Good morning Gooners.
Before we get into the preview for this afternoon’s game, there are a couple of things I’d like to touch on quickly.
Today is the 11th death anniversary of an Arsenal legend, David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle, sadly taken away at the young age of 33. As a newer Gooner myself, Rocky played at Arsenal before my love affair with the club began. As such, I am not well placed to pay tribute to him. I will however recommend that you read two blogs which have touched upon the midfielder’s genius - Red & White Scarf AFC’s moving tribute here and Dave Seager’s look at homegrown players here. #RIPRocky.
The second is about the sad news emerging yesterday that Aston Villa’s Stiliyan Petrov has been diagnosed with acute leukaemia. Just as we are recovering from the shock of Fabrice Muamba’s brush with death, this news comes as a sickening blow to football fans. As a professional footballer however, we can be assured Stiliyan will receive the best possible medical attention. Let us hope he can pull through this very tough time, just as Fabrice has. #PrayForPetrov.
Well, onto the football today. At 3pm, Arsenal take on Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road, aiming to record an eighth straight league victory for the first since 2004.
The match day/time has a lot to do with the Gunners’ fortunes, or so the numbers will have you believe. Arsenal have played 8 matches at the Saturday/3pm slot this season, winning all 8 games, scoring 18 goals and conceding only 1 in the process. Except for conceding the goal, more of the same please.
In team news, Arsene Wenger has confirmed that Laurent Koscielny has recovered from the tendinitis injury which sidelined him against Villa. Whilst the Kos is included in the squad, I still believe it would be prudent not to play him today. The French defender is one yellow card away from earning a 2 match suspension, a card in this game would see him miss the crucial clash with City next Sunday. Johan Djourou filled in ably the last time around, and there’s no reason to doubt the Swiss defender will not repeat the same performane if given a chance today.
In his press conference yesterday, Le Boss touched on various issues; from tying up players contracts quickly to his views on Manchester City’s title bid. On the game at hand, he said:
I see us fighting like mad to win the game tomorrow, I don’t look further than that.
We are focused on QPR, believe me. We know that is always a tricky game for everybody and that is what is important to us. After that we focus on the next one and our capability to finish the season in a strong way depends on just how much we focus on every game.
In the reverse fixture at the Emirates on New Year’s Eve, Robin van Persie scored the winner in a 1-0 victory for the Arsenal. It was a time when Neil Warnock was still in charge at Loftus Road. It was also a time when all four Gunners full backs were out injured. It affected our potency in attack, and while we dominated possession (60%) and created good opportunities, the Hoops did make it difficult for us with a good defensive display.
After that game, our fortunes went down before they went up. We lost all three of our January league games, failing to pick up a single point during the first month of 2012. Since the beginning of February though, we are unbeaten in 8 league games and have won 7 in a row, overhauling Spuds in third. Confidence is high, team spirit is strong, and the Arsenal swagger is visible in the performances once more.
For QPR, their league position has worsened by one place since the arrival of Mark Hughes. The Rs were 17th when the Welshman took over. Now, they are firmly in the race to avoid relegation, sitting in 18th spot and with difficult matches against the top sides still to come. To add to their misery, their most potent attacking force Djibril Cisse, is suspended after seeing a red card against Sunderland, his second from just five league games.
Tactically, Mark Hughes seems to prefer playing a 4-4-2 formation in most games. With Cisse suspended, Jamie Mackie may well partner Bobby Zamora up top. But considering Arsenal will try to control play with good possession in midfield, I expect Hughes to pack the midfield area and try to stop the visitors from dictating play. In that case, Mackie would play just behind Zamora, and will be expected to help with defensive duties as much as offensive ones.
Although his recent form is quite patchy, Joey Barton should return in the QPR starting eleven, not only because of his experience but also because of his propensity to get Arsenal players sent off. On the other side, Shaun Wright-Phillips may be given a start, although I think Mark Hughes will prefer to go with Adel Taarabt, the Moroccan attacking midfielder is skillful enough to create something from nothing.
Arsenal have confidence surging through the veins at present and will be likely to line up in a more attacking 4-3-3 formation. The wingers will drop deep to get the ball if required and also to press when Rangers have it. Lately, Arsene Wenger has preferred to play a tighter 4-4-2 away from home, as against Everton, but the Gunners will fancy breaking the opposition defence down with pace and directness on the wings.
Probable starting XIs:
Szczesny/ Sagna - Djourou - Vermaelen - Gibbs / Song - Arteta - Rosicky / Walcott - Rvp - Gervinho
Kenny / Young - Onuoha - Ferdinand - Taiwo / Taarabt – Derry - Mackie – Diakite -Barton / Zamora
Arsenal should remain unchanged from the Villa game. Although I would be tempted to give Alex Oxlde-Chamberlain a run out, Arsene Wenger is rightly concerned about over-using the precocious youngster in his first season and usually prefers the greater experience offered by Gervinho at the start.
Personnel notwithstanding, Arsenal will try to continue the same modus operandi which has been so successful recently i.e. press high up the pitch, control possession in midfield, move the ball at a good tempo, get the full backs involved in attacks, and create openings by stretching the QPR defence.
In midfield, the Gunners should have enough quality to retain possession for long periods of time. While Taarabt is good going forward and can trouble the defence, both he and Barton have average pass completion percentages of 75% and 68% respectively. This suggests that even on occasions when QPR have possession on the wings, 1 out of 4 passes will fail to find a teammate.
In attack, Robin van Persie will pose a constant threat to Nedum Onuoha and Anton Ferdinand. Both young defenders are prone to making the odd positional mistake. At full back, Luke Young and Taye Taiwo will be severely tested by the pace of Walcott and the directness of Gervinho. Bacary Sagna will link up with Theo Walcott on the right, and Kieran Gibbs will maraud down the left; both full backs recently showing their appetite for the odd goal.
In defence, we seem to have sorted out our long-standing problem of dealing with long balls and set pieces. Rangers will be forced to try the more direct route if our pressing is successful, but Vermaelen and Djourou should win most aerial duels. For a tall central striker, Bobby Zamora wins only 37% of aerial duels, far less than the 57% won by Vermaelen and an impressive 68% won by Djourou.
There is one area that Arsenal must concentrate on; maintaining discipline and professionalism.
The combination of Mark Hughes as the opposing manager, Joey Barton as their captain and the card-happy Mike Dean as the referee, requires Arsenal players to be cautious in dealing with any aggravation or perceived injustice. Alex Song and Gervinho have already faced suspensions on account of tangling with Barton early in the season. The Gunners can ill afford any suspension to key personnel at this stage of the campaign.
In summary, although QPR will certainly put up a fight as they look to stave off relegation in front of their home support, Arsenal’s superior quality will allow the Gunners to dominate the game for long periods. The home teams’ best chance will be to defend well, try to catch the visitors on counter attacks and hope for some luck.
I am going for a conservative 2-0 result for us. Although if the Gunners are in the mood and QPR is chasing the game in the second half, I can see this being a right thrashing; a 4-0 rout not out of the question.
Enjoy the game, here’s hoping tomorrow’s match review comes with 3 points safely tucked inside. #COYG!