Arsenal:2 Liverpool:2 Match Report

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Goals: Suarez (5), Henderson (59), Giroud (64), Walcott (67)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Gibbs (LB), Wilshere (CM) Ramsey (CM), Cazorla (CM), Walcott (RF), Podolski (LF), Giroud (CF).

For the fifth consecutive league fixture in January, Arsenal first went behind after shocking defensive errors gifted two goals to Liverpool, but they managed to come back with goals from Giroud and Walcott. If Arsenal are trying to show us that they do not take control of games before gifting a couple of goals to opposition, then they have done a terrific job and caused enough frustration.

Arsenal started the game by conceding a goal which was spectacular in the defensive ineptitude they managed to display. Suarez (who was given a wide left role) tried to play Glenn Johnson behind Sagna with a one time pass, but he miskicked the ball. Instead of starting a counterattack, Sagna slipped and the ball reached Johnson. When the cross came into the 6-yard box, Vermaalen was in a position to comfortably clear it, yet he kicked the air with a wild slash (remember the Manchester United game and Van Persie’s goal in the 3rd minute? Yes, that one!). The loose ball fell kindly for Sturridge whose point blank shot was saved by Szczesny. The rebound got a deflection from Ramsey’s heel and Henderson passed it to Suarez. The Uruguayan’s tame shot got another deflection from Mertesacker and wrong-footed Szczesny.

suarez

Arsenal equalized almost immediately. Wilshere turned away from Lucas and chipped in a delicate ball to Walcott. The winger/striker controlled the ball, yet his shot from close range produced a great save from Reina. Arsenal kept pushing forward while Liverpool sat deep trying to hit another sucker punch. Suarez found Sturridge’s run behind Vermaalen with an insane pass with the outside of his foot, but the striker shot wide. Then Cazorla found space in a central area and released Podolski. The German’s precise cutback to the edge of the box was sliced wide by Giroud

At the quarter hour mark, Arsenal almost gifted a second goal, when Szczesny tried a Cruyf-turn in the 6-yard box under pressure from Sturridge. Minutes later, Liverpool failed to clear a corner, Cazorla’s disguised ball into the penalty box found Vermaalen in a dangerous position, but the Belgian’s shot was blocked by Agger. Arsenal knocked the door again after a good interplay between Wilshere and Cazorla released Podolski whose cutback was cleared in the goal mouth by Carragher before Giroud could pounce.

The tempo remained frantic after the eventful first 20 minutes. Liverpool’s game plan involved Suarez tracking Sagna’s overlaps, Gerrard and Lukas screening the central area against Cazorla and Wilshere’s scheming and Henderson pressing Ramsey’s ball circulation deep in Arsenal’s half in a 4-5-1 formation. When their pressing worked, it immediately forced Arsenal into errors. Mertesacker gave the ball away in Arsenal’s half. From the resulting corner, Podolski cleared Agger’s header off the line.

After half an hour, Gibbs picked up an injury and was replaced by Andre Santos with the home fans fearing for the worse. A brilliant Liverpool counterattack found Downing running inside the left channel. As it was so often the case in this game, Arsenal defenders did not look like they knew what they were doing.  Vermaalen charged forward to stop Downing, asking Mertesacker to cover while both Henderson and Suarez were running behind. Mertesacker was caught flat when Downing’s pass released Henserson with Andre Santos on the far left playing everybody and their mothers onside. Szczesny had to come rushing outside the box, as there was no other covering defender and then retreated back to his goal, tempting Henderson to try a difficult chip which ended up going over the bar.

henderson

Arsenal started the second half on top and Liverpool sat even deeper unable to break forward. A long spell of Arsenal pressure suggested an imminent equalizer, yet it was again Arsenal who conceded another comical goal. When Henderson received the ball inside the right channel 40 yards away from goal, he had no support. He drove forward towards Mertesacker and dribbled past him with annoying ease (the big German defender looks painfully out of form). Andre Santos should have muscled him off the ball, but Henderson proved too strong and persistent, bursting into the box. Ramsey’s sliding block of Henderson’s shot comically rebounded off Santos and fell kindly to Henderson’s path when Szczesny had already committed himself. The young midfielder clearly had deserved his luck with his sheer persistence and finished into an empty net.

