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Arsenal on a Strong March to Top-Four Finish
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Will Arsenal make the top four in the Premier League this season? The answer has to be yes if the last few games are anything to go by, especially the recent four-match winning streak, even after the streak was broken by the draw against Everton.

I review the last two games in the following and address the question in the last section of the article.

 

Norwich City Complains

Two things emerged from the Arsenal-Norwich match. The first concerned the three points they added to their total haul for the season so far, giving them a temporary edge over their top-four rivals, while the second pertained to the manner of their victory, which some said wasn't obtained fairly. 

As to the first point, it allowed pundits to carry on with the strain of narrative about Arsenal's revival, which followed the face-saving victory over Bayern Munich in Bavaria. 

The victory, furthermore, makes the ongoing competition for Champions League places between Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur more intriguing. 

It gave birth to a new expectation: the idea that Arsenal would open a seven-point gap between them and Spurs come Saturday after Arsenal beat their next two opponents, putting pressure on Spurs to win their match the coming Sunday in order to maintain their own chances of playing Champions League football next season. 

The fact that Arsenal failed to beat Everton on Tuesday alters the narrative. It forces the pundits to find a new angle to frame this enigmatic club. The emerging idea is that the initiative now lies with Spurs and that Arsenal might not make the top four after all.  

In terms of the second point, the legitimacy of the complaint is contained in the fact that the corner that led to the penalty incident wasn't really a corner. Were the complaint to focus on this alone, it'd be justified. 

Referee Mike Jones. Getty Images

But the notion that the referee's assistant should not give a foul when it is justified is ridiculous.The first goal that Blackburn Rovers scored at Manchester United last season resulted from a similar foul—pulling an opponents jersey and hauling him down in the process. Howard Webb pointed to the spot.

The bickering in this case isn't because there wasn't a foul on Olivier Giroud. It is rather that it wasn't the referee himself who gave the foul.

However, referee's assistants give fouls all the time. Should those be illegitimate? Why do we hear the complaint about referee's assistants being useless when the reverse of this situation occurs?

All in all, let's say it was a fortunate day for Arsenal. Manchester United routinely enjoys such fortune, so that one is apt to think that referees go out of their way to help them.

 

Transitional Space Problematic 

In this same match, Arsenal struggled with transitional space (see this article on the topic). Transitional space is where the so-called hole is.  

Arsenal have shifted the space from just in front of their defensive line to the middle of the pitch proper. This is a result of the budding partnership between Mikel Arteta and Ramsey, a methodical approach to defense and offense. 

In this match, the hole was further forward. Jack Wilshere was deployed here but seemed overawed, partly because he was returning after a six-week layoff due to injury and partly because he hasn't played in the team since the midfield found a new balance with Tomas Rosicky. 

The other reason I addressed in my previous article. Basically, I believe Rosicky is more suited to the current shape of the team. I am inclined to think that Wilshere might function best in a midfield diamond (See below.) 

In this case you have your normal back four, and just in front, in a deliberately created hole, is the defensive midfielder (in this case Mikel Arteta).  

Here a passer in the mold of Andrea Pirlo or Xabi Alonso might be deployed, in which case the primary job isn't tough tackling, as some are inclined to think of the defensive midfielder. Instead, it is the controlling of the game's tempo, including switching the point of attack and distributing passes.  

The job here, then, isn't defensive per se; although it is partially. The shield for the defense occurs in the next line of the formation, the next two personnel in the midfield diamond.  

This is where you would deployed Abou Diaby (were he fit) and Aaron Ramsey. One could insert Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain here based on the promise he has shown in the last two games. Or, with the current personnel, Francis Coquelin might be deployed alongside Ramsey. 

One of the two persons would be more defensive-minded, while the other would focus more on transition and support of the attacker. 

What Arsenal really needs is to purchase a truly world-class box-to-box midfielder type, since it appears that Diaby isn't going to shrug off his injury problem. 

The final person in the diamond plays on its offensive tip. This is where I think Wilshere could function best. This frees him from roaming the midfield too much, allowing him instead to focus on attack and on finding holes to explore in the opponents' defense. 

