Arsenal:2 Aston Villa:1 Match Report

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Goals: Cazorla (5), Weimann (68), Cazorla (85)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Jenkinson (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Diaby (CM), Walcott (RF), Cazorla(LF), Giroud (CF).

Santi Cazorla’s winner 5 minutes from time gave Arsenal much needed 3 points against Aston Villa after two consecutive cup defeats in the past week.

Arsenal started the game with good movement and found an early goal for a change. A tidy move started by Diaby and Wilshere found Cazorla on the left edge of the box. The Spaniard attempted to thread a ball towards the 6 yard box which was blocked. He chested down the rebound,  set himself up with good work with his left foot and fired with his right to the far corner to beat Guzan.

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The early goal brought Villa into the game with the visitors looking quite dangerous on the break. They chose Arsenal’s left flank as a point of weakness and attempted to break primarily through that area. As Cazorla was drifting narrow to combine with Wilshere in Arsenal’s build-up and Monreal pushing up, Arsenal’s left did indeed look exposed, and the visitors exploited this especially with Weimann and N’Zogbia.  When Wilshere lost possession in Villa’s half,  Villa quickly released N’Zogbia in acres of space on Arsenal’s left. The Frenchman cut inside Vermaalen and set Agbonlahor for a shot which was parried away by Szczesny with some difficulty.  Minutes later, Agbonlahor’s wonderful diagonal ball found Weimann in the same area, and his dangerous ball across the 6-yard box could not find a finish.

In a recent article on Wesley Sneijder, Jonathan Wilson refers to the Dutch playmaker as a player now belonging to a different time and place, which, he says, is 25 years ago in Argentina. The first half of this game also belonged to that same pre-Makelele era when teams played without any concern to protect the area in front of their back four. Whenever Villa or Arsenal lost the ball in the opposition half, they both were able to reach each other’s penalty box without facing any resistance on their way. It was end to end stuff which was surely enjoyable for the neutrals, but the openness of the game was personally a little uncomfortable viewing for me, given Arsenal’s ability to gift goals out of nowhere.  For a team that has taken an early lead, it was curious that Arsenal did not control the game by keeping a good shape, leaving themselves open to Villa counterattacks.

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The diagram above gives an idea about the lack of protection in front of Arsenal’s back four in the first half when they lost the ball in Villa’s half. Arsenal had 8 (out of 10) succesful tackles in the first half, but the location of the tackles (the left panel in the diagram) indicates that almost all tackles took place after Villa broke and reached to the final third. In contrast, Arsenal had 9 (out of 9) succesful tackles in the second half and 5 of those took place deep in Villa half indicating Villa’s relative difficulty to break easily in the second half. Overall, especially in the first half, the Arteta-Diaby double anchor was not able to display the defensive mobility and share of responsibility to stop the counterattacks before they reached the final third. This point seems to be the main area of weakness that the team should improve before the next week’s North London Derby as Spurs have the players in Bale and Lennon to exploit this lack of protection on Arsenal’s flanks when the team pushes forward.

Arsenal kept looking for the second goal in the second half, but they were denied mostly due to their failure in the final ball with Walcott, Giroud and Wilshere failing to deliver the killer pass or the final touch. Cazorla was working like a wizard, dropping inside from his wide left position to pop up everywhere, continuously trying to make things happen, showing some true hunger and desire. His attacking dashboard below tells the story of how busy and effective the Spaniard was throughout the game.

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The counterattack equalizer that Villa signaled all throughout the first half, though, came in the 68th minute before Arsenal could find their second goal. Weimann cleared the loose ball inside Villa box after another fruitless Arsenal corner, and started running towards Arsenal’s half like a possessed man. Jenkinson’s headed clearance fell short and Benteke headed the ball towards Weimann who had reached to the halfway line by that time. The Austrian raced forward with Arsenal defenders caught 3 on 3 and retreating, and fired a decent shot from 25 yards. Szczesny should have saved it simply because he saw it all the way and there was no swirl on the shot, but the ball went past his reach into the net.

