Tag Archives: Arsenal

Santos with the long-distance shot

Arsenal’s 2015 Pre-Season Previewed: Alarming Sensibility

By Bunburyist, Pre-seasoner

Pre-season training began this past week, and, in the coming days, any players not suffering from inflamed bones or ankle buttons will travel to Singapore to compete with Stoke City and Everton for the Asia Trophy. And look, I don’t care if this trophy is the equivalent of those derisive participation ribbons you received in grade school just for larding the earth with your sweat — the fact that Stoke City is involved means we must do everything in our power to win. Nobody wants to see the self-abusing Ryan Shawcross grinning stupidly next to a trophy, no matter its inconsequence. Nobody.

I don’t know about you, but I miss the bucolic gamboling of pre-seasons past: a bit of noblesse oblige in Barnet or Boreham Wood, followed by a rest cure in a Bad Waltersdorf spa, capped by an invigorating tumble with Szombathelyi Haládas and a Burgenland Select XI. It’s very much a case of innocence lost these days, though I don’t know how much comfort we can take from the fact we were one of the last of the big Premier League clubs to hold on to such Golden Age traditions. As it turns out, there’s quite a lot of publicity and money to be had outside of Old Europe. That the club held out as long as it did is likely a testament to its respect for Arsène Wenger, who, if his druthers were had, would still be kicking his feet in the thermal springs of Hartberg-Fürstenfeld.

But this is not a realistic option for the more ambitious clubs in the modern game, and here we are in the Digital Age heading to Asia for the third time since our final tour of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 2010. The difference this time, however, is the number of games played. In 2013, we played seven matches total in Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, England, and Finland; in 2012, it was six matches in Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Germany (it would have been seven had the game in Nigeria gone ahead); and in 2011 it was six matches in Malaysia, China, Germany, England, and Portugal.

This summer, and not counting the Community Shield, we’re playing only four matches in two countries: Singapore and England.* This is the exact number of games and countries we played in last summer’s pre-season in America (New York) and England, though you could argue that the limited number of games in summer 2014 was forced by the World Cup and an early Champions League qualifier.

You could argue that, but you’d be wrong, because such considerations seem to have made no difference to the number of pre-season games played (and their required travel) in other World Cup or Euro years. In the last decade, Arsenal’s players have consistently played between six and nine pre-season games in addition to international or Champions League summer obligations.

All that to say, these last two summers seem to have signaled a change in our approach to pre-season preparation. Yes, we’re still going for the non-European markets, as we should, but we don’t appear quite so desperate in how we take advantage of them. From six to nine pre-season games each summer from 2003-2013, we’re now playing four, and we’re making fewer stops along the way. This would only seem to be a good thing when you think about fatigue as the regular season commences, and you might justifiably wonder whether these recent changes have come as a result of consultation with our new fitness and physio personnel. For many years, Arsenal were known as fast starters in the league (perhaps due to a more rigorous pre-season than their rivals), but also quick faders after January. United, during their great successes under Ferguson, were known as the direct opposite in this regard, and focused instead on building a slow head of steam that eventually developed into a relentless charge.

On the other hand, two or three extra summer games – ones in which several regular starters may not even feature – hardly sounds like the difference between a title and an empty hand. As a case in point, Arsenal’s 2003-04 unbeaten season was preceded by a summer packed with nine games total in England, Austria, Scotland, and Germany. The results were not encouraging: Wins (few of them convincing) against Austria Wien, Besiktas, St Alban’s City, and Glasgow Rangers were mingled with losses or draws against Peterborough United, Barnet, Celtic, Beveren, and SC Ritzing.

This point should only reinforce the notion that you can’t predict the season from a pre-season. Except, sometimes you can, but it’s usually in the realm of individual development rather than a team’s eventual league position. For example, if you watched Ramsey and Giroud showboat against teams in Indonesia and Vietnam in July 2013, you caught a glimpse of what they’d produce that season. All the claims of “it’s only Vietnam” became a hostage to fortune in a 2013-14 that was Ramsey’s break-through season (when he outshined even Mesut Ozil), and for Giroud — motivated, perhaps, by rumors of our interest then in Higuain and Suarez — who went on to score 22 goals.

For me, this is why pre-season is so exciting. Winning as a team in these friendlies is always welcome, of course, but I most look forward to the individual performances, and the drama – folded between the mundane narratives of fitness development – that comes with jostling for the manager’s eye.

