Arsènal v. Monaco preview: fullbacks, Giroud, and Welbeck

After reading Michael Cox’s piece on how Monaco might approach the match I’m convinced that Arsenal need to be switched on for the full 90 minutes lest they become the victims of a classic continental smash and grab. But I’m equally convinced that Wenger’s rebuilt Arsenal attack is much stronger than in previous years and if they stay switched on, could do a real number on Monaco tonight and set up a good chance to get through to the next round.

Cox argues that Monaco have played very defensively throughout this Champions League campaign and will likely sit deep and defend for 90 minutes looking to hit Arsenal on the counter. They have a solid defensive setup with Ricardo Carvalho as their main anchor and Jeremy Toulalan playing in the holding role. He also suggests that Monaco’s fullbacks are a real threat with their speed and attacking ability. With the fleet footed, sure dribbler, Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco in front of them and Joao Moutinho spraying passes out wide, they can invite Arsenal to play high up the pitch and hit Arsenal at speed while exploiting gaps in the Arsenal high defensive line.

That would be a familiar feeling for many of us who have lived through the last 9 years of Arsenal football. Whenever teams used to cede possession to Arsenal, the Gunners would press high up the pitch and pass the ball around in a horseshoe shape around the 18 yard box. During that period Arsenal lacked a real aerial threat and so the opposition would let our pass-happy team simply play the ball around while they sat buried in the box deeper than an Alabama tick.

But this Arsenal side has more options in attack than the Cesc Fabregas/Robin van Persie era Arsenal: Özil, Welbeck, Giroud, and Sanchez represent a major overhaul from the old days and a significant upgrade on the lone striker van Persie who, while talented when he wanted to be, was almost never fit.

Tactically, Arsenal have Olivier Giroud who is a big body in the box. Whipping in crosses to Giroud is not entirely a bad option, even if he doesn’t score many headers. Simply causing panic in that area and challenging Ricardo Carvalho¹ to defend in the air could bring joy because any ball that falls in the box is dangerous. Especially since Arsenal have goal poachers like Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck who will pounce on anything Monaco leave out.

Danny Welbeck is a second option for Arsenal. He’s also an aerial threat but more importantly he’s the kind of forward who likes to run in behind defenders. With Özil, Cazorla, and Sanchez standing at the top of the box looking to make through ball passes, if Arsenal can’t get anything in through the air, Welbeck’s runs behind could be a key to unlock the Monaco defense.

The one thing I worry about with Arsenal is that they have a tendency in these games, still, to send both fullbacks bombing forward. Arsenal’s defensive midfielder, Francis Coquelin, does a good job covering for a single fullback but it’s simply not possible to cover for both. The Arsenal forwards are going to lose possession at some point and when they do, if both fullbacks are forward, and with just one holding midfielder, Arsenal’s back two will be exposed time and again.

The good news is that Monaco are not a very high scoring team. That means we could see Arsenal’s fullbacks exposed but for nothing to come from the attack.

The three keys for me, then, against Monaco will be: 1. keep at least one fullback back at all times, even if Arsenal are behind by a goal (unlikely). 2. Giroud v. Carvalho – I highlighted Giroud’s aerial ability but his ability to score from a tight, front post angle, could be crucial as well. And 3. get Welbeck behind the Monaco defense running onto Özil’s balls.

There is a “fact” making the rounds that Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal have never conceded to a French side at home in the Champions League. I hate that stat because Arsenal aren’t playing against a gestalt “French side” today, they are playing Monaco.

Still, I think Arsenal have a real chance to go through. I should say that Arsenal have a better chance than the last 4 years where they were beaten at home in this round by AC Milan, Bayern Munich (twice) and Barcelona. I believe it so strongly that I am anticipating the next round where Arsenal play a Spanish team, Atletico Madrid anyone?


¹If I were to write him a birthday card it would read “Happy Birthday” on the outside and “I hate you” on the inside.


Tuesday rant: video technology, post-match red cards, where have you pundits been for the last 10 years?

Here’s the deal: I’m happy. I’m happy that the press has finally decided that they have had enough of the absolutely atrocious refereeing we have seen in the Premier League this season.  And… and that they have decided to discuss the incident between Nemanja Matic and Ashley Barnes. In fact, it’s great that Henry Winter, one of the most prominent football writers in the world, has devoted his entire weekly column to the argument that refereeing in England is “teetering toward crisis”.

My only question is, where have you all been for the last ten years?

Nemanja Matic gets kicked in the shin and NOW refereeing is in a crisis? Nemaja Matic gets kicked in the shin on the follow through from a pass and NOW the league is too brutal?