At that point in the game, Wenger had already replaced the injured Diaby with Ramsey. He sent in Podolski taking off Jenkinson and moved Ramsey to the right back position. Wilshere dropped deeper to pair with Arteta, Cazorla moved to advanced CM and Podolski went left wide. With Ramsey pushing up from the right back position and helping the build-up, Arsenal poured down on Villa in what looked like a 3-3-1-3 formation.  Lambert made also some changes but he replaced like for like, showing his intention to look for a winner. Yet, Villa had to retreat back with Arsenal increasing the tempo, pressing hard and creating a flurry of chances. Twice, Podolski should have been more alert when Walcott played good cutbacks into the 6 yard box. Giroud’s header hit the bar after a Cazorla corner. Arsenal finally found the winner when a glorious ball from Wilshere released Monreal behind the Villa defense and Cazorla expertly finished his compatriot’s cutback.

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Arsenal:1 Bayern Munich:3 Champions League First Leg Match Report

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Goals: Kroos (6), Muller (21), Podolski (55), Mandzukic (77)

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

Arsenal were brushed aside by an assured and remarkably purposeful Bayern Munich side in the first leg.

Arsenal’s Schoolboy Defending

Arsenal did look promising in the first 5 minutes of the game, yet just like the Chelsea and Manchester City defeats, their defensive soft belly made sure that the Germans took a two goal lead after the first 20 minutes. The first goal came as early as the 6th minute, when Arsenal lost the ball trying to play from the back. Koscielny’s aimless clearance under pressure from Kroos towards the center of the pitch was cut off by Van Buyten. Quite needlessly, Vermaalen pushed forward to win it back, and opened up Arsenal’s left. Vermaalen, of course, could not win the ball back, and Bayern quickly worked the ball to Muller on the far right. While Vermaalen was running back, and Arteta being too late to stop the cross, Muller’s ball found Kroos on the top edge of the box, despite Ramsey sticking a half-hearted leg. The young German midfielder fired on the half volley past Sczesny.

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With Arsene Wenger’s ingenuous selection of Walcott as the central striker, the link between Arsenal’s midfield and attack was easily cut-off with Bayern collectively working hard off the ball and closing any gaps before Arsenal could even sniff them. The team leading Bundesliga by 15 points showed exactly why it is so difficult to have a shot on target, let alone score, against them.  They are indeed a solid, purposeful and highly intelligent outfit, but Arsenal lacking any tactical purpose and game plan also did make it very easy for the visitors. Shortly after the 20th minute mark, when Lahm’s dangerous ball into the 6 yard box was intercepted for a corner by Vermaalen, Kroos’s corner to the near post was headed from point blank range by Van Buyten with Arsenal players mere spectators. Szczesny was able to parry the ball, but no Arsenal player bothered to clear the ball from the 6 yard box. Muller did not decline the invitation and directed the ball to the roof of the net.

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Walcott as the CF against Bayern Munich

I have written so many times (see here and here) on why Walcott is the wrong choice as a center forward, when Arsenal play against opponents who press hard high up the pitch effectively, and especially if the opposition have an excellent central midfield pairing guarding the area in front of their back four. I am sure Wenger must have observed that even against Southampton, playing Walcott as CF stretches the midfield and makes it easier for the opposition to press high up and isolate Arsenal’s attack and midfield. Against Bayern, Arsenal were not able to create a single chance in the first half. Javi Martinez and Schweinsteiger provided a solid base in front of their back four, allowing the forward quartet Kroos, Mandzukic, Riberry and Muller to press Arsenal’s ball circulation from deeper areas.  With Arteta and Ramsey strangled, Wilshere was not able to receive the ball in forward areas to display his trademark bursts. Arsenal were forced wide and had to cross into a box with Walcott as the target man or they were forced to play it long to Walcott who was smashed by the two big Bayern centerbacks. It was spectacular that Wenger waited until the 71st minute to send Giroud as the target man, and switch Walcott wide right, and this move almost immediately paid off. At that time, Arsenal had found a goal when Neuer made a mess out of a corner and Podolski headed home into the empty net. Arsenal had increased the tempo of their pressing and for almost 10 minutes, Bayern looked rattled. Yet, valuable momentum was lost when Wenger delayed sending Giroud until 71st. Immediately after the change, Rosicky (another substitute for Ramsey) found Walcott with a glorious ball. The winger’s cross was met by Giroud on the half volley but it was straight at Neuer who made the save without knowing too much about it.