There have been a few grumbles about the lack of sexiness in our pre-season opponents as compared to those faced by our rivals. United, for example, will travel to the US to play Barcelona and PSG; Chelsea play these same opponents in Australia; while even Tottenham – who are showing their ambition with plans to construct a giant toilet – play Real Madrid and Bayern Munich this summer.**

However, as eye-catching as they are, games against clubs like Barcelona, PSG, and Real Madrid can take the focus away from the real purpose of pre-season, which is the development of fitness and, to some extent, team cohesion. Pre-season or not, when you’re playing against a club like Barcelona you’re thinking less of physical conditioning and more about the occasion itself. Conversely, Arsenal seem to have found the right balance between exhibition, publicity, and training, with a run-out against Singapore, followed by Premier League opposition, and then two very good teams – Lyon and Wolfsburg – in the Emirates Cup. It all sounds perfectly sensible.

More interesting is where, geographically, we tend to focus our pre-season exhibitions. Chelsea and United have favored the United States in recent years (as a resident of Washington state, I’m disappointed to see that by the time this summer ends United, rather than Arsenal, will have played in Seattle twice in the last five years), while Arsenal, apart from one game in New York last summer, tend to prefer Asian markets.

There must be good reasons for our prioritization of that market instead of the US (or elsewhere), though what those might be I can only guess. Is the US market already too saturated or tapped? If so, it hasn’t deterred clubs like United or Chelsea, and United especially have shown themselves to be extremely astute in the way they market their brand. Or is it rather the case that our presence in the US is already secure enough for the time being? After all, a recent study of Twitter accounts showed that Arsenal are the most followed Premier League club in the US and Canada. Maybe we’re looking elsewhere as a result.

Arsenal’s squad for the Barclays Asia Trophy:

Goalkeepers: Martinez, Szczesny, Cech

Defenders: Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gabriel, Bellerin, Debuchy, Monreal, Chambers, Gibbs

Midfielders: Arteta, Ozil, Cazorla, Flamini, Ox, Ramsey, Wilshere, Coquelin, Crowley, Zelalem, Reine-Adelaide

Forwards: Giroud, Walcott, Akpom, Iwobi, Willock

* Chelsea, Man City, and Tottenham play the fewest pre-season matches this summer (three). Arsenal, along with Man United and Swansea, play four, and all other teams play five or more (the most by any Premier League club this summer is seven).

** Liverpool, on the other hand, play no sexy opponents, but will travel the most miles of any other Premier League club this summer, all the while countenancing the patently absurd pretense that Raheem Sterling is too sick to train.

Sanchez

Higuain duffs, Alexis chips, and Chile win the Copa America

By Tim Todd, Alexis Aficionado 

The Copa America final last night was one of the most exciting matches I’ve seen all season. What made it so exciting was that it was a match played at an unbelievably fast pace, the underdogs won by tooth and nail, there was a crucial coaching error in the 74th minute, and the game was won with an audacious final kick. If you didn’t love watching this game, you probably don’t love football.

Both teams went into this final having dominated their opponent’s in terms of possession. I think the stat quoted was something like 70% for Argentina, 65% for Chile and when two teams who pay similar style of football meet, it’s usually a recipe for an unusual match. One would expect that both teams would attempt to impose themselves on the game but having watched a number of these types of matches now both teams almost always seem to try something completely different.

Yesterday, it seemed like both teams simply bypassed the midfield. Long passes up field were the order of the day and it caused the game to have an almost ping-pong feel to it. The Argentines would hit a long ball forward, Chile would snuff out the attack (mostly through Gary Medel), then the Argentines would press to try to win the ball back in their own attacking third and if Chile broke the press, they would often hit a long ball forward in return. Argentina would then snuff out the Chile attack, Chile would press high up the pitch and force turnovers, or Argentina would hit a long ball forward or start a fast break. That happened for about 120 minutes.

And credit has to go to Chile, mostly, in regards to the level of defending that they were able to maintain for 120 minutes under such a sustained attack. Sure, Argentina did the same but Argentina’s back line are a who’s who of top club players, Marcos Rojo (Man U), Demichelis (Man City), Zabaleta (Man City), and with Javier Mascherano (Barcelona) sweeping up any messes. Those players are expected to defend well. Meanwhile, Chile’s defense was Isla (Juventus) and goalkeeper Claudio Bravo (Barcelona) along with Gary Medel (formerly of Cardiff) and Jean Beausejour (formerly of Wigan).

Gary Medel, in particular, was huge — all 171cm of him. Just 5’7″ tall and looking a bit like a fireplug with a Marine haircut, Medel simply made himself useful on nearly every defensive possession. Whether it was a perfectly timed slide tackle, barging Messi off the ball, taking a foul for the team, stepping into a gap to cut out the through ball, or challenging aerial duels with guys who are half a foot taller, Medel did all of the dirty work for his country: he took out the trash and scrubbed the kitchen floors.

