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…


Malice is NOT the Issue

Yesterday was an important moment in the development of this Arsenal side. Before the game, but after the Chelsea result, I was chatting with J. Sanderson of Young Guns, and we both believed that, after Chelsea’s loss, this was the most important league fixture we’d played in a few years. Only a few minutes later, Arsenal were down 1-nil to a Delap throw-in. It looked like deja vu all over again. But a magnificent header by Bendtner got us back into it and from the 30th minute on, Arsenal turned in a paradigm-shifting performance.

On BBC Match of the Day, Alan Shearer said that Arsenal had “answered a few questions.” Even Alan Hansen was so impressed that he actually uttered the phrase, “I’m becoming an Arsenal fan.” It was THAT kind of performance. The stage was set for a disaster. We’d lost our lost four league trips to Stoke-on-Trent and hadn’t had a lead there in 28 years. The Chelsea loss only increased the pressure sevenfold.

But even after conceding to an early Delap throw-in, Arsenal refused to lay down and die. Yesterday, we saw a glimpse of the future of this side. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new Arsenal… A team that can be as physical as they need to be without sacrificing their footballing style. We got stuck in, we challenged hard for every ball, shut Stoke down in the midfield, and were quick to turn dispossessions into attacks. And, after having a blatant penalty shout on Ramsey denied, finally broke the deadlock in the 91st minute. Another, even more blatant shout was denied on Bendtner, before Cesc and Vermaelen sealed the deal.

Stoke had two points to their gameplan yesterday: 1) Get as physical as the referee will seem to allow  2) Try to get as many throw-ins as possible. And that was it.The fact is that Arsenal matched Stoke’s physicality throughout the entire match and didn’t crumble after the tackle. They also limited Stoke’s throw-ins for the final sixty minutes. That took away Tony Pulis’ entire tactical plan. A cynical off-the-ball challenge on Fabregas after the second goal and on Bendtner in the box showed that Stoke had run out of ideas.

Anti-Arsenal Tactics

I don’t necessarily believe it’s a case of managers telling their players to go out and hurt Arsenal. But the league itself creates the problem. With so much money at stake for bottom-half clubs fighting relegation, negative tactics have become the norm in the Premier League. The gulf between 3rd place and 15th place in the Premier League may as well be a league apart.

Teams of that caliber simply cannot match top 5 teams on footballing terms and, because they are fighting for the very life of their club, they easily fall back on playing negative football. Add in to that Arsenal’s style and the false characterization of Arsenal not liking it “up ’em” and you have the current situation.

As for the “punditry,” the denial goes on. Before the last meeting at the Brittania Stadium, Ricardo Fuller, a striker no less, came out in the papers talking about how Stoke planned to rough Arsenal up. Yet pundits continue to deny that teams take a decidedly more physical approach with Arsenal than other sides. I imagine that nothing can really be done about teams attempting to disrupt Arsenal with an overly physical style from the league’s perspective. But, just once, I would like to hear the league and the pundits admit that that is what is going on here.

The Tackle

Whether Shawcross felt bad after the fact has no bearing on the situation. The fact is he came in recklessly high. What did he think was going to be the result of a challenge like that? After the Eduardo incident, no one can feign surprise at the outcome of a tackle of that sort. And to hear a delusional Stoke supporter on 606 right after the match claiming that Shawcross didn’t deserve the red card because “there was no malice in the tackle” and thought the challenge warranted “a booking, perhaps” was just ridiculous.

“Malice” is not the issue. It doesn’t matter whether Shawcross’s challenge was malicious or not. It was reckless. THAT is what needs to be rooted out of the game, not malice. Players need to know that if they aren’t thinking about the challenge they are going to make that they can pay a heavy price.

Some have called for Shawcross to be banned for as long as Ramsey is out. I did the same after the Eduardo tackle. If players knew they would suffer the same repercussions as the victim of their reckless tackle, they would think twice about the kind of challenges they make. Plain and simple. I’m sorry but a 3-match ban for a tackle that puts a player out for a year is just not right. The longer the league continues to ignore it, the more they are to blame when incidents like this happen.

With that said, I don’t feel quite the same ill will towards Shawcross as I did towards Taylor two years ago. First of all, Shawcross wasn’t smiling after the challenge. Second, it was a 50/50 ball, unlike Taylor’s despicable “tackle” on Eduardo.

At the same time, anyone who claims the player has “no history” of foul play obviously doesn’t remember him breaking Francis Jeffers’ ankle or taking Adebayor out for almost a month last season in a match which saw Adebayor, Gallas, and Walcott all injured for multiple weeks from Stoke tackles. That’s a lot of incidents for such a young player, especially one that alledgedly has “no history.”

The other important question is: why does this happen to Arsenal? Richard Keys’ assertions that it is because of Arsenal’s quick style is tantamount to saying that it is OUR OWN FAULT. That is disgraceful. As was the Stoke supporters singing, “He’s only got one leg.”

The Response

After bossing the first 18 minutes of the second half, and really looking like getting the go-ahead goal, the tackle sucked the wind out of what was otherwise a very entertaining and hard-fought match. We looked like suffering the same fate as Birmingham two years ago. Clichy realized the danger there and tried rallying Vermaelen, who looked devastated by Ramsey’s injury. The entire side looked absolutely distraught. No one could have truly faulted them had they failed to get the 3 points.

But this side dug in and delivered when we needed it most and when circumstances had made it the hardest it could be. We saw a togetherness and a spirit in the side that had been questioned after each of the defeats to Chelsea and United. The celebrations and huddle at center-pitch following the match reminded me of the spirit the team we had in 2007-08 before the Eduardo injury when we led the league by 5 points.

Just as intoxicating was the unbridled enthusiasm of Sol Campbell. Here is a man who has been given an unexpected second chance to play at the very top level and he KNOWS it. And his spirit and enthusiasm is infectious. We saw it running through the entire team yesterday.

After the match, Cesc’s anger was evident, as you can see in the interview below. And who can blame him? How many times do we have to see something like this happen to our players before, at the very least, the game’s caretakers admit that it is an issue?

Now, following Chelsea’s two demoralizing defeats in the past 5 days occasioned by their defensive woes and United’s continued over-reliance on Rooney and own goals for their scoring, the door to the title, cracked at noon, was swung wide open by 7:30pm.