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.

IT’S NOT OVER YET!

We have to keep the faith. What else can we do? We now sit four points behind United and three behind Chelsea. But should we beat Wolves at the Emirates on Saturday and we get that United-Chelsea draw we’re all dreaming about we will be one point behind Chelsea and only two off the top. Even if Chelsea win, we would still be within a one-match striking distance of the top. It is not over yet.

I can’t bring myself to write much about the match as I still want to scream every time I think about it. And while it may be harsh to fully blame Almunia for the dropped points, I can’t help but wonder why it is that he can be fairly inactive for most of the match and then cock-up the one moment when we need him to just do what any mediocre keeper would be expected to do.

To be fair, it’s amazing that the team has gotten this far in the title race with a keeper like Almunia. A little over two years ago, after taking over from Lehmann, he looked like he might be progressing towards being a true number one keeper. Last year, his performance suffered with the rest of the side. However, the rest of the side broke out of the 2008/09 funk but Almunia never has. He has become even more prone to errors, and costly errors at that, the more he’s played. I don’t think there can be any doubt that Almunia is not a title-winning keeper. But, yesterday was not entirely his fault…

We had chances to put the match away at 1-nil, most notably Arshavin’s opportunity from less than 10 yards out. However, though Arshavin has returned from injury, his shot has not. I can think of 4 or 5 instances off the top of my head where he had clean shots on goal from inside the box and mishit them, and that’s in the last two weeks. To be fair to him, his substitution along with Nasri made a big difference to the match and we weren’t getting shots off or penetrating Brum’s center-backs until they came on. But those chances have to be taken at this time of the season.

The thing that annoys me is when we read these articles in midweek quoting Arshavin as saying stuff like, “Arsenal need more players to win the League.” No we don’t. We need our own players to be able to put a shot on goal and test the keeper from six yards. If Arsenal lose out on the title, it won’t be because we didn’t buy the “3 or 4 experienced players” Arshavin has talked about, it will be because the players we do have didn’t get the job done when they had the chance. If Arshavin had scored, the points would have been secured and we would have remained two points back.

As painful as it is, and I literally mean painful, we have to put this behind us and focus on the Champions League tie with Barcelona on Wednesday evening. Cesc will apparently be struggling to be fit after sustaining a knee injury and you have to wonder why Arsene didn’t just pull him off instead of letting him play for another 50+ minutes on a hurt knee. The ball is out of our court now. And though it looks bleak, in reality, any result besides a United victory next week, puts us right back within striking distance of the top. IT’S NOT OVER YET. And we need to KEEP THE FAITH!

The Dream is Still Alive!

…and the march goes on. A last-gasp winner from Nicklas Bendtner removed millions of Arsenal supporters all over the world from the precipice of despair and ruin. I, personally, had spent the last 5-10 minutes of the match mentally preparing myself to accept the end of our title challenge. And then… Denilson was able to get a shot from over 35 yards on goal and with enough movement to trouble a mediocre keeper who then ridiculously made the simplest of keeping mistakes… don’t parry the ball back in front of goal. But there were a ton of talking points and controversial moments on a day when Arsenal refused to let our title dreams die.

Arsenal started very brightly with the first goal coming inside the first 15 minutes, a rare occurrence this season. A very fluid string of passes eventually led to Arshavin being able to take on two defenders into the box and produce a great finish with his laces. Hull had no handle on the match whatsoever, until the referee handed it to them.

The Offiside Penalty Dive

Let’s be honest… have you ever seen a player looking more for a penalty than Vennegoor of Hesselink? He made no attempt to play the ball, only to get directly in front of Sol and, when there was not the immediate contact he anticipated, plopped face down. He only lucked out that after he was already going down Sol gave him the slightest of contact with his raised knee from behind. On the replay, you can see that he was so much more concerned with getting in a position where he could go down than with playing the ball because his movement in front of Sol found the ball on the BACK of his neck. As Alan Shearer said on Match of the Day, a man with the ball on the back of his neck and falling down is hardly enjoying a “clear, goalscoring chance.”

So I don’t see how Phil Brown can claim Campbell should have been sent off. Especially considering that Vennegoor of Hesselink was offside to begin with. Brown is complaining about a missed call on a run of play that only materialized because of a missed call. Ironic, idiotic, or just unattractively desperate? You decide.

The Sending-Off

I also don’t see how there could be any complaints over either of Boateng’s bookings. The first came after he put his hand in Bendtner’s face twice. The second after that ridiculous tackle on Sagna. The challenge was so high and mistimed that, if it wasn’t malicious, you really have to question the player’s overall ability. The commentator said it was a “silly” challenge, but that kind of language trivializes the tackle. It was dangerous, pure and simple. Had Sagna’s leg been planted, he could have sustained serious damage to his knee. Andre Marriner let some tackles go early on and these kinds of challenges are the direct result of both the culture of the English game and that type of officiating. I am not saying it was malicious, but it was reckless.

Sol’s Tackle

Apparently, Jon Champion was claiming that Sol should have been sent off for his challenge on Zayatte. The same people whose main occupation last week was “Defender of Ryan Shawcross” and the English game are the ones complaining about Campbell’s challenge. Sol’s tackle was strong, well-timed enough to get the ball first, and perfectly fair. His feet were on the ground, his studs were down, and he was completely playing the ball. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what everyone was saying they loved so much about the English game only a week and a half ago? The media’s double-standard against Arsenal is sometimes subtle, but, at other times, is just blatantly obvious-as this blog often points out.

Sol was caught for pace a few times, as he has been in every match so far and will be in every match to come, but he has made up for it with a combination of intelligence and experience. Yesterday, he was forced to deal with Hull’s loan-striker, Jozy Altidore. I have watched Altidore since he was 17 and the kid is fast and strong. Yet, Sol did his best and kept Altidore to only one real half-chance, which he dragged wide of goal early on. The signing of Campbell can now be seen as, if not a masterstroke, then certainly a very prescient decision by the Boss. Campbell is what we didn’t have last year when Gallas went out injured at almost the exact same time of the season. Then we were forced to play Silvestre, whose inability due to to age to be able to deal with Drogba cost us our FA Cup run last season. And while we would all rather have a fit Gallas back there with Vermaelen, the situation is not nearly as desperate as it was last season.

The Dream Continues

Somehow, we have done it again. No team has scored more goals than Arsenal in the last fifteen minutes of the match. We had a similar dynamic in 2007/08 when we snatched results in the dying moments on an almost regular basis beginning right with the very first match of the season home to Fulham. It shows a level of fitness, determination, and spirit when a team regularly snatches results from the jaw of fate. There are 8 matches remaining and we are now level on points with Chelsea, though they have a game-in-hand. United play later today and the pressure will be on them to match the results of us and Chelsea. We now face West Ham at home, who Chelsea just beat 4-1, and then Birmingham City away before the Champions League Quarterfinals. Sandwiched in between those two legs will be a visit by Wolves. Make no doubt about it, the Birmingham City match will be anything but straightforward as they have punched above their weight all season and despite a recent run of indifferent results, will be buoyed by their result against Everton yesterday.

The paths to the title and the European Cup are laid out right in front of us. We can just about see the trophies peeking out over the horizon. 13 mountains, though, stand in our way and we must climb them one at a time. We have the confidence, we have the momentum, and, most crucial of all, we have the belief.

NOTE: Since my primary guest contributor, Ted Harwood, has accepted an offer to write an Arsenal blog for SBNation, I am looking for a new guest contributor, preferably an American Gooner, but I will consider anyone that can write well. Also, I have fixed the videos by replacing those that had been deleted from their respective host sites.