Monday, 23 December 2013

Five thoughts pre Arsenal-Chelsea

Jack Wilshere is an idiot
It wasn't so long ago that Arsenal fans were bemoaning Jack Wilshere's prolonged absence, expecting his return to catalyse an often ponderous Arsenal team to improved performances. Certainly Wilshere has suffered from a weight of expectation - not helped by the club giving him the famous number 10 shirt while he was out injured - but to a large extent, he has also just not played at the same level since returning from injury.

This is entirely understandable: although there's a tendency amongst Arsenal fans to always need to have someone to criticise, I think it's natural that a young player coming back from a serious injury would need some time to bed back into the team. With the signings of Ozil, Cazorla and Flamini, as well as the improved performances of Aaron Ramsey, Wilshere's position in the team has gone from assured to under threat.

This lengthy preamble is intended to contextualise Wilshere's place at Arsenal. If you're performing brilliantly, you can get away with picking up a two-match ban for no reason whatsoever a lot more easily. Where once I thought of him as "a cunt but our cunt", now I really don't know what to think of him. I found the response from Arsenal fans to him being banned utterly bizarre. Whether it should be a one-match ban or a two-match ban is irrelevant to the greater issue of why he was behaving in a way that would inevitably see him punished post-hoc. Poor performances I can deal with - the talent is there and has been on show at times this season. So I can cope with how poor Wilshere was against Man City. What I can't abide - and frankly, there should have been a lot more opprobrium thrown towards Wilshere's proverbial door - is getting yourself unnecessarily banned before a series of three matches in five and a half days. The boy needs to learn.

Defeat to Chelsea would not be a disaster
Given Chelsea's patchy form and dodgy defensive record, this is certainly a chance to get an important win in a big game that would also re-enforce Arsenal's emerging confidence. But it is by no means a must-win game.

I've seen it mentioned all over Twitter that defeat would leave Arsenal fourth in the table. What's not been mentioned is that first to fourth would then be separated by one point.

After this game, there'll be 21 games left. Keep up the sensational form in so-called 'smaller' fixtures and it will all be moot.

It's a tough Christmas fixture list
Maybe it's because I've been convinced for a week now that West Ham will beat Arsenal on Boxing Day, but regardless, I'm worried about these Christmas fixtures. I can see Chelsea grinding out a win and going away to Newcastle, one of the most in-form teams in the League will be far from easy.

It's a strange one: there's no necessity to be Chelsea, but the momentum would be very useful before a couple more tough games in very quick succession.

Maybe Tim Sherwood isn't such an idiot after all
I was discussing Spurs' tactics against Southampton with my brother and he convinced me that Tim Sherwood has probably been a victim of a media narrative, or at least has taken unfair stick.

Whether AVB deserved to be sacked or not, it's clear he was trying to pick the best players in the squad, irrespective of whether they had actually gelled into a team, rather than picking players who could play together. Spurs have many players who are probably not quite good enough to propel them to fourth, but are still pretty decent players. Against a Southampton team riddled with injuries, perhaps it makes sense to forgo the defensive solidity of playing a double pivot and attempting to play to the strengths of your side.

It's a little disingenuous to dismiss him as a tactical neanderthal on the basis of one game, where the tactics actually seemed to work out pretty well. I think it's a nonsense to praise him for playing in 'the Spurs way' when this actually just seems to mean scoring goals in big games but ultimately losing, but equally, it's also a nonsense to simply dismiss 4-4-2 out of hand.

Maybe this is me being a simpleton, but I always feel that you pick a team to try and beat your opponents, and as Southampton are riddled with defensive injuries, trying to get at them seems quite a good idea.

For all the merriment and mirth generated by Spurs' heavy defeats to Liverpool and City, they're only six points off the top of the table. Everything is very constrained, and if they can get (some of) their summer signings working effectively, there's a lot to be optimistic about at Spurs. Alas.

