Friday, October 27, 2017

Match Preview, Arsenal v Swansea City: What Matters

When I started writing about Arsenal five years ago, I thought I had something distinctive to say about the club. Having read and been inspired by several blogs for years, I believed I had identified a way to contribute something different to the discussion.

In particular, the business and management of the club, from its corporate strategy to its financial performance to its brand strategy to its management of its human capital, were aspects that I could shed some light on.

I’ve thought a lot and helped others think about such matters over the course of my career. Examining and synthesizing them for such an admirable enterprise as Arsenal Football Club seemed like a worthwhile undertaking.

Today, I’m not going to say that assessment was wrong – this is supposed to be a match preview, not a navel-gazey blog post. But too many of us are paying attention to the business and management of the club at the expense of the actual sporting endeavor.

This week provides an excellent example. Instead of relishing the emergence of Eddie Nketiah, the 18-year-old savior of Arsenal’s Carabao Cup run, the story turned to the conduct of the Annual General Meeting of Arsenal Shareholders. Which, capitalism being what it is, meant absolutely nothing.

What will mean something is the Gunners’ next Premier League match, against Swansea City at Emirates Stadium.

May I suggest, though, that this meaning has little to do with Arsenal’s prospects for the near term, as the team tries to establish consistent performance before some challenging November fixtures? Or with its ultimate position in the 2017-18 Premier League table? Or with the futures of star men Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil? Or with the collective desire of 14 professional athletes who would never have reached the pinnacle of their profession without desire?

Those will doubtless be storylines peddled by paid and amateur analysts during and after the match. And they will largely miss the point of sport.

To me, an observer who's ruminated on the bigger picture for some time, the point now is the enjoyment of sublime athleticism, the appreciation of genius, the surprise at the unexpected. The minute developments or actions that I have never seen before and will likely never see again.

If you view the story through that composite lens, you’ll avoid the jaded, hackneyed, “same old Arsenal” perspective that seems to drive some people near insanity.

You also might appreciate the speed and guile of the Gunners’ attackers against a Swansea defense set up to stymie them, the subtle orchestration of midfielders Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, the dynamism of wingbacks Sead Kolasinac and Hector Bellerin, and the timely aggressiveness and attention to transition of the team’s defenders and goalkeeper.

Trends to Watch

See above, in particular the timing of Ramsey’s runs to join the attack. Last weekend against Everton, the Welshman synchronized his moves almost perfectly with those of Özil, Alexis, and Alexandre Lacazette. Swansea may be more diligent opponents, but the interactions of Arsenal’s four attackers can be unstoppable.

How the Match Plays Out

This was not a straightforward affair last season, owing primarily to the unjustified dismissal of Xhaka. I expect him to avoid such a fate on Saturday and to dictate the play from the base of Arsenal’s midfield. Farther forward, the Swans may be more resolute than Everton was. Still, I don’t see them resisting the athleticism, skill, and synchronicity of Arsenal’s attack.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Mesut Özil. After his display at Everton, the German playmaker looks primed to dominate matches with his skill and vision. As Swansea set up to thwart him, he’ll need to move and think just as quickly.

Bournemouth. Lucasz Fabianski. The former Arsenal man between Swansea’s sticks has a worldy in him; he also has a clanger. He’ll be busy.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Match Preview, Arsenal v Bournemouth: Embrace the Uncertainty

Anyone who comes up with a definitive preview of Arsenal’s match against Bournemouth on Saturday lacks good sense or humility or both.

There’s just no way to predict how this encounter is going to unfold. Now, at a fundamental level, that’s true of any sporting contest, which is why we pay such rapt attention. Those unexpected moments of brilliance and joy carry most of the appeal.

If something can be even more unpredictable than normal—a question perhaps for the grammarians and philosophers out there—this Arsenal match would qualify.

First, Arsenal’s level of intensity is difficult to see ahead of time. The requirement on that front certainly wasn’t met in the last match against Liverpool, and despite exceeding the quality of Stoke and Leicester City, the Gunners haven’t exactly overwhelmed any opponents with a full match’s worth of effort.

Without suggesting the behavior and performance of previous teams have any bearing on this still-forming one, I will observe that manager Arsène Wenger has noted his teams often adopt caution after comprehensive defeats. Then again, the international break may have mitigated that tendency a bit.

Whatever Arsenal’s mental approach, the composition and playing style remain mysteries. We do know that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will not be taking up a position in Arsenal’s starting XI. And it’s a pretty good bet that Wenger will pick Petr Cech, Laurent Koscielny, Alexis Sanchez, and Mesut Özil; their talent dictates their inclusion.

As for the other seven starters, you would think there’d be spots for Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, and Alexandre Lacazette, but you’d have tipped Lacazette for a start at Liverpool given he posed the greatest goal threat in the team’s first two matches. You’d have been wrong.

It’s also not 100 percent certain that Wenger will retain the structure of three central defenders. The manager has never expressed a firm commitment to that approach, and it hasn’t achieved its main purpose—defensive stability—in Arsenal’s first three league matches. Hosting Bournemouth might provide just the occasion to reintroduce the back four.

If such a return is in the offing, might we see stability provided by the inclusion of a more defensive midfielder, say, Francis Coquelin? The Frenchman could patrol the approaches to the central defense while Xhaka and Ramsey work the transitions. This might get the best out of all three.

Or it might not.

The point is, we don’t know what’s going to happen. As in our own lives, we can choose to fear that uncertainty, or we can embrace it. I know not what course others may take, but, as for me, give me serendipity.

Trends to Watch


Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud has scored 14 goals as a substitute; only three Premier League players have scored more. One of those, Jermain Defoe, now plies his trade for Bournemouth. Will one of these deliver the decisive blow on Saturday?

How the Match Plays Out


Arsenal start tentatively. Bournemouth mostly foil the Gunners early on and may enjoy a chance or two. Arsenal grow more confident and determined late in the first half, and their technical superiority and application eventually carry the day.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Alexandre Lacazette. The Frenchman seems to have a nose for goals, and his savvy in the area will trouble Bournemouth.

