Thursday, 20 March 2008

The Wigan game, squad depth, Champions League tactics and so on

It does seem like the logical place to start this entry is Sunday’s game. For me it could have swung the title race firmly into the path of Man Utd. Many Arsenal fans would have been delighted to see Portsmouth win at Old Trafford but for me it is not so great. Obviously it shows people that teams can win there and it gives referees the confidence now that the correct decisions can be made. However, in terms of our personal benefit, here is why I am not so happy.

Man Utd are arguably the best team at coming back from set backs like this. Arsenal fans only need to cast their minds back a few weeks and they will remember the drubbing we received at the hands of our rivals. Having dropped two points at White Hart Lane, they followed this up with a 2-1 home defeat to neighbours Man City. What happens next? They thrash one of their two title rivals. I fear this defeat might spur them on to a good run of form.

Couple this factor with the fact they are only 2 points behind and have a game in hand and it all looks a it bleak. The only thing to cling onto is the fact this title race has taken so many twists and turns already that it is very hard to judge what might happen.

One thing to watch out for is that we must not assume it is a two horse race and there is a strong likelihood we could go onto finish 3rd. Should we lose at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge we may well find ourselves pushed down the table by the Chavs. Hopefully Chelsea will come up short in some of their tricky games that remain this season and it becomes solely between two teams.

What does worry me is that we do not seem up for the fight of late. Against Birmingham I have no complaints on this front considering how well the lads did to come back after Eduardo’s horrific injury, only to be robbed of 2 points. The games against Villa and now Wigan have scared me though. We looked lacklustre against O’Neill’s well drilled side and against Wigan we failed to be ruthless. The chances were there but the players seemed to have a refusal to put the bad pitch behind them. That worries me a little.

In that game we looked awfully short on ideas, but also depth in the squad. After the Milan game Hleb looked knackered and in need of a rest. The problem was that we did not have enough players to give him that recovery time. Rosicky has disappeared once again, Eboue is only just back from suspension but is that a real advantage to the side? Gilberto looks lost in this team but has to play as Walcott and Diaby are getting injured left, right and centre. If Wenger seriously wants to challenge for the title this season, these players must get sorted before its too late. We are going to need everyone.

The Portsmouth game disappointed me for another reason. That was the performance of Lassana Diarra. Ever since his move to the South Coast he has been playing brilliantly. He showed glimpses of this with us but Wenger decided to let him go over Gilberto. Had Wenger taken a gamble and got rid of the ageing Brazilian, he could have had room for a younger guy who is hard in the tackle, strong on the ball and dominant in the centre. These are all things Gilberto is not right now and I wonder if Wenger regrets this move. He may have been impatient at Arsenal but I am sure most people would be if Gilberto got preferential treatment despite such poor form.

Hopefully Alex Song is going to be the one to push Gilberto out and Wenger does not see Gil in his long term plans. Flamini will hopefully sign up (get it done now!) and then we will have Song and him fighting for the place alongside Cesc.

Another blow is the continued absence of Tomas Rosicky but, it is starting to become some sort of joke now. How much time does this guy need to recover? It is likely that he will play 5 games in a row before some part of his body malfunctions. It is becoming more serious by the injury and I hope he does not go the same way as Freddie Ljungberg did.

The effect he has on the team is substantial in my eyes and if you look at our performances since he has been out, they lack pace and decisiveness. These are two things Rosicky brought to the side from the left side of midfield. Hleb and Fabregas like to build play slowly and Tomas added that balance with his willingness to drive at players and make things happen. Diaby cannot do this from the left, Eboue certainly cannot from the right and although they are great players, Hleb and Fabregas do not play this way. We are certainly easier to play against without the drive of Rosicky.

Up front we are also lacking in firepower. Adebayor has done brilliantly this season but we cannot rely on one man. Nicklas Bendtner looked good against Wigan but I do not sense he will score many goals at this stage of his career. Bendtner and Ade are too similar to play together and somehow the partnership will never reach the results needed to win a trophy.

That is why I was so happy to see Robin Van Persie back on the pitch yesterday and I just pray that he has put his injury problems behind him and is back for the final push. In the League this season, we played our most fruitful football with the combination of Adebayor and Van Persie and the goals did dry up when RVP was laid out through injury. We were scraping victories by the odd goal as we relied on Adebayor for the majority of our goals. Hopefully now these two can form a partnership again and the goals will come back.

With Van Persie back now and Rosicky soon I hope we should be back at full strength for the League and I cannot wait for this. It has been a while but it could make all the difference. Think of Man Utd without Rooney and Tevez and you see how I see Arsenal without these two. I see them as being this important.

The interesting thing to see from Arsene Wenger now is how he sets out his troops in the Champions League. I mentioned above how Fabregas and Hleb like to play the slower game and wait for things to happen. In the league teams will stifle this more but as we saw in Milan, this can work to great effect in Europe. The 4-5-1 formation helps us keep the ball and means we have support for Adebayor in midfield runners. In the Premiership the play is far more rushed and the same formation means Ade becomes isolated. So what does Wenger do now Van Persie is back?

I think the draw will play a massive part in how he sets up. Should we meet an English team - something I do not want at all - then I feel he will go with 2 up front in Van Persie (if fit) dropping just behind Adebayor, at least in the home leg. This season we have gone with the one striker against Liverpool, Man Utd and Chelsea and in each game looked lacking in attack. Van Persie gives us that element of surprise and constant attacking threat. He can drop off into the midfield area if we need to but I would prefer us to go for it if we meet an English side.

Should we be pitted against a European side I think we will see a similar set up to that in Milan. The question remains as to who is picked. I am pre-empting that Rosicky and Van Persie will stay fit and Hleb, Fabregas and Flamini remain injury free (touch wood!). I am sure our 6 attacking players will be Flamini, Fabregas, Hleb, Rosicky, Van Persie and Adebayor. How does he arrange them? If you think back to last season, Wenger used Van Persie out on the left side with Rosicky inside him, Hleb on the right. We could see a similar thing with slight changes:



Hleb performed so well in the withdrawn strikers role and as he did with Eduardo, he may use a left footed striker out wide to add balance to the side. Against most European sides, possession is key and this set up allows for this. Although many do not see Van Persie as anything other than a striker, Wenger may well see it differently as he has done in the past.

He could try something similar to the way Holland play with Van Persie in the side. That means RVP starting on the right of an attacking trio with Robben on the left. Obviously we would have Rosicky out there but the idea is that we have Van Persie cutting in on his left side where is so strong. He does this very well for Holland and could re-create this for us. That is just another option.

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