Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Arsenal FC vs Schalke Preview: Will the Gunners show their Mental Strength against Schalke?

Arsene Wenger has almost always made it a point to mention his team's mental resilience whenever they have managed to grind their way out of a tough situation. The game against Schalke at the Emirates will demonstrate just how much mental strength that the Gunners have to bounce back from that disappointing defeat against Norwich City. It was a flat performance from Arsenal and in truth, they looked far from a side looking to challenge for the title. But as is the case with football, a couple of weeks could really change things which is what Wenger will be hoping looking towards the game against Schalke. The French manager will be looking from the stands, serving his touchline ban and will expect his team to perform up to the required standard against a very good Schalke team.

The Bundesliga side beat champions Borussia Dortmund in the weekend and look like genuine title challengers this season. With players like Klaas Jan-Huntelaar, Lewis Holtby and Ibrahim Afellay in their ranks, there is no reason why they cannot sustain their good form should they keep their main players fit for most of the season. They will provide a serious threat to the Arsenal defense, who will have to be at their best to not let Schalke have many opportunities. Huntelaar is a player who is a perfect "fox-in-the-box" sort of striker and is not likely to pass up good opportunities to score and he has got some good players like Afellay, Farfan and Holtby who will support him well.

For Arsenal, the good news is that Laurent Koscielny is fit enough to come back to the squad but the question is whether or not he will be in the starting line-up. Per Mertesacker has done very well this season and if fit, he is most likely to start. Thomas Vermaelen does make mistakes at times and though he is a very good player, it has to be said that the decision to make him the captain of this Arsenal side is questionable considering that Koscielny could be considered a serious contender for his place in the starting line-up. The French international was arguably Arsenal's best defender in the last season and though he had a poor game against Chelsea, he deserves another chance to have a decent run in the side. Mikel Arteta would have been a more appropriate choice to be named as captain considering that he has the leadership skills and is also extremely consistent on the pitch.

Wenger has made his choice though and will have to stick with Vermaelen and Mertesacker as his first choice defensive pair because Koscielny and Vermaelen as a partnership does not look to be  too stable. With Huntelaar leading the line, he will cause plenty of problems for Arsenal and Mertesacker and Vermaelen will have a tough task to keep him quiet. With Gibbs not likely to feature against Schalke due to injury, Andre Santos is likely to be entrusted with the duty of stopping the supply of crosses from the right flank. Carl Jenkinson has been very impressive this season and will start again against Schalke but with him more or less a regular member of the side now, he has to also improve on his attacking duties and deliver more accurate crosses from the right for the Gunners. With Olivier Giroud leading the line for the Gunners, Jenkinson's crosses could be important in adding another dimension to their play.

In midfield, Aaron Ramsey could make way for Francis Coquelin, who deserves a chance considering that he has played well whenever given the opportunity to do so. The Welsh international had a woeful game against Norwich and needs to be benched for maybe a couple of matches unless he improves on his standard of performance. Arteta can be very influential further up the pitch as well considering that he and Cazorla do share an excellent understanding and the Spaniards have the capability of breaking down defenses with their vision and creativity. Jack Wilshere is not likely to make the squad having played the entire U-21 game against Everton on Monday but is likely to be on the bench for the game against QPR. His return to fitness is a timely boost for the Gunners, who have got a number of first team players out through injury.

With both Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out for the game against Schalke, there are not many options left for Arsene Wenger other than to continue playing Gervinho out wide with Giroud leading the line. Gervinho does not look at his best on the right wing and did have a very poor game against Norwich City. Lukas Podolski will continue to start on the left flank and the German international who will be facing familiar opposition will be looking to make an impact. With  Arsenal no longer having Robin van Persie to rely on for the goals, all the attacking players will have to step up and perform at their best if they want to seriously challenge for trophies this season.

It is a difficult task for the Gunners to defeat Schalke but a win will give them huge impetus after their defeat and importantly would put them in pole position to qualify as the Group toppers. It will allow them breathing space at the top of the table and will be a huge relief for Arsenal. It will not be a easy task but Wenger will be looking for a positive reaction from the defeat against Norwich City. Arsenal's mental strength will be put to the test on Wednesday against a tough team in front of a crowd who will be anxious right from the start. It is up to the team to show their quality and prove that the defeat against Norwich was just a one-off game. With plenty of important games coming in quickly from now till the end of the year, it is of vital importance that Arsenal beat Schalke and establish their position as the Group B leaders in the Champions League.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Arsenal FC: Why the next two Weeks could determine the Gunners' Season

Is the pressure finally getting to the Frenchman?
It is a long hard season in football consisting of 38 league matches and also has many Cup games depending on how well the club goes. But there are turning points for Clubs at some points of the season which could well determine whether or not they will consider the season to be a success at the end of May. For the Gunners, the next two weeks could just be that as they take on Schalke, Queens Park Rangers, Reading and Manchester United in a space of two weeks. The Gunners could be without some of their important players like Kieran Gibbs and Abou Diaby in the near future but they will have to get good results from these games if they are to have a chance of making this season a successful one.

Bereft of trophies in the last seven years, Arsenal fans no longer have the patience to wait for trophies as they keep losing some of their best players at the end of every season. They have sold Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song and Robin Van Persie in the last two summers and could lose Theo Walcott on a free transfer in the next window if they continue to lack success on the field. They have brought in three first team players in this window out of which Santi Cazorla has been exceptional and while Lukas Podolski has adjusted quite well but questions remain whether Olivier Giroud can be a genuine goalscoring threat for the Gunners.

