Tag Archives: Champions League


Surreal scenes in Istanbul: Arsenal Atomicus

Arsenal beat Galatasaray 4-1 in Istanbul in a match so surreal that it was the Dali Atomicus of football matches. In 1948, Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman collaborated to create a photograph of a flying Dali — eyes wide and grinning madly –, three flying cats, a bucket of water curving improbably, and other floating props. It is an image meant to unsettle the viewer. And so are Arsenal at the moment.

Arsenal started the season with a defensive deficiency in having only six defenders and with another season of failed attempts to bring in a ball-winning midfielder the club so badly need. This was Arsene Wenger metaphorically juggling cats. And then along come the fans who have abandoned all notions of respect and decency and lay in wait at the train station to ambush the manager with verbal abuse. A bucket of cold water dumped over Wenger’s head.

I’m not telling you any secrets when I say that football is all about highs and lows. If you’ve been around any sport you already know. Even Manchester United, who improbably won everything during Fergie’s tenure, bumped back down to reality last season and have struggled mightily to start this. Chelsea have spent over a billion pounds in the last 10 years and they had their ups and downs as well: winning the Champions League with the ugliest team in the history of the sport and finishing 6th in the League to prove it.

But while all the other teams went through rough patches, Arsenal have remained remarkably consistent, finishing between first and fourth in the Premier League for 18 years. Moreover, why would Wenger radically change his team and his philosophy this season? Remember that Arsenal were top of the table for the vast majority of last season and won the FA Cup. Wenger’s philosophy has always been to keep going and build slowly. So, if Arsenal picked up just a few points here and there and changed their tactic against the top four rivals it would be reasonable for Wenger to expect that his team would improve.

But instead of building on the successes of last year, this Arsene Wenger side is less consistent than I’ve ever seen them and the results show it: three clean sheets against Dortmund, West Brom, and Southampton, followed by a fearful performance against Stoke, followed by a rampaging performance against Galatasaray. And it’s starting to look like the normal highs and lows of football are catching up with Arsenal.

Ramsey probably epitomizes that inconsistency more than any other player this season. Ramsey has dropped in all major stats categories except shots, and especially shots from distance. Ramsey has been adjusting to his new teammates and as a result looks like he lacks a little bit of confidence. His shots are rushed and it shows, he’s already taken as many shots outside the box this season as he did all of last season.

Naturally, that means Ramsey should shoot more from distance, should shoot from further out, should shoot from further out, off the volley, and score.


Wenger echoed my sentiments about Ramsey’s goal when he stated flatly

When he took the shot, I thought that is maybe not the best of ideas but the way it went in was absolutely unbelievable. His confidence is linked with results and goals scored and that helps.

It wasn’t the best of ideas. It was a gambler’s goal and he hit the jackpot. But it went in and everyone loves to see a goal like that. Wondergoals are part of the highs and lows of football and I think it’s about time Arsenal scored a wondergoal rather than concede one.

Perhaps that goal will boost his confidence. I would think the earlier goal he scored, where he had the audacity to attempt a fake shot before coolly slotting home under the keeper’s arms would boost confidence more but perhaps the once in a lifetime nature of his wondergoal is the elixir he really needs.

It wasn’t just that Ramsey strike which made the game surreal. I had to watch the vine of the goal several times before I noticed that Joel Campbell took the corner. Or how about the fact that Debuchy started his first game since the knee injury. Or that Bellerin started at left back. Or that Podolski scored a brace and even made a ‘tackle’ which started the counter which led to Ramsey’s first goal.

All surreal scenes. All cats flying in the air. All Wenger grinning madly. All fans throwing cold water on each other and the manager. All Dali Atomicus. All Arsenal Atomicus.

And this weekend, Arsenal have to face a resurgent Newcastle team. More ups and downs. But hopefully, we stick to surrealist art and this weekend’s match doesn’t turn into Edvard Munch’s Scream.