To their credit, Arsenal did not let their heads go down, immediately hit back and equalized with two quickfire goals in 5 minutes. First, Giroud headed home Wilshere’s delivery from a set piece after Walcott was fouled by Lukas. Then, good interplay on Arsenal’s right saw Cazorla combining with Giroud whose cushioned pass set Walcott up for a shot from a tight angle. The forward produced a great finish to the far corner past Reina.

giroud

Arsenal sensed victory and kept pouring forward in the last 20 minutes. They nearly went up when the lively Walcott cut inside from the right and fired a left-footed curler that missed the post by a small margin. A brilliant Arsenal counterattack from a Liverpool corner saw Podolski releasing Cazorla on the left, but Giroud could not connect with the Spaniard’s hard and low ball across the 6 yard box. The best chance to win the game fell to Giroud, when Wilshere dispossessed Suarez. The inspirational midfielder combined with Cazorla and the Spaniard found Giroud in the box. The striker’s one time silky touch played Podoski behind on the left, but Giroud missed the cutback from 6 yards.

In the last minute of extra time, Liverpool almost nicked all three points after yet another series of inexplicable and unforced errors by Arsenal defenders. Under no pressure at all, Santos gave the ball away in Arsenal’s half and Henderson released Suarez. Santos fell down while trying to run back! Wilshere did track back, yet he could not stop the Uruguayan’s shot inside the box. Szczesny parried it away from the danger zone when Gerrard was lurking to pounce the rebound.

vermaelen-miss

The game was a great spectacle for the neutrals, but most Arsenal fans must have thought they require a heart transplant given the ability of Arsenal defenders to produce a gift out of the blue for the opposition. Arsenal looked creative and hungry going forward with Wilshere, Cazorla and Podolski poking holes in the tight Liverpool defensive shape at will, Walcott looking much more consistent, willing and dangerous on the right flank and Giroud displaying much improvement as the target man. Ramsey also played reasonably well in the defensive midfield role. Yet, the defensive shape, organization and the form level of Sagna, Vermaalen and Mertesacker is a complete mess, and is a cause for great concern. With Gibbs now injured for at least 3 weeks, it is not comforting at all to see Andre Santos joining this shambolic defense. Stoke at home is next, and with Santos completely lacking any aerial ability, it would not be surprising to see Wenger shifting Vermaalen to the left back, and pairing Koscielny with Mertesacker.

Arsenal:5 West Ham United:1 Match Report

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Goals: Collison (18), Podolski (22), Giroud (47), Cazorla (53), Walcott (54), Giroud (57)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Gibbs (LB), Wilshere (CM) Ramsey (CM), Cazorla (CM), Walcott (RF), Podolski (LF), Giroud (CF).

Arsenal blew West Ham United out of the water with a sensational display where they scored 4 goals in the first 11 minutes of the second half.

This was a ‘must win’ game for Arsenal to get back in touch with the Champions League places in the league, and they started on top as expected. Due to injuries to Arteta and Coquelin and the need to rest Diaby, Aaron Ramsey was paired with Wilshere as the double central midfield pivot. With Podolski coming back to left forward position, Cazorla was shifted back to the advanced central midfield role.

The Wilshere/Ramsey duo was tidy in possession and drove the team forward in the first 15 minutes, yet despite their dominance Arsenal were not able to create a clear cut chance during the opening exchanges. West Ham were sitting deep and keeping a tight defensive shape. Just before the quarter hour mark, good interplay between Wilshere and Ramsey released Walcott behind on the right, but his cutback was blocked by Tomkins.