Bournemouth. Ryan Fraser. The Scottish winger caused Arsenal all sorts of problems in the frantic 3-3 draw at Dean Court last January. Whatever defensive framework the Gunners use, Fraser will create danger.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Match Preview, Southampton v Arsenal: Don't Believe the Hype

Occasionally, after particularly positive Arsenal results, I’ll break with pattern and review some immediate post-match analysis. I figure in so doing I can revel in the good feeling, which is one of the reasons I devote my time to following the club.

Such was my decision after the Gunners’ 2-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday. And I regretted it.

NBC Sports spent the first segment of its studio show talking about Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Nothing about who had performed well for Arsenal. Or about tactical adjustments that might have worked to Arsenal’s advantage. Nothing, even, about the Gunners’ ability to seize the moments that were presented them.

I then turned to The Guardian’s match report, hoping the hour or so of reflection had allowed its writer to reflect more substantively on the proceedings. Same story, essentially.

What’s this got to do with Arsenal’s match against Southampton on Wednesday?

It’s relevant because the obsession with the easy, popular narrative can make us miss some interesting developments. We’ll hear, for example, about the long odds of Arsenal’s qualification for the Champions League and about the club’s poor record at Southampton.

Both accurate observations, but not at all interesting.

Instead, we could be thinking about Danny Welbeck. He scored another winner against his former club on Sunday, and his attributes were part of Arsenal’s solution to an opponent’s blocking intentions. (Watch Adrian Clarke’s excellent Breakdown of some of the other moves, such as the deliberate movements of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil.)

Will Welbeck’s fitness permit another start so soon?

Or can the midfield partnership of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey continue to flourish? Again, fitness will play an essential role in the answer, what with Xhaka’s ongoing lower-leg woes. If the Swiss can go, that can only boost the team’s efforts to establish some flow through the midfield.

In defense, there’s a doubt about the availability of linchpin Laurent Koscielny, according to manager Arsène Wenger. Given his impressive contributions on Sunday and the wily play of Southampton striker Manolo Gabbiadini, Arsenal will be hoping the on-pitch captain can play. Without him, can Shkodran Mustafi come straight back from his own injury into a new system, and who’s going to marshal the defense from the central position in the back three?

These are all much more compelling questions to me than the unanswerable ones about the manager’s future, the team’s Champions League prospects, transfer needs, and history on the South Coast.

They’re drawn from the actual stuff of professional football—two groups of 11 elite athletes competing and, if we’re lucky, providing some surprises with their determination, physical gifts, and intelligence.

Like those two moments on Sunday when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Özil skipped over ham-fisted attempts by Wayne Rooney to tackle them.

Key Matchup


Manolo Gabbiadini against Arsenal’s central defenders. There’s been a noticeable improvement in Arsenal’s defense since the introduction of the 3-4-2-1 structure. Gabbiadini, despite being in woeful goalscoring form, creates a tricky challenge, with the likes of Nathan Redmond and Dusan Tadic supporting him.

Where to Worry


If Xhaka can’t play due to injury, Arsenal’s transitions will suffer. That’s especially concerning against Southampton because the Saints midfield is very skilled at disrupting the opposition’s flow. Would the response be a double pivot of Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain?

Match Verdict


I have no idea what to expect. Both teams had successful outings at the weekend. Arsenal still have something to play for but an abysmal road record of late. Southampton have little obvious motivation and problems scoring goals, but they enjoy the home support. Let’s just accept the uncertainty and see what happens.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. The England man scored twice here in the FA Cup this year. He also delivered the coup de grace to his old team on Sunday. He can make his case to lead the line for the rest of the season and, perhaps, beyond.

Southampton. Oriol Romeu. Southampton’s defensive midfielder has put in some standout performances this season. He’s a formidable barrier to the Saints’ somewhat makeshift back line.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Match Preview, West Brom v Arsenal: Bag the Big Picture

Arsenal need total focus on 90 minutes of football against West Bromwich Albion early Saturday.

Since the Gunners’ Champions League exit to Bayern Munich, manager Arsène Wenger’s future has dominated the discourse. One example: The manager’s press conference before the FA Cup quarterfinal against Lincoln City did not feature one question about the match itself. The only topic was Wenger’s career plan.

This did a huge disservice to Lincoln City, of course. It also perpetuated the boring, binary debate among Arsenal supporters.

In all likelihood, Arsenal’s players aren’t bothered with this contention. They have 12 league matches and an FA Cup semifinal date to concentrate on. Ignoring the role each plays in the overall assessment of the season could be critical to success.

The first of these fixtures certainly requires its own level of attention. West Brom manager Tony Pulis knows how to play the foil to Arsenal, configuring his teams to nullify skill on the ball as a matter of course.

The Baggies succeeded in the reverse fixture, holding Arsenal scoreless until a late header by Oliver Giroud carried the day for the Gunners.

How do Arsenal cope tactically with that approach, especially given confidence is not at the brim these days?

In particular, will Wenger pursue the three-man midfield he has introduced in recent weeks? The trio of Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided an interesting and effective departure from the longtime 4-2-3-1 system.

Against Lincoln City, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury prompted the reintroduction of Mesut Özil to the side. The German, returning from illness and suffering poor form since the turn of the year, seems the key figure of the 4-2-3-1. It’s geared to allowing him playmaking freedom with minimal defensive responsibilities.

But his return did not prompt the team to revert to 4-2-3-1. Instead, he played deeper in the midfield trio and asserted himself physically against the tiring Imps. Özil has also enjoyed great success with the German national team as part of an attacking trio.

The advantage of either Özil position for Arsenal is a more cohesive midfield. Offensively, the flow improves because more routes forward open; defensively, Arsenal are less vulnerable to counterattacks.

Both dynamics will be important against West Brom. The Baggies will try to congest the interior approaches to their final third and to force Arsenal wide. They’ll be confident their large defenders can cope with any crosses from there. Lincoln executed a similar approach with some success in the first half last weekend.

