Newcastle United:0 Arsenal:1 Happy Ending!


Goal: Koscielny (52)

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

Arsenal finished their remarkable 10 match run by beating Newcastle and clinching a CL spot ahead of Spurs. When Arsenal lost to their bitter North London rivals on March 3rd, Spurs had opened up a 7 points gap, and their manager Andre Villas-Boas has diagnosed Arsenal as a team stuck in a negative spiral of results. Since that remark, Arsene Wenger’s men have won 8 and drawn 2 games, collecting 26 points in the process overturning that 7 points deficit, and conceding only 5 goals (2 of which were penalties) in 10 games.  In the meanwhile, AVB’s  football philosophy since that diagnosis has mostly been waiting for a Bale wonder goal in the 86th minute.


I will not go through my regular tactical analysis of the game. It suffices to say that especially in the first half, Newcastle looked fresh and free of any stress; and made it difficult for the Gunners. Cisse missed a good chance after left back Mbiwa’s good run and cutback. Arsenal’s most presentable chance in the first half came to Cazorla who shot wide and high after good work by Gibbs.

Wenger started the game with Arteta who had a calf problem, but the Spaniard cool-head only lasted for 23 minutes. It looked like a strange substitution when Oxlade Chamberlain (but not Wilshere)  replaced him in the central midfield position.

The crucial goal came shortly after the restart for the second half. Walcott’s set piece delivery from the right was headed into the danger zone by Podolski, and Koscielny volleyed home in a difficult position. The French centerback was simply majestic all game long winning every tackle, making interception after interception all around the defensive end and closing any gaps that emerged behind Gibbs.

It was a truly remarkable, gritty 10 match run where unlike previous seasons, the defensive know-how and maturity of the team was examplary. All the credit to Arsene Wenger and his assistant Steve Bould, for turning things around since early March!

I will finish this post by an observation that made me smile all day long. It turned out that Tottenham are not able to finish ahead of the most mediocre looking Arsene Wenger side even despite breaking their club record for the points collected throughout a season. No wonder Spurs fans want Wenger to stay at Arsenal!


Newcastle vs Arsenal Tactical Preview


*Here is my tactical preview of the Newcastle vs Arsenal game that has also appeared at the Arsenal blog 7amkickoff

It has again come to the very last game of the season to decide whether Arsenal will claim a CL spot ahead of Spurs. The Gunners pay a visit to Newcastle on Sunday in a game they must win; as it is extremely unlikely that Sunderland will cause Spurs much trouble at White Hart Lane.

Words cannot describe how little I am looking forward to those 90 minutes at St. James Park on Sunday. When I close my eyes at night, I keep seeing images of Pardew and AVB, the two managers I dislike the most in the PL, jumping around with joy after a late Newcastle equalizer. I see Pardew punching the air, and I see myself punching Stefan Freund. Worse still, I see myself throwing the TV to the front lawn and vandalizing our garage.

One argument of so-called “neutrals” who want Arsenal to fail to secure a CL spot drives me particularly crazy. It is suggested that “Arsenal try to reach CL just to deny other ‘more ambitious clubs’ a place in CL, not that they are interested in achieving anything in that competition.” The more ambitious club in this argument is, of course, Spurs, a club that was recently eliminated from the inferior Europa League competition by FC Basel. The mighty Swiss side Basel were knocked out of CL themselves this season in the qualifying stage. The only time Spurs were in the CL, they were eliminated by Real Madrid after a 5-0 aggregate scoreline. Inspirational indeed!

Before starting with the tactical preview of the game, here are the probable line-ups. For Arsenal, the embodiment of calmness, aka Arteta, is almost certain to miss the game with a calf injury that he sustained late in the Wigan game. In his absence, Wenger is likely to start with Wilshere and switch Ramsey to the holding role in central midfield. For Newcastle, the first choice goalkeeper Tom Krul is injured and the second choice goalkeeper Elliot is suspended after his hilarious red card against QPR. The veteran keeper Harper will then have a chance to start and say farewell to the Newcastle fans. In central midfield, Tiote is a doubt for Newcastle due to a hamstring injury. Sissoko and Santon are almost certainly unavailable. If Tiote is not fit, Pardew is likely to start with Perch in central midfield.

