Napoli: A Change of Midfield Philosophy?

I am sure many of you, as I have, have spent the last 24 hours attempting to read every last article on Tuesday night’s victory as possible. For that reason I will not go over the details. What I will say is as a regular visitor to the Emirates that was not only one of the best performances I have seen on the pitch, but also one of the best from the stands. There is a new attitude to us all within the ground, we walk to our seats with a renewed sense of optimism and excitement. This a much welcome replacement from the constant knife edge that we were on until just a few weeks ago. Chants of “We’re the North bank Emirates’ etc have not been heard for years, if ever. Supporting The Arsenal is fun again and long may it continue.
A distinct feature of Tuesday night was the set up in midfield, a line up perhaps born more out of necessity than choice. All five of the starters deployed would almost certainly consider themselves to be central midfielders. With this in mind one might have expected a lack of balance and an overloading in the centre of the park. What we experienced, however, was far from this. Arteta and Flamini provided the perfect platform to allow the front four the freedom to drift in between the lines and they did so with wonderful effect. One minute Ramsay would be wide right, the next playing centrally or wide left. The same could be said for both Ozil and Rosicky and this constant movement left Napoli with no answer. It was as close to a complete midfield performance than we have seen since the glory days.

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In the aftermath of this win and given the skill displayed, it got me thinking if this is a way we could play regularly. Admittedly the likes of Ramsey would prefer a central role but his link up play with Giroud for the first goal was sublime and he provided the excellent assist for Ozil. It will be interesting to see if we try this set up more regularly. With Santi returning to the team, the skill we could posses in midfield is mouthwatering.
With both goals coming from the right hand side of the pitch I have to question whether our starter at the beginning of the season, Walcott, would have been able to produce such assists. For all of Walcott strengths he does not possess the sort of footballing ability that was on display Tuesday night. He has often come unstuck against top full backs and his decision making in tight positions is poor. I do think that Walcott has a part to play in the side. He has the ability to terrorise lesser full backs and as an impact player (arguably his best position) he can be very effective. But based on last nights performance his previously secure position in the midfield could well be under threat.
Last nights line up was not one that I thought would act with the devastating effect that it did. The introduction of Ozil provides a creativity that we have not had since the Fabregas era and the players he had around him last night responded phenomenally to it. For me there is no real reason to make changes from last night, despite some being played ‘out of position’. Let me know if you think differently…

Will

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The Liverpool Perspective: Another Gillespie Guest Post

Although it doesn’t have a reputation for being a particularly enthralling fixture, Liverpool v Arsenal has consistently been the source of some absolute classic matches in recent years. The Owen FA Cup final, Thierry Henry toying with Carragher for 90 minutes, Arshavin sticking four past us to pretty much end our title hopes in the one year we’ve really challenged for it in my lifetime, Neil Mellor’s thirty yard stoppage time winner and the Champions league quarter final at Anfield amongst others. And with both teams looking more likely than not to concede goals we could be in for another one.

Liverpool’s form going in to the game is OK (fifth in the league form table based on the last six matches) while Arsenal are down in 10th, but that’s slightly misleading because that block of six included Fulham, QPR, Sunderland and Norwich and we have yet to beat a team in the top ten. The loss to Oldham also piles on a bit more pressure for Rodgers. At times we look very cohesive, pass the ball well and move fluidly, but at others we looked shocked that teams have the nerve to tackle us and disrupt our passing game. When we concede we don’t just concede one, but two or three. But it’s as good a time as any to play Arsenal. There’s a lot of negativity in and around the Club at the moment and the anti Wenger minority appears to be growing. Add to that the lack of a top class striker and a thinner squad in comparison to previous years and it’s the weakest I’ve seen Arsenal in years, though still very capable of scraping the fourth Champions League spot.

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But I was confident going in to the last meeting between the two when Arsenal controlled the game and tactically outclassed us at Anfield. Arteta, Diaby and Cazorla bossed the Liverpool trio in the midfield battle and our full backs left far too much space down the channels, which is where both Arsenal goals came from. It will be interesting to see if and how Rodgers will react to the fairly dismal performance last time round, because more and more people are starting to question his pre game tactical planning.

He likes to keep his team the same for each match but at the same time hasn’t settled on an eleven he feels entirely comfortable with, so players get a short run before being replaced and not to be seen for a while (just ask Suso). The back four and ‘keeper are automatic choices when fit (Johnson and Enrique are expected to be back for the game) though Carragher seems to have worked his way back in to the fold ahead of Skrtel The middle of the park has seen Allen, Gerrard, Lucas, Shelvey, Sahin  and Henderson all get a regular run of games at various times with Lucas, Gerrard and Henderson currently being the favoured three.

