What to do with Theo Walcott?

Time for the god of speed  to step it up.

Time for the god of speed to step it up.

Theo Walcott, since his return from injury, has found his place in the team occupied by others. It is not unusual in a top team to find players with considerable quality somewhat sidelined, but I have to admit Theo’s is a very curious case. I say this, because, if you take everything into consideration and analyse what each player (competing for that spot) brings to the table, then I can’t help but feel for him. Let us have a look at each player in detail.

Danny Welbeck

Signed for 16M from Manchester United, Welbeck’s transfer to Arsenal was undoubtedly the surprise of the summer. When he arrived many (if not most) felt that Arsene had pulled another Andre Santos. Some believed that the gaffer could extract the Thierry Henry from him. Only time will tell who is right but for now, this is my honest assessment of his abilities.

Welbeck is a striker with several qualities that give him the potential to be a world beater. First and foremost has to be his spirit and mentality. He is always willing to run himself to the ground for the team. He is also very quick and is always looking to take on players. There’s is also the fact that, on occasion, he produces a deft flick or a jaw dropping turn that leaves his marker clueless. His movement off the ball is very good too. Danny is also a very good finisher/striker of the ball (I will explain). He is also strong and quite good in the air. However, my main issue with Danny is his decision making. Danny is a very good finisher but he always seems to make the wrong decision, especially inside the opposition box. Taking an extra touch when he should have pulled the trigger, going for goal when he should have squared it for a team mate, going for power over placement & vice versa. He is also very poor on his chocolate foot. For me, all these negatives can be attributed to age and can be ironed out in time. in the CF position.

Wenger said that the reason he likes playing strikers on the wing in the initial stages of their development is so that they can build their stamina, learn how to beat players, learn how to operate in tight spaces and learn how to finish from different angles in front of the goal. Thing is, Danny already has all that. Decision making is what is lacking. The way to remedy that is to give him more playing time up front, so that he gets more scoring chances and eventually the composure will come. It is no wonder he has scored for us when he played as the main striker. It is also no wonder he scores as much as he does for the national team. I do not for a minute expect him to oust Giroud from that line up but rather to be his understudy.

Theo Walcott

The reason for this post: an in form Theo is (and I have said this time and time again) one of our best finishers, if not the best. And on top of that, his off the ball movement is top drawer meaning when we have him in the side we are always going to get clear cut chances. This is evidenced by the number of one on one chances he has been failing to convert while still recovering his match fitness (normally about 3-5 a game). What’s even more is that he has an understanding of how Arsenal play. He has developed an on the field understanding with Giroud, Santi, Ozil and even in the few times they’ve played together, Sanchez.

Sure, he may not have the defensive output that Sanchez or Welbeck have, but if Ozil was given the chance to learn, why can’t he? The truth is Walcott will never play through the middle, but we have found a system that suits him even better. Considering his passing and crossing ability (ask RVP) playing him on that right flank with the freedom to roam, alleviates him of the physical responsibility of a traditional winger, which allows him to thrive. I mean three goals in five starts for a player who missed an entire calendar year of football is more than just impressive. I think before we call for his head, let us give him a chance to get back to the form he showed before he got injured.

Alex Oxlade Chamberlain

For me this is the player who should be competing with Theo for that spot on the right wing. He is one of our most improved performers. His pace, dribbling ability and tenacious attitude make him a nightmare for any defence. I actually believe that as long as Theo isn’t match fit, he should be our starter out wide. He can even slot in for Alexis when he runs out of steam. All he needs to work on is his goal scoring and his final balls (passes) and he will be unstoppable.

In comparison to seasons past, Arsene has improved his squad rotation tactics but I still feel he isn’t there yet. Ideally a team with as many players as we do should not have instances where some players suffer from fatigue, or fatigue related injuries and others languish on the bench. How is it that Ozil & Cazorla both get tired when we have TR7? Yet in the same team, Monreal and Gibbs both have played enough games thanks to rotation. Rather than push Welbeck out wide where he is less effective, why doesn’t Arsene rotate him & Giroud at CF? If they both were to get injured/tired we would have to play a false 9. He can do the same for Ozil & Santi to give each a breather once in a while.

Honestly I feel losing Theo would be a decision we would live to regret, especially if we sold him to a rival. He still can make our attack even deadlier than it is now. Give him a chance.

COYG!!!!

By Marcus

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Giroud and Le Coq Pull Arsenal Through: Match Afterthoughts

Well that was another very important win and a fantastic performance, given this was our fourth game in just twelve days.

Best all-round CF in the PL, Giroud bags two more goals! Thanking The Guardian for picture.

Best all-round CF in the PL, Giroud bags two more goals! Thanking The Guardian for picture.

We qualified for the semis of the FA cup against the Mancs, got six points from the Hammers and Magpies, and almost did the impossible against Monaco: four wins, nine goals scored and just two conceded. Arsenal are red hot right now. Are the fans ecstatic, full of pride and proud of the team, though…? We Gunners are a peculiar lot; let’s leave it with that.

