Tag Archives: Arsenal

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Monaco v. Arsenal: No We Can

By Bunburyist — Senior Three Handed Analogist for 7amkickoff

In the first leg of this tie, the weight of expectation was on Arsenal, and tonight we will see how Monaco deal with the same burden. Because, let’s face it, Monaco are clear favorites to win this tie, and that puts them in an unfamiliar situation. Throughout the group stage, they were the plucky underdogs, but the expectation now is that they should and will progress to the quarterfinals. We must hope the pressure gets to them as, apparently, it did to us.

So, that’s it really. The handbrake is off. We’ve got nothing to lose. They do. I’m expecting an all-out assault, a 0-0-10 formation pitted against their 10-0-0.

Can we do it? On the one hand, and although this tie looks like a foregone conclusion, there’s nothing impossible or implausible about us winning the game 3-1 and forcing extra time, at which point anything can happen. Since when was a 3-1 result an impossibility? Monaco can score tonight (on the counterattack, which they will), and nothing would change. We’d still need three goals. And we’ll get them. I’m predicting a 4-2 win, followed by wins in the quarter and semi-finals, followed by a final against Real Madrid, a game that will see Ronaldo petulantly intercepting a goal-bound effort by Gareth Bale, followed by us winning the trophy, forever banishing the memory of Almunia at the near post in Paris.

On the other hand, if I were a betting man, I’d put money on a 2-0 or 2-1 win for Arsenal. You know, the kind of result we’re used to seeing at this stage of the competition. A rousing, gutsy response to a first-leg loss, just so that we can congratulate ourselves on losing the tie in a spirited fashion (see Bayern Munich last year…and, umm, the year before¹).

But on still another hand (this is a three-handed analogy), I’m not a betting man, and this is not last year or the year before. Unlike years past, we go into this R16 game with Ozil and Alexis, a decent goalkeeper, a Coquelin, a beefier Giroud, and crackin’ form. We really are in crackin’ form. And I don’t mean crackin’ like the stop motion monster in Clash of the Titans, the 1981 film that featured a tin owl and Vida Taylor’s naked bum. No, instead I mean crackin’ like Vida Taylor’s bum. We’ve won something like 40 of the last 15 games. It’s incredible. If we take that kind of form into the game, we can lose! Or not lose!

Whatever your persuasion, this will be an exciting game. We’ll no doubt give it the old college try, and Monaco will be relying on a (now-meaningless) sense of the underdog, and a few key players returning from injury. Can Ricardo Carvalho replicate his dickful years at Chelsea? Can Berbatov channel the hubristic stench of United and Tottenham? Can Kondogbia remind some Arsenal fans to bleat about how we should have signed him? Is Toulalan a bird? These and other questions will be answered tonight.

And then there’s the question of what a win would mean anyway. If we’re honest, the Champions League has felt like a luxury we can’t afford, squad-wise. Yes, it brings in some revenue, but only the most optimistic (some would say delusional) of us would suggest we’ve been capable of winning this competition in the last eight or nine years. Particularly this year, the focus seems to be on salvaging what is reasonably attainable after a disastrous start to the season, and that just about includes our ambitions for an FA Cup and a spot in the top four. A Champions League trophy sounds ridiculous, frankly. So what’s the point? Aren’t we better off bowing out now rather than dragging out the inevitable?

Maybe, and I’d love to read comments on this issue below, but for me part of the joy of watching the game against Monaco will be the feeling of having nothing to lose and everything to gain. If we win, I can imagine the magic of a cup run; if we lose, I can imagine a distraction avoided, and a subsequent focus on an FA Cup final, and strong finish in the league. That’s a good place to be. Enjoy the game, whatever the result.

¹And Inter the year before. I was at all three of those matches — 7am

The perception is that Sam Allardyce is actually a walrus

Arsenal v. West Ham Preview: who wants the ball?

First, a little housekeeping. I want to thank Naveen, Chary, Jonathan, and Les for all of their contributions to this site. Without them, 7amkickoff would be just another boring Arsenal blog. And more important than their contributions to my blog are their contributions to the discussion about Arsenal in general. Naveen’s tactical insight is yards ahead of everyone else and I’ve honestly learned more about football by editing his pieces than I did watching it, reading news reports, and listening to pundits for the last 15 years. Meanwhile, Les Crang’s history pieces are a wonderful reminder of who we are and where we came from, Jonathan’s monthly photo article is a great way to highlight fans from all over the globe, and I love Chary’s acerbic man at the match reports. There are other folks who contribute articles when they can but these four consistently give back to the Arsenal community through their writing and I am grateful for each of them.

