Lukas Podolski – An Arsenal Epitaph

[As featured on ArsenalVision.com – http://t.co/AxXfSiJAXC ]

A little more than two years ago, when Lukas Podolski came to Arsenal in a transfer deal with FC Köln, it struck me as odd that a player commonly regarded as a quality, explosive goal scorer would have come from a team that had been relegated from the Bundesliga.

Podolski Montepelier

I shrugged it off. I knew even less about the Bundesliga then than I do now, and I took solace in the idea that Arsene Wenger knew talent when he saw it.  The nearly 100 caps that Podolski had at that time racked up for Die Mannschaft were further evidence to me of his quality.

I, too, shrugged off the three-year diversion from Koln to Bayern Munich before he returned to Köln.   Though I didn’t quite understand it in these terms then, such a move was tantamount to moving from Norwich City to Manchester United in the height of it’s pomp, and then back to Norwich City. It was easier for me to interpret this as further evidence of the dramas that commonly accompany league royalty on the Continent, especially among world renowned clubs.

Today, as Podolski is apparently on the way out of the door from Arsenal, I wonder no longer why he played for Köln, why he failed to impress Bayern, and why someone with such an impressive international record with a major national team could hold so little interest in the transfer market.

Before I go any further, this is not one of those vapid blog posts that blithely bash a (soon-to-be-)former Arsenal player after years spent cheering for him.  I’m a great fan of Podolski. On the pitch he has a no-nonsense directness about his play that’s appealing, and he’s scored his share of significant goals for the Arsenal.  And there’s that golden left foot of his, and the shots in the form of streaking missiles it produces.

Off the pitch I love and will miss his goofy sense of humor.  He’s the clown prince on a team that all-too-often seems neurotic and overwrought with earnestness.  Podolski, it seems, doesn’t let much worry him, and the only time he’s ever seemed unhappy as a Gunner has been when he’s not been able to play, hardly the greatest of sins.

podolski seal

The truth is, however, that Podolski is a specialist who Arsenal simply cannot afford to accommodate.  Indeed, for reasons I’ll explain, Podolski practically defines the term “specialist” in the footballing context.

What Podolski does well, few others can equal.  There is literally no player in the Premier League who I’d rather have in the following situation: either a pass or a loose ball comes to his left foot in the left half or at the top of the 18-yard box, with enough space for him to put his laces through it on either his first or second touch.  I mean every word of that- there’s no one you can name I’d rather have in that situation; even a first class left-footed finisher like Robin Van Persie doesn’t do it any better in that situation than Podolski does.

This clip from the Fulham away game early last season shows Podolski at his best in two of those sorts of moments:

The compilation of all of his goals from the 2012-2013 season shows a more complete pattern:

Such moments are the moments that Podolski lives for. That’s what, in a footballing sense, he was born to do, with a kind nod also towards his good skills as a (direct) free kick taker. But that’s it.  If not for such moments, Podolski would not be playing in any football league of any significance.  The reason for that comes down to what Podolski does not do. Let’s look at what we can’t define him as:

Striker – The tendency when filling out one’s lineup would be to put someone like Podolski, possessing such murderous finishing skills, up at the top of the attack at striker.  On the face of it, Podolski would seem like a wonderful poacher, which he is to a degree.  The problem is that a proper poacher does most of his work before the ball ever reaches him.  To poach the right game, the hunter needs to be where the animals are.  In football, a poaching striker is constantly in motion, hustling around into space and looking for the pass, the loose ball, the deflection, that might give him the chance to hammer home.

A good example of someone with such skills is United’s Chicharito Hernandez, who possesses the uncanny ability to be where the ball is in the 18-yard box and the relentless work rate to get him there.  While possessed of many of the limitations that Podolski has, much is forgiven due to Hernandez’s ability to get in the right place at the right time and to finish.

Podolski, even when he’s been tried centrally, has typically been a non-factor there.  The problem is that Podolski is not a dogged runner off the ball.  At times he will make breaks or play one-twos with teammates, but he’s as often seen walking or merely jogging. Worse, Podolski seems unable to cross the penalty spot and operate on the right side of the pitch with the same confidence as the left.  As strong as his left foot is, his right foot is relatively weak.  Any striker, even a poacher, must be able to operate over the entire front of the goal.  And Podolski also doesn’t have aerial skills that might mitigate some of this one-sidedness, like the equally left-footed Giroud has for example.

Podolski

Wing – While always left-sided, Podolski isn’t really a wing.  He’s neither particularly fleet of foot nor is he adept breaking down defensive players with the ball at his feet.  In partial contrast, while Theo Walcott likewise isn’t known as a great dribbler his blazing speed allows him to streak in behind defenders.  Because of that speed, Walcott plays on the last defender’s shoulder and often finds himself the farthest man forward.

Podolski rarely makes runs well beyond the last teammate.  His runs off the ball are based more upon quickness in closer spaces, usually inside the 18-yard box, than upon out-and-out speed in the open field, farther away from goal.  And now that the team has added Alexis Sanchez, Joel Campbell, and embraced a returning, healthy Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (all three of whom are players who can play all across the formation), Podolski’s deficiencies on the dribble and his distinct left-sidedness mean that he’s even farther behind in the competition for playing time.

Poldi’s relatively weak dribbling skills also mean that he’s a lot less comfortable when pressed in possession up against the touchline, a classic problem on the wing – he just doesn’t have much in the way of moves to extricate himself from there.

Attacking midfield – Arsenal’s attacking midfield players can often seem interchangeable (smaller, quicker, technically outstanding), and have even been ridiculed as a group for this seeming fungibility.  Podolski doesn’t fit this mold either.  He lacks the ambidextrous technical skills possessed by Cazorla, the man with whom he’s most often been replaced on the left of the attacking formation, and he consequently cannot rotate across the formation as Wenger likes for all of his attacking midfielders to do, no matter where in the formation they start.  Even the relatively one-footed Wilshere is far better in the midfield because of his work rate, passing and ability to drive forward with the ball at his feet.