When the Gunners switch the play quickly, though, defenders have to scramble. Ramsey and Alexis should be ideally placed to exploit the resulting spaces, and Xhaka and Özil possess the skill and vision to find them.

Vision and implementation on that plane—rather than at the corporate level or on the level of the manager’s future—should be all anyone cares about.


Key Matchup


Mesut Özil against Claudio Yacob. Arsenal will have the bulk of possession in this match. The outcome will hinge on what the Gunners accomplish with that possession. Özil has seemed pedestrian in 2017 and needs to spark into form for the last 12 league matches. He’ll have to avoid the attentions of West Brom’s pesky Yacob to start that resurgence at the Hawthorns.

Where to Worry


No mystery here—set pieces. That’s West Brom’s main offensive threat. The Baggies have scored 17 of their 36 goals (47 percent) in dead-ball scenarios. Their 12 goals from corners are far and away the highest of any Premier League team. (Stats from Opta via Squawka.com)

Match Verdict


West Brom will make Arsenal labor, as always. Pulis’s defenses will be difficult to break down, but as Arsenal increase the tempo, West Brom will tire. A lapse in concentration will provide the opening, and Arsenal will rely on a clinical finish to carry the day.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. This seems like a perfect environment for Welbeck. He has the speed to run away from West Brom’s hulking defenders and the strength to take them on if necessary.

West Brom. Ben Foster. The only reason West Brom didn’t get swamped at the Emirates was Foster’s performance in goal. Another stellar outing from him would deepen Arsenal’s frustrations.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Match Preview, Arsenal v Bayern Munich: I Know You Rider

The sun will shine on my back door someday,
March wind will blow all my troubles away.


The American blues song “I Know You Rider” says a lot about Arsenal Football Club in advance of Tuesday’s Champions League match with Bayern Munich.

The number, performed by such groups as the Grateful Dead and Hot Tuna, deftly moves from despair to optimism.

In its opening verse, the storyteller predicts that the listener “gonna miss me when I’m gone.” It’s hard not to attribute that sentiment to the embattled Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. As has been analyzed on this site and elsewhere, the Frenchman is such an integral part of the club’s culture and structure that his absence will force a transformation.

The song’s verses unfold differently depending on the artist and the performance. By the time they close, they express a hopeful sentiment. That the cares, blues, troubles will, come some March, disappear.

We struggle to see that outcome for Arsenal now amidst the gloom of four defeats in six matches and the uncertainty clouding the futures of Wenger and his two stars Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil.

But the hope has to be there somewhere. Whether it lies in the club’s longer trajectory or in expectation of one match, the sane among us all possess some kind of hope. Otherwise, we would stop caring; we’d stop paying attention; we’d find other pastimes.

Masochism or even quest for validation—among those who are looking to prove they’re smarter and/or more committed than others—are sustainable for only so long.

And so to the matter of Bayern. In the binary operation of knockout competition, this is a meaningless encounter. The German giants destroyed the Gunners, 5-1, three weeks ago, and barring some supernatural intervention, Arsenal are not going to better that result and advance to the Champions League quarterfinal.

The way things look—Bayern having put eight goals past Hamburg at the weekend, Arsenal continuing to look rudderless in a 3-1 loss at Liverpool—a result similar to the first leg’s doesn’t seem far-fetched.

Yet we’ll pay attention.

Perhaps hints of something different will emerge. A revised tactical approach. Opportunities for different players. Focus. Professional pride.

Any of those changes to the dynamic will be interesting. They might also set the team up for better days ahead.

Like a trip to Wembley for an FA Cup semifinal. Saturday’s quarterfinal visit of non-league Lincoln City provides a legitimate chance at that outcome.

Or Premier League matches to come with Tottenham, Manchester City, and Manchester United. Make the most of all those occasions, and the Gunners tell a different, less tragic, story of the 2016-17 season.

Because all those conclusions remain possible, we press on.

Key Matchup


Arsenal’s players against their recent performances. The direction is negative; few would dispute that. Arresting that slide against one of the three or four most powerful teams in the world is a daunting task. But these are highly paid professionals who got where they are through talent and persistent motivation. Summoning those qualities against this opposition could be effective therapy.

Where to Worry


Could another absolute hiding make things worse? I don’t know.

Match Verdict


Even if manager Carlo Ancelotti changes his lineup, Bayern will dominate the ball. And win the tie. The major unknown is whether Arsenal will discover any answers to their recent troubles.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Aaron Ramsey. Can the Welshman get back into form quickly and help the Arsenal midfield function better? It’s a lot to ask, especially against this opposition. But the rest of Arsenal’s season might depend on it.

Bayern Munich. Franck Ribéry. Because if you have to watch one Bayern player, you might as well content yourself in the knowledge that Arsenal don’t employ someone this unattractive.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Arsène Wenger's Sweet Spot

Recent heavy losses to Chelsea and Bayern Munich have again prompted much talk of Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger’s shortcomings.

With Wenger’s contract due to expire in June and Arsenal’s chances of supremacy in the Premier League and Champions League scuppered, strident and influential voices are saying the club and manager should part ways. His failures are cause, they say, for termination.

Terms of the debate


As ever with arguments--especially over such binary functions as Wenger In/Out—there’s a risk of constructing straw men. Even so, I’d characterize the core contentions in these ways:

  • The manager is tactically naïve
  • He has displayed an inability to motivate today’s players for the big occasion
  • He indulges too many underperforming players
  • His footballing philosophy has proven inadequate
  • Events and results have unfolded in predictable fashion

Evidence exists to support each of these points. Except the final one, which is maddening to anyone like me who has limited time for entertainment and chooses to follow sport precisely because of its potential for the unexpected.

Despite the foundations of these arguments, I would like to suggest that they don’t fully reflect Arsenal’s current state of affairs under Wenger.

Expanding the perspective


We can conduct a fuller, more accurate examination by contrasting Wenger’s FA Cup record with his team’s performances over league campaigns.