The performance against Monaco was one of the most mature I have ever seen of Arsenal. We controlled the game throughout and all Gunners, including the subs, played with a concentration that made me proud. We needed a bit of luck to complete a miraculous turnaround and that was the only thing missing.

Today, against the Barcodes, the team started once again with a mixture of passion and professionalism; and our ability to score again and again has just been amazing over the last few months. I expected the team to tire at some point, so a good start was vital and the team knew that. Giroud was once again pivotal for us, literally and figuratively. His all-round CF game has become so good: he reads the game in a flash and his strength to hold of players, combined with his excellent first touch and passing ability are simply invaluable. People will rate Giroud now for his goals, and nine in nine games is indeed fantastic, but there is so much more to his game that deserves undiluted admiration.

Sanchez and Santi looked knackered; Ramsey was a bit fitter but did not have the best of games; Danny was the fittest of the four but did not impress me in the one to ones, positioning in the box and with his finishing. But they all worked their socks off and stuck to the team plan and that made all the difference. Koz and Gabriel worked well together and you can see that they could become a very strong partnership going forward.

Chambers is clearly still a work in progress but he has added a lot of value to the team given his young age. Monreal was mostly solid, with just one or two wobbles, and really seems to have found his groove at the Grove now. Ospina did not have much to do, but he stayed calm and made the right decisions, and that is all we can ask for.

The man of the match was Le Coq, even though Giroud played very, very good too. Coquelin read the game and positioned himself so well and his interventions were all firm but fair; and his fitness levels never seem to fade either. He made a huge difference today and let’s hope the two weeks of rest will help to heal his well-battered nose again. What a player he has become!

Yes we rode our luck a bit in the second half and had to dig deep to go home with all three points. But let’s not take away anything from the resilience and team spirit our boys possess: absolutely priceless attributes, especially at the business end of the season.

So, count me a very pleased and proud Gooner. To be just four points behind the Chavs, even though they have two games in hand, is just great given where we were a few months ago. Ooh to, Ooh to be…..

By TotalArsenal.

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Four Points behind Chelsea? Barcodes v Gunners Preview & Line-up

Newcastle – Arsenal  Match Preview

 How does Arsenal respond to coming up short in Monaco?

d14-02-12 Spurs H P1

From the glamour of Monte Carlo and European nights, Arsenal must travel to the furthest reaches of its own league and (somehow) get back to the more mundane task of trying to wrest 3 points from the always stubborn Magpies of Newcastle. 

In the return leg of our Champions League round of 16 tie in Monaco, Arsenal played with spirit and determination and scored two goals, but it was not enough.  We can debate about the away goals rule or whether Arsenal was naive (or just wasteful) in the first leg or whether English football just isn’t at the requisite level to compete with the best of the continent.  In the end, however, the only way to get back into the Champions league is to finish in the top 4 back home in the Premier league.  It may not be as exciting as an elimination match in the world’s biggest club competition, but going to Tyneside and replicating the effort and performance we saw on the Cote d’Azure–and bringing back full points from our trip to Newcastle–is probably, in the end, just as important.

Somehow we have to see what happened in Monaco not as the massive disappointment it is but as another gritty win in a tough away stadium.  Before that match we did likewise at Old Trafford in the FA Cup quarterfinals and we’ve had other good road wins, most notably on the other side of Manchester at the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City.  In fact, with the exception of the very disappointing loss to a team just up the road (and the new year’s day loss at Southampton) Arsenal have been perfect on their travels in 2015.   Our form even has some wondering if it’s possible to close the 7 point gap (plus a game in hand) on league leaders Chelsea.

Personally, I think that gap is probably too large, but I’m certainly open to seeing Chelsea drop points, come back to the chasing pack and open up the title race.  They dropped a pair of points a week ago vs Southhampton after their own exit from the Champions league, and now have to travel to relegation-threatened Hull City, so why not?

More realistic, and probably more to the point, is our own path towards getting back into the big tournament.  Our good run of league results has us well positioned in 3rd place just a point behind (last year’s league champions) Manchester City, but other teams are queuing up for the run-in.  Manchester United sit only a point behind us, but they have to travel to Anfield and face down the most in-form of all the English clubs, Liverpool, in a real 6 pointer.  Their hosts only trail them by 2 points and could thus leapfrog them into the CL spots.  We can only play our own match, of course.  As such, if we can win at Newcastle, all looks good heading into the two week international break.   If we drop points up there, however, we drop into the fray and the time away goes from a nice respite to (our more usual?) Arsenal angst.  With our next league match at home vs Liverpool, things could get even more uncomfortable.

As such, the importance of putting our disappointments into the rear view and giving our very best in Newcastle is extreme.  Luckily the opponent is struggling with injuries, suspensions and a run of bad results.  Moreover, sitting in 11th place, they can afford further bad results without dropping into a real relegation battle.   Still, it would be wise to beware the wounded animal and Newcastle teams (and their supporters) always offer a prideful effort.  Underestimating them would be a mistake.

