Category Archives: Arsenal

Arsene gambles against Dortmund, comes up craps

Riddle me this Boy Wonder: what do you get when your team plays their bollocks off at home against an energetic, harassing opponent using a 4-1-4-1 formation and is only able to manage a 2-2 draw and then plays the same formation against a similarly energetic, harassing opponent, and this time they are away from home and don’t play their bollocks off?

Holy hole in the donuts Batman, you get Borussia Dortmund 2-0 Arsenal.

Let me recap watching the game. First, I groaned when I saw the 4-1-4-1 formation with two new defenders brought in and a defensive midfielder who hasn’t played in a month. Then I wondered why, if we are changing everything around, not bring in Tomas Rosicky for Ramsey and Ox for Ozil? After all, it was clearly a draining performance a few days earlier against Man City, wouldn’t some fresh attacking blood be helpful? Then I was reminded that Wenger really made a mistake this season not buying a young, mobile defensive midfielder. Oh and then I noticed that Welbeck is going to get his chances, but that he needs to finish them. And from here on in my memory is like a wordle — it’s just a jumble of “fucking Podolski” and “wow, really, Özil?” That spiked with a great deal of anger about Arsene Wenger and his propensity for gambling. And after I had calmed down for a few hours I remembered that Arsenal really aren’t good enough to win this tournament anyway and haven’t been for years. Results like this at Dortmund should be expected, really.

Did I get everything that you saw? Probably not.

Let’s start with the first one: the formation. I understand what Arsene is trying to do, he’s trying to give four extremely talented players (Özil, Sanchez, Ramsey, and Wilshere) time on the pitch together. I have no problem with that part of the idea with just one minor flaw: the 4-1-4-1 doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for Özil who had one of his worst ever Arsenal performances shunted off to the wing. It doesn’t work for Flamini/Arteta who were both exposed badly in both the City and BvB matches. It’s just too much to ask a 32 year old to cover the spaces left by both fullbacks, especially when he’s clearly not match fit.

Watching Arteta slip and fall in the first minute of the game and then watching him bypassed time and again throughout the match was painful. It was like watching the end of your favorite player’s career. I can’t remember the game but there was an Arsenal match where Wenger was forced to bring on Keown. He had been out for a while and within a few minutes we found out why: he was off pace, his head wasn’t in the game, and he wasn’t able to do basic things right. After that game Keown was used sparingly. Arteta had that kind of Keown game yesterday.

What’s really frustrating here is that we all know that Wenger has been after a player like Sven Bender for years. Apparently, he wanted Carvalho this summer, last summer he bid on Gustavo, and so on. Nary a transfer window goes by without us bidding on these players but for some reason coming up short. Either the manager is refusing to spend the extra money to get the player that everyone knows Arsenal have needed for a fucking decade or… It’s almost as if Wenger has a pathological need to prove to the world that Arsenal can be the only top club in Europe to play without a real defensive midfielder.

But in terms of getting things wrong Wenger got that call to bring in Arteta and play him in the base of the Arsenal midfield horribly wrong. Everyone knew Dortmund was going to sit back and hit Arsenal for counters and they did exactly that. So why put an old man, clearly lacking match fitness, in that role? Why not put Wilshere there and bring Rosicky in for his energy?

At half time the pundits were wondering if Wenger went into the locker room and gave his team a rollicking. Personally? I don’t know what he had to yell at them about. It would have made more sense to yell at himself. Yell at himself for gambling with Arteta, for gambling with 6 defenders, and for gambling with the Arsenal season by trying a new formation that doesn’t seem to get the best out of some of the best players in the world.

After the match, Arsene did point out that Arsenal had some of the best chances in the game. Both fell to new recruit Danny Welbeck and both were just off by small margins. The Kieran Gibbs pass was absolutely brilliant. He beat his marker in midfield drove into the heart of the Dortmund penalty area and stood the ball up for Welbeck at the far post. Welbeck could have chested that ball in but instead he took a swing with the boot and missed. He had another chance where he was played through with another moment of brilliance from Ramsey and this time, perhaps aware that he missed a chip last weekend from the exact angle, he tried to hit it low and flashed well wide of the post. It’s hugely encouraging that Welbz keeps getting into these positions and that his teammates are finding him with ease. I predicted that Welbeck would score more than Falcao on twitter a week ago and I stand by that. If he keeps getting these caviar passes, he is eventually going to start scoring. And once he does I suspect he won’t stop.

