1. Arsenal’s Season so far….
The Gunners season has taken on 4 phases. The first phase was the opening spell when a summer of transfer woe culminated in them being humbled by the likes of Blackburn and enduring a savage 8-2 beating at the hands of Taggart’s mob. The second phase saw an upturn in results and performances which culminated in the 5-3 rout of Chelsea at the Bridge amidst a run of great form which included a 1-0 win over ourselves thanks to a Van Persie special.
The third phase involved patchy league form, an FA Cup exit and an embarrassing 0-4 reverse to Milan in the ECL. In the current phase, the Gunners are now firing on all cylinders as the league’s form side which has solidified their place in 4th and made 3rd spot tantalisingly close especially given the form of old Bagpuss head Arry and his stuttering Spurs. Unfortunately for us our games against them have coincided with the good phases!
2. Gunners Selection, Tactics & Strategy
This season Wenger’s men have mostly resembled 4-3-3 in terms of system. They play predominantly through the middle using their 3 midfielders to service the forwards. Van Persie will obviously lead the line as he looks to continue his machine like season which has seen the dynamic Dutchman plunder 46% of Arsenal’s goals.
Former blue Mikel Arteta will be expected to transport the ball from defence to the flanks and I’d expect him to form a trio with Rosicky and Alex Song who is also enjoying a fine season both in terms of the defensive and offensive phases of play; so far making more successful through balls (17) than any player in the top flight yielding 7 assists. The key cog in their recent renaissance has been the form of the delightful Tomas Rosicky. The former Dortmund star was the key man in the flagship wins against Spurs, Milan and Newcastle and his runs from midfield will need to be kept in check.
Although they still dominate possession of the ball more than any other side in the top flight there is more of an emphasis on sitting back and using counter attacks on their travels as the recent win at Klanfield showed. Indeed, the Gunners have scored more fast break goals (9) than any other side in the top flight.
In terms of weakness, they are not water tight in defence with Gibbs a borderline liability but its worth noting that both spells of poorer results have come when they were without recognized fullbacks. Their defence looks more rigid now with a settled back four and the excellent Szczęsny between the sticks. A sign of their solidity is that they have conceded fewer shots per game (10.8) than any side in the division.
Whilst we have never won against them at the Emirates we have enjoyed some decent results at L4. Notable wins in the Moyes era came courtesy of Rooney, Johnson & Beattie winners and only a world class last gasp goal from Van Persie stopped the Blues from another triumph in 2009. Arsenal have of course dished out the biggest webbings of the Moyes era with embarrassing 1-6 and 0-7 defeats. In the last couple of seasons Arsenal have had things there own way; we have won none of our last 9 against them.
Earlier this season at the Emirates we played a high line (below) and tried to squeeze the play on Arsenal’s midfield trio stopping them playing through us and feeding the forwards. The results were good to an extent in that we were competitive however playing this high line did leave us exposed to Arsenal’s wide strikers exploiting the space in behind. Luckily for us Gervinho and Walcott were repeatedly wasteful but with Walcott’s recent return to form the risk with playing a high line is thus a greater worry. With Arsenal also playing a higher line in this fixture it led to the midfield zone being incredibly congested; the offside traps from both sides resulted in a total of 15 offsides in the game which was the most in any top flight game this season. Koscielny has actually caught an opponent offside 40 times this season – only Coloccini at Newcastle has claimed more. The second impact of the side’s high lines was that as the game was condensed into the midfield area, space was restricted and possession was often conceded by both sides with a whopping 44 interceptions taking place.
4. Blues Team and Approach
We are up against Arsenal and Swansea – two of the best sides in the league for ball retention – in the space of 4 days. This will mean a lot of time off the ball which means a lot energy will be required. With the cup seemingly Moyes priority he will surely shuffle his pack with only 2 days rest from Swansea to the Sunderland replay. I’d say it’s more likely he will pick the bigger hitters for this one and then rest them at the weekend so I would be surprised if there was wholesale changes from the cup game with Pienaar probably coming in for Coleman although Rodwell will be pushing hard for a recall.
The Sunderland game was obviously a disappointment in that we dominated proceedings but faced the usual demons of not being able to break down well organized sides that sit and don’t compromise their shape. Added to this you have the usual O’Neill tactics of blocking runs, tactical fouling and the constant hacking of ball players such as Royston. Graft wise, you couldn’t question the application of the players but the lack of incision was there for all to see as was our over reliance again on crosses. With Sunderland happy to sit deep and let us have the ball Fellaini’s pressing capability was minimised so Moyes swapped him with Cahill on 60mins. Obviously with someone of Marouanne’s height it leads to more crosses however some of the angles for the crosses were just stupid. I’d imagine the approach against Arsenal would be similar to the recent games against the top sides, namely to keep a high line, squeeze play in the centre, push them out to the flanks, pack the box, nick a goal and then drop deep and shut up shop.
Arsenal are a top side and will be a really tough nut to crack but they will come and attack which will suit us. Our best results this season have come against sides that play this way (Chelsea, Man City, Spurs) whereas we have been hopeless against teams with shape such as Stoke & Sunderland. A draw would probably be the best we can hope for in this one and I’d fancy us to open the scoring but Arsenal have recovered more points from losing positions (19) than any other Premier League team this season so could see it ending up 1-1.