Learning from the test (Arsenal vs Man City, Sunday, September 24th)

I’m not going to lie…I was straight up nervous going into this weekend’s game against Manchester City.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have faith in the Gunners, far from it actually.  I knew that win, lose, or draw, this one game wasn’t going to define us, and we could go on to have a great season no matter what happened here.  But I was still nervous the same way anyone gets before they take a test.  And make no mistake, yesterday was just that: a test.  Reactions to the Arsenal early season results went from being way overly optimistic to not taking any of it seriously because of who we’ve played.  Even the win at Liverpool was to be taken with a grain of salt because of the season ‘Pool are having thus far.  So the butterflies were kicking around in my stomach because I knew that this game meant something about our progress so far, and I wanted us to acquit ourselves well.  All in all the 1-1 draw wasn’t the best outcome we could have gotten out of that game, and that’s actually a good thing.  We looked like we were on very even keel with City, but I believe we should have won it.  Here’s some of the thoughts I had while watching the game:

1) Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey are really frustrating players.  And it’s for two different reasons.  Ramsey frustrates me because the issues I have with him seem to be his mental game.  He obviously has the skills to play well and be an important part of the first team, but he tries to do way too much with the ball.  He’s one of the few Arsenal players who doesn’t just play the simple option more often than not.  He tries to dribble out of trouble.  He tries to play tricky passes or chooses the fancy ball over the simple one.  He takes poor first touches because he’s not looking at the next move he’ll make.  He doesn’t go into tackles straight up, instead trying to flick the ball away or poke at it.  I’m not impressed with these parts of his game, and I get frustrated watching attacks stall at his feet and his passes going astray.  He’s not settled in when he’s playing.  He seems to me to be the nervous animal running around among the calm members of the team.

Gervinho’s touch let him down multiple times, but only in scoring position.  He made good runs, played good passes, and did well stretching and putting pressure on the City defense, but multiple times his final touch, final shot, chance to score was terrible.  The question he presents, and it’s a frustrating one for the team, is to figure out whether it’s just his game or if he needs to play through it.  This isn’t the first time this has been his M.O. and it needs to be given consideration that he might not be able to contribute as a regular starter in the attack.

2) There will be selection problems on the horizon.  With several players, including Jack Wilshire and Bacary Sagna, looking to be returning in the near future (some sooner than others), there will be some issue over who should be playing.   Carl Jenkinson has played well at right back, but should he stay in the side after Sagna is healthy?  Who should find the bench after Wilshire comes back, assuming he gets back up the best 11?  Which of the three center backs should be on the field once they’re all healthy?  Per Mertesacker has made a case that he should be one of the first considered, so what does that do to Laurent Koscielny, who showed very well yesterday?  How about the keeper battle going on?  And then there are the issues of fatigue.  Who can be selected to replace Cazorla when he needs his inevitable rest?  What about Arteta or Podolski?  These are the questions that will define Arsenal’s season as much as any playing style questions at this point.

3) Are Manchester City really the team to beat this year?  What about Manchester United?  Okay, so this isn’t really an Arsenal question directly, but it does affect the squad.  Manchester City did not look completely convincing to me on Sunday.  They struck me as (for lack of a better word) sloppy to be quite honest…I mean, as much as a professional squad can be at this level.  They were very individualistic, they didn’t take chances, they had passes missing the mark, they went on too many dribble runs that ended in nothing.  I just wasn’t as impressed (or as scared) as I’d expected to be.  Are they really the team to beat this year?  An for all of United’s win’s so far, they haven’t looked the part either.  They seem to be getting covered by (truly unfortunately) a few moments of luck (or whatever you want to call it) that comes along with being a good team…i.e.-getting calls, having a good bounce go your way, etc…  The obvious answer is that they’re still good teams that will be in the hunt and are finding ways to keep it together even when they’re not playing well, but the reality is that a team can’t ride that through an entire season, and how they handle the inevitable ebb of those moments will determine if they are challenging deep in the season, or just staying afloat.  For the moment Chelsea is the only team to actually impress me with their potential credentials, and even they have had their moments.

