Quick thoughts on Anfield + Arsecast Extra 47

It feels a bit like those two 4-1 wins never happened. That’s the problem Arsene Wenger has now: patience has worn so thin that each set-back seems to eradicate any goodwill or momentum he has managed to build up.

At the core of most fans’ frustration is the fact that Arsenal conceded a late equaliser to – shock horror – a set-piece. I understand that entirely.

However, my problem with what we saw at Anfield is rather different. I’m not too fussed about the result – I can see that in isolation, a draw at Liverpool could prove to be a valuable point. My concern is the performance: Arsenal were utterly dreadful. A scoreline more akin to the 5-1 we suffered last season would have been far more appropriate than the 2-2 we somehow managed.

Despite a week of rest, Arsenal played with a baffling lack of intensity. As a fan, it’s difficult to get excited about a team who so regularly display such a complete lack of character. We’ve had difficult seasons before, but I can’t remember one that felt quite as uninspiring as this one.

Anyhow. I discuss the game in more depth in my latest SportsLobster blog. Have a read for stuff on Giroud, Mertesacker, set-pieces and more.

Once you’ve had a read of that, do listen to the latest Arsecast Extra with Arseblogger, in which we chat about the Liverpool game and the forthcoming January transfer window. This Arsecast Extra is brought to you by Audible.com – turns out you can get a free audio book download and a 30 day free trial. Click the banner below to sign up or go to audibletrial.com/arsecast.

You can subscribe to the Arsecast Extra on iTunes by clicking here. Or if you want to subscribe directly to the feed URL you can do that too. To download this week’s Arsecast Extra directly – click here – 40mb MP3. Thanks to Arseblog as ever for the mighty hosting power.

The Arsecast Extra is also available on our SoundCloud channel, where you can leave comments and such, as well as via the SoundCloud app for iPhone and Android. Alternatively, you can find it on the Stitcher podcasting app for iOS and Android.

If I don’t appear here before then, Merry Christmas you lot. Really appreciate you reading.

 

Tactics truck: Why Alexis, Giroud & Welbeck works so well

GiroudWelbeck

That might have been Arsenal’s best performance of the season thus far. Scoring four times against a team who had conceded just two goals in their previous seven games is not to sniffed at. It’s somewhat ironic that a cobbled-together XI managed to put together our most fluent 90 minutes of 2014/15.

Key to that fluency was the attacking trio of Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck. They started in tandem at the Hawthorns at the back end of November, but despite encouraging signs were split up for the subsequent games against Southampton and Stoke. I hope Arsene Wenger sees fit to stick with them now: they appear to be a potent combination.

There’s a lot to like about the way the three strikers combine. Few forwards offer quite as much defensively as Alexis and Welbeck, who work tirelessly to protect their full-back. Both players also have the technical skill and tactical intelligence to join up with Arsenal’s approach play when required.

Giroud was outstanding on Saturday, and it’s surely no coincidence that he looks more of an asset when complemented by attackers with speed and dribbling ability. However, he deserves a measure of credit for being prepared to adapt his game. Against Newcastle, he regularly drifted in to wide areas to allow Alexis and Welbeck spells in the middle.

His Squawka heat map demonstrates that he was willing to work the channels, particularly on the right, when required. He may be the team’s focal point, but he is determined not to weigh down a mobile attack by becoming an immobile anchor.

There’s a growing camaraderie there, too. These players seem to have embraced the challenge of competition, and are working hard to discover a way to play together. Giroud is not affronted by Welbeck’s presence, and Welbeck in turn has not piped up about being ousted to the flank. Alexis meanwhile, just wants to play anywhere with anyone.

However, what I like most of all is that fielding this front three almost guarantees that Arsenal have a bigger presence in the penalty area. Last season, crosses would flash across a box occupied primarily by opposition defenders. If it wasn’t within Giroud’s reach, it would generally be cleared without danger: No longer: Welbeck and Sanchez both have the stamina and the willingness to get in the box to join Giroud on a regular basis.

That much was evident from our winning goal at West Brom. When Santi Cazorla sprinted to the byline, Giroud’s mere presence at the near post was enough to attract a defender out of the centre, granting Welbeck the space to charge in and score.

Since then, the interchanging movement has only become more sophisticated. The opening goal against Newcastle was a perfect example: when Alexis crossed from the right, Welbeck and Giroud engaged in criss-crossing diagonal runs, the Englishman darting from far post to near and his French counterpart moving in the opposite direction. Their markers were baffled, and Giroud was able to climb high to score.