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The arrival of Sturridge has had a pretty big effect on the way we set up, and we look much more dangerous for it. Suarez has been playing behind him at the tip of the midfield in a 4-2-3-1 (as opposed to roaming all over as the centre forward where he was absolutely outstanding for the first half of the season). Henderson has been playing a recycling role from the left with Downing finally producing something resembling good form from the right. Sturridge has instantly clicked with and taken the work load off Suarez meaning El Pistolero is no longer attacking teams all on his own, while their constant movement creates space for others to exploit.

Liverpool are still horrific at defending the counter attack. Any team who puts us under any sort of pressure on the ball, and works their counter attack well is likely to get points. With the pace Arsenal have up front I could easily see it happening. Liverpool will look to do what they always do – get control of possession and slowly build up our passing game from the back. That Arsenal have a similar style and are at home however means we’re likely to see less of the ball, something we’re not at all used to, so it will be interesting to see how we react. Despite Rodgers’ much vaunted pressing style when defending, we have yet to actually see any pressing for a prolonged period of time suggesting we may sit deep without possession and look to counter.

I think Arsenal’s key threats are Wilshere and Cazorla. I would have confidently backed a pre injury Lucas to deal with Cazorla in the 10 role but he’s been a bit patchy since he’s returned from his year out (understandably) so that could be a key factor in the outcome. Likewise Wilshere. He can dominate a game given the time and space so it’ll be fascinating to see who comes out on top between him and Gerrard. As I mentioned earlier I think Arsenal look fragile at the back but their pace in the front three does worry me, particularly if Carragher starts.

Whatever happens I would be surprised if it’s not an entertaining game. There’s decent enough attacking talent on display and neither team looks well drilled yet, meaning lots of gaps for the front men to exploit. For me though the key battle comes down to the midfield trios. Whoever controls the middle should go on to win the game. With Lucas back and Gerrard in good form we look fairly strong. But whatever trio Arsenal pick will always be good with the ball, and the creativity of Cazorla and Wilshere could really hurt us.

Prediction: I think Arsenal are there for the taking but we just can’t seem to get a win against the top sides. Away from home will be tough as well but I’m going for a 2-2 draw. I can see goals being scored at both ends and I think Liverpool will manage to come away with a point.


Gillespie Guest Post: The QPR Perspective

I have to start this blogpost by stating how much I am not looking forward to Saturday’s fixture from a Rangers perspective. The Super Hoops’ season has for the most part proved to be a series of defensive shambles that leaves us without a win in the league. Watching the way we’ve played for considerable spells in most games has left me wondering why this is the case. Although many joked before the season started that we’ve assembled a ridiculously large squad that should be challenging for the 2005/06 Premier League title I thought the squad would kick on from last season and the mix of experience we have (Cisse/Zamora/Park/Nelson) would blend well with the younger quality in the squad (Faurlin/Diakite/Granero/Hoilett and the unpredictable Taarabt).

However, for me this was dependant on two other crucial points. The first was to get rid of the poison that is Joey Barton and secondly to add some real defensive quality. Luckily Joey has been shipped off to France (and it seems as though he’s picked up some of the lingo‏…“@Joey7Barton Bonne nuit xxx”. Yes, well done Joey, we can only hope it’s “bonne nuit” for good.)

On the defensive point; last season we were relying on the likes of Clint Hill as a makeshift centre back and Luke Young and while their efforts can’t be denied, and there were some stunning performances, this isn’t something that you can continue to get away with in the Premiership. Unfortunately, we haven’t really improved in this area. The main signings have been Ryan Nelson (good squad member/mentor but not good enough) and M’bia, who has shown some talent but still needs time to get used to the Premier League. This goes some way to explaining why we shipped 5 at home against Swansea on the opening day of the season and couldn’t hold leads against Reading in the League Cup and Everton at the weekend – all games we should have won.

And so we find ourselves propping up the league table coming in against an Arsenal team that before this week have, in my opinion, shown some good signs of moving on from the RVP saga, although I can’t help but feel that the loss of Song got swept under the carpet in this whole episode. Having said that I’ve always had a massive respect for Arsenal and Wenger, even before my first of many visits to Highbury courtesy of Nick Cooke; a 4-0 Gunners win over Charlton in 2004 when Henry scored with an outrageous back heel. My fondness of Arsenal also probably comes from getting annoyed that seemingly everyone at my primary school seemed to support Spurs…

So what’s in store for this weekend’s fixture? After the disappointment of Norwich and the lacklustre performance against Schalke I can’t see Wenger accepting anything less than a full-blown, fully-committed performance based on the intricate, attacking football that Arsenal are famed for. I can only imagine that Arsenal will be buoyed by the fact that after the past week, they come up against a QPR team that has already shipped 17 goals in 8 games (the 2nd worst record in the league). I am expecting a very similar line-up to the one that set out mid-week, with Wilshere to come in if he is fit, though I’m sure you’ll know better than I do. In any case, if I were an Arsenal fan I would probably fancy my chances of getting back to winning ways this weekend.