 

 

Darn…and other Arsenal thoughts (Arsenal vs Southampton, Saturday, September 15th)

Well, as I’d been fearing it would at some point, the “I-live-in-America-but-try-to-follow-European-soccer” bug bit me already this season.  I wasn’t able to watch the Arsenal-Southampton game on Saturday.  I was away from home all day, but I couldn’t even find the game listed in any of the 2000 channels I have at home…although there were plenty of other “exciting” matches on offer…there were three different opportunities to watch West Ham and Norwich battle it out to a 0-0 draw if I’d wanted to (insert sarcastic “woohoo”).  Aside from watching the highlights video, I didn’t see the play of the team, but 6-1 is a pretty resounding statement to make.  A 1-0 or 2-1 type score can sometimes be misleading, but unless Southampton mysteriously decided to send their first team on vacation and field a local youth team for the day, there’s nothing misleading about 6-1.  I don’t have to have seen much to have a decent idea of what the game must have looked like.  None the less, I will try to keep too much commentary about play out of my thoughts…you know, since I didn’t see it.

1) Patience is required despite these encouraging early results.  When we were sitting on back-to-back ties, there was some measure of skepticism floating in the air around this year’s version of Arsenal.  Now that we’ve won two in a row, racked up some goals, and only given up one goal in four games, there seems to be a lot of that ol’ good feeling floating around.  And it should be.  But there’s also a lot of reasons to shake hands, smile, and hold on to our wait-and-see reflex for the moment.  For one thing, none of the teams we’ve played are sitting in the top half of the table at the moment.  Their combined goal differences aren’t all that impressive, even if you take the Arsenal games out of the math.  The four teams have a combined -5 goal difference…and that’s NOT counting the scores vs Arsenal.  We’re playing well (in the three I’ve seen) and seem to be getting better, but there’s still bigger tests on the horizon.  Manchester City is up next, and we play them on short rest because of the Champion’s League tie verses Montpellier mid-week.  I’m not suggesting pessimism, just not ready to start applying our current run and form to our chances in the league this season yet.  I’ll be feeling much more ready to make pronouncements applying results to what they might mean for the rest of the season after the Man City game.  I think we have all the tools we need to go in there and hang one on the baby blue half of Manchester next weekend, but then lack of tools has never been the problem at Arsenal.

2) I may not have seen the game, but I did see the goal Szczesny gave up.  I know he’s been out for a little while, and is not ruled out of the CL match for health and fitness reasons, but that (imho) was quite the gaffe.  Can “embarrassment” be a reason to say someone isn’t match fit?  I don’t think anyone expected the clean sheets to last for ever, but that was a softie to give up.  I don’t know if his fitness played a role, but the root cause of it was mostly mental.  Let’s hope that goalkeeping doesn’t turn out to be our downfall this year, especially if Szczesny is going to be our #1 when fit.

3) Let’s just all stop talking about Oliver Giroud and see how that works out.  I have seen more tweets, commentary, posts, and articles that mention Giroud and his supposed trouble in front of the net than I care to admit having taken the time to read.  We’ve been a little spoiled in Gunnerland by the quick adaptation of Podolski and Cazorla, and the impact they’ve made in our early fixtures, that Giroud is under a little more scrutiny than he deserves…or is good for the relationship.  The man will score. I have no doubt of that.  In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion, given the intelligence of his runs, the positions he puts himself in, and his obviously high work rate (again, in the games that I’ve seen), that it’ll be a little like the olive and jar metaphor.  To his credit he’s dismissive of the idea that he’s struggling, and seems confident.  But then again, how do you expect him to react when asked about it over and over again?  Break into tears and talk about how hard it’s been?  Pressure creates expectation, and scrutiny creates pressure.  We have high expectations because of the player he’s replacing, but we disliked being reliant on that one player anyway.  As long as the rest of the team is stepping up and spreading out the scoring, we’ll be fine, and Giroud will get his chances, he’ll settle, and he’ll contribute.  And it’s better for us that way.  But for goodness sake, quit talking about it.

*Whew* (Arsenal vs Liverpool, Sunday, September 3rd)

I’m writing a day late because I wasn’t able to finish watching the whole game yesterday, and I didn’t want to comment too much on what I didn’t watch.  Regardless, I have now finished and have taken several things away from the game that I think are worth mentioning.

And there were a lot of things noteworthy during this game.  From the question of Vito Mannone, the play of Arteta, scoring, defending, and a lot more.  I’m only going to look at three of them, as per usual.