Ramsey needs to ditch Hollywood and get back to N5

Before the match against Anderlecht, Arsene Wenger publicly praised Aaron Ramsey. The boss said that the Arsenal midfielder had gone a bit “Hollywood” in the first part of the season, looking for goals instead of doing the work needed in midfield, but that he was ready to get back to basics. Unfortunately, that pre-match message went unheeded by the Arsenal midfielder as Anderlecht dropped three goals on an Arsenal side which naively attacked for the last 30 minutes when they probably should have sat back and defended. And that attack was often led by Aaron Ramsey.

Arseblog’s screengrab in this morning’s post clearly illustrates the massive problem created when a team is 3-2 up and one of Arsenal’s two more-defensive midfielders goes forward in search of a fourth goal.

That cluster of players forward isn’t directly responsible for the goal but is rather indicative of how much space Arsenal conceded in the midfield in the final 30 minutes of that game. It also shows a lack of discipline in that when you have a 3-2 lead you shouldn’t see five players forward.

That lack of discipline was evident again a few seconds after this screen grab when Ramsey lined up a free kick and blasted it over the bar. It may not tickle the fancy of the footballing purists out there but few would have complained if Ramsey had passed the ball to Alexis who then dribbled over to the corner flag. Doing that may be cynical and it wouldn’t guarantee that Arsenal would have won the match, but it is the correct tactic in the 90th minute and would have certainly increased Arsenal’s chances of winning the game.

Arsene Wenger clearly had a word with Ramsey before the match to remind him of his duties as a midfielder given the fact that he revealed the following in his pre-match presser:

If you play like [you believe that you] have to score, every time you want to be in the box you forget a little bit of the basics of the job, but [Ramsey] is back now. He had a little moment when he was not at his best but that can happen. I am fully confident that he is back.

It’s no surprise then that after the match Wenger was fuming:

…we had a poor defensive performance from the first to the last minute today. …it was a combination of switching off and fatigue as well. You could see we couldn’t win the challenges and they finished stronger and sharper – we got punished. I think when we lost Mikel Arteta we lost out because he was one of the few who defended well.

That bit about Arteta being the only one who defended well along with his pre-match comments about Ramsey returning to basics look like Wenger taking a swipe at Ramsey. Wenger rarely criticizes performances, and even more rarely criticizes players, and given the two dubious goals that the referee gave, Wenger could have deflected criticism away from his team by focusing on the referee. But the fact that he didn’t and that he instead focused his ire on the players’ performances both before and after the match (specifically on Ramsey, Arteta’s midfield partner) indicates that Wenger could be frustrated with the young Welshman.

Wenger’s frustration is probably not borne out of anything other than love and respect for Ramsey. Wenger banked on Ramsey being the new Cesc. So much so that Wenger cited Ramsey as one of the reasons why he didn’t take Cesc back this summer. But Ramsey has dropped from Arsenal’s star midfielder last season to a lesser star midfielder this season and if you compare Ramsey’s stats from last season to this one on a “Per90″ basis you see the difference fairly quickly. So, it’s understandable that Arsene is a bit frustrated with his star pupil.

Here are the highlights for those who don’t want to click through:

  • Ramsey was second on the team last season in tackles per game with 3.3 (successful) per game
  • This season he is only completing 2.1 tackles per game.
  • His missed tackles per game has stayed almost exactly the same as last season and that means his total tackles attempted is down from 6.44 per game to 5.12
  • His other defensive numbers are basically the same: his interceptions are still one per game, which isn’t good for a defensive midfielder, but he’s never been a defensive midfielder
  • His clearances per game are up a little, to just over 1 per game — again, he’s not a defensive midfielder
  • He has never been one to get in the way and block a shot and has zero blocked shots this season (he had 3 all of last season)
  • But he does have two defensive errors already compared to the one from last season
  • Passing stats are almost all exactly the same, except his Key Passes numbers have more than doubled from 1.23 last season to 2.81 this season. This is because he is going forward more than ever before and with Welbeck and Alexis willing shooters in front of him, he is getting them shots.
  • Despite the increase in Key Passes, Ramsey is not creating as many assist. He has just 1 assist in 9 matches this season compared to 8 in 23 last season.
  • This key pass/assists drop off is part of Ramsey’s new-found general inefficiency in attack.
    • His shooting accuracy is down from 71% last season to 43% this season
    • His shots per game numbers are up from 2.56 per90 to 3.30 per90
    • The reason he is missing more and scoring less despite shooting more is that he is shooting more from distance (outside the box) rather than taking shots in good areas like he did last season. His shots from distance per90 has doubled from 1.18 to 2.31.
    • And worryingly for a box to box midfielder his ability to dribble past an opponent has also dried up dropping from an already mediocre 42% success rate to an asinine 21%.

