*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.