13 February 2014

Thursday Throwdown - Momentary Blip or True Problem?

Is Olivier Giroud starting to slow down for Arsenal?
Andrew: Jess it seems like the obvious question has to be 'what is wrong with Arsenal?' Now, I'm not a part of the doom and gloom brigade that sees the Gunners as a lost team despite being only one point off of the top of the table, but it does seem that something is amiss. The last four games in the league have been a draw away at a talented Southampton team; a routine home win to Crystal Palace; the absolute debacle at Anfield; and the 0-0 draw yesterday at home to United. That's five points out of twelve, not exactly league winning form. Is something particular wrong or is it just a slump in the middle of a long season?

Jess: Despite being an overly dramatic fan and consistently joking about how Arsene could really use me on the bench as a "no name assistant coach" (my dream job in real life), I'm more inclined to believe that this is just a slump in the middle of a (very long) season. As you rightfully pointed out, we're only one point off of the league leading Blues after coming away with a disheartening one point out of six in the last two games– life could be much worse! 

That being said, I do see some issues in our recent form and style of play. The 0-0 draw vs. an extremely basic mid-table Red Devils squad last night proved, in my opinion, that we really lack creativity and pace in our attack at the moment. I loved seeing Ozil with a bit of rejuvenated energy– attacking defenders and taking people on with pace like the wizard that we know and love– and I thought that Santi was very creative especially towards the end of the match, but our lack of inventive runs and our love of playing through the middle rather than getting runners in from out wide is troublesome. Not to mention the fact that Giroud looks exhausted with so much constant pressure on his back, and with no one but the King sitting eagerly on the bench waiting for a chance to take his spot (Sanogo too, I suppose).

Looking back on United and even on Liverpool (although we probably don't want to think about how we made them look like the greatest team in the universe, do we?), how do you feel about our defensive form recently? Arteta dilly-dallying with the ball right outside the 18, the absence of the angry Flam, the jerk Van Persie being left onside around the 18th minute of the last night's match - there seems to be something strange going on but I'm not sure exactly what the issue may be? Why did it seem like we were playing two men down vs. Liverpool and letting United get in on us on occasion– just a fluke or are there deeper issues here?

Andrew: I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the lack of runs. Ozil was bossing most of the United game but everyone was standing around giving him square options and nothing else. On the break Giroud was always showing for the ball rather than making hard runs to the post or the corner flag in order to open up space behind him. That might be because he is tired as you say, or it might just be that he is most comfortable back to goal with midfielders running off his control and flicks. Yesterday, however, no one was making those runs. I think the problem when we field three on-the-ball creative midfielders like Ozil, Rosicky, and Cazorla is we miss some of that aggressiveness, either in making the runs behind or dribbling at defenders. It's great for possession but it doesn't automatically translate into chances on goal. This is where we really miss someone like Walcott or Ramsey or Jack.

Speaking of Wilshere, I think his inclusion as the box-to-box midfielder is cause for a lot of the problems Arsenal have been having at the back. That's not an insult to Jack, by the way. I think he's an important part of the squad and I think now our best trio of attacking midfielders is Cazorla on the left, Wilshere in the middle, and Ozil on the right because Ozil can then drift in and out of space while Jack provides that attacking drive without needing to be as responsible on defense. But when he's playing just in front of Arteta and has to act as part of that shield, he's playing out of position because he will always tend toward offense but he can't get high enough to be as effective as normal. If Jack presses up too high, Arteta becomes exposed and that leads to obvious problems.

I look at it this way: Arteta has been one of the most important players on the team when playing that same position for the last two plus seasons. He'll be fine. Koscielny and Mertesacker have been in absolutely amazing form and are arguably the best defensive back pairing in the Premier League this season. They'll be fine. Gibbs and Sagna are amazing wing backs and we've trusted each for a while now. They'll be fine. So what has changed? That box-to-box role. We miss Ramsey, probably even more than we knew.

If you accept my theory (and you absolutely don't have to), then how does Arsene fix this? What can we do to improve both the offense and the defense, short of making magic a real thing and hiring several clerics?

Jess: Surprisingly, I wholeheartedly accept your theory and agree with it. Kosc and the BFG are a sensational defensive back pairing and I think that they are unquestionably the best in the EPL. Gibbs and Sagna are both having superb seasons, and Nacho's presence on the bench is worth noting as well, as his recent form has been solid– he's been able to provide intense coverage in the back while also firing forward to deliver the offense needed from the left back position. Not to mention another really super important guy playing between the goal posts: SZCZESNY. That man is a boss. 

In terms of less optimistic points of analysis, Rambo's injury has been truly devastating for us. He's the kind of player who can play under Ozil and give him non-square options and give-and-go passes as he's pushing forward. He's the kind of player who makes Ozil better, makes the entire midfield exponentially better, and makes our attack faster, more creative, and more difficult to defend against. 