The problem with this system is that it eliminates one forward player. To compensate, the midfielder who is the furthest forward must be a cross between a midfielder and a forward proper—in other words, the so-called false 9. 

Barcelona's diamond functions precisely because of this. Lionel Messi plays both the tip of the midfield as well as a striker. This solves the problem of limited forwards in the system. Remarkably, Messi scores most of Barcelona's goals.  

David Ramos/Getty Images
Lionel Messi, a player well-suited to the midfield diamond formation

In contrast, Wilshere isn't scoring goals. So to put him in this position might not be very practical. Were he to start scoring goals, I would say this is the best position for him. 

This system poses different sort of problems, however. For one, it means the team might not play with wingers but rather with attacking full-backs, who provide width for the system. For another, it affects the way the remaining players in the system (the forwards) are deployed. 

It seems best to deploy them rather wide in a Y formation. (Refer to the diagram above.) Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic used to combine in this formation (that is the Y at the head of the formation) for AC Milan with devastating effect: Witness the demolition of Arsenal in last season's Champions League at the San Siro. 

But which two strikers are suited for this role in the current Arsenal—Giroud deployed tending wide? I'm not so sure. Could he partner Podolski in this system? This would mean little space for the likes of Theo Walcott and Gervinho, although there's nothing that says Arsenal should stick to just one formation all season long. 

Possible personnel from the current crop of players could be: Gibbs (Monreal), Koscielny, Mertesacker, Sagna in the back four. Then, Mikel Arteta in the hole, followed by Ramsey and Cazorla in the shield. Wilshere will be at the tip of the midfield, while Giroud and and Podolski (or Walcott) partner each other up front. Wilshere and Cazorla could switch places.  This, though, is just a thought.

What all this exposes is the fact that the current Arsenal team is far from being balanced in terms of overall playing resources. To think so is delusional.  

To make a mark in the coming season, this particular fact needs to be addressed. But whether it will be is left to be seen. I am not very optimistic.

 

Everton the New Stoke City? 

One's imagination does not need to run wild to assume or guess that David Moyes had instructed his wards to go "rough them up." The fact that at the postgame interview he stated with a straight face that this sort of approach is allowed in football and that they play like that up north lends credence to this thinking. 

Everton, like Wenger said afterwards, took this approach too far. It is clear that they thought that the win they need to advance their position on the table could come at Arsenal and that it could be secured by playing rough. 

Michael Regan/Getty Images
Everton aimed to bulldoze their way to victory at Arsenal

The fact that Arsenal tended to fall apart in the past when roughed up might have planted the seed of this approach in Moyes' mind. That Arsenal stood up to it well is heartening and speaks to the fact that having matured individuals in a team is very beneficial. 

I wondered when I watched Arsenal's players being clearly fouled and the referee doing nothing about it whether Everton might not have researched this referee beforehand, finding that they could get away with blatant fouls under his very nose.  They seemed encouraged by his inaction.

A feisty match it was called afterward, and it was. In the past, Arsenal would have fallen apart. That they didn't and earned a valuable point is commendable. 

A victory would have been nice, but I am proud of the attitude and of the point earned.

 

Top Four 

Will Arsenal make top four? I am inclined to say, yes.  

Five obstacles stand in the way: Fulham, Manchester United, QPR, Wigan and Newcastle United. Newcastle will be difficult, as will Manchester United, needless to say. Fulham, Wigan and QPR are winnable. 

What lies ahead is like running a gauntlet. You either stand or fall. With three victories Arsenal might just nick one of the spots for Champions League. Four might guarantee it. Five will do the job. 

But can Arsenal beat Manchester United? It depends on the conditions of the day. Can they beat Newcastle away? It is possible. Will they get the victory this Saturday? It is also possible. 

There is one bottom line for me. If Arsenal cannot take care of the obstacles before them, then they do not deserve to play Champions League football next season, which is one way of saying Arsenal's destiny is in Arsenal's hand.

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