• Newcastle (4-2-3-1) Harper (GK), Debuchy (RB), Coloccini (CB), Taylor (CB), Yanga-Mbiwa (LB), Cabaye (CM), Tiote (CM), Gutierrez (CM), Ben Arfa (RF), Gouffran (RF), Cisse (CF).

• Arsenal (4-3-3) Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Gibbs (LB), Wilshere (CM), Ramsey (CM), Rosicky (CM), Cazorla (LF), Walcott (RF), Giroud (CF).


Gouffran’s Free Role and Ramsey-Wilshere Pivot

After tinkering quite a bit between 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, Alan Pardew seems to have finally settled to a 4-2-3-1 system which shares more similarities with a 4-4-2 than a 4-3-3. If you are confused with this statement, it might be a consolation to know that so is Pardew. All joking aside, an interesting aspect of Pardew’s most recent 4-2-3-1 against QPR  was the role Gouffran played. Rather than the creative advanced central midfielder of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 system, the January acquisition from Bordeaux played like the support striker of a 4-4-2. His movement complemented Ben Arfa’s in the sense that when Ben Arfa cut inside from the right on his favorite left foot, Gouffran made the cross diagonal run to the right, or when Debuchy pushed forward to create a crossing opportunity, Gouffran made a run into the box to pair with Cisse as a second striker. The image below captured from QPR vs Newcastle game illustrates this point. Debuchy has pushed forward as Ben Arfa has moved inside and is about to send a cross into the box. Gouffran and Cisse are both in the box to attack the cross. Ben Arfa is lurking in front of the box. Cisse will score from this cross but it will be ruled offside (which is quite marginal as one can see).


To summarize, Gouffran either provides width on the left in front of the rather narrow Gutierrez or on the right when Ben Arfa comes inside; or when the full backs push forward, he pairs with Cisse as the second striker.  The chalkboard below illustrates the attacking action of Ben Arfa and Gouffran againt QPR. Note how often Ben Arfa comes inside and how Gouffran has a more free role and drifts to both flanks. A crucial point for Arsenal (especially in the absence of Arteta) is that Ramsey and Wilshere should be alert to Gouffran’s movement as he is the player who has the most freedom to move to create overloads or to exploit an opening. In the likely event that Arsenal monopolize possession in Newcastle’s half and establish a high line, Koscielny and Mertesacker should keep an eye against a ball over the top that Cisse and Gouffran can chase.  If Newcastle are up for the game, it is also likely that Gutierrez, Gouffran and Cabaye press Arsenal’s preferred route of ball circulation through their right flank and in particular cutting the out ball to Sagna. It should be pointed out that this is how they scored their second goal against QPR when Gutierrez closed down on Bosingwa and forced an error that Gouffran capitalized.


On a more general note, with Ramsey assuming Arteta’s more defensive role, and Wilshere taking over Ramsey’s more free role in the double pivot, it is essential that Wilshere does not leave Ramsey too exposed by losing his positional discipline. This point might cost Arsenal the 4th place trophy, as what brought Arsenal to this point after trailing Spurs 7 points in early March has been the defensive shape and positional discipline of the “whole team”. If Wilshere sells Ramsey short defensively, the much praised Koscielny-Mertesacker partnership might not be able to save Arsenal.  Ramsey played the holding role reasonably well in Arteta’s absence in the home games against Liverpool and West Ham United. His distribution was quite good as the chalkboard below illustrates, but it is the street wisdom and calmness of Arteta that Arsenal is more likely to miss.


