Everton:1 Arsenal:1 Match Report

Goals: Walcott (1), Fellaini (28)

Arsenal earned a hard-fought point at Goodison Park after a game that Everton mostly dominated.

Arsenal Line-Up

Arsenal had a 4-2-3-1 formation. Szczesny was at the goal. Vermaalen started at left back but had to switch to centerback to pair with Mertesacker when Koscielny got injured in the third minute, after which Gibbs played at left back. Bacary Sagna returned at right back. In central midfield, Wilshere was paired with Mikel Arteta. Ramsey was on the left instead of Podolski, and Walcott was on the right. Cazorla was behind Giroud who started as the central striker.

The Game

Arsenal took the lead inside the first minute. Walcott received the ball on the right flank close to the halfway line and started a surging run inside. Despite Jagielka’s tackle, he was able to keep the ball alive and found Ramsey. The Welshman’s return ball to Walcott provided the English international with a shooting chance at a slightly narrow angle in the left side of the box. When his curler took a deflection and hit the net at the far corner, only 52 seconds have passed. Right after the goal, Koscielny got injured, and Vermaalen switched to centerback with Gibbs coming in from the bench to left back.

After the shock of this very early goal, Everton gradually built a relentless pressure and the visitors found it quite difficult to keep the ball in Everton’s half. Tactically, Arteta was following Fellaini’s movement in between Arsenal’s midfield and defensive lines, as the Belgian was a constant menace with his physicality. Using Fellaini, however, was not Everton’s only weapon. In the 6th minute, Baines and Pienaar excellently combined on Everton’s left (as they would do all game long) and Baines’ cross was parried away by Szczesny with difficulty.

Everton kept working very hard all over the pitch, cutting passing angles, creating blind alleys and forcing Arsenal to mistakes on the ball. Around the 15th minute mark, Fellaini’s header from a Baines corner was well saved by Szczesny. Minutes later, Gibson’s weak shot did not trouble the Polish goalkeeper, but Everton were constantly knocking at the door. Another brilliant move between Pienaar and Baines was intercepted by Wilshere’s sliding tackle before Fellaini could pounce. While Everton kept pressing and attacking, Arsenal’s only answer was a weak Vermaalen free-kick that was saved by Tim Howard. Seeing the ease that Baines and Pienaar were torturing Arsenal’s right wing, Wenger switched Walcott to the left and placed the more defensively responsible Ramsey to the right flank.

Everton finally scored their well-deserved equalizer shortly before the half hour mark. After Arsenal monopolized possession for the first time and knocked the ball around in Everton’s half with some comfort, possession was finally lost and Pienaar tried to play a hopeful through ball to Jalevic. Szczesny caught this ball, but he clearly had not understood that his teammates were trying to slow the tempo, as he quickly released the ball to Sagna who passed it first time to Arteta in front of Arsenal’s box. The Spaniard was pressured immediately by Pienaar, and Sagna’s panicked clearance of the loose ball reached Fellaini right at the edge of the box: the big-haired Belgian curled the ball to the bottom corner with his left foot. It was a goal that could have been avoided with a little more concentration.

The rest of the first half saw Arsenal hopelessly messing around with the ball, not being able to make any penetration and routinely losing it in dangerous areas. In the 40th minute, Jelavic turned away from Mertesacker showing good skill, but skied the ball high when he only had Szczesny to beat. Three minutes from half time, Arsenal again lost the possession in a dangerous area with Ramsey somehow managing to gift the ball to Pienaar, but when the South African played Jelavic through, a correct offside flag saved Arsenal.

The second half continued in the same fashion of sporadic Arsenal attacks in the face of relentless Everton pressure. When the visitors broke from their right with Ramsey, his cross was volleyed by Giroud in the box, but the ball comically bounced back from Giroud’s own face. Then, another electric Baines-Pienaar move saw Pienaar’s shot missing the near post by a smal margin. Minutes later, Pienaar again got behind Sagna (who had a terrible game by his own high standards), but before Jelavic could finish his low cross, Gibbs made a crucial interception.  Everton still attacking, Naismith turned away from Wilshere with great ease and found Pienaar on the left yet again, but the winger was denied by Szczesny. As Everton were peppering Arsenal’s goal almost constantly, Distin saw his bullet header from a Baines cross also saved by the Polish goalkeeper.

Arsenal’s main chance of the half came when Gibbs and Walcott combined on the left and Walcott sent in a good cross into the box, but Giroud’s glancing header missed the far post by the smallest of margins. Especially in the second half, Cazorla looked as tired as a teenager who woke up and masturbated 86 times until noon: when he found some space in a central position, his low and hard shot was parried away by Tim Howard. Ten minutes from time, Arsenal almost nicked an undeserved winner when a good counterattack saw Wilshere releasing Walcott on the left. The winger fed Giroud’s run inside the left channel. The Frenchman could have easily squared it to the substitute Gervinho for a tap-in, but instead he sent in a high cross above the Ivorian’s head. In the dying minutes, both sides looked quite tired after their fierce battle and the spoils were shared.

