03 January 2014

Arsenal v. Tottenham Player to Watch: Santi Cazorla

After fans voted Santi Cazorla as Arsenal's Player of the Year for 2012-13, the excitement around him grew, even more so after the signing of Mesut Özil. The prospect of the two of them working together was mouth-watering, so it's been a disappointment that they've haven't worked much magic together—yet. Of course, it's not going to happen Saturday against Spurs because Özil is out.

However, despite how little Cazorla has produced so far this season—just a goal and an assist from 21 appearances after delivering 12 goals and 11 assists in 47 appearances last season—he looks like he's ready to shake off the rust from his September ankle injury and fatigue from heavy international commitments in order to start thrilling fans again. In two of his last three appearances, against West Ham and again against Cardiff, he's started to show a liveliness that has previously been lacking, whether he was beating defenders off the dribble, threading key passes to teammates, or launching audacious shots from distance.

As we prepare for Saturday's clash, I envision Cazorla playing from the left. Aaron Lennon, not know for his defensive contributions, will likely leave Kyle Walker on his own frequently, and Cazorla should have chance after chance to beat Walker off the dribble, whether it's to set up his own shot or to find Podolski or another teammate off the dribble. For as quiet as his stats have been to this point, he's come close earning Man of the Match designations from whoscored.com, and I see tomorrow as his moment to shine. He's enjoyed success against Spurs in the past.

Back in September's 1-0 win over Spurs, though he finished the day without a goal or an assist, his play was vital in unlocking the Spurs' defense, which he did by drifting towards the center to overload the middle, challenging Spurs to adapt to his presence, and through constant through balls to teammates. In the first case, Cazorla should benefit from the less-defensive tendencies of Lennon and Dembélé (more of a forward by disposition and experience) to exploit one-on-ones with Walker or Chiriches, two tall but less-agile players who will struggle to stay in front of Cazorla. Further complicating matters at Spurs' end is that Etienne Capoué, arguably the most defensive of Spurs' remaining healthy midfielders, may find himself drawn from the left side to cover for the more-forward thinking Lennon and Dembélé, exposing the left flank of the defense to runs forward from Walcott and Sagna.

In the second, which flows from the first, Cazorla should be able to find space in manager Tim Sherwood's approach to defending, which is much more casual and less thorough-going than Villas-Boas's was. There will likely be a great deal of space between Spurs' midfield and back-four, especially as they flow forward more freely than previously. As such, Cazorla should find space to work into in order to make passes similar to the ones he sent time and time again through the Spurs' defense back in September. Whoever starts at center-forward, whether it's Podolski, Walcott, or, even, say, Akpom, he will likely receive all kinds of service from Cazorla.

This is all predicated, of course, on Cazorla getting a start. Arsène has vowed to treat this like a "top level Premier League game", which I hope means that Cazorla will indeed be in the starting XI. He may not have produced the goals and assists we'd expected when the season began, but tomorrow's as good a time as any to make up for lost time.

Tim Sherwood's new-look Spurs: tactical analysis

For as much glee as many of us have taken from Spurs' shambolic start to the season, despite having lavished more than £100m on new players, they do seem to have some kind of form under new manager Tim Sherwood. Gone, it seems, is the tactical rigidity that Villas Boas was sometimes guilty of, such as the high defensive line, the inverted wingers, even the 4-2-3-1 formation.

Biggest of all, though, might the change in attitude—Spurs seem to be playing with less tension and more freedom, and the early results are noticeable: they've won three of their last four, taking ten 10 of 12 points, including last week's win at Old Trafford, and they look more confident than ever as a result.

The sacking of Villas-Boas halfway through the season might strike some as harsh; after all, he had helped lead Spurs to a strong, fifth-place finish last season and only missed 4th by a narrow margin, and the club had last its talisman while looking to incorporate seven new signings. However, his best seasons have come not necessarily through his own tactics but through brilliant seasons from individual players, whether it was Bale in 2012-13 or Hulk in 2010-11 with FC Porto. Villas-Boas's apparent refusal to adapt his tactics to personnel or opponents may have brought about his downfall.

However, why he's gone matters less to us than how his replacement has done. Given that it's only been five matches, we would do well to study these rather than bask in the fiasco of the first half as a whole. Villas-Boas's inverted wingers are gone, meaning that midfielders are no longer playing out of position and that some width can be restored to that midfield. Gone also is the high defensive line, which exacerbated the narrowness that the inverted wingers were prone to creating, and which was exploited so ruthlessly on counter-attacks.