Arsenal’s Left and Debuchy vs Gibbs

An interesting potential tactical battlefield is Arsenal’s left and Newcastle’s right flank. The reason is the similarity of partnerships and movements in that area for the two respective teams. While on Newcastle’s right Ben Arfa likes to come inside and roam as a playmaker, Cazorla does the same on Arsenal’s left flank. When Ben Arfa comes inside, Debuchy pushes forward. Likewise as Cazorla roams inside, Gibbs attacks the space that Cazorla empties (see the chalkboard above). Here, the discipline and alertness of holding midfielders and wide players to track those fullback movements is crucial. As Gibbs is attracted to Ben Arfa’s movement inside, Cazorla and Wilshere should be disciplined to track Debuchy’s runs (as Wilshere is likely to be the left sided anchor along Ramsey). Similarly, the left footed Giroud should be prepared to exploit the space Debuchy leaves behind by adjusting his lateral movement towards that side.

 Force Newcastle to Long Balls by Pressing High Early

I do not think this requires much of an explanation. The chalkboard below that illustrates the “accuracy” of Newcastle long balls speaks for itself. Giroud should help Cazorla and Rosicky closing down the out ball to Mbiwa and Debuchy.


Walcott vs Yanga-Mbiwa

Theo Walcott has consistently frustrated me this season by stubbornly coming too narrow when placed on the right wing and looking somewhat too predictably for a killer run behind the opposition left back. Against Wigan, however, he displayed his very best game of the season so far by providing width on the wing, wisely choosing when to come inside and overall exhibiting excellent movement. Not only that, he did also show a much better professional attitude, and helped the team defensively by tracking back Wigan’s left wingback Espinoza’s forward bursts.

Against Newcastle, Walcott will be facing Yanga-Mbiwa, who already played against Arsenal twice this season in the CL when he was a Montpellier player (he played centerback in both group stage games). With Santon unavailable due to an injury, Pardew has recently deployed the French defender to left back position. The crucial point for Arsenal is again width on the right flank. Against Newcastle, Walcott’s width is particularly important as Gutierrez on Newcastle’s left tends to tuck in and stay narrow, helping his central midfield. Unless Walcott stays wide often enough on that right flank, two things will happen. First, Gutierrez will more easily support Cabaye and Tiote in putting pressure on Arsenal’s ball circulation through the center and it will be easier for the home side to cut the out ball. Second, Yanga-Mbiwa, a center-back by trade, will come narrow and play as a third auxiliary center-back along Coloccini and Taylor congesting the center.

Arsenal:4 Wigan:1 Match Analysis


Goals: Podolski (11), Maloney (45), Walcott (63), Podolski (68), Ramsey (71)

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

Arsenal reclaimed the initiative in the race for a CL spot after beating Wigan in a game which was much more tense than the convincing scoreline suggests. The result meant that Wigan became the first club to be relegated in the same season they won the FA cup.

Arsenal Magnificent in the First 20 minutes

Arsenal had an excellent start to the game and played like a well-oiled machine. In my tactical preview of the game, I had mentioned the importance of stretching Wigan’s 3-centerback defence and identified Walcott’s crucial role to stay wide instead of coming narrow and looking for a killer run behind. Walcott did this excellently and looked menacing on the right wing exploiting the space behind Wigan’s left wing back Espinoza and left sided central defender Scharner. In the middle of the pitch, Arteta, Ramsey and Rosicky completely dominated the Wigan central midfield trio Gomes, McCarthy and Maloney as Cazorla provided a fourth central midfielder by coming inside from the wide left position. The chalkboard below compares the attacking action of the two sides in the first 20 minutes and illustrates Arsenal’s dominance. The Gunners took the lead in the 11th minute after Cazorla’s corner was headed in by Podolski with Wigan’s marking in the 6-yard box so shocking that it made clear why a decent team like them (but not The Orcs from Stoke or their footballing relatives from Sunderland) are relegated.arsenalvswigan20

