Fulham:0 Arsenal:1 Match Report

merts

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.

walcott

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).

backpasses

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.

fouls

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.

ramsey

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.

cazorla

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

giroud

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.

ramsey

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.

West Bromwich Albion:1 Arsenal:2 Match Analysis

rosicky

Goals: Rosicky (21), Rosicky (50), Morrison (71, pen)

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

Despite coming under immense pressure, a 10-man Arsenal held on to their lead in the last 20 minutes after Mertesacker was sent off following a professional foul on Shane Long and Morrison converted the resulting penalty.

Steve Clarke Keeps Lukaku On the Bench in the first 62 minutes

In my tactical preview, I had predicted that with James Morrison recovering from his injury and Mulumbu suspended, WBA manager Steve Clarke would switch the left-sided midfielder Brunt to the center to pair him with Yakob, use Jerome Thomas on the left and Morrison as the most advanced central midfielder to link up play. While these predictions turned out to be all accurate, a big surprise was that Clarke kept his top goalscorer Lukaku on the bench and started with the Irish striker Shane Long. This was perhaps due to the Scot anticipating Arsenal’s high-line, and wanting to utililize Long’s tendency to play at the shoulder of the last defender to foil the offside trap.

long

Long was quite ineffective during the 60 minutes when he led the line by himself as can be seen in the above chalkboard. He was often caught offside, had only one attempt on goal which was off-target. In fairness, he did not receive much support from Morrison or the wide midfielders as Arsenal pressed effectively in those 60 minutes, not allowing the deep-lying midfielder Yakob too much time on the ball. The Argentine did not lose the ball when he received it, but Arsenal’s pressing made him receive the ball much less than he usually does (see the chart below that compares his passing action with the one against Swansea in the first 65 minutes). Most importantly, Yakob was not able to spray the ball quickly to wide areas to start combination plays on the flanks and was forced to pass backward 6 times again in those first 65 minutes.

0j4BS

At the other end of the pitch, WBA also did press Arsenal’s build-up effectively and did not allow the visitors to settle into a fluent passing game. As expected, it was a tight and cagey first half with very few chances on either end. Early in the game, WBA turned up the pressure through a series of set pieces. Rosicky cleared Yakob’s inbound header on the goal line from a corner, and Fabianski did not look entirely convincing with high balls from set pieces. The Pole, however, made a good save from a Brunt free-kick when the ball almost sneaked inside his near post.

goaline

Easily neutralizing the WBA threat for the most part of the opening hour, Arsenal were clinical themselves, creating 3 clear cut chances and scoring 2 goals. First, in the 20th minute, Arteta found Gervinho on the left channel with a diagonal ball. The Ivorian twisted and turned, and fired a cross/shot into the 6-yard box which was turned in by Rosicky’s instinctive header. Just before the half time whistle, a glorious Arsenal move saw Giroud cushioning the ball to Cazorla in front of the box, and receiving the Spaniard’s majestic reverse ball. The French striker then laid the ball with a flick to the incoming Ramsey behind him. The Welshman had only Foster to beat but incredibly shot wide. Early in the second half, though, Ramsey made amends after Cazorla released him on the break from the right. Rosicky cushioned down Ramsey’s low and early ball, and fired on the half volley. Foster could only parry the fierce shot back to the Czech who blasted home the rebound. With 40 minutes to go, Arsenal looked more comfortable than a kitten on a wool blanket. But Clarke intervened with a bold move.

Clarke Sends in Lukaku and Rosenberg and Attacks with 3 strikers

Shortly after the hour mark, Steve Clarke made his move by replacing the two ineffective wide men, Thomas and Dorrans, sending in Lukaku and Rosenberg and switching to a 3 pronged attack. Early signs of Arsenal shooting themselves in the foot appeared when Mertesacker played a wayward pass to Koscielny in Arsenal half, with the French centerback clearly not expecting the ball. Koscielny had to tackle Long who had intercepted the ball and earned a yellow card. Then, 20 minutes from time, the complexion of the game changed completely.

When WBA switched to a 3-striker system, Shane Long stayed in the center, Lukaku started making runs through the inside left channel and Rosenberg did the same from the inside right channel. Despite Arsenal fullbacks now being occupied with those runs, and being pinned back, the Arsenal central midfielders did not adjust their shape and continued to press higher up the pitch. With full backs pinned back and midfield pushing up, a space emerged between them for Morrison to sneak into. I have emphasized in the tactical preview that Morrison provides WBA a crucial link between the midfield and forward areas with his ability to pick the diagonal ball. When the Scot received the ball behind Arteta, Cazorla and Rosicky who were pressing high, and Ramsey who was not alert enough to Morrison’s movement, he delivered a glorious diagonal ball over the top to release Long behind. Mertesacker’s late tackle was a professional foul that denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Howard Webb sent the German off and Morrison converted the penalty.

Wenger responded by sacrificing Rosicky (who had a yellow card) and sending in Vermaalen. Gervinho was also taken off for Gibbs to come in to barricade the left flank in front of Monreal. The last 25 minutes including the 5-minute extra time was a nerve-wrecking siege for Arsenal fans. The Gunners were not able to retain any sort of possession in WBA half and dug deep in front of their box to repel relentless WBA pressure. The home side mainly attacked from their left through Lukaku and Ridgewell. The best way to describe the siege is the chakboard below which indicates Arsenal’s passing action after the red card. In normal times, Arsenal completes 17 passes in one move. During the 25 minutes after the red card, Arsenal completed a total of 17 passes, and only two of those were in the attacking third. Lukaku, Long and McAuley missed 3 big chances, and Arsenal held on for another golden 3 points in the race for a Champions League spot. It was not pretty, but no Arsenal fan would care!

siege