Much as it might gall Gooners, the return of Emmanuel Adebayor has been a factor. Perhaps realizing that Soldado couldn't deliver as a lone central striker, Sherwood as restored Adebayor, although he seems to play as more of a second striker, dropping down deeper to receive the ball and creating more space for (and less pressure on) Soldado, who struggled while working as the lone striker.

However, injuries might just shear some of the edge off of Spurs' apparent revival. Adebayor, for one, faces a late fitness test and might be ruled out. Definitely out, it seems, are Vertongen, Sandro, Paulinho, Kaboul, Defoe, and Townsend. This may force Townsend to throw on inexperienced players such as Lamela, Chadii, and Fryers. Whether they can deputize well, be incorporated into Sherwood's new approach, or fathom the intensity of a North London Derby remains to be seen.

Of course, we'll have injuries of our own to cope with, but, contrary to other FA Cup matches, Arsène has suggested that there will be little other rotation:
I will only rest the players who are on the fringes of injuries or are very tired, but that will be very restricted to a minimal number of players. I just consider that it is our next game
—we are Arsenal Football Club and we want to win the next game, that is vital for us. In this case I consider it a top level Premier League game, that means I have to play a team who has a chance to win a top level Premier League game.
With these words in mind, we will probably see a side named that is essentially the same as it was against Cardiff. While it's true that Podolski struggled as the central striker, keep in mind that Cardiff kept ten men behind the ball, with 6-7 in the box, and he couldn't find space to operate. He's simply our best option. Playing him in front of an attacking midfield of Cazorla-Rosický-Walcott would offer a good deal of energy and creativity while preserving Walcott's pace down the side. We might suffer a bit from Podolski as the striker, but this is less of a sacrifice than playing Walcott there. Behind them, we might see Wilshere with Arteta. Arteta's preference for staying in front of the back four would allow Wilshere more freedom to press forward (as Ramsey frequently did early on) and for he and Rosický to operate interchangeably.

Along the back line, Monreal and Mertesacker continue, but I'd like to see Vermaelen start. Koscielny's knee-gash could likely use more rest, and I think Vermaelen will do well.  I would then continue to play Sagna as the right-back even if he could afford a rest. After all, for as much as we need solidity, we also need players who understand and can rise to the pressure of the derby, and Sagna has done that. In fact, I'm going to predict that Sagna will deliver a goal as we take the bloom off of the of Sherwood's short tenure—a 3-1 win for Arsenal.

Make your predictions in the comments below: who will score? What will be the final? Who'ss your Man of the Match? Thanks, as always, for your visit!

02 January 2014

£2m for Berbatov? That could work...

It's the New Year and with it come resolutions for self-improvement and rumors around player movement, each worth less than the paper they're printed on. One of the hottest ideas making the rounds has Fulham's Dimitar Berbatov coming to Arsenal for as little as £2m. While this is hardly the kind of news that would send fans' hopes soaring as they did after the signing of Mesut Özil, you get what you pay for, and considering our needs and options, a cut-rate deal for a fading striker might be just enough to solidify our prospects for the Prem. Thinking realistically, compare the chances of prying the likes of Falcao or Costa or Lewandowski from their clubs mid-season. Bringing in the likes of Berbatov may lack the sexiness of those signings, but I'd wager that it wouldn't be the first time many of us set our sights on an achievable target over the out-of-reach one.

He'll be out of contract in June, so a loan-deal is out of the picture. Fulham are more likely to sell him in order to get something, which is almost always better than nothing. Clint Dempsey's return to Fulham (on loan from the Seattle Sounders) makes Berbatov's departure all the more likely, and the betting parlors rate us as his most-likely destination.

So what would we be getting ourselves into? He's a lazy, aging, former Spud. He turns 33 soon. He plays for a club that has scored 21 goals in 20 matches, and he's scored four in 15 appearances. On those numbers, we might say, why bother? After all, we need someone who can vault us to through the stratosphere, someone who can help us match the goal-scoring of Man City or unlock the bus-parking of Chelsea.

