GUEST ARTICLE: Theo and Eboue Must Start

Guest contributor, Greg Schwartz, proposes a radical lineup change as a way to help stop the explosiveness of the Barcelona attack. Whether you agree or disagree, and I have a feeling many of you will disagree, it shows just how ridiculously these two matches are to Arsenal supporters.

So, I write this blog post knowing full well that many of you will disagree with me, and to be honest, I’m not sure I will even agree with myself by the end of it.   That said, here are my thoughts on the Barcelona match.  To win this game, Arsene Wenger must take a risk, and that risk is to start Theo and Eboue down the left side.  I have given this match a lot of thought, probably too much thought, as I have an Organic Chemistry exam directly after the match, but here is what I have come to:

Dani Alves is frightening coming forward.  He runs at defenders in a similar manner to Eboue, and provides a constant threat in the attacking positions with pace and great crossing ability from the right back slot.  That said, he often leaves himself, and the Barcelona backline, exposed with his rampant runs.  He either forgets, or ignores his responsibility to track back.  This leaves an exploitable space down the Arsenal left flank.  In addition to this, Alves provides the bulk of the supply to Messi, and provides him with overlapping runs in order to maintain possession.

In order to limit this attacking threat, my solution would be to start Walcott down the left.  While starting a player like Arshavin gives Arsenal skills and tremendous experience out wide, Walcott brings sheer pace.  He gives a different option and makes himself a relief valve against the pressure of a possession-based attack; which Barcelona seem intent to play against Arsenal.

Starting Walcott up against Alves limits the latter’s ability to go forward by constantly having the threat of Theo peeling away.  Even if Theo’s final ball lacks product, the option of handicapping Alves, makes the decision worth the cost.

Additionally, I was reading a piece in the Daily Mail today by Martin Keown, about what Arsenal can do to beat Barcelona.  In it, he suggests starting a right footed player against the naturally left-footed Messi.  He calls the plan, “sacrificing Clichy;” I see it more as enabling Eboue.  Eboue has played left back before, with moderate success, and I see him as capable of performing his duties intelligently and diligently.  His work rate and defensive prowess would provide more security for Walcott to play higher up the wing, further handicapping Alves.

Further, if Arsene were to start Diaby down the left as well, it creates an intriguing blend of pace, power, as well as the ability to cover the entire field quickly.  I see that as the most effective way to neutralize the threat of Messi and Alves.  Messi and Alves provide much of the attacking threat for Barcelona, with Messi banging in the goals, and Alves providing ten assists this season from the right back slot.

I admit my plan has drawbacks.  Theo is unproven at the top level, and could take away from the efficacy of the front line.  Also, Eboue has been an integral part of the Arsenal front line thus far, and moving him out of position risks minimizing what he offers best.  Continuing in that vein, Clichy’s form right now is remarkable and he deserves the chance to continue playing so well.  I worry with him though, that he will forget his defensive duties as he sometimes does.  In this game in particular, we cannot afford that.

All that said, I think whatever team Wenger goes with, this presents an opportunity for Arsenal to prove their credentials as a truly top team.  After all, Barcelona has shown chinks in their armor, which Arsenal are capable of exploiting.

Special Guest Article: EXORCISING DEMONS

Brett Chase is guest contributor to Arsenal Station. He is a fellow NYC Gooner and has been following the club for over ten years. This piece is originally from his own fantastic Arsenal blog, The Modern Gooner.

The date is the 23rd of February, 2008. Arsenal are about to kick-off against top-flight newcomers Birmingham City at St. Andrews. The Gunners, captained by William Gallas, enter the game topping the table and very much the favorites to win the Premier League during the 2007-2008 season.

With Robin van Persie out injured, the Arsenal have seen a nice strike partnership developing between Emmanuel Adebayor (enjoying a brilliant season in which he could hardly miss a chance) and the very much in-form Eduardo, who was bought the previous summer as a replacement for the departed Thierry Henry. It has taken a few months, but Eddie has begun to demonstrate the talents which caught Arsene Wenger’s eye: Pace, determination, a silky first-touch, and a finish as clinical as we Gooners could hope for. Eduardo was the real deal.

The date is the 26th of March, 2010. Arsenal will kick-off tomorrow at St. Andrews for the first time since 2008 tomorrow, and a great deal has changed since then: Gallas was stripped of the captaincy less than a year after the match (his reaction at the late Birmingham equaliser a sign of things to come), replaced by Cesc Fabregas; Adebayor revealed himself to be a money-grabbing whore that summer and was jettisoned to newly-wealthy Man City a year later (he also revealed he was quite capable of missing a chance or 50); players came and players went. Arsenal began to crumble after the 2-2 draw at St. Andrews, and the title challenge fell apart as an injury-riddled and broken Arsenal side finished a disappointing 3rd.

It is the 23rd of February, 2008, and the Birmingham match has just kicked off. Arsenal have begun to play their normal game, controlling possession, passing the ball and making the Brummies chase around, when Eduardo took the ball headed for the Birmingham box. Defender Martin Taylor, whose name will become infamous to Gooners everywhere, slides in with a high, studs-up challenge that breaks Eduardo’s leg in two near the ankle, the kind of horror tackle a particularly angry fan might say they hope happens to a rival player, but don’t actually mean. Taylor is sent off, but 10-man Birmingham City take a lead into halftime. Theo Walcott scores twice in what should be enough to salvage a win for the despondent Gunners, but a dubious penalty is called on Gael Clichy late on, allowing Birmingham to claw back a point. Arsenal’s title challenge begins to unravel.