Wenger is the most decorated modern FA Cup manager. In 19 tournaments, he has raised the trophy six times. With one more success, he will be the most successful FA Cup manager of all time, moving ahead of Aston Villa’s George Ramsay (1855-1935).

Longevity and a flow of excellent players have certainly played parts in Wenger’s record.

Just as important, though, has been his philosophy and approach. What Philippe Auclair has called the manager’s “jazz” style—a less structured system encouraging individual autonomy and expression—has the potential to merge stunning aesthetics and overwhelming victories.

That brilliance and beauty can be rare and fleeting, but when they coincide, we witness an extraordinary sporting accomplishment. The most recent example was Arsenal’s 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa in the 2015 FA Cup Final.

Another element of skill in knockout competitions is avoiding major upsets. In this, Wenger has unquestionably succeeded. Only once in his tenure have Arsenal lost to a lower-division team in the FA Cup. That 2013 defeat to Blackburn was a real low point.

The point here is that discrete, win-and-advance matches in which conditions are level or slightly favor Arsenal bring out the best in Wenger’s sides.

Points of contrast


In other, high-profile situations, the approach has been found wanting. The Champions League knockout stages are the most stinging recent example.
 
Wenger’s style doesn’t thrive one-on-one with Europe’s elites because conditions are rarely neutral. Whether it’s officiating, higher-pedigree and richer opposition, less-advantageous scheduling, or other factors, Arsenal find the going difficult at the business end of the Champions League.

His freeform philosophy can also be detrimental on the frequent occasions that tactical precision and structure carry European nights.

For 13 years, the ultimate achievement has eluded Wenger in the Premier League as well.

Each campaign, Arsenal start with an incredibly tight margin of error. It’s so narrow due to the strong correlation between financial outlay on transfer fees and wages and the final league finish. And let’s keep in mind that if the title is the only measure of satisfaction, 19 teams end up dissatisfied.

Over the scope of a 38-match season, Wenger’s philosophy has not produced a credible title challenge since at least 2008. Since the Invincibles of 2003-04, Arsenal have exceeded 80 points just twice. Historically, that is the bare minimum for contention.

This record suggests that Wenger’s approach isn’t enough to overcome Arsenal’s financial disadvantage relative to bigger spenders Chelsea, Manchester United, and Manchester City.

And yet, there’s a credible case that Wenger has exceeded the league performance we should expect given the club’s expenditures. To date, his teams have never finished lower than fourth place. In the past 10 years, no other club can make that claim.

What do you expect?


Expectations are, therefore, the issue. In many ways, Wenger is suffering from the standards he himself set, at least in league play. His three triumphant teams enjoyed structural and cultural advantages that more recent sides have not.

On the other hand, Wenger still has the philosophy and the players to achieve domestic cup greatness. That won’t arrive every year—the quest for beauty and brilliance on the day does risk irredeemable defeat. But isn’t it worth watching for the potential?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Match Report: Arsenal 1, Watford 2

Arsenal produced a performance to match the dismal London night, losing to Watford 2-1.

After racing past Southampton in the FA Cup on Saturday, the Gunners could not get out of the blocks on Tuesday night. It cost them dearly.

Within a quarter of an hour, Watford had a two-goal lead. The first came via an Aaron Ramsey deflection of Younes Kaboul’s free kick. Although the effort came from well outside the area, Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech could not adjust in time.

Just three minutes later, Ramsey was in another unfortunate place. The Welshman failed to control a Gabriel throw-in. Watford’s Etienne Capoue nicked the ball, juked Francis Coquelin and Shkodran Mustafi, and forced a pointblank save from Cech. Troy Deeney was there to poke home the rebound, and not for the first time this season, Arsenal faced a deficit against a team much lower in the table.

The response was tepid at best.

Arsenal strung passes together but failed to mount any threat on the Watford goal. Watford’s 4-1-4-1 formation packed the midfield and prevented the Gunners from moving from their own half into attack.

That showed in Arsenal’s passing statistics at halftime: Mustafi and central defensive partner Laurent Koscielny were the team’s top two passers of the first 45 minutes. In addition, the top passing combination, which for Arsenal often involves a midfielder and playmaker Mesut Özil, was Mustafi to Koscielny.

As the half went on, Watford actually looked more likely to get a third than the Gunners did to climb back into the match. Indeed, Cech had to come up with a save from Daryl Janmaat’s shot to keep the gap at two goals.

Overall, the Hornets had nine shots, six on target, in the first half, while Arsenal had none on target and only three total.

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, serving the second of his four-match ban in the stands, seemed to acknowledge his team’s ineffectiveness. Contrary to his norm, Wenger introduced Theo Walcott for Olivier Giroud at halftime, having already used one substitution to replace the injured Ramsey.

Walcott’s quickness did make a difference. He had two looks at goal in his first six minutes of action and forced Watford goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes into a decent save.

In the 58th minute, Arsenal’s pressure finally had an impact. Alexis Sanchez got past Watford left back Miguel Britos and found Alex Iwobi at the far post. Iwobi caressed the ball back across goal and in to halve the deficit.

The Gunners went on to dominate possession and opportunities. Watford were content to break up play, so Wenger and his pitchside colleagues Steve Bould and Neil Banfield discarded all caution. Coquelin came off to be replaced by Lucas Perez.

That left a central midfield of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi, neither with a long record of patrolling that area.

Perez joined the forward line and contributed to Arsenal’s intensifying efforts to breach Watford’s defense. The Spaniard’s shot off the bar late in normal time was as close as the Gunners came to equalizing.

Their 17 shots in the second half--but just three that tested Gomes after Iwobi’s goal—did not produce another comeback.