Hosting Arsenal with all the circumstances they currently face, in fact, should allow Newcastle to play in an unfettered, attacking, nothing to lose manner.  Papiss Demba Cisse and Fabricio Coloccini, the (spitting) head and tail (and hairstyle) of their outfield spine will be missing through suspension.  Additionally, defenders Paul Dummett, Massaido Haidara and Steven Taylor are out injured, along with midfielders Rolando Aarons, Mehdi Abeid, Siem de Jong and Cheick Tiote.   Interim manager John Carver is suggesting, in fact, that he may not even be able to fill out his bench, claiming that he has only 13 outfield players (and two keepers) fit enough to wear the barcode kit.

Even if true, I’d still expect Newcastle to offer a game plan based on resistance but with a stronger urge to attack and a hope to simply outscore us.  In other words, we cannot take them too lightly or hope to ease into the match.  Players like Moussa Sissoko and Ayoze Perez are fine attacking players who can score goals if given the chance.  Remy Caballa is a very tricky ball handler and Yoan Goufran, while not as flashy, is a player who always puts in a shift, as does Jack Colback.  Gabriel Obertan and Emmanuel Riviere, on their day, can also be a handful for any defender; Sammy Ameobi may not be as stout as his older brother Shola (recently transferred to Crystal Palace) but is tall enough to present a target for crosses.   Their back line will be makeshift, but at least they have Argentine international Jonas Gutierrez back from his battle with testicular cancer.   The balance of the team is heavy in attack, so, just as we might ask Jonas himself, will one ball be enough?

Cancer jokes are probably a step too far, but Arsenal must fight a disease of their own–complacency.  Can the group cope with their European disappointment, get back to business and beat Newcastle?  Focus and determination would seem the best prescriptive antidotes, but will we bring them?  Who will Arsene Wenger use to fight off any sense of self-pity amongst the collective and move us forward?

My guess is that we will see a largely unchanged squad from Tuesday night.  Luckily, nobody took more than psychological knocks in that match but certainly many looked tired and Wenger will have to have a keen eye for those who seem more hungover than others.  Tomas Rosicky who missed both the Monaco and West Ham matches due to illness, is back, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he plays at least some role on the day.

Here’s my best guess for a starting 11.

ars v new March 15

Subs: Szczesny, Gabriel, Gibbs, Cazorla, Flamini, Rosicky, Walcott

That’s only one change from Tuesday (Aaron Ramsey for Santi Cazorla) but then again I’m not privy to watching the lads in training and trying to note who might really not be up for another big effort.  Many pundits are noting that Alexis has not played as well in the new year and has only scored a single goal in his last 11 appearances.  Even off the boil he presents such a threat that I cannot see sitting him ahead of the international break.   (If he were to get a bench seat, would his spot be taken by Walcott or Rosicky?)  It’s also possible that Giroud rests.  Wenger brought him off the bench the last time we traveled in England, in the FA Cup match at Manchester United.  I don’t see that particular change but, by the same token, it seems harsh to suggest a bench place for Santi Cazorla given his great play in a slightly deeper role.  Ramsey’s recent goals, however, would seem to merit a place in the team. along, perhaps, with the greater physicality and excellent workrate he offers.  Maybe Welbeck (or Alexis and/or Giroud) sits so both Santi and AR can play, which perhaps is a more defensive scheme and a wise thought in light of so many attackers in the Newcastle squad.  As always, what (the f**k) do I know?

Not too much probably.  What do YOU know?  What do others think about this match and the larger issues about this Arsenal team–our exit from the Champions league and our chances back in England?  At this point we only have 9 league matches remaining–and the adventure(s) at Wembley in the FA Cup.  How far can we go (up or down)?  Does it matter?  Comments on the blog have really dropped off, perhaps due to our fearless leader (Total Arsenal) being pre-occupied with real world responsibilities (aka a job…) and not posting.  Are we bored with our club, with football, or (maybe) with life?  What’s up people?

Personally, I’m glad we’ve got a match (and I rather dread the International break), but that’s just me… Hopefully our Gunners (and you Gooners) feel likewise…

By 17highburyterrace

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No Danny OR Theo but AR, AS, MO, SC and OG to live the dream? CL Match preview

AS Monaco – Arsenal  Match Preview

2nd Leg–Champions League Round of 16

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To Dream the Impossible Dream or Tilting at Windmills?   Sancho Panza says, “Let’s Just Play Our Game, OK, Don Quixote…”

Belief (confidence) is a lovely thing, but sometimes it needs to be pushed aside and a game of football must simply be played.  As much as Arsenal are attempting to pump themselves up for an unprecedented come from behind 2nd leg against AS Monaco–where we will need no less than 3 goals in their stadium–it may be better to just play football and see what happens.

If only we had done that in the first leg...

So many Gooners, I believe, went into our round of 16 match-up with Monaco believing that the draw would give us a respite from those early eliminations we’ve experienced in recent years.  More than anything, I think, fans (and players perhaps) just wanted a reprieve from what I call Arsenal’s Champions League Conundrum–the fact that qualifying for a tournament we are (probably) not good enough to win is our primary objective each and every season.  Perhaps, having drawn one of the easier group winners, we might beat them and then ease ourselves into the eliminations.  A couple of more good draws, a bit of confidence and, who knows, anything can happen in tournament football.  It was a hopeful thought, at least.