Arsenal Invite Wigan Back Into the Game

In recent weeks, a regular pattern that emerged in Arsenal games (against QPR and Fulham) is that Arsenal start playing with handbrakes on after taking the lead and allow the opposition to come back into the game. After the first 20 minute salvo, the home side retreated to their own half (without the press that allows them to get into a good defensive shape) when Wigan regained possession. Wigan, despite their exhaustion from the FA Cup final 3 days ago, sensed Arsenal’s ultra cautious approach and started putting together better moves. When they equalized, though, it was entirely due to the referee Mike Dean’s incredible invention of a dangerous freekick just in front of Arsenal’s box in the last minute of the half. Maloney, after running 40 yards with the ball, just threw himself to the ground as he was about to lose the ball to Arteta. The Scot’s free-kick was a beauty though and Wigan went to the dressing room with their tails and hopes up.


Tension Early in the Second Half, then Cazorla Takes Charge

Wigan started the second half brightly as Arsenal were pushed back with the visitors’ tidy passing and last gasp energy to avoid relegation. Szczesny made a brilliant save from Kone early in the half. Arsenal were able to defend their flanks reasonably well, but Wigan pressure was mounting with Arsenal dropping too deep in a period of the game where they were supposed to find a winner. As the crowd grew more nervous, Cazorla missed a good opportunity after good work by Walcott again on the right wing.

Arsenal then took the lead by exploiting Wigan’s defensively weak left flank again. The image below captures the build-up to Arsenal’s all important second goal and shows that weak spot, the space behind Espinoza and the left sided centerback Scharner as mentioned in my tactical preview. Cazorla taking the initiative is evident as he is making a run on the right wing despite being stationed (in theory) on the left wing (a trademark Wengeresque notion of positional fluidity that even some Arsenal fans fail to understand when they claim Cazorla is wasted on the wing).  In the image, notice how Espinoza is trying to close down Sagna and leaving a huge space behind himself  and Scharner, and how Wigan midfielders are not picking up Cazorla’s run. In the follow-up, Cazorla’s sublime low cross into the 6-yard box is turned in by Walcott.


After this crucial second Arsenal goal, Wigan seemed to lose all hope and Arsenal extended their lead by scoring two more goals in quick succession.  Just like the first two goals, they were both set up by the majestic Cazorla. First, the Spaniard headed the ball onto the path of Podolski with Wigan defenders exhibiting less positional organization than a Sunday league team and the German lifted the ball over the advancing Robles for Arsenal’s third.

Only three minutes later, Arsenal’s width again pierced Wigan too easily. The image below captures the build-up to Arsenal’s fourth goal scored by Ramsey. Cazorla is about to release Ramsey behind throught the left flank. Notice how stretched Wigan are due to Arsenal’s width. Wigan’s right sided centerback Boyce is caught high up the pitch and trying to close down Cazorla on the far right side of the image. The right wingback McArthur has given up and is just jogging next to them. Alcaraz, the middle of Wigan’s three center-backs, is drawn all the way to the far right side and trying to play Ramsey offside. He is unaware that the left wingback Espinoza on this near side is playing everybody onside. Ramsey will break from that left flank with Cazorla’s ball and finish the move himself.


The man of the match was Cazorla who created all four goals, but I must say Walcott was damn impressive with his work rate and tactical discipline to stay wide. Now all Arsenal need to do is to beat Newcastle at St.James Park to claim a CL spot. It will not be easy, but their hugely impressive run of 7 wins and 2 draws in their last 9 league games says it can be done!

Arsenal vs Wigan Tactical Preview


**A slightly different version of this preview will also appear at the Arsenal blog

After the incredibly annoying AVB’s little Spurs won at Stoke following another crappy display, now it is official that Arsenal have no room left for the slightest slip-up. The Gunners must win both of their two remaining games. Somewhat ironically, on Tuesday they are facing Wigan, aka the Kings of FA Cup, who will be relegated themselves unless they win at Arsenal. It is a massive game for both sides. It is more massive than AVB’s insecurity and lack of logic.

