearances.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Match Preview, PSG v Arsenal: The Setup

Arsenal’s initial match of the Champions League campaign in Paris on Tuesday carries both peril and potential.

On paper, it’s the toughest of the Gunners’ group stage encounters. The runaway Ligue 1 champions are the top seed and recent four-time quarterfinalists in this competition. Arsenal also have a habit of starting the Champions League slowly, if not stupidly, losing the last two openers.

You wouldn’t fancy a reversal of that trend against one of Europe’s free-spending clubs. But other factors may weigh in Arsenal’s favor this time.

The biggest advantage is disarray at PSG. The club cashiered Laurent Blanc at the end of last season and hired Unai Emery from Seville, where he won an unprecedented three consecutive Europa League titles. The two managers’ philosophies differ, and a roster largely of Blanc’s making hasn’t easily adapted.

The Parisians also lost their most potent offensive threat, striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Without their Swedish talisman, PSG have so far lacked a player capable of rescuing them from pedestrian displays. They’ve labored in three of four Ligue 1 matches, including Friday’s home draw with Saint-Etienne.

Part of those struggles can be attributed to defensive injuries. Team captain Thiago Silva has been out; Maxwell, Serge Aurier, and Layvin Kurzawa have also missed time. With the exits of David Luiz and Gregory Van Der Wiel, PSG had only one experienced defender, Marquinos, by the end of the Saint-Etienne match.

Will Arsenal’s offensive threat be enough to capitalize? In eight halves of league play, the Gunners seemed fluid in one, the first half at Watford. They mustered just one non-penalty shot on target in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Southampton. That came from center back Laurent Koscielny, a bicycle-kick equalizer.

In truth, though, manager Arsène Wenger hasn’t yet fielded his first-choice attacking unit. Center forward Olivier Giroud has only appeared as a substitute, playmaker Mesut Özil had limited action in the season’s first two matches, and Alexis played just a half-hour on Saturday.

If Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey are also candidates for the first XI, we’d have to say the Gunners haven’t deployed their firepower in full.

Whether Wenger decides to open up in Paris is an intriguing question. When Arsenal have had poor results in Europe, the cause has most often been unwise aggression. The Gunners have been undone by continentals’ tactical savvy and efficient finishing. So there’s a case for a more circumspect approach here.

That would include enhanced positional awareness and flow in the midfield. PSG’s biggest strength, developed under Blanc, is in the center of the park. Marco Veratti, Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta, and Adrien Rabiot are all smooth conductors of play. It wouldn’t be a surprise for Wenger to choose Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny as a partnership to try to counter PSG there.

Their relative freshness—and that of their teammates farther forward--gives the manager flexibility he’s rarely enjoyed. As he remarked in his pre-match press conference, “I haven’t decided. The players don’t know the team.”

How he clarifies his thinking will be telling.

Key Matchup

Nacho Monreal against Lucas Moura. What dynamism PSG have generated thus far has come from the Brazilian winger. He’s a crafty presence, shown by the average of 4.1 dribbles he’s attempted every 90 minutes he’s played. Monreal held up well as Southampton tried to isolate him. He’ll need a similar performance and more support against Lucas.

Where to Worry

Arsenal’s midfield left too many gaps against Southampton, especially in the first 20 minutes. The Gunners can’t allow their hosts’ slick passers time to find their forwards, even if the likes of Edison Cavani and Angel Di María have been less than efficient in front of goal.

Match Verdict

Midfield skill will be on display, but the sides’ strengths in this area will likely cancel each other out. Loose defending permits a goal each. Arsenal emerges with a draw in its toughest group match.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman has an opportunity to silence some of his homeland critics. He’ll face a PSG backline unsettled by injury and unused to his brand of physical play.

PSG. Angel Di María. The Argentine is PSG’s creative mind. He’s capable of magical moments off the dribble, with the pass, and on free kicks.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Southampton: New Boys Rewrite Old Tale

After an eventful international break, Arsenal host Southampton on Saturday. It will be the first home match since the ignominious, season-opening loss to Liverpool. That seems long ago.

The Emirates Stadium will see a substantially different squad this weekend. Not only are the team’s top players—Alexis, Mesut Özil, Laurent Koscielny—now ready for action, they will be joined by recent arrivals Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Pérez.

As a result, manager Arsène Wenger has a deeper pool of talent and experience to plumb for his starting lineup. Wenger admitted as much in his pre-match press conference, saying “It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve had a team of what you can call men ready to compete.”

Southampton will, as always, test how ready these Gunners are.

Although three league matches aren’t enough to determine patterns of play and statistical trends, it does seem that new Saints manager Claude Puel is departing from the style of his predecessor Ronald Koeman. As Adrian Clarke explains in his “Chalkboard” segment on the Official Arsenal Weekly Podcast, Puel has installed a 4-4-2 formation with a midfield diamond of Oriol Romeu, Steven Davis, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and Dusan Tadic.

This presents two opportunities to Arsenal. The Gunners can gain numerical superiority in the midfield and weave their way around their counterparts, using the skill and vision of Granit Xhaka, Santi Cazorla, and Özil to full effect. They can also exploit openings created when Southampton’s fullbacks advance to provide width to the attack. The runs of Alexis and Theo Walcott could be especially dangerous in this respect.

Whatever the path forward, the key will be finishing the chances the Gunners create. That was obviously the downfall in this fixture last season, when Arsenal took 22 shots, put 11 on target, and drew a blank. In two of three matches so far this season, scoring has not been a problem—while Southampton have failed to prevent their opponents from scoring each time out. Perhaps we can expect a different dynamic from this encounter.

Arsenal’s defense will most likely have a different look. Mustafi will probably take over from Rob Holding beside Koscielny, giving the Gunners an experienced, aggressive central defensive tandem. Mustafi’s decision-making will be tested right away by the wily and speedy Saints attackers Nathan Redmond and Shane Long.

In all, there should be plenty of new developments to hold the interest in this one. Let’s hope the conclusion differs from those of recent Arsenal-Southampton meetings, of which only one of the past six produced an Arsenal win.

Key Matchup

Granit Xhaka against Dusan Tadic. These two will determine which team dictates play. Tadic provides the creativity for Southampton, while Xhaka patrols the opposition’s creative zone and launches Arsenal. How each fulfills his respective offensive role while hindering his opponent will influence the course of the match.

Where to Worry

The biggest Arsenal concern is integrating new arrivals and recent returnees. How well do Mustafi and Koscielny gel at the center of the defense? Is Olivier Giroud ready to lead the line again, and can he destabilize the powerful Southampton defenders José Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk? Or will the more mobile Pérez be introduced right away, and, if so, how will he cope with the Premier League’s physicality?

Match Verdict

A protracted tactical contest in the midfield swings Arsenal’s way thanks to the mobility, variety, and intelligence of the Gunners’ front line.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Mesut Özil. This team is so much more threatening with the German playmaker in the lineup. He’s a genius at manipulating space and buying time to make the killer pass. He can also get himself into promising scoring positions, as he did in the most recent league match against Watford and in this fixture last season.

Southampton. Fraser Forster. The Saints’ #1 suffered an arm injury on England duty, but Puel says he should be ready for Saturday. Forster stood on his head in this fixture last season, and a similar performance would frustrate Arsenal and its fans.