Podolski contributes little to build-up in the middle third of the pitch. His passing skills are at best adequate, enabling him to play simple passes or perhaps quick one-twos with teammates. Podolski’s also not very creative and his vision seems mostly limited to either moves that he, himself might make or to obvious key passes like near-post crosses to Giroud, with whom he’s linked up fairly successfully.  The inability to generate killer balls forward into the prime scoring areas in front of goal is a particularly glaring problem for someone who favors playing in a withdrawn position in the left channel.

Finally, Podolski simply does not track back.  While this is not necessarily unique to him (Cazorla, Ozil and Walcott are not exactly known for being relentless defenders), the last thing Arsenal needs is one more attacking player who fails to contribute in defense, particularly when he lacks the work rate and the technical ability to fully contribute to the attack.

Podolski 1

So what exactly is he?  Podolski is essentially a strictly left-sided second striker who specializes in either crosses to the near post, or powerful shots from the left channel or poacher’s goals from right in front of goal.  In a sense, he’s a throwback to decades ago when inside left forwards were a common part of formations. At times, needing a goal late in a match, he might be just the substitution that could level a tough game where nothing else has worked, but Podolski isn’t satisfied occupying such a limited role – he was already unhappy with his limited playing time last year, before Alexis and Campbell arrived.  Regardless, outside of desperate late game situations, Arsenal just doesn’t play a second striker anymore.

At 29-years old he still attracts attention from prominent clubs like Juventus despite there now being so much evidence of the deficiencies in his game.  This might be unlucky for him as it allows him to avoid having to confront and accept his limitations, and put himself in the best situation to experience success.  He’s good enough to get the job at top clubs like Bayern, Arsenal or Juventus, but not good enough to keep it.

Ideally he’d either be a super sub for top clubs, or be a regular starter for mid-table clubs that simply don’t possess enough overall attacking talent to grumble about accommodating his extremely specialized skills.  Such a club need not necessarily be as humble as Köln, but it most certainly is not Bayern.  To pick a Premier League example, a club like West Ham, in desperate need of more scoring punch, would do well to land a player like Podolski, and one could see a happy Podolski, for his part, reveling the the bubble-blowing hero worship, if he’d only allow that to happen. 

Podolski’s departure signals good things for Gooners though. While Arsenal wasn’t too good for Podolski when he arrived in 2012, it is in 2014.  If you like, Podoski’s expendability has been a loose but accurate barometer for the advances the club has made in the quality of its squad in just the last two years. There simply isn’t more than a limited squad role for Podolski in the red part of North London anymore.

COYG!

-Chris

Please follow The Forward Observer on Twitter at @LennyPetsPuppys. Comments and RT’s are appreciated.

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Besiktas v Arsenal – post-match thoughts

[As featured in ArsenalVision: http://www.arsenalvision.co.uk/reviews/4712-besiktas-h-ramsey-a-wilshere-pairing-does-not-work-a-chambers-shines.html ]

Besiktas Arsenal

– I had higher hopes than this, but this scoreless draw was a pragmatic result for a team that’s not at full strength, full fitness or full form.  I think the team will be a lot more comfortable on their own (far better!) pitch before a home crowd in the return leg next week in North London with that same Besiktas side worrying about travel arrangements and fatigue.  The good news is that our defense, which has been featuring an entirely new right side and a less-than-fully-fit Koscielny still looked relatively solid with only a couple of nervous moments against an aggressive Turkish side.  I don’t mind building on our form from the back.

– I know we’re not even two-thirds of the way through August yet, but where would we be without Calum Chambers?  Hard to believe I’m writing this about a 19-year old, but if he’d actually looked like a wide-eyed 19-year old playing in his Emirates league debut and then again before a very hostile crowd in a Champions League debut in Istanbul, we might be three points worse in the league and staring Champions League elimination in the face.  Instead we’ve started off with a league win for the first time since 2009 and simply need to get a win at home against Besiktas in the return leg to qualify for the Champions League group stages (something that I’m pretty comfortable we’ll do).  He’s not just an amazing talent, he’s already shaping up to be a team leader as well.  He’s not the summer purchase I’d have figured to be writing this about right now.

– Injuries inevitably seem to plague the squad’s thinnest areas.  I’m sure some of that’s selective memory, but it’s amazing that the three almost universally regarded positions of greatest need are at CB, DM and ST (more or less in that order) and we’ve got Mertesacker getting fit and Koscielny struggling with an Achilles tendon injury at CB (with real 4th CB Monreal committed to covering Gibbs’ three-week injury at RB); Arteta now apparently with a twisted ankle at DM; and Theo and Podolski not yet back in the team.  Reading Wenger’s tea-leafy statements suggests that the club won’t commit more significant transfer resources unless it’s already earned the £20m qualification to the group stages, but one must wonder whether this is penny wise and pound foolish given that we might need players like Manolas or Carvalho to ensure we get past Besiktas to begin with, to mention nothing of a long league and domestic cup campaign that will inevitably test our squad depth in those defensive positions regardless.  If we’re targeting players at the back as has been rumored, then the correct interpretation of our present injuries is that they have only exposed the shallow bottom of the barrel we already knew to be there rather than shockingly drained water out of a deep tub.

– Regarding Koscielny’s Achilles tendon, it’s my impression based upon reading about such injuries in the NFL that this is not an injury that can really be rehabilitated as such, unlike a muscular injury for example.  My impression is that the Achilles either must be rested or surgically repaired.  I seem to recall, in fact, players playing as long as they can on it through the pain until it simply must be surgically repaired, including because they finally “accomplish” its rupture.  If I’m right, that bodes ill for Koscielny and the team as this will mean that any playing time he gets this year is tempting a rupture and extended time out to undergo surgery, and in the meantime he’ll likely not be at his best.  I recognize that we have only scant information about this injury, but can someone confirm whether or not this general impression about the Achilles is true?

calum-chambers

– Back to Calum Chambers: he’s good.  Really, really good.  He’s only three weeks into this team and he’s already barking orders at the back as a 19-year old.  That’s impressive moxie, and it doesn’t look forced to me.  I’m already worried about the English media starting to smother him in it’s next-great-English-footballer bear hug the way it’s done with so many others, including Jack Wilshere.  I really hope that we can start him in the squad because we want to rather than because we need to, which has been the case recently.  He’ll come along fast enough I think, but I don’t want to wear him out physically or psychologically, or start having his head turned by stardom (or the buffet) the way his old teammate Luke Shaw has.  Of course I say that and now with Mertesacker returning to action he may get pressed into action as cover for Arteta at DM…

– We have a lot of starting players out of form right now, and that’s in no small part to a truncated post-World Cup preseason.  My list of such players includes (unless I attribute it to injury, or post-World Cup rest) Giroud; Sanogo (might be youth, not form); Ramsey; Wilshere; Alexis (looking close); and Cazorla.  Look at that list of names and ask whether it’s any wonder why we’re not looking fluent in the midfield or incisive going forward; then also remind yourself that Ozil’s not in there to help smooth things out.