You might be interested in knowing that I have not cut my fingernails since the QPR game 10 days ago. As I type, my nails are getting stuck in the keyboard. I have also done a lot of Ashtanga Yoga (I have not done no such thing; I do not even know what that is). Just like every Arsenal fan, I am getting ready for the nail-biting wretched 90 minutes on Tuesday.

Before I start with a bit of tactical analysis of Wigan, here are the likely starting 11s. For Arsenal, Giroud is still suspended, but there are no fresh injuries. For Wigan, no injuries can stop them, because they are just awesome!

• Arsenal (4-3-3) Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Gibbs (LB), Arteta (CM), Ramsey (CM), Rosicky (CM), Cazorla (LF), Walcott (RF), Podolski (CF).

• Wigan (3-4-1-2) Robles (GK), Alcaraz (CB), Scharner (CB), Boyce (CB), McArthur (RWB), Espinoza (LWB), Jordi Gomez (CM), McCarthy (CM), Maloney (AM), Kone (F), McManaman (F).

How Do Wigan Play?wiganRoberto Martinez has adopted a hybrid (or should I say unorthodox?) system at Wigan whose objective is to preserve width while keeping the center of the pitch congested. Their game plan tries to achieve those conflicting objectives in three ways.

First, Wigan employ three center-backs (against City in the FA Cup final they had Boyce, Alcaraz and Scharner as CBs) and defend their flanks with two wingbacks. Their first choice wingbacks (Stam on the right and Beausejour on the left) are both injured. Therefore, against City they used Espinoza on the left and McArthur on the right. When the opposition have the ball, their two central midfielders, McCarthy and Jordi Gomez, drop deep in front of the Wigan box. Depending on the direction of the attack, one of the two center-backs sweeps behind the full back (more on this later). For example, if McArthur is caught high up the pitch on the right, Boyce pushes towards the right back position. Scharner does the same to cover for Espinoza on the left.

Second, when the opposition have the ball, Shaun Maloney, Wigan’s most advanced central midfielder, stays slightly higher up the pitch than McCarthy and Gomez and presses the opposition build-up. Kone drops to the wide left position and McManaman stays wide right. When Wigan gain possession, Kone and McManaman provide quick outlets for transition through wide areas and Maloney provides the link up. In other words, the first ball in transition is usually played towards one of the flanks, instead of a central striker who is being marked by opposition center-backs.

Third, both of the two wingbacks play quite high up the pitch and motor forward to create an overlap when Kone and McManaman run inside to central areas. For example, against City Espinoza could be seen as a covering left back inside Wigan box in one instance, and then appearing as a left winger shortly after (see image below). The Kone-Espinoza combination gave the typically excellent Zabaleta such a hard time in the FA cup final, simply because David Silva was not tracking back Espinoza’s forward runs. Same can happen against Arsenal if Walcott again decides to play like a central striker and evacuates the flank!

Below, I will try to illustrate those 3 points through the help of some images taken from the FA Cup final against Manchester City on Saturday.

Kone on the left and Mc Manaman on the right stay wide, Maloney works between the lines like a traditional #10.

The image sequence below is useful to illustrate how none of the three attacking players for Wigan (Kone, McManaman and Maloney) occupy the traditional central striker role when Wigan gain possession and break forward.  In the first image, timed at 8:19, Maloney (on the far right side of the image) has started the break by finding McManaman who is controlling the ball under pressure. Notice how wide of the pitch the first ball is received as  Wigan break. Also observe Kone at the other side of the pitch as he will be involved in the next image.


After controlling the ball, McManaman turns inside and passes the ball to Kone, who is on the other side of the pitch. The point is how wide the two forwards are stationed when the move starts. Kone has now received the ball in the next image (timed at 8:43) and is attacking Zabaleta. On the far right, McManaman is now looking to pick his time for a run behind Nastasic. There is no Wigan central striker that City centerbacks can mark easily.