However, he's also scored in three consecutive matches despite not getting much in the way of service, he's familiar with the Prem, and he plays a style that fits in with what we do without too much fussing over bedding in or making adjustments. Like Giroud, he is very good with his back to goal, holding the ball and contributing to the build-up. He might not be lazy; he may just be calm and laconic. His technical skill, whether it's through passing and shooting, are probably superior to Giroud's, at least when Berbatov is engaged, a feeling he might find hard to summon regularly given how Fulham are playing.

It's probably difficult even the most-dedicated and professional footballers, especially one who has won the Prem and a Golden Boot, to lace up and give 110% for a club that is two points above the drop-zone. That reputation for laziness seems to get a little deeper, doesn't it? A little harder to defend as "calm?" Imagine how a January move could reinvigorate the man, even if it does mean he'd have to accept a lesser role in support of Giroud. Heck, he's already being nudged out of a starting role by Adel Taaraby and Hugo Radallega. Coming to the Emirates might inspire Berbatov to play with more hunger and pride (I'm not suggesting he's lost or abandoned those qualities) and to deliver the kinds of moments that convinced Man U to sign him in 2008.

For as much as we might salivate over a more-marquee signing, it's highly unlikely to happen, at least not in January. Come summer, we might be able to dip deeper to find someone a bit more transformative and talismanic. I'd argue that we don't quite need someone like that to finish the season atop the Prem—we've gotten there with the squad we currently have, after all, and have persevered through long injury-spells to key players, including two of our top scorers from last season. Yes, with Giroud and now Bendtner out, we're alarmingly thin at the center-forward position. However, we also have the fresh legs of Podolski and Walcott back, each of whom can serve as a makeshift center if needed. Signing Berbatov, hopefully earlier in the window than we seem to usually operate, would go a long way to reducing the need to play Podolski or Walcott out of position. More importantly, we could find him to be the bargain of the window.

If he made 8-10 starts and replaced Giroud in the second half when suitable, could we get 7-8 goals from him? The service he'd get from our midfield suggest that the answer is yes. The chances he could create for others is another factor that should draw our interest. Along the way, the rest given to Giroud might help him discover his early-season form, which had him score five goals and an assist in his first six matches.

Long story short, why not? He'd cost next to nothing, but if he could rediscover any of the form that once made him a highly-coveted striker. Though he may be in the sunset of his career, I think there's still enough in him to make him a valuable addition. Sign him up, Arsène!

01 January 2014

Arsenal 2-0 Cardiff: Player Ratings

Give credit to Cardiff, playing manager-less and auditioning for potential new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who did better than hold their own for most of the match, succumbing only in the closing moments. As Arsene put it after the match,"We needed to be patient against a very good Cardiff side. They did work absolutely hard; their new manager was in the stands. They deserve credit and were a bit unfortunate to lose in the end." It's always a bit harsh to concede late goals, all the more so after having played so well for so long, and I imagine that, should Solskjær take over, he'll be able to build from that strong defensive platform and help Cardiff to score a few more goals. I admit to having a bit of a soft spot for them. They provided us with Aaron Ramsey, for one.

Well, having a soft spot for a club is different from wanting them to beat us, so I'm grateful that we found a way to win, even if it was in the waning moments. On a day when each of our key rivals won, it was essential that we do the same.

Without further ado, then, let's take a look at how our lads did, using statistics from whoscored.com (remember that players start at 6.0 and can climb higher or slump lower over the course of the match:

  • Theo Walcott—9.38 (✯): In the absence of Giroud, he was very much the focus of the offense as we tried to unlock Cardiff's defense. Eight shots on target, most for naught, but he did lead the team with six key passes and added the insurance-goal in stoppage-time to bring his total to five goals in his last five appearances.
  • Jack Wilshere—9.14: This was easily Wilshere's best performance in a while, and he might even have done better had his shot not hit the woodwork of if he had earned a penalty for being brought down in the box. He tallied five key passes and seven successful dribbles to lead the team while spearheading the attack.
  • Santi Cazorla—8.12: Although he didn't register a goal or an assist, Cazorla looks to have regained the kind of dynamic form that thrilled us so much last year. He sliced through Cardiff's defense innumerable times but fizzed most of his shots wide, but the threat he posed unsettled them time and again. It's only a matter of time before his shots move from testing the keeper to beating him.
  • Nacho Monreal—8.04: He was lucky not to have been called for a hand-ball on the edge of (or perhaps just inside) the box, but he otherwise did quite well. Not called on to do terribly much on defense, he contributed very well on the offensive end, pressing forward to provide width behind Cazorla and combining well with Wilshere to create chances. His cross in to Sagna led to Bendtner's goal, after all, the only shame of it being that Monreal doesn't get credit for the assist.
  • Laurent Koscielny—7.88: Interestingly, he frequently dropped deeper on defense, playing more of a zonal role as Mertesacker (distressingly, perhaps) played a bit higher and more aggressively. Along the way, Kos claimed ten of ten effective clearances and added four interceptions to lead the team in both categories.
  • Wojciech Szczesny—7.47: Not called on to do much as Cardiff only managed two shots on target, but he delivered a fine, point-blank reflex save around the 81st minute as Cardiff looked like they might even take a late lead. He did well to clear some tetchy pack-passes from teammates, avoiding the kind of deflections that have stopped a few hearts over the last couple of weeks.
  • Per Mertesacker—7.39: As mentioned above, he seemed to press higher up the pitch than I'm comfortable with, given his pace, and he ran the risk of getting caught out. Indeed, he earned a yellow-card for dragging Jordan Campbell in the 28th minute and was lucky not to see red. At the other end, he delivered two fine but wide headers just a few minutes apart, one that glanced off the post in the 68th minute.
  • Bacary Sagna—7.19: As with Monreal, not called on to do much defensively, but he did it well, and so was freed up to press forward a bit more. He even took a spot-kick at one point and had few chances to score. Ultimately, though, a solid performance with few other highlights to celebrate on a quiet afternoon.
  • Mikel Arteta—6.97: Led the team with 102 touches, 93 passes, and 96% pass-accuracy but looked a bit sluggish, even to the point of losing the ball twice around the 80th minute, one near midfield that led, eventually, to a Cardiff corner, and again in a scrum when he collected the ball at the top of our box but lost it, leading to that fine save from Szczesny.
  • Matthieu Flamini—6.87: A quiet afternoon as he played deeper and seemed content to support Arteta, who played more forward. I might have liked to see Flamini do more to contain or disrupt the few counters that Cardiff managed. Why we started both he and Arteta is a bit of a mystery to me as it was unlikely that Cardiff would exert much defensive pressure.
  • Lukas Podolski—6.29: a bit of a disappointment as he only managed one shot and didn't look particularly aggressive, perhaps highlighting the idea that he's not meant to play centrally, at least not in our set-up. He only managed 35 touches, suggesting that he was a bit lost, both due to his own lack of comfort/familiarity/skill as a central-striker and due to Cardiff's ability to clog the middle of the pitch.
  • Nicklas Bendtner (64' for Podolski)—7.08: At first, I bemoaned his subbing-on, such is my low regard for the man. However, give him credit for playing with purpose and determination, and he scored a well-earned if fortunate goal for his efforts. He moved intelligently if not fluidly, and he contributed well to the build-up. He may not be good enough to lead the line regularly, but he's shown a new-found dedication and, yes, maturity that we will likely need going forward. His ankle-injury might put him out for a few weeks, reminding a certain French manager of our needs in the transfer-window.
  • Tomáš Rosický (65' for Flamini)—6.29: His appearance may not have registered much statistically, but it's perhaps more than a coincidence that we looked more energetic and direct with him in. I might go so far as to say that having started him in place of Flamini or Arteta might have seen us open Cardiff up a bit earlier. His urgency helped to put Cardiff even further on the back foot. More of him, please!
  • Thomas Vermaelen (89' for Vermaelen)—6.16: Only on for about six minutes after Bendtner turned his ankle, not long enough to rate, in my opinion, but he continues to accept his diminished role with greater dignity and diligence than many of us might.
We came away with the points we needed, even if the game-winner came from the least-likely of sources. It's a credit to the squad that, shorn of other options, we could find a way to win against a well-organized, stubborn side. It's enough to keep us atop the Prem despite our rivals' wins and builds a bit of momentum ahead of Saturday's clash with Tottenham, winners of three of their last four matches, including today's win at Old Trafford. We've have a closer look at how Tim Sherwood has changed Spurs' approach as we prepare to meet them in the FA Cup's third round. For now, sit back and relax today's win and another week in first place.