The good news is that once Welbeck starts scoring we can finally be rid of the grifter known as Lukas Podoski. Don’t give me the “get behind the team” bullshit. I get behind every player who shown me a modicum of effort and for two years Lukas Podolski’s main effort has been coming up with new hashtags. And last night, against Dortmund, in a Champions League match, Lukas Podolski had his #aha moment… and couldn’t find his shin pads. I imagine that wherever Podolski goes in life there’s a yakity sax soundtrack which is what I was playing when I saw him looking for a shin pad.

Podolski ended up borrowing a shin pad from Özil, which was great because it probably wasn’t even sweaty. Yeah.. I’m saying it. What was that from Özil? At this point it doesn’t matter whether it’s fatigue (though he’s played nearly the same amount of time as Sanchez) or something else, Özil has been worryingly poor these last few games. Lots of folks are calling for him to be deployed centrally and I don’t entirely disagree, except to say that he’s not really working hard for the team. He’s lolling about up front and frankly I think he’s hiding. Wenger took him off after 62 minutes where he had just 32 touches (total) and three passes in the opposition final third — Oxlade Chamberlain came on for him and had 23 touches in half the time. Özil is a player who dominates that area. A player whose main contribution to the team is creating in the final third, in dangerous areas. He was far too easily caught with the ball and too often not moving into spaces to receive passes. And the worst part is that he looked like he just didn’t care and that is unacceptable.

But in the end, after a few hours away from the game it’s a pretty simple problem. Arsenal just aren’t good enough. There is no chance that this team will win the Champions League. None. Hasn’t been a chance for years. I know that we have added top quality players in Sanchez and Özil but despite that quality we can’t seem to get the parts right and can’t seem to get all the parts that we need in order to really threaten top quality teams. Tactically, we are exposed time and again with the same rudimentary attacks and defending. So, we aren’t supposed to win away in Europe to the top clubs. Dortmund did their job hobbled by injury, we didn’t.

So roll on Saturday and Aston Villa. There’s a team we can beat. Maybe. They do like to sit back, deny and hit on the counter. Oh and look… they have only allowed one goal so far this season! I know, let’s try a real gamble and put Calum Chambers in as defensive midfielder.

Clicka-clakca…. daddy needs a new pair of shoes!



Borussia v. Arsenal: Dortmund Returns

How many Batman reboots have there been? You know what I mean. There was the best Batman movie of all time, the one with Burgess Merideth as the Penguin, then they rebooted the franchise and let Tim Burton ruin the memory of Burgess Merideth by making Danny Devito play the Penguin. And after that, I got the distinct sense that this whole reboot-movie genre was just a marketing ploy.

There was one with Arnold Schwarzenegger who would go on to have a successful career as a public servant despite the shame of having played a character unapolagetically named “Mr. Freeze” and delivering such staggering one-liners like “Tonight, hell freezes over!” And few remember that before the “Dark Knight” couplet, Batman was ruined by Christian Bale in the unironically named “Batman Begins”.

And now, I swear they are testing us. Batman v. Superman starring Ben Affleck is a social experiment: how many people will actually sit through a Batman movie starring Ben Affleck’s chin as Batman? It’s like they needed to test the brand loyalty so they intentionally hired the most groan-inducing name they could find. I could see the pitch now “We need a chin-actor. Someone who can deliver powerful lines without really moving his mouth. Someone who will really test this audience’s resolve. The Batman is nothing, really, but a big chin in a plasticine body suit with fake man-boobs. Hey, is Bruce Campbell available? Oh, he’s making Bubba Ho-Tep Two? Dang… call up Affleck, I’m sure he’s not busy.”

This is basically how I feel about Arsenal going back to Germany for the 18th time in the last three years, It’s like the Batman reboots, can we just stop? I love Germany but aren’t there other countries which play football any more?

And just like the Batman reboots the cast changes from one year to the next. Arsenal have upgraded their attack force by adding the hard-working Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez while Borussia Dortmund have replaced Götze with Reus and Lewandowski with Adrian Ramos. Though we do get to see Jurgen Klopp reprise his role as the Joker and Arsene Wenger uhh…. is he the butler guy? Alfred? The one who secretly runs everything? I think we’ve found the end of the usefulness of this metaphor.

I guess the reason why these movie franchise reboots work is the same reason why these UEFA Champions League draws against the same two teams works. You get that sense of familiarity which calms the nerves combined with the sense of the uncertain which gives a thrill. The best of both worlds.

The familiarity for Arsenal fans is that Borussia Dortmund (BvB) is a high-energy team, like Man City this last weekend. The Germans will press and harass Arsenal all over the pitch using Grosskreutz as a second attacking left back and pegging Sanchez back in his own half. That battle down Arsenal’s left will be one of the main concerns for the Gunners. With Debuchy out for months, Arsenal are relying on Calum Chambers or Hector Bellerin to fill in and for Alexis to do what he does: work tirelessly going forward and tracking back.

