After gloomfests against agricultural opponents Reading and Norwich, Wednesday night offers a more well heeled encounter against the very watchable but flaky Arsenal in what is always an interesting tactical joust. We start the game ahead of Wenger’s men in the table and if we are serious about putting our keys on the table for champions league adventures a positive result is essential. So, let’s took a look at our visitors in more detail…
Off the ball….
The zeitgeist would suggest the Gunners have a shaky backline although this is actually quite wide of the mark given that they have the best defensive record in the top flight on the road. They work very hard as a team off the ball; last season they applied more pressure than any side in the top flight as shown here and this hasn’t waned this season with 47.1 pressing contacts per game, up by 0.8 on last season.
This perception of them being poor defensively has perhaps been attributed to some shoddy individual errors and the fact that players like Vermaelen and the figure of hate Andre Santos are perhaps better on the ball than off it. In the Spurs game for example Mertesacker made a horrible judgement call in stepping out to play offside. Such mistakes haven’t been frequent however. Their left side does seem the suspect area given that if selected ahead of Gibbs, the Vermaelen/ Podolski axis looks fragile defensively. On the right (if fit/selected) Walcott/Sagna are equally offensive and engineering 2v1’s in these wide areas will be Moyes principal attacking focus.
The big challenge for Arsenal this season was replacing Van Persie and the Dutchman’s goals and assists which accounted for 27 of the Gunner’s points last season – a staggering figure. Podolski and Giroud where recruited to fill the void but its perhaps in the central middle trio of Arteta, Cazorla and Wilshere where the key strength of this current Arsenal side lies and where Moyes will view as the priority in terms of applying pressure and disrupting rhythm.
They play pretty much a 1+2 triangle with ex-toffee Mikel Arteta anchoring things at the base with Wilshere and Cazorla further forward. Arteta makes the most passes per game in the top flight and will link defence to the more offensive CM’s. Like a deceased pop star, Wilshere’s lengthy absence has elevated his stature and reputation resulting in a massively over hyped return to action last month. Granted he looks decent but it’s perhaps an indication of how few players we are producing in this country that so much rests on his relatively inexperienced shoulders. Cazorla is clearly ace and will look to find space between the lines and drift over to their left of centre zone so our gap between defence and midfield will need to condense this space.
The games between the two clubs are always interesting tussles. Wenger has an ideology he will follow regardless of the opponent whilst Moyes will always tweak to negate opposition danger men. We lost both games 0-1 last season. Both sides look to play the game in the opponents final third and statistically the sides are 2 of the top 3 in the league for touches in the opposition final third hence high lines were the key feature of last season’s games.
At the Emirates we did little in the final third whilst at the back we held a high line in the first half but didn’t compress midfield (as shown above) leading to Arsenal having frequent one on ones with Howard, all of which they fluffed. The game featured the most off sides (15) in a league game last season.
In the second period our line dropped back 10 yards, denying Arsenal the ball in behind and thus making it more difficulty for them to create openings. Moyes discussed the high line post match:
“The high line wasn’t necessarily the plan but we wanted to limit Arsenal and that means midfielders have to go and get close to Arsenal’s midfielders. If you do that then the back four have to move up too. We wanted to disrupt Arsenal’s passing and win the ball early. If we came and parked the bus you would be saying why did we not have a go, well we did, and if you do that you are always going to give Arsenal some opportunities. We tried to get at them, I thought we got into some great positions to make opportunities, great positions to deliver crosses and we either never delivered them or never completed the move.”
At Goodison we struggled for territory particularly in the first half due to Arsenal’s high defensive line. Post match Moyes lamented the opening period when we gave Arsenal ‘Too much room and too much opportunity to play”. An example of this is shown below with Arteta again pulling the strings….
Like the game at the Emirates, there were frequent off sides with Moyes afterwards a bit miffed by five incorrect calls including a major gaff when the enigmatic Royston Drenthe’s goal was wrongly ruled out for offside. The Gunners caught us offside a whopping 10 times (average per team per game in the prem is 2). It’s rare that Baines makes more tackles than crosses in a game but that was the case in this one as possession wise Arsenal crushed us with 61% of the ball. In the second half we had more of a say and used long balls aimed at our left side to get more territory in the opposition half. Bacary Sagna won 13 aerials -mostly from these long balls which was 90% more than any other player. Whilst this was commendable Moyes appeared happy to lose the first ball but then hoover up the second ball, with Pienaar picking up more interceptions than anyone on the pitch.
Arsenal’s backline kept a clean sheet on Saturday but left out regulars Sagna, Vermealen and Wilshere and I’d suspect all three will return for this one. Returning from suspension, I’d expect Fellaini to drop in on Arteta in a similar way Rooney did recently at Old Trafford. I’d have Jelavic picking up the very competent Koscielny with our wide men pushed up on the visitor’s full backs. Mertesacker will probably start to deal with the aerials/long balls and the big German is their weakest passer so if we have to leave a man free it’s probably best that it’s him. Walcott is still a doubt and given his recent form let’s hope he isn’t fit as his pace could force Baines back into positions we don’t want to see him. Hopefully Gibson and Mirallas can both return probably at the expense of Hitzlsperger and Oviedo.
Everton are slight favourites at 13/8 with Betfred with Arsenal 15/8 with Skybet to be triumphant with the draw best offered at 13/5 by Willie Hills. Both games last season were 1-0 wins to Arsenal and as noted above they have the best defensive record on the road so I could see this one being under 2.5 goals and being a tight one with both halves to be drawn at 5/1 with Bet365 a decent shout. I’m going for a 1-1 draw.