Our third goal came from another cross from the right. This time, Giroud made his preferred darting run to the dear post. Beyond him, Welbeck sprinted towards goal before pulling back in to space around the penalty spot — a classic Thierry Henry strategy. His positioning created doubt in the mind of Fabricio Colocccini, and allowed Giroud to nip in to score.

Arsenal’s improved penalty box presence has another benefit at the other end of the pitch: having the height of both Welbeck and Giroud in our area does offer a measure of insurance at set-pieces.

Arsenal looked as impressive going forward against Newcastle as they have done all season, and for once it wasn’t solely down to the individual brilliance of Alexis Sanchez. This new front three is already working. Let’s give it the time it needs to get even better.

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ps. Thanks to Arsenalist for the goal clips for me to deface, and sorry for reminding everyone of the horrors of Andy Townsend’s Tactics truc.

Stoke 3-2 Arsenal: Own up, Arsene

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Stoke City v Arsenal - Britannia Stadium

Believe it or not, I was actually considerably cheerier at half-time than at full-time. When the whistle went for the break with the score 3-0 to Stoke, I was actually able to laugh at our risible performance. By full-time, any sadomasochistic smiles had faded.

Perhaps it’s because there’s something purgative about an unadulterated thumping. There’s no need for caveats or contemplation. You can just let loose and get it out of your system. In a funny sort of way, our incomplete comeback robbed me of that catharsis.

It also means you have to sit through tired platitudes from the manager about the team’s “great spirit” and admirable “mental response”.  What tosh. Real mental strength is about focusing for the full 90 minutes, not mounting a response once the game is already lost.

I wonder if Arsene ever considers stepping in front of the press and saying:

“Fair enough, guys: this is one’s on me. I didn’t buy enough defenders and I didn’t organise the ones we do have sufficiently. It’s not good enough and, given that we have the January window ahead of us, I can assure you that we’re doing all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

While it would cost his ego, it might make win some favour among an increasingly disaffected fanbase.

Most managers don’t admit guilt in press conferences because they’re afraid of giving their board an excuse to dismiss them. Wenger has no such worries, so it wouldn’t hurt him to take responsibility sometimes — I actually think it could even help to relieve the pressure. There’s a fine line between single-mindedness and myopia, and from his public comments it’s not always clear which side Wenger sits on. At least owning up would prevent people from saying he can’t see the problems.

And let’s be honest, the reason we lost is clear as day. Arsenal’s defending – and defenders — simply weren’t up to the task.

From the minute the team-sheets came in, Arsenal’s inexperienced back five looked like trouble. Within a minute of kick-off, those panicky predictions proved correct. This was actually one of the worst defensive displays I can remember seeing from an Arsenal side. People will compare it to last season’s drubbings, but at least those tended to be against decent teams. This weekend, we made an average side look good: Arsenal applied lipstick to the pig that is Stoke City.

In truth, Wenger didn’t have much choice about his selection. Ludicrously, those were the only defenders available. Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny might have been on the bench, but one suspects they were merely making up the numbers.

One area where Wenger retained a degree of flexibility was in the deployment of those defenders he still had at his disposal. I don’t know why he insists on playing Calum Chambers on the right-hand side of the centre-backs, thus displacing Mertesacker to the left. Mertesacker spent the entire match seemingly unaware of his surroundings, but perhaps that’s no surprise when he is playing in an unfamiliar zone. Every angle must be adapted, every body position altered.

Maybe Wenger feels Chambers is more comfortable on the right of centre, but he has not played enough games at centre-back to be settled in either role. The reality is that, after the Spaniard’s recent run in the team, Chambers has probably played less games as a centre-half than Nacho Monreal. His inexperience makes him adaptable.

Lining Chambers and Mertesacker up like this has caused problems before: the pair were in chaos in the same arrangement at Goodison Park. Repeating that error is foolish. Keep the reliable defender where he’s happy, and let him guide the novice through the game.

There’s also the question of preparation. Wenger must have known there was a good chance we’d be tasked with facing Peter Crouch. Had we made any special plans to deal with his aerial threat? Not by the looks of it.

There’s been a lot of talk about the referee, and with a degree of justification: Chambers didn’t deserve to have his dismal day capped by a red card. However, the officiating impacted on both teams. The decision to disallow Stoke’s fourth goal, for example, was clearly incorrect.

Our momentum has ground to a hurtful halt. If your glass is half full, you’ll be point out that many of our rivals for the Champions League places are also slipping up. If it’s half empty, you might argue that fact is disguising quite how bad a season we are having.

Chelsea’s defeat ought to be cause for some joy, but our own performance made that delicious delight short-lived. On the weekend the Invincibles’ immortality was assured, our modern mediocrity was painfully underlined.