Santi Cazorla, the Magician in midfield
The loss against Norwich City was one of the most disappointing defeats in a long time as the Gunners failed to create any sustained pressure and were guilty of not showing enough determination to win the game. The Canaries played well but it was certainly a case of Arsenal just not wanting it enough as well. With Cazorla not as effective in this game, they certainly lacked the guile to break down the Norwich which has leaked plenty of goals this season. With Podolski and Gervinho as the wingers and Giroud leading the line, the Gunners forward line did not get behind the Norwich backline and the absence of first team fullbacks was also evident.

Though Carl Jenkinson has done extremely well in the absence of Sagna, he does not make many overlapping runs and his crosses were disappointing against Norwich. However, the Arsenal youngster was not to blame for the lack of attacking intensity of the Gunners as he put in another committed performance. However, the return of Bacary Sagna is welcome and his forays down the right wing will be very important with time. Kieran Gibbs was also sorely missed as Andre Santos was rusty and did not have the pace or the energy to make runs beyond Podolski as Gibbs usually does. Also, the Brazilian has a tendency to come inside as well which means it further narrows down the play which made it easier for Norwich to defend against the Gunners.

There were plenty of players who did not perform up to the standard required by the Gunners: Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud, Gervinho to name a few. But what is more important is to not let it affect the next two weeks which are very important to the confidence of this team as a unit. They have still not gelled as a unit and on this evidence, they can surely play better when they are more focussed. The next game is the home game against Schalke which is very important in terms of finishing as the leaders of the Champions League group.

Schalke are on a high after beating Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal will be wary of the opposition they are facing. With players of the ilk of Klaas Jan-Huntelaar and Ibrahim Afellay, they will surely threaten the Gunners. It will be extremely important for the Gunners to forget about the previous game and focus only on the next game. With no one likely to return from injury before the Schalke game, team selection could be tricky for Arsene Wenger.

Can Olivier Giroud bang in the goals for the Gunners?
In my opinion, Ramsey was woefully ineffective against Norwich and should only make the bench and Francis Coquelin should be given the nod to start as the defensive midfielder against Schalke. The tenacious 22-year-old French midfielder is desperate to start more games for the Gunners and should get his chance in the near future. Another important decision for Wenger is whether or not to stick with Giroud as the centre forward or to give another chance to Gervinho to further establish his claim to be played in the centre. The Frenchman has shown glimpses of his potential but has not shown the consistency needed to cement his place in the starting eleven and could need more time to adjust to Arsenal's style of play. For someone like Giroud who thrives on crosses coming in from the flanks, the Gunners have not supplied enough good quality crosses for the Frenchman to capitalize.

Though Jack Wilshere is completely fit after his long injury, Wenger is right not to rush him back soon from such a big injury and the Englishman will probably have minutes from the bench against QPR and Manchester United while he could start against Reading if everything goes according to plan. His return is eagerly awaited especially because the partnership of Wilshere-Arteta-Cazorla sounds a mouthwatering prospect and more importantly, it will certainly reduce the onus on Cazorla  as he will share some of the creative responsibilities of the little Spaniard. The same was the case when Wilshere played alongside Fabregas where it allowed the Englishman to thrive in a deeper role and also provided an alternative for Fabregas to drop into a deeper position if he was tightly marked allowing Wilshere the freedom to take up the role behind the striker. 

Jack Wilshere: Arsenal's next big hope
Arsenal will want to finish top of the Champions League group in order to avoid some of the toughest opponents in the Round of 16 and key to that is beating Schalke at home. However, the next two games in the league are just as important and the Gunners cannot afford to lose focus on that. QPR presents an interesting challenge to Arsenal primarily because they do have talented players but have been woeful for most of the season. They have players of the quality of Esteban Granero and Park Ji Sung who can really hurt the Gunners but have not looked secured at the back at all. However, with the draw against Everton, they are sure to have found some of their confidence back and it will be a tricky fixture for the Gunners, who must win this in order to stay in touching distance of at least Tottenham and the rest. 

Manchester United have also not had the most confident of starts but things start to be clicking just at the right time for them as the two lethal strikers Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney seem to have formed an excellent partnership for the Red Devils. It will be extremely difficult to beat the Red Devils at their home and Arsenal have not had good results at Old Trafford of late. However, if Tottenham can beat Manchester United at Old Trafford, there is no reason why Arsenal could not do the same. If the Gunners do play at their best, there is no reason why they cannot manage a win at such a tough place and should they can manage a win at Old Trafford, it will certainly do wonders to their confidence and could even kick-start their title challenge. 

In between the two league fixtures is a game against Reading in the Capital One Cup. Though it is not the most important competition, they should ensure that they win against Reading so that they can build on their confidence. Also that game could see the return of Wilshere, Sagna and Frimpong to the starting line-up for the Gunners for the first time this season and it will be a huge boost when these players return especially the first two. Also Wojciech Szczesny and Tomas Rosicky are not very far away but will not be available for any of these two weeks but when they both are fully fit as well, then Arsenal will certainly have a much stronger side with more creative options.

Can Rosicky produce his form of last season?
There is still a long way to go in this season but should they fail to recover from this defeat at Norwich in the next two weeks, it could have great implications on how their season could pan out. How the Gunners react to their defeat at Carrow Road will reflect their mental strength and could be very important over the course of the season. If they do react positively and go on a winning run following that defeat, then that defeat could well mark the turning point of the season but at the end, they could also fail to get out of their negativity and might fall very far behind early in the season.

They will certainly be having a stronger squad after 2 weeks considering that Theo Walcott, Wilshere, Gibbs and Sagna are all scheduled to return within that period. The likes of Szczesny, Diaby, Koscielny and Rosicky are also set to return within a month which will undoubtedly make Arsenal much stronger side for the rest of the season. If they can come out of these difficult two weeks with good results, then they can look forward to better things in the season. Wenger must be hoping that his team can recover strongly from the defeat and it is important that they finally stepped up to the occasion this season.