Ramsey Wilshere

– Regarding Ramsey and Wilshere, did you notice how the team suddenly looked a bit better and generated one of its best scoring chances when Aaron was sent off at Besiktas?  While that added some urgency to the team, I think it also removed one of the primary problems the team has had without Ozil.  The Ramsey-Wilshere central midfield pairing simply doesn’t work.  They’re too similar to each other.  Both like to make darting runs forward and play quick passes off of teammates on their way to scoring chances in the 18-yard box.  Ramsey is better all around than Jack is now, but that fact doesn’t help things as that doesn’t mean that Jack’s any less in Ramsey’s way. Indeed, we saw that despite Ramsey being the superior player at the moment, it’s better to have Jack alone in the midfield than to have him sharing it with Aaron, even with 10 men!  We need both of them in the squad to compete in four competitions this year, and hopefully long term they can learn to complement rather than compete with each other, but something’s got to give.  In the meantime, Ozil will be back next week and Ramsey’s suspension (which we should appeal after that ridiculous second yellow card, by the way) will mean that we’ll effectively have to start rotating Jack and Aaron beginning with Everton at the weekend.

– I make his performances against Palace and then Besiktas the worst two of Santi Cazorla’s Arsenal career, although I welcome differing opinions on that.  It’s disturbing to me that they’ve happened back to back.  I’m hoping that it simply is reflective of the squad’s overall problems regaining form, especially among forward players like him.

Giroud frustrated

– I like Giroud a lot and find myself defending him continually, but I must say that it gets tiring apologizing for a striker who, whatever his other merits, simply isn’t a great finisher.  While I’m not sure that the team as a whole would play better were we to magically switch out Giroud for Diego Costa, for example, I do know that Costa would score more goals for us and less hair would be torn out of Gooners’ heads over squandered scoring chances.

On to an early and somewhat daunting test at Goodison Park over the weekend!

COYG!

-Chris

Please follow The Forward Observer on Twitter at @LennyPetsPuppys. Comments and RT’s are appreciated.

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Arsenal’s 3rd CB: A Tough, Wonderful Dilemma

[As featured in Arsenalvision.co.uk: http://www.arsenalvision.co.uk/articles/4701-arsenals-3rd-cb-a-tough-wonderful-dilemma.html ]

On the face of it, Arsenal have an easy addition to make to their squad: a veteran center half who can be relied upon more confidently than Calum Chambers to back up the Mertescielny pairing in the critical central defense.  On closer examination, however, this will actually be no easy matter, and the truth of it is that an anemic center half transfer market, the realities of center back pairings, and Calum Chambers himself in an ironic way are to blame.

Mertescielny

Arsenal have proven to be skilled opportunists in the transfer market.  In three consecutive summer transfer windows, they have bought Cazorla, Ozil and now Chambers, respectively, on short notice and seemingly out of the blue when it unexpectedly came to their attention that those three players were available. While those players represent different strata of the transfer market, all were quality surprise purchases, and even the relatively unproven and even unknown, teenager Chambers would already seem to represent good long term value for his fee.

Chambers is the rare 19-year old who “should” be a Premier League starter and would be for any but a club in the top third of the league.  He has the athleticism and technical skill to play in the midfield or at full back, and yet also the physique (still developing), knowledge of the game, mentality and discipline to be entrusted with half of the central defensive pairing.  He’s been the captain of the Three Lions U-20’s in that same center half role, a suggestion of leadership qualities on his CV which history has long shown Arsene Wenger values.

Calum Chambers

Wenger appears to have bought him to play him centrally, though long term it is unclear whether that means as a center back or a holding midfielder (either? both?).  The point, however, is that Calum Chambers, however young he is, was not purchased for £16m to sit on the bench for all but 5 League Cup matches and a smattering of late game substitutions; with fond regards to our wounded Hammer, Chambers is not another Carl Jenkinson-esque flier of a prospect.

Indeed if one listens to any number of chagrined Southampton fans, they believe Chambers is the sort of player who can captain Arsenal Football Club for many years once he establishes himself in the team.  Nothing I’ve seen of either his game or his personality in these early days has me dismissing that notion.  We have, in short, acquired an exciting young player who might one day become this generation’s Tony Adams.  That is the sort of player you play as much as possible with the first team.

The only problem here is Chambers’ age and the notion that Arsenal, contending seriously for a league title for the first time in a nervy, frustrating decade, can’t risk one point here, two points there, in the league table to the learning curve of a 19-year old center back, much less when we’ve already got an excellent first choice pairing in that position for the first time in years.  At 19 years a center half has only experienced a relatively small number of game situations at full speed with the first team in which to hone those critical instincts that have him feeling rather than thinking his way through a match. Better, the thinking goes, to entrust that critical backup role to an old head.

The dilemma there, however, is no less thorny.  There seems to be little taste for acquiring a CB in his mid-30’s career dotage, someone who may have seen it all twice but who at this point can only keep up with half of it.  Rightly so; the Rio Ferdinands of the world are better earmarked for final contracts with newly promoted clubs.  How, then, does one attract a veteran center half, more worthy of Arsenal’s starting lineup than is Chambers, into a team with one of the best CB pairings in the league?

In short, if Chambers is not good enough to be the third center half, Arsenal have to find a center half who fits ALL of the following criteria:

1) is a veteran player with established starting credentials and experience in a major European football league if not the Premier League;

2) can be counted upon to be better/more reliable this season than Chambers;

3) is willing to accept at the outset that he will not start more than 10-15 games (all competitions), though is physically able to effectively start as many as 35-40 games if Mertesacker or Koscielny suffer a serious injury;

4) can be purchased for a fee and paid a salary that makes sense for Arsenal.