As Arsenal pushed for an equalizer, they left big gaps behind and were duly punished when Robben found Lahm on the overlap on Arsenal’s left. Lahm had all the time in the world to look up, pick his spot for the low cross and learn English. Mertesacker was ball watching and could not cut the cross, and Mandzukic bundled it home with a lucky touch to finish the tie as a serious contest.

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Vermaalen

Arsenal’s defensive problems are systematic and cannot be assigned to one or two individuals, but Vermaalen stood out as a serial offender against Bayern. The Belgian captain was playing out of position at the left back, since Gibbs is injured and Monreal is cup tied. Yet, his tendency to rush into tackles so far away from his zone of responsibility opened up Arsenal’s left time and time again. It is no coincidence that the first and third Bayern goals came from Vermaalen’s side. It is easier to distract Vermaalen and move him out of position than a kitten. When he sees the ball 15-20 yards in front of him, he rushes there to win it back and completely messes up the defensive shape and organization. Today, he was attracted even to Schweinsteiger in the center of the midfield, and more than often Koscielny had to cover for the vast spaces Vermaalen left open. One could understand a marauding left back leaving gaps behind, but Vermaalen is no attacking threat on the ball, and he was leaving those gaps for no reason other than his lack of any positional discipline.

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What now?

Now the team should put this past week behind, ignore the shitstorm the press will try to send their way and really really concentrate on the remaining 12 games in the league.  Arsenal did not have much of a chance in the Champions League anyway given the lack of squad depth and quality gap between the best of Europe. For me, FA Cup was just a distraction to win something (anything), but I would rather Arsenal finish in the top 4 ahead of Spurs instead of winning the FA Cup if it is one or the other. Now Arsenal’s back is really against the wall.

Sunderland:0 Arsenal:1 Match Report

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Goal: Cazorla (35)

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

Arsenal battled their way to victory at the Stadium of Light after they were reduced to 10 man with Jenkinson sent off with two bookable offenses with half an hour to go. Targeted by Sunderland’s systematic agricultural tackling, Jack Wilshere hobbled off with a thigh injury and was replaced by Abou Diaby early in the second half.

To say that Arsenal dominated the first half would be an understatement. What kept the game as a contest after a blistering Arsenal display in the first 45 minutes were Simon Mignolet’s two wonder saves from Ramsey and the wastefulness of Arsenal’s front line. Despite Arsenal starting the game with the make-shift centerback pairing of Sagna and Mertesacker (as Koscielny was withdrawn from the starting XI during the warm-up with a calf problem), the visitors looked mostly comfortable defensively in the first half (except a few occasions Sessegnon ran at Monreal). With Arteta screening the area in front of Arsenal’s defense and Cazorla dropping narrow from his wide left position to give an extra man in the center, Arsenal were able to orchestrate brilliant and sometimes breathtaking attacking moves which yielded 7 shots on target in the first half. In contrast, Sunderland’s only attempt at goal in the first half was a weak looping header by Fletcher easily saved by Szczesny.

As early as the second minute, when Lee Cattermole chopped Ramsey and sent him flying into orbit with a tackle more mistimed than a Gervinho header (just a yellow card), Walcott picked up the loose ball, cut inside O’Shea and fired a low left-footed drive saved by Mignolet. A minute later, after good work by Ramsey and Giroud released Walcott, the winger fired from a narrow angle and was again denied by the Belgian goalie.

