Newcastle United:0 Arsenal:1 Happy Ending!

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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.

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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!

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Arsenal:4 Wigan:1 Match Analysis

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

QPR:0 Arsenal:1 Some Brief Thoughts

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

wlshere

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.

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Fulham:0 Arsenal:1 Match Report

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Goal: Mertesacker (43)

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), Giroud (CF).

Arsenal got the all important three points in another extremely stressful game against Fulham. The home side played almost the whole game with 10 men after Sidwell received  a straight red card for his atrocious tackle on Arteta in the 12th minute.

In my tactical preview, I had emphasized how the German right back Riether has been key for Fulham in the way they build play from the back, but Fulham’s Player of the Season (according to ESPN’s Fulham blogger Phil Mison) missed the game with a late injury. In his absence, Martin Jol started with the Bulgarian utility man Manolev at right back. As expected, Ruiz was placed behind Berbatov in a 4-4-1-1 shape with Enoh and Sidwell in the center of midfield, and the on-loan left-footed Dutch winger Emanuelson deployed on the right. Given a depleted squad, Martin Jol also called Kacaniklic back from his loan deal at Burnley and started him on the left side of midfield.

Despite Fulham creating an early chance through Manolev, Arsenal soon monopolized possession and started zipping the ball around with confidence. In the first 10 minutes, the possession statistics indicated that the visitors had 91% of the ball. I had mentioned in the preview that Sidwell is typically too eager against Arsenal whenever the two sides meet, most probably because he was let go by the Gunners after his Academy years. Clearly frustrated with chasing shadows in the first 10 minutes, Sidwell committed an atrocious over the ball tackle which could have broken Arteta’s leg if it was a fraction early. The referee Andre Mariner had no hesitation to send off the midfielder.

sidwell

With Fulham reduced to 10 men, Arsenal, as they so often do against opposition that they perceice as weaker, decided that the game will be eventually won if they just keep on passing the ball around. Fulham responded by Ruiz dropping deeper to replace Sidwell, and the two wide midfielders tucking in and working very hard off the ball not allowing Arsenal any penetration. When the home side gained possession in their own half, they broke with admirable pace mostly through the excellent Emanuelson. The Dutchman created the next big chance of the game with a 50-yard run with the ball after Giroud (who was terrible all game long) surrendered possesion meekly in front of the Fulham box. Emanuelson played Berbatov in, but the Bulgarian forward shot straight at Szczesny who saved at his near post.

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After the physically draining midweek clash with Everton, Arsenal looked quite lethargic. Giroud and Walcott hid behind their markers most of the time  (see the above chalkboard). In Arsenal’s midfield Rosicky, Cazorla and Ramsey, although looking comfortable on the ball due to a man advantage, had to keep passing the ball sideways and backward with alarming frequency. Cazorla had one of his least effective performances of the season. In terms of the number of times Arsenal had to play the ball backwards, the performance was as bad as the Norwich away loss early in the season (see below).

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Except a Giroud shot midway in the first half which came back from the far post, the visitors could not test Scwarzer at all. Yet, they took the lead with a well worked out set piece. Walcott’s delivery to the far post was good, and Koscielny got away from Ruiz marking him and headed the ball across the goal. Mertesacker freed himself from Senderos and headed home from close range. Arsenal had found the crucial goal they needed just before the half time whistle.

The less said about the second half, the better. Arsenal kept passing the ball sideways, and looked quite exposed whenever Fulham broke with pace, especially through Emanuelson. Wenger tried to inject some dynamism by taking off Rosicky and the truly awful Walcott and sending in Wilshere and Podolski, but the substitutions looked to switch Arsenal further off. Fulham looked the likely side to score despite playing with 10 men, constantly winning dangerous free-kicks around the Arsenal box. When Szczesny could only parry a Ruiz free-kick, Manolev scored from the rebound but he was correctly ruled offide.

Arsenal fans kept biting their nails in the last 10 minutes, with Koscielny and Mertesacker making important goal saving clearances. In the last minute of normal time, Giroud was harshly shown a red card after going over the ball in a tackle, but replays showed that it was hardly a foul, let alone a red card. Probably the referee was just trying to be consistent with his early red card to Sidwell. In the end, Arsenal were able to hold on for another golden three points. Torturing their fans week in week out has now become a routine exercise for the Gunners.

Arsenal:0 Everton:0 Match Analysis

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

Arsenal had to settle for a goalless draw against a mean-tackling and resilient Everton side at the Emirates who played like a glorified Stoke City with Champions League ambitions especially in the first half. The chart below illustrates how Everton fouled strategically to stop quick Arsenal counterattacks deep in Arsenal half, and also when Arsenal tried to break from their right through Walcott.