You simply cannot have your central midfielder giving up the ball on 80% of his dribbles. That would be a terrible percentage for a forward who scores you a ton of goals. For example, the worst I’ve seen was Luis Suarez two seasons ago and he was a 41% dribbler and this season Alexis Sanchez often tries too hard and only completes 53% of his dribbles. But dribbles aside, looking at shots from distance, tackles, blocks, and everything else, clearly, all of Ramsey’s stats are down. 

But more worrying isn’t the bulk of his play, which (despite the drop off) actually compares favorably with Cesc Fabregas. The really concerning part is that in a game where Arsenal are 3-0 up, and after having had a taking to by the manager before the match, and having Flamini on the pitch, Aaron Ramsey was trying to get Arsenal a fourth goal. He was still trying to get Arsenal a 4th goal in the 93rd minute when Anderlecht scored.

Arsene Wenger came in for a lot of criticism after the match for his rather bumbling substitution of Podolski for Welbeck. It was an indefensible switch from a defensive standpoint because everyone knows that when it comes to doing the work of playing defense the last person you throw on from that Arsenal bench is Lukas Podolski. Podolski being the guy who couldn’t even be bothered to bring his shin pads to the Dortmund match. But Ramsey also has to shoulder some of the blame here.

Thankfully, I’m convinced that Ramsey, more than anyone on this team bar Alexis, has the shoulders to carry that burden. He will have been stung by the criticism after the match and I would put money on a solid performance this weekend. Aaron must ditch the palm trees and swimsuits of Hollywood and embrace the brownstones and wellies of North London.



Anderlecht 1-2 Arsenal: Cheetos and Tequila

I had a girl
She loved what she saw
She loved me so good
She made her daddy mad
My woman cried
She’s dead to me now
My woman ran off
And I can’t deny it

My life
Jesus (Cheetos) and tequila
I’m satisfied
And I can’t deny it

Arsenal left Belgium with a sack full of goodies and all three points as the London team pipped Anderlecht at the death in a surprisingly equal match between two teams with vastly different resources and pedigrees.

Anderlecht came in to the match with nothing to lose. Widely seen as one of the minnows of Champions League play, the Belgians would need to put in a hard fought 90 minutes if they were going to get anything from an Arsenal team who spent as much money acquiring players this summer as the entire Anderlecht club is worth. To their great credit, Anderlecht not only gave Arsenal a fair but physical match, they also matched Arsenal skill for skill for the majority.

Anderlecht could easily feel hard done by considering the fact that Arsenal’s winning goal came moments after a deliberate handball by late sub and game winner, Lukas Podolski. I can tell you that had Arsenal conceded that goal under those exact circumstances with that exact handball preceding it, there would be smartly written letters of complaint filling UEFA’s mail slot tomorrow morning.

As it stands, these self-same arbiters of fairness will likely dismiss the handball as incidental, inconsequential, or (worse) something Arsenal “deserve” because it rights the ills they perceive Arsenal to have suffered. As if a handball allowed against a team like Anderlecht, who have done nothing wrong against Arsenal, somehow makes up for Everton’s lucky offside call in the Premier League.

In the end though Arsenal’s quality in depth, in depth against a tiny team like Anderlecht, won the day as Lukas Podolski found the ball near him and in an #aha moment, scored.

Gibbs had a fantastic match. Not only did he score the equalizer off a difficult volley from Chambers’ cross but he also made nine of twelve tackles for Arsenal defensively. Highlighting Gibbs’ astounding work rate both in going forward and in sprinting back. With Gibbs forward so often and yet still able to sprint back for a tackle deep in the Arsenal defense, I wondered what part sprints (sprints which Arsenal players do more than other teams by my perception) by Arsenal players play in Arsenal’s history of muscle injuries? Could it be that Arsenal’s system, playing so many forward at all times, constantly pressing for the win and being forced to sprint back on defense as they wildly try to catch up to the opposition’s counters, could that be the reason for so many of these stress injuries?