As for the match, Arsenal host West Ham tomorrow for an 8am (PST) kickoff and Arsenal are at the time of the season where every point counts. At the start of the season points only count for half a point. Then, somewhere in the middle of the season, points start counting as 3/4 of a point. But now, every point counts as a whole point. I know, it’s complicated but just trust me, I’m the stats guy and I created the 7amkickoff relativity scale of points.

I also know a little bit about West Ham. West Ham is a team who concede possession (45% overall, 43% away). They not only concede possession but they also win a lot of aerial duels (almost 24 a game) and lead the League in Key Passes off long balls. 63 key passes off long balls or 2.5 per game — can I say that again? They average 2.5 shots per game, just off long balls. Arsenal, for contrast, average 1.3.

The Hammers also lead the League in shots per game off set plays, with 4.5. 34% of their shots are from set pieces. Arsenal only take 21% of their shots from set plays.

West Ham also lead the League in headed goals with 15. 15 of their 38 goals (40%!!!) are from headers. Arsenal have scored 9 headed goals, but that’s just 17% of their 52 goals.

West Ham also lead the League in (accurate) crosses per game with 6.1. They lead the League in crosses attempted. They lead the League in key passes (61) off crosses and in assists (12) off crosses.

West Ham are also second in the League in accurate corners and are second in the League in key passes off corners, though interestingly they have only managed 2 assists off corners.

So, to conclude, West Ham are a long ball team who concede possession but who still get the ball forward enough to get their wing players involved and put teams under pressure with aerial balls and wicked crosses from set pieces which they like to head home. And if you’ve been an Arsenal fan for more than five minutes, and watched Arsenal concede goals from crosses (this year) and corners (years past) while dominating possession against teams like West Ham then all of those stats will make you about as comfortable as a man wearing a wool sweater in summer. In the desert.¹

One last odd wrinkle. In the last meeting between these two teams Arsenal did something no one expected: they conceded possession. Arsenal have beaten West Ham in all of the previous 9 encounters and when looking at the data for those matches, Arsenal averaged over 60% of the possession. For example, in the last 6 encounters the possession numbers for Arsenal are 69%, 64%, 62%, 62%, 58%, 45%. I believe that there is a trend at Arsenal away from possession in general (which shows here as the numbers get lower over the years) and there is also a trend in the Premier League with teams like West Ham simply getting better but that drop from 58% possession to 45% possession isn’t in line with the trend, that is indicative of Arsène Wenger employing a tactical shift in that match.

More evidence that Wenger eschewed possession in that game comes in the fact that in the three previous encounters West Ham scored first and in many football matches the team who score first usually concede possession. And in the last encounter between Arsenal and West Ham, Arsenal scored first. You would think that was the reason for Arsenal conceding possession but when I look at the possession stats prior to the Arsenal goal (a penalty) the numbers are exactly the same as after the goal – 55% for West Ham, 45% for Arsenal.

I don’t think we will see this same tactic tomorrow. This was a one-time strategy dictated by injury. Wenger was forced to start with two destroyers, Flamini and Coquelin, in midfield. This time out, Wenger has all of his top midfielders available to him: Cazorla, Özil, Coquelin, Rosicky, and Ramsey. I expect to see a starting attack consisting of Giroud, Özil, Alexis, Cazorla, Coquelin, and Rosicky. In defense, I suspect we will see Bellerin², Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Gibbs.

The big question for me is who will start at keeper? Ospina is one of the smallest keepers in the League. He’s also not commanding in the penalty area and that is where West Ham will be lobbing in balls to head into goal. Do we start Szczesny? Against Man U, he was good in the air but there was that moment he decided to try to dribble around Rooney. He managed to beat Rooney but then had to play a forced pass to Koscielny, who kicked to Mertesacker, and then Mertesacker turned the ball over. Man U didn’t score off this mess but it was a moment of unprofessionalism from Szczesny.

It’s incredible to think that Szczesny has 179 games worth of experience and had literally just returned to first-team football after being benched for being unprofessional and he’s out there pulling stunts like dribbling around a forward in one of the biggest games of the season. But there you have it, that’s Szczesny. And I still think Arsenal have to start him.

This should be an easy match for Arsenal. West Ham are in terrible form and haven’t won a match since January 25th (P7 W0 D3 L4 F4 A13). Downing is the main crossing and set play threat and Song’s main two weapons are over the top balls and through balls. But without Enner Valencia (who cut his foot on glass) making runs behind the defense and Andy Carroll’s presence on headers, the Hammers shouldn’t be too much of a goal threat. Meanwhile, Arsenal will have an entire retinue of forwards they can throw at West Ham and a healthy midfield who are playing some of the best football of the season (P7 W6 D0 L1 F13 A7). If Arsenal can stay focused and professional, if Arsenal can keep their defensive shape, and if Arsenal can remember the lessons that Monaco taught them a few weeks ago, then all three points should go Arsenal’s way.

