What I’d like to see from Arsenal this season: the high press

Moning fellows and ladies, y’alright?

I am. Despite the inevitable tired eyes that threaten to derail my sunny disposition, I’m feeling chipper, most probably because my first game back watching The Arsenal since visiting Wembley happens to be another trip to Wembley on Sunday. Sure, it won’t have the same expectation, nervousness or intensity, but it will still be a nice way to slide myself back in to full-on Arsenal mode. Love it.

I’ve been watching the preseason friendly games from a far at this point and, whilst trying to look at how we might fare this season, I’ve also tried to see how Arsène might have changed his team approach to games. After all, 12 points difference over Chelski isn’t going to be overhauled just because the players have had a summer together, is it?

I’m not sure it is. So I’ve been trying to watch the friendlies as objectively as I can, to see if we’ll see signs of any tactical approaches, which is difficult when the football is so disjointed as a result of the many substitutions that are needed whilst the whole squad gets back to match fitness.

I’m a pretty simple football fan, not pretending to be any kind of tactical nous or ability to spot the minutiae of a way an Arsenal team – or opponents actually – are set up. But having watched us over the last couple of weeks, it does look as though we seem to be adopting a little bit more of a forward-looking and expansive style of football. I thought I started to see the framework for this in Singapore with Santi deployed as the deepest lying midfielder. Santi! A guy who three years ago was our most creative player, pulling the strings as a quarterback. I loved it and then, at The Emirates Cup at the weekend, the way in which we overloaded Lyon with our football just before half time, meant the French team had no answer. Wolfsburg were a bit more composed, which meant we reigned in our natural intent to drive forward those quick bursts and overload on all sides, but the goal that Theo scored was still an example of our pace and ability to stretch teams on the counter.

That pace that we now have in abundance is a weapon that I hope we see plenty of this season. When we’re deep in our half and under pressure, I hope we have enough outlets to sucker-punch teams with lighting response and accuracy. Theo, the Ox, Welbeck and Alexis all have it and with Mes able to pick a pass along with Santi, they can find him.

But I also saw one other flash of something that I am really hoping we see more of this season: the high press.

It was in to the second half, relatively early on, in which the Wolfsburg left back was fed the ball from his centre half. His actions were to lump the ball out of play, but that was only because a swarm of Arsenal players led by Arteta closed down the space and his immediate options. It was a classic tennis ‘forced error’ and immediately gifted possession back to us. To me it was majestic and for that very quick moment I was reminded of the Barcelona that came to the Emirates and drew 2-2. That team I saw that night were an exhibition of the high press. They gave Arsenal little time on the ball and closed down defenders so high up the pitch it ‘forced error’ on our back four on a number of occasions as I recall.

I love the high press. It’s how you can sustain pressure on teams and keep them camped in their own half when they have possession, then when the ball is in your half it is usually at the feet of one of your players. I’d love to see Arsenal adopt the high press this season.

It has its drawbacks, I’ll admit, particularly if your side isn’t 100% switched on for the whole game. A high press against teams with cultured and mobile players is risky. You can’t afford to have your forwards pushing from the front and the midfield and defence not closing the spaces in between the lines of players. If you are not organised when adopting the high press you will get caught out if your opponents have a good enough pass-master and quick centre forwards.

But it is exciting to watch and if executed properly, can be exhausting for defences, which is why I love it. A bit of risk for awesome rewards. And the thing is, we have players who can help to press from the front yet still track back. Alexis is the perfect example, but Welbeck and the Ox do the same, so there are players in that front three who will cover ground to help the team. Ramsey too in the middle of the park will press from the front, but in order for us to be deadly, we need to have him busting a gut each time to drop deeper if we don’t have the ball.

Whether or not Arsène wants to adopt the high press I’m not sure. I’m sure I read somewhere a few seasons ago – possibly from Arteta I believe – that the coaching staff had realised that we don’t have the personnel to press high up the pitch for the duration of the whole of a football match. So the team devised a way in which it could press in patches, perhaps in certain zones. Certainly this represents the more prudent approach to pressing an opponent. But to me, having seen that Barcelona team all those years ago, I can’t shake the idea that with better and more intelligent players that we have now, ones that have the pace as well as ability to cover a lot more ground in defence and attack, we should think about trying to suffocate opponents when in possession whilst adopting the high press.