Taken together, those criteria define an extremely small sliver of the total population of center backs.  How many such players can there be in a transfer market in which Barcelona gleefully purchased a now-merely-pretty good Thomas Vermaelen for £5m more than he was purchased for five years ago, despite him not having been the first choice for Arsenal for 18+ injury-niggled months?

I’ve seen in recent days hopeful references to Mats Hummels, perhaps in response to Luis Van Gaal’s overtures to him for United.  Hummels, however, points out the problem. Even assuming Dortmund would sell him, it’s one thing to attempt to convince Hummels to move to a guaranteed starting spot for Manchester United (who by the way appear to be set to start three center backs), but another entirely to suggest to him that he’s needed for squad depth at Arsenal. Arsene, it is well established, is loathe to do much rotating with his center backs.

Mats Hummels

On the other hand, even if Arsenal purchased such a player to outright replace now-vice captain Mertesacker or Koscielny in the lineup, that in itself would represent disruption to arguably the most critical and most difficultly-developed partnership in this or any team.  Does Arsenal really desire to disrupt that pairing at the eleventh hour before this crucial season?

The only remotely possible candidate I can think of is Gary Medel, recently sold by Cardiff to Inter Milan for £10m. I don’t know, however, that he’d meet criteria #3 and besides, would a 5’7″ center half, however tenacious and established at the international level, inspire sufficient confidence as the primary center half backup in any event? Does he have the technical skill that Arsene likes for even his center backs to have?

Gary_Medel_Cardiff_City

Little wonder, then, that Arsene has already conceded that he’s looking more for a versatile player who can double as a holding midfielder rather than for a center back specialist. Necessity, it seems, is mothering such inventiveness.

There is not a league winner in history that has lacked any gaps whatsoever in its squad.  I’m not even convinced that Chambers can correctly be labeled a “gap”, mindful though I am of the old adage that “you can’t win with youth”.  Chambers seems to be one of the rare young players with whom you risk some points in the league table with him in the lineup in order to see if he might become a top class player. Contrary to the desperate, fanatical and wholly unrealistic belief that you spend every last pound to win now, there is time for even serious title contenders to think of the future too.

Chambers may surprise us, and we may have no choice but to give him that chance. Any player, even the best player, is unproven until he actually plays.

COYG!

-Chris

Please follow The Forward Observer on Twitter at @LennyPetsPuppys. Comments and RT’s are appreciated.

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Dortmund (home) – Fairly Beaten, But Fairly Good

Arsenal-v-Dortmund-CL

It would be tempting to say that Arsenal faced a first test this season and came up short.  That seems to be a popular storyline in the media.  That simply isn’t the case, however.

Arsenal have had some tests already.  We get a bit jaded talking about “big clubs” in the Premier League, and that causes us to forget how deep the league is as a whole.  I think it’s deeper now than it has been in a while, both among the clubs in the top six as well as the clubs that are in the seven to 15 range.

And by the way, the Gunners utterly dominated a strong Napoli side at home and then went to Marseilles, took the best that emerging French side could give, and still came away with a convincing three points.

Arsenal have been dominating their opponents for the last two months.  Their success has not been an accident.   Believe your eyes.

It is true, though, that Dortmund are the best team that Arsenal have yet faced.  They might be the best team that Arsenal ever faces this season.

The match was not pretty, filled with loads of highlights.  It was a hard-working match, filled with effort, focus and opportunism.  Both teams pressed, stayed organized, defended as a team.  Neither team could find consistent fluidity in possession.  This is what good teams do.  When they face each other, their efforts are as much guided toward stopping the other team’s pretty football as they are toward creating their own.

Dortmund is an elite team – you can count on one hand how many club teams in the world are even arguably better than they are.  This is the sort of result that happens when you have two top teams, in form, going head to head.

dortmund

Have you forgotten the frustrations of 10 to 15 years ago when United would come to town to face an in-form Arsenal team and steal three points at Highbury?  Arsenal of course would do the same at Old Trafford.  2-1 here, 0-1 there, 1-1 back at the other place, etc.   Do fans who rightfully celebrate the Invincibles need to be reminded how difficult it is to avoid a loss when you’re playing top teams?  Must every loss be deemed a failure?

Dortmund earned this win.  If it was a boxing match, it went the full 12 rounds with both fighters knocking the other down early on, but spending the middle rounds largely thwarting what the other fighter was doing; Arsenal was in the ascendency later on, but Dortmund edged the decision on points because they got a late surprise knockdown on a quick counter to the chin while they were on the ropes.

Arsenal score against the run of play all the time against other teams.  Did you so easily forget after only three days how dismal Arsenal looked for the 30 minutes preceding the second goal against Norwich?

Against Dortmund, it could have just as easily have gone 2-1 or 3-2 the other way.  Rosicky’s first half blast was past the keeper and headed to the corner of the net until it was cleared off the line.  Cazorla rattled the crossbar with a nicely taken shot off of an Ozil layoff.  Indeed, so similar are the teams overall that had they switched shirts the match result and the play that caused the result would be just as believable.

Meanwhile, Arsenal weren’t at their sharpest early on, went down a goal off of a careless Ramsey error, and then responded by leveling before the half.  After the half, Arsenal slowly increased the attacking pressure on a flagging Dortmund side for the entirety of the second half up to Lewandowski’s sudden goal.  All of this despite looking a bit tired and off-tempo for almost the entire evening.  If we’re thinking of this as a “test”, is that not credible stuff from Arsenal?

giroud Dortmund

If this is a reality check, the “reality” we’re being reminded of is that no team, however good or in form, is guaranteed anything when it is playing another top team.  Arsenal is not somehow diminished by this result.  Instead, you should appreciate the quality of Dortmund.  They’re a worthy opponent, and as football fans we live for Champions League nights with worthy opponents waiting to face our club.

The table does not recognize moral victories of course, but equally we should discourage the ludicrous catastrophizing that inevitably follows just about every loss, and doubly so when it’s against a top club.

We learned tonight to stay humble.  Humility in this case does not mean that Arsenal is not playing top football, it’s instead a reminder that other teams play top football too.  The Champions League is where you meet such teams.

