05 October 2013

West Brom preview: beware the Baggies!

Setting aside last week's league cup victory as a match between two squads that are unlikely to reappear on Sunday, we might look at this match as a winnable one. On paper, we're likely to field the same full-strength squad that has won its last ten
matches overall, including eight in a row on the road, but knowing the past is not the same as repeating it. West Brom comes into the match fresh off a 2-1 win at Old Trafford, a feat we haven't been able to accomplish in some time. Before the snark regarding Man U's current position on the table begins, I'm sure they looked at that match the same way many of us are looking at tomorrow's: eminently winnable. Sure, our run of form clobbers Man U's, but each match does stand on its own. In fact, the manner of our league cup win over West Brom has probably provided plenty of motivation for them. After all, there was a very tense time when it looked like the penalties were going to break in their favor, and they could have quite easily won.

West Brom might be one of the few squads to match our squad's injury woes, but this may work in their favor as least as far as it concerns one Saido Berahino, who replaced the injured Scott Sinclair and scored the game-winner against Man U, not to mention the equalizer against us. Berahino's story is an amazing one, as the Burundian escaped the ravages of the Hutu-Tutsi civil war to come to England and is starting to make good. You can read more of his saga in this Telegraph article. Long story short, football offered the man more than just competition on the pitch amidst the poverty and violence in Burundi. To see that he's made good on his promise and features for West Brom, and possibly for England's Three Lions, is an inspirational story.

I hope, therefore, that it's not churlish of me to wish him well without wishing him too well on Sunday. West Brom is more than one man, of course, and we'd do well to keep an eye on Berahino as well as on several shrewd new signings—Stéphane Sessegnon and Victor Anichebe are the kind of direct, aggressive attackers who might cause us trouble, especially for Jenkinson on the right, who is still finding his way and may struggle against their pace and physicality. Morgan Amalfitano will be another one to track; he provided a goal and the assist on Berahino's goal against Man U, and he was probably West Brom's most energetic player against us last week. Those three signings may not send the same signal of intent as signing Özil, for example, but they brighten up the Baggies' attack quite well, and they're quite stingy on defense as well, having conceded only two goals in their last three Prem matches. Olsson and McAuley take up a lot of space, and Mulumbu and Yacob are very disruptive with their tackling ability.

At some point, we're going to run up against a squad hungrier than we are. Our run of form, for as exciting as it is, can feed a certain complacency, especially among our younger players. How long will it be, for example, before 22-year old Aaron Ramsey feels he has answered his critics? 21-year old Jack Wilshere saw fit to smoke a cigarette in public (or at least hold one on a dare, if his publicist has any say in it). I'm not suggesting that anyone's mailing it in, but a streak like the one we're on can lead some to lose just a bit of their edge, even subtly or subconsciously. It's not the run of form that takes the pitch, after all, and we're only as good as the effort we put forth after the whistle blows.

As I write, Liverpool has taken a 3-0 lead over Crystal Palace and looks to climb to 16 points, and Spurs will host West Ham, looking to do the same. If we'd like to stay ahead of them, we'll of course need to take all three points tomorrow. I'm looking to Giroud to open the scoring and hope to see a 2-0 win.

Make your own predictions for final score and MotM in the comments section below. I hope you'll cast a ballot for me in the Football Blogging Awards' "best new blog" category. You can click here to here to vote via twitter or here to receive an email ballot. Thanks, as always, for your visit!

04 October 2013

Sagna's out for three weeks? Fine. Perfect, actually.

Speaking ahead of Sunday's trip to face West Brom again (in the Prem this time), Arsène revealed that the hamstring injury that Bacary Sagna sustained during the 2-0 win over Napoli will put him out of action for three weeks. At first, this is
unsettling because of how well he's played, whether it's been as the right back or in the center. He's logged heavy minutes already this season, playing a full 90' in nine appearances. As such, then, it actually comes as a bit of good timing for Sagna to incur a mild injury as it will likely keep him out of action for France's home-match with Australia, and it comes at a time when our own fixtures look tame enough that Jenkinson should deputize competently. He may be but a babe in the woods at 21, but he was part of the squad that defeated Bayern 2-0, and continues to develop quite well.