Perhaps it’s a pipe dream – that Barcelona model I saw a few years back – and not really viable in the Premier League in which players don’t get as much opportunity to ‘go easy’ before big games like Barca probably did with whatever opponent they faced before they rocked up at The Emirates that night. But to me, with the players and the ability we have as a team, I just feel we’re in a good position to be able to have a go at it, without having the same response as we had last season away at Swansea where Flamini decided he’d press high up the pitch, which didn’t quite work so well for us.

Come on Arsène, give it a go, let’s have a try and see if we can rack up some big scores this season.

dominant Arsenal display and selection based on opposition – love it

First bit of silverware of the season sorted. Lifting the Barclays Asia Trophy is apparently a good omen for a team as both City and Chelski have clinched the pre-season friendly competition in the past, so whilst we have to take such superstitions with a pinch of salt, as this is a time in the year in which hopes are high and expectations are higher we can certainly read more in to this victory. Heck, I’m chalking it down as a cast iron guarantee of a marker that we’re winning the Premier League next season.

The side Arsène put out was a strong one too, with Cech making his debut alongside a back four of Gibbs, Chambers, Koscielny and Bellerin. In front of them Arsène opted for a Santi-Rambo midfield and Özil floating in his usual number 10 role. Having talked up Jack as a wide man he played with Theo and Giroud up top and I have to say it was a pleasing and utterly dominant performance. Whether or not that is because we have players that are further ahead in their preparations than Everton, or whether or not the fact it was essentially a home game given the amount of support we had compared to Everton, I don’t know. 

What we do know, however, is that Arsenal looked in control and very confident against a Premier League opposition who have always caused us a few headaches. Santi was in sparkling form as the deep lying playmaker and his goal was one of jinky delightfulness, weaving his way one way, then the next. He was the man with which a lot of the good stuff flowed and it augurs well for the season ahead that we have him looking like he’s in such good form.

I found it interesting that Arsène decided against having Coquelin sitting in front of the back four yesterday and whilst we can’t read too much in to a pre-season friendly, I hope this is the start of us seeing Arsène pick his first eleven based on the strengths of our team in countering the strengths of other opponents. If we’re playing Moneychester City away, for example, you just know that we’re going to have to do a lot more defending than an Everton or Stoke away. So it makes sense to set your team up to negate the oppositions strong points by playing somebody like Coquelin in games where you might have somebody like David Silva set up to run the show.

Yesterday Everton were on the back foot from the start and so sitting a defensive midfielder alongside a back four who are having little to do is a bit of a pointless exercise. So with all of Santi, Rambo, Jack and Mesut in the starting XI, we were able to control possession more and dominate the ball in the middle of the park as well as the zone in front of the attacking players.

The other goals we scored were an indication of Theo’s sharpness but also him at his best; running in behind defenders and finishing quickly. That’s what we missed for a lot of last season and that’s what I think we’ll see more of next season. Should Walcott stay fit of course.

Mesut’s goal was perhaps an indication that he is going to find himself in more forward lying positions this season and is going to try and take his chances more, with a good finish inside the box.

Overall we have to be happy with the game and although it had the air of a pre season friendly, we still dominated and did what was needed, so we’ve got to be glad of that. What should also be filling you with excitement is the depth of the squad too. Yesterday’s starting XI was missing Monreal, Mertesacker, Gabriel, Debuchy, Coquelin, Arteta, Rosicky, Welbeck, Alexis, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gnabry. We have such depth that it really is quite staggering and it’s why I’m really not stressing too much over the summer about transfers. And neither should you. Let’s enjoy this time. Next week we go for trophy number 2, The Emirates Cup!

Chuba to ‘Kane’ it up?

Happy Thursday fellow Goonerite. And lo, we have some actual football to talk about! 

Yep, pre-season is officially underway and kicked off yesterday with a 4-0 romping of those world beaters known as the Singapore XI, with goals between Chuba Akpom and Jack Wilshere ensuring that it will be more realistic for the lazy of us to watch the final on Saturday. Why? Well because the final is on at 1.30pm, where as the third/fourth place playoff is at around 11am, I believe. It’s a relief because let’s face it, if you’re in the UK and you’re a somewhat lazy Arsenal fan like me, there’s an outside chance you might not make that.