It was clear that West Ham, as any Sam Allardyce team, would try to make the best out of the set pieces they would win, regardless of how far away from Arsenal goal the set piece is won. Indeed, in the 18th minute, when Kieran Gibbs fouled Demel deep in the West Ham half, the visitors humped the ball to Arsenal penalty box and forced a corner. Giroud’s headed clearance of this corner fell kindly for Collison on the edge of the box, and he fired an unstoppable shot past Szczesny to give West Ham the lead.

collison

Arsenal did not seem to panic at all, and they equalized shortly after with a brilliant goal of their own. Wilshere exchanged passes with Cazorla, and found Podolski on his left. The German took one touch, steadied himself and sent in an absolute missile from 25 yards.

In the last 15 minutes of the first half, Arsenal increased the tempo considerably and created enough many chances to take the lead. First, a truly sumptuous move from their left involving Podolski and Giroud released Gibbs, but the English left back’s cutback to the goal mouth was missed by Podolski as the ball fell to his weaker right foot. Minutes later, a clever disguised ball by Ramsey almost released Walcott behind, but a last ditch tackle by O’Brien deflected the ball behind the winger. Almost ironically, West Ham also found an even bigger chance themselves when Sagna could not deal with Demel’s deep cross and Cole’s shot was cleared off the line by Ramsey. The last action of the half saw a superb left footed freekick by Cazorla saved by Jaaskelainen.

Podolski-West-Ham

Arsenal started the second half like a thunderstorm and West Ham saw their defensive line flooded very quickly. Within 2o seconds after the restart, another absolute beauty of a move between Giroud and Cazorla unleashed Walcott on the right, and his cutback almost had Tomkins score an own goal. After winning two successive corners, Arsenal took the lead when Walcott’s delivery from a corner was volleyed home by Giroud at the near post, with Mertesacker’s good movement in the box helping Giroud to lose his marker.

During the first 15 minutes of the second half, some of Arsenal’s passing and movement was simply out of this world and emphasized the fact that Arsenal are most dangerous when they break quickly from their own half. After falling behind, West Ham attempted to send more men to Arsenal’s half and tried to press higher up the pitch. They paid the price of this little ambition they showed by conceding three more goals in 4 minutes, all of them assisted by Podolski. First, Ramsey started an attack from deep and found Wilshere unmarked in the center circle. The beating heart of this Arsenal team quicky fed Podolski on the left. The German, who meant business, cut inside, had a brilliant one-two with Giroud and burst into the box. He could have finished the move himself, but unselfishly put the ball to Cazorla who scored with a backheel.

cazorla

Only 30 seconds after West Ham restarted, they conceded again. This time, Wilshere received Gibbs’ throw in Arsenal’s half and was surrounded with West Ham players. His turn with the ball left Taylor for dead, his through ball again released Podolski on the left. The German sent in a brilliant ball across the retreating West Ham players for Walcott to finish at the far post. Minutes later, Wilshere again found Podolski on the left with Giroud finishing another sumptuous low cross at the near post. West Ham were dead and buried.

walcott

With the scoreline at 5-1, Arsene Wenger replaced Vermaalen (who had taken a knock in the first half) with Koscielny, and Podolski with Oxlade Chamberlain. Arsenal continued to look dangerous and displayed hunger for more goals. With 20 minutes from time, though, West Ham substitute Potts had a serious injury and the game was stopped for 12 minutes. After the restart, West Ham had to continue with 10 men as they have used all their 3 substitutes. With the game comfortably won and perhaps with the upcoming fixtures on their mind, Arsenal visibly slowed the tempo, and the game was transformed into a training exercise with neither side showing any urgency. The home side could have found more goals through Walcott and Cazorla, but the game petered out.

injury

This was Arsenal’s best second half all campaign and underlined how dangerous they are when they counterattack with pace through their left with Podolski. The German, despite being substituted with 20 minutes to go, was the man of the match. Arsenal need his brilliance just to be more consistent. The French striker Giroud also had a great game, and apart from his two goals, showed how he can improve the attack when he economizes on his touches when he drops deep to help the build-up. Ramsey had an almost flawless game in the deep central midfied role which somewhat suggested that he (not Diaby) should have started against Manchester City and Chelsea. After committing his future to the club, Walcott had another lively game down the right wing. Hopefully, the team can build on this display and raise their morale before crucial upcoming league fixtures at home to Liverpool and Stoke City and the FA Cup game at Brighton this Saturday.