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David Moyes uses Fellaini in The Holding Role

Despite his recent preference for Osman and Gibson as the two midfield anchors, Moyes switched Fellaini to a deeper role and paired him with Gibson in the center of midfield. The big-haired Belgian dominated the ineffectual Wilshere in that area sometimes by relying on his size, and in most other times by relying  on the referee turning a blind eye on what the English call “robust” tackling. Fellaini should have earned a yellow card for two hard fouls in the first 20 minutes, but as it happens so many times in Arsenal games, he walked without a caution. The left panel below illustrates Fellaini’s defensive action.

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Everton Left as Threatening as a Kitten but Arsenal also Toothless in Attack

As I argued in my tactical preview, Arsenal kept a good shape on their right flank and neutralized the Baines-Pienaar threat almost completely most of the game (see the attacking dashboard of Baines above). Walcott on Arsenal’s right wing offered a threat of pace which occupied Baines, but the main reason for Arsenal’s defensive security on that flank was Aaron Ramsey’s positional discipline, tireless energy and sense of responsibility. The Welshman again was Arsenal’s best player on the night for me. He created Arsenal’s best chance in the first half 5 minutes before the half-time when he was released on the right wing with a typically glorious Cazorla ball and sent an excellent low cross to Giroud. The French striker made a sliding connection before Howard but could not direct the ball to the empty net.  Arsenal did not offer much offensively in the first half. Their other chance was again late in the half when Cazorla’s effort on goal from close range was blocked brilliantly by Jagielka. Earlier in the half, Pienaar’s diagonal run was not picked by Arsenal defenders and the South African was played behind with the simplest of balls by Jagielka. Fortunately for Arsenal, the Everton winger shot over the bar.

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It was a huge surprise to see Wilshere starting in the advanved central role after his below par performance against Norwich which indicated he is clearly not fit enough to start games. With Everton’s physicality and discipline in the center and Arsenal concerned primarily with keeping a good shape, the home side found it difficult to find a passing rhytm with their moves broken easily. When they did find Walcott on the right wing, Everton made sure to foul the pacey winger before he could run at them. Walcott was fouled a staggering 4 times in the first half with the referee finally showing a yellow card to Gibson after the untalented midfielder simply butchered him late in the half. On his part, as he often does, Walcott forced it too much to find a killer run behind, instead of staying wide to offer an outlet to the Arsenal midfield which was under heavy pressure.

Wenger’s Substitutions get Arsenal Attacking in the Last 20 minutes

Wenger finally took off Wilshere and Walcott in the 68th minute and sent in Podolski to the left and Oxlade-Chamberlain to the right with Cazorla moving to the central role. This change did galvanize the home side simply because they stopped losing the ball in midfield and were able to push Everton back. Cazorla did so much better than Wilshere in the central advanced midfield position and with Oxlade staying wide to provide an outlet, Arsenal were able to bring the ball forward with much better fluidity. It was a joy at times to watch Cazorla evade Everton’s pressing in the center with sublime footwork. The chart below compares Cazorla’s action in the final third before and after Wilshere’s substitution.

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Arsenal’s big chance to win the game came from a lightning counterattack. Giroud headed the ball to Podolski whose one time ball to Cazorla released the Spaniard free in space in Everton’s half with visitors caught high up the pitch.  Cazorla played Oxlade who overlapped from the right. The youngster could have taken the shot himself, yet chose to send a low ball to Giroud for a tap in, but Coleman was able to make a goal saving tackle at the goal mouth. In the last 10 minutes, Everton did not provide any attacking threat and were completely occupied with defending the scoreline which was quite amusing given their so-called Champions League aspirations. Arsenal kept pushing forward, but were not able to break the visitors’ resistance with Giroud again shooting over the bar in a good position in the box.

Overall the result was a fair one, as neither side deserved to lose in a cagey and tense affair. At the same time, one cannot help but wonder why Wenger started with Wilshere who did not look fit at all three days ago against Norwich. Perhaps, Rosicky (who was on the bench) was even less fit than Wilshere, but Wenger had other options in his disposal.

Arsenal:3 Norwich City:1 Match Report

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Goals: Turner (56), Arteta (pen, 85), Giroud (88), Podolski (90+1)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Fabianski (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Vermaalen (CB), Gibbs (LB), Ramsey (CM) Arteta (CM), Wilshere (CM), Gervinho (RF), Cazorla (LF), Giroud (CF).

Three very late goals in eight minutes saved Arsenal against a stubborn and disciplined Norwich City.