Accuse me of disloyalty or not having enough passion, but these friendlies are so stop-start they can hardly be classed as thorough entertainment and the fact that they don’t actually mean much, pretty much compounds the whole issue of having to get up early to watch.

But anyway, we don’t have to worry about that, or our striking problems ever again, because Big Chuba is on hand to break his way into the first team, giving Arsène the delightful opportunity to close the doors at London Colney and declare: “we’re full mate, you’re not coming in” to any more players.

Of course we all know the reality is that bagging a hat trick against a Singapore XI is a little different to doing it in the Premier League against Moneychester City, or on a cold Tuesday in Stoke (had to get at least one irritating cliché in there), but what it will do is give Chuba confidence that he belongs amongst his fellow first team pros. There are high hopes for him and although I still suspect a loan deal is in the offing before the window shuts, it is nice to imagine that he could be this seasons Coquelin, isn’t it? I mean come on, you’re not one of those so hungry for a thrill that only a £40million striker will quench your football thirst, are you?

Think about how much fawning the media did over Kane last season? Then imagine that Chuba can make people think ‘Kane who?’ with a fantastic season?

I know, I know, we probably shouldn’t be gambling a season of potential Premier League glory on an unproven striker, but we won the league with relative unknown Anelka, so why not at least dream a little? It’s far more preferable than the whole “SIGN ALL THE PLAYERS!!!!!!” Mentality that some people have. You’ll probably live longer too.

Besides, Arsène hasn’t ruled out any signings like he’s been known to in the past, so if you do fall in to the latter camp you can take a chill pill. I think if a megastar becomes available, Arsène will go for it, because we’re in a position where we need cherries on top and not sponge or jam in our cake. Or some sort of other metaphor that probably works better. I’ll let you have a go at that one.

In terms of the other positive performances yesterday, I can only go on the written word that I’ve read, because I haven’t managed to watch the whole game yet. But by all accounts it appears that Jack had a good game and his apparent ‘burst’ has returned, as noted by the manager post game, so that’s a positive sign for the upcoming season. What Jack might not have wanted to hear from Le Boss is that he may have to ply his trade out wide at times this season, on account of the overwhelming number of players whose best position is central. We’ve already seen it last season with Rambo playing wide right and, given Arsène’s comments yesterday, there’s part of me that wonders whether or not the start of the season will see Wilshere crop up on the left hand side of the front three.

I hope not. Not because Jack isn’t a good player or I don’t want to see him play, but because I think we have better and more creative options to replace Alexis at the start of the season, as he recovers from the Copa America. I think Welbeck or The Ox are more naturally suited to those attacking positions and with the team we have and the depth that now exists in the squad, it would be worrying for us to see Arsène going back to old habits and putting square pegs in round holes to accommodate players.

Anyway, there is still plenty of pre season to try and dissect Arsène’s thinking from a tactical and personnel perspective and as we’ve all learnt by now, what Arsène says in the media should sometimes be taken with a pinch of salt. The game yesterday was full of subs as expected and when friendlies are as bitty as that game apparently was yesterday, you can’t really make any half-decent judgements on the team for the upcoming season.

So that’s pretty much it from me for today. My train approaches a big black hole, so I’ll sign off and say “see ya tomorrow”.

Arsenal’s FA Cup: a new dawn

Has there ever been a more comfortable and one-sided final? Have we ever seen Arsenal do it the easy away in a big game, with such verve and vigour? Does this happen to us? Arsenal are supposed to make our lives difficult, aren’t they?

Apparently not. Apparently there is an ‘easy way’ and all we needed to do was to have a gooner managing the opposition.

My day started with the usual routine of cereal and blogging, but when I was asked the usual question from The Management of ‘are you nervous?’, much response was a surprise to both of us. ‘No’ was the simple answer. And it was the truth. I could not explain why, I just didn’t feel as nervous as I sometimes do when we play teams like Stoke, or even when we played Villa away and home in the league. 