The final image from this move captures 2 seconds later, timed at 8:45. Kone has brought the ball inside Zabaleta, and is feeding McManaman’s run past Nastasic. The young forward will waste a good opportunity after receiving the ball. This is how Wigan make the transition from 5-3-2 off the ball to 3-4-1-2 when they gain possession with Maloney linking up play behind Kone and McManaman. The crucial point is how Kone and McManaman leave the centerbacks alone, stay wide to stretch play.


Arteta and Ramsey should be alert to close down the passing angles to Kone and McManaman when Wigan break from their own half. Rosicky and Cazorla should again start pressing high up the pitch to allow Arsenal to get into shape. The template here should be the Swansea away game when Wigan gain possession in their half. Press quickly and then retreat into shape!

An important duel in the game will be between McManaman and Gibbs on Arsenal’s left flank. McManaman simply tortured Clichy all game long, but this was also because Clichy received absolutely no help from Nasri in front of him. McManaman threat on Wigan’s right might also pin Gibbs back and deny him the opportunity to overlap on the left which is vital for Cazorla to roam inside.

Wigan Crowd Out the Center with Three Centerbacks and Two Midfield Anchors

The  image above illustrates how Wigan defend with 5 men at the back and how their two central midfielders congest the area in front of their box. Here, Mc Carthy is trying to close down the ball. Behind him, Jordi Gomez is screening in front of the box packed with three centerbacks. The right wingback McArthur has retreated very deep amd level with his three centerbacks. The closest CB to the right wingback is Boyce. More central are the other two CBs Scharner and Alcaraz  On Wigan’s left, Espinoza has retreated deep and has come narrow. Look how narrow City are and how Wigan have congested in front of their box.

Arsenal will have trouble breaking this packed center if their build-up is slow and predictable. I believe the key point here is a direct winger running at this narrow and congested defence through the flanks. Wenger might call for Oxlade Chamberlain on the right flank and ask him to utilize the space behind Espinoza. Theo Walcott can also threaten with direct runs but he needs to stay wide and try to exploit the area between Espinoza and the left sided centerback Scharner. Walcott’s usual trick of making an off the ball killer run behind the left back will probably not work here because there is an extra CB covering the left side. The good thing is that Wigan also do need a win. Unlike the FA Cup final where they had no pressure, they have to open up a bit rather than keeping a tight game and going for extra time. Arsenal should look to stretch the three centerbacks laterally with Podolski drifting to the left and overloading Wigan’s right by combining with Gibbs and Cazorla.

Espinoza Caught High Up the Pitch


The image above captures an instance where the left wing back Espinoza is caught somewhat high up the pitch and running back. David Silva has received the ball on the right wing, and the center-back Scharner has pushed up towards the left back position to cover for Espinoza. This is a key point for Arsenal. The Wigan wingbacks, especially Espinoza, push forward and play quite high up the pitch, leaving the area behind them often exposed. Arsenal should look to find the wide man (hopefully Walcott stays wide if he is given the role) in this area quickly and create a one-on-one with the covering center-back. In short, the area behind Espinoza is a key weakness of Wigan! This is where they conceded on the counterattack against West Bromwich as well.

This is a game where Arsenal need to follow the template of the Swansea away game, press early, retreat into shape, do not give the opposition any chances and be clinical themselves The first goal is very important. Wigan need a win as well, so they will be more open compared to the FA Cup final, and this openness might be what relegates them!

QPR:0 Arsenal:1 Some Brief Thoughts


Goal: Walcott (1),

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

Walcott’s goal inside the first 30 seconds of the game was enough for Arsenal to grind out another victory against an already relegated QPR side.