Things to ponder


Here are a few observations from this disappointing showing:
  • The substitutes did make Arsenal more dynamic. Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, and Lucas added quickness and intent to a heretofore plodding approach.
  • The pairing of Coquelin and Ramsey never got a grip on this encounter. They struggled in the packed midfield and offered little in transition to attack.
  • Indeed, questions will intensify about Arsenal’s midfield options. Ramsey’s exit after 20 minutes and the ongoing absences of Granit Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny leave the terrain to Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain. The latter did not look entirely comfortable after a second-half tackle.
  • Wenger faces another difficult decision in the forward areas. Although Giroud enjoyed very little service, he was largely ineffective when he did come near the ball. Will he retain his starting slot at the expense of the speedier Walcott, Perez, and Danny Welbeck?
  • What started as a hopeful week now looks ominous. Chelsea could not hold its lead against Liverpool, meaning a Gunners’ win would have brought them within six points of the league leaders. With a Stamford Bridge date on Saturday, the gap could have been just three. But Arsenal now face a nine-point disadvantage, and it’s hard to see Chelsea giving up that much ground.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Match Preview, Southampton v Arsenal: Modify the St. Mary's Mojo

Arsenal’s fourth-round FA Cup tie with Southampton provides an opportunity for the Gunners to change their fortunes at St. Mary’s.

Southampton’s home ground has been less than kind to Arsenal: The Gunners have not won there in 13 years and have just two wins in eight visits to the Saints’ home since 2001.

You might think karma doesn’t look great for Saturday’s trip, either. After all, Southampton approaches this matchup on a real high, having beaten Liverpool away on Wednesday to advance to the EFL Cup Final at Wembley.

The Saints produced an impressive display of defending and counterattacking at Anfield, a game plan that could trouble Arsenal as well. They also carry confidence that they can overcome the Gunners from their 2-0 win in the previous round of the EFL Cup.

However, this match could unfold in quite a different fashion. First of all, the midweek win at Liverpool came at a cost. Already suffering from multiple injuries, Southampton lost starting midfielder James Ward-Prowse to a chest injury and center forward Jay Rodriguez to an ankle problem.

That could be a symptom of another problem, a cramped schedule that will see the Saints play nine matches in the month of January. Arsenal will have played two fewer.

And while Southampton loses players to the treatment table, Arsenal enjoys returns from injury absences. Forward Danny Welbeck has eased his way back to match fitness with three substitute appearances this month, fullback Hector Bellerin is ready again after a second injury layoff, and forward Theo Walcott returns after almost six weeks out.

As a result, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has options and depth that Southampton manager Claude Puel doesn’t share.

Where Wenger’s choices are more restricted, though, is in central midfield. Only two first-team central midfielders, Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey, are available. With Granit Xhaka serving the first of a four-game suspension and Mohammed Elneny still at the Africa Cup of Nations for at least another week, Wenger will have to weigh the risks of sending out his last remaining charges in that area.

The risk appears heightened with two crucial Premier League encounters next week.

Mitigating that risk would mean tapping a young player for an important role. Wenger has identified Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, and Alex Iwobi, the eldest of that trio at 20, as his backup options.

One does wonder where this leaves Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has occasionally taken a more central role with some distinction. Perhaps more definitively as a wide attacking midfielder, where he’s enjoyed his most productive season since joining Arsenal from Southampton.

Will he get the nod there again over Welbeck, Lucas Perez, Iwobi, and Alexis Sanchez?

Whatever the selection in more forward areas, Arsenal’s players should have the quality to trouble the Southampton defense bereft of its early-season starting duo of José Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk. The former left the South Coast for West Ham, while the latter is one of the Saints’ many infirm.

The question, as ever with cup ties, is will the Arsenal team have enough cohesion and motivation to overcome a determined opponent on home turf. The Gunners did—just—in their third-round visit to Preston North End. The answer will need to be more definitive to modify their St. Mary’s mojo on Saturday.

Key Matchup


Shane Long against Arsenal’s central defenders. The Irishman, who scored the tie-clincher in Southampton’s 1-0 win on Wednesday, is a pesky opponent. He’s a master of the sly nudge. Long’s misses in the two teams’ league encounter kept the door open for Arsenal’s late victory, and whoever Wenger selects in defense will need to keep Long out of those threatening positions.

Where to Worry


With a relatively untested partnership in central midfield, Arsenal might struggle to establish any kind of flow. That’s a bigger concern in this match because Southampton is adept at disrupting the opposition’s progress in midfield. If Arsenal don’t reach quick understandings in midfield and elsewhere—as we’ve seen other mix-and-match lineups suffer from—the attack could really sputter.

Match Verdict


Another cagey, difficult affair could await. Southampton will try to compensate for fatigue and a depleted roster by keeping the Gunners at arm’s length. Arsenal will need to call on patience and persistence again.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. The England man gets his first start since last May. He’s come close to scoring in two of his three substitute appearances this month and has the speed and power to get away from Southampton’s makeshift back line.

Southampton. Oriol Romeu. Southampton’s defensive midfielder was the standout performer in his team’s semifinal clincher at Anfield. He seemed to know where Liverpool was heading before Liverpool’s players did. Similarly adept interceptions and tackles on Saturday will frustrate Arsenal.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Are Arsenal Prepared for Life after Wenger?

Earlier this week, the German publication Kicker published an interview with Arsenal playmaker and record signing Mesut Özil. In it, Özil stressed his readiness to sign a new contract with the club.

The only sticking point, he said, is the uncertain management situation. With manager Arsène Wenger’s own contract set to expire in June, one of the team’s star men has simply asked the club for an indication of who his boss will be if he commits his prime years to Arsenal.

“The club knows that I am here especially because of Wenger, who brought me, whose trust I enjoy,” Özil said. “The club also knows that I firstly would like clarity on what the manager is doing.” (See Arseblog’s full English transcript here)

In one sense, Özil’s declarations are reassuring: He seems content with his life and work and reluctant to jettison that for greater riches elsewhere.

On the other hand, his doubt is troubling. It suggests one of Arsenal’s greatest assets is as much in the dark about the manager’s position as the rest of us. A reasonable inference from Özil’s plea is that the club’s executives have not shared the outlines of a succession plan with him.

Given the discretion with which Arsenal conducts business, we shouldn’t be surprised that all the details haven’t emerged. We won't see a five-person managerial short list, for example.

