Ah Zed Alkmaar 1-1 Arsenal; the Good, Bad, and Ugly

Match Reports

ESPNSoccernet: Arsenal sucker punched by late equalizer

Telegraph: Arsène Wenger had planned to mark his 60th birthday tomorrow with nothing more extravagant than watching Europa League football on television but, after Arsenal threw away victory last night, he might prefer to study DVDs of his team’s defending from set-pieces.

Match Video

The Arsenalist has two videos that you need to watch for today’s match; the AZ Alkmaar video from yesterday and the PSV Eindhoven video from 2007.

Prologue

Despite a clear difference in class, Arsenal played to AZ Alkmaar’s level for most of the match. Proof of that argument comes in the form of both the goal we scored and the goal we conceded.

The goal we scored was perfect “Arsenal football” and made AZ look like rank amateurs; Arshavin steals the ball from their defender, slots in to RvP, who crosses perfectly to Chesk for the finish. Their defenders were everywhere on that play, losing their concentration and playing defense like an MLS team.

Then on the other end, it’s the 93rd minute, AZ have announced their intention to lob the ball forward and try to steal a point just a minute before, and Arshavin is caught offside. The long free kick comes in again, and again Diaby cannot get a head on the ball because he lets his marker get in front of him. Then both Song and Vermaelen allow Mendes to meander through the heart of the defense and power home a shot past a helpless Mannone.  It was the kind of defense that I would expect from a club like, well, like AZ Alkmaar.

If you need any further proof of us playing to their level you need look no further than the pass completion percentage of the two central midfielders. Both Diaby and Cesc were only able to complete 68% of their passes and only combined for 92 passes on the night. Against Birmingham City, when Cesc was supposedly jaded from Nationalism duty, he made 91 passes on his own, completing 82%.

Arsenal weren’t tired, they played to AZ’s level.

Man of the Match

Hands down, hands up, hands all over, Romero was man of the match. Oh yeah, I will give MotM to the opponent, especially when the opponent is a keeper who makes 100% of the high claims, has 7 saves, and single-handedly keeps his team in the game. I’m not blaming Mannone for the goal that Arsenal conceded, that was a team effort. Rather, just suggesting that whoever Arsenal’s goalkeeping coach is takes a look at the tape of Romero’s match last night. We couldn’t get a single cross in on him, shots were parried from all over, and had it not been for the Naivete of his defense, he certainly would have kept a clean sheet.

The Good

Thankfully, Liverpool are in a tailspin and the sharks in the press are all over Benitez at the moment. The idea that he might lose his job is a bit mind boggling, but then again, you have to wonder how much longer he can live off the fumes of Istanbul. Especially since they look likely to be dumped out of the Champions League in the group stage and the Champions League is his one real claim to fame.

Even more shockingly, Barcelona lost to some Russian pub team at Camp Nou, while having 75% of the possession.

Thank the gods because if they hadn’t both lost, every single story in the British press would be about how Arsenal are not the invincibles any more. Obviously, it’s not a loss and Arsenal are still in charge of the group and will certainly qualify. But still you have to thank the other Champions League folks for conspiring to soak up all the negative press.

The Bad

(This is the part where you go watch the video of the PSV game)

It seems like Ronald Koeman has Wenger’s number, a bit. They have met three times and each time Koeman has come off looking the better tactician. Before the game, Koeman even announced his intention to keep the ball and try to steal a goal. Amazingly, he did exactly what he wanted to do.

You can’t simply write Arsenal off as tired from the Nationalism break, we beat the Wigan cloggers on the weekend 3-1 and they gave us a lot more resistance in the midfield than AZ.

No, AZ were simply doggedly determined to keep the ball, at one point so much so that the keeper literally threw the ball backwards to a defender.  That tactic is overcome by one of two options, work hard to win the ball back, or counter attack and take your chances. Arsenal did work hard in the first half and certainly looked like we were going to get the winner but the keeper came up aces.