It is the 26th of March, 2010. Eduardo has now been back for a year, but despite showing flashes of brilliance, his finish, his touch, his confidence but most of all his willingness to play with abandon seem to have, perhaps understandably, deserted him. Arsenal are scrapping in a real title challenge for the first time this late on in a season since 2007-2008, and we have seen another promising young player, Aaron Ramsey, cut down by a reckless and violent tackle at another away match in February. This time, however, the Arsenal have responded with visibly greater unity and (Arsene’s favorite term) mental strength.

I’m inclined to attribute this change to the leadership in the team. Fabregas, thrust further into the spotlight last season after taking the armband from Gallas, was not initially seen as “natural leader.” While he is not perhaps a vocal leader in the Adams/Vieira mold, Cesc has proven an invaluable resource in leading by example, and his fierce desire to win and his team spirit seem to permeate the team. Add to this the experience of Sol Campbell, pressed into service due to an injury to Gallas (to be fair, a consummate professional despite losing the armband) and fiery play of Thomas Vermaelen and the emergence of a number of other key players, and we have seen Arsenal rise from the ashes of what looked, at several points, like a lost season.

It is the 8th of March, 2009. Eduardo provides a spectacular finish and his return to Arsenal from a horrific injury at Birmingham looks nearly complete.

It is the 26th of August, 2009. Eduardo has drawn a penalty, despite, on second look, getting minimal if any contact with the Celtic ‘keeper (and renowned madman) Artur Boruc. Eduardo will be hounded for weeks, and Celtic will unsuccessfully attempt to convince UEFA to ban Eduardo for several matches after the fact, despite the fact that Arsenal win the match 3-1 and the tie 5-1 on aggregate.

It is the 26th of March, 2010. Nicklas Bendtner has revealed that he may not be fit for Arsenal’s first trip to St. Andrews since what has become known as “the Eduardo game.” With Arsenal down to bare-bones at striker, the much-maligned Number 9 is even more of a focal point with the Gunners needing every possible point to keep title hopes alive among Manchester United and Chelsea. Eddie has had a disappointing season, with many fans suggesting that his days in North London are numbered. The influential Vermaelen being suspended, there are questions asked in defense and in midfield as well.

It is the 27th of March, 2010…

COME ON YOU GUNNERS!!!

Nostalgic Thoughts on Henry’s Return

Please welcome aboard Arsenal Station’s newest guest contributor, Greg Schwartz. He is a fellow New York Gooner and Nevada Smith’s regular. Greg is currently studying Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. With Thierry’s impending return looming, Greg recalls some of his favorite memories of the club’s greatest ever goalscorer.

As I think about the impending return of Thierry Henry to the Arsenal faithful, one memory, more than anything else, stands out in my mind.  No, it’s not “that” goal against Manchester United, beating Barthez with a sublime half volley from the edge of the eighteen; nor is it “that” other goal against Manchester United heading in Eboue’s perfect cross on 94 minutes; nor is it the sublimely skillful run to put the Arsenal through at the Bernabeu.

In fact, it’s probably the only memory of mine that isn’t eternally enshrined on youtube.  Perhaps the most significant memory of Theirry Henry that is embedded in my mind isn’t a goal itself, but what he meant to our fans.

My little trip down memory lane takes me to the last North London derby at Highbury, where Wenger had decided to rest Theirry along with Cesc Fabregas, the other man making a return home this Champions League tie.  Arsenal were chasing Tottenham for the fourth and final Champions League spot and the outlook in that game was dismal.  Spurs bossed the first half, and early in the second, took the lead through Robbie Keane.  Then it happened.

Henry began jogging down the touchline, and even 3000 miles away, through my TV, I heard the roar.  The fans raised their voices singing his name; such was the confidence in the Frenchman.  I felt as if I could hear the ground shaking, even a continent away.  You knew every second that he would score.  And lo and behold, on 84 minutes, Adebayor burst brilliantly past Staltieri, and slotted in Thierry, who of course, could not miss.  That was Henry, for Arsenal: the passion, the skill, and the lift he brought to us fans.

It’s for that reason that I have mixed emotions about the return of Thierry.  On the one hand, I miss watching the silky skills and beautiful goals that I have tried to, and exclusively failed to, emulate during my less than illustrious AYSO career.  On the other hand, Thierry himself summed it up best calling it “weird” to step on the pitch wearing another shirt.  I expect the fans to respond the same way, as an almost bittersweet reunion.  I know I will be applauding, and I know the stands will be too.

Thierry’s Arsenal career was a blessing for both him and our fans.  As such, he will return to a hero’s welcome without a doubt.  The Nou Camp’s response to Cesc Fabregas however, remains to be seen.  Thierry’s Arsenal career and Cesc’s fledgling Barcelona experience have nearly no comparison.  After all, when Steve Sidwell, Matty Upson, and Seb Larsson (to name a few) return to Arsenal the response typically sums up indifference.

That said, Cesc Fabregas’s return to Barcelona presents an entirely different situation as he is the object of their constant affection.  I don’t believe he will return to raucous applause, nor do I believe the crowd will meet him with spite for spurning their advances.

I believe the response will be somewhere in between, a mix of praise, to entice, and wishful ambivalence.  I do expect that the Arsenal response to our captain will consist of an outpouring of praise; serving as a reminder that our crown jewel will never be theirs.

Coming home in sports is tricky, for the fans and for the players.  This tie in particular has so much history and so much passion that I don’t think one can truly quantify the feelings of any fan or player in this situation.  I’m curious as to the Arsenal response, as much as I anxiously await watching Cesc wear the yellow arm band out onto the Nou Camp pitch.

Whatever happens, even if Thierry’s last goal at an Arsenal ground does not come for us; I know I’ll be singing his name.  Finally, if I could be there, and not in the purgatory that is mid-western America, I would sing a chorus of “We’ve got the best player in the world” to commemorate both our time with Thierry, and our new gem Cesc.