But we don’t even have reassurances, a succession philosophy, or indications of a decision structure to hint that the club is prepared for the possibility of life after Wenger.

The outlines of a plan


Three years ago, we lived through a similar scenario. Until Arsenal secured the FA Cup that spring, Wenger’s future remained much in doubt.

The risks of that state of affairs did not disappear; they were only deferred. As a result, the observations I made in my October 2014 piece “Arsenal After Arsène” are still germane.

In particular, we should look at the steps Arsenal have taken to prepare for the managerial transition. Have the Board and club executives implemented practices that would produce an effective succession? According to executive recruiting experts David Larcker and Stephen Miles, organizations should, among other actions:
  • Add succession expertise to the board, particularly the search committee chair
  • Develop a robust succession architecture to cover needs from immediate emergencies to a five-year horizon
  • Use external advisors to assess candidates and work closely with the board
  • Prepare to shuffle the current management team if any members block the development or advancement of others
  • Expose promising internal candidates to the board

Although the club won't engage in all these activities in the open, we can expect the Board and Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis to reflect on these needs and to describe their preparations broadly.

Not only have Arsenal’s leaders failed to substantiate their thinking and actions on the matter, they have not answered the critical question—who is primarily responsible for the appointment.

Supporters, observers, and the media don’t know, despite the experience of 2014, who’s leading the club in this critical respect or how the leadership is approaching the decision. More troubling, the players don’t know.

The shortcomings of an insider Board


These developments, or lack thereof, do not inspire confidence that the Board has overcome its one obvious flaw. That’s the narrowness of experience and perspective of its members.

Six men. All white. Three grandees of the club. A father and son pair with no football background. And the CEO.

Even if we acknowledge that some members of this group have participated in bold, forward-thinking decisions in the past, the Board’s homogeneity and its implications are unavoidable.

First and foremost, the lack of breadth and diversity. A substantial body of organizational research indicates that the most effective decisions emerge from groups with a broad range of experiences and identities.

Not only do those perspectives bring new ideas, the very inclusion of difference sparks more careful decision making. (See “Better Decisions through Diversity” from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.)

As Katherine W. Phillips wrote in Scientific American in 2014, “Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table. Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior.” (“ How Diversity Makes Us Smarter”)

There have been no additions to the Arsenal Board since Wenger’s last contract renewal. No apparent changes of behavior, either.

As a result, the club doesn’t inspire confidence that it can make the optimal preparations for Wenger’s departure. 

The task that awaits

These preparations are vital to the club’s future because a monumental challenge faces the next manager.

During his 20-year tenure, Wenger has evolved into something of a Chief Football Officer. He’s an executive with both strategic and daily tactical responsibilities.

Both aspects weigh on him. He has said, for example, that he considers the financial well-being of all the current staff when he is making decisions about major outlays on new players.

“What matters to me is that when you have a club with 600 employees, you make sure you can pay everybody at the end of the month.”

That was his response to a question last August about Arsenal’s perceived hesitation in the transfer market.

In addition, very little seems to happen on the sporting side without Wenger’s okay. For an indication, read the engrossing account of 2014 loanee Kim Källström. Arsenal’s physicians diagnosed him with fractures in three vertebrae as he was on the verge of moving to North London.

After the medical assessment, Källström remembers, Wenger said:
’The transfer window shuts in a few hours. It’s impossible to find a replacement. Either I take you or no one.’ Surprised, the others turn to the big boss. No one knows how he’ll continue, but they know that his words are law. It’s evident that he has not anchored his decision among the rest of the staff. He decides. ‘You’ll stay, heal, and train. I’ll take you when you’re fit.’

When this one figure who has made so many decisions, the one to whom so many people have deferred, departs the scene, Arsenal faces a cultural and structural upheaval. Wenger’s replacement will have to coach the entire organization through that challenging transition.

Indeed, even taking into account a restructuring of Wenger’s responsibilities, the new manager will have to be comfortable with an executive’s perch.

Wenger described the evolution of his responsibilities at length in a conversation last March:
I remember I was manager at the top level [in 1983]. It was me, 20 players, and a part-time physio. Today, we are in 2016, I have a real team around me, a team of assistants, specialists of all kinds—statistical analysts, video analysts, scouting, physios, doctors, dieticians. So my job today has, of course, changed.
And I get so much information, that the problem of the modern manager is more to select the three, four [pieces of] information about the multitude he gets which are really significant.
Today you are much more in selection mode and decision mode.
Today you have other problems, to manage your own team of consultants … That creates human problems as well.

Here, Wenger is talking about his responsibilities in terms most executives would find familiar. He has to identify meaningful points amidst a flood of information and make important decisions on the basis of that selection.

Add explaining those decisions with equanimity to agenda-driven writers and broadcasters, demanding supporters, highly compensated players, colleagues within the club, and its leadership, and you have a colossal undertaking on an almost daily basis.

Given the magnitude of this work and its effects on Arsenal’s success, those in position of authority should be better prepared to handle life after Wenger than they seem to be.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Match Preview, Preston v Arsenal: An Old-Time Cup Tie

Arsenal travel to the Northwest of England on Saturday to open the FA Cup campaign against Preston North End.

It’s a throwback to 18 years ago, when the clubs last met at Deepdale. Arsenal recovered from a 2-0 deficit to win 4-2 the Third Round contest that day.

The 2017 encounter is likely to jog memories in other ways. First, it’s a classic setup—a top Premier League club, not yet recovered from the major exertions of the festive period, visiting a determined Championship side.

That dynamic makes Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger wary. As he told his pre-match press conference, “We know as well that after a congested Christmas period that the third round is always a tricky game. That is why I believe it is a mental challenge for the Premier League teams to prepare well and not have a bad surprise - especially when you go to a Championship team, as it is always difficult.”

The second reflection of the past will show in Preston’s style. Even in the context of the less technical Championship, manager Simon Grayson starts his team with the traditional English playbook.

The Lilywhites attempt the seventh highest number of long passes in the division and close to the fewest (22/24) number of short passes (Stats from whoscored.com). They both engaged in and won the second-highest aerial duels in the league, while they have suffered the fewest fouls.