After that, we sort of sat back and let the game come to us (they edged us in possession) and then at the 93rd minute relaxed and, oopsie! Another Ronald Koeman engineered set-piece goal.

It’s not the end of the world, it’s just a draw, but seriously, we knew what he was going to do, we knew how to counter it and we didn’t execute on either end.

As for the Vela penalty claim: yes, it was a penalty but the video I saw from the referee’s angle looks like the defender wins the ball first. So I don’t think we can be too angry about that, we have the benefit of instant replay from multiple angles, the ref does not.

The Ugly

A lot of folks were praising Diaby yesterday but honestly I didn’t see it. Yes, he put in a couple of tackles and won the ball once, but there was at least one tackle that should have been a yellow card because he was late and over the ball.

Moreover, he was ponderous with the ball at the back, and on one attack, which Cesc was calling for the ball in a wide open position, chose instead to take on three AZ defenders and subsequently the play died.

Those are just two examples of what I saw as a poor match from Diaby. That he also let Pelle get in front of him on the free kick is something that really frustrates me. Go back to the PSV video, who is it that lets Alex in front? Diaby. The Birmingham goal on Saturday? Diaby failed to clear the header. The Man U own goal? Diaby header.

He’s not a bad player, but his defensive instincts and defensive fundamentals are seriously lacking. In fact, they are downright ugly. I worry that teams are going to start taking notice of this and exploit it.

Given how important Song has been and the fact that he’s on his 4th yellow card yesterday looked like Diaby was auditioning for the holding midfielder role on Sunday against W-ham, in order to give Song a rest. Given that tape, I’m guessing that the starring role will go to Song on Sunday with the admonition to please, no matter what, don’t pick up a yellow card.

It’s also insanely frustrating that Arshavin was caught offside for the free kick.  I’ve said it before and he’s admitted it, he’s a lazy player. Usually this doesn’t cost us but last night it did a bit.

Epilogue

A lot of folks are blaming the international break for our players looking tired but I don’t buy it. Arsenal footballers play twice a week pretty much all year round, traveling all over the world for Champions League matches and so I can’t see it as a legitimate excuse for us to get taken advantage of in the 93rd minute of a match that falls a full week after all the international players have returned. If the international breaks are to blame then the Sunderland test at the Stadium of Light on the 21st of November will be a stern test indeed. Judging by last night’s performance, if Internationals take such a huge toll, we’ll be beaten 6-0 by a rampaging Sunderland team.

This wasn’t a tired performance as much as it was Arsenal playing down to the level of their opponents. I think a lot of these guys got it into their heads that they could turn it on at any moment and pick AZ apart so they started coasting. Hopefully, this match is a reminder that ANY team, given a little organization, can nick a point off us. All the post match interviews suggest that the players are aware that they let slip and only time will tell if they take this lesson to heart.

They have 4 days to think about it.

Ah Zed Alkmaar v. Arsenal; Dutch Hercules

Wenger reaches for the stars

Just a few hours to go before Arsenal take on AZ Alkmaar in a Champions League clash that is being billed by some as Koeman v. Wenger. The two have met before and I remember it very clearly, it was a game which was dominated by a masterful defensive performance by Chelsea’s now second string center back, Alex.

Koeman and PSV dominated both legs of the match by employing the same tactic that the “oop norf” cloggers in the Premier League used to be able to rely on; kick, kick, kick, win a free kick, kick it to a big guy, score on a header, and go back to kicking. That second leg, in particular, was very hard to watch. Arsenal were completely disrupted and once PSV gained the away goal advantage, Thierry Henry was thrown on despite suffering a lack of fitness and form, and he was re-injured. It was the last game he would ever play for Arsenal and not exactly the way I would have wanted to see him off.

Now, there’s a lot of talk about Koeman playing “attacking football” with AZ and maybe they will, it would be suicide, but hey, weirder things have happened. He is talking about trying to dominate possession against us and that did make me turn my head a bit, but I suspect Koeman is going to be a realist. I’d be shocked if we saw the type of open, end-to-end match that Man City gave us.