This was perhaps the most boring Arsenal game of the season. Arsenal failed to build up to a great start and played with the handbrakes on for 89 minutes. Their cautious approach was perhaps natural. With Spurs winning earlier yet again with a Bale wonder goal, the Gunners were fully aware that there was no room for error. This awareness reflected itself in the defensively solid yet overall uninspiring performance. But at this stage of the season, the team should be solely concerned with taking all the three points, and nothing else, and that’s what they are doing.

It feels strange to many of us that the current Arsenal team is able to hang on to a narrow lead and excel in a defensive team effort. Creative players like Rosicky and Cazorla start defending high up the pitch allowing the deeper central midfielders Arteta and Ramsey and the two full backs the time to get into a good defensive shape.

Clearly playing against a meek QPR side helps, but it is impossible not to sense the new-found interest in Arsenal for keeping clean sheets. Since losing to Spurs 8 games ago with incredible defensive errors, Arsenal conceded 4 goals in 8 games. Two of those were penalties (against Manchester United and WBA), one of them came from a poorly defended set piece against Norwich, and the other one was scored by Reading from open play when the scoreline was already 3-0 for Arsenal. Koscielny and Mertesacker have formed a good understanding and do not sell each other short, and Arteta anchoring so well in front of them allows Ramsey to help the high press. Defensively, Arsenal did not look better than this for so many seasons. Against QPR, one problematic issue was the youngster Townsend’s direct running at Monreal through QPR’s right flank that created some problems, but other than this, Arsenal were able to cope with relative ease. Szczesny was called into action 7 minutes from time when Loic Remy curled a shot towards the bottom left corner, but the Pole made a great save.


Of course, this defensive solidity comes at the cost of a much toothless display in attack. I believe, the defensive solidity is a response to the reduced attacking firepower upfront. This is not an Arsenal team whose philosophy and belief is to try and score one more goal than the opposition. The Arsene Wenger teams of the last few seasons, especially the team in 2007-2008 attacked with an insane hunger and their inability not to win anything was due to their tactical negligence at the back. What we have this season is a team that is much more self-conscious about its attacking inadequacies and one that has adjusted its game accordingly. Even Jack Wilshere sitting on the bench and the more street wise, tactically mature and defensively responsible Rosicky starting ahead of him is an indication of this adjustment. Arsenal know that especially now with Giroud suspended and a half-fit and immobile Podolski leading the line, they cannot rip teams apart.

The upcoming fixture against Wigan will be a big test as Wigan manager Roberto Martinez uses very flexible and hybrid formations. I will talk about how Arsenal’s current defensive discipline might actually allow the Gunners a straightforward win against Wigan in my preview over the weekend. The idea is to replicate the off the ball performances against Swansea and Bayern Munich. More on this in the Wigan preview.

Arsenal: 1 Manchester United: 1 Match Analysis


Goal: Walcott (2), Van Persie (44, pen)

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

Arsenal Dominate the First Half Hour

Unlike what we have seen in “big” games against Manchester City and Chelsea (in which Arsenal had very lethargic starts and went two goals down quickly), the home side started this game like a disrupted and angry bee colony, and were all over Manchester United early on. Rosicky in the advanced central midfield role and Cazorla dropping inside from the left brilliantly organized a fierce high pressing game. Their early pressing efforts were also well supported by Podolki who played as the central striker in the absence of Giroud.


In Arsenal’s central midfield, Ramsey started the game like a possessed man. He suffocated Carrick with his energy and did not allow United’s deep-lying playmaker any time on the ball. With Carrick unable to spray the ball to wide areas quickly, and with Arteta first to every ball before a fat and immobile Rooney (who was playing the support striker role behind Van Persie), Arsenal completely isolated Van Persie in the opening half hour period.  The above chart shows that Rooney could not link up play at all during this period and had to play almost every ball he received backwards. Carrick also had to play the ball backwards 6 times during this period, and except one occasion, he was unable to find the wide runner on the opposite flank with one of his trademark diagonal balls (see chart below).  Overall, it is safe to say that United were still in party mode at the start of the game after winning the title last week and had difficulty in coping with Arsenal’s early intensity.


