Saturday, 30 May 2015

FA Cup Final Preview

Preview | Pre-match conference | Team news

FIFA getting themselves in hot water (about time!) may have deviated minds slightly, but coming into what is arguably in the top five of important matches this decade, there is no doubt where the focus is. The FA Cup may have lost some of its sheen (or a lot, admittedly), but for a season that has been largely underwhelming, provides colossal reason for relief and celebration.

Of course, the pressure on the players and the manager is not nearly as immense as it was last season. Last May's trip to Wembley had so much at stake, the stadium should might as well have had a board outside with a disclaimer for people with heart problems. Arsene Wenger's legacy and the patience of 27 million people was compromised. Had we lost, which at a point seemed increasingly likely, people would have been out on the streets for blood.

Losing to an Aston Villa managed by Tim Sherwood would be ridiculously disheartening, but it won't be as catastrophic as last year could have been. Aside from the obvious inherent pride and hunger to win among the players, manager and supporters, there isn't much at stake. Wenger's future is sealed until 2017 (unless this happens), none of the players are viewing this game as a decider for their Arsenal futures, and if you hadn't noticed, we broke the trophy drought last season. Despite the significance of today, one foot is already into preparing for next season's title challenge.

 However, I'm firmly of the opinion that as long as Arsene Wenger is in charge, a Premier League win is impossible. If his Arsenal failed to grab second away from an unstable United and a City in reckless form, I don't see him overtaking Mourinho over 38 games. Winning an FA Cup and assembling a starcast of Gunners is the closest he can get to the perfect farewell swansong.

Anyway, today's not a day for this argument.

In terms of team news, everybody except Danny Welbeck is fit. Oxlade-Chamberlain's run out against West Brom means that there is a likely chance he will be involved, if not fit enough to start. The vast availability for Wenger comes with its problems of leaving some out; a really good problem, in hindsight.

The reasons for and against starting Szczesny in goal are so varied and so many that Wenger might as well go all Harvey Dent and decide it on the toss of a coin. As such, I hope he starts Szczesny. Leaving him out of last season's finale at the expense of a goalkeeper who was a definite goner was unfair toward him. Szczesny's been at Arsenal for around nine years - he's lived the trophy drought as painfully as we have. He deserves to earn a trophy. In addition, it would ensure that Wenger's newfound protocol of playing a "cup keeper" in every game remains intact.

The back four of Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Monreal should pick itself, but it's the midfield trio that could provide another conundrum. Should Wenger assume that Villa will set up to play pragmatic football, and play two of Ramsey, Wilshere and Cazorla in central midfield, dropping Coquelin altogether? Or should he be a bit proactive himself by starting Coquelin, and substituting him if it becomes clear that Villa are looking for little more than soaking the heat?

I hope it's the latter - playing two attack-minded midfielders in front of our back four could be perfect for someone like Fabian Delph. Even so, there's wiggle room for understanding even if Wenger opts for a more courageous Ramsey-Wilshere duo instead.

And then there's the question of who partners Coquelin, assuming he starts. The more obvious answer seems to be Santi Cazorla, with Ramsey playing on the right. I really hope that's not the case - Ramsey is not capable of giving Arsenal width or protection on the wing. Wilshere is marginally better but he's also hardly favourable. It's time for Wenger to be ruthless and drop either one of Ramsey or Cazorla for a player offering width. As much as it pains me to say it I hope it's Santi, because he doesn't have the energy to be buzzing for all 90 minutes, or a possible 120.

Come to think of it, Mesut Ozil seems the only certain starter in midfield today.

Alexis Sanchez should occupy the left flank with hopefully Theo Walcott and not a central midfielder on the right, which leaves Olivier Giroud to play as the lone striker. I really hope he has a good game today, because he doesn't seem to cut it under pressure. Thierry Henry was marginally right about him when he said Arsenal need better. Giroud has a fantastic work ethic and hunger, but he's still pretty second rate. It's time for him to up his game when it counts.

While I'd fancy a more Szczesny - Bellerin - Mertesacker - Koscielny - Monreal - Coquelin - Ramsey - Ozil - Walcott - Sanchez - Giroud lineup, I suspect Wenger will instead find a way to fit Cazorla in, at the probable expense of Theo. Don't forget that the coin toss means Ospina has a 50% chance to start too!

To be honest, back in October if I was told that Arsenal would finish third and win the FA Cup I'd have jumped on it the same way James Franco did when he saw a puddle of muddy water (muddle?) in 127 Hours. I know it's underachieving compared to the lofty ambitions we had back in August, but we've had way worse falls from expectations before (read 2010/11).

It's debatable whether we've made progress or not this season, but there'd be little debate we've gone backwards if we lose today. While my opinion that Wenger may never win major honours again stands, FA Cups such as these stall the departures of the world class we do have at Arsenal. They need to believe that Arsenal is the place to be if we're hoping for post-Wenger success. They won't stick around if the club isn't winning things or, at least, competing for them.