This Arsenal team, though, has since been re-crafted. No longer playing a 4-4-2 or worse the 4-5-1 Arsenal play a 4-3-3 in which every player is called upon to play defense, score, and set each other up for more scoring. I know this will come as a shock to you all so you better sit down: Wenger admitted yesterday was that he thinks offense is defense:

If we score goals, it is because we have the ball. To have the ball, you need to defend. That is why I believe we have a good team ethic, a good working attitude together. We all play on the same wavelength, which is why everybody scores.

It’s team defense, team offense, and team hold onto the gods-damned ball!

From the presser, I don’t get the sense that Wenger thinks this will be a walk in the park. In fact, he warned everyone of the threat from Dutch teams in the Champions League. It matters little that AZ lost a match in league play on Saturday, they will be up for this game. And by up I mean fully committed.

Defensively, Arsenal are re-worked quite a bit from 2007 as well with Gallas and Vermaelen as the new defensive stars in the Arsenal back line. Funnily enough, when asked why Vermaelen and Gallas work so well together, Wenger “big-ups” Thomas Vermaelen by saying it’s his talent, plus Gallas hates playing on the left. There’s a bit of insight into what happened last year. It’s looks to me like both Gallas and Toure hated playing on the left and for some reason Toure got the nod over Gallas. That explains why the two were at each other all year and further explains why Gallas is so much happier this year. I remember back to when Gallas played for Chelsea and one of the main reasons for his departure was down to the fact that Chelsea played him at left-back, so this whole hatred of playing on the left is a long-standing gripe with him. I’m just happy that he’s happy.

Another change, hell a change even this year, is in the keeper spot. Gone is Lehmann, who was replaced by Almunia, who has subsequently been replaced by Mannone. Funny thing about that Mannone replacement… both Mannone and Almunia have played in 4 Premier League matches this season and so I did a little statistical comparison of the two:

Almunia

5 shots  –  own goal, 2 saves    — Man City 4-2 Arsenal
3 shots  –  own goal, 2 saves    — Man U 2-1 Arsenal
3 shots  –  2 saves              — Arsenal 4-1 Pompey
5 shots  –  4 saves              — Everton 1-6 Arsenal
——————————————————–
16 shots –  10 saves             — 8 goals (2 o.g.)

62.5% Save Percentage             — .5 goals/shot

Vito

5 shots  –  5 saves  CLEAN SHEET — Arsenal 4-0 Wigan
8 shots  –  8 saves  CLEAN SHEET — Fulham 0-1 Arsenal
5 shots  –  3 saves              — Arsenal 6-2 Blackburn
3 shots  –  1 save               — Arsenal 3-1 Birmingham
——————————————————–
21 shots — 17 saves, 2 CS        — 4 goals

81% Save Percentage               — .2 goals/shot

Obviously a keeper proves his worth over a long period, obviously 4 games is not really long enough to judge either player, and obviously keepers do more than make saves, but I can see why Wenger is having a selection “problem” in picking Almunia. He’s not been anywhere near top form in his first four matches and when you have a team that only allows a handful of shots on goal, you can’t really have a keeper who is letting in nearly 40% of the chances.

Mannone will start today, I feel confident!

As for the other starts, Eboue is a shoo-in for Theo’s spot up front, van Persie is a fixture at the center forward (what with Wenger comparing him to van Basten) and unless the boss gets a wild hair Arshavin will start on the left. The middle is Cesc and Song and most likely Diaby. The back four is Clichy, Vermy, Gallas, and Sagna — who else would he play? Vela will get some time on the pitch irregardless of the scoreline. Just because he’s in good form and the boss will want to get him some turf time ahead of the Carling Cup match against Liverpool.