Clearly that comfort translated itself to all the fans and the players yesterday, because the atmosphere wasn’t of nerves, but of confidence. We utterly dominated from the first minute.

Arsène’s decision to start Theo ahead of Giroud could have been a gamble, but after the West Brom game it was clear he would be confident and so it showed, as he was the one to get us on the road to victory with a fantastic precision finish. He was good all day, running the channels and switching with Alexis to cause Vlaar and Okore a headache throughout the game. 

But Theo can only be good with the support of his colleagues and to a man they all stepped up. Szczesny didn’t really have much to do, but when he was called into action to catch or punch the occasional ball clear, he did. Bellerin and Monreal dealt with the few Aston Villa forays forward, but more importantly provided plenty of width and options for Ramsey and Alexis on the overlap.

In the heart of the midfield Santi pulled all the strings and was masterful in possession, deservedly picking up the man of the match award, whilst Coquelin dealt with every attack when called upon as the holding midfielder. Ahead of those two, Mesut Özil floated about the pitch, finding pockets of space and distributing the ball perfectly each time. When you had a player like that it must be a dream for the forwards, because you know he’s going to draw players out of spaces and give you pockets to move in to. Then he’ll find you with a pass.

The front three – perhaps the biggest surprise of the day for me as I thought getting Theo and Rambo into the same team would be nigh on impossible – were the epitome of movement and fluid attacking. Never stationery, always rotating and switching, Villa stood no chance. You only have to look at Theo’s goal as an example, as it was Alexis who won the header in the box and Theo arriving from the left to smash it home. For Alexis’ goal, he came from wide left and cut in field to unleash a thunderbolt, which would have probably have taken Given’s hand off if he’d have touched it.

This is two major trophies in two seasons. The players have tasted success twice and the Hull game last year has proven not to be a one-off. The team is growing. Mentally. The desire for more trophies and more success will only grow too now. The players will not accept that they can fall short and I think that will drive them on further.

It feels like this is a new dawn of success for Arsenal. Even more so than last year, because now the players will truly believe that they are winners. You can’t teach that, you have to learn it.

Today will be a soggy victory parade, but nobody in Arsenal’s world will care. We’re cup winners.

FA Cup countdown begins – an analysis of Arsenal’s key decisions

It’s Friday, the week has nearly met its maker, but more importantly we’re less than 24 hours until FA Cup final Matchday.

Much like when Arsène said that he still gets the same buzz as last year and every other time we’ve won a trophy under his tenure, the cup tomorrow feels as exciting and new as it did last year. I feel as nervous as I did last year and I didn’t get much sleep last night so I expect it’ll be the same again.

You know how when you’re a kid the prospect of Christmas is so exciting you can’t get to sleep? Then, as you get older, it becomes less exciting to wake up early in the morning to scramble downstairs? Well I don’t know if you feel the same as me, but as I’ve gotten older the reverse has happened with The Arsenal. Each time we get to the eve of an event like tomorrow’s, I feel more excited than I did last time. Christmas has well and truly been usurped by The Arsenal. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yesterday I did ‘The Arsenal Discussion’ with Giles and Robbie from Arsenal Fan TV, and it’s pleasing to see so many other people who have the same experiences as me. I’m not alone in the week-long run up to the cup and that is somewhat comforting. However, as Tim Stillman said in his excellent blog that I read yesterday about cup highs and lows (sorry, on the iPhone typing this so no link. Just visit Arseblog and have a look), by the time I’m walking up Wembley Way it will feel like I’m the only person going through this, so I’ll become insular and sullen until a five goal advantage has been established, or the whistle blows and we’ve been declared victorious. Of course defeat will merely continue my melancholy for the following week at least.

One of the key themes for yesterday’s discussion was on how Villa would set up, with the congregation of assembled Gooners not quite 100% sure how Tim will approach the game. Does he go with a style to frustrate and counter like Swansea? Or does he opt for a more expansive style by looking to have a go at Arsenal with more creative players pressing higher up the pitch?

Both will have merits as well as drawbacks. A defensive style with bodies behind the ball and looking to counter quickly will work only if Aston Villa’s back line hold firm. It will mean reliance on the pace of N’Zogbia and Agbonlahor to quickly counter with Benteke from deep in their own half, like Montero and Gomis a couple of weeks ago.