Hope is not a plan, they say, and what did happen in the first leg happened at our expense.  Perhaps overly determined to give the home fans the experience they were seeking, Arsenal pushed too many men forward, found their own attacking spaces clogged, yet still made chances.  Those, however, were rushed and missed, mostly by our very in-form, center forward, Olivier Giroud.

Monaco slowly worked themselves into the game and found possession and space in our midfield.  A speculative effort from 35 yards by Geoffrey Kondogbia found our Captain, Per Mertesacker, unable to completely block nor completely remove himself from deflecting and the net bulged past our wrong footed keeper David Ospina.  The stadium was rocked–but not in a good way.  We played out the half but still could find no real pattern to our attack.  Monaco happily allowed us possession but still there was no space in the final third.  We can sort it at the break, thought the manager and players, perhaps.

Committed ideas about how to do so, however, may have been drowned out by the disappointment of the home crowd and their deep-seated desire for a better result.

In the 2nd half the pattern continued and, again, with too many men pushed forward, we were punished, this time by the vampire of White Hart Lane, Dimitar Berbatov. In retrospect, we were perhaps architects of our own downfall.  After all, a scoreline of nil-1 would have made tomorrow’s match far more manageable.

Even 2-nil would have been a better scoreline than what we face.  Still, it is not the job of the home support to realize that their role would end only at half-time of the 180 minute tie.  They wanted Arsenal to get some goals back and our tactics and substitutions suggested manager Arsene Wenger wanted the same.  It took even more spurned chances and all the way into injury time before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, in for holding midfielder, Francis Coquelin, got Arsenal on the board.  Nice.  1-2, and a hint of momentum to end the first leg.  Close up shop and get some goals at their place.  Instead, with hardly any time left, we wanted to reward the faithful who had stayed.  It was, maybe, a psychological trap and we fell right in.   In a blurred moment, our lads only saw positive outcomes and negatives were ignored.  Credit, however, must be given to the veteran Joao Moutinho and the young Monaco substitutes, Bernardo and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, who executed the counter-attack to perfection.  A stronger hand from Ospina might’ve spared blushes.  Instead we face a 3 goal mountain to climb.

But face it (and climb it) we must.  Play our game, keep moving in attack and use the technical abilties of our best players to try and get some goals.  In my opinion, there can be only one game plan and that is it.  We can give a goal and extend the match by half an hour, so, strangely enough, this one is not, necessarily, a defend-first sort of affair.  It’s a daunting task, no doubt, but clearly not beyond the realm of the possible.

It should be recalled, however, that Monaco are the stingiest of teams.  Since the beginning of December, in Ligue 1, they have conceded no more than 1 goal in any match, having done so only twice, keeping clean sheets in all the rest.  Before that, they qualified as winners of their CL group conceding only once.  Perhaps our best bet is that they’re so unfamiliar with allowing goals, that their confidence might be dented if they had to pick a ball out of their net.  Do it twice and it’s a double dent.

Now, I fear, the dream is on… Back to hard, cold reality.

For a change, reality at Arsenal isn’t all that bad.  It’s even possible we’ve turned a corner by coming back from that disappointing night with victories in the Premier League over Everton, QPR and West Ham, and with our FA Cup victory over Manchester United in their stadium.  In that stretch, using a group of 21 different players, the most important element has been a collective focus to get the job done.  It hasn’t always been perfect nor pretty, but it has worked.  Bring a similar focus, play our best group and don’t give up.  What more can we try?

For this one I would go with the following players: 

ars v monaco march 15

Subs: Szczesny, Chambers, Gibbs, Flamini, Welbeck, Walcott, Akpom

To me, those are our best players, although I can imagine that many would-be-managers will have strong contrary ideas.  Theo Walcott’s pace might be the answer for some.  (Personally, he seems the ideal sub, late on, if we can narrow the deficit.)  Others might call for the tireless pressing of Danny Welbeck which worked a treat at Old Trafford and yielded the winning goal against his former club.  The drive and experience of Tomas Rosicky would be another, but I wonder if he’s fully fit, given that he failed to make the bench vs West Ham just a couple of days ago.  Others might stump for Kieran Gibbs at left back given his superior pace.  (The lovely opening goal at ManU from Nacho Monreal, however, tips the balance towards the Spaniard, I think.)  A wilder call would be to restore Wojchiek Szczesny to keeper given that our need for goals will surely find us exposed once or twice and he’s modelled his “sweeper-keeper” game on Mertesacker’s international team mate, Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer.

