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Friday, 15 February 2013

Blackburn, Bayern, and goals galore

Near the beginning of the Premier League season, I published a rather lamenting post about Arsenal's struggle to score goals in the first few games, epitomised by the lacklustre back-to-back 0-0 draws against Sunderland and Stoke. By December, things seemed to have gone the other way. Arsenal appeared to have stopped by the laundrette to collect their shooting boots, but simultaneously left their clean sheets behind.

A 5-2 scoreline away at Reading was shortly followed by a 7-3 victory over Newcastle. Such contests undoubtedly made exciting viewing for neutrals, but masked some woeful defensive errors by the Arsenal back-line. Errors that, in matches against teams who are better able to combat the counter-attacking pace of Walcott, and the subtle string-pulling of Cazorla, have cost Arsenal the points.

In high-scoring fixtures this season, Arsenal have largely come out on top. Out of the eight matches they have played in which four or more goals have been scored, Arsenal have won six and drawn two. In the eighteen games in which there have been three or less goals, Arsenal have won six, drawn six and lost six. It would appear that the goal-fests are what is currently keeping Arsenal afloat in the table.

Ironically, failure to get off the mark at all in games looks like the flip-side of the team's worries. Arsenal have already drawn 0-0 three times out of the twenty-six League games so far this season, the same number as in the whole of last season. The team only went a whole match without scoring in five games in the 2011-2012 season, but have already failed to score in six games so far this time round.

The early signs of February are promising. Arsenal have beaten both Stoke and Sunderland with a 1-0 scoreline, the same teams who held them to 0-0 draws in the opening two games of the season. This would indicate that the team has learnt from its early frustrations. Results against these two teams are traditionally tight, with their physicality designed to prevent Arsenal from playing their preferred style and the soaking up of pressure often resulting in a poor outcome for the Gunners. Managing to penetrate such teams and, importantly, not letting them back into the game (even, as in the Sunderland match, when down to ten men), is a skill Arsenal must master in a league in which you can't always play the 'beautiful' game. Hopefully that lesson has sunk in.

The goals Arsenal have conceded against Reading, Newcastle and Fulham show that it is not just against top opposition that the defence has struggled. This leads me feel more concerned than I should be about the FA Cup tie against Blackburn Rovers tomorrow. To Wenger's credit, Arsenal very rarely go out of cup competitions to much lower-standing teams; at least, less often than most other top Premier League teams (Manchester United included - Southend 2006/7 anyone?). The loss to Bradford on penalties in December however was absolutely calamitous and you could tell it stung. The manager's response was to field strong teams in the third round replay and fourth round FA Cup ties against Swansea and Brighton respectively. These selections were made despite the fact both games came just four days before important Premier League matches against Chelsea and Liverpool.

So why am I worried about the coming week? A major reason for Arséne to go against his recent cup selection policy is the occasion of the club's biggest game so far this season, the first leg of the  Champions League tie against Bayern Munich, coming up three days later. Obviously a weaker team will be fielded against Blackburn in preparation, but do Arsenal have the squad depth to do this with any confidence? The fact that against Brighton, (who are just a place above Blackburn in the Championship) a starting eleven in which most of Arsenal's first team players featured could just about scrape a hard-fought 3-2 victory, does not bode well.

Arsenal's summer signings have integrated well and a full-strength team is capable of damaging any team in England. However, take out even a few key players (Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud for example), and replace them with either youngsters or benchwarmers (let's say Coquelin, Gervinho and Arshavin), then suddenly you have a dramatic difference in quality and creativity between those two teams. I'm in no way saying that they would be incapable of beating Blackburn, but the FA Cup, as has been proven again this season, is a competition in which the natural order can very easily go out the window.

This week will be especially problematic in terms of defensive selection. Although I was a strong supporter of shifting a few players from Arsenal's wage book in January, I also stressed the need to reinforce if said shifts went ahead. Replacing André Santos with Nacho Monreal was definitely a good move but the team also lost a covering centre back in Johann Djourou who has not been replaced. At the close of the window, many warned of further instability at the back were two of Arsenal's main centre-backs Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Koscielny to pick up injuries. Few, however, would have been so pessimistic to predict (accurately) that this is exactly what would happen within two weeks time.

So Wenger, as usual, has a fair bit of thinking to do in terms of both team selection and how to tactically cover-up the team's weakened defence. Like Arsenal, Bayern are no strangers to high-scoring matches this season, with a 6-1 and two 5-0 victories in the Bundesliga, and another 6-1 win in the Champions League. Over two legs then, neutrals could be in for goals galore. For the sake of the Arsenal fans' nerves though, I think we'd be happier with another one of those one nils.

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