Conclusion

Having played 4 games in 11 days with almost the same set of players, Arsenal did indeed look very tired in this physically draining game. Cazorla, Giroud and Arteta looked particularly knackered. As in recent games, they were quite ineffective going forward in the face of relentless Everton pressure, but at least they were able to hang on to a point, and it is hard to fault their effort. Arsenal now have played 8 away games in 14 Premiere League fixtures, with difficult away games at Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Stoke City, West Ham and Manchester United all out of the way. Hopefully, the team can now finally gain some momentum with home victories against Swansea and West Brom in the upcoming two fixtures. However, lack of depth in the squad is particularly worrying, and Wenger should do something about this in January, and I do not mean loaning Thierry Henry again.

Advertisements

Aston Villa:0 Arsenal: 0 Match Report

Arsenal were held to a goalless draw at Villa Park after a hard-fought encounter under heavy rain.

Arsenal Line-Up

Arsene Wenger rested Wilshere, Vermaalen and Sagna, with the upcoming midweek encounter at the Goodison Park in mind. The formation was again a hybrid of 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 with Ramsey’s movement being the key switch from one to the other. Szczesny started at the goal. Gibbs returned at left back after his injury layoff.  Koscielny was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Jenkinson started at right back. In central midfield, Aaron Ramsey was paired with Mikel Arteta. Podolski was on the left, and Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the right as Walcott is still injured. Cazorla was behind Giroud who started as the central striker.

The Game

From the early minutes, Villa’s game plan was to press high up the pitch and prevent Arsenal from settling into a passing game.  Somewhat different from Arsenal’s recent games, however, the home side’s press did not specifically concentrate on Arteta, but targeted whoever dropped deep (Ramsey, Cazorla and even Giroud) to build play from the back. This mobile pressing cover had bite and it was effective as Arsenal were denied time and space on the ball. The heavy rain also helped Villa’s efforts.  Arsenal, on the other hand, sat deep whenever Villa had the ball and preferred to keep their shape.

One visible aspect in the first half was Giroud dropping too deep probably due to his frustration of not seeing much of the ball (as this piece on Arseblog mentions, the player who passed the ball most times to Giroud was Mertesacker (10 times)), which indicates the extent that Villa’s pressing pushed Arsenal back. Overall, French striker’s movement was good when it was lateral, and it was his delicate touch to Ramsey that created Arsenal’s first real opening in the 29th minute: the Welshman released Oxlade on the right who tried to find Podolski in the 6-yard box. When Clark intercepted the ball, Ramsey had a chance to shoot inside the box, but the shot was saved by Guzan. This would be Arsenal’s only shot on target in the whole game.

Villa’s hard work all across the pitch also reaped some half chances of their own. When Szczesny tried to collect a long ball inside the left channel, the slippery surface carried him outside the penalty box with the ball in his hands. Aston Villa worked the resulting free-kick brilliantly: Bannan’s deceptive cutback found Clark unmarked on the penalty spot. His shot was deflected to Weimann, who scored but the goal was correctly ruled offside.

Arsenal’s big chance of the half came when Koscielny started a move by bursting forward from the back. Cazorla fed Giroud’s run on the left. Koscielny, who continued his run, received Giroud’s low cross completely unmarked in the box, but scooped the ball high with his left foot when scoring looked much easier.

The second half started at a much higher tempo, and Arsenal looked more dangerous in the first 15 minutes. First, Cazorla combined with Oxlade-Chamberlain, received the return ball, yet his shot was narrowly wide. Minutes later, when Aston Villa gifted possession in the center of the park, Cazorla released Podolski on the left, but the German’s cross to the near post was well-handled by Guzan. In the 55th minute, another Giroud flick created space for Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right flank, but when the winger sent in a low cross, Ramsey was not able to guide the ball into the net at the near post. Villa responded in kind: after Podolski lost the ball under pressure in Arsenal’s half, Benteke turned inside from the right channel, and saw his dangerous shot deflected out for a corner.

The game was hardly a good spectacle given the adverse conditions, unless you like that kind of scrappy affair on a wet and cold Midlands evening. Both teams were working hard, but lacking any cutting edge in dangerous areas. When Gibbs and Ramsey worked an opening on the left, Podolski received the ball inside the box, and his shot on the turn was blocked by Lichaj. From the resulting corner, Giroud’s flick was slashed wide by Ramsey at the far post.  Then, Villa threw another good punch, after a brilliant interplay between the substitute Holman and Benteke through the center created space for Agbonlahor in the box, but Szczesny made a good save.