These numbers suggest that Preston will make little attempt to contest Arsenal on the ground and will try to bypass the midfield.

In the attacking zone, Grayson’s men are relatively effective on set pieces, having scored 10 goals off stoppages, sixth most in the Championship. That’s another old-school approach Arsenal will need to prepare for.

On the defensive side, Preston lean to the aggressive, ranking seventh in the league in tackles and sixth in interceptions. They’re also effective at reducing danger in their own penalty area: The league’s third-highest number of clearances point to that.

Expect them to try to stymie Arsenal with a similarly assertive—though not overly physical--approach.

These tactics won’t be news to Arsenal’s staff and players, who recently faced Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce in the Premier League. The question is, will the lineup Wenger selects have the chemistry, focus, and patience to succeed.

Chemistry or synchronicity tops the priority list because Arsenal’s first XI may have had little game time together. Mainstays Laurent Koscielny and Alexis Sanchez will definitely get a breather, while playmaker Mesut Özil continues to recover from his respiratory ailment. Rob Holding and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should get chances to play as a consequence, with Alex Iwobi or Aaron Ramsey candidates for the #10 role.

There’s little question that whomever Wenger sends out will have the necessary quality. As we saw, though, in the 2-0 EFL Cup defeat to Southampton, untried relationships don’t always blossom.

The second question concerns the attention those selected will apply to this match so soon after the roller-coaster 3-3 draw with Bournemouth on Tuesday. The poor performance of that match’s first hour owed more, I think, to mental rather than physical fatigue only two days removed from the team’s win over Crystal Palace.

Another psychological test will come on Saturday.

Finally, given all those tactical, personnel, and mental factors, the team might need patience to see off the hosts. It’s a quality we’ve seen the Gunners display often this season, most recently in the win over West Brom. Can they replicate that in the maelstrom of a classic cup tie when the opposition’s emotions are running high and the terraces are rocking?

Key Matchup


Alex Iwobi against Ben Pearson. Again, in the absence of Özil, expect Arsenal’s creative burden to fall to Iwobi. He did not look up to the task against Bournemouth on Tuesday, but he certainly wasn’t alone in this respect. A return to the form he showed against Crystal Palace will be most welcome.

Iwobi will probably come up against Manchester United product Ben Pearson in the midfield. The 22-year-old is not afraid to put a foot in, as his eight yellow cards in 16 appearances indicate. Iwobi will have to deal with that physical resistance to keep Arsenal ticking.

Where to Worry


Headers from set pieces are Preston’s bread and butter and a combination Arsenal seem susceptible to. The 12 goals Arsenal have conceded from headers represent the most in the Premier League (Squawka.com).

Match Verdict


This is not going to be as easy as the clubs’ statures and positions suggest. In the end, though, Arsenal’s quality and patience should carry the day.

Players to Watch


Arsenal. Lucas Pérez. There’s a question about the Spaniard’s availability, as Wenger said he’d picked up a slight injury during his turnaround substitute appearance against Bournemouth. If he can play, his combination of clever movement and clinical finishing could be the difference for Arsenal’s attack.

Preston. Callum Robinson. Much of Preston’s offensive activity comes via the 21-year-old Englishman. Robinson leads the team in shots; his total of 75 more than doubles that of his second-ranking teammate. And no Lilywhite has more goals (five).

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

AFC Bournemouth 3, Arsenal 3: Three Things We Learned

For the first time in the Premier League, Arsenal rallied from three goals behind to grab a point from an eventful 3-3 draw at Bournemouth.

Again, Olivier Giroud provided the decisive touch. His deft header in stoppage time capped a furious final 20 minutes. Though it might not be enough to sustain Arsenal’s title challenge, the result avoided what looked to be an embarrassing defeat.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Alexis will not surrender


The Gunners needed a hero. Up stepped their Chilean leader.

With his team trailing 3-0 midway through the second half, Alexis kept driving his teammates forward. He dribbled at the Bournemouth defense. Attempted more through balls and crosses. Harried Bournemouth players when they had the ball.

Alexis’s goal to get Arsenal off the mark was all desire. He ran past Bournemouth right back Simon Francis just as Giroud was flicking on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross. He got to the ball at point blank range and buried his header past keeper Artur Boruc.

The stats bear out the dynamo’s influence: No player created more chances for teammates (three) or attempted (38) or completed (25) more passes in the final third.

In the absence of playmaker Mesut Özil, Alexis ran the show. And he dragged his teammates along with him.

This group deals with adversity in a novel way


This match could easily have ended as one of Arsenal’s most humiliating defeats in recent years. Just two days removed from their previous, victorious, outing, the Gunners looked vulnerable from the start.

Although the end of the festive period often produces such a strained dynamic, manager Arsène Wenger's starting lineup seemed to point to a more solid setup. Francis Coquelin returned to the midfield and should have created a better shield with Granit Xhaka. Aaron Ramsey, usually more defensively aware than other forward options, got only his third league start.

However, a defensive lapse led to Bournemouth’s first goal. Ramsey failed to cover Bournemouth left back Charlie Daniels. The late, ineffective intervention of Hector Bellerin gave Daniels a sight of goal he didn’t forsake.

Surrendering the opening goal—bad, but not insurmountable. The early deficit didn't revive the Gunners, whose scuffling play continued.

Then, referee Michael Oliver delivered two decisions that went against Arsenal. The first was a penalty against Xhaka, who tangled with Bournemouth winger Ryan Fraser just inside the area. Callum Wilson shot straight down the middle for a 2-0 Bournemouth advantage.

Later, Oliver ignored a more egregious foul that Fraser himself committed, which left the Bournemouth man one-on-one with Arsenal keeper Petr Cech. 3-0.

Add an injury to Coquelin and the exit of captain Laurent Koscielny, and you’d be forgiven for fearing the worst.