No matter who plays, Arsenal will need to keep the pitch spaced and somehow find a way to open up the well disciplined opponent.  Some longer attempts early on might be needed to suggest that Monaco cannot simply funnel our play towards a clogged middle.  Our preferred style of 1-2s near the top of the box , or less charitably, our penchant for wanting to “walk-it-in,” has to be alternated with pot shots from distance or selective use of a bit of wide play aimed at the towering hair of Olivier Giroud.  Monaco were very successful in the first leg playing a flat back four which worked to eliminate our wider options and encourage our over-eager attackers (including our fullbacks) towards the penalty box where central midfielders and defenders were waiting, leaving us overly exposed on the counter.  Given no real call to score they could even throw more bodies into the defensive mix.  There will be an urgency to get an early goal but we cannot get frustrated if the chances are difficult to come by.   If there’s any call for belief, it would be in believing that they will come.  When they do, taking those chances and getting on the scoreboard seems the more important bit.

I’m curious what others feel on this account.  As much as I’d like to believe that belief itself is what might allow us this opportunity to make a bit of history and go deeper in the tournament, I’m also content to put all that aside and just try and play our football–the thing we will actually need to do as we continue in whatever competitions we’re in.  Arsenal have strong players, and, if they play at their best, they can’t help but create a level of belief that even very fine teams can be broken down.  Fans want success so much that failure, oftentimes at least, is associated with not wanting it sufficiently.  The massive task we face, I think, is at least partially a result of too much desire in the first leg.  Now, needing 3 goals against a team which rarely gives one, simply “wanting it” will not do the trick.  Nope, in this case (and all others, in fact) we actually have to do it…

Go on then…

By 17highburyterrace

 

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Theatre of Screams, Maureen gets humiliated, Arsenal almost second and progress in FA Cup: What a Week!

Coquelin1

What a brilliant week for Arsenal! The much desired win against MU at the stadium of screams – dives need sound-effects after all – kicked it all off. The boys were still a little nervous, especially in attack, but as soon as the coolest cowboy in town – of all Gunners! – put the ball past his fellow countryman, they knew they could do it. Nacho, I will never forget that goal: you, senor, have balls! And how sweet was it to see Danny the Gunner put the winner past his old team mates in front of 65000 Mancs and 9000 away-Gooners? Making it to the last four of the FA cup and finally overcoming the non-oil funded Mancs was just brilliant.

And then came Wednesday, when the self-adoring one saw his bridge-babies go out to PSG, despite having the ref in their pocket, playing 60 minutes (excluding extra time) with 11 against 10, and going in the overall lead eight minutes before the end! The much overrated Chavs saw their dark tactics turn on them and they did not just lose their chance to progress in the CL, but also damaged further their brittle reputation. Maureen will almost certainly win the PL this year; but with all those draws against fellow competitors, inability to progress in the CL and a reputation of diving and general bad sportsmanship, his paymaster might soon be wielding the axe again. Wouldn’t that be nice?!

And then, to take all three points from the Champions, came Boyd’s daisy-cutter for Burnley. Arsenal had already put the Hammers to bed with a 3-0 thumping and had come within a point of second spot. A calm and disciplined performance saw us once again produce double figures of shots on target, eventually leading to three of the finest goals of Wengerball quality. The perfect preparation for a little encounter on Tuesday…

We had all expected a response by the Northern Oilers but they went out meekly against a bottom-three club. They now smell the mighty Red and White Arse-breath right behind them, and who would have thought this possible just two months ago? And if we can do it to the Northern Oilers, we might also do it to the Southern ones….

Speaking of which, they were held today by the Saints and dropped a further two points. The gap is still too big, but they need to go to relegation threatened Hull next and big Brucer will fancy given Maureen a bit of a game, don’t you think?

Of course, it is OGAAT for us, and we have a never easy away game against the Barcodes on Saturday. But first we will aim the red and white hot cannon on the tax avoiders of the Cote d’Azur. With Ozil, Alexis, Giroud, Theo, Santi and Ramsey we will be able to field a team which has plenty of goals in them – Wenger will need to leave at least one of these fine attackers out of the starting eleven, as the likes of Welbeck and Rosicky might also still claim a starter spot. It won’t be easy against Monaco, but we can do it: let there be no doubt about it. We can even afford to concede a goal, as we need to score three anyway…. and if we manage to score three, we can also score a fourth.

Some say we should take a planned approach and aim to score a goal in each third of the game, but I reckon we need to play at an insane tempo with tremendous pressure on the Monaco defence: the way we took Milan on a few years ago, when we almost did the impossible. It is all about finding their weakest spot(s) and cracking them open like a ripe walnut: and once we are in we need to pounce again and again. With Alexis’s tenacity and pure quality, Ozil’s genius, Theo’s speed and ability to finish cold-bloodedly, Giroud’s all-round ability, Santi’s wizardry and Ramsey’s engine and finishing ability, we have the weapons to take revenge. On top of that, our confidence is high and we now know how to win tough games.

Arsenal had a great week, but reaching the final eight of the CL would surely top it all. You are taking the urine I hear you say: a glass half full of it, is my response.

Come on you Rip Roaring Gunners – Time to load the Cannon once more! :)

By TotalArsenal.