Arsenal 2-0 Cardiff: Bendtner bails us out

I admit it. I had thrown in the towel. For 87 minutes, we had dominated the possession (70%) but sprayed shots everywhere except on target. The few times that we did square up, there were too many Cardiff defenders, and shots were blocked. Twice inside of three minutes, Per had two exquisite headers fall just wide, the second glancing agonizingly off the post and out of bounds. It looked like it was going to be one of those matches, one in which we dominate and pass and pass and pass but fail to score. At one point, we had taken 22 shots without putting more than two on goal, and neither of these troubled the keeper very much. By the time we reached the 70th minute, it looked like Cardiff would be more than happy to nick a point; they seemed to entirely give up on attacking, defending with ten men and clearing balls just in case Campbell could get to them first, but even he didn't press all that hard.

Cardiff were not without their moments, though, and for a few moments there, it looked like they might even score. Twice, Arteta was dispossessed, the second time just outside our own box when he might have done better to clear the ball. Szczesny made a brilliant save to keep the sheet clean, but it was looking more like we were going to drop points, whether it would be two or all three. On a day when Man City had won at Swansea, Chelsea were winning at Southampton, and Liverpool were winning at home against Hull, it looked like we might drop to third place.

To be honest, I'm surprised at how toothless we were looking. For as organized and defensive as Cardiff were, it didn't look like we were aware or ready to catch them on the break. Each time they cleared, we set up a patient, deliberate build-up, passing around. Especially down the left-flank, I lost track of how many times Cazorla or Monreal or Wilshere would collect the ball and, instead of driving forward, would cut back on the dribble or pass back. As valuable as a change of direction can be, this frequently allowed Cardiff to get back in position. It's a bit revealing, then, that Bendtner's came on a sequence of quick passes and a cross that came into the box while Cardiff's players were trying to get back into position. Monreal's cross found Sagna knifing in between two defenders, and Walker made a reflex save. Bendtner was right there to send it home, and the goal, cruel as it was to Cardiff after defending so well, was enough to deliver some relief, it not ecstasy, to the Gooner faithful.

When six minutes of injury-time were added, though, I seized up. Would Cardiff find the kind of last-gasp equalizer that we've managed to avoid all season? Thankfully, though, Cardiff did press forward to find that equalizer, only to be caught out on a quick counter. Wilshere flicked into the box for Walcott, who outran two defenders to chip just over Walker's out-stretched fingers. It's telling that, in one of the few moments when Cardiff weren't allowed to defend with ten men, we struck with such ruthless efficiency, as opposed to preceding 87 minutes of frustrated shots through a thicket of defenders.

In the end, the scoreline might flatter us a bit as Cardiff did defend so well for such long stretches, and to concede two goals so close to the end of the match—for the second time in four days—must be heart-breaking for them. At our end, it was a vital three points, made much more difficult by Cardiff's determination and approach, but we found the win. Thanks be to Bendtner, who looked strong and aggressive from the moment he came on for Podolski. He seemed to turn his ankle on the goal as Walker dove and landed on it, so we'll have to see what that means going forward.

Speaking of which, Spurs have a tough match with resurgent Man U about to start as I write this, so we'll have to see what happens there as we prepare for Saturday's FA Cup/ North London derby. 

Arsenal 0-0 Cardiff: Halftime check-in

We've created plenty of chances but to little effect as Cardiff seem content to defend deep and hope to catch us on counters, as they almost have with Campbell looking dangerous on a number of occasions. We're dominating the possession, as expected, and are spending a good deal of time on the edge of Cardiff's box. However, the enduring image of the first half is of Cazorla, Podolski, and Wilshere dribbling and passing around the box while Cardiff position four men inside the box and another four or five just above it. As such, we're getting a lot of action down the sides and seem either content with or forced to shoot from distance.

One of the best chances came when Cazorla scissored defender McNaughton, comically sending him left and dribbling the other way and then finding Wilshere. Wilshere knifed in but was cut down for what might have been a penalty. However, instead of playing the whistle, every Gunner around the ball turned to call for the penalty, which didn't come. If Podolski, for one, had continued to play, he might have had a shot from 6-8 yards away. I don't know how many referees will see a potential foul and base his decision on how many players appeal for it. If anything, they may be less likely to call the foul if everyone turns to ask for it.