Sagna, then, will miss the trip to West Brom on Sunday, a visit from Norwich on 19 October, and the visit from Dortmund on 22 October. As reassuring as it would be to have him for that last match, Jenkinson should hold his own well enough against West Brom and Norwich, and if he can remember the form he was in at times last season and so far in this one, he'll do fine against Dortmund. For what it's worth, Dortmund will come in at less than full-strength, as their own right-back Lukasz Piszczek is out for the season, İlkay Gündoğan continues to struggle back from a spinal injury and may also be unavailable, and manager Jürgen Klopp will be serving a one-match ban. It's not like Dortmund have suffered much in the absences of Piszczek or Gündoğan, nor have they missed a beat without departed midfielder Mario Götze—they're still undefeated and atop the table in the Bundesliga, and after their loss to Napoli in the Champions League will be looking for points wherever they can get them.

That said, I still don't mind (much) that Sagna will miss the match. He's 30, and a break from action should do him good, especially as we look ahead to a difficult string of fixtures after his return: Chelsea's league-cup visit, a visit from Liverpool, and trips to Dortmund and Man U. December is hardly any kinder, but let's not look too far ahead of ourselves...except to ponder our needs come January. Assuming we can continue to make progress in the league cup and in FA cup to boot, it's it looks more and more like signing another right-back is a priority. Between Sagna's age and recent injury history (let's not forget the twice-broken leg) on one hand, and Jenkinson's inexperience and limitations on the other, this looks like an area that we'll have to address. While it's true that Flamini can be asked to fill in at full-back, this is hardly an ideal or long-term solution. Ironically, Piszczek's injury came at a time when we were linked to him before this summer's transfer window. One might look at our injury-list and grumble that he'd therefore fit right in. Transfer-talk in July or January is one thing, but it's October, so there's little point in pondering who we might sign.

In the short run, we should be fine. Jenkinson can come on and turned in three strong performances already this season, and he's starting to show the competence if not the dominance we need in the back. With the increased stability in defense brought about by the continued partnership between Koscielny and Mertesacker, more-assured performances from Szczesny, and the communication and grit of Flamini, Jenkinson should be able to play with greater confidence. By the time he lines up opposite Marco Reus, then, he'll have had time to find his rhythm again after watching from the bench for the last few matches.

At first blush, the news of Sagna's injury threatened to cast a pall over our bright start. On the other hand, though, he'll be back by the end of October, by which time we should have also seen the returns of Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla, followed shortly thereafter by Podolski and then Ox. Therefore, our squad-strength and depth should return to full-strength or close to it just as our fixture-list intensifies. Not bad.

If you have any suggestions for a right-back target for January, by all means, weigh in. In the meantime, though, I hope you'll cast a ballot for me in the Football Blogging Awards' "best new blog" category. You can click here to here to vote via twitter or here to receive an email ballot. Thanks, as always, for your visit!

03 October 2013

Who needs a striker with this marauding midfield?

We don't need another striker to support or compete with Olivier Giroud. He's doing quite well for himself, thank you very much, but, more importantly, we'll soon see a few players return to fitness. For as strong as we've started, it shouldn't come as a surprise as the early fixtures favor us a bit. Napoli was arguably our sternest test, and we passed with flying colors, but there's quite a gauntlet still to run. It's therefore more than a bit exciting to think that, with the returns of players like Santi Cazorla, Tomáš Rosický, Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Mikel Arteta; the continued bedding-in of Matthieu Flamini, Serge Gnabry, and Mesut Özil; and the re-emergences of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, we might even be looking to build on this early run of form to create something truly special.