Chelsea:2 Arsenal:1 Match Analysis

giroud

Goals: Mata (6), Lampard (16, pen), Walcott (58)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Koscielny (CB), Gibbs (LB),  Wilshere (CM) Diaby (CM), Coquelin (CM), Cazorla (LF), Walcott (RF), Giroud (CF).

Arsenal lost again in the league after a horrendous first half display against Chelsea. The visitors woke up and realized there was a game going on in the second half, but it was too little and too late.

Arsenal vs Ramires (Tackles in the first 20 minutes)

Just like against Manchester City last weekend, Arsenal started the game in a timid and passive fashion allowing Chelsea too much space and time. Yet, they could have been ahead in the 4th minute. Walcott received Cazorla’s ball on the wide right position, drove inside Cole and played Giroud in. The French striker should have scored with his left-footed shot, but he narrowly missed Cech’s far post.

Arsenal were punished immediately after this miss. When Francis Coquelin steamed forward from midfield with the ball, he was clearly fouled by Ramires’ late tackle. The Chelsea right back Azpilicueta picked up the loose ball and played a marvelous pass behind Arsenal’s backline to Mata. Sagna was caught too high up the pitch, and he was also somewhat slow to close down Mata. The Spaniard took one deft touch to control the ball and fired past Szczesny. Arsene Wenger was rightly furious on the touchline, as it was a definite foul on Coquelin, but the ease Arsenal were picked up after a loose ball was depressing.

wenger

The most damning statistic of the game from an Arsenal point of view is the relative tackling performances of the whole Arsenal team versus Ramires in the first 20 minutes during which the visitors basically gave the game away. Ramires did attempt the same number of tackles (6) as the whole Arsenal team in the first 20 minutes. This is in no way to give undue credit to a Chelsea player, but just to show how passive Arsenal were off the ball in the early stages. Despite the referee’s mistakes, they well deserved to be behind.

It was again a Ramires tackle that led to Chelsea’s second goal. Shortly after the quarter hour mark, Abou Diaby was caught in possession in Arsenal’s half and lost the ball to Ramires. When Mata received the ball on the edge of the box, he skilfully attracted 4 Arsenal players, and found Ramires’ free run into the box. When the Brazillian cut inside of Szczesny, there was not much contact. In all fairness, Ramires looked to have lost his footing, but the referee Martin Atkinson pointed the penalty spot, and Lampard sent Szczesny the wrong way.

ramires

Arsenal have no foothold in the game in the first half

In the first half, Chelsea pressed Arsenal’s slow motion build-up very effectively. They also quickly counterattacked through their creative midfield trio Mata, Hazard and Oscar whose fluent movement was too much to handle for Arsenal. To see how abject Arsenal were going forward in the first half, another statistics speaks more than a thousand words. Against Chelsea, Arsenal made less passes in the final third (39) in the first half than they did in the first half of the Manchester City game when they were playing with 10 men (41 passes)!  As can be seen below, most of Arsenal attacks came down the right hand side through Sagna’s overlapping, yet there was not a single instance when his crossing created a danger.