Where were you all when Martin Taylor ruined Eduardo’s English Premier League career? I know where Henry Winter was. Henry Winter was firmly in the camp which blamed Eduardo. Eduardo’s speed caused Taylor to mistime his tackle: “Caught out by Eduardo’s speed”. No. It wasn’t Eduardo’s speed. Taylor didn’t intend to maim Eduardo but this tackle followed on years of deliberate tactics, started by Manchester United and admitted to (gleefully) by Gary Neville, to kick and bully Arsenal.

Where were these pundits who are now outraged about Matic getting his shin kicked, the pundits who are saying that Matic could have had his leg broken, where were they when Michael Essien pulverized Abou Diaby’s ankle with this horror tackle?

Diaby-EssienThey were silent.

Where were these bandwagon pundits when Ryan Shawcross scythed down Aaron Ramsey? I’ll tell you. Henry Winter penned a piece imploring Shawcross to learn to… and I’m trying to hold the expletives in, t learn to “nick the ball“. Oh, he also tells Ramsey to basically “walk it off.” You know, don’t let the mental anguish of having your leg snapped in two by a repeat offender “get to you.”

Meanwhile, on the same day, his papermate, Alan Hansen, was writing a “story” on how Arsenal’s three broken legs in three years didn’t prove that this was a deliberate tactic on the part of some football managers. An argument which Gary Neville recently admitted was an actual tactic. And if you ever watched any post-Arsenal interview by Mourinho, Allardyce, Pulis, or any of these hacks that masquerade as managers, you know that they admit that they rough Arsenal players up.

We know it was a deliberate tactic because we saw it deployed time and again. So I ask again, where were all these pundits when Joey Barton knee-tackled Diaby from behind which outraged Diaby and saw him retaliate against Barton, earning the Arsenal man a red card?

Which one is worse? Barnes leaving his foot in for a little stamp on Matic or Barton flying in on Diaby’s leg with his knees? There is no sport that I know of where you are allowed to make a tackle like Barton’s. Where was all the hand-wringing over Diaby’s retaliation?

Or how about that time when Barton took umbrage to a perceived Gervinho dive, and picked the Arsenal man up by his lapels, shook him like a Raggedy Andy doll, and then collapsed in an ironic heap to get the Arsenal man sent off? Where were all the people calling for video replay which would have shown that Barton assaulted Gervinho? Where were all the people calling for retroactive punishment from the FA?

Oh video replay and retroactive punishment. Those are hot topics now that poor, defenseless, Nemaja Matic got kicked a little aggressively.

Oh and I hate to belabor these points, folks, but I’m gonna. I’m gonna because this isn’t ancient history with Arsenal. This season, THIS SEASON, Chelsea’s Gary Cahill committed a tackle on Alexis Sanchez which was far worse than the foul committed by Barnes on Matic:

Oh, and watch Mourinho in the lower right corner of the video. There he is, Mr. 30-33-43-69, waving for Alexis to “get up” after his man just tried to wreck him. Where are the pundits asking which tackle is worse? Where are all the pundits decrying Mourinho’s basic hypocrisy here?

Or how about when Paddy McNair took out England international Jack Wilshere this year with an absurd tackle? A tackle that the Man U fans gleefully celebrated.

If you’ve been watching football at all over the last eight to ten years then you know. You know that Arsenal have been targeted by this tactic of bullying their players. It has been deliberate. Tony Pulis would revel in how “Arsenal don’t like it up ‘em” in his post-match interviews and no one breathed a word. No one called for video replay after Diaby’s red card. No one called for post-match red cards after Gervinho’s red card. But one Mourinho player gets kicked and everyone goes nuclear. It’s absurd and only goes to prove that there is a bias in the press and it’s not against Chelsea.

But like I said, I’m glad. I’m glad that so many people are now coming round to the idea that these thugs, like Gary Cahill, and these serial divers, like Wayne Rooney, need to be retroactively punished for their crimes. I’m also glad that people are calling for video replay or some other form of assistive technology for the referees. Because the problems with refereeing in England aren’t “teetering” toward crisis, it tottered a long time ago.


Epilogue: Fox are reporting that Martin Atkinson and Kevin Friend have been dropped for this weekend’s matches. They actually haven’t been dropped as far as I can tell: they are listed on the Premier League site as working the 4th official slot this weekend (you may need to move the slider to week 26 and week 27 to see the appointments). They are also slated to be the main officials next week on Tuesday and Wednesday when Atkinson referees the Southampton and Kevin Friend referees the Arsenal match. If being hired and paid to work a Premier League match is being “dropped” then I guess I don’t understand English anymore.


Santi Cazorla: no ordinary second fiddle

During Saturday’s match against Crystal Palace, there was a moment where the ball had squirted loose in midfield and two players from opposite teams ran full speed to collect. Cazorla, the Arsenal man, beat the Crystal Palace midfielder to the ball by mere inches and at the speed he was running I expected him to take a heavy touch and kick the ball to an opponent. But the ball seemed to stick to him like velcro as he effortlessly switched from left to right foot, skipped by the Palace man, and started Arsenal’s attack. That moment of skill didn’t make any highlight reels and for many who watched the game might have been lost among the more stellar moments of the game, but for me, it epitomized the play of Cazorla, a player who somehow quietly does the brilliant work in the background while others take the glory.

