Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Podolski's absence could prove significant in North London Derby

Arsenal's 2-0 win over Fenerbahce last night in the final round of qualification for the Champions League group stage capped off a fine week for the Gunners that seemed to restore much-needed optimism around the club after the opening day league defeat to Villa had Gooners pressing the panic button. The win secured Arsenal's passage to their 16th consecutive season in the group stage of the Champions League, a staggering achievement for Arsene Wenger given the departure of some of the club's best players in recent years. It was a third win in seven days. Aaron Ramsey scored both goals in yet another man of the match performance. Santi Cazorla was fantastic playing off of Olivier Giroud through the middle and was unlucky not to get a goal of his own. Laurent Koscielny was given a rest after his nasty head injury in the first leg of the tie and yet Arsenal's makeshift back four still managed a clean sheet. With the North London Derby looming at the weekend, Arsenal established firm control of the contest early and never had to kick into a second gear, significant given their thin squad at the moment. On the whole this was as convincing and professional a performance as Wenger could have hoped.

Yet not all was perfect. Lucas Podolski was stretchered down the tunnel early in the second half with a hamstring injury that will sideline him for three weeks. While the German left sided attacker may become more of a fringe player as first team regulars return from injury and Arsenal bring in new signings, it was important Wenger have him available for the weekend derby.

The absence of Podolski means in all likelihood that Wenger's lineup picks itself. With both Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sidelined with injuries, Cazorla is almost certain to play on the left of Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 with Thomas Rosicky in the #10 role and Ramsey and Wilshere occupying the two deeper midfield positions. While Wenger may well have gone with this set up even if Podolski were available, the injury does enable Spurs manager Andre Villas Boas a few days to prepare for Arsenal with a good idea of exactly how they'll set up. Wenger doesn't change his team's style much regardless of his opponent or the personnel available to him so this isn't necessarily a huge advantage. However, it does give Spurs players the benefit of studying where Arsenal has tended to exploit teams when fielding this lineup and how teams have beaten this lineup.

The injury could also hinder Arsenal in that it means Cazorla will be unable to play through the middle (unless Wenger makes a surprise move to use either Gibbs or Monreal as a left winger).
Cazorla is Arsenal's most gifted player on the ball. While he typically performs well when employed on the left, he doesn't get nearly as many touches as when he plays the #10 spot and therefore can't impact the game as much as he's capable. He played in the middle alongside Ramsey and Rosicky as part of a 4-3-3 in the win over Fulham where he made crucial passes in the buildup to the first two goals before assisting Podolski for the third. He completed more passes in the attacking third than any other player (25) and created more chances (6). He was excellent again last night as the center attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. While Rosicky is a fine footballer, I don't think he gives Arsenal quite the same dynamism in the middle of the park.

Podolski would also have provided Arsenal a good counterattacking option to exploit space in behind Kyle Walker. Walker is a very attacking right back and will consistently overlap the right midfielder to provide width. This leaves space down the right side of Spurs defense for the opposition to break into quickly when they win the ball back. Podolski has the pace to track Walker's runs forward then sprint into the space in behind him and set off counters when Arsenal retain possession. In Arsenal's 2-0 win at Anfield last season, Podolski executed this kind of movement perfectly to score the Gunners' opener. Liverpool right back Glen Johnson had pushed into the attacking third to provide width before Steven Gerrard cheaply gave the ball away 25 yards from the Arsenal goal. With Johnson out of position, Podolski burst in behind him down the left flank. Arsenal played an outlet ball to Cazorla who took a few dribbles before sliding the unmarked Podolski through on goal for the finish. Unfortunately, I can't find a decent video to the full sequence that led to the goal but you can see Johnson chasing the play in the video below.

Although Cazorla is quick, he doesn't have the same speed over distance that Podolski has and therefore likely won't be able to exploit the spaces that open up on the channels when Walker gets forward.

Most importantly, Podolski's injury means Arsenal don't really have any viable substitutes to bring on in the midfield or up top. It will therefore be vital that Arsenal keep hold of the ball and force Tottenham to do a great deal of defensive work. With Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky and Cazorla all on the pitch they certainly have players with the passing ability to do so. Wenger won't want an end-to-end game because Spurs will have plenty of midfield substitutes than can come on and change the game if their first 11 tire. Having still failed to bring in any new signings, Arsenal don't have the same luxury.

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