Chelsea exploited a weakness on Arsenal’s right hand side which stems from Walcott drifting inside to run behind (which paid off in the second half) and the right sided centerback Mertesacker’s reluctance to push forward to cover for Sagna (as the German lacks pace if he is caught off position). To exploit this, Chelsea always kept one of their rotating attacking midfield trio (usually Oscar or Mata) wide on their left and stretched Sagna’s positioning. They also hit long diagonal balls into that area when they gained possession in their half. Overall, in the first half, Chelsea’s tempo of passing and movement pulled Arsenal apart too easily. The lateral movement of Oscar, Mata and Hazard between the lines kept Diaby busy and prevented him from joining Wilshere to press higher up the pitch. One solution to this would be one of the two Arsenal centerbacks pushing forward to intercept Chelsea passing between the lines, but neither Vermaalen nor Mertesacker wanted to leave the other alone given the threat of pace of Torres.arsenal

The Usual Second Half Revival

Just like they did against Swansea away game in the FA Cup two weeks ago and last weekend against Manchester City, Arsenal were transformed into a completely different team in the second half, and that was not due to a change in players or formation: Arsenal simply started tackling the ball with more conviction and showed some desire to play football.

tackles

An important change from first half was Coquelin sitting deeper alone and allowing Diaby to push forward along Wilshere to press further up the pitch. Cazorla was completely anonymous in the first half (see diagram below), as without Arsenal retaining possession, his wide role was reduced to tracking back and forth down the flank. With Arsenal having more possession, Cazorla started drifting inside from his wide left position and Arsenal had an extra midfielder to push Chelsea back. When the Spaniard’s sumptuous through ball released Walcott behind the Chelsea back line, Arsenal reduced the deficit to one with more than half an hour remaining. Yet, it was the visitors’ any lack of serious options from the bench that prevented them to maintain their momentum.

cazorla

Arsenal’s Depressing Bench

With the comically out of form Gervinho away at African Cup of Nations, Podolski and Oxlade Chamberlain unfit, the only attacking option that Arsenal had on the bench was Arshavin (!), a player completely out of favor for the last 18 months. When Arsenal got back in the game with Walcott’s goal, and needed further momentum (Coquelin was injured and replaced by Ramsey), Arsene Wenger had no choice but to remove Diaby, shift Cazorla to the center and send the Russian. As expected though, Arshavin was not able to produce anything useful during his 15 minutes in the game.

Arsenal continued to push forward leaving gaps behind, but except a chance by Ba cleared off the line by Vermaalen, Chelsea were less interested in breaking forward, instead choosing to defend their lead. There were some stressful moments for the home side when Cahill and Cole had to make some last ditch tackles, but Chelsea were able to hang on.

Arsenal:0 Manchester City:2 Match Analysis

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Goals: Milner (21) Dzeko (32)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Koscielny (CB), Gibbs (LB),  Wilshere (CM) Diaby (CM), Cazorla (CM), Podolski (LF), Oxlade-Chamberlain (RF), Walcott (CF).

Arsenal suffered their third home defeat of the season against Manchester City after going down to 10 men in the 9th minute when Koscielny was shown a red card for denying Dzeko a clear goal-scoring opportunity.  This was the visiting team’s first league victory away at Arsenal in 37 years.

Selection of Diaby

A surprising name in the starting XI for Arsenal was Diaby replacing Mikel Arteta who has a calf injury. Diaby has been unavailable (as he is most of the time) since the Chelsea home game in September, and he clearly lacked match fitness on the day.

Arsene Wenger’s decision of rushing Diaby back from injury ahead of fully fit central midfielders like Coquelin and Ramsey is telling. It reveals that the manager does not really trust Coquelin, Arsenal’s only player that resembles a defensive midfielder. It also reveals that Wenger prefers to start with Ramsey only if the Welshman is stationed on the left or right flank out of his ideal position where he struggles. Ramsey is clearly not a pure defensive midfielder, but nor is Diaby, and Manchester City are hardly the ideal opponents to start his rehabilitation back to match fitness. Diaby indeed looked very rusty against City, attempted zero tackles, did not commit or suffer any fouls, gave too many balls away, though he made 9 interceptions (see below).

diaby

To be sure, Ramsey can be very frustrating with his indecisiveness and slowness on the ball, but recently he showed good signs of correcting those weaknesses. It was strange, to say the least, that he was not preferred in his ideal central midfield position to a Diaby who lacked match fitness. During his half an hour in the game as a 62nd minute substitute, Ramsey created Arsenal’s best chance from open play, when his perfect through ball found Walcott in the box: Lescott cleared Walcott’s shot on the line when Harte was beaten.

