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 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 (

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 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.