With Cattermole living dangerously and unable to contain Arsenal’s fluid movement, Sunderland players took turns to physically intimidate Arsenal’s two main runners with the ball, Wilshere and Walcott, with what they call “robust but fair” challenges. A curious sequence of events in the 7th minute illustrated the referee Anthony Taylor’s utter incompetence in dealing with Sunderland’s dirty tackling. When Gardner tried to run with the ball on Sunderland’s right, he was tackled by Cazorla and lost the ball. As Aaron Ramsey picked up the loose ball, he was caught at his ankle by Sessegnon on the touchline, after he played the ball towards Wilshere. Before the young star could control the ball, Titus Bramble charged at Wilshere with a brutal sliding tackle and swept him off the field while clearing the ball. Cazorla and Arteta then worked the ball to the opposite flank and Walcott started a surging run only to be fouled by Danny Rose with the referee inexplicably not blowing his whistle again. When Sunderland counterattacked with Collback on their left, Jenkinson who was clearly frustrated with three brutal fouls in 20 seconds not given, fouled Collback with a late tackle and received a yellow card! It was a foul and it was a yellow card, but it was the referee turning a blind eye to too many Sunderland fouls that had created it.

Sunderland’s ‘robust’ tackling, though, did not do much to stop Arsenal’s excellent passing and movement in the final third. As the half progressed, the Black Cats were reduced to chasing shadows. The diagram below gives an idea about the effectiveness and fluency of Arsenal’s attacking.  Santi Cazorla completed more passes in the final third than the entire Sunderland team in the first half! The Arsenal passing quartet Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey and Wilshere poked holes through Sunderland’s central midfield trio of Collback, N’Diaye and Cattermole at will during the first 45 minutes.

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After Mignolet produced a wonder save from a long range Ramsey rocket to the top corner, Arsenal duly took the lead that they deserved. Wilshere received the ball close to the center circle and burst forward gliding past Collback, N’Diaye and Cattermole with ease. He found Walcott’s lateral run in front of the box. The winger received the ball facing away from the goal, took a clever touch and laid it off for Cazorla to blast home with his left foot.

Arsenal should have finished off the contest before half time. First, a mesmerizing move started by Cazorla saw Arteta exchange passes with Giroud and release Wilshere on the left. Wilshere’s  first time low cross to the far post was intercepted by Rose before Walcott could finish into an empty net. Then, Monreal and Giroud won the ball back near the corner flag, and the French striker laid it off to Walcott whose shot missed the post by a small margin. In the extra minute of half time, Giroud cut inside with the ball from the left and played Ramsey in. The Welshman’s point blank shot from 6 yards was miraculously saved by Mignolet.

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Sunderland started the second half more positively, with Cattermole replaced by Larsson and they had a penalty appeal turned down when Sessegnon tumbled in the box after driving past Monreal. Five minutes into second half, Wilshere went down as he received an off the ball knee by N’Diaye after attempting a give and go, and asked to be replaced. Wenger sent in Diaby replacing his most important asset.

Arsenal’s fluency in midfield dwindled quickly after losing Wilshere as Sunderland pushed forward with more hunger and determinism than skill. They were clearly heartened by the fact that Wilshere was not on the pitch anymore. Just before the hour mark, Ramsey lost the ball in Arsenal’s half to Sessegnon who played Fletcher through, but fortunately for Arsenal, the striker shot wide from close range.  In central midfield Diaby looked operational but he was slow in possession in the face of increasing Sunderland pressure. In the 62nd minute, Arsenal had another setback when Jenkinson naively chopped Sessegnon down and was sent off receiving his second yellow card in the game. Arsene Wenger reacted by moving Ramsey to the right back position. The Welshman had his critics, including myself, for mistakes in his game that he mostly corrected recently, but one admirable thing about him is that he always does his best whatever is asked of him, and he just did really well despite facing a tricky  winger like Sessegnon.

Martin O’Neill scented blood and sent in his second striker Graham to pair with Fletcher as Sunderland continued to attack. Yet, Arsenal could have made the scoreline safer when Walcott hit the post after being put through by a sublime Cazorla ball. Despite being 10 man, Arsenal were able to create further chances with Abou Diaby failing to score from Monreal’s cutback and Cazorla missing the far post after skilful foot work in the box.