But first…

Lukas Podolski, Oliver Giroud, and Santi Cazorla.

There, I said it.

It seems like every single article I read about Arsenal these days has to mention these guys in concert.  They have to be put together and talked about because they’re what’s really new about the team.  Despite the return of Diaby, the formation shuffle, and the seemingly adaptive style of play so far this season (some of which I’ll get to in a minute), it’s those three that have to be mentioned together like they’re the three little pigs.  So despite the fact that I have things I could happily discuss about Cazorla’s continually impressive pin-point passing, Giroud’s trouble scoring despite bringing a much needed physicality and mentality to the front line, and Podolski’s deserved swagger that seems to be developing, from here on I’m leaving them out.  Just seems like the right thing to do.

1) What are the real questions about Arsenal this season?  Correct me if I’m wrong, but a lot of the questions that people tagged Arsenal with seem to slowly be getting answers.  No, things certainly are not perfect right now, but the game against Liverpool went a little further to answering some of those questions we were all so afraid of even just a week ago.  Where will the scoring come from?  Can we replace the massive haul of goals that came from one player last year?  No, but a more balanced approach may prove to be a more dangerous one.  This is a team that isn’t trying to force things in, even if the play is square and the opponent is round (so to speak).  Will the midfield hold together without Alex Song?  It may look different, but it’s working so far.  Mikel Arteta is taking his defensive responsibilities seriously and playing aggressively.  He’s still looking like the possition is a little against some of his instincts at time, but he’s been solid enough so far and seems to have formed a great partnership with Diaby, who’s playing extremely well.  What about the defense?  Three clean sheets in three games sounds pretty good to me.  Were Stoke and Sunderland ever expected to light us up?  No, but keeping Liverpool off the board, and doing what needed to be done against the other two is a positive start.  Per Mertesacker has looked solid, Thomas Vermaelen has been all over the place, and although Mannone has just done what’s been asked of him and looks like he’s being covered for the rest, it’s been exactly what’s needed.  There are much stiffer challenges to come, and questions will be asked of our defense, but Steve Bould seems to have brought a settled hand to a defense that has been much maligned in recent seasons.

2) Service has just been terrible for three games.  If there is a specific area that I have to point out as being absolutely, ridiculously, ludicrously, (other negative adjective)-ly bad for these three games it’s service from the wings.  For three games we have watched every player who takes a swing from out wide knock the ball ten yards over everyone’s head and past the box, or lob it hopefully in to watch it be easily cleared by lumbering defenders who don’t even have to stretch for the ball, or see the first defender clear it with ease.  No matter who has been out there, Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Diaby on a wide run, Gibbs, even Walcott’s few minutes, the service has been a complete waste.  I don’t expect us to fill the net from the air, but if we can’t even get the ball into the box on a cross, that makes the defensive planning by opponents that much easier.  Even if it’s not a major component of our attack, it has to be better.

3) The times, they are a’changing…maybe.  It was a much more wide open game against Liverpool.  ‘Pool played very well I thought, but were too frantic in the attacking end.  They gave us a handful.  The possession was close, but did go to Liverpool.  The shots went to Liverpool.  It was a very different looking game from the park-and-counter teams we’ve seen the last two weeks.  And Arsenal seemed to be able to adapt.  Not that they didn’t have their moments of tiki-taka looking football, but they were sitting back more as Liverpool owned the ball, and took their chances on the counter.  They defended aggressively late in the game and our central defenders even did a little of their own bullying in the middle.  There was a physicality to the Arsenal side that we’ve been criticized for lacking in recent years.  We went after the net, we countered, we played tough and agressive, we defended well…these are not qualities Arsenal have been noted for.  In my notes on the first game of the season I said that this team looked like it was more of the same, referring to many of the criticisms leveled against us for multiple seasons now, and that I just hoped time would prove that this was a different kind of team.  Yesterday’s game was a sign that that hope might pay off.  It’s not that I don’t love Arsenal’s style of play, quite the contrary.  It’s a huge part of why I’m a fan, but there are times where being a slave to style betrays a team…what’s really needed is to step into the game and do whatever is required to win, adapt, fight.  This is something Arsenal have struggled with.  But yesterday was a different story and the result bears that out.