Fair play, Dortmund.  Good game.  You were just a little bit better today, and when two excellent teams are playing, that little bit is sometimes all the difference.  Catch you the next time at your place.

COYG!

-Chris

Please follow The Forward Observer on Twitter at @LennyPetsPuppys. Comments and RT’s are appreciated.

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Norwich – Mesmerized Watching a Loom Work

arsenal-vs-norwich

So we won 4-1.  And a couple of players (the ones who weren’t still missing), weren’t at their best: Cazorla, Arteta.  Flamini got injured in the first half and had to come off.  Norwich played well for most of the game, and the handbrake was well and truly on for about half of the game, straddling halftime.  John Ruddy had a strong game in goal for Norwich, making a hatful of good saves.

And we still won 4-1.  We won 4-1 going away.  The score would have been 6-1 if the game had been 100 minutes instead of 90.

This team is excellent.  All four goals are highlight reel-worthy, and one is a candidate for goal of the month and another for goal of the season.   Ramsey’s individual effort on the left side of the box, calling for the ball, steering around two defenders, finishing coolly, is simply a phenomenal individual effort by a world class player in form.  Any striker would be proud of that goal and the dribbling that preceded it.

The first goal, however, is the one that is astounding.  Have you ever watched a loom working?  Your eyes can’t really catch how it weaves the threads, and yet it’s all there before your eyes working smoothly, beautifully, weaving separate threads into a whole cloth, making an intricate pattern.

On that goal, a whole series of one-touches between players, none of them traveling more than 10 feet, all in a highly crowded area at the top of the Norwich box, culminating in a gorgeous one-two between Giroud and Wilshere, with Giroud assisting Wilshere by putting him in with one of his now-patented side-footed flicks.

The Canaries were ball watching by the time Giroud flicked it in to Wilshere.  How could you blame them?  Everyone was.  We were watching some of the most technically gifted players in the world on a joyous lark.  We were trying to follow Django Reinhardt’s fingers on the strings.  We were trying to keep up with a master magician’s hands working a deck of cards.

Your eyes couldn’t follow it the first time?  No, it’s not that you weren’t watching the game closely enough.  It’s actually difficult to comprehend the movement even watching it on repeated replay.  That, simply put, is an all-time great team goal.  It’s one that will be shown for years to come as an emblem of what “Wengerball”, all of its movement, mental acuity, creativity and technical prowess, looked like when it was in full bloom.

The funny thing is, the other two goals, the second and fourth goals, were also excellent team goals.  Giroud in a role reversal receiving the ball out wide to the right, feeding a left footed cross to Ozil’s head in the box after a wonderful run forward off the ball.  The fourth was even better, with Rosicky crossing from the top left corner of the 18-yard box to Ramsey beyond the far post at the end line, one-touching it back in  to Ozil who steered it home with the side of his foot for his second.

John Ruddy has to be cursing the fates right now.  He had a good game.  He made a lot of saves – the reaction to Giroud’s well-struck half-volley flick (of course) late in the first half, down to his right was a magnificent one.  His palms were stung repeatedly by shots from Ramsey, Arteta, Ozil and others, and for a goalkeeper’s palms to sting he needs to get his hands in the way, which he did.  But the remorseless score sheet says he picked the ball out of his net no fewer than four times.   None of those goals were John Ruddy’s fault.  There was, simply put, nothing John Ruddy or any other goal keeper could have done to stop Arsenal from scoring today.

Norwich as a team played well.  For a long stretch in the middle of the game, Norwich seemed to be gaining more and more control of the game.  They were compact at the back and maintained their shape well.  They defended as a team.  They forced Arsenal into mistakes and won possession back well, and pushed forward without exposing themselves too much on the counter.  Their main sin is that they’re toothless up front, and couldn’t find ways into Arsenal’s 18-yard box.  And then they found themselves down 2-0 when Arsenal did manage to counter, very much against the run of play.   Still Norwich didn’t pack it in, and they nearly climbed back into the game when they made it 2-1 in the second half after the Arsenal defense was a bit lax.

But Arsenal’s attacking play is the story of the day.  The Gunners attacking are at times casually violent.  They have spasms of utterly unstoppable attacking play that seemingly emerge from nowhere, something I referenced a couple of weeks ago.   (See, “Arsenal: The Gator“) But they not only come from nowhere referencing the run of play, they can come from anywhere and anyone on the pitch.  Consider just today’s goals:

Goal #1: Cazorla to Wilshere to Cazorla to Giroud to Wilshere to Giroud to Wilshere, all intricate one-touch passing starting at the top left corner of the 18-yard box;

Goal, Wilshere; Assist, Giroud;

Goal #2: Ramsey in his own end to Cazorla, who runs down the center of the pitch with the ball, out wide right to Giroud, who crosses from about 25 yards out to Ozil who’s made a run from a withdrawn position to head the ball in from the penalty spot;

Goal, Ozil; Assist, Giroud;

Goal #3: Ramsey at the top of the 18-yard box, to Gibbs and then to Wilshere along the left touchline, back to Ramsey just inside the top left corner of the 18-yard box, who then dribbles around two defenders, shoots and scores from the corner of the six-yard box in the left channel;

Goal, Ramsey; Assist, Wilshere; and

Goal #4: From Rosicky at the top left corner of the 18-yard box, crossed to Ramsey on the end line at the right edge of the six-yard box past the far  post, one-touched back to Ozil in front of the goal for a tap-in;

Goal, Ozil; Assist, Ramsey.

If you’re facing this attack, who do you focus upon?  Ozil is Arsenal’s marquee player, but he was not at all involved on two of the four goals.  All of Arsenal’s attacking players move, shift and rotate.  All have remarkable vision and a great willingness to pass the ball and look to bring teammates into play.  All have the technical and improvisational ability to crack open a defense with their next touch.

Go back and watch the first goal.  As I stated before, the Norwich defense was ball watching by the end.  Ruddy was too; frozen in place, he couldn’t even manage a dive at the ball.  Where will the ball go next?  Good defenders anticipate and move before or at least at the same time a play is developing (Mertesacker’s made a career of this), but how do you anticipate the flight of a leaf in a storm?