Lest we bray too loudly about a missed call, we might be a bit fortunate that Mertesacker is still on, having only drawn a yellow for dragging Campbell down on a dangerous-looking counter. Mertesacker, perhaps knowing that he was going to get beat, wrapped his arm around Campbell's chest from behind and pulled him down. The referee waved play on, as Jordan Mutch collected and managed a shot, after which Per was booked. After all, whereas Wilshere's situation might have been a foul, or he might have falling on his own, there is no doubt that Mertesacker fouled Campbell. We're fortunate that Koscielny was deeper than Mertesacker, reducing the chance of it being judged a clear goal-scoring opportunity.

Truth be told, though, if we're looking to the referee for help, we need more help than he can offer—unless he's willing to show the red-card to someone in blue. We've managed eight shots, but we've put none on target unless you count Walcott hitting the side-netting. It's been a frustrating first half, but let's hope we add to our status of scoring more goals than any other team in the first 25 minutes of the second half. We've been knocking on the door; now, it's time to kick the damned thing down. Podolski's still my pick to do just that—twice.

I'd like to see fewer shots of Mr. Tan if that would be alright.

Elsewhere, a few results and scores to track:

  • Swansea 2-3 Man City (FT)
  • Stoke 0-0 Everton (HT)
  • Southampton 0-0 Chelsea (HT)
  • Liverpool 1-0 Hull (HT)

31 December 2013

Arsenal vs. Cardiff: Who's available? Poldi and Gnabry! Mmm, maybe Bendtner...

Going into Wednesday's clash with Cardiff, the injury-list numbers an even-dozen, with long-time injured players joined by a number of players facing late fitness-tests. Among those definitely out are Giroud, Gibbs, Özil, Ramsey, Sanogo, Ox, and Diaby. Facing late fitness tests are Wilshere, Rosický, Walcott, Monreal, and Vermaelen. A few of those might end up playing, but, at the risk of slighting the Dragons—er, Bluebirds—this is the best chance we've had in a while to rest the likes of Giroud, Ramsey, and Özil.

So who's left? The defense looks pretty stable, with Monreal, should he be fit, slotting in for Gibbs. We got by with Flamini filling in at left-back against Newcastle, but I'd much prefer a dedicated left-back over playing Flamini or, say, Vermaelen out of position. Without Wilshere or Ramsey, it looks like we'll return to the Flamini-Arteta defensive midfield, but it's at the offensive end that we'll have to make changes. Giroud is out, which is about the best injury-news we could get—I believe that this is the first match he hasn't played in since the September 25th league-cup match against West Brom.

So let's see Bendtner come in. He showed a glimmer of intensity towards the end of the Newcastle match, when a quick throw-in from Jenkinson could have given Bendter a clear shot on goal with Tim Krul still racing back to his line after looking to score from a corner-kick. Too bad that Jenkinson, either following orders to kill time or oblivious to the situation on the pitch, had turned his back. At any rate, playing Bendtner at striker has worked well enough in the past; in his most-recent start, he did score against Hull, and netted at the Etihad only to have the goal wrongly disallowed for being offsides. If we can play Podolski on the left and Gnabry on the right, Bendtner should see plenty of chances whipped in from either side. Their willingness and ability to stay wide should also present Santi Cazorla, playing centrally for the first time since we defeated Fulham 3-1 in late August, space to work off the dribble, creating chances for those ahead of him as well as for himself.

Cardiff have done admirably well in my estimation, but there's been such off-the-pitch turmoil that it's hard to notice. First, of course, is the controversial re-branding, switching the home-kit colors from blue to red, a bizarre betrayal of tradition. Second came the surprise "resign or be sacked ultimatum" to manager Malky Mackay. Mackay emerged from the fiasco with dignity and will almost certainly be re-hired sooner rather than later, and his dismissal, regardless of how it happened, seems harsh given that the newly promoted club have beaten Man City, drawn with Everton, beaten Swansea, and drawn with Man U, and they sit two points above the drop-zone, ahead of long-time Prem sides Fulham, West Ham, and Sunderland. if owner Vincent Tan expected better results, he might have done more to equip Mackay with a few more signings. The summer did see £35m of new additions, but of them, only the £12m signing of defensive midfielder Gary Medel sent any real signal of intent.