Arsenal were quickly rewarded for their bright start. In the second minute, Van Persie played a lame diagonal ball which was easily cut-off by Gibbs and Arsenal countered quickly. Cazorla played a brilliant ball to Podolski who held it well and combined with Rosicky. The Czech found Walcott’s run behind Evra on the turn. The England winger was marginally offside but the flag stayed down, and Walcott finished past De Gea to give Arsenal the lead.

With United suffocated in midfield with Arsenal’s intensity, the home side could have increased their lead. In my opinion, the turning point of the game came in the 31st minute when Arteta won the ball deep in United half with an early press and freed Ramsey into space. The Welshman had two passing options, Podolski on his left was at a slightly narrow angle, and Walcott on his right was arriving unmarked from a deeper position. Ramsey chose to pass it to Podolski whose vicious left footed shot from a tight angle was parried away by De Gea.  Walcott was furious with Ramsey, but the Welshman probably considered Podolski’s hammer of a left foot when making his choice and could not be blamed too much.

United get back in the game 

After their insane early tempo, Arsenal eased off somewhat and Manchester United started putting together better moves. They should probably have equalized when Nani was released on Arsenal’s left and Van Persie’s point blank header from the Portuguese’s cross was saved by Szczesny’s face.  Valencia also got into good crossing positions a few times, but his crossing was awful, fortunately for Arsenal.

van persie

When United equalized shortly before the half time whistle, it was classic Arsenal shooting themselves in the foot. Sagna played a lazy pass to Mertesacker which was intercepted by Van Persie who raced inside the area. The French right-back made his mistake much worse by chopping him down for a clear penalty. The striker listened to the small boy inside himself and equalized from the spot.

Arsenal Fade Away in the Second Half

Arsenal lost their intensity almost completely in the second half and could not put Manchester United under much sustained pressure. They were not able to regain possesion deep in United half, unlike the first half. This inability forced the home side to attack United’s well entrenched defensive shape with a patient yet somewhat slow build-up and in that build-up they looked a bit toothless.

Podolski in the centerforward role dropped a little too deep and never provided a threat to run behind the two United centerbacks who looked quite comfortable reading the game being played in front of them. Podolski was by no means terrible as some claimed after the game. Yet, unlike Giroud he is not a striker who attacks crosses and provides a presence in the box. The fact that the player who Podolski passed the most was Rosicky (11 times) is telling, in the sense that he was not able to bring the wide players into the game. The German also looked tired after the first hour (he does not seem completely fit) and was substituted by Gervinho. Overall, he completed the game with only one attempt on goal (the one described above).


Wenger also took off Rosicky and sent in Wilshere with half an hour to go probably to add more dynamism into the midfield but this was a curious substitution as Rosicky had looked lively. It is difficult to say that Wilshere and the other substitute Gervinho made much of an impact. Wilshere continued to look off pace, and Gervinho was…. well he was Gervinho. Arsenal’s main threat came from Cazorla’s long range efforts one of which forced De Gea into an important save late in the second half.


In the last 12 minutes, Wenger completely threw caution to the wind and replaced the tireless Ramsey (who actually looked a bit tired after his insane early effort) with Oxlade Chamberlain to inject more directness. It was clear that the Frenchman wanted to win this game as he was uncharacteristically agitated on the touchline. Ramsey’s substitution opened up Arsenal against counterattacks and United did look very dangerous a few times on the break. The visitors almost nicked all three points when Rooney found Giggs (a late substitute) in acres of space on Arsenal’s right, but the old-timer’s goal-bound shot was deflected for a corner.

Overall, it was important that Arsenal did not lose this game. Their early intensity should provide the blue-print for the remaining three games. Arsenal’s best player on the day was Koscielny who was simply immense.