Alternatively, Sherwood could – and has suggested he would – play a more attacking brand of football like he did against Liverpool. In that game, Aston Villa concentrated their efforts predominantly on Liverpool’s right hand side, giving Grealish, Delph and Benteke the freedom to drift into that area of the pitch. If Theo starts tomorrow (and I don’t think he will for this reason), then Bellerin won’t get that same level of cover as Ramsey, so Arsène has a decision to make there. I can’t see a way Theo and Rambo get in to the same line up, not with Santi and Mesut fit, so I suspect it will be the Welshman who will be granted the starting journey.

Another interesting point flagged yesterday was the goalkeeping situation, in which again everyone was divided, but I stand firmly in the Szczesny camp. I don’t know if he’s the long-term solution any more, but Ospina continues to raise doubts in my mind, regardless of the fact he’s been playing regularly and has done ok for us.

I just think Szcseny is the better ‘keeper overall. I think he can be more commanding in the box and yes, whilst he does have a rick or two in his game, I also think he’s more likely to have an outstanding performance than the Colombian. And as I said yesterday on the debate, if Villa are going to look to take advantage of Benteke’s obvious aerial threat, who do you think is best positioned to snuff out any danger by repeatedly coming to collect balls placed deep in to the back post? Wojciech did that all day long against West Ham back in December, but I haven’t seen Ospina from image his area as much as yet, so for me it’s difficult to argue a case for him.

Anyway, why not have a listen for yourself before the game (again, apologies for no link), by having a virtual wander over to Arsenal Fan TV on YouTube and searching for ‘The Arsenal Discussion’.

I’ll see you tomorrow!

Will this week drag on?

We’re on a countdown to a cup final week this weekend, which has been made a little easier thanks to the Bank Holiday in England, because it means a shorter working week. The day off also enabled me to fill my Monday with all manner of things to do, which meant I didn’t have to see a selection of people in West London gathering for some sort of event in which most of the world couldn’t give a monkey about, so at least that was something.

And anyway, today we can spend more time thinking Bout the truly greatest ever league triumph, as this day in 1989 was one in whic Arsenal pipped Liverpool to a league title in the most dramatic of fashion. People talk about the over-hyped Sky Sports era’s Moneychester City first title win a few seasons ago, but they didn’t have to go away from home and win by a two goal margin at the other team at the top of the league, so any real football fan who was alive for both of those seasons – and even those that have retrospectively seen the footage and heard the stories – will know what truly was the greatest ever league campaign (Invincibles aside).

But I digress, because we’re supposed to be looking forward, ahead to a week of excitement before a final curtain raiser.

It’s a bit of a weird week actually, because for most people the season is over, but for us there is still one final hurrah. I’d probably normally be doing a breakdown of our season as a whole and then each individual unit of the team, but with such a big game in the offing it’s very difficult to put any kind of context right now. It’s almost a bit sad really; our whole season now feels like it will be defined by whether we can beat Aston Villa at Wembley on Saturday evening. It shouldn’t really come down to one game determining the mood of a club, but I suppose that is the fine margins by which success in football is built. 

What it may mean is that this week feels like one hell of a drag, as we all have our own respective lives to lead, before we can truly start to salivate at the prospect of another FA Cup. It’s probably going to be an even longer wait for Theo and Jack, as they try and work out Le Boss’ thinking for the final during various training drills and practice sessions at London Colney. Theo was undoubtedly superb against West Brom and will surely be giving food for thought for Arsène, but both he and Jack will have worked with the manager long enough to know that nothing is guaranteed in his team. Last season Arsène gave Sanogo a cup semi final on Wembley turf, which surprised everyone, but he reverted to type in the final by sticking with Giroud. The striking debate is one which will most likely be one of the more contentious talking points during the week, but whilst I would be a fan of seeing Theo from the start, I would prefer it to be as a wide player with Giroud up top.