Cardiff come into the match wounded and potentially dispirited after conceding two goals to Sunderland in the last five minutes of Saturday's match, but they have too much team-spirit to be written off.  They'll probably sit deep and clog the midfield with a 4-5-1 set-up, so there may not be much space to work with. We could probably dominate possession, but to little effect, and I might even encourage conceding possession a bit to draw them forward to give ourselves more space to work with. With the relatively fresh legs that Podolski and Gnabry could bring, we could pour forward and strike with speed, rather than trying to pick the lock of a side that will try to keep ten men between the ball and their goal.

Assuming Arsène both peruses this site and weighs my recommendations, I see a 3-1 win (we like those this season, it seems), one goal coming from Bendtner and two from Podolski. Szczesny will prove that the third time is a charm by playing a clearance directly into an opposing striker's face, and this time, the ball rolls in. Make your predictions in the comments-section below. Thanks, as always, for your visit!

30 December 2013

Race for the Title: Can Arsenal stay top of the table?

We've reached the halfway point of the season, 19 matches played, 19 left, and Arsenal reached this juncture with 42 points, roughly half of what recent champions have finished with—whether this pace would be enough to stay atop the table is anyone's guess, but it does look to be shaping up as a three-team race between us, Man City, and Chelsea, with only two points separating first from third.

Of course, other teams could surge forward to complicate the picture even further. Everton, playing attractive, engaging football under Roberto Martinez, have climbed to fourth. Man U is showing signs of recovery after an uneven first half. Liverpool, despite being so shorn of options that they had to throw on a 19-year old defender into the midfield against Chelsea, could explode or implode depending on Suarez's response to the pressure. I refuse to rule out Spurs despite their struggles. Who knows? Maybe Tim Sherwood actually knows what he's doing. After all, he is a self-proclaimed Arsenal fan. We'll see.

Speaking after the win over Newcastle, Arsène was cautiously optimistic as he assessed our status:
Look, we believe in ourselves and we are determined to give our best, absolutely, and to turn back on the season at the end and think we have given our best. I hope it will be enough, of course, but it's a long way to go. It's too early to say [that we will finish in first place].We have come out of very difficult games—we have played Everton, we have played Manchester City, Chelsea, at West Ham and Newcastle. We have dropped some points, but I felt it was more down to the heavy schedule and the short recovery time we have had than to the difficulty of the games.
Those dropped points—two at Goodison Park, three at the Ethihad, and two at home to Chelsea—are not fatal, at least not yet. Aside from the opening-day loss to Aston Villa, we've done well to minimize dropped-points of the sort that title-challengers shouldn't drop. It's really only the draw at West Brom that stands out as a red-mark. However, the down-side to this is that other contenders have been sloppier but remain only a point or two behind. Man City's form on the road has slowed them down considerably, and Chelsea's recent goal-drought threatens to slow them as well.

However, we can't rely on those factors if we're going to claim the title. We've come through a difficult stretch of fixtures, but so too have Chelsea and Man City. Each of us have advanced to the Champions League and the FA Cup, and Man City continues in the Capital One Cup as well. Will Chelsea's depth and Mourinho's negative style be enough to see Chelsea trudge to the top? Will Man City find a way to win away from the Etihad? Will someone else among the next five clubs shoulder their way into the conversation?

For now, it looks like we have a crazy competition on our hands, and, dare I say it? Yes, I do. We look to be getting stronger. Theo and Poldi are back, Cazorla's looking livelier, and the Ox and Sanogo (for what he's worth will return soon. Even Abou "like a new signing" Diaby (yes, yes, I know) could rejoin the fray in March. In the meantime, there's a lot of talk of an actual signing or two in January. I don't see Chelsea or Man City making any moves, in part because of how stocked each of them already is. Then again, they're bankrolled by some pretty wealthy owners, so anything's possible.

Looking at schedules, Chelsea might have the most-favorable one going forward, hosting Man U, Everton, Spurs, and us while facing trips to the Etihad and Anfield. Man City looks to have the most-difficult schedule, especially considering their record away from home: trips to White Hart Lane, Old Trafford, the Emirates, Anfield, and Goodison Park. Their only chance to trounce other contenders at home will be Chelsea's visit. We're somewhere in the middle, it seems, with visits from Man U and Man City and trips to Anfield, White Hart Lane, Stamford Bridge, and Goodison Park. Of course, there's a baker's dozen of other fixtures to consider.