This, in short, is the secret behind the Arsenal attack, and it’s why a conventional striker is simply not as important for Arsenal this year as it has been in years past.  Arsenal’s midfield is simply so potent, versatile and creative, and its attack so based upon teammates linking up, that no one person is a particular focal point for scoring.  You see it with Giroud, who has scored well but who has most impressed linking up with others, as he did today with two assists.  Which head of this hydra do you try to cut off first?

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I originally started writing the above as my usual Match Notes, but my thoughts about the Arsenal attack just started flowing so I went with it.  Here are a few more typical “match notes” though:

– When it happened, that Bendtner-for-Giroud substitution at 78′ was bizarre in the context of that match.  The score was 2-1, Norwich had scored last, only eight minutes before, and there was very much a feeling that for all Arsenal’s situational excellence they would need more to ensure victory.  Bendtner was neither a defensive substitution, nor could he be said to be a boost to the attack in place of an in-form Giroud.   In short, this seemed like a questionable situation in a league match to be thinking already about resting a player, especially one who is playing well.

Remarkably, Arsenal’s last two goals were scored within minutes of Bendtner entering the game to put the match away, and with Bendtner directly participating in the buildup to the fourth one while being positioned to take a cross from Ramsey on the third had Rambo not gone into “God mode”.  What’s wonderful about this is that Bendtner actually looked good, moving well and engaging in link up play with teammates “Giroud style” rather than always looking for a shot.

On the shot he did take, fed in on the right channel by Ramsey, he had a nice first touch and then quickly got a strong shot off at the near post which was saved by Ruddy.  (I wonder if getting caught from behind on his second touch at West Brom was on his mind.)  In short, it was a wonderful confidence boost both for the team and for Bendtner that the team could score with him in for Giroud.  Bendtner had the technical skills to match Giroud if he works at it, and more and more the idea of having “another Giroud” instead of a completely different style of striker appeals to me.

– As of Giroud’s substitution at 78′, he was my Man of the Match on the back of his two excellent assists.  By the end of the game, I was really at a loss as to who the Man of the Match should be.  Ozil finished with a brace; Wilshere, who was strong all game, had a goal and an assist; and Ramsey played at a world class level the second half and likewise finished with a goal and an assist (see the video, below).

I think I’ll go with Ramsey whose play was jaw-dropping, even if only for a half, but honestly any of those four guys could fairly get the award.  Anyone who can do this in the run of play deserves to be MotM:

– The Arsenal defense again surrendered a goal from an opponent that didn’t really threaten much overall.  Norwich barely sniffed the Gunners’ 18-yard box, and while Norwich’s goal wasn’t of the cheap variety, I still feel like Arsenal should be keeping more clean sheets, especially at home.

– The more I think about it, the more I believe that Per Mertesacker is the player Arsenal can least afford to lose.  Gibbs and Giroud are up there, but Mertesacker is just so critical and, most importantly, offers steady play that the mercurial Koscielny and Vermaelen simply can’t be relied upon to provide.  Now that the midfield is largely healthy, it is so good that I actually suspect we could get by without Giroud and still have a pretty effective attack.  As for Gibbs, Monreal can’t match his play in the attacking third or his ability to track back, but Nacho is certainly a reliable if not flashy defender.

– The loss of Flamini really destabilized the team, particularly in the middle part of the pitch and allowed Norwich to dictate the game there for a long stretch of time thereafter, surprisingly even with Ramsey on and otherwise playing an excellent game.  Unlike Ramsey, Flamini stays home in the deep midfield and is therefore always available to act as a spoiler.  (See, Flamini: The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing) Arteta is clearly not in form yet, so Flamini’s absence was noticeable.   I hope he’s not lost to us for very long.

http://arsenalist.com/f/arsenal-vs-norwich/gif-flamini-takes-out-tettey.html

– I have a feeling that Flamini would have been booked had he not injured himself.  His challenge was reckless and dangerous, and moreover was a poor and odd decision given the position on the pitch in the Norwich half with no particular threat brewing on a 50-50 ball.

– Szczęsny, the full backs and the center halves all had quiet, solid games… just the sort of games you’d like for your defense to have.

– Rosicky is the team’s super sub.  Every time he comes into a game after 60 or 70 minutes, he provides a shot in the arm.  He’s got all of the technical skill that the others do (no small compliment), and he can sustain a high work rate for a half hour, including off the ball and in defense, that helps greatly to close out games and also rest the starting players (today it was Cazorla who was taken off).  I think he’s got a future with the club in this role beyond this season.

– Here’s a question for you: What would you give to face Real Madrid in the CL knockout rounds and beat them, with Ozil leading the way?

That’s all today from this wordy bastard!

COYG!

-Chris

Please follow The Forward Observer on Twitter at @LennyPetsPuppys. Comments and RT’s are appreciated.

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West Brom away – Match Thoughts

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First the positives, then some concerns, then some criticisms…

THE POSITIVES

Rosicky was a terrific sub who immediately injected energy, creativity and tempo into an attacking midfield that seemed to lack it for most of the game.  He assisted Jack Wilshere’s goal on an inspired lay off, but he was all over the pitch and played very well.  Rosicky can’t be expected to play 90 minutes consistently, so he’s best used as either a 60 minute starter or a 30 minute sub.  He was the latter today and was a key player.

Kieren Gibbs had what has become his usual, solid game.  He’s one of Arsenal’s most consistent players, and that is to say consistently good.  He didn’t do anything remarkable, but he always seemed to be in the right place, doing the right things.  I love the way that he always seems to expertly use his positioning relative to the touchline and/or the end line to stifle opposing wide players in 1v1 situations.

It bears mentioning that we got this result “without” Aaron Ramsey, certainly without the Aaron Ramsey who we’ve become accustomed to.  To anyone who thinks that Ozil has been the team’s MVP since his arrival, I point you to this game, which was very quiet from Ozil.  Ramsey’s obviously inhibited performance hurt the team’s ability to win the ball and maintain possession in midfield, and frankly the attack reminded me a lot of the way it looked a year ago when there was much possession but little idea as to how to crack open the 18-yard box.  We missed his late runs into the top of the box, and our final balls were lacking too, though West Brom’s defending should get some credit for that as well.  Ramsey is central to the team’s success, so I hope he’s 100% healthy soon.