Qq

¹Defensively, West Ham are a bit of an odd team. They concede possession but they don’t tackle a lot (they are 15th) and they don’t try to intercept the ball either (they are 13th). This is odd because we would normally expect a team who doesn’t have the ball to try to actively win the ball back but here’s the thing about West Ham: they don’t want the ball.

I’m being a bit cheeky here but the truth is that Allardyce’s philosophy is that he wants his team to control space first, then worry about the ball. West Ham’s approach to the game is to jockey the opponent into spaces that they don’t mind you being in and allowing the opponent to do things that they don’t mind you doing. So, they will allow Arsenal to keep the ball, grant them spaces to put in crosses, and when they win the ball back they will try to get the ball up the field in a counter attack situation (down the wings) where they can get in a cross to a forward.

It’s simple football but effective, as you can tell by the fact that West Ham are 10th in the League and basically safe from relegation.

I actually take a similar approach to football when I play. Amateurs are not very good at crosses and not only that but when you crowd the target area it makes crossing very difficult. So, if you stay compact and allow them to get in crosses you have a great chance of cutting the cross out and moving the ball up the field in a counter attack situation. It’s ugly football but effective. Also, I sell it by saying “we are going to play like Chelsea” instead of saying “we are going to play like West Ham.”
²Congratulations on the new deal. He deserved it after the great shifts he’s put in.

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Arsenal beat United at Old Trafford: it’s about time

It’s about time that we saw Arsenal beat Man U at Old Trafford. The last time Arsenal beat Man U in any competition, at any venue, was when Ramsey scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over United at the Emirates in 2011. The last time Arsenal beat Man U at Old Trafford was another 1-0 affair, this time Adebayor scored the only goal. But both of those matches were League play, and we have to go back to 2003 for the last time Arsenal beat Man U at Old Trafford in an FA Cup match. A 2-0 win courtesy of Edu and Wiltord. Arsenal went on to win the FA Cup that year, beating Southampton 1-0 at the final in Cardiff. That was the last time, until yesterday, when Arsenal ran out 2-1 winners in their biggest game of the season.

It’s about time that we saw Arsenal play a match with the kind of passion that many of us fans feel. From start to finish, Arsenal exuded an energy I haven’t seen from them in years. They were quickest to loose balls and were charging into challenges. Arsenal were seemingly all over the pitch, a blue and green swarm of players, harassing and harrying Man U into bad passes and mistakes.

The first Arsenal goal was a masterpiece of both team and individual effort. Özil played a little one-two with teammate Monreal who had come forward from the fullback position. This little exchange opened things up and gave Özil the view of the field. He then fired a pass across the field, through a crowd of United players, to find Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, swooping in on the other side of the box. Chamberlain then dribbled past three United players and slotted the ball to… Monreal who had continued his run into the United box. The Arsenal man coolly beat de Gea and Arsenal took the leas at Old Trafford.

 

The winning goal came from a different kind of play. Szczesny took a goal kick for Arsenal and United’s Phil Jones easily chested the ball down to teammate Valencia. Immediately, Alexis puts pressure on Valencia and Danny Welbeck starts a move to pressure Jones. Valencia kicks the ball back to his keeper but sells him short. Welbeck, who simply wanted the ball more, raced out, beat the onrushing de Gea to the ball, took a neat little touch to dribble around him, and scored easily into an open net. The former United player, who wasn’t given time under manager Louis van Gaal, celebrated his goal and the look on his face said it all “you didn’t want me? Now it’s my time.”

The match wasn’t over at that point, United weren’t going to just let Arsenal run out winners and so it’s also about time that Arsenal overcame the physical challenge of Man U. Over the last three years Arsenal had been inching closer to the goal of beating Man U at Old Trafford but each time the Gunners got close, they crumbled. And sometimes, they were shoved down into the mud and had grass kicked all over them. These defeats usually came about because United just manhandled them. In the last match between the two sides, Arsenal’s fullback, Kieran Gibbs, was literally shoved to the ground during an aerial challenge with United forward Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini fired in a cross and Gibbs, lying helplessly on the ground tried to clear the ball but scored an own goal instead.