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Welbeck and Theo on ‘wings’, Ozil in hole, Giroud central: Preview and Line-up

Arsenal – West Ham United — Match Preview

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Back to Business

How does Arsenal follow up on the tasty 2-1 victory over Manchester United in the FA Cup Quarter-finals at Old Trafford?   Will there be a let down after that emotional win–our first in almost a decade up there–or will it serve to galvanize our focus and get players and team fully motivated for what can be accomplished in the competitions ahead? 

It’s only March, so the battle for places in the league is still on and anything can happen as maybe that team leading in the standings can attest.  For once the sky is NOT falling in North London.  On the South side, however, between racist chants and conspiracies that ALL are out to get them, the horizon has dropped a notch.  For Chelsea, playing with an extra man and an away goal for an hour was simply not enough. Even when they got their (soft) penalty in extra time, they couldn’t close the deal.   The “best” team in England already out of the Champions League has led to many with long faces.  Not mine…

Before Gooners get too happy, however, we should note that crashes of this variety happen in our sport all the time.  We should also register that they had to feel confident going into the return match with Paris St. Germain after grinding out a 1-nil victory in East London against our next opponent, West Ham United.   Were they perhaps overconfident?  Who knows?  All I know is that Arsenal must avoid a similar complacency.  Instead, we must use the confidence gained from winning at Old Trafford but take what was witnessed at Stamford Bridge in midweek to redouble our focus for this next one and use it to our advantage.  Yes, Chelsea still have a 9 point lead (and a game in hand) and Manchester City still a 4 point gap over us for the top two places in the league, but now, more than ever, is a time to keep the pressure on.

We really must, because if we look below us in the table, our hold on 3rd place (the final Champions league spot not requiring an August playoff) is by only the narrowest of margins–a single point.  The club we just beat sits 4th (and out of all other competitions), local rivals Tottenham sit just one behind them and will have a similarly cleared schedule, while Liverpool, the current form club in the league, is only one more back.  Cock up against the Hammers and all the fun this week has provided goes right out the window.

Another reason a lapse cannot be afforded is because of the enormity of the task facing us in the midweek ahead.  Somehow Arsenal have to reverse a 3-1 deficit when they travel to Monaco next Tuesday.  We can only play the matches one at a time, of course, but a composed performance vs the Hammers–yet one which hones our multiple weapons in attack–would be just what the doctor (not to mention the priests, shamans, poets and philosophers) might order to create a sense of belief that something good might be possible down on the Cote d’Azur.

West Ham cannot, however, be taken too lightly.  They are having a fine season under manager Sam Allardyce and have proven themselves a very dangerous team to look past.   In particular they are no pushovers against the (so-called) top clubs.  They took full points from Manchester City in the Autumn and in more recent weeks have shared points in matches with Southampton, Manchester United and Tottenham.  As mentioned above, they pushed Chelsea for ninety plus minutes, only losing by the single goal.  Although they may feel very comfortable in 10th position–with no danger of dropping off the first page of the table this weekend being 4 points clear of Newcastle–Big Sam has made his reputation scrapping for every available point.

He’s certainly not everybody’s cup of tea and not a few East End bubble blowers are tiring of Allardyce’s pragmatism, even if it has been a particularly effective technique for exposing the soft underbelly in Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal teams over the years.  We saw plenty of floated balls to big targets when we played them at Upton Park in Late December and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some Route One football on Saturday.   The Hammers, however, will be without big men Andy Carroll and Carlton Cole for this one, so Allardyce may be forced into a slightly less aerially oriented game even if his approach will likely still rely upon power and speed and using the full width of our pitch.  Even that approach will be hampered by not being able to use our own loanee, Carl Jenkinson, at right back.  As much as Wenger believes the loan rules are just another way the richer clubs are favoured, Jenks has been having a strong enough season with the Hammers that the manager will happily accept the advantage.

Wenger has no such power over another ex-Gunner, Alex Song, on loan from Barcelona.  The acquisition of Song was considered one of the best moves of the Summer and many Gooners, given our weakness at the rear of midfield–and the fact that we were looking up at West Ham in the table–during much of the Autumn, thought Wenger might have done well to have taken the Cameroonian back himself.  Song’s form in the new year has been hampered by a knee problem and he didn’t feature in the derby vs Chelsea, but Allardyce was coy on whether he’d be available to play against his old club.  Still, just as Wenger made a late decision to use Danny Welbeck against his former club in the match at Man United, Allardyce may try to use similar motivation with Song against us.  If he does, will we see the smiling Song who often was a little too friendly with opponents for the tastes of many supporters, or will he play with a chip on his shoulder, knowing a big performance against his former club will be noticed by the many who were dismayed by his quick exit from the club two summers ago?

Like our last league opponent, Queens Park Rangers, West Ham, already eliminated from the FA Cup and having a full 10 days between matches, have just returned from a training camp in Dubai. New tactics and partnerships may be the order of the day, some of which will be forced due to injury.  My hunch is that, like QPR, they will have drilled more on defending and will not be easy to break down, even if, in addition to Jenkinson at RB, they will also be missing center back Winston Reid who will not quite be recovered in time for this one.  Spanish Keeper Adrian, although perhaps not playing to the level of his countryman David De Gea (who kept the scoreline close up at Man U) is a fine shot stopper and a big reason for the Hammers success this year.  Arsenal will have to make quality chances and better shots to beat him.