Chris Hughton Parks the Bus with Three Defensive Midfielders

In my tactical preview of the game, I had predicted Norwich to continue with their usual line-up and place their creative attacking midfielder Hoolahan behind the lone striker Kamara in a 4-5-1 formation. I had also called the Norwich City manager Chris Hughton an unimaginative yet purposeful manager in the grand tradition of British/Irish managers. The prediction of the Norwich starting line-up proved to be inaccurate as Hughton did not use Hoolahan, but instead gathered together all the defensive midfielders he could find and erected a yellow wall in front of his defense. While Bradley Johnson, Howson and Tettey screened in front of their defense, Kamara was placed on the right side of a 5-man midfield with Snodgrass occupying the left side. Holt was left as lone striker up-front to wrestle with Arsenal centerbacks and provide an outlet for long balls. As the chalkboard below indicates, Holt and Kamara did not have a single attempt on goal and basically performed a rear-guard action to hold the ball up-front to slow Arsenal’s tempo, as Hughton aimed at nothing but frustrate the Gunners and perhaps nick it with a set-piece, if he could. And he almost did succeed.

holt

This ultra negative formation was succesful in frustrating Arsenal as the home side found it quite difficult to poke holes in the dense Norwich defensive forest. Kamara on the right side of Norwich had an important role in this shape as he pushed forward to prevent Gibbs from overlapping on Arsenal’s left when Santi Cazorla roamed inside to central areas. With Arsenal’s left not working offensively (bar a very early instance when Wilshere released Gibbs behind but the left back’s cutback missed everyone), and the center extremely congested with three Norwich defensive midfielders, Arsenal tried to rely on Gervinho’s dribbles and Sagna’s overlaps from the right. The home side could have taken the lead despite their labored performance, when Giroud’s glancing header from a Sagna cross bounced off the bar, and later Gervinho took a heavy touch and lost his angle despite going past the Norwich goalie after Cazorla released the Ivorian with a brilliant ball.

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Arsenal huffed and puffed during most of the first half, especially with Wilshere (who made a return after 6 weeks on the sidelines due to an ankle injury) looked depressingly off the pace. The young England midfielder’s touch was uncharacteristically heavy, his movement and body language indicating he is not quite fit to be playing in this game. In contrast to Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey was simply brilliant, producing more energy to the midfield than a nuclear reactor. But Norwich were closing space very well, and not allowing much to happen.

Norwich Take The Lead with their First Attempt

Early in the second half, Arsenal continued looking sluggish and almost out of ideas, and it surprised no Arsenal fan when Norwich took the lead from a set piece with their first attempt on goal.  Holt cushioned down a long ball to Kamara on Arsenal’s left channel, and the on-loan forward burst past Gibbs who allowed Kamara to reach the ball as he was on the wrong side of him, but the Norwich man somehow tripped himself with no contact from Gibbs. When the referee gave a joke of a free-kick, Snoggrass sent a dangerous ball for Turner to power home under horrendous Arsenal marking.

At the hour mark, Wenger removed Wilshere and Gervinho, and sent in Walcott to the right wing and Podolski to the left wing. Cazorla moved inside behind Giroud. Arsenal kept looking for an opening and almost found their equalizer when Giroud chested down a Gibbs cross to Podolski but the German’s left footed rocket was tipped to the crosbar by the Norwich goalie, Bunn.

Wenger throws the Kitchen Sink in the Last 10 minutes

With Arsenal headed for a shock home defeat, Arsene Wenger made a final move and threw in Oxlade Chamberlain, removing Sagna. Arsenal switched to a 3-3-4 formation with Oxlade and Walcott on the two wings, Podolski and Giroud as two central strikers, supported by an Arteta, Cazorla and Ramsey midfield. In this formation, Ramsey was playing like an auxiliary right back when Norwich had the ball making it a 4-2-4.

With Arsenal pouring forward with almost every player, Norwich started cracking and Arsenal made their comeback. First, when Giroud was about to pull the trigger on the edge of the 6-yard box after Norwich failed to clear a corner (which was controversially awarded), Kamara hauled down the French striker. The referee Mike Jones did not seem to be interested in the blatant foul in the box, yet the assistant referee on the far side flagged for a penalty. Norwich protested vehemently firm in their belief that they were well within their rights to haul down a striker who is about to score in the 6-yard box.  On TV, the ultra anti-Arsenal commentator Tony Gale questioned how on earth the assistant referee could spot something that the first official did not spot from 8 yards, completely ignoring the fact that the referee’s view was blocked as he was behind Giroud and Kamara. Once replays showed that Kamara’s foul was too blatant to argue against, he brought up that it was not a corner in the first place and those things are never given anyway. Arteta equalized from the spot

kamara

Coming back from the death like Lazarus, Arsenal poured forward for the kill. When Arsenal scored a second, Gale was still moaning. Oxlade-Chamberlain drove forward from the left, had a glorious one-two with Podolski to get behind and his ball across the face of the goal was bundled in by Giroud. In extra time, Podolski blasted home from the edge of the box after being set up by Walcott, who had started the move from a marginally offside position to devastate Tony Gale even further.

Wenger’s substitutions worked to a perfection, but my man of the match was Aaron Ramsey. I have criticized the Welshman harshly in the past after his sluggish and indecisive displays, but he seems to have rid himself almost completely from his bad habits (unnecessary flicks, giving the ball away in dangerous positions, getting caught in possession, jogging back slowly when opposition break from midfield, taking way too long to decide what to do when on the ball). Today his tireless energy and aggression, defensive attitude, quick ball circulation and simply doing his job at whatever position Wenger uses him without a fuss was examplary.