BONUS — 4) Luis Suarez is an ass.  Seriously, if you are blanching at that statement, go back and watch the game.  That guy’s an ass.

 

180 minutes of soccer (Arsenal vs Stoke, Sunday, August 26th)

180 minutes of soccer.

So far this season this is how many minutes the Arsenal squad have played in the EPL, and how long they’ve been held scoreless.

Completely leaving aside the fact that these scoreless results have come at the hands of Sunderland and Stoke, not exactly top-of-the-table competition, there is no denying that these results are uncomfortable for those of us that follow the Gunners.  But is it panic time?  Here are a few thoughts I had while watching the game…

1) The trio of Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud all looked more settled today.  Perhaps it is a matter of giving the new signings time to really gell after all.  While all the talk centers around who will be the one to replace the goals of a single player from last year, the weight of that is being placed on a trio of summer signings.  Last week Podolski looked out of sorts, and Giroud looked off his game.  Today they both looked better, and Santi Cazorla had another fine game.  Given that the largest chunk of the Arsenal attacking contingent are brand new to both the team and the league, and on top of that they all came from separate leagues (German, Spanish, French), I’m optimistic that it will just take some time for them to settle in.  Goals will come from this group.  I have no doubt of that.  I don’t think one player will replace the production of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”, but goals will come.

2) Is Mikel Arteta the right man for the deep midfielder’s role?  I’m not totally sold on him there.  I love his tenacious play, his ability to pick out a pass, and his ability to help control the game from that deep role, but nothing has jumped out at me watching him these last two weeks.  And I don’t fault him for that.  I just don’t know that he’s best utilized there.  Arsenal’s biggest trouble has been slowing down too much as they approach the attacking third.  I almost wonder if he doesn’t contribute to that a little more than needed by sitting in that deep role.  I have no complaints about his play, mind you, I’m just still undecided about how I feel about having him be the one-to-one replacement to Alex Song.

3) Somebody shoot the freakin’ ball.  Quite simply, I’m convinced that a large chunk of the Arsenal scoring drought is simply an unwillingness to shoot the ball.  One credit to ol’ H-W-M-N-B-N (Dutch affinity for initials) was that he would take responsibility for scoring on his shoulders and shoot the ball.  Cazorla does take the odd strike from distance, and Giroud took a really nice crack at goal from the left flank today, but there just weren’t enough shots taken in general for my liking.  The final ball into the box, be it a simple pass or a cross, was often lacking in real threat or accuracy.  It looked a lot like some of those passes were taken just because that was the last idea left to whoever had the ball.  They’d played themselves out of other options, and a speculative ball was all they had left.  Shots earlier in the progression, or even an earlier ball into the box before it becomes the absolute last option left, could prove more dangerous.  Hopefully this will come with the time I talked about before.

I don’t think this represents the big set back that I’ve read some others think it is or thought it would be pre-match.  I think there’s still time.  Yes, the Gunners have a tough September ahead of them, but that tough September may prove to come at just the right time…far enough into the season that the new signings are settling, and early enough to help expedite the process with just the right amount of pressure.  Only time will tell.

Where are the Gunners now? (Arsenal vs. Sunderland, Saturday, August 18th)

A lot of ink has been expended trying to figure out what to expect this season from Arsenal after so much change, some good some bad, occurred at the club this offseason.  And we could continue to guess until we’re blue in the face as long as games aren’t being played on the field.  That period has come to an end as the EPL kicked off today.  After watching Arsenal draw a blank on Sunderland, I have drawn several conclusions:

1) Santi Cazorla is the best investment Arsenal have made in a long while.  Arsenal have been buying players that still need a lot of development or who are simply “promising” off season after off season in recent memory.  Rarely is a player brought in who is ready to step in and hold a starting place, with Mikel Arteta being an exception, although he was brought in on an emergency situation to help right the ship during last season.  Cazorla showed today the exact kind of effort and creativity that Arsenal can build on.  He’s going to be busy this season.

2) Van Persie’s shadow will be over this team the whole season, no matter the outcome.  When Nasri and Fabregas left last off season the whole year was spent talking about how things would have been different if they hadn’t been sold.  That same trend will only get worse this year.  The reality of soccer is that beautiful play only counts if you score goals.  Van Persie was the only proven goal scorer on the roster, and now that he’s gone every time a scoring chance goes by, as both Podolski and Giroud had against Sunderland, people will ask if RVP would have put that one away.  Any time a goal is scored the total number will be held up against what Van Persie was able to do.  As a fan I hate more than anything to admit that, but this team simply will not be able to outrun RVP’s sale, and can only make it work for next season by playing well this year.