Wojciech Sczcesny has been phenomenal
 for the Gunners this season.
The one point at which we perhaps differ slightly is with respect to Arteta: I love the guy as much as the next Gooner, and he has certainly been a player of great importance for us over the past two seasons, but I really feel that the reintroduction of Flamini into the lineup is going to be huge. Not only will it give Arteta a rest (his passing accuracy has been strangely poor as of late), Flamini's vision on the pitch is excellent and he brings a level of passion and energy that is sometimes otherwise lacking (aside from when Jack is getting all fired up). 

The aggressiveness that you speak of and that we so desperately need can come from having multiple players out on the pitch who really wear their hearts on their sleeves, and Flams is one of those players (along with Jack and others). Another important idea in connection to the return of Flamini is that if need be, against teams like Liverpool and Bayern (hello next 7 days)– both of whom have incredible attacking power from all angles– we could stick both Arteta and Flamini into the starting eleven in front of the back four and behind three "on-the-ball creative midfielders" as you describe them, or perhaps behind two of them– the Wizard of Oz and Santi for example– plus Jack. This would give Jack the ability to aggressively press forward and work to connect with Ozil in ways akin to those of the great Rambo without making it seem like our defensive shield is broken/like we're playing two men down (example: Liverpool). Tommy, the Ox, Poldi, and Gnabry will also be able to make differences in their own unique ways, and it's possible that if Arsene uses them a bit more (especially Poldi, why did we only make one sub vs. United?) it could incite a bit more spontaneity and creativity in our attack. 

Other than that, I think we just need to stop being fearful and realize that with twelve Premier League games left the title race is not over for us! We've managed to make it to today only one point behind the leaders, and we pretty much do have the power of magic at our disposal with Ozil on the pitch when he is really on his game. I saw that incredible wizard of a man play live in eleven games for Real Madrid last spring and was absolutely blown away - the way he glides with the ball at his feet is just stunning and his vision is out of this world. The boys' attitude seems great right now– dedicated, motivated, and ready for each new challenge– so I think that we should just get geared up to watch some wonderful FA Cup and Champions League action this week. I guess to close it off I'd ask you Andy what our chances are of reversing the score vs. Liverpool and moving past the round of 16 by valiantly defeating Bayern? COYG.

Andrew: We're going to have to agree to disagree on the Flamini/Arteta situation I think. I believe that CDM is the position we need to improve the most in the summer but I don't see Flamini as cure all or even the better option right now. He certainly has passion and is willing to get stuck in, but sometimes it happens a bit too much as we can see from his current three game ban. I don't think Arteta is perfect but I prefer his poise and ability to keep the ball moving to Flamini's drive and exuberance.

As to your question, the big question, I honestly do believe that Arsenal can get a win at home against Liverpool. Though the Reds absolutely outplayed us at Anfield in the league, every single thing seemed to go right for them in that game, from the non-offsides to the inch perfect header to the save that rebounded directly to Sterling. Without that added luck and without the crowd fully behind them, I think the Gunners can blunt their attack and get the win. Let us not forget the 2-0 victory at Emirates earlier this year which was much more of a drubbing than the score indicates.

I don't think that Arsenal have the talent and cohesiveness yet to beat Bayern though. Don't get me wrong, I want to and I hope it happens, but I think the team is a year or so off from that. I've said it before in various formats but I believe this is the year the team was supposed to start to come together, not to become complete. Bayern are the defending champions and absolutely loaded with talent, the best squad in the world in my eyes. I hope to get a result at Emirates but in the end, sadly, I believe they will be too much. Pessimism or not, that doesn't mean I won't be screaming along with everyone else at the pub when the match comes on. Until next time, COYG.

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  1. Thanks Jess & Andrew. Great stuff. For the record, while I love Sczcesny - especially for his FU RVP! save yesterday - his distribution out of the back is sometimes questionable. Arteta was immediately under pressure after his cute pass up the middle yesterday. It was really a dumb pass - that Arteta made worse. Scz shoulda just booted the freakin ball past midfield. I'm admittedly a big Flams fan. I just feel "attitude" is so under-rated. He brings it. Worst part of Lpool game ... we were dominated. We can't win them all - but we can COMPETE in every game.

  2. I definitely do think the pass to Arteta was a big mistake, but the rest of his play has been fine for me. It's been great, really. That's the hilarious thing about Szczesny. Last season he would do edgy things and get punished for it while now he does those edgy things but does them just right enough that we laugh with him.

    I still disagree about Flamini as he doesn't pass that well out of the back and Per marshals the defense much much more than Mathieu does. Sure he has heart but if heart leads to you fucking up, I'd rather just have someone who plays well.

  3. As well as upgrading on Arteta and Flamini; I'd like to see a legitimately good attacking RB (assuming Sagna is off) could offer a similar outlet Dani Alves did for Barcelona in their heyday or Zabaleta does for City now. An upgrade on Giroud is an absolute must a player that can offer the same threat as Theo.