In attack, with Carroll out as a focal point, Diafra Sakho and Stuart Downing are the biggest concerns.  Enner Valencia is a player who is unafraid to run with the ball and brings enough pace and trickery to hurt us.  Aaron Cresswell, a free running left back, in addition to Downing, can supply the crosses.  Cheik Kouyate, Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble add graft to the craft.  Even if they’re without their biggest guys, these players bring a good mix of skill, determination and physicality and should not be discounted.  We should be especially aware at set pieces.

That’s what got us in the reverse fixture, after all.  In that one, Arsenal, as we’ve done several times this season, scored two first half goals in quick succession (Santi Cazorla, from the spot after winning a penalty, and Danny Welbeck bundling in a rocketed low cross from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain) but then conceded from a corner (eventually scored by Kouyate after an initial header from James Tompkins) to set up a nervous finish.

There will be changes from that one and from the emotional Cup victory at ManU.  Wojciech Szczesny, even though his height might be a real weapon if West Ham revert to the lofted balls, will likely return to the bench in favor of David Ospina.  Wenger, I think, might compensate by using fullbacks–Calum Chambers and Nacho Monreal–who have done time at center back, rather than pacier options, Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs.  Francis Coquelin, our revelation at defensive mid, surely anchors the rearguard, and will play ahead of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, our only fit CBs.

The more difficult choices revolve around what Wenger will do up front and in attacking midfield.  This might be a spot for Theo Walcott to finally get a start as his explosive pace might help keep the Hammers honest and worried about committing too many men forward.  Does Olivier Giroud come back at Center Forward or does Danny Welbeck get a reward for the great solo effort for the game winner he pounced upon at Old Trafford?  Additionally, does Wenger believe he can rest any (or all) of the outstanding threesome at the heart of our team: Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil?  Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky have been playing well themselves and it would not be a drop in quality if either of them started.  Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will certainly miss this one, even if a scan on the injured hamstring which forced him off early in the ManU match suggests he’ll be back soon.  Even Mathieu Flamini could feature as he’s been passed fit.  Jack Wilshere probably won’t be ready after minor surgery.  Here then is my best guess for the starting 11, but I feel far from confident putting it out there.

ars v west ham March 15

(Subs: Szczesny, Gibbs, Bellerin, Flamini, Rosicky, Ramsey, Alexis) 

Other would-be-managers might see (very) different line-ups.  What would be yours?  Is this a chance to rotate and rest ahead of the immense challenge we face at Monaco?  Should we consider that one a dead rubber and just stay focused on our (delicately poised) position in the league?  Will West Ham return from their long layoff and their exercises down in Dubai with determination and drive or does their comfortable spot in the table mean that they’ll not be too worried about trying to take points in another tough London derby?   In other words, what say you, the babbling (and barking) boys of the Bergkampesque blogosphere?…

The pressure relief from the win at Manchester United has been nice, but it’s time to get back to it…Gunners and Gooners alike.   Go on, then…

By 17highburyterrace

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Coquelin & Rambo DMs, Alexis & Ozil on Wings: MU v Arsenal Preview and Line-Up

Manchester United-Arsenal — FA Cup Quarterfinal —

Match Preview

Tine to Defend the Cup and Make a Statement

Arsenal's English midfielder Jack Wilshe

On the back of our most dominating performance of the season, a sumptuous 2-nil victory over Championship leaders and Man City beaters, Middlesbrough, Arsenal drew Manchester United, away, in the quarter-final round of the FA Cup.  It didn’t seem like a just reward at the time and, as the match approaches, its significance only increases.

Whichever team prevails in this one will be favoured to win the next two at Wembley and raise the cup.  Additionally, as the clubs are separated by only a point in the Premier League standings, the result tomorrow will surely set a tone for the ongoing battle there as well.  United Manager Louis van Gaal says he would trade cup progression for a top 4 finish in the league, but there’s no reason, given their lighter, Europe-free schedule, that United will not give everything they’ve got.

Arsene Wenger has similarly noted the tightness of the race for Champions League qualification, but he too will understand the wider implications of getting a result at Old Trafford–including a draw which would force a replay back in North London.  While both managers have gone to pains to play down the importance of this one, the FA Cup surely represents the most realistic chance at silverware for both clubs this season.

Our record in traveling to Old Trafford does not make for pretty viewing.  In our last 10 matches we’ve drawn only once, losing all the rest, and we actually haven’t won there since the Autumn of 2006.  During this run we’ve played there twice in the FA Cup.  In 2008, we were leading the league, but played a much changed team and were well beaten, 4-nil.  More recently in 2011, in this same quarterfinal round, we lost 2-nil.  To be clear, even if we’ve taken the more recent trophies in this competition, winning a year ago and in 2005, on penalties over the Red Devils at Wembley, (Man U most recently raised the cup the year before in 2004) United have dominated us in this period, finishing above us in the league every single year except the most recent one.

