Arsenal 2-1 Leicester: The fixtures favour Arsenal + Theo thoughts

Arsenal edged past Leicester on a nervous night at the Emirates Stadium. Our performance wasn’t much better than the one we produced at Spurs, and a side equipped with better finishers would surely have punished us. However, coming off the back of that defeat, this game was all about getting the points.

It’s our capacity to grind out those kinds of wins that has seen us regularly finish in the top four. Looking at our upcoming schedule, I’m confident we’ll repeat the feat this season. I’m grateful to We Are The North Bank for putting together this handy fixture list for the major top four contenders:

fixturesAfter this latest round of fixtures, we will be the only team in the race with seven home games. Given our impressive record at the Emirates, that’s a notable advantage. In fact, Johnny from Prague emailed me to point out that we don’t even leave London until the middle of March.

Looking at that list, a significant proportion of our games would have to be categorised as very winnable indeed. Only Southampton have a comparably straightforward set of fixtures, and they have a far weaker squad and lack experience of these tense climaxes to the domestic campaign. A third-place finish is a definite possibility.

Our performance against Leicester was not one particularly worthy of in-depth analysis. However, I did think Arseblog’s examination of Theo Walcott’s performance was interesting.

As regular listeners to the Arsecast Extra will know, I have doubts about how Theo will fit in to this team and squad moving forward. Taking his delicate contract situation into consideration, I think there’s a decent chance he could be sold this summer.

Over the past 24 hours I’ve been mulling over his general contribution (or lack thereof). I’m not entirely convinced that his tendency to run away from the ball is cowardice, it’s merely a constant desire to get in behind the back four. When his team-mates have the ball, his instinct is not to run in to a position to receive a sideways pass, but to put himself in an area where he can create a goalscoring opportunity. It may be selfish, but it may also be necessary. Unlike Lukas Podolski, his pace and movement stretches defences and offers a different kind of threat.

If Walcott was played as a conventional No. 9, would we interpret his habit of drifting out of games differently? I don’t remember Ian Wright or Nicolas Anelka contributing significantly to our combination play. Pippo Inzaghi could barely play a pass over six yards, but it never really mattered.

Although Walcott starts as a right winger, he plays much more like an out-and-out striker. With centre-forwards who drop deep and combine with midfield like Giroud, Alexis and Welbeck, that’s probably a luxury Arsenal can afford.

It’s not so much a defence of Theo, more an attempt to redefine the debate. He might line up on the right wing, but he’s a striker through and through.

Spurs 2-1 Arsenal: Kaned and Unable

kane_3191472b

I seem to bang on about ‘fine margins’ an awful lot at the moment. So much so that I’ve started using online thesauri to try and come up with some alternatives. The best I can find is ‘narrow gap’, which funnily enough is precisely what has opened up between Tottenham and Arsenal since our derby defeat.

That’s of little immediate concern: looking at the two sets of fixture lists, I still expect Arsenal to finish above Tottenham. The greater threat to our top four place comes from Southampton and Manchester United. Even the gloriously hubristic Hotspurs have been noticeably quiet about their one-point lead — surely they’ll never be so foolish as to warn us to mind a gap again.

That said, Spurs were undoubtedly the better side on Saturday. I think all football fans are sometimes guilty of only assessing their own team’s performance. If we score a goal it’s purely down to our own brilliance; if we concede one our incompetence is held equally responsible. Sometimes you do have to give credit to your opposition — much as it pains me to say it, they were excellent.

But what of those ‘fine margins’ I mentioned in the first paragraph as if they were going to be important?

I suppose what I mean is that the gap in perception between a ‘spirited rear-guard action’ and being ‘on the backfoot for 90 minutes’ is incredibly small. When you play as Arsenal did at Spurs, inviting pressure and looking to play on the break, the game is inevitably going to be on a knife-edge.

When you’re under sustained pressure, as Arsenal were, the smallest defensive mistake can be crucial. Yes, Aaron Ramsey might have done better to stay with Harry Kane at a corner, and Theo Walcott could have closed down Nabil Bentaleb a little sooner, but they’re not criminal errors. I struggle to find the energy to crucify those players for momentary lapses in concentration. If you set up to defend for 90 minutes, it’s draining.

Such a game-plan also demands you’re incredibly efficient in possession. Surprisingly, that’s where Arsenal most obviously fell short. Defensive errors are par for the course, but an inability to keep the ball comes as more of a shock. That’s the greatest disappointment to come out of Saturday’s game: with more finesse on the ball, we might have punished Tottenham sufficiently on the break to render our defensive errors inconsequential. Instead, we struggled to live with Tottenham’s high intensity pressing game, just as we did at Dortmund and Liverpool earlier this season.

This game followed a remarkably similar pattern to last year’s fixture. In both matches, Spurs recovered from going a goal behind to dominate — they actually had more possession in 2014. Sometimes you’ll get away with it, sometimes you won’t.

For more rambling discussion of this ilk, why no tune in to the latest Arsecast Extra, in which we take a closer look at the form of Aaron Ramsey.

Is Arsenal’s victory over Manchester City down to the manager or the players?

I don’t quite know what to make of Arsenal’s win over Manchester City. My initial response was, like yours, one of shock. An Arsenal side guilty of making the same mistakes again and again appeared to have suddenly learnt from them. Frustration at their slow uptake was secondary to the joy of an unexpected victory. Arsene Wenger had got it right, and in doing so acknowledged he was wrong.

And then came his tetchy post-match interview, in which he effectively denied his side had done anything dramatically different to their normal gung-ho approach. Ignore it, I thought: he’s just struggling with publicly compromising his principles. No-one wants to climb down from their aesthetic mount on national television.

But then came this Olivier Giroud interview (“The boss didn’t say to stay back and counter-attack”), in which he appears to reveal that the players weren’t specifically instructed to let City have the ball. Arsenal’s tactical masterclass, Giroud seems to suggest, came about as much by accident as design.

Now, there is evidence against Giroud’s crude ‘big bang’ theory that re-establishes the divinity of Arsene. For example, our approach at City was fairly reminiscent of our cautious display at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. There were indications then that we had adopted a more conservative set-up. The difference, as so often in these big games, was the first goal. Individual errors granted Chelsea the lead, and recovering from that deficit away from home proved impossible.

However, if we take Giroud’s comments at face value, what does that mean for Arsenal’s newfound resolve and discipline? Where does that come from? Certainly not Steve Bould, who appears to be as impotent as Pele before his lucrative endorsement deal.

A potential answer arrives in the form of the players. Is it possible that, in spite of their manager’s intransigence, they have simply adjusted of their own accord? There are enough new ingredients for me to believe it’s possible: the eerie calm of David Ospina, the fearless physicality of Francis Coquelin, the inspirational athleticism of Alexis Sanchez. Perhaps this Arsenal, with these personnel, has taken matters in to their own hands. If the manager wasn’t prepared to teach his team some necessary lessons, perhaps certain players have – inadvertently or otherwise.

In reality, our win may be down to both players and manager. The two possibilities are in no way mutually exclusive. That would certainly fit with Wenger’s ethos: he is always eager for his players to take responsibility for their own actions on the field. The intriguing thing is how difficult that makes it to apportion credit.

-

ps. TRANSFER BUSINESS: I talked about it on Twitter the other day, but my understanding is that Arsenal are confident they would secure a work permit for Villarreal defender Gabriel Paulista without too many problems. The Spanish club are holding out for something close to his €20m buyout fee, which sounds a lot until you remember just how hard it’s proven to find a half-decent centre-half. For more on Paulista, read this profile piece I wrote on him for ESPN.