Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Southampton: Changes Coming

We can expect another change in complexion for Arsenal's EFL Cup quarterfinal match with Southampton on Wednesday.

Manager Arsène Wenger made seven alterations to his starting lineup between last Wednesday’s Champions League draw with Paris-Saint Germain and Sunday’s 3-1 league win over Bournemouth. The only holdovers were central defenders Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi, playmaker Mesut Özil, and center forward Alexis Sanchez.

Selecting that quartet for two high-profile matches shows its importance to the current Arsenal team. In all likelihood, Koscielny, Mustafi, Özil, and Alexis will get a deserved rest against Southampton. They will have few opportunities for days off before the return fixture against Bournemouth on January 2.

In their places, Wenger will send out young players and squad stalwarts—Rob Holding and Gabriel in the center of defense, for example, and Alex Iwobi in the attacking midfield.

The center forward choice will be an interesting one. Recent league supersub Olivier Giroud would get the nod up front, but he tweaked his groin on Sunday and may need more time to recover. Lucas Perez will be in the squad after a month-injury absence; he might not be ready to start, though.

The other options would be Theo Walcott, replaced by Giroud after 75 minutes on Sunday, Iwobi as part of a fluid front four, or debutante Stephy Mavididi. None ideal. As a result, Wenger may have to fend off arguments from the indefatigable and insistent Alexis for another run-out.

We’ll also see Kieran Gibbs return to left back and Francis Coquelin to the center of midfield. Other candidates for starting roles include Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Chris Willock.

All have earned playing time in Arsenal’s two wins in this competition. They’ll be backed by goalkeeper Emi Martinez.

This group will face its stiffest test in this competition so far. Not only are Southampton the first top-flight side to play Arsenal in this year’s cup, the Saints have posed serious challenges to the Gunners of late. Arsenal’s 2-1, stoppage-time, league win in September was just their second in seven outings against Southampton. That included a 2-1 loss in this competition two years ago.

Like Wenger, Southampton manager Claude Puel should adjust his starting XI from the one that defeated Everton 1-0 at the weekend. The Saints’ schedule is just as busy as the Gunners’, with a return to London against Crystal Palace and a crunch Europa League matchup with Hapoel Be’er Sheva in the next eight days.

There’s also precedent for Puel to rotate for this competition. He switched nine starters between Southampton’s league draw at Manchester City and the 1-0 home win over Sunderland in the last round.

Key Matchup

Alex Iwobi against Harrison Reed and Jordy Clasie. If Özil does get the break as anticipated, much of Arsenal’s creative burden will fall to Iwobi. He has not made much of an impact recently—as is normal for players who burst into the first team. Southampton are a difficult team to unlock, largely because their deep midfielders and defenders work so well together. Iwobi will need to find his daring and execution to create chances for his teammates.

Where to Worry

Shane Long annoys Arsenal every time he faces them. The Irish striker is tireless both in his running and in his niggly fouling. He’ll try to get under Gabriel’s skin and hope for a mistake from the relatively inexperienced defensive partnership of Arsenal.

Match Verdict

This one has the makings of a cagey and uneven affair. Because both teams will have relatively new makeups, synching the attacks might prove difficult. The heightened, if only mildly, pressure of a quarterfinal with Wembley on the distant horizon might also have a psychological effect on the players.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. His double propelled Arsenal to a 2-0 win over Reading in the last round. The incentive of facing his former club, plus his improved performances aside from his North London Derby cameo, could push him to make a telling impact here.

Southampton. Stuart Taylor. The ex-Arsenal man, now 36, may get his Southampton debut in goal in the absence of Alex McCarthy. He’ll need all that experience and good relationships with his back four to keep Arsenal’s youthful attack from bamboozling him.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mesut Özil and Arsenal's Midfield Misadventure

When Arsenal's offense hums, playmaker Mesut Özil orchestrates it. But neither he nor the team got into a rhythm in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United. The Gunners’ inability to register a shot on target until Olivier Giroud’s equalizer in the 89th minute seems like clear proof of the team’s ineffectiveness on the day.

Combine that reality with the hosts’ crisper passing and effective defending, and you get a rather unpleasant display for Arsenal fans. A pleasing result, no doubt, but not with the aesthetic quality we would like to see.

Pause from the monocause

As ever in this era of reductive outrage, many observers laid the responsibility at the feet of either Özil or Aaron Ramsey. The attacking midfielders carried the creative potential in this particular starting XI; the other members of the front six tended to the direct (Alexis, Theo Walcott) or the risk managers (Francis Coquelin, Mohammed Elneny).

It’s true that neither Özil nor Ramsey created a chance for a teammate. Between them, they completed only one pass in the opposition penalty area. And neither took a shot.

So at one level you can see why Arsenal’s two talents took criticism for the pedestrian display overall.

But those complaints, true to our age, oversimplify complex developments.

Kelly Wood’s defense of Ramsey, “Aaron Ramsey! He is Great,” hammers the Ramsey critics effectively, so I won’t restate her points here. What I will do instead is try to understand the dynamics that brought on this performance, particularly from Özil.

So, what’s Özil’s scenario?

First, the statistics don’t reveal anything out of the ordinary. Özil completed 58 passes against Manchester United, just one fewer than his season average. His passing accuracy of 86 percent was only one percentage point lower than his norm so far this year.

The difference was where Özil did this work. Instead of combining with Alexis and Walcott on the edge or in Manchester United’s penalty area, the German playmaker operated much closer to midfield. The heat maps on show Özil frequenting the middle third. That was a change of his sphere of influence, given that he’s one of the Premier League’s most prolific final-third passers.