In the last 20 minutes, Arsenal were tested defensively to their limit and they did extremely considering Sagna was playing centerback, Ramsey right back, and it was the new left back Monreal’s only second Premiere league game. Sagna especially won header after header and made countless vital interceptions. Sczsesny also made two insane saves: First, Fletcher blocked Mertesacker’s clearance with his arms (no handball given of course) and the Polish goalie denied the Scot from close range. Sunderland continued to bombard Arsenal’s box with corners, set pieces and long crosses. When Titus Bramble headed the ball back to danger zone following a corner, Fletcher’s point blank header was incredibly tipped over by Sczcesny. Arsenal did still threaten on the break and wasted presentable chances through Cazorla and Giroud, but the last 10 minutes looked like a medieval siege with Arsenal’s make-shift defense resisting desperate Sunderland attacks and securing very important three points. The whole team played very well in testing circumstances, but Bacary Sagna at centerback and Szczesny were simply heroic.

Arsenal:1 Stoke City:0 Match Report

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Goal: Podolski (78)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Diaby(CM), Walcott (RF), Oxlade-Chamberlain (LF), Giroud (CF).

Arsenal broke Stoke City’s resistance with a deflected free-kick from substitute Podolski in a game they found it difficult to create too many clear cut chances. Arsene Wenger rested Cazorla and Podolski. After a month-long injury Arteta was back in the starting lineup and was paired with Diaby. The January signing from Malaga, Nacho Monreal, made his debut at the left back position.

This was a game against one of the most notoriously stubborn defenses in the league, and as expected, Stoke City did not show any attacking intent at all until they conceded a goal. This report will be brief, as there was a single recurring theme in the game: Arsenal having the ball and trying to find a hole in Stoke’s dense defensive shape and Stoke sitting deeper.

Arsenal looked subdued in most of the first half, with Wilshere lacking his usual dynamism, and Abou Diaby not able to achieve much penetration through dense columns of Stoke City defenders. Given the competence of their centerbacks in defending crosses, Stoke City’s defensive plan looked like forcing Arsenal wide and inviting crosses into the box. With the absence of Podolski and Cazorla until their introduction in the 70th minute, Arsenal also lacked two of their best shooters from outside the box, which would help against such a deep sitting defense. All game long, Arsenal did not have any trouble defensively and controlled the midfield area easily (as Stoke did not have much of an interest in the ball), but they found it very hard to pierce holes in the visitors’ defensive shape. Walcott constantly created problems for Williamson on Arsenal’s right flank but the end product was missing with Huth and Shawcross competently defending any crosses or cutbacks inside the box.

When Arsenal created their first chance, it was from a Wilshere corner. For a change, the ball eluded Stoke defenders and found Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 6-yard box, but his shot was well saved by Begovic. Minutes later, a Walcott cross following a corner was met by Koscielny’s header from close range but was again saved by the Bosnian, who is, in my opinion, the best keeper in the league. The only time Arsenal’s passing game was able to poke a hole was when Wilshere played a defense splitting pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left edge of the penalty box. The young winger tried to send a curler to the far corner but was also denied by Begovic.

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The game continued in the same fashion in the second half with Stoke showing absolutely no ambition in Arsenal’s half, sitting deep and soaking up pressure. Except a wonderful overlapping run and cross by the debutant left back Monreal (who had a solid and assured game) which was intercepted by Huth right when Giroud headed home from close range, Arsenal was not really able to threaten Stoke.

Wenger did send Cazorla and Podolski in the last 25 minutes of the game taking off Diaby and Chamberlain, and Arsenal pushed for a goal. Their pressure paid off when Walcott was fouled the upteenth time by Williamson, this time in a dangerous position just outside the box. Begovic seemed to have covered Podolski’s curling effort, yet the ball took a deflection from Cameron and wrong-footed the Bosnian. Inexplicably, the assistant referee attempted to chalk off the goal on grounds that Walcott (who was in no way interfering with play on the far side) was offside, yet the referee Chris Foy correctly ruled out the assistant referee’s intervention and gave the goal.

On a day when Chelsea lost and Everton tied with Aston Villa at home, this was a game in which only 3 points mattered for Arsenal. The home side looked less than impressive in attack (especially Wilshere looking tired), but this was also due to Stoke City’s negative tactics.