3) Arsenal, for all their positive financials in the transfer market, simply are not winning the battle to build an effective team.  Every Arsenal fan I know gets uppity whenever the phrase “Arsenal are a selling/feeder club” gets uttered.  And I feel my blood rise when I hear it too.  But the fact that we’re losing players we want to keep (no matter how much money we get for them or who we buy with that money), that we don’t seem to be improving in any one specific area, that we’ve had the same criticisms leveled against us (shaky defense, all our passing comes to nothing, no biting edge on attack) season after season is a bigger deal than our silverware drought.  And any player that complains about the “lack of ambition” (Nasri, Van Persie) is full of crap.  Because if they’d stayed we have an amazing team.  They’re selfish players.  And I don’t blame them for it, I just hate the holier-than-thou stance they’ve tried to use to cover the fact that they personally aren’t willing to take on the pressure make it happen at Arsenal, and would rather go somewhere where other people have already done the work.  But the biggest issue is that Arsenal themselves aren’t able to prevent it, either because of finances, bad contract management decisions, or because of the prestige and swagger of the club.   We’ve lost and sold way more prestigious quality players year after year than we have brought in, and now have lost Song too this year to add to the RVP debacle.  Fans are continually pointed towards the healthy finances of the club, and hopefully when the FIFA Fair Play Rules are blanket across the league it will be beneficial, but it’s a cover.  If we were winning on the field no one would ever mention it as a major selling point.

Arsenal didn’t look terrible today, they didn’t look great.  They looked the same.  Podolski was shaky, Giroud was better but fluffed a great chance.  Arsenal fans are hoping that it was part of the settling process, but regardless this looks like the same ol’ Arsenal we’ve seen.  Unless our new talent proves that some gell-time is all they need this season will simply be more of what we’re used to: good, but not good enough.

The utter heartbreak of Arsenal’s 2007-8 season

Note: This article was written back in April of 2008 when I was still writing on just my personal blog.  I have since branched out to begin writing for a soccer blog entitled Endlines.  If you dig this article, please cruise over there and check out what we got going about the latest news and developments.  Cheers!

I am very much a half-full kind of guy generally. I have coached several soccer teams, some good and some not so. I usually look at the season as a sum total of all experiences, not just a particular piece. But right now, in the immediate aftermath of Arsenal’s stunning, and frankly befuddling, 4-2 defeat at the hands of Liverpool that has ended their Champions League run (not to mention the 1-1 tie this past weekend against the same Liverpool that has severed all but the slimmest hopes of a title run), I look back over this season and must, am absolutely required, to call it a disapointment. Now, hear me out before you think this argument is soley about not bringing home silverware. I think you can lose in grand fashion and be successful by some definitions doing so. But this season has seen Arsenal collapse under the weight of it’s own expectations here in the late running. These expectations are of their own creation after their fast start to the season and attractive style of play. They are a gutsy team, there’s no doubt about it. And while it is most certain that injuries played a role in the slow demise of the Gunners, one cannot blame injuries for all that has happened. Is it inexperience? Maybe, they are a rather young side, but that is countered by the derth of talent on the squad. I tend to think that is squad depth that is mostly at the heart of this season’s fall from grace. The Gunners are a rather thin squad. The season is long, and made longer by multiple competitions outside the domestic race. Players get tired. It isn’t for a lack of talent that Arsenal have fallen. They have talent in bucket loads. But that talent is concentrated in a small squad. I’m not begging Arsene Wenger to splurge on buying big name talent. We’ve seen that’s not his style, but I think he’ll need to consider expanding his squad for next season if he is going to make the push for at least the double of the Champions League and the Premier League.