Come to think of it, there are stakes for today. If we want to mount a sustained Premier League challenge for tomorrow, we need to secure this win today. If we want to make our real rivals Chelsea uneasy, we must win today. If we want to (at least) restore an illusion of genuine competition, we must win today.

If we want to justify Arsenal's illustrious and staggering history of accolades, we must win today.

Come on you Gunners - and Gooners. Make today special.

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland: Second would have been progress. Third is not.

Match Report | Match highlights | Wenger's thoughts

I do not understand why people do not understand the difference between second and third.

"Footballistically", as Arsene Wenger would put it, there isn't any. Neither Manchester City nor us would have to go through the sadomasochism of the Champions League qualifiers that Manchester United will experience. I imagine the gulf in monetary rewards by Barclays will not be mammoth. And, considering the difference in points between us and the Citizens, anyone could argue that it could have been us at second.

And that is what does not rub with me. The fact that we could not usurp second whilst Manchester were dealing with their baggage under little pressure is worrying. It won't be nearly as easy next season. City will look to bounce back with a new manager and a new goal. United have already started on their summer business, nabbing Gundogan and Depay. Chelsea will strengthen to push on for Champions League glory.

I have accepted that Wenger will stay at Arsenal until 2017, but I hoped (perhaps foolishly) that we would at least compete for something worthwhile under him. That, other teams' incompetence and our general impressive individual qualities would overshadow Arsene's tactical limitations and his man-management flaws. I was wrong - to overtake a Jose Mourinho team or the Bayerns and Barcas of the Champions League, you need a modern, competent manager who can cover that percentile difference.

Second would have been huge for Arsenal. It's been, what, nine years since we finished runners-up? As mentioned above, it would not have made much difference on paper, but the psychological implications would have been huge. The media would have portrayed us as Chelsea's biggest foe. Potentially great players in the team would have been more recognized. We would have had the edge on most games simply because of the fear factor associated to being a title contender.

More than that, the players would have belief. Confidence in an Arsene Wenger side is key. It's what makes them play zippy football and score slinky goals. I'm not saying it would guarantee us Premier League 2015/16, but at least it would have provided the "big club" illusion which would keep world class like Ozil and Sanchez at Arsenal until Wenger leaves for a better manager.

But, no. Third and FA Cup is hardly huge progress from fourth and FA Cup (one could argue that Liverpool's decline is what pushed us up to third, too). Baby steps such as these aren't going to convince the quality players we do have that this is the place to be. I'd imagine that if Arsenal don't compete in the Premier League or the Champions League next season, Mesut Ozil would well call it a day.

And you wouldn't blame him. Say what you will about Sterling's agents having a greedy hand for wrecking his PR Image, but I'll be damned if Raheem's actions are 100% dictated by his advisers. All top players are winners. Sterling's willingness to leave Liverpool is as much propelled by the lucre of major honours as it is of making big bucks.

Arsenal can buy top players because we have the money, but we sure as hell won't keep them if we keep stalling as we are. It's been pretty clear that Arsene Wenger cannot and will not get us past the 3rd-4th threshold into elitism. If Ivan Gazidis and the board do not take action on the managerial situation soon, Wenger's last memories of managing Arsenal would be overseeing a mass exodus of players who were meant to be the bedrock of our future. It's up to the board to ensure that they do their job.

Or three years from now, we'll be looking back at this time and thinking "Why didn't we nab Jurgen Klopp when we had the chance?"

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Arsenal 0-1 Swansea: One of those?

Match Report | Match highlights | Wenger's thoughts

The lineup...
The argument around the Arsenal (Twitter) camp stirred when there was no Jack Wilshere, no Theo Walcott or at a stretch, no Tomas Rosicky given a start. Retorts followed: "Why would anyone change a winning team?"

After yesterday's first half performance it became clear why. I fully understand that this is a team in form and probably merit their starting berths, but rotating players is not all to do with bringing squad players inside after injuries or suspensions. Sometimes, even the best players need a rest, or need to lay back and reanalyze their game.

The same tactics and personnel won't work against every team on Earth. I agree that playing Ramsey on the right flank worked well against Liverpool and Hull City, but that does not mean shunting him there against every opposition. Back against Liverpool, we were dazzling. Today, we were narrow.

Selecting a starting eleven depends on the traits of the opposition as much as it depends on the traits of ours. Team selection is a subjective concept, not an objective one. However, Wenger's refusal to change a winning team will not only cost us in the short term, it will also cost us in the long term when the likes of Wilshere, Walcott and Rosicky will leave for lack of game time.

Rotation is important for morale as well as for keeping players physically fresh. I've been pointing this flaw out throughout our winning streak simply because it's so avoidable. Today, the game needed the flair of Wilshere and Rosicky, and the pace of Walcott.