Koscielny’s Rugby Tackle in The Box 

In the first 9 minutes preceding the red card, Manchester City looked to have a more effective shape and were more assured on the ball. The visitors tried to press higher up the pitch with their efforts especially effective on their right with Zabaleta and Milner working hard. They also attacked with more dynamism from that right flank. In the 9th minute, Zabaleta played a square ball to Tevez and made an off-the-ball run inside emptying the space for Milner to run. The midfielder overlapped effectively from deep, yet his cross was blocked by Gibbs and deflected to the front of the Arsenal box. Barry won the loose ball in the air over Oxlade Chamberlain directing it towards Dzeko in the box. Koscielny was on the wrong side of Dzeko, grabbed the Bosnian with both arms and pulled him down to the ground.

Arsenal v Manchester City - Barclays Premier League

It was a moment that would determine the faith of the rest of the game. When Arsenal’s favorite referee Mike Dean (the Gunners won only once in the 19 games he refereed) pointed the penalty spot and issued Koscielny his marching orders, it was the correct decision. Yet again, the generally reliable Koscielny’s lack of concentration and bad decision making was too costly for Arsenal (just like in the Chelsea home game). Dzeko’s penalty, though, was saved by Szczesny with the ball hitting the Pole’s leg, then the post and traveling on the goal line back to his hands.

Arsenal v Manchester City - Premier League

City Take The Lead

In response to the red card, Arsene Wenger sacrificed Oxlade Chamberlain on the right wing and sent in Mertesacker to make up the numbers in defence. Cazorla was shifted right and Arsenal switched to a 4-4-1 shape. It did not take Manchester City too long to reap the benefit of their numerical superiority. In the 21st minute, when Podolski fouled Garcia in the middle of Arsenal’s half, Arsenal delayed getting into a good defensive shape before City restarted the game. Tevez threaded a disguised ball inside the right channel to James Milner with 5 Arsenal players static and ball watching (Vermaalen should have got tighter), and the Englishman fired an unstoppable shot to the far corner from a difficult angle.

Ten minutes later, Zabaleta’s persistence in tackle won the ball on Arsenal’s left when Gibbs and Podolski were trying to start a counterattack. The underrated Argentine quickly found Milner unmarked in the space Gibbs had vacated. Milner’s low cross to the near post was directed goalwards by Tevez with Szczesny only being able to parry it to Dzeko who did not miss from half a yard.  The game was almost over after 30 minutes with Arsenal 2 goals and a man down.

milner

10 Men Against City with Walcott as the Central Striker

Not much needs to be added under this headline after my “Walcott is no Central Striker” rant in the Southampton game. The diagram below, though, is telling. It shows Walcott’s attacking display in the first 60 minutes until Giroud came in (and the duo operated in a 4-3-2 shape). The two red arrows in the diagram need proper explanation. Walcott’s missed attempt on target came when Joe Harte punched a corner right to the front edge of the box where Walcott was waiting. The scoreline was 0-0 with Arsenal already down to 10 men. It is clearly unfair to expect Walcott to score every time he hits a free shot from that position, yet this attempt was spectacular in its lack of any technique, just slashed patheticaly wide and high. The second red arrow is Walcott’s delivery from a dangerous set piece opportunity: his ball was so high and imprecise that it went over everybody for a goal kick. The good thing was that Wilshere took over the set piece duties after that attempt.

walcott

All cynicism aside, what is apparent from this diagram is Walcott’s lack of effort to drop deeper and help Arsenal to break City’s press in the midfield, hold the ball high up the pitch to allow his teammates to push forward. The man asking for 100K pounds a week clearly did not realize that he needs to work his socks off when playing up front in a team down to 10 men (he should watch some videos of Ivica Olic to see how true effort can make a difference). Walcott as a center forward reminds me of a princess on a date who can only dine at a Michelin starred restaurant with the most expensive Grand Cru Red Burgundy.