Around the 70th minute, Gervinho replaced Podolski on the wide left position, but the Ivorian looked completely off the pace during his 20 minutes in the game with his touch heavier than an obese elephant. Wenger also replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain with Arshavin on the right as the game entered into the last 15 minutes, delicately poised. Another good Aston Villa move through Benteke found Holman in a central shooting position, and Szczesny tipped the Australlian’s rocket off the crossbar.  Quite inexplicably, Wenger replaced Giroud in the last 4 minutes with Coquelin, and shifted Gervinho to the striker position. Arsenal’s best chance in the dying minutes came when Arshavin’s delicious ball into the 6-yard box was intercepted by Clark’s last ditch tackle as Gervinho looked certain to score in the goal mouth.

Conclusion

After last week’s trashing at the hands of Manchester City, Aston Villa showed a great team ethic and worked very hard all game long. Not for the first time this season, Arsenal were not able impose their passing game under Villa’s relentless pressure on the ball. The draw was a fair result. What is a little depressing for Arsenal fans, though, is that this season such draws in away games against relegation zone opponents after mediocre performances feel quite normal.

Last season, when Arsenal tied away from home against similar opposition, I was at least able to get pissed off. Now, the feeling is similar to the one when your 20 year old son does not listen to you anymore. Perhaps, like their team, the traveling Arsenal fans also “lacked a little bit of sharpness today” as they did not understand at all why Wenger took off Giroud after sending in two wingers for better delivery from the flanks,  as they chanted “You do not know what you are doing.”  But to his credit, at least Wenger did not start Ramsey on the right wing, despite Walcott’s injury. I would expect him to pair Coquelin and Arteta in the center and unleash Ramsey on the wing!

All joking aside, the midweek encounter at Everton will see an equally hard physical battle against opponents with better technical qualities than Villa.

Arsenal:2 Montpellier:0 Match Report

Goals: Wishere (49), Podolski (63)

Arsenal secured qualification to the knock-out stages of the Champions League for the 13th consecutive season after a comfortable win against Montpellier.

Arsenal Line-Up

Arsenal had a 4-2-3-1 formation. Szczesny started at the goal. Vermaalen was again at left back. Koscielny was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Bacary Sagna started at right back. In central midfield, Wilshere was paired with Mikel Arteta. Podolski was on the left, and Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the right as Walcott was injured. Cazorla was behind Giroud who started as the central striker.

The Game

The game started in an extremely dull fashion, and almost nothing of any significance happened in the first 10 minutes. Shortly after the 10th minute mark, the crowd were reassured that they have come to watch a football game, when Koscielny’s header from a Vermaalen cross crashed at the bar.  Montpellier responded when Mbia’s defence-splitting pass was chased by Mounier, but Szczesny got to the ball before the French winger.

The rest of the half was quite scrappy with both sides displaying their skills in playing overhit and wayward passes.  Around the 30th minute, Koscielny stormed out of his own half with the ball. When he was tackled finally at the edge of the Montpellier box, the ball was deflected to Podolski who fired just wide off the post. Minutes later, Podolski exchanged passes with Cazorla on the wide left channel and was played in by the Spaniard, but the German again missed the target from a narrow angle.

After a mostly eventless first half, Arsenal took the lead three minutes into the second half. Vermaalen exchanged passes with Podolski to go beyond the Montpellier right back, cut inside and send in a cross into the box. Giroud expertly flicked the ball onto the path of Wilshere who was arriving late into the box and the midfielder coolly dinked the ball past the goalkeeper.

After the goal, Arsenal continued to control the tempo of the game, and the sporadic French sorties into the Arsenal half looked toothless. During a period of possession when Arsenal tried to force their way through the center and the left, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s frustration for not receiving the ball when completely free on the right was visible. When the young winger finally got his feet to the ball after stealing possession in the midfield, he made a trademark anarchic and surging run inside and played the ball to Podolski. The German assassin executed a brilliant one-two with Giroud (the French striker’s return ball was top class) and thundered the ball into the net with an exquisite volley.

My reluctance to go into much detail in this match report is because the game had the feeling of a rather easy win for Arsenal written all over it. In the remaining 25 minutes, Arsenal controlled the game without breaking too much sweat and cruised into an easy victory. The overall look of the game was as one-sided as the Fox News coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the last minutes, Coquelin, Ramsey and Gervinho made cameo appearances. Other than that, Giroud missed a big chance when played through by Cazorla (have you seen that before?).