This time? Fellaini was marked throughout the match by Arsenal’s defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin. Coquelin had his nose broken, twice, last week. And so, naturally, Fellaini bloodied Coquelin’s nose with an elbow in the first few minutes of the match. Coquelin dusted himself off, eyeballed Fellaini, and got right back to work: marking Fellaini tightly, challenging him for every aerial duel, and tackling the ball away from him any time Fellaini lost even the slightest bit of control. That Coquelin presence, his unyielding physicality, against a much larger Fellaini set the tone for Arsenal in this match.

And it’s about time that Coquelin got the praise he deserves for the performances he’s put in. It wasn’t too long ago that Arsenal were going to call time on his career. Shipped off to the Bundesliga where he was reportedly a failure, he returned to Arsenal, where Wenger is now saying that he was impressed by what he saw from Coquelin, but still loaned him out to Charlton. And then needs must and injury forced Arsene Wenger to bring Coquelin back off loan and immediately play him in the destroyer role for Arsenal where he has been a fixture ever since. If there is any criticism of his game it’s that he lacks the refined passing of someone like Arteta. But if he keeps giving Arsenal performances like the one at Old Trafford, I think we can afford to give him the time needed to develop those skills.

It’s also about time that the fans got a well-refereed match. This season, the level of officiating has been under a great deal of scrutiny. Refs have been blowing big calls time and again and nearly every pundit on the scepter’d isle has called for video replay, extra officials, and harsher penalties for divers. Well, stand up Michael Oliver and take a bow.

One of the youngest officials in England, Oliver was brave and steady throughout the match. He booked two Man United players for blatant dives and sent di Maria off for putting his hands on the official in an act of dissent over the yellow card he had just received for a dive a minute earlier. It feels like every time Arsenal go to Old Trafford the officials sided with Man U. In the infamous 50th game of Arsenal’s 49 game unbeaten run, the official, Mike Riley, was literally as lenient as he could have been: allowing United to tackle Arsenal from behind (Neville made two such tackles, each worthy of a red card on their own, he only received one yellow), stamp on Arsenal players (United’s van Niistelrooy received a retroactive ban for a stamp on Cole), and deny an obvious goalscoring opportunity when Ferdinand fouled Ljungberg as the Arsenal man was bearing down 1.v.1 with the keeper. It’s about time an official was brave enough to make the right calls on the big stage of Old Trafford.¹

And mostly it’s about time. About the years Wenger has been afforded at a club as big as Arsenal, about the time that Wenger has been given this season to develop and hone a new style of play, about the time the fans have afforded the club to adapt to new signing Alexis Sanchez’ style of play. In this era where managers are fired for a bad run of matches and where fans expect not just one trophy but two or three a season the fact that Arsenal gave Arsene Wenger the time to build and rebuild squad after squad in an ever more competitive landscape is incredible. And the fact that Arsene was afforded the time to develop a new style of play is incredible. This is a new style which fits his star player’s personality, one which harasses and presses, one where Arsenal try to hit their opponents with lightning fast counter attacks, and one which is able to close out matches with solid defense. And it is a joy to watch. If you watch that match again, which I recommend that everyone watches the full match at least three times, and you’re not blown away by Arsenal’s performance, maybe you don’t like football?

After all Arsenal were organized, pressed as a team, stood up to the individual challenges, were first to nearly every ball, and didn’t back down when United tried to bully them. That’s how they won that game.

Too many times  in the past, Arsenal have been handed a beating by United. Too many times we have seen our manager sent to the stands for kicking a water bottle in frustration. Too many times we have seen Arsenal pressing all the men forward, only to allow Wayne Rooney to run through the midfield and score the winner. Too many times we have seen Rooney and former Arsenal star Robin van Persie run off the pitch winners against us.

Not this time. This time, Arsenal get to take a victory lap. This time, Welbeck gets to applaud the traveling fans and instead of a frown, he’s got a huge smile on his face. Just like all Arsenal fans do today.

It’s about time.

Qq

¹Many Arsenal fans are grumbling that Bellerin got a yellow card for his first foul in the first few minutes of the game and that Fellaini got away with 6 fouls (ones that were called) before he got his first yellow card. I have no problem with the Belllerin call. It was a ridiculous challenge and deserved a yellow. I also don’t see the two as related. A lot of Fellaini’s fouls are the kind of thing that forwards get away with in these matches. Kevin Cyrill Davies was at one time the most fouling and most fouled player in the Premier League. He was the typical English Bull in a China shop, throwing himself around in every challenge, and lumbering about kicking people with late tackles. That’s how Fellaini plays and so do most forwards in the Premier League. Perhaps there needs to be some scrutiny applied to the way officials call fouls and give yellow cards to forwards, but it would have been unusual if Oliver had given Fellaini a yellow card earlier rather than waiting as long as he did.