Not only did this shift of activity take Özil away from where he’s most dangerous, it jammed him into an area where others were operating. In particular, Alexis dropped deep from his center forward position to receive the ball—note the overlap with Özil on the heat map.

Rather than creating triangles to facilitate quick passing, the Gunners’ close proximity to each other in midfield allowed Manchester United’s midfielders to clog the spaces.

There was another team on the pitch

That was central to Jose Mourinho’s brutal design.

The Manchester United manager set out to deny Özil opportunities on the ball. The German genius often found himself surrounded by three opposition players—center backs Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones pushing up and midfielder Michael Carrick shielding passes into him. When he ventured to the left, right back Antonio Valencia and a central midfielder usually had him cornered.

Loosening these defensive shackles proved difficult. It required guile and skill from Özil's midfield teammates or a dangerous distraction elsewhere.

For all their positive qualities and contributions, Coquelin and Elneny could not provide the craft to free Özil. The central pair focused on breaking up the hosts’ attacks and making the simple pass out. These two responsibilities were difficult enough, what with the harassment they received from Ander Herrera.

To find the well-marshalled Özil, they needed more daring.

Creative responsibility wasn’t their brief, though, as manager Arsène Wenger admitted afterward. “I knew it would be a bit more of a physical battle, so I chose players who have experience and fight,” he told

Method to the midfield

There’s a logic to this approach. Many factors weighed against Arsenal in this match, even if this wasn’t the most fearsome Manchester United lineup of all time.

Early kickoff. Return from the international break. The Mourinho hoodoo. A 10-year league victory drought at Old Trafford. Injuries to dynamic players like Hector Bellerin and Santi Cazorla.

In that context, you can understand a more circumspect approach from Arsenal. Wenger was right that midfield robustness was important; it’s just that his charges didn’t cope superbly with the aggressiveness of Manchester United in that area of the pitch.

They handled it well enough to get a draw. If the players’ post-game comments are a true indication, they’ll be honest in their assessment of the performance and optimistic that better outings lie ahead.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Match Preview, Ludogorets v Arsenal: Not So Fast

Arsenal travel to Bulgaria to face Ludogorets Razgrad on Tuesday, with the opportunity of setting the pace in Champions League Group A.

The Gunners are level on points with Paris Saint-Germain and have a superior goal difference, so the target of winning the group is within reach with three matches to go.

The team shouldn’t grab for that objective prematurely, though. Any dip in performance or focus could be costly here.

Ludogorets posed dangers two weeks ago when they visited the Emirates. Yes, Arsenal ran out 6-0 winners, but there were moments in the first half when Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina had to intervene and prevent the Bulgarian side from seizing the initiative.

Indeed, Ludogorets did not follow the pattern most visitors use in North London: Rather than defending deep, they opened the game and sought to capitalize on Arsenal’s aggressiveness. They were particularly adept in transition, moving quickly from the wings to playmaker Marcelinho.

This success should make Arsenal wary. All the more so because first choice right back Hector Bellerin did not make the trip to Sofia. In his place, we’ll see either Carl Jenkinson, with only one Arsenal start since May 2014, or regular center half Shkodran Mustafi.

The center of Arsenal’s midfield will also look different. Santi Cazorla remains injured, and Francis Coquelin may get a rest before Sunday’s North London Derby.

The challenge for manager Arsène Wenger is choosing among the qualities and strengths of four deserving central midfield choices. Granit Xhaka, out of action since his red card against Swansea, Coquelin, Mohammed Elneny, and Aaron Ramsey all have strong starting cases.

Our best guess is that Xhaka partners Elneny. It would be only the second start for the pair. Xhaka-neny’s previous performance came in Arsenal’s 4-0 EFL Cup win at Nottingham Forest, so in theory the two can combine effectively.

Whomever the manager picks, Arsenal’s midfielders need to attend to the home side’s threat. Ludogorets led PSG at home and drew with Basel in the Champions League. In domestic competition, they’ve scored 15 goals in their last four games, so they don’t lack firepower.

Where the hosts may struggle is in defense. Arsenal possess the speed of thought, movement, and passing to punish most teams. It’s unlikely that Ludogorets have the organization and defensive quality to keep the likes of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez quiet.

Key Matchup

Arsenal’s fullbacks against Ludogorets’s wide attacking players. Ludogorets will look for opportunities to isolate Gibbs and Jenkinson/Mustafi. Wanderson, Misidjan, and Cafú all flashed threats in the first meeting. If Gibbs keeps up his fine form and his counterpart on the right holds firm, Arsenal can limit Ludogorets’s effectiveness going forward.

Where to Worry

Too many changes in Arsenal’s starting XI, some enforced by injury and others by choice, could create uncertainty the hosts could exploit. Of particular concern would be the defensive support Arsenal’s right back receives from the midfielder and wide attacker. Jenkinson or Mustafi will need help to slot in effectively.

Match Verdict

A wide-open affair. Ludogorets will likely maintain its European record of scoring in all its home matches, but Arsenal will field enough offensive talent to overcome the hosts.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Alexis. Arsenal’s dynamo is humming at the moment. Two goals against Sunderland on Saturday punctuated his all-action performance. His is the kind of talent and energy that Ludogorets will struggle to contain.

Ludogorets. Marcelinho. The Brazilian pulled the strings for the Bulgarian side two weeks ago, completing 89 of 99 passes, both game highs. He also created three chances for teammates.