One tactical point worth going over is the performance of Giroud in this match (for a more detailed take on this, see Arsenal Column’s piece).  What Giroud adds to the side is his hard work, physical presence and movement across the forward line.  His goal against Schalke came when he did not give up possession in front of the box and played it to Podolski to get to the end of the German’s cross. Likewise his similar goal against West Ham, his flick to Walcott in the build up for Arsenal’s fourth goal against Spurs, his assist to Podolski in the first Montpellier game, his brilliant diversionary run in Podolski’s goal against Liverpool are all examples.  Giroud becomes less effective when he drops back to the midfield to build play a la Van Persie, like he did against Montpellier in the first half. He is not good at this. His touch fails him too often. And most importantly, it is not even needed with a midfield trio of Cazorla, Wilshere and Arteta. When Giroud drops deep, the opposition centerbacks push forward to squeeze the space in front of their box. Giroud needs to dislocate the centerbacks and put them under pressure with his movement in and around the box.  When he did not do this in the first half against Montpellier, the team struggled to create openings. In the second half, he performed like he should, stayed high up the pitch as the target man and produced two assists, and Arsenal looked more fluid.

Conclusion

Arsenal did not play particularly well, but they scored two excellent goals and secured an easy victory against last year’s French champions who did not look like champions at all (they have won only four times this season in all competitions).  This victory made the trip to Athens for the last group game a formality. Arsenal will probably finish the group second behind Schalke,  but hopefully will not end up playing Barca again (as if they do, it will be the third time in last four seasons).

Arsenal:5 Tottenham Hotspurs:2 Match Report

Goals: Adebayor (10), Mertesacker (24), Podolski (42), Giroud (45+1), Cazorla (60), Bale (71), Walcott (90+1)

Arsenal beat the living crap out of a 10-man Tottenham Hotspurs with the same scoreline as last season after Adebayor was sent off in the 17th minute. After the game, Tottenham manager Andres Villas Boas managed to draw a laughter by claiming that his team controlled the game from the first minute to the last.

Arsenal Line-Up

Arsenal had a 4-2-3-1 formation. Szczesny returned at the goal for the first time since the Southampton game in September. Vermaalen was again at left back. Koscielny was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Bacary Sagna started at right back. In central midfield, Wilshere was paired with Mikel Arteta. Podolski was on the left, and Walcott started on the right. Cazorla was behind Giroud who started as the central striker.

The Game

Villas Boas started a game with two strikers for the first time this season, probably because the attacking link-up players in his preferred 4-2-3-1 were either injured (Dembele) or out of form (Dempsey and Sigurdson). His surprising 4-4-2 formation meant that, unlike the recent games, Arteta did not have a player marking him full time (though Defoe was sometimes dropping close to him when Arsenal had the ball). Instead of targeting Arteta specifically, Spurs midfield and backline pushed forward and played a high line to squeeze the entirety of Arsenal’s midfield.

This tactic seemed to work in the first 15 minutes, as Arsenal had difficulty in building play, and Spurs looked dangerous whenever they attacked. First, Gallas had a goal which was correctly ruled offside. Spurs then took the lead when, at the 10th minute mark, Vertonghen approached to the midfield line with the ball, and under no pressure played an over the top ball behind Arsenal’s backline. Mertesacker, who was marking Defoe, was slow to react and Defoe received the ball inside the box at a slightly narrow angle. The striker tried to pass the ball to the far corner. When Szczesny could only parry the ball inside the 6-yard box, Adebayor finished the rebound in front of Vermaalen.  Arsenal looked shaken with the early goal, and Spurs almost extended their lead shortly after when they quickly broke from midfield again: Bale found Lennon on the right with the winger missing the far post by a small margin.

The game was turned upside down in the 17th minute when Adebayor inexplicably sent Cazorla flying into the orbit with a high studs-on challenge. Howard Webb had no choice but to send the Togolese off. The dynamics of the game then changed completely as Arsenal started attacking with hunger and purpose down their right with Walcott giving Naughton a very hard time. The home side equalized shortly after when Wilshere (who had a very aggressive game in the center) switched play to the right to Walcott. The winger attacked Naughton and sent in a good cross into box. The ball did not have much pace, but Mertesacker placed a majestic header past Lloris into the right corner. It was the German defender’s first goal in Arsenal colors.

With their equalizer, Arsenal scented further blood and put the Spurs goal under siege for the remaining 20 minutes of the first half. In the half hour mark, Walcott was fouled by the hapless Naughton and Wilshere’s set piece was met by a powerful header by Giroud, but Lloris made an excellent save. A minute later, Cazorla’s rocket from outside the box narrowly missed the crossbar.  Arsenal then again attacked from their right, as this time Giroud met Sagna’s cross inside the 6 yard box, but he directed his header right at Lloris.