But my main concern is in center mid where Jack Wilshere’s propensity for dawdling on the ball and dribbling through the opposition will be tested by the defensive midfield pairing of BvB. Jack could avoid that by passing to Ramsey, who is a willing runner and always makes himself available for the pass, but who knows how that will all work out. It looks like rumored Arsenal target Sven Bender could get a start tonight and at the end of the game Arsenal fans will either be claiming we “dodged a bullet” by not buying him or will rue the fact that we didn’t. There is no middle ground I’m afraid.

Arsenal’s lone defensive midfielder will be Mikel Arteta and I love Arteta. He’s a fantastic footballer. He’s also 32 years old and wasn’t the most mobile DM in the world when he was younger. I really hope Arsene doesn’t persist using Flamini or Arteta as the lone holder in the Arsenal system. If you look at Saturday’s match you could see that time and again Aguero and Silva picked up the ball in the spaces which it was impossible for Flamini to cover. It’s just a simple function of the fact that Arsenal attack with both fullbacks beyond the half-way line that the amount of space left is nearly impossible for a single DM and two CBs to cover.

As I was watching the game on Saturday I found it odd that Arsene Wenger talks like a man who is risk averse, but his formations are anything but. His attacking philosophy means that Arsenal’s back line and DM have to get every tackle perfect and have to stay switched on for the full 90 minutes, two things that Flamini failed to do against Man City and Arsenal were punished. Adrian Ramos is more than a handful (I felt Arsenal should have bought him last January) and if Arsenal play the same high-risk game that they did against Man City, they will likely be punished.

The other problem I saw with the Man City game is that Alexis Sanchez is being asked to do too much with little reward. Alexis Sanchez is everything that Arsenal supporters wanted Andrey Arshavin to be: he’s quick, decisive, talented, precocious goal-scorer, and a damn hard-working player who never stops running for his team. Arsenal have three of those guys on the team now: Sanchez, Ramsey, and Welbeck. But where do you best deploy Sanchez and others in order to maximize the benefit of their energy? For example, against City, Sanchez took the free kick from 25 yards and then tracked all the way back to make the tackle against Navas when City hit Arsenal on a counter attack. It’s great to see his dedication to the team but frankly? Nacho Monreal has about 1-2% chance of scoring Arsenal a winning goal, he should be back there making that tackle and Sanchez should be the one waiting up top for the return ball so that he can score Arsenal a goal.

And the worst part was watching Sanchez track all the way back time and again while Mesut Özil didn’t put in a shift and let his man bypass him time and again. I’m thinking Özil needs a break and personally I’d start Cazorla, who isn’t the best defender and gets his positioning wrong but is at least a hard working player.

And last but not least, do you remember how in Batman there was that team that started the season with 6 senior players for 4 defender’s positions? And how that team then suffered injuries and Alfred the butler said “hey, I think Hector Bellerin is ready to play”? Oh wait, that wasn’t Batman, that was Arsenal. Apparently we are waiting for good news on Debuchy, Calum Chambers is 50-50 with tonsilitis, and it is entirely possible that Hector Bellerin will play against Borussia Dortmund tonight. I guess we may find out if he’s ready. 

For a manager who likes to say that he’s risk averse, Wenger seems to love playing high risk gambles like having six (I guess Bellerin is seven) defenders for eight positions. Not only that but a lot of the players are doubling as fullbacks and center backs. Meaning that one injury to, say Nacho Monreal, means that two positions go uncovered. What happens if Mertesacker, who played all summer and every game last season, gets injured? Arteta moves to his spot? Bellerin comes in and Chambers moves over? It’s really crazy. I mean, imagine if you cast Ben Affleck as Batman, that would be like they were testing the audience to see how much they could take. It’s almost like Arsene Wenger is testing his audience to see how much we can take before we break.

In the end, it’s another high energy match against a dangerous team who would love it if Arsenal play our high risk game of putting all the fullbacks in their half of the field and asking Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, and Laurent Koscielny to cover 50 acres of space that Grosskruetz and Ramos can sprint into. Klopp has indicated that he’s worried about Arsenal’s fleet footed attackers which means he will invite us to do exactly that.

A draw is a good result today, wait… A draw with no injuries is a good result. A draw, with no injuries, and Arsenal don’t let in a headed goal off a set play. That’s a good result. Anything better is a great result.

As Burgess Meredith would say through cinched teeth biting a cigarette holder: “WAhk Ah Ah!”



The year of the Wilshere?