But Arsenal did not cave. Alexis’s goal energized the team, while substitute Lucas Perez’s cracking volleyed finish across Boruc provided a realistic hope of avoiding defeat. A red card to Francis for an overly aggressive tackle on Ramsey enhanced the opportunity.

This Arsenal team delivered a message, of sorts, when they took this chance when many of their predecessors would have wilted.

Petr Cech rescued his performance--and this point


Rarely can you credit a goalkeeper who sees his net bulge three times in a match. In this case, though, Arsenal’s Petr Cech deserves some recognition.

The veteran faced six shots on target and saved three. None was more critical than his stop of Harry Arter’s drive in stoppage time, after Arsenal had pulled level.

Goalkeeping experts can decide whether Cech’s inability to get close to any penalties this season—he’s faced six—should be a concern. He will also be disappointed that his string of two shutouts came to an end and perhaps upset that he didn't do better with Bournemouth's two goals from open play.

Still, at the end of an intense nine-day period, with pride on the line, Cech stayed focused and stood tall.

Extra time


On the heels of an outstanding performance against Crystal Palace, Arsenal’s fullbacks would probably prefer to forget this game.

Bellerin, normally such a weapon, struggled to get involved in the offense. He completed just 34 passes (76 percent of those he attempted) and had just 64 touches, second lowest among Arsenal’s outfield players in action the full 90 minutes.

On the defensive side, Bellerin had problems as well. He failed on both his attempted tackles, he picked up a first-half yellow card, and all of Bournemouth’s goals emanated from his side of the pitch.

After the match, Wenger said his right back was playing with a minor injury.

Nacho Monreal didn’t have a banner game on the left, either. The Spaniard, 30 years old next month, looked off the pace so soon after his previous outing. He might not be able to bear such regular exertions; the club’s inquiries about left back targets suggest as much.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Arsenal 2, Crystal Palace 0: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal began 2017 in some style, with a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace highlighted by the adjective-defying goal from Olivier Giroud in the 17th minute.

At the culmination of a free-flowing Arsenal move—more on that anon--the French striker, at full speed, stretched his left leg behind himself to connect his heel with Alexis Sanchez’s slightly imperfect cross. The contact was impeccable. The shot rattled the underside of the bar and caromed in.

Alex Iwobi’s header after halftime and a controlled performance overall delivered the result that the Gunners needed to match their top rivals’ wins earlier in the weekend.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Giroud is more than capable on the counterattack


Artful descriptions of Giroud’s goal abound. Have a look at Arseblog’s account and Barney Ronay’s encomium in The Guardian. Or watch it again here and find your own words of praise.

In addition to the audacity and skill of the goal itself, what stood out to me was how it defied the consensus about Giroud. That he’s an immobile, classic center forward adept only at hold-up play and headed goals.

Here, he scored at the end of a blistering counterattack. The move involved six Arsenal players—Lucas Perez, who tracked back to intercept a Palace pass just outside the Arsenal penalty area, Hector Bellerin, Giroud, Granit Xhaka, Iwobi, Alexis, and Giroud again.

As manager Arsène Wenger put it, “I think it was an exceptional goal because it was at the end of a fantastic collective moment, which is what our game is about.”

Giroud was essential, not just for the final blow, but for the flick near the halfway line. This deft play opened space and lines of vision for his teammates. Then Giroud took off, reaching the Palace area just as Alexis readied his cross. Perhaps Giroud actually got there too quickly: Alexis’s pass went just behind him.

But that was just what Giroud’s genius needed in that moment.

Arsenal’s fullbacks had a fiesta


New Year’s Day was a festive occasion for Arsenal’s Spanish fullbacks. Bellerin and Nacho Monreal were especially effective in attack.

Bellerin was everywhere along Arsenal’s right flank, making 96 touches, third-most on the team behind Xhaka and Alexis. He also completed the second highest number of passes (57) and succeeded on all his attempted dribbles, tackles, and clearances. Bellerin led the Gunners with 14 ball recoveries and put in five crosses (Stats from Arsenal.com and FourFourTwo Stats Zone).

The young Spaniard exercised his defensive responsibilities well, to boot. He nullified the sometimes troublesome winger Wilifred Zaha and coped decently with the aerial threat of Christian Benteke.

Meanwhile, Monreal made a real impact on the left. Returned to the starting lineup, he was frequently dangerous going forward. He participated in the team’s second most frequent passing combination, with Alexis. And his early first-time cross deserved a better finish by either Giroud or Perez.

It was another pass Monreal fizzed across the Palace area that created the chaos that ended with Iwobi’s headed goal.

In all, Sunday’s fullback play was reminiscent of what we saw in the 2015-16 campaign, when the Arsenal pair was tops in the league.

Petr Cech deserved this clean sheet


In relative and absolute terms, Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech was not busy in this match. While his counterpart Wayne Hennessey faced 22 Arsenal shots, seven on target, the Czech veteran had to cope with just seven shots, none before the 37th minute. Four of Palace’s attempts ended up on target.

Three of those came in a sequence soon after Iwobi’s goal. Cech saved a strong Benteke header, then backpedaled to push aside Yohann Cabaye’s effort from distance. The ensuing corner created a disturbance in Arsenal’s area, and Cech had to be ready again for Andros Townsend’s drive to the goalkeeper’s right.

Those three saves and some other commanding interventions were instrumental in Arsenal’s second shutout in as many matches. As were the solid performances of center halves Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel.

Extra time


The deputies did their duty admirably.

Iwobi was influential in the playmaker role, creating five chances for teammates and completing a game-high 27 passes in the attacking third.

Perez buzzed around Arsenal’s right flank and got himself into some dangerous areas. He was a little imprecise once he reached those positions, but he responded to Gabriel’s criticism of his defensive laxness after the previous game against West Brom. His interception commenced the sequence leading to Giroud’s goal.

And Mohammed Elneny was a steady presence in midfield. The Egyptian worked well with Xhaka—they were the team’s top passing combination—and helped establish the foundation for Arsenal’s attack to thrive.

With the Gunners’ next outing only a day away, such contributions from the squad could prove important.