We aren't getting injuries because there's a huge gap between matches having little importance. This won't happen between August-February though, which is why learning the practice of rotation is imperative. 

The tactical approach...
Toward the end of the first half, Mesut Ozil proved his true wizardry when he himself seemed to be forming a tactical gameplan of his own. Realizing that Giroud was getting crowded by Swansea and Arsenal attacks were breaking down when they got to him, he decided to drop deep and spray balls from there. It worked to great effect because Giroud is always prone to pinballing passes when he gets them from afar, which resulted in some quick passing and, invariably, chances.

Was this masterminded by Wenger? Unlikely, because any manager looking to deploy their most creative midfielder at the center of the pitch would not opt to remove the defensive support (aka Francis Coquelin) from there.

Also, Mesut Ozil's general tendency to drift toward pockets of space (here, the middle of the park because Swansea had no proper striker to hound the defenders and the midfielders), and Wenger's track record of his general one-dimensional tactical approach also speaks against him.

The impression I got from the manager was that he sensed a goal was coming, so he stuck with his plan. It's not a foolish idea - it seemed to be working in the second half and we were creating chances. My concern, however, lied when he withdrew Coquelin. The move reeked of "Losing/chasing? Bring off Coquelin for a forward. Doesn't matter how we're playing or what the other team are doing, just do it."

The pre-plannedness of this Wenger move worried me, as it did everyone. 

David Ospina...
He should have saved that - it's ridiculous to even debate it. He's been augmented by a very good defensive unit in recent times and has been on a good run himself, but using that argument to support the fact that he flapped a straightforward parry is baffling. For the Indian audience, it's almost like justifying Salman Khan's crimes because of the Being Human that followed.

I've always felt Szczesny was the superior keeper despite his supposedly arrogant personality, and I hope to see him more often after yesterday. Obviously I'd be more than welcoming should Wenger decide otherwise and buy a goalkeeper, but considering the dearth in the market and Wenger's general tendency to put faith in his players (Ospina's a newbie, too), it seems unlikely.

It could be worse. Juggling between Szczesny and Ospina is better than juggling between Almunia and Fabianski.

In conclusion...
We weren't poor by any stretch, and should have won this game regardless of Wenger's choices of hoofing Coquelin and playing Walcott as a center forward, so I'm tempted to coin the unlucky term on this game. However, seeing the entire team with no structure nor organization ever since Francis left the pitch was very worrying, and reminiscent of Anderlecht, Monaco, Manchester United and indeed, Swansea away. I understand the manager's ineptness, but surely the players ought to have had the nous to leave more players than Koscielny and Ospina behind the halfway line?

P.S. Apologies for the dysfunctionalism of this post - but I've been a bit busy over the times. Hopefully that should change soon. Until then.

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

Monday, 4 May 2015

Hull vs Arsenal: Match Preview

Preview | Pre-match conference | Team news

With Chelsea sealing the Barclays Premier League crown, at least all of our hopes can be pinned on something more realistic i.e. second. It's a job made much easier after Manchester United (heh) fell prey to West Brom. And for obvious reasons, it would be an important step toward challenging for the title next season.

I feel that we really need to curb on injuries if we want to win the league, though. Obviously variables like Wenger's relatively one-dimensional tactical approach won't change, but his rotational policy has shown signs of progressing. Not enough of course, seeing that the likes of Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky don't play even though the season approaches its formality stages.

Mesut Ozil was overplayed whilst carrying an injury against Bayern Munich and Chelsea and missed the subsequent two months or so. Alexis Sanchez burned out around the January-March phase because he played straight 90s for around a dozen games. Look at Chelsea - despite their superior training regime and relatively relaxed style of play, everyone minus Hazard ran out of steam in the second half of the season.

Giroud was on an enforced quarterly break and came back a lot stronger, partly because he was augmented by Danny Welbeck, who played in the FA Cup to take some of the burden from him. Now compare that to the Giroud of last season who seemed like running through cement because he was knackered toward the tail end of 2013/14. No prizes for guessing which policy is better.

We don't need Ozil nor Sanchez to intimidate or overrun a Hull City as good as immune from relegation. In fact, the only two games needing a full-strength squad are against Manchester United and the FA Cup Final. Bringing in a few fresh legs at this point would not only take the heat of our more prominent personalities, but would also make squad players relatively positive about their Arsenal futures. Making certain that our top players don't get long term injuries now is also part of preparation for next season title assault.

Hull caused us plenty of problems in recent times with the 2-2 at the Emirates and the FA Cup last year, but we weren't in the best of places back then, and a marginally better Arsenal easily saw them away 2-0 a couple of months later. If we manage to make hard work of this then that's on us but I suspect we won't. Won't we?

Right, till then happy St. Totteringham's in advance (I'm that confident!) and take it easy. Later.

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]