Theo has shown what he’s about by scoring a hat trick, but it’s easy to forget that he’s had other opportunities to play as a centre forward and it hasn’t always worked out. It’s true we play a different style when he is playing as a centre forward, because the emphasis is not on a central striker to hold up play and bring midfielders and wide men in as runners beyond like Giroud does, so I wonder if that will count against Theo. after all, Arsène loves what Rambo brings to the team and when you’ve got a striker who will look to run in behind defenders as opposed to holding the ball up to bring box-to-boxers in to play from midfield, to my untrained eyes it means you have a decision to make as a manager: Ramsey or Walcott. I don’t think Arsène will pick both.

More pre-cup build up tomorrow. 

United review: a better response to previous years

Yesterday’s proverbial ‘game of two halves’ gave us just what we needed – enough to effectively secure third on Wednesday night with one of two outcomes – but more importantly, showed a bit more resilience than I have seen in an Arsenal team at Old Trafford for a long time, FA Cup game a couple of months ago aside. 

I say this because at half time, having been pretty much dominated for the opening 45, I felt resigned once again to the ‘same old story’ in which we lose to United in the league with barely any kind of fightback at all. To me, our defeats of the previous nine years have by-and-large been ones in which we’ve gone down with barely a whimper. We’ve fallen behind and never really looked like getting back in to the game, to which when then concede a second which effectively kills the game off. That’s what happened when I watched from a Barcelona bar about three seasons ago, when Vermaelen was gifting That Dutch Bloke a comfortable start to his United career.

But yesterday, whilst starting in a similar fashion, ended in a way in which I can take comfort in a point gained. We played poorly for an hour and Arsène was unsurprisingly angry at half time, according to Monreal, but we grew back in to the game and dominated the final 30. Pegging a United side back in their own half so they resort to long kicks up field gives you an idea of how in control we were towards the end of the game. That shows progress to me.

We needed that point because, if I’m honest, pre-game I was hoping that we would not fall into a bit of a confidence nose-dive with back-to-back defeats. We’ve avoided that and now, with Sunderland on the horizon on Wednesday, we have the opportunity to get back to winning ways quickly enough.

Performance wise we had a few players who just didn’t get close to clicking. Santi Cazorla was very off-key and in a team where competition for places is so tough, I do wonder if Arsène will have a think about who he plays on Wednesday night, because he was completely nullified by the quick press of Fellaini and Mata and spent more and more of his time in the first hour as another holding midfielder in front of our back four. In the opening minutes of the second half, I genuinely wondered whether Martin Tyler had forgotten any notes on Santi, because he just wasn’t saying his name. I put his performance partially down to his own display – when you’re as good as Cazorla you should be able to create space for yourself with movement – and partially down to the fact that United had clearly realised that if you choke the supply of Özil and Cazorla, you can negate a lot of Arsenal’s flow.

I make suggestions of rotation for Wednesday because when you compare and contrast the performance of Cazorla to Ramsey – again out of position for most of the game – you see a player who would quite happily slot in and play as a central midfield player. As you will no doubt be aware by now, I’m not a fan in the slightest of us playing Ramsey out wide right, but I am a fan of Ramsey and so is Arsène so it’s obvious that he wants to fit him in. But it really surprises me because for a guy so obsessed with the natural balance of his team, his recent formation decisions leave us quite unbalanced, as Ramsey continues to drift in-field all game.

It’s no surprise that it was the last 20 minutes – with the changes of Walcott and Wilshere coming on – that we looked more threatening going forward. Walcott’s width was enough to stretch United who then also had Alexis (who also had a poor game by his standards) on the opposite flank to contend with. This also enabled Ramsey and Wilshere to find more pockets of space and on a couple of occasions the Welshman got in to some good positions, one of which saw him lob the ball over De Gea, only for Rojo to clear over the line.

The goal came through Theo being isolated on the right against Blackett and was a classic example of what Theo gives you: end product. Alright, so he can’t in all honestly claim what was clearly a heavily deflected goal, but he’s the sort of player who gets in to those positions and I think he offers us an option in the squad that others don’t. He may not have shown it as much through his cameo appearances of late, but Theo is a valuable asset and showed it yesterday by being the chief protagonist in rescuing a point for us. 

So we’re nearly there. Almost over the line for a third place finish and that will represent progress. We aren’t going to get second but right now, I’m happy with where we’re at. 

Roll on Wednesday.