Viewing in the States has two options: live on Setanta or tape delay on Fox Soccer Channel. The Publican at Doyle’s in Tacoma has assured me that he will be showing the match live at 11:30am (PST) so, if you’re in Tacoma come on down and watch with me. I’ll be twittering pearls of swine live from the match and you can follow me over at the twitter, if you’re into that. If not, stop by tomorrow for the Good, Bad, and Ugly.

See you then!

Beach balls, Golden Balls, Ballon d’Or, oh my (balls)

I am not a free man! I am a number!

Everyone’s got balls on their minds today, whether it’s Arshavin and Cesc getting shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or, Beckham’s handbags last night, or the beach ball goal heard roud the world, it’s all about balls.

The good news for Arsenal fans this morning is that both Arshavin and Cesc have been shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or. The bad news is that they’ll have some stiff competition in Ronaldo and Messi this year. One thing that should weigh in on the behalf of Arshavin and Cesc is that their National sides are doing comparatively a lot better than Argentina (which is sucking, and probably will keep on sucking) and Portugal who will need 3 seeded goals to overcome uhhh… who are they playing? Cesc, meanwhile, played an important role in Spain’s Euro 2008 win and his stats in the EPL are simply jaw dropping at the moment — leading him to be ACTIM’s highest rated Midfielder in the EPL and the second highest rated overall player. Meanwhile Arshavin is no slouch, leading his Russian team to the World Cup finals and providing pure class for Arsenal. Personally, I’d rather a trophy for Arsenal at the end of the year but I don’t begrudge players individual honors — especially Golden Balls. Who could begrudge a man Golden Balls?

priceless

I guess Beckham got into some kind of altercation in a 0-0 draw last night, but really, I don’t care about all that. All I care about is that this young woman in the picture above spent hours lovingly hand crafting that sign, only to misspell her hero’s name. And that, to me, is priceless. But hey, it took balls to stand there and display her misspelled sign for all the world to see.

Speaking of taking balls, the FA has formally charged Sir Alex Ferguson for his rant against Alan Wiley. Which is pretty incredible when you think about it. Not only did he apologize twice, but he gave an actual, honest answer for why he attacked Wiley: he was mad because his team sucked. The first apology was kind of like a back-handed compliment “look, I’m sorry, what I meant to say was that Fatty Wiley is just ONE example of all the fatties who referee the game.” But the second apology was just straight forward and an admission of guilt. I still can’t stand the guy but hey, at least he admitted he was wrong. Now, the ball’s in the FA court, what punishment will they dish?

There was more referee and ball controversy this weekend, as Sunderland scored what most thinking people are calling an illegal goal. It must be illegal if Graham Poll says it’s illegal, right? Talk of replaying the match, and making us all sit through another 90 minutes of Liverpool tedium, was quickly snuffed by the league but they are going to drop Referee Mike Jones. A bit harsh, I suppose, but it’s such an obvious and easy call that he and all the other officials should have gotten it right.

Which leads us back to the Arsenal news and Wenger lauding the balls it took for Mannone to put the mistake against Birmingham behind him and come out in the second half confident. I know this is a ballsy prediction, but I think that Almunia is done. Mannone’s selection on Saturday and seeing Almunia there on the bench, looking despondent, was as clear a signal from the boss that he’d dropped Almunia as I have seen. In fact, Wenger is pretty much the most loyal manager in the EPL and it almost always pays off. Look at how he stood by Eboue while fans and the press shredded him last year. And that has paid off, Eboue is back to being a damn fine role player on this team. So, Almunia being relegated to the bench on Saturday speaks volumes to me about Wenger’s confidence in the Spanish keeper. Maybe he’ll get a chance again, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Interestingly, Mannone is named first in Wednesday’s squad travelling to AZ Alkmaar. He’s our number one for the time being.

And finally, Happy Birthday, I mean if it just so happens to be your birthday today, I hope you have a happy one. That’s it for today, see you tomorrow, for a less ball-filled blog.