The one area of weakness, such as it is, would appear to be that center-forward spot. Giroud is off to a fine start, but, should he suffer a knock, we might have to throw on the greenhorn Yaya Sanogo (or play Podolski or Walcott through the center). None of these options inspire much confidence, certainly not in the long run. as each forces players to do more than they're capable of. We have yet to see much of anything from Sanogo, thanks to his injury, and it's unlikely that he'll dazzle when he does return. Playing Podolski or Walcott in the center is a strategy that is at least tried, if not true. Given the lack of genuine options, at least until January, there is one solution on offer that might just make us all forget the shortage of options at the top of the attack.

I'm speaking, of course, of our embarrassment of riches in the midfield. Already at our disposal, we have Flamini, Arteta, Ramsey, Wilshere, Gnabry, Özil, and Rosický. That's just a listing of who's fit. To that list we'll soon be adding Cazorla, Walcott, Podolski, and the Ox. Admitting that certain players are better at some things than others, that's eleven men who could rotate through six spots. Should Giroud lose his form or suffer an injury, we could send out as many as eleven midfielders who could conceivably flow through any number of positions, committing to their preferences and skill-sets. Ramsey, Arteta, and Flamini, while focusing on the double-pivot in front of the defense, could bomb forward as needed. Wilshere, Gnabry, Özil, Rosický, Cazorla, Ox, Walcott, and Podolski might then roam as they see fit.

It's not as far-fetched as it may seem. For example, Spain's national team has, at times, deployed an attack that features midfielders exclusively, and this plays to the strengths and form of the players they have available. Torres and Villa have had their moments, it's true, but given the choice between them or, say, Fabregas through the middle, it's hard to argue against Fabregas.

We could do worse, therefore, than to field six midfielders without an out-and-out striker. As much as we may fret over Giroud's ability to sustain his current form over the long term, we have players who can still strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses. With a midfield rotation of Arteta, Ramsey, and Flamini at its base, and with some combination of Wilshere, Gnabry, Özil, Rosický, Cazorla, Walcott, Podolski, and the Ox on the attack, there are few squads who could stop us. In fact, for as good as he's been to date, Giroud might in some ways impede our attack. As a focal point, he lacks pace. Without him, we might even see a more-fluid, tiki-taka style in which six (or more) technically-gifted and fleet-of-foot footballers flummox and then eviscerate opposing defenses:

  • Defender #1: where's Özil?
  • Defender #2: I thought you were marking him!
  • Defender #1: I was, but he dropped back, so I picked up Rosický!
  • Defender #3: What? I'm tracking Rosický!
  • Defender #2: What? He's playing down our right side and you're our right-back—aren't you? We're getting pulled out of shape!
  • Defender #4: I'm lost! I was tracking Cazorla on our right, but now he's on the opposite side. Should I follow him or stay home?
  • Keeper: Too late. They scored while you guys were getting sorted. Thanks for nothing.
And so on. We're hardly a "total football" club by any stretch of the imagination, but we do have a number of players who can fill a wide variety of roles. Heck, we even have a few defenders versatile enough to play in more-forward roles should the occasion permit. Vermaelen's name has been bandied about, for example, as a defensive midfielder, such is his willingness to bomb forward. It's not for nothing that we've seen goals already from Gibbs, Mertesacker, and Sagna; or that Koscielny netted against Newcastle to secure our 4th place finish last year (and almost did so again against Napoli).

For as much as we talk about positions and squad-depth, then, it's worth remembering that, when healthy, we can field a starting XI that can instill fear in opposing defenses, dominate possession, play beautiful football, and win matches. Come January, of course, it might be nice to see us add another striker to support and compete with Giroud. Until then, I rather like the idea of an amoeba-esque attack, with any number of midfielders marauding around the pitch. It takes a certain amount of communication, of course, to insure that defensive responsibilities are attended to, but the attacking possibilities seem limitless. 

We could do worse than to rest Giroud on Sunday against West Brom. Befuddling the Baggies with an (apparently) amorphous midfield might just see us nab our 13th straight away-win, a club record as far as I can figure. 