Overall, this was a fair result, and the team’s second half bounce-back was a reassuring continuation of its resilient play.  West Brom are a good side in a deep league who played confidently, and points from them won’t come easy for anybody.  It also bears mentioning that Lee Mason’s officiating was lousy.  I don’t mind physical play being allowed, in fact I prefer it that way, however the calls need to be balanced.  It seemed that every benefit of the doubt went to the Baggies.  How some of calls went against Arsenal when a player leaps over Jenkinson’s back to win a header and then lands on him is mystifying.  The non-call on the sliding tackle from behind on Wilshere in the box at the end was a potential game changer.  Weren’t we told regarding Koscielny’s tackle against Aston Villa that if you contact the player before the ball it’s a penalty?  Again, in this environment, the team buckled down and competed, and could well still have won.

THE CONCERNS

I love Carl Jenkinson and I think he’ll become an excellent player, and probably will have a lot of caps for England before it’s all said and done.  He works hard all game running like a gazelle (he’s deceptively fast with his long strides), both going forward getting back, and he’s very aggressive dribbling and crossing in the attack.  This game shows, though, how he’s still a work in progress, particularly in defense.  Sagna is simply more reliable and “safer” in defense, and given that that’s a FB’s primary role, that’s an important advantage.  It’s a dilemma, Jenkinson needs playing time to improve, but the team is better with Sagna in there.  In a season in which we’re trying to win silverware, that’s in important advantage for Sagna (when he’s healthy, of course).

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The defense continues to play well for 90 minutes, excepting one or two moments when it seems to ball watch and allow an opposing player to get free and score.  Jenkinson is getting the most stick for Yakov’s header as he was closest to him, but I find it hard to blame a right full back for a headed goal in front of the left post.  Where were Koscielny, Mertesacker or Flamini at that moment?  Anelka probably should have scored two more as well in the second half.  The team can’t keep giving up cheap goals as it will cost critical points in what already looks like a close race for silverware between five or six clubs.

Arteta continues to be a great passer of the ball, but he’s not yet back to his old form tackling, and he’s never been much good in the air.  I’m far more comfortable with Flamini back there if a ball needs to be won.

THE CRITICISMS

I don’t feel satisfied by this result, and here are the reasons why:

Jack Wilshere: I know he improved in the second half, and his long pass to Giroud was a thing of beauty, but that his goal flatters his performance.  He just wasn’t good enough, not by a long shot.  A major reason why Jack Wilshere gets tackled hard so much is that he runs into contact.  It’s ridiculous.  Yes, there are times you try to beat a man on a dribble, but the team’s bread and butter is attacking movement and combination play.  It does nobody any good for him to run at a defender (or two or three), lose the ball, and then roll around.  I already think he’s losing credibility with referees by doing this too much.

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I suspect he went into this game feeling pressure from the cigarette picture midweek (a ridiculous “scandal” really), and it resulted in a first half in which he took a speculative shot and crazily dribbled and recklessly tackled, all in an immature effort to redeem himself all at once.  He needs to play smarter rather than harder, and also realize that he needs to show quality over time, and not just in one game or one half.

Is that mindset of Wilshere’s the product of him not being used to criticism or adversity, and being a little immature in his response?  I don’t pin the team’s failure to get three points on him, but there’s no doubt that he had a major role to play today, particularly when Ramsey wasn’t playing at his best.

One last thing – don’t tell me about how he was playing “out of position”.  He’s free to move about in the attack, and I don’t for an instant believe that it makes much difference if you’re playing left, right or center when you’re tracking back in defense.

Arsene Wenger:  Games like this one are why people question his tactical nous on game days.  I didn’t like the starting lineup.  The team of late has been at its best when Ramsey is paired up deep with Flamini, and you play with three attacking midfielders in front of him.  In other words, I’d have gone with Rosicky over Arteta.  This would have been a more “front-footed” lineup, and it would have allowed Ramsey to create from deeper and start his runs forward from there.  Ramsey is also far more relevant in defense when he’s deeper.  Rosicky is also better suited to provide quickness and width on the side of the formation than Ramsey is. Finally, this keeps Arteta (who’s still trying to regain his form) in reserve as a sub for Rosicky in case you have a lead and need fresh legs in the deep midfield to protect it.

I was firmly of the belief that Wilshere should have been brought off at halftime for Rosicky.  Wenger stuck with him (of course he did – he always does) and it ended up working out, but I do wonder whether that sort of move by Wenger if a “star” player is performing badly might not be a good thing for ensuring that Wilshere stays more focused.

More troublesome were the other substitutions, both that he did and didn’t do.  When I saw Bendtner about to come on, I liked the idea of going for the win with two strikers, with Bendtner perhaps poaching a goal.  Giroud didn’t have a great game, but he put in his usual big effort and was passing better and better as the game went on, with no sign of let-up that I could see.  I assumed Bendtner would replace a midfielder.  Replacing Giroud with him when you still needed a goal made no sense.  Simply put, even after 80 minutes there is no part of Giroud’s game that is inferior to Bendtner’s, and that’s particularly the case in terms of work rate and also defending set pieces.  If the team was up and you wanted to rest Giroud, so be it, but that substitution ended up hurting Arsenal’s chance of getting a winner.  Bendtner was invisible.

I also don’t understand how Serge Gnabry could stay on the bench, much less with a third sub available.  The game was crying out for another attacking option, so much so that Flamini (who was playing on yellow for most of the game) was venturing forward and taking some feeble shots; Arteta got a shot off too.  Gnabry, who by the way is no slouch in defense, could have been inserted on the right and allowed a greater amount of rotating play by the attacking midfield in search of that winning goal, much like we saw away at Swansea.  The midfield was simply lacking in dynamism for most of the game, and Gnabry might have injected life into it in much the same way as Rosicky did.

Ah well, we’re still top of the table, with Cazorla, Theo, and Podolski all set to return soon.  And Spuds got crushed at home by (wait for it) West Ham.  That’s not a bad consolation prize.  COYG!

-Chris

Please follow The Forward Observer on Twitter at @LennyPetsPuppys. Comments and RT’s are appreciated.