This game was particularly disapointing because of the fast start, and also because of the advantages that Arsenal had coming into the game, which I have spoken to before but will mention some of here for the sake of wrapping up the series. Arsenal were in prime position, with the 1-1 tie at Emirates, to come in and progress. Anything better than a 0-0 draw would give them a chance. All they had to do was get on the board to put the pressure on Liverpool. And they came out blazing and got on the board with a nifty piece of work from Hleb. But weither through caution or fatigue, the game turned fast. Liverpool had started out playing the game close to the vest, bunker-and-counter, just as had been suspected. And Arsenal made them pay for it with attractive passing and aggressive tackling. But the Gunner goal sparked Liverpool into life, and after half time Liverpool was up 2-1. When Adebayor equilized in the 84th minute it looked as though my 2-2 prediction would proove precient and Arsenal would advance. But the collapse of my beloved Gunners was completed in the 85th and 90th minutes as Gerrard and Ryan Babel hammered the nails in the coffin. Did i or did I not say that both Torres and Gerrard would get on the board in Anfield? And of course, Senderos, having a tough season but never really that impressive, was culpable in at least 2 of the goals (losing his mark on Hyypia first and then letting Torres turn him so easily). How a team with such attractive soccer and so many of the pieces needed to be great can slowly collapse this way (especially after downing the defending European champs to get here) can only be attributed to two things in my mind: of course the fact that Liverpool play as though they are entitled to a European berth every year, and fatigue from a squad too short on personel.

Will Arsenal challenge for multiple pieces of silverware next season just as they did this season? Undoubtetly, but until they expand their squad, the numerous injuries that plague Arsenal year in and year out (Van Persie, Rosicky, Hleb, Eduardo this season, and Fabregas is usually good to miss a few games) will continue to thwart their best efforts. The frustrating way they have been thwarted this season both domestically and in the CL makes this a dissapointing season no matter what their record is.

Steven Gerrard breaks my heart

Steven Gerrard hammers in the penalty that ends Arsenal’s Champions League run…and breaks my heart.

Of course I was wrong…it was a PRE-diction after all! (Arsenal vs Liverpool thoughts)

Note: This article was written back in April of 2008 when I was still writing on just my personal blog.  I have since branched out to begin writing for a soccer blog entitled Endlines.  If you dig this article, please cruise over there and check out what we got going about the latest news and developments.  Cheers!

Alright, so my 1-0 win at Emirates for Arsenal didn’t pan out as I had guessed. I was wrong, I’ll admit. But, while I’m disappointed in the outcome, I’m reservedly proud of the display. Liverpool (as I said they would) showed their ‘bunker-and-counter’ brand of soccer, and managed to slip one by. Gerrard showed his unquestioned class and produced a dandy of a chance that Dirk Kuyt only had to fall on to put in the back of the net. But Arsenal showed some real attacking football, out-shooting Liverpool 15-4 and forcing Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina into 5 saves to Almunia’s 2. They also maintained 65% of the possession to Liverpool’s 35%.  Fabregas played well, and Adebayor got on the scoreboard, which has been difficult the last few games for him. Positives all. It does leave Arsenal in a decent position going on the road (as I’d mentioned before about the away goal rule), but that assumes they’re going to score at Anfield. Arsenal need to step up and get over the ‘great display, poor result’ that has plagued them the last few seasons. I’m as big a fan of their youth-centric philosophy and tactical focus as anyone, but I really want to see them back it up with some silverware. They’re a quality side whose heads are in the right places. I’ve heard rumors of Wenger going after Kaka, and (much as I want it to be true) I’m a little saddened that it has to come back to the “buy” mentality as to whether they’re a winning side. Even if the rumors aren’t true, even if some wishful fan fabricated them, that mentality is all over world football in general (Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, Manchester United, Chelsea, and even Barcelona to a degree). Very few sides really focus on developing talent in-house like Arsenal does. They work with young, promising talent and nurture it in what seems to be an amazing club environment. They’ve even survived the departure of Thierry Henry, although some could argue different given their form as of late. I’m guessing the return leg will still favor Arsenal. I’ll stay with my 2-2 finish, or possibly even upgrade a 3-2 win. 2-2 should put the Gunners through on the away goal rule. They won’t be able to keep Torres quiet at home despite his seemingly innocuous showing at Emirates. He’s way better at Anfield than on the road. He’ll probably get on the board with Gerrard either offering the other or doing the work for someone else as he did today. Arsenal will need Van Persie to find his touch again or Adebayor and Fabregas to play out of their minds. Flamini is still playing consistantly, and I was happy to see Senderos play respectably. Walcott will probably start the next leg, or start this Saturday and have his playing time in the return leg depend on his Saturday form. So much is up in the air, and the tie can still go either way. Liverpool have the upper hand, but I feel the scenario can still favor Arsenal if they step up to the challenge.