Right. We have a fair few days before that match with West Brom. There's apparently some footballing of some sort on Thursday night, but I can't quite put my finger on what it is...whatever. If it was important, I'm sure I'd remember what it is. So it goes. Before you go, I'd like to thank you for visiting and invite you to vote in the Football Blogging Awards, in which Woolwich 1886 is up for a best new blog. You can click here to vote via twitter or here to receive an email ballot. Thanks!

01 October 2013

Arsenal 2-0 Napoli—sittin' pretty atop Group F

In the aftermath of a win that might actually understate the extent of our dominance (63% possession, only one shot on target from Napoli, a clean sheet...), we now sit in firm control of Group F, having won one way and now one at home. Napoli and Dortmund each now have one loss while we sit pretty with two wins,  six of the "10.2"
thanks to arsenalist.com for the gif.
points that Arsène has stated as the threshold for advancing—and we still have four matches to play. This hasn't been dubbed the Group of Death on whim, so we should beware of counting our eggs before they hatch. However, with those four matches to play and five points likely enough to advance, we could be forgiven for getting excited. Winning 2-0, of course, gives us a bit more of a buffer on goal-differential should points alone not be enough.

For the first goal, of course, Özil again has shown his value, his quality, and his skill. Before we get to that, however, let's applaud Giroud for his control and deft flick to Ramsey on the overlap to create the opportunity. There was some hand-wringing over Giroud, given his apparent dry-patch (no goals in three appearances), but his ability to create that opening is every bit as vital as actually putting shots on target. He may be overstating his ambitions or abilities when he talks of winning a Golden Boot, but his intelligent movement and ability to create chances for others suggest that this could indeed be a banner year for the man. There. We'll come back to Giroud in a moment.

For now, Özil. His touch on this first goal was sublime. Credit is due of course to Giroud for opening the sequence, to Ramsey for placing the pass, and to Rosický for clearing the box with an intelligent run to the near post, dragging two defenders with him and creating acres of open space at the top of the box. By the time the ball reached Özil. he had no one around him and nothing but time. Instead of misusing that time, however, Özil one-timed it beautifully, arcing it just beyond Reina's reach while keeping it inside the far-post, striking the very corner of the back of the net. To short-hop a volley like that, putting it where the keeper has no chance while keeping it on frame, is simply breath-taking. Anyone who can watch that and claim that we overpaid is a fool, pure and simple.

As for the second goal, well, it was vintage Giroud. After some sloppy play from Napoli from a throw-in their defensive third, Giroud won the ball, found Özil on the edge of the box and began one of the smartest runs we'll see given the time available. In the GIF below, thanks to arsenalist.com, watch as Giroud makes the pass and then curls his run through the corner of the box. He first darts up-field a bit and then manages to find the perfect spot between two defenders as he moves toward the center of the box, trending, of course, to the near post as has become a trademark move of his. Even with defenders on either shoulder, Giroud created just the right amount of space and time to prepare for Özil's pass, and all that was left for Giroud was to run onto the ball and tap it home. The man now has five goals in eight appearances and is playing some of the best football he's ever played in an Arsenal kit, statistics or not.

For as much as we might want to make of Özil's statistical contributions—a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win ain't half-bad—what he brings to the pitch in terms of confidence and inspiration is just as significant. It's therefore gratifying to see that he's scored his first goal while also turning in yet another assist (his fourth in seven appearances, while we're at it). With his performance on the night, it was a bit of a let-down that Higuain was unavailable. No offense against the man, as he only did what most of us would do in accepting the most attractive offer, but Özil's ability to make everyone around him better is beyond valuation. Whether it's knowing that a pass will find you, or seeing him and believing more deeply in what you can do, Özil's arrival seems to be transforming the entire squad.

However, let's not make too much of one man. This was an all-around performance, as signified by the scoreline, our first clean sheet since the identical score-line against Marseille four matches ago. It may not be as famous as other 2-0 wins in recent history, but it shows what we're capable of as we sliced open one of the world's best clubs in scintillating fashion while almost completely nullifying their much-vaunted attack, delivering Napoli its first loss under Benitez. A dominant performance, on the whole, and one that sends fair warning to West Brom ahead of Saturday's match that this is a squad at or near the very top of its game—and gaining momentum with the returns of Arteta and Rosický.