I don’t have an answer to that. I do know that those twelve Gibbs tackles show how concerted the Anderlecht effort was in targeting Nacho and Gibbs. Anderlecht attempted 36 dribbles and 10 of them were concentrated in Gibbs’ corner compared to just 6 in Chambers’ corner.

Anderlecht found a goal out of that effort when Dennis Praet dribbled around the Arsenal defense, pulled both Arsenal center backs out and then put in a cross right to the penalty spot. Calumn Chambers was caught between Najar and the ball for a second and that was all the Anderlecht man needed to score.

The Belgian side were right back at the Arsenal gates a few seconds later and they should have equalized when Anthony Vanden Borre struck the post from a dangerous position. Once again Najar was free down Gibbs’ side (he started the attack that he finished for their first goal) and once again played in Praet.

With Monreal playing left back again (there are no defensive midfielders covering the fullbacks on this Arsenal team) Najar was able to cross to Praet who literally caught Per flat footed. The young Praet heard die Fledermaus playing in his ear, waltzed past Per, and slid a ball to Vanden Borre who was wide open just outside the 6 yard box. Instead of coolly side footing into the goal, Vanden Borre opened up his sand wedge and hit a lob which struck the upright.

If the Belgians had scored the second, it could have been a body blow to the this Arsenal side. Both Anderlecht goals came after Arsenal left their foot off the gas as you can see from my twitter timeline which captured the sense of both boredom and shock:



There is a connection between this “boring Arsenal” and the “ohshit Arsenal”. This Arsenal team still think they are the possession-based team who used to be able to kill off games with a string of 100 “ole” passes, but when the central midfielders are pressed by the opposition forwards they cough the ball up too easily in dangerous areas and are often caught with their defenders in advance of the forwards. Many times in this game both of Arsenal’s wide defenders, Calumn Chambers and Keiran Gibbs, were in front of their forwards at the same time.

It’s a huge gamble to constantly send your fullbacks forward, and an even bigger gamble to send them both forward at the same time when your only cover is Mathieu Flamini pacing around the midfield. But however you look at it, the bet paid off.

Like a slot machine, if you feed enough quarters into its voracious maw it will eventually get too full and spit something back out. So too Gibbs’ station as the most forward player on the left. It should be noted that the gamble was “all in” as well, down to their last quarter, Arsenal’s right back, Calumn Chambers, put in the cross which Gibbs volleyed home.

My first trip to London I went to one of those casino/clubs. It was late. I was drunk. And naturally, I started losing heavily. I was down to my last few pounds and I wandered away from the Blackjack table and put the rest of my money on a single number in Roulette. The number came up and from that point on my night was all trumps. I went back over to the Blackjack table and proceeded to win back all my money plus enough money to pay for all my food for the week.

I left the casino with a fat wallet and full of cheer having gone from thinking I’ll be eating Cheetos the rest of the week to planning a steak dinner. That’s how gambling works: a little luck and you feel like you’re on top of the world.

Arsenal won the game at Anderlecht with some similar gambles. All in with Calumn Chambers and Gibbs and then a little lucky double down when Wenger subbed in Podolski who got away with some slight of hand to score the winner. To get all three points Arsenal needed professional and hard-working players on the pitch, and Alexis Sanchez continues to impress in that regard. A team high 4 key passes, all of them in dangerous areas and any one of which probably should have scored, finally got rewarded when Podolski scored.



In the end, Anderlecht matched Arsenal for ninety minutes. They didn’t play using negative tactics or ugly timewasting. They didn’t rely on the referee to bail them out and didn’t run around booting Arsenal players into Row Z. They don’t have an Oligarch spending more money than god on star players from abroad and instead they are a small team with a humble stadium filled to the rafters with exuberant fans singing “Come on Sporting Boys!” to the tune of Cum on Feel the Noize.

Yet Arsène’s roll of the dice paid off and after the match Arsenal fans pocketed their winnings and gleefully went off into the night in search of Cheetos and Tequila. They even had a little money left over to get Arsène a birthday cake.

So satisfied.