Oh, and I already mentioned Messi, but Argentina’s attack was more than just Messi. They started the match with Angel di Maria (Man U), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Kun Aguero (Man City), and Javier Pastore (PSG). But Chile just dealt with them in one of the most professional, workman-like ways that I have seen a defense organized.

Argentina had a wealth of talent in nearly every position on the field and had the type of bench that most club teams can’t even dream of having. On the bench they had Carlos Tevez (Juventus), Ezequiel Lavezzi (PSG), and even some smaller club talents like Erik Lamela (Tottenhams) and Gonzo Higuain (currently in the discount bin at Napoli).

And with that great bench, Argentina coach Gerardo Martino, in the 74th minute, chose to take off Kun Aguero — one of the most clinical finishers in any of the top leagues — and put on Gonzo “The Great” Higuain.

To say that Gonzalo Higuain has suffered a miserable second season at Napoli would be like saying that A Nightmare on Elm Street was “a little scary”. Higuain’s career has taken a nearly prodigious fall from grace. Going from one of the most clinical finishers in world football to a player who now routinely misses penalties.

I don’t know why Aguero was taken off in the 74th minute — he didn’t look injured. I do know that since making the move to Man City his minutes have often been limited and he has averaged just 70 minutes per game in Champions League and Premier League play. But why Martino chose Higuain over the much more in form Carlos Tevez is inexplicable.

From an outsider’s perspective it looked like the game was a lock for penalties. And Higuain has been miserable at penalties this season for Napoli, especially in high pressure situations. He missed a penalty in the final match of the Serie A season and it was a penalty which might have ensured Napoli’s place in the Champions League. All told, he was 3/7 from the spot last season, which is incredibly bad for any player much less for your star striker.

To be fair to coach Martino, the only other real choice was Carlos Tevez and he was 2/4 on penalties this season. So, I guess it was a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

And toward the end of the game Higuain had a chance to win for Argentina but just came up short. A fairly poor diagonal ball was played to Higuain as he huffed and puffed to get to the ball on the corner of the 6 yard box but his sliding, diving, shot bundled safely into the side netting.

Alexis Sanchez also had a chance in the dying embers of the game, but after 120 minutes of frenetic football, after the end of a season of frenetic football for Arsenal, which followed on the heels of a World Cup last summer full of frenetic football for Chile, his audacious looping attempt was just a foot over the bar.

And so, it went to penalties but here is where the underdogs had an ace in the hole: the Chilean ‘keeper is Claudio Bravo, Argentina had put on Gonzo and then let him take a penalty, and Chile had Alexis Sanchez. Gonzalo Higuain missed badly for Argentina’s second penalty and Claudio Bravo saved Argentina’s third from Ever Banega. So, up stepped Chile’s inspirational little forward, Alexis Sanchez.

Alexis let out a puff of breath, ran at the ball full tilt, and when the ‘keeper dove to his right, Alexis coolly chipped the ball into the other side of the goal. Alexis had hit a “Panenka” to win his country its first ever Copa America, on home soil, in front of a stadium full of his countrymen who would slaughter him if he missed in such a audacious fashion. But he didn’t and Chile lifted the cup.

Arsenal were linked to both Higuain and Sanchez in the last two years and as an Arsenal fan, I have to say that Wenger has gotten it right in the transfer market for two years now running. He bought Mesut Ozil and the next summer Germany won the World Cup. He bought Alexis Sanchez and the next summer Chile won the Copa America. So, does that mean that Wenger buying Petr Cech will help Czechoslovakia win the Euro 2016 or will Wenger buy Sterling and hand that honor to England? He probably has someone else in mind, a little surprise for us all, like Alexis.

Qq

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Arsenal 4-0 Villa: It’s Been A Long Road To Victory

By Tim Todd, Chief 

Arsenal thumped Aston Villa 4-0 to retain the FA Cup, catapulting Arsenal to an English record 12th FA Cup trophy, making Wenger the joint most successful manager in the competition with 6 of those titles, and becoming the first team to win consecutive FA Cups since Chelsea in 2009-2010. But more than just records, this was a cup which overflowed with the narratives of the season.

This win was the culmination of a season’s work. Much has been made of Coquelin nailing down the starting spot in the defensive midfield role and as well there has been a lot of speculation over weather dropping Szczesny for Ospina dramatically changed the team. There is no question that Coquelin and Ospina are conservative players and that their reserved nature forms a great base for Arsenal’s defense. But this season isn’t marked by Wenger drilling his team to play two banks of four. It should be remembered instead for Wenger changing the entire team’s approach to defense, adding a counter pressing style.