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Arsenal: The Gator

Gator eyes

Alligators are fascinating creatures, literally living dinosaurs who have somehow survived into the modern epoch.   There’s nothing about them that doesn’t look alien.  They live in a different environment than we do, they fight differently, and they look like monsters.  They even hiss.  Come to think of it (and it literally did just occur to me), alligators were my “monsters under the bed” when I was a kid.

The way an alligator hunts is entirely fitting with its monster image.   They lie in murky ponds and swamps and wait for unsuspecting animals to get close to the water’s edge, before they strike, quickly and violently.  They explode onto their prey during their attack, overwhelming it with their speed and mass so that they can get their powerful jaws around some part of it.  In short bursts they can reach up to 30 miles per hour.

They then drag the stunned creature into the water, their territory, where they roll and roll and roll with the creature helpless in their jaws, dislocating joints, breaking bones, disabling and drowning it, before stashing its corpse down in their underwater pantry.  This is horrific stuff, straight from eaten-alive nightmares.  Once this ambush is laid, a creature subjected to this attack has almost no chance of escaping.

In the last two games, away at Swansea and home against Napoli, Arsenal have been gator-like in the way that they’ve prevailed.  They’ve spent long stretches of the game seemingly biding their time, but the resolution of those games in Arsenal’s favor happened in the span of mere minutes, during which two goals (the opening goals) were scored in quick succession.  Their opponents were as overwhelmed as a deer at the edge of a murky watering hole.

In Swansea, Arsenal approached the game cautiously, and for good reason.  Swans are a good team, and they play Arsenal’s game insofar as they know how to maintain possession, and also to craft sudden chances through combination play.  Swans notably started with Wilfried Bony on the bench, in favor of another midfielder, which almost amounts to a 4-6-0 inasmuch as Michu is as much a trequartista as a true forward.  In short, Swans were making it clear that they planned to beat Arsenal by maintaining possession and pressing when out of possession.

The Gunners bided their time, lurking in the proverbial water while ceding possession to Swans and allowing them to dictate the game’s tempo through most of the game; indeed, Swans seemed to have the upper hand for almost the entirety of the first half, when they were beating the Gunners to loose balls in the midfield and their pressing defense was clearly bothering Arsenal.  Some of Arsenal’s uncertainty no doubt was from necessity, as the Arsenal attack was having to reexamine how to best utilize Serge Gnabry in place of Theo Walcott.  (See, Swansea Away: Ozil Stoops to Conquer: http://wp.me/p3TyLs-al )

Still, at the beginning of the second half, it became readily apparent that for all of Swans’ success in possession, Arsenal had been using that time to size them up.  In the 58th minute, Arsenal built up a 22-pass attack that culminated in a beautiful finish by Gnabry, expertly put in by Ramsey.  Only four minutes later, Arsenal countered literally from their own end-line with service by Szczesny to Ozil, catching Swansea on the break and resulting in a powerful Aaron Ramsey finish, fed by Wilshere and then Giroud.  In between, Ozil had a scoring chance of his own versus the keeper that was saved.

Swans were overwhelmed and looked it.  They’d seemed to be exerting control for most of the match up to that point, maintaining control of the midfield and making Arsenal look hurried and uncomfortable on the ball.  The first goal caused manager Michael Laudrup to insert Bony into the lineup as he knew he’d need to attack with a true striker up front, but Bony was barely on the pitch before Ramsey struck.  Swans gamely fought on and even managed a goal, but they had no way to match Arsenal’s ability to strike.

For Napoli, in theory an in-form Serie A team with every right to hope for a good result even at the Emirates, it was even worse.  Arsenal completely overpowered them for the entirety of first half, starting from the first whistle with a particularly dominant opening 15 minutes of football.  Remarkably, this was done playing narrowly in the midfield, with no true wing and five central midifielders.  Ramsey, Ozil and Giroud were rampant, with the latter two netting goals.  Napoli looked impotent and dizzy, and never asserted any serious pressure on Arsenal, even after Arsenal backed off in the second half and seemingly invited their best response.  There was no waiting in the mud for an opportunity this time – the attack was immediate.

After years of watching “lovely football” in possession that has often resulted in little or no result in terms of goals, this new found  ability to ruthlessly attack and finish in quick succession is certainly pleasing to Gooners everywhere.  This is no illusion either – all four goals at Swansea and against Napoli involved top technical skill and excellent teamwork.

A word of caution, though, about gators.  Despite looking powerful, their tactics are based upon surprise and speed more than strength or stamina.  I heard once that they’re literally not “wired” temperamentally for long fights – they’ll suffer the equivalent of a nervous breakdown if they’re not able to either prevail or escape a confrontation within 60-90 seconds.  It’s why you see alligator hunters putting bags over their heads when they catch them – it helps calm them.

There will come a time this season, when an opponent fights back with an equally sudden strike or two.  Arsenal will strike quickly, and then the opponent will level.  Arsenal will strike again, and again the opponent will level, or perhaps pull ahead.  Arsenal have shown they can grind out wins (the 1-0 victory against Spurs and the 2-1 victory at Marseilles were examples), but I don’t feel like they’ve been fully tested over 90 minutes just yet in a full-on fight.  The imposing November and December fixture list figures to provide that test.

Three years ago, when Arsenal was atop the table prior to playing Manchester United (and a few months before falling out of a shot at all four cups in one painful fortnight), I felt that their position in the league table flattered them.  They felt wobbily, not least because they were shaky at the back and couldn’t figure out how to defend set pieces.  I have faith this year that I didn’t have then, and it’s the adversity of the last few years that has spawned the resilience and durability I see in the side.  I think for the first time in years that they can pass whatever test is thrown at them.

Some fans are already cautioning that Arsenal have yet to face a “big club”, or that Arsenal are actually three points worse than last year when playing the same fixtures.  You can, as the saying goes, only play the games you get.   In the meantime, Arsenal will continue to lurk in the muddy shallows.  Waiting.  Like an alligator.  Or maybe like something even more fearsome.

COYG!

-Chris

Please follow The Forward Observer on Twitter at @LennyPetsPuppys. Comments and RT’s are appreciated.

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