After years of scrabbling for fourth place and hoping for results elsewhere to go our way, it feels good to consider how to hold onto first place. We don't quite control our destiny yet, but consider that, last year, we had to wait until the second week of February, 26 matches gone, to reach 44 points. With seven matches between now and then, could we reach 60 points? Home versus Cardiff, at Aston Villa, home versus Fulham, at Southampton, home versus Crystal Palace, at Anfield, home versus Man U. Let's hope so—and let's see if that puts some distance between us and our rivals.

Next up: that visit from Cardiff. We'll take a closer look at that one. 'Til next time, thanks for your visit!

Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal: Giroud shows the handsome side of winnin' ugly

Man, that was not a pleasant match to watch. It was tense; it was sloppy; it was, well, a scrappy affair. Still, style points don't accrue in the Prem, and so a 1-0 win is enough to see us reclaim the top spot for a few more days. Chelsea's defeat of Liverpool, and Man City's win over Crystal Palace, mean that only three points separate first from third; so tight is the top of the table that Liverpool, in first place on Christmas Day, now sits fifth only four days later.

Back to the match itself. I'll freely admit that we escaped with the win and were lucky to do so. Whether it was Szczesny seeing an attempted clearance hit a striker and bounce back toward goal, or Wilshere clearing a would-be goal off the line, among many other close-calls, coming away with three points is indeed fortunate. Heck, we did it and should heave a sigh of relief.

As the saying goes, the harder you work, the luckier you get. In the case of one Olivier Giroud, the maxim seems apt to the nth degree. Spending most of the first half being run into and run over by Tioté, it looked as if his day would end before half-time as he went in for a rash tackle on the man and turned his own ankle in an ugly way. For all of the harsh challenges Tioté served up on the day, it looked ironic to see Giroud end his own afternoon trying to exact a bit of revenge. Ironic, or perhaps karmic. I can't keep track of how the universe doles out these consequences. At any rate, so severe was the turned-ankle that Giroud spent several minutes on the ground before limping off, overshadowing Cazorla's injury-performance on the sideline, and both men came off for treatment, leaving us to play with nine men for a few minutes before halftime.

However, Giroud would reap his karmic/ironic reward later on; after busting his hump all over the field to little quantifiable effect, and with Tioté crashing around to terrific effect, Giroud found a way to score after Tioté fouled Cazorla, drawing a set-piece from about 40 yards out. Walcott lofted it straight towards goal, and Giroud did just about the only thing a man can do in that situation—let the ball glance off of his handsome noggin and hope for the best. The angle was difficult, the ball traveling straight at the goal, and so Giroud couldn't put any pace on the header (as Walcott did against West Ham, for example). However, these are "his" goals, these deft, glancing redirects, rather than those thunderous, punishing volleys he sometimes strives in vain for. Whether this goal silences the critics is another question; somehow, I doubt it, as, barely five minutes later, Giroud failed to put that kind of volley on-frame after Walcott's chip was cleared from Debuchy, who was falling backward into the back of the net as he headed clear. Giroud's follow was so poor as to travel parallel to the goal-line, and he fell to his knees in frustration.

Still, a goal's a goal, all the more vital when it's the only one scored, and it's about time that Giroud netted, whatever the fashion or the failings that followed. It certainly won't be enough to put to rest the doubts people have about him, but this strikes me as a suitable compromise—he scored when we needed him to (after all, no one else stepped up) but struggled to seize the match by the scruff, even when other opportunities presented themselves. As such, we earned a vital three points on the road, but we did so in a way that reminds those who hold the purse-strings that reinforcements are still needed. We finished the match, after all, with Flamini playing left-back for Gibbs, who picked up an injury (Monreal was not on the bench), Ramsey nursing his thigh-strain, and Özil also injured enough to miss the next two or three matches.

It's a far-cry from last year's 7-3 riot, but the end-result is the same: three points. We've emerged from a tough, tough string of fixtures and have a few, more-favorable ones, not that we can relax or underestimate Cardiff, Aston Villa, and Fulham. We may not be sittin' pretty after Sunday's win, but we are sitting atop the Prem for the first time since the 2007-08 season. However, before we indulge too much in what our current position means, let's remember that there are still a few matches to be played—19, by my count, enough for even Sunderland to still be in the hunt, mathematically—let's keep those heads down and those shoulders to the wheel.