As for QPR this may have been a fixture that last season would have counted as a “freebie”. If we lost to Arsenal at the Emirates nobody would be ringing any alarm bells, with a draw or better seen as a huge bonus. But the situation is different now. The pressure has been piling on to Mark Hughes – the latest Comedian-in-Chief at Loftus Road. Hughes was ill-advised to suggest over the summer that QPR would never again under his leadership be in the positions we were in last season and so I honestly believe that this is a game we need to get points in. Tony Fernandes, our Malaysian owner, will also be hoping for a victory against a club he sees as the mould for where QPR could be in the not too distant future!

So how do I think Mark Hughes will line-up tomorrow? Our line-up has changed so frequently that Hughes seems to have taken on the role of tinker in the league so this is a hard one to predict. But given the nature of the opposition I would expect Hughes to play with the preferred 4-5-1. The major changes form the Everton game will be Faurlin to come in to the starting XI – probably for Taraabt – and I fancy Cisse to start ahead of Zamora. This will leave a central midfield triangle of Diakite-Faurlin-Granero, which has real quality in there with Hoilett and Park bridging the gap with Cisse. When those three in the middle get on the ball and play around, QPR produce their best performances so I’m really hoping Hughes goes with them.

There is a potential that Arsenal old-boy Armand Traore could be injured so Onouha should start if that is the case. That leaves the only question of who out of M’Bia, Anton, Nelsen would form the centre back pairing? Ferdinand was left on the bench following his return from injury last weekend and I personally hope he stays there. He always seems to play better under the relative security of Loftus Road with the home fans backing him and always seems lethargic on the road.

 

With QPR’s 15 odd years of exile from the Premier League there aren’t many fixtures to go from in recent times. Both teams won their respective home games last year and though Arsenal fans may have forgotten that game in a hurry, it had a massive impact for Rangers. Not only was it part of our incredible run in to secure safety in the league, but many see that game as the day Taarabt finally arrived in the Premier League. He will still amaze and frustrate in equal measure but if the match is close with 20/30 minutes left, expect the Rangers fans to be chanting his name.

I think most people will fancy an Arsenal win tomorrow and although both teams have made a habit of going behind in matches, QPR have yet to recover to win. I think the game will be a lot closer than some might be predicting with 2-1 Arsenal or 1-1 both likely results.

Incidentally, I’ve not been to the Emirates Stadium yet but I remember the pies at Highbury being worth every penny.

Omar


Prepare Yourselves…

So the Olympics came and went far too quickly but I think I speak for most people when I say it far superseded expectations. The City of London basked in the warm glow of unexpected delight at not only the success of the British athletes but also the goodwill and friendliness of Londoners in general. Something most of us are not hugely accustomed to.

Fear not however, as the post Olympic hangover sets in and the football season begins, the chivalrous, selfless, care-free sports consumer will be replaced by the snarling, sweaty, aggressive and intensely loyal football fan, and in many ways, thank God for that.

I suppose the most enjoyable thing about the Olympics, as well as the fact it’s a one-off, is it’s inclusivity and accessibility. Ironically, because no-one is really a fan of any of the sports, they can be enjoyed by young and old, male and female, safe in the knowledge that two weeks of passionate support is all that is expected of you.

Like many football fans I thoroughly enjoyed this fresh approach to consuming sport, especially when combined with an enormous sense of pride as it was all on my doorstep. Nevertheless, the season’s opener on Saturday against Sunderland, even the last pre-season game against Cologne, bring with them a completely different and unique range of emotions.

The chance to see the new boys make their competitive debuts, the chance to make a day of catching up with the Arsenal family and walking to the ground whilst re-living last seasons successes and failures. Imagining what might be this time around. The pre-match nerves and the inevitable post match despair. The question of ‘why do I put myself through this?’ when you’re one-nil up on 80 minutes. The comforting sense that there’s another game the following week.

The point I think I’m trying to make is that that feeling of unparalleled sickening, nervous anxiety, at least for me, cannot be found anywhere other than at the Arsenal, and I know Mo Farah would agree with me. I can’t bloody wait. Nick