In this 20 minute period, Arsenal attacked with pace and some of their moves were simply electric. Tottenham looked like a boxer who was getting a horrendous beating and waiting to be saved the bell. Arsenal managed to land two crushing punches in quick succession before the half time whistle. First, Arteta controlled a loose ball and drove into the box attempting a one-two with Wilshere. The ball was deflected to Podolski who fired a shot on the turn under the close attention of Gallas, and the ball slowly crept inside the far post. Three minutes later, this time Cazorla controlled a loose ball outside the box. As he attempted to burst forward inside the left channel, he was first tackled by Wilshere by mistake and then by Kyle Walker. Despite losing his balance, the Spaniard rode another challenge and cut the ball inside the 6-yard box. Giroud got in front of Vertonghen and Gallas to finish with force.

For the second half, Andre Villas Boas removed his two full backs (Naugton and Walker), send in Dawson and Dempsey, and reverted to a 3-4-1-1 formation. Gallas, Vertonghen and Dawson were the three at the back, and Dempsey was  playing the link-up role behind Defoe. It was indeed a courageous attacking move and Spurs started having more of the ball. After 10 minutes into the second half, the possesion statistics showed Spurs having 64% of the ball. Yet, despite winning a series of corners and set pieces, they did not create a clear-cut chance. What they managed to do was to stop Arsenal’s orgy-like desire to attack against a broken 10-man opponent.

Despite their improved play, though, Spurs conceded a fourth goal which had a brilliant simplicity. Giroud headed down Szczesny’s goal kick to Walcott, who controlled the ball, and released Podolski on the left. With Spurs playing with no fullbacks, the German burst forward past Gallas and found Cazorla’s inside run from the opposite flank. Normally a left back would track Cazorla’s run and intercept the cross, but with deeper wide areas in Spurs’ half left completely exposed, the Spaniard easily buried his shot past Lloris.

With half an hour more to go, and with the scoreline at 4-1, the game could now finish with any scoreline. However, Arsenal’s finishing let them down shortly after the 4th goal with Wilshere and Giroud wasting good chances . Tottenham kept chasing the game, and they found some hope when Bale’s brilliant shot from outside the box hit the bottom right corner. As part of their recent lack of confidence and partially due to the negative vibe of the crowd, Arsenal got nervous and allowed Spurs two more chances to cut the deficit to one. First, Bale was played in by Dempsey, but instead of squaring the ball to Defoe at the far post, the Welshman opted for a shot at goal and missed the target. Then, Szczesny failed to make a catch in a corner, but Defoe could not capitalize.

Arsene Wenger reacted to Tottenham’s chasing of the game by taking off Wilshere (who had an excellent game) and sending in Ramsey to add some freshness into Arsenal’s midfield. Podolski was also replaced by Andre Santos on the left for better ball retention and control. The history of North London derbies are packed with impossible comebacks, and Arsenal’s fragility at the back meant that the crowd and the team were not entirely comfortable with their lead. However, in the last 10 minutes Arsenal closed the game with no further trouble, and added the gloss back to the scoreline in the extra time: The substitute Oxlade-Chamberlain broke from the right and found the unmarked Walcott inside the area who drilled his shot past Lloris.

Conclusion

Neutrals (and sworn Arsenal enemies) might point out to Spurs’ better start until the Adebayor red card and Arsenal’s nervousness against a 10-man Spurs in the last 20 minutes. This selective evaluation would ignore Arsenal’s electric-pace attacking in the last 25 minutes of the first half, when they truly cut Spurs into pieces. We will never know what could have happened if Adebayor stayed on the pitch, but given that he did not, this was by no means a close game. Indeed, Arsene Wenger reacted to Villas-Boas’s delusional claim that his team controlled the game from the first minute to the last with some amusement when he said “If our opponents are in control from the first to the last minute and we win 5-2, I don’t mind too much.” Me neither!

Arsenal:3 Fulham:3 Match Report

Goals: Giroud (11) , Podolski (23), Berbatov (29), Kacaniklic (40), Berbatov (67, pen), Giroud (69)

Arsenal gave away a two goal lead for the second time this week and dropped two more points against Fulham after Arteta missed the dubious penalty awarded by the referee Phil Dowd with the last kick of the game.

Arsenal Line-Up

Arsenal had a 4-2-3-1 formation. Vito Mannone started at the goal. Vermaalen was again at left back. Koscielny was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Bacary Sagna started at right back. In central midfield, Coquelin was paired with Mikel Arteta. Podolski was on the left, and Walcott started on the right. Cazorla was behind Giroud who started as the central striker.

The Game

Early on, the game was played in a very slow tempo with Fulham trying to build from the back. Arsenal did not really press Fulham’s build-up and preferred to keep their shape. The first danger came from Fulham when a good move from their left through Berbatov found Ruiz, but his shot was deflected wide for a corner. In Arsenal’s attack, Walcott looked lively on the right flank, and it was his corner that brought the opening goal when Giroud’s thumping header crashed into the net. It was the first headed goal for Arsenal in their 11th league game.