Well, maybe he’s not so quiet but there is no doubt that he’s playing something of a background role to the star players like Özil and Sanchez.

Cazorla is a player who would walk right into a starring role on almost any team in Europe. And yet, at Arsenal, he’s playing behind Özil in the creative role, behind Ramsey in the shuttling role, behind Arteta in the penalty-taker role, and behind Sanchez in the attacking role. But such is his gift that Cazorla still manages to be Arsenal’s third leading scorer with 7 goals, second leading playmaker with 6 assists on 2.3 key passes per game, and the Gunners’ third best dribbler with 2.4 dribbles per game. He does all that while being Arsenal’s leading passer, best crosser, and the player who takes all of the Arsenal corners and set plays.

With talent like that, Cazorla should be the star player at Arsenal. But instead of being a solo artist himself, he is happy playing technically perfect football with leads like Özil and Sanchez. That’s why Santi Cazorla has to be the most talented second fiddle in Europe.

Starting with the 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund, where both Arsenal goals were created by Cazorla, the Spaniard has managed to score or assist 15 goals in 17 games. It is a rich vein of form unmatched by any other Arsenal player and the main reason why he has won player of the month awards for two months running.

There have been some stinker’s in that run. The 2-0 loss to Southampton and the 2-1 loss to Spurs were probably his worst matches of the season. But in Cazorla’s defense, in the Southampton match, he was played in front of a central midfield pairing of Chambers and Coquelin, who made their first appearance together in that game and their inexperience showed as they struggled to get the ball out of defense. And against Tottenham, Cazorla was marked out of the game as Spurs forced out of shape Ramsey and the inexperienced Coquelin to beat them.

And the stinkers have been balanced out by astonishing matches. Against the reigning Premier League champions (you, know, Manchester City) Cazorla scored a goal and created the second goal as Arsenal cruised to a 2-0 win. Arsenal’s first away win against a top four rival in what seems like a decade. According to the metric, Cazorla was flawless in that match, getting a perfect 10. He followed that performance up with a two-assist, one-goal performance in Arsenal’s 5-0 win over the hapless Aston Villa.

In many ways that Man City match epitomized Cazorla’s best qualities. Ten times in that match he picked the ball up and dribbled past City’s expensively assembled defensive midfielders. He doesn’t always have to dribble like that and in reality you don’t want to have to rely on a player dribbling out of defense to start the attack. But in that match, the way that City had Arsenal penned into their own half, his ability to hold on to the ball and beat the opposition time and again gave the Arsenal defense valuable time to catch their breath while also causing the City defense panic.

Watching the Man City midfielders fall all over themselves to try to get the ball off of him time and again was like watching a pro playing against little kids. Except in reverse: Cazorla is the smallest player on the pitch and the Man City defensive midfielders are these hulking figures trying in vain to tackle the ball away.

But it’s that ability to turn defense into attack that is Cazorla’s greatest attribute. When he gets the ball in midfield there is no hesitation, he already knows where his markers are, he knows where his teammates are, and he often just side-steps a defender with a simple one-two touch and then bombs a long ball up to Alexis. Or plays a perfectly weighted through ball to the feet of Welbeck. There is no stat (yet) which quantifies this ability, but if there were, I’m sure that Cazorla would lead the League.

When Cazorla first signed for Arsenal he was brought in to replace Cesc Fabregas. He did admirably in his first year but then Arsenal were presented with the chance to sign another world class creative midfielder, Mesut Özil, and Cazorla was relegated to a supporting role wide as Özil took the central spot. His goals and assists numbers dropped and it looked like he might be leaving Arsenal to be a star somewhere else.

But he didn’t leave. His head never dropped. He did what Arsene asked of him and plaayed his heart out for the team, wherever Wenger put him. And on the last game of the season, it was his strike from a free kick which gave Arsenal the impetus to come back from 2-0 down and win the FA Cup 3-2.

To Wenger’s great credit he ignored the pundits who said that it was a “no brainer” to always play Özil centrally and instead, when he returned from injury, he moved the German international to the left and let Cazorla keep the central midfield role. Instead of wondering how Cazorla and Özil can play together, people are now commenting on how seamlessly the two work together. And Wenger has been rewarded with that string of impressive performances from Cazorla. Cazorla, in turn, looks like a player who is really enjoying his football.

I know I’m really enjoying his football. Every time he plays I feel like I am watching a symphony, except when Özil or Sanchez stand up to take their solo, I turn to Cazorla, who is sitting there, eyes closed, soulfully playing the perfect notes to fill in for everything that the soloist leaves out.