In their yellow and blue kits Arsenal looked like a pack of angry bees swarming any time there was a player invading their half. And like a bee kicking a foreign invader out of the hive they stripped the ball away and started a counter attack. It wasn’t uncommon at all to see three or even four yellow shirts around a lone Villa man with the ball.

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Arsenal have spent all season working on this press. From the start there were signs that the King Bee wanted his men to pressure the opposition but that some players didn’t quite know what to do. Early in the season, against Hull, Wilshere was so distraught that he turned around and yelled at Cazorla to get up and help fill the gaps (illustrated below).

Wilshere-Cazorla

The Spaniard, however, took time to catch on, as did all of his teammates. And that finally paid off here in the final as time and again the Gunners simply surrounded the Villa player and walked away with the ball.

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Villa’s response was to resort to cynical fouling. Each time Arsenal took the ball from them, they would chase down the Arsenal man and foul, trip, or pull the player from behind. Villa were outclassed, their manager completely out of ideas, and they were simply grabbing at anything to try to keep a hold in this game.

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It was pure joy for Gooners to watch as Arsenal dismantled Villa for 90 minutes. Turning defense into offense, the Gunners ripped open the Villa lines: Bellerin played dangerous crosses; what Ozil saw must have looked like a fly’s vision as he chipped, back-heeled, and crossed into the path of the attacking players over and over; Cazorla played like Pirlo, going 12/12 picking out forwards with his perfectly floated long chips; Walcott terrified Villa’s defenders and showed that he can play through the middle; Alexis scored what could be the goal of the season — a moment of brilliance from Arsenal’s brightest star; and despite being far from a finished product, even Coquelin put in a shift (not just his defensive work!) with 3 dribbles to escape pressure and 7/7 long balls, spraying passes all over the pitch and looking to jump start Arsenal’s counter.

It’s been a long road for Arsenal to get this far.

The nadir of the season has to be when Arsenal fans stood on the platform in Stoke and abused Arsene Wenger. Raphael Honigstein even said that he “saw the logic” in such abuse and that “personal abuse might be the way forward.” As in the way forward to force Arsene Wenger out of the club. He was wrong and those fans were wrong: there was another way forward.

The other way forward included trusting the new fitness team to get the key players back and healthy. That way forward included trusting Wenger to change up his team’s preparation for the games. That way forward included waiting for the Arsenal players to figure out what Wenger was asking them to do. And this FA Cup win was the destination of that other way forward.

As an example of the change in preparation, Wenger knew his team are susceptible to crossed aerial attacks. He also knew that Benteke is a beast in the air. Benteke did win 9 aerial duels today but, crucially, only 2 in the danger area. Mertesacker and Koscielny both pressured Benteke on all crossed aerials into the box and kept him quiet.

Szczesny was also clearly trained and ready for this aerial bombardment. From nearly the first minute Szczesny came out to claim whenever Villa tried a cross. He even had a powerful punch at 0-0 to beat Benteke to an open header. His aggression on crosses forced Villa to play them deeper and further away from the danger area. In the end, Szczesny didn’t have much else to do, Villa only registered 2 shots, both from distance and both blocked, but what he did have to do, he did perfectly.

And of course, player fitness has been a problem for a long time. Before this season, Arsenal would typically say that a player would be out for two weeks and have that turn into four weeks and then six weeks before the announcement that the injury was actually season ending. But for the first season ever Arsenal got players back before they were supposed to. And the players look more robust. Alexis in particular looks like he’s made out of some indestructible material, Alexmantium?

Arsenal’s fitness was so perfect today that Wenger was able to start Theo Walcott (throwing a spanner in Tim Sherwood’s plans) and bring on Ox, Giroud, and Wilshere. All of whom have missed large portions of the season through injury.

In beating Villa 4-0 we saw exactly what a fully fit, prepared, and tactically adept Arsenal team can do. It was the complete performance, an example of what a little faith and a lot of hard work can achieve, and a fitting end to the season. But it’s not the end of the road for these players.

The future looks bright for this team. The last time a Wenger team won back to back FA Cups was the season before the Invincibles. I’m not foolish enough to predict that this team can go an entire season unbeaten but given the way they finished this season and the way they have taken to Wenger’s new style of play, I think they could be title challengers.

But as much as they could be title challengers, we know that they are cup winners. Congratulations to the club, the manager, the players, and the fans. For all you went through this season, the injuries, the uncertainty, adapting a new playing style, and fitting in new players, you deserved this.

Qq