Arsenal were not playing a high tempo game, looking content to let Fulham have the ball as the visitors were enjoying good amount of possession without really threatening. When Fulham were temporarily down to 10 men with Richardson’s injury, Arsenal doubled their lead exploiting the visitors’ lack of defensive concentration: Cazorla’s short pass to Walcott was deflected onto the path of Arteta who was running inside the box from the right channel. The  Spaniard’s cutback was guided into the net by Podolski arriving from the other end, with Fulham back four all asleep.

At 2-0, it looked like Arsenal had no excuse not to hold on to their comfortable lead. Fulham were already playing an open game, and now they had to chase the game away from home. The ease that Fulham got back in the game, though, could have sucked the will to live even out of a lifetime practitioner of Ashtanga yoga. A great tackle by Coquelin won the ball in front of Arsenal’s box, yet Koscielny lost possession again and Arsenal gave away a needless corner. The customary set piece goal that Arsenal concede in almost every game arrived from Ruiz’s corner when an unmarked Berbatov headed the ball in with Mannone making no effort to dominate the 6-yard box. Wenger later complained that “No one jumped.”

The goal brought back questions about Arsenal’s confidence and fragility, and their already slow game looked even more painful to watch. It was not long before Fulham equalized, again with incredible ease. Berbatov’s simple run inside the right channel was picked up by Riether, but not by any Arsenal player (Podolski gave some sort of a chase but he was late to react to the run). The Bulgarian master had enough time to find Kacaniklic in the box who had peeled off Sagna and his downward header bounced off the ground and hit the net inside the far corner. Just before half time, Fulham almost took the lead: Kacaniklic was released by Ruiz on Arsenal’s right, but his low cross into the box was wasted by Dejagah’s showboating. Arsenal went for the dressing room looking just like the spent team that they are at the moment.

Early in the second half, Ramsey replaced Coquelin, as Arsene Wenger perhaps somehow still thinks that he can provide penetration from central areas. What Ramsey provided instead was a contemporary exhibition of sitting on the ball too long, getting caught in possession and losing it. When the young Welshman lost the ball to Ruiz, the midfielder almost found Berbatov in the box, but Koscielny’s tackle was timely and firm. Arsenal did not look like going anywhere with Arteta looking slow and indecisive on the ball and under constant pressure from Ruiz, Podolski completely missing on the left flank and Cazorla again looking classy in patches but very tired to be pulling strings. In the 65th minute, Arteta was caught in possession at the edge of the box on Arsenal’s left, lost the ball to Ruiz and then brought the impressive Fulham player down. Berbatov planted the resulting penalty to the bottom left corner with sublime confidence.

Falling behind finally shook the very foundations of the Arsenal’s team spirit. They rallied with a mixture of desperation and adrenaline, and hit back quickly. Cazorla’s excellent through ball found Giroud in the box and his left footed shot bounced off the post to Walcott on the far right. The winger’s precise cross back into the box was headed in by Giroud.

The crowd was now fully behind Arsenal and wanted their team to push for a winner. With the audacious Fulham also not sitting back, in the last 20 minutes the game turned into a great spectacle with chances at both ends. When Sagna, who had a bad game, lost the ball to Ruiz, the Costa Rican’s shot was parried out for a corner by Mannone. Minutes later, Koscielny prevented a certain goal when Berbatov was played through behind the Arsenal’s back line. Arsenal also had their chances to grab the winner. Giroud turned away from Sidwell, created space for a shot, but his rocket was well saved by Schwarzer. Later, Sagna’s deep cross into the box was met again by Giroud but he could not direct his header into the goal from a difficult position. It should be said that the French striker was the rare shining light in Arsenal’s attack all game long with his power, desire and intelligent movement.

In the four minutes of extra time, Arsenal won a series of corners, but despite Giroud’s best efforts, could not find a winner. There was, however, still time for more drama: With seconds remaining, Ruiz inexplicably passed the ball to Arshavin in Fulham half and the Russian scooted down the left towards the box. His cross hit Riether’s arm when the Fulham player was hardly a yard away and was actually trying to hide his arm away from the ball. When the typically lousy Phil Dowd produced a penalty, it was a pathetic decision. Yet, justice was perhaps done when Arteta’s low shot to the bottom right corner was saved by Schwarzer. That was the last touch of another frustrating game for Arsenal.

Conclusion

Despite their rally after falling behind, Arsenal again looked like a disjointed and uncertain force, especially defensively. The ease Fulham got back in the game, and found openings whenever they counterattacked with Ruiz and Berbatov directing their play was incredible. One positive from the day was Giroud who fought like a lion up-front. Arsenal’s two pivot midfield players in most of the second half, Ramsey and Arteta competed with each other to get caught in possession and lose the ball in dangerous areas.  Things are not looking good at all for Arsenal before the next week’s North London derby. They concede too easily and create with so much difficulty.

