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.

The Word is “Character”

Despite the managerial change, it was the same old trip to the Reebok on Sunday afternoon. Bone-crunching tackles, frustration taken out physically, and slightly questionable sportsmanship, yet Arsenal persevered and showed great character in a match that was much harder-fought than your average 2-nil victory.

Bolton’s place in the table notwithstanding, no one could have expected this to be an easy fixture despite Arsenal’s recent record against the club. In fact, it is delusional, whether on the part of fans, commentators, or pundits, to think there is anything resembling an easy match in the Premier League, even for the Big 3.

However, with Fabregas just returned from injury, a debutant in a central midfield that was missing its lynchpin and enforcer, and a third-string left-back, Arsenal turned out a gritty performance and secured maximum points. It’s even more impressive because the club comes into this home-and-away with Bolton knowing that two wins with a goal differential of 4 will tie them for top of the league.

As expected, the match got a bit testy and a bit dirty at times, and Bolton surely created enough chances to come away with a point. Yet, Arsenal took their chances, including an inspiring one-two capped off by Cesc Fabregas’s 10th league goal of the season (in 16 matches) and even better-taken goal by our supposedly want-away youngster.

Despite a few bad turnovers in midfield, Diaby showed the increasing presence he has developed this season, as he uses his strength and build to his advantage making him one of the hardest players to dispossess. Eastmond made accepted debutant mistakes but, overall, looked calm and confident. Armand Traore, once again,  struggled in the defensive third as Bolton tried to exploit our biggest defensive weakness reminding us why he was switched to playing left-midfield in the reserves last season. On the other hand, Gael Clichy looked fairly sharp on his return, even playing a more advanced position to afford Traore a bit more help on the left than he had received for most of the match.

But the day belonged, once again, to the little Spanish maestro. Early on in the match, the commentator called Cesc “just below world-class.” I don’t know who he’s been watching but if Cesc’s form this season isn’t world-class, no one’s is. 10 goals and 12 assists in 16 Premier League starts? Give me a break! He is 8th in the league in goals-scored, but all 7 ahead of him are strikers. And none even come close to being able to dream about his assist total. I know many English fans have an ingrained aversion to statistics, or doubt their ability to quantify a game like football, but these numbers tell the story. But, perhaps, not the complete story…

Cesc’s contribution to this club cannot be measured in goals and assists alone. One must consider his brand of leadership as the side’s captain. He doesn’t say “Do this because I’m telling you!” Rather, he says, “Do this because I do it!” No one worked harder on the pitch yesterday than Cesc. With the one-nil lead and Cohen just about to rip a shot from just outside the box, Cesc slid in front, taking the hit, to block the shot as if it was a cup-final. THAT is how you lead by example.

Cesc’s outstanding form, and his performance in the Villa match, has led to some pundits questioning whether or not Arsenal are a one-man side. But even when Cesc was out, we still got results. When Liverpool are missing either Gerrard or Torres, they fold like house of cards. Arsenal, rather, continue to grind out results and got big performances from the now-injured Aaron Ramsey during the captain’s absence. Any world-class player is missed when he is not on the pitch, but to say that Arsenal are over-reliant on Cesc is wrong.

The ineffectiveness of the front-line continued but, as they have all season, the midfield picked them up. It’s almost the same dynamic as earlier in the season when the forwards weren’t scoring.You get the feeling that we can’t go on like this for too long, but the goals keep coming. Sooner than later, Bendtner and Walcott will be back and Vela’s role should grow as the season goes on. If this team actually does on to win the league, despite missing their best goalscorer for most of the season, and I truly believe we can, it would be an awesome achievement.

One wonders if the stories in the papers about Fran haven’t forced Wenger into giving him enough time on the pitch to make a final decision on him. He looked nervy when he first came on, with a few errant passes, but gradually grew into the match, and was into it enough by the last ten minutes to be in the right place at the right time and execute a collected finish.