The League table has now taken shape
That Spurs remain so close to the top of the table underscores what a tight season this is proving to be. Even so, I'd be shocked if any team currently in the top eight ends up outside the top eight. Beyond that, it's difficult to say what's going to happen.

Chelsea have done okay without performing especially well but I've seen nothing to suggest that they can put together a string of eight wins to go and win the League. They've averaged 70 points over the last two seasons, and it's going to take a considerable improvement on that to win the League.

For the top four, I genuinely do wonder whether United will make it. Suarez is inspiring Liverpool, Spurs aren't at all bad, and City, Chelsea and Arsenal all look to have better teams. One thing's for sure: the standard's the highest it has been for several seasons, and the next few months should prove very exciting.

Keep the faith.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Six thoughts on Manchester City 6 Arsenal 3

This was very unlike Arsenal this season
Since March, there's been a clear tactical shift from Arsenal from a possession-based game to more of a late 1990s swift counter-attacking style. For the first time in a number of years, the team has been happy to surrender possession in return for a good defensive shape and a tight backline.

Which is why I found the tactics today very odd. Without dominating possession like they used to, Arsenal still allowed the game to be very open. There was very little cover offered to the full-backs and this was compounded by giving the ball away in dangerous areas.

Normally, you might be able to moan about a team scoring six goals from seven shots on target but it's not as if Szczesny had a bad game - City repeatedly cut Arsenal open, leaving the goalscorers easy finishes. It was even worse after Flamini was withdrawn. There was no link play to get the ball to the attackers and Arsenal were even more under pressure.

Given City's obvious attacking strength, it would have made far more sense to keep it tight, as Arsenal ended up playing a very different style from how they've played this season. Unsurprisingly, they payed the price.

There will doubtless be a gross over-reaction to this result
It's not just that much of the Arsenal eleven played in Napoli on Wednesday night. It's that - like in so many of these games which finish with comedy scorelines - City scored two goals between the 88th minute and the end of the game. What made Spurs' defeat here so extraordinary was that they were 5-0 down after 55 minutes.

The implications for Arsenal's title challenge
With a tough and relentless run of games coming up, Arsenal are now one injury away from Bacary Sagna at centre back and Jenkinson at right-back. It's not good. I felt at the beginning of the season the squad was a defender light and a lack of injuries in that area has gone some way to covering that up.

More generally, this was certainly the hardest game of the season. If City can play like this away from home they will win the League - but they haven't managed that all season.

Removing Flamini was a terrible substitution
It's often easy to criticise these things with hindsight but I did actually comment at the time that it was an odd change. If you're being over-run in midfield with scant protection for the defence, removing the only protection they do have is just strange.

In a very similar situation in Manchester two years ago, Wenger removed a French holding midfielder for a winger and it ended 8-2. The way City dominated after Flamini went off, they could have scored even more.

If you're struggling because of a lack of defensive protection, all-out-attack is an odd response. It certainly didn't work.

Olivier Giroud is knackered
I don't expect him to be a brilliant finisher - he's not. I'm doubtful he ever will be. But Giroud's defensive work, off-the-ball and hold-up play was the worst I've seen it all season today. The guy's biggest asset is that he is a brilliant defensive striker, but that requires enormous energy, something he simply didn't have. He desperately needs a rest: I don't need the stats to tell you he is in the famous red-zone.

Mertesacker was in the wrong
You can debate at length whether players should go and applaud the away fans. I tend to think that even if it's a token gesture it requires very little effort and the reaction to not doing it makes it worthwhile.

But I think it's comparatively a lot worse to see two senior players having an angry argument on the pitch. It's the very opposite of what Arsenal have been about all season: a team with an enormous sense of unity. It brought back memories of Adebayor and Bendtner at White Hart Lane in 2009 and it gives people the impression there are divisions in the camp.

Perhaps Mertesacker was right. If he was, he should have told Ozil in the dressing room - there's no reason to air your dirty laundry in public.

Keep the faith.