Arsenal’s Second Half Fight and Wilshere

In a game where Arteta was missing due to injury, Cazorla almost non existent, and with unfit Diaby struggling in a 10-man team, Wilshere did work his socks off in an almost heroic display. Arsenal’s much better second half performance where they were able to push City back was mostly due to the young English midfielder’s desire and bravery. Wilshere, as stated earlier in this blog, currently lacks maturity especially in the defensive side of his game. Yet, he is a real fighter who never hides, a type of player currently missing from this Arsenal side. Against City, he was fouled a staggering 7 times (the most fouls on a player in one game in the league so far), but he never let his head down, kept asking for the ball to push forward. He also had Vincent Kompany see a direct red card in the 75th minute with the Belgian attempting a two-footed rash challenge. Wilshere completed 85% of his passes and drove the team forward with his countless bursts from midfield. If Giroud had been able to hit the target from a header following a Cazorla set piece delivery, Arsenal could have got something from the game.

wilshere

It is somewhat futile to analyze a performance with 10 against 11 from the 10th minute to the 75th. As everyone and their mothers insist every day, Arsenal lack quality and depth in the squad. The midfield is very unbalanced, the creative options on the wings are almost non-existent, the defenders make too many individual errors (Arsenal conceded 12 goals this season from direct individual errors, a division high). It is also still not clear who Wenger’s preferred central striker is. It all looks like a big mess. Hopefully, Wenger can sort it out soon, but I am less optimistic compared to the last season.

Southampton:1 Arsenal:1 Match Analysis

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Goals: Gaston Ramirez (34) Do Prado (41, own goal)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Koscielny (CB), Gibbs (LB),  Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Cazorla (CM), Podolski (LF), Oxlade-Chamberlain (RF), Walcott (CF).

Arsenal dropped two points at relegation threatened Southampton after a dismal performance which will hopefully convince Arsene Wenger that he needs to bring proper reinforcements to shore up his mediocre squad in the January transfer window.

Southampton press hard in the center and isolate Walcott

Arsene Wenger clearly must have thought that this was yet another game (fourth in a row?!) where Walcott’s pace was more preferable to Giroud’s physical strength and more traditional centerforward play. The Southampton manager Nigel Adkins, however, had other ideas. The home side excellently neutralized Arsenal’s game plan with a ferocious high tempo press in the center.

What Arsenal try to achieve with Walcott as the central striker is simple: If the opposition holds a high line, Walcott exploits this by running behind them. If, due to his threat of pace, the opposition centerbacks defend deep, then the midfield area is stretched, and Arsenal’s ball playing midfielders Wilshere and Cazorla have more space to work with.

walcott

As a counter measure, Southampton created a mobile and highly energetic pressing screen that matched Arteta with Gaston Ramirez, Wilshere with Davis and Cazorla by Schneiderlin in the center. Furthermore, their wide midfielders cut off the out ball to Arsenal full backs Gibbs and Sagna. This relentless press (somewhat similar to Arsenal’s away game at Aston Villa) crippled Arsenal’s ability to bring the ball to the final third. Ironically, Arsenal’s intention to use Walcott to stretch the game undid their own attacking ability: the physical and high tempo game of the home side meant that the Arsenal midfield trio Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla lacked the physicality and energy to control that “stretched center”. Walcott not dropping back to get involved in midfield play did not help and left the distance between Arsenal defensive line and forward too big. For the third game in a row (like Wigan and Newcastle games), Arsenal conceded the midfield battle.