Even as they transition out of the Sir Alex Ferguson era and attempt to rebuild under Van Gaal, we have yet to actually assert our superiority in head to head battle.  Last year, during the disastrous season with David Moyes at the helm, ManU beat us 1-nil in the league match-up at Old Trafford, while the reverse fixture was a desultory nil-nil at our home ground.  This season, in our one meeting, at the Emirates, although dominating play early on, United scored with their first shot on goal.  Suicidal pressing forward in desperate search for an equalizer resulted in a 2nd breakaway goal which sealed our fate.

But that’s all history, of course, and tomorrow’s match represents a chance to wipe the slate clean and prove ourselves the superior team.  With the exception of our 2-1 loss in the North London Derby, 2015 has shown that Arsenal can travel to hostile environs and still get results, the blueprint being the trip to East Manchester and the 2-nil victory at Man City.  We only had a third of the possession in that one, but still managed to control the match and prevail.   Yeoman efforts from more attacking players like Olivier Giroud, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla helped protect less experienced defenders; Hector Bellerin and Francis Coquelin, to create a dominating defensive display.  David Ospina, newly established in goal for league matches, hardly had a save to make.

This being a cup match, however, there will be changes in personnel.  Wojciech Szczesny, demoted from the league matches, if passed fit after a midweek illness, will get his chance between the sticks.  Gabriel Paulista most likely would have started in one of the center back positions, as he did vs Boro in the previous round, but a mid-week hamstring pull rules him out, meaning our Big F**king German, Per Mertesacker, and Laurent Koscielny will surely get the call.  Spaniard Nacho Monreal seems recovered from a mild back strain so he likely pairs with his young countryman, Bellerin, at the other fullback position.  Coquelin, broken nose protected by an ominous looking white mask, surely will go at defensive mid.

The more difficult calls are up front.  It seems impossible to sit Olivier Giroud, who has scored the opener in our two most recent matches and brings so much shape to our attack while also presenting a real target when we have to kick out of our own half.  Likewise, Alexis Sanchez, who finally broke a 6 match goal drought in midweek at Queens Park Rangers, brings too much energy for a bench seat.  Santi Cazorla, sitting deeper in that match, also seems the key figure linking our rearguard to our attack.  Mesut Ozil, at the heart of the action in recent matches, also appears undroppable.  This leaves a single starting position open and my call goes to Aaron Ramsey.  Back from a recurring hamstring problem, his ball carrying and greater physicality looked the part in settling the result in midweek after QPR pulled a goal back.

This starting line-up does seem harsh on others who have been playing well, including Tomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck, who is returning to Old Trafford for the first time since his deadline day transfer away last summer.  Theo Walcott has also been a contributor, especially at the sharp end of our attack, and it’s always possible that Wenger might mix things up and start him.  Still, this is the 11 I think will start.

ars v manure March 15

(Subs: Martinez, Chambers, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rosicky, Walcott, Welbeck)

Man United will also go with a very strong line-up and will likely stay with their most valuable player this season, goalkeeper David De Gea.  Despite the tactical innovations for which Van Gaal is famous, most notably playing 3 at the back this past summer in getting a weaker than usual Dutch National team to the semi-finals of the World Cup, experiments with similar tactics have not yielded good results at United.  If ever there was a match to go back to that plan, however, it might be this one, given that center back Johnny Evans begins the first of 6 matches out, suspended for a spitting incident.  Luke Shaw, the young left back bought from Southampton over the summer, is also nursing a hamstring strain, so it may actually be difficult for Van Gaal to field four defenders.  Traditional wingers like Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have, at times, at least, been used as wing-backs, and I suspect they might be deployed in similar fashion for this one.  If they are, a deeper lying set of mid-fielders, two of Michael Carrick, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera will likely back up a front three of Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Wayne Rooney.

Unfortunately, for all who like more than a bit of pantomime (or real) villainy, Robin van Judas, er, Persie is injured for this one.   Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini are also attacking players Van Gaal might choose in his first 11 or bring off the bench if United needs goals.

Despite the high stakes in a cup match of this sort, I expect a cagey battle with both teams looking to assert control in midfield and not unhappy to let the other group have possession.  United should be the team more determined to attack in front of their home crowd.  While neither team would relish a replay, I think Wenger will be at greater pains to suggest to his squad that such a result is not a bad one and that fore-aft balance is critical given all the skill players United can throw at us.  In other words, I doubt this one will be hell for leather from the outset.  An early goal, especially if Arsenal can get it, might open things up considerably.

But my voice is just a single one.  How do other Gooners feel about this cup tie?  Who do you think will play and how will the match play out?  What would you do if you were in charge?  Is this match as critical as I’m portraying it or just another in a long line of tough ones?  Should we go all out for the cup or keep our focus on the league and the very difficult return leg of the Champions League eliminations at Monaco in less than 10 days time?  These questions (and others you might frame) need answers… Go on then…

By 17highburyterrace

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