Schalke:2 Arsenal:2 Match Report

Goals: Walcott (18), Giroud (26), Huntelaar (45+2), Farfan (67)

Arsenal surrendered a two goal lead at Veltins Arena, but managed to hold on to a useful point in the Champions League.

Arsenal Line-Up

Arsenal had a 4-2-3-1 formation. Vito Mannone started at the goal. Vermaalen was shifted to left back instead of the accident-waiting-to-happen Andre Santos. Koscielny was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Bacary Sagna started at right back. In central midfield, Jack Wilshere was paired with Mikel Arteta. Podolski was on the left, and Walcott was on the right. Cazorla was behind Giroud who started as the central striker.

The Game

Schalke started the game with menace and found early chances.  A good Schalke counterattack that developed from their left was quickly switched to the right flank by Holtby, but Fuch’s shot was deflected for a corner.  Minutes later, when Podolski lost the ball, Schalke released Afellay on the left. The Dutch winger took the direct route to the goal and his shot was well saved by Mannone at the near post.

In the first 15 minutes, Arsenal found it difficult to retain possession in Schalke’s half. When they took the lead, it was against the run of play. Mertesacker’s aimless clearance was headed by Neustadter towards his own goal, and Giroud found himself facing only Unnerstall to beat. Before the Frenchman could pull the trigger, he was tackled by Howedes, but Walcott scooped the ball over Howedes and the goalie and found the empty net.

The visitors gained more confidence with the goal, and started passing the ball more crisply in the Schalke half. They were also fortunate to see Schalke’s marauding right back Uchida getting injured and replaced by Hoger.  A minute after this substitution, Arsenal extended their lead. Cazorla’s brilliant angled ball found Wilshere on the right channel. The midfielder cut inside to his favorite left foot and tried to play Giroud in. As the move looked intercepted, the French striker was able to take a touch towards Podolski on the left. The German was under the close attention of Hoger, yet he managed to send in a delicious cross into the 6-yard box which was met by Giroud’s diving header. Arsenal were 2-0 up after their tentative start.

After taking a two goal lead, Arsenal started sitting deeper and invited the Schalke pressure which duly arrived. The home team did not allow Arsenal to slow the tempo and continued to attack with width on both flanks. Five minutes before the half time whistle, Farfan skinned Vermaalen on the right and scooted towards the goal, yet his shot missed the the target by a small margin. It looked essential for Arsenal not to concede before half-time, but Schalke’s pressure paid off in the second minute of extra time. Arteta intercepted a ball in front of the box and played it to Cazorla. Facing his own goal and surrounded by 3 Schalke players in the middle of Arsenal’s half, the Spaniard slipped and lost possession. The speed that Schalke worked this ball was impressive. The ball was immediately played to the edge of the box to Holtby who flicked it towards Huntelaar with a single touch. The Dutch striker’s left footed finish found the net at the far post.

The aggressive start Schalke had to the second half signaled that Arsenal would have a very hard time holding on to their narrow lead.  Schalke attacked in waves, and Arsenal had to option but to sit deeper except an early sortie into the opposition half when Podolski’s deep cross was volleyed wide by Giroud.  Arsenal tried to absorb the growing pressure, yet Schalke’s width on both flanks allowed the home team to stretch Arsenal. Their constant and purposeful movement created space despite Arsenal defending with every player except Giroud behind the ball.  First, Huntelaar was slipped behind Arsenal’s defence and Mannone prevented a certain equalizer. Minutes later, when Arsenal failed to clear a ball inside the box after a corner, Mertesacker’s block raised appeals for a hand-ball. Holtby was set up for a shot outside the box after another good move, but Mannone managed to parry away his difficult shot.

The goal that the home side scented arrived shortly after the 65th minute, when Afellay sneaked behind Sagna and sent in a deep cross from the left. The excellent Holtby’s header flicked the ball to the unguarded space on Arsenal’s left as Vermaalen had come inside to meet the cross. Farfan controlled the ball completely unmarked, and his low shot was deflected in byVermaalen, although probably it was already going in.

In the remaining 20 minutes, the home side’s pressure considerably eased, Arsenal started to push forward, yet both sides looked happy with a draw. Probably, Schalke was tired after the effort they showed to close the two-goal deficit, and Arsenal did not want to concede another goal by opening up too much. What was somewhat disappointing on the night was Santi Cazorla’s performance as the Spaniard looked quite tired and was not able to orchestrate a quick counterattack to finish off the hosts during the period when they were pushing forward for an equalizer. In the very last minute of the game, Walcott found himself facing only the Schalke goalie to beat after a flick through the center, yet his weak attempt was denied by Unnerstall.