Arsenal are now a win on Wednesday away from being level on points with Chelsea. We are a 3-nil victory away from being clear top of the league. The media and other supporters laughed at us after the Chelsea match, when Arsene and many optimistic supporters, claimed that we were still in the title race. The team has proven those of us right. I just could never see Arsene giving up on this side or the players giving up on themselves.

Both the players and the supporters have come too far and been through too much disappointment in the last few years to just walk away because of one defeat or even a double-digit deficit. That is not the Arsenal way.

One Point Gained or Two Points Dropped?

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With Chelsea’s eminently winnable match with Hull City canceled, along with six other Premier League matches on Saturday, our match against Everton, in the driving snow, effectively, became our infamous and long-awaited “game-in-hand.” Yesterday’s match was another reminder why teams with games-in-hand should never just count them as three points.

Of course, there are two points-of-view available to the distraught Arsenal supporter following yesterday’s type of match, and which one you choose probably defines your overall world-view of being an Arsenal supporter. For one, you can go up to the roof of your home or apartment building and stand on the ledge, poised to jump, screaming, “We dropped two points at home to the 12th-placed side!”

Or you can consider that on a day when Arsenal weren’t even at their half-best, were missing key players through injuries, and, despite all the pundits’ talk of Arsenal’s inability to play in bad weather, were playing a match in a damn blizzard that sent all but two of the rest of the league’s clubs running like little bitches. I, as regular readers might guess, have chosen the latter. (You can choose in the poll on the right sidebar.)

Arsenal were so committed in the final 20 minutes to going for the win, that somehow Steven Piennar slipped in behind the defense and chipped Almunia in a one-on-one with the keeper. But, while Everton were celebrating in the 81st minute as if they had won the game, Arsenal were steeling themselves for a final 10-minute blitzkrieg on Everton’s 11-man defense, finally breaking through after a deft pass from Diaby allowed Rosicky to use the outside of his boot to put a shot on goal that deflected in.

For me, it’s hard to judge a match played in the kind of adverse weather we had at the Emirates yesterday. But, I felt like Diaby had regressed and we were seeing a bit more of the “old Diaby,” holding onto the ball too long and losing it and making bad passing decisions in the middle of the pitch and in the final third. His performance was only redeemed by his assist on the leveler. Still, with no Fabregas or Song in the midfield, we can hardly afford for Diaby to revert back to his former, frustrating self.

Denilson also struggled with keeping the ball at times. Though it was a tough situation to be playing in that type of conditions without your two midfield leaders, and, credit to Everton, they near-perfectly executed what has become the standard gameplan against Arsenal, which is to try to smother them when they’re on the ball. Still, it was Denilson’s fight for a 50-50 and his propensity for shooting from outside of the box that drew Arsenal level after Osman’s opener.

Whether or not Piennar was onside when he took the pass for the second goal is still a doubt in my mind. But, Arsenal didn’t hang their heads and concede defeat. They fought back and created enough chances in the final 10+ minutes to earn a victory. Rosicky’s play, following an awkward few minutes needed to settle into the match and weather, was highly encouraging, especially after signing a new contract.

Denilson’s being carried off on a stretcher after a rib injury sent him down in a manner reminiscent of Wayne Rooney-in-the-box is a bit worrying, but we will likely have to wait until Monday or Tuesday before the Boss has more information on him.

All in all, it is disappointing to only get one point from the game-in-hand, but, to win titles, you have to be able to get some kind of result on days when you are struggling for form and, also, playing in less-than-ideal weather conditions. On Saturday, Arsenal did both and it brought them to within three points of the leaders and two points within United in second place but still holding their game-in-hand on the Manchester side, that just barely escaped with a somewhat undeserved point against the Premier League’s most-improved side, Birmingham City.

And, despite the disappointment, a three-point deficit in the second week of January means the league is very winnable yet for the Arsenal. With Bendtner, Fabregas, and Clichy due to return within the next two weeks, Arsenal will be getting back somewhat closer to their true starting XI.