Soccer’s age old debate: style or defense? (Arsenal vs Liverpool UCL preview and prediction)

Note: This article was written back in April of 2008 when I was still writing on just my personal blog.  I have since branched out to begin writing for a soccer blog entitled Endlines.  If you dig this article, please cruise over there and check out what we got going about the latest news and developments.  Cheers!

I’m having a rather bear of a day today, so I thought I’d give the politics a rest and actually write about something that makes me feel a little lighter (and a little more bubbly of the mouth, if you’ve ever discussed it with me): Soccer. As anyone who follows the game knows, this is a big night for soccer fans, and Arsenal fans like me. Tonight is the first leg of the Champions League quarter finals between Arsenal and Liverpool.

To understand this contest there are four main issues to consider: the two team’s individual styles, current form, home advantage, and the packed schedule of these two teams meeting over the next two weeks.

First, the individual styles. You’ll remember last year the final in which Liverpool lost to A.C. Milan because Milan’s corps were able to wait out Liverpool’s ‘bunker-and-counter’ mentality. Liverpool is a team entirely built around Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres’s abilities to run the counter attack that is sprung from the other nine men behind the ball. Torres has been successful this season where previous Liverpool strikers have not because he’s quick and crafty enough to stay high and wait for service, and then turn that service into points. Torres is easily a world class striker who is helped even more by being in his first year. He made a quick adjustment to England, and teams have yet to figure him out.

Fernando Torres of Liverpool

With Gerrard and Torres, who prefers slashing, diagonal runs in behind defenders to receive sharp passes from Gerrard, working combination, Liverpool have made an entire offense out of the counter-attack.

Arsenal, on the other hand, prefer to play a much more possession-oriented ground game emphasizing the short pass. While midfielder Cesc Fabregas has been a little off-form lately, along with forwards Emanuel Adebayor and Robin Van Persie, all three of them are still game changing players.

Robin Van Perse of ArsenalEmanuel Adebayor of ArsenalCesc Fabregas of Arsenal

I have to give the edge to Arsenal in the style department. They have the possession and the patience to wait out Liverpool’s bunker mentality.

Current form plays into the hands of Liverpool, however the effect of the recent 10-man comeback from being down 2-0 against Bolton cannot be underestimated when looking at Arsenal’s current form. Liverpool have been playing much stronger in general, and practically become a different team in CL competition, but being that these are two English teams who know each other, Arsenal cannot be ruled out. They too have a history of stepping up in big games, as they did in their drubbing of Milan in the last round.

The home advantage piece plays into Arsenal’s hands as well. In the UCL set up, where away goals count more, I always prefer to see my team have the away game second. It takes pressure off the team if they give up goals in the first leg, and allows them the possibility of catching up going into the second leg if they fall behind. Admittedly the advantages of having the away-leg second are mostly mental, but they are still worth considering. Torres has had difficulty scoring on the road this season (19 of his 21 league goals have come at Anfield this season), so the chances of him having a quiet first game are good. If Arsenal come out of the first leg up or tied, the scales lean heavily in their favor with the away goal rule.

Lastly, the packed fixture schedule that sees these two teams meet three times in next week or so. After tonight’s match they will play on Saturday, April 5th and then again in the return leg for the CL. This I think is an advantage for Liverpool. Liverpool have been notoriously tactical throughout Rafa Benitez’s time in charge. While I think Arsene Wenger is a supreme tactician, Benitez is at least an equal mind, and may even be better at his substitution decisions and ability to change the game on the fly. Arsenal’s strength is in their patience and possession and with so much familiarity Benitez may reign his team in enough to out-think Arsenal’s youngsters.

Overall, I’ll predict a 1-0 win for the Gunners at Emirates, and a 2 all draw at Anfield. I think the Gunners will eventually face a tougher test vs Chelsea in the semi-finals, unless Chelsea’s tendancy to fall to underdogs this season bites them once again.

(Photos courtesy of dailymail.com, arsenalfcblog.com, and infosradasports.com)