The Southampton pressing in the center during the first half had three implications. First, it forced Arsenal wide to send in ineffective crosses that Walcott can not do much about (crosses came in almost exclusively from their right–see diagram). Second, it completely isolated Walcott who prefers to stay high up the pitch (see diagram below).

picture1

The third implication of Southampton pressing was almost farcical as Arsenal are renowned for the quality of their passing game. Against Southampton, Arsenal attempted a record number of dribblings (take-ons). In other words, facing Southampton’s press, they basically gave up passing their way through, and opted for trying to dribble their way through (see diagram below). It is hard to say they were succesful (13 out of 31).

takeon

Overall, the above pictures explain why it took Arsenal more than an hour to register their first shot on target (they scored from a gift of an own goal when Walcott’s set piece was turned in at the near post by Do Prado), why they completed the game with only one shot on target and why their most creative player Cazorla could not make a single key pass to create a single chance.

This game was an excellent illustration of why most observers (including myself) kept their deepest doubts about Walcott playing as a central striker on a regular basis, despite the goals he scored in the last 3 games. Here was an away game against energetic and high tempo opponents where Arsenal needed a powerful and tenacious traditional centerforward, one who can drop deep to help his team to break the press, who can chase random long balls played under pressure, who can use his body to draw fouls to relieve pressure, who can be a pivot to bring midfielders into attacking positions, who can attack crosses, etc. Yet, Arsene Wenger sent in Giroud only in the 58th minute and continued with Walcott experiment, probably hoping that Southampton are tactically inept to neutralize Walcott.

ramirez

Bacary Sagna’s Terrible Form

It is not clear whether this has something to do with the extension of his current deal with Arsenal, but for a right back famous for the shift he puts in and the consistency he displays, Bacary Sagna’s bad form is seriously hurting the team. Against Newcastle all the three Newcastle goals came from his side and he made a mediocre winger like Obertan look good. Today, he was again at fault for the goal, as his clearance went straight back to the danger zone for Gaston Ramirez to finish. Not only that,  the French right back looked completely lost even doing some of the basic things like controlling a ball under no pressure. It might be a good idea if Arsene Wenger gives more chances to Carl Jenkinson who was playing quite well until Sagna got back from his injury.

Defensive Burden Wilshere Imposes on Arteta

Jack Wilshere is seen by many as the future of Arsenal and England, but his game currently lacks positional discipline in the defensive department. More than often, the young midfielder decides to grab the game by its neck (which is a good thing, every team needs its hero) and ends up exposing Arteta. Not only he sometimes switches off completely and does not track opposition midfielders (see the second Newcastle goal last Saturday), he also regularly fails to display a basic understanding of when to press and when to stand off. In that sense, Wilshere is somewhat similar to Vermaalen with his impulsiveness and lack of positional instinct. The end result is that, like it was the case against Southampton, Arsenal midfield looks too open and the opposition bypasses the midfield cover without breaking any sweat. One tackle and one interception Wilshere produced against Southampton is hardly enough defensive work.

wilshere

Podolski’s Inconsistency

Podolski had a great game against Newcastle, being involved in all the four goals until he was substituted. Yet, as it has been so frequent in the season, he completely disappeared against Southampton. The chart below speaks for itself.

poldi

Lack of Options from the Bench

With the game tied at 1-1 and Arsenal not showing any sign or ability of taking the game to Southampton, Wenger took off Cazorla and Podolski and sent in Ramsey and Gervinho. The Ivorian again made sure that not a single Arsenal fan will miss him when he is off to African Cup of Nations in two weeks time. Ramsey, on the other hand, despite not deserving most of the abuse and criticism he gets (I think he should have started today as Arsenal needed his energy in the center) is hardly a goal scorerer (1 goal in 35 games). It is imperative that Arsenal improve their options from the bench in the transfer window, and also start thinking using Rosicky more frequently to keep Cazorla fresh, as the Spaniard had his worst game in the season so far today against Southampton.