Right. That trip to the Hawthorns awaits, a rematch of sorts, and one we would be foolish to underestimate given how handily West Brom despatched Man U. However, I rather fancy our chances if today's performance is any indication.

Before you go, I hope you'll consider voting for this blog in the Football Blogging Awards. Just click here to vote via twitter or here to receive the email ballot. Either way, I appreciate your support!

30 September 2013

Gonzalo finally arrives at the Emirates...for real, this time.

After a long, drawn-out saga that came as close as agreeing to personal terms and setting up a physical, Perez went and pulled the plug on the deal and Higuaín finds himself in Italy, and we had to settle for some German punk instead. So it goes. Given
the choice between Mesut Özil or Gonzalo Higuaín (assuming I had to pick one or other other with "both" not an option), honestly, I'd plump for Özil every day of the week and twice on Sundays. I know that we're going to worry about Olivier Giroud's fitness and form as the season progresses, and we may have to rely on some make-shift solutions until January should Giroud suffer an injury, but Özil is a unique talent and the kind of player who can make everyone around him better. Higuaín, for as good as he is and may become, will only be as good as the service he receives. The service that Giroud receives from Özil, the mentoring and demonstrating that Ramsey and Wilshere will get, and (dare I say it) the inspiration Özil can give to the entire squad tip the scales in his favor.

This is not to say that we would have been fools to sign Higuaín. He's going to do well for Napoli, and we would have been much improved with him. However, we saw how the saga unfolded, and rather than rue what could have been, we have much to savor. Over at Napoli, I'm sure they're satisifed, but I almost wonder if they saw our deal with Özil and aren't sucking their teeth just a little. It's not that Higuaín has failed to deliver—far from it. He's scored four goals in six matches for Napoli and has put in a number of strong showings. The squad itself is off to a very good start, going for six wins in seven matches, dropping just two points in a draw with Sassuolo and sitting second behind Roma. This is especially impressive given the number of new players (eight) that they've added and had to bed-in.  Speaking of several of these new players, Arsène had this to say:
Napoli’s counter-attacking style struck me in the Emirates Cup...When they win the ball they come out very quickly with Callejón, [Marek] Hamsik, Insigne and Higuaín—they all come out like bombs every time they win the ball. This means that the transition from our team from offence to defence will have to be very quick.
It's therefore important that we field a squad capable of blunting those counters. Frankly, with our injuries, there's not a whole lot to debater. I'd like to see Wilshere rested, if not because he's still working his way back after surgery, then because he tends to neglect his defensive responsibilities. We may get away with that against Stoke or Sunderland, but we can ill-afford against a squad like Napoli's. With Hamsik and Insigne on the left, Wilshere will have to track back so that he doesn't leave Gibbs isolated. If Wilshere can't be trusted to do this, it may be necessary to play Monreal, who is less attack-oriented than Gibbs is. In either case, we'll need to play tighter defense than we've done so far. We haven't kept a clean sheet since the North London Derby, a stretch of five matches or almost 500 minutes of football (including the overtime against West Brom). I'm not suggesting we need a clean sheet on Tuesday, but we can't expect to concede goals and win. That's just common sense.

For as well as we'e played to start the season, this will be the first time we're up against a truly in-form and potentially elite squad. Nothing against our other opponents to date, but Napoli are in fine form and, on paper, look capable of beating most teams they face. They beat Dortmund, for one, something that only a few teams can lay claim to doing in the last thirteen months. I won't make much of our Emirates Cup clash because it was a friendly and both squads have changed considerably since then. Having said of all this, I find it hard to argue against the form we're in and the fact that we're playing at home.

The last time Matthieu Flamini faced Napoli was in April, and he scored in a 1-1 draw that helped AC Milan qualify for this year's UCL playoff-round. Then again, he also got sent off for a reckless tackle. I'll use that as a spring-board for predicting that he'll score, as will Özil, in a 2-1 win for us.