Conclusion

After a string of extremely disappointing performances in recent weeks, this was better from Arsenal, despite the fact that they surrendered a two-goal lead. Arsenal still have a very good chance of reaching the knock-out stages, and given the low confidence level they had coming to this game, this useful point is something that they can hopefully build on.

Some Thoughts on Unclogging Arsenal’s Attack

Strangulation of Arteta

Opposition teams now know that to disrupt Arsenal’s game, all they need to do is (i) to ask their advanced central midfielder to press Arsenal’s distribution center Arteta (see Oscar for Chelsea, Hoolahan for Norwich, Holtby for Schalke and Rooney for United) and (ii) ask their full backs to stay narrow when Arsenal are in possession to congest the center.

When Arteta is strangled, Cazorla drops too deep to help the ball circulation from the back. With no real outlets on the two wings (Ramsey and Podolski), Giroud gets isolated and Arsenal look frighteningly toothless in attack as we have seen against Norwich, Schalke, QPR first half and Manchester United. The key to unclog Arsenal’s attack, of course, depends on the players returning from injury, especially Diaby, Rosicky and Gibbs.

If and when Abou Diaby is back (he will be like the 20th new signing of himself), he can rectify the problem of Arteta being strangled by carrying the ball forward with his sheer athleticism. With Diaby pairing Arteta, Wilshere can then be moved to Cazorla’s current position (which would also help Arsenal to press hard from the front), and Santi Cazorla can move to the wide right.

Cazorla on Wide Right

Cazorla on wide right could indeed give the team some balance as, unlike Ramsey, the Spaniard can dribble out of tight situations, retain possession with his quick thinking and can also be dangerous on either foot when he cuts inside. In contrast, when facing Ramsey, the opposition left back can show him the outside and invite him for a foot race that Ramsey is likely to lose, or show him inside so that Ramsey cuts into a crowded center with no ability to shoot with his left. Another point to note is that on the wide right position, Cazorla’s defensive duties would be much less, as Sagna can defend that flank basically all by himself. Cazorla on the right flank would give the opposition left back and opposition midfield anchor something more difficult to defend against than simply congesting the center. On the right wing, currently too much is asked from Ramsey to perform a duty he is not suited at all, given his limited ball skills, and lack of quick thinking and execution. Ramsey has a good engine, which is most useful in a central midfield position when needed.

If Diaby is not back but Rosicky is back, then Rosicky can move to Cazorla’s current advanced central position (as he was excellent there in the late part of last season) and Cazorla can again move right.  Without Diaby, Wilshere can continue to pair with Arteta.

Return of Gibbs

The return of Gibbs is perhaps the most crucial, as Arsenal’s left does not work (defensively or offensively) at all in any combination that includes Andre Santos. With Gibbs coming back, Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain can provide the direct wing play, and overload the left flank in attack. One direct winger (Walcott or Oxlade) and one creative playmaker on the other wing (Cazorla) would basically provide what Wenger keeps telling us when he explains why he insists on placing Ramsey on wide right, but the combination he speaks of is not going to perform well with Ramsey and Podolski on the two flanks. Podolski on the left wing takes perhaps the best finisher in the team away from the goal.

Pacey Direct Winger on the Left

While Cazorla on the right flank might provide a creative threat which is harder to crowd out by the opposition congesting the center, an important point is the necessity of having a pacey attacking threat in the form of Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain placed at the other wing.

Without the threat of pace that can lurk behind them, opposition right backs come narrow to tighten up their shape as mentioned. Not only that, but the lack of pace in Arsenal attack enables the opposition centerbacks to move 10 yards forward to help their midfield cover to squeeze the space in the center where Cazorla currently operates.

As it is, none of Ramsey, Podolski or Giroud make any runs behind the defensive line. Placing a pacey forward on the opposite left flank who can make such runs while Cazorla operates on the other flank is likely to stretch the opposition. Cazorla’s scheming from the right towards the inside is likely to draw defenders to that side opening up the left. At the moment, no such movement develops as Arsenal are reduced to passing the ball in front of the opposition.

In this line-up, one of Podolski or Giroud (but not Gervinho) can play the central striker (as they will need resting and rotation through the fixture congestion until the New Year). Gervinho, if in better form than the last time we have seen him against Schalke and Norwich, can be used at his preferred wide left position as an impact substitute.

Finally, this has nothing to do with the problems in attack, but Vermaalen should be dropped until he improves. If Djorou or Senderos had been making the mistakes that Vermaalen regularly makes in recent weeks, they would be crucified and castrated.

The proposed line up once Gibbs, Diaby and Rosicky are back is as follows.