Good morning. I have been gone for a few days but I’m not going to say sorry. I was camping in the forests of the Northwest and I have no regrets. I got to see the stars, hiked 10 miles, watched a beautiful woman swim naked in a lake, started a fire, ate steaks cooked over a fire, had a beautiful woman read The Interrogative Mood out loud to me, played rummy, and passed out whiskey drunk on a pile of rocks. So yeah, I’m not going to say that “I’m sorry” because I’m not.

I do want to say thank you to Chary for his awesome match report and to Naveen for the match preview. Both articles were perfect and much appreciated by me and the readers here.

Through the magic of DVR I was able to record the match against Manchester City and because I had no internet, no Facebook, no Twitter, and no cell phone service I watched the match as if it were live. So, I didn’t really miss anything… except maybe the people freaking out in real time on Twitter after Arsenal gave up the first goal.

As for the game, I thought Jack Wilshere was outstanding and as Wenger is saying today “answered his critics” a bit. So, I want to focus just on Jack today and tomorrow I will look at a couple of other things that stood out to me.

Paul Scholes isn’t the only person who has been critical of Jack Wilshere over the last year or so. In fact, I think Scholes took the cudgel from some of the professional Arsenal bloggers who have publicly wondered if Wilshere’s career was already over.

It’s part of the modern condition that people not only have to have an opinion, they then have to share it, and (most important) they have to have the opinion first. This leads people to making brash statements about players careers being over when the player in question is only 21 years old.

Those who feel criticized by that last paragraph will reply with “yes, but Wilshere wasn’t playing well! The criticism is justified!” and they would be right. It’s not the criticism of Wilshere’s play that bothered me but rather the proclamations that his career was in jeopardy.

Similarly, I want to be careful after one or two good games to not pretend that Wilshere is now a god among men or that he has completely proven his critics wrong. Somewhere in between lies the truth — a statement that you probably hear a lot from me.

But against Man City you saw Wilshere at his imperious best. He scored a goal, he set up a goal (with a caviar pass) and had another caviar pass to Ramsey go begging. He also showed his strength and speed with the ball at feet, showed a plethora of clever dribbling skills, and drove Arsenal’s attack forward through much of the game.

Here is his dribbling dashboard, he made 10/15 dribbles against Man City.

Wilshere Dribbles v. Man CityIn a sense, this dashboard is the perfect encapsulation of Wilshere as a player. What his critics saw last year was him trying to dribble too much in midfield, getting caught, throwing his hands up looking for the referee to make a call, and giving up the ball in dangerous areas.

But that said Wilshere is fouled a lot and when he plays regularly he is Arsenal’s most fouled player. He is fouled a lot because he is a dribbler, he loves to dribble out of pressure rather than pass out of pressure. Referees in the Premier League do not offer Wilshere any protection and add to that the fact that Wilshere was playing with an ankle which he was babying last year. That’s why he was on the floor all the time with his hands raised looking for the referee to make a call.

So, Wilshere likes to dribble (this is how he “drives the team forward”) and because he likes to dribble he is fouled often. Referees do not always call the fouls and referees do not give yellow cards to players who are fouling Wilshere. The result is that when Wilshere is caught in possession deep in his own half, it makes him look bad. Very bad.

But you can also see where Wilshere’s dribbles can be devastating. If we want to talk about ending a player’s career, Wilshere basically ended Clichy’s career with that dribble into the box which set up his goal. His dribbles deep in his own half also broke pressure, setting up situations for counter attacks and causing the Man City defense to panic.

But this was Wilshere at his best, 10 dribbles is a season high for any Arsenal player and puts him in second place behind Eden Hazard in terms of successful dribbles per game in the Premier League. When he was fouled he got right back up and played through and when he broke pressure he was dangerous both as a goal-scoring threat and as a shot creator.

My hope would be that Wilshere will tame his propensity to dribble out of pressure deep in his own half. It’s a dangerous thing to attempt especially if referees are not going to call fouls. And we know that referees are simply not going to make the calls because they haven’t been up to this point. Instead of dribbling in his own final third (he attempted 5 there and was caught twice) I would prefer him to pass and move, saving the dribbles for further up the pitch where they can cause real trouble. Özil and Sanchez combined for 14 attempted dribbles (8 successful) and only one attempted dribble in the Arsenal final third.

But still, it’s a small criticism of a player who had an all around amazing match against the reigning League Champs: scoring a brilliant goal and setting up another brilliant goal. If last year was the year of the Ramsey, and if Wilshere continues to play at this level, I think we will have to say that this is the year of Wilshere.



Pictures: FourFourTwo StatsZone App
Stats: Opta and my own personal databases