Have I ever said how much I like the Liberty stadium? I know, I have many times. It’s a modern stadium with large concourses and plenty of concessions stands but they designed it in such a way that it gives the feeling that you’re close to the field.
The only time I went to Liberty Stadium was the day that Nacho Monreal scored his first goal for Arsenal (17 March 2013). It was a crazy first goal, broken play, completely disorganized, which only goes to show that no matter how well you plan things, the randomness of football will sometimes be the difference.
Swansea will be well aware of the Chaos Theory of football as they are the team who lead the League in defensive errors with 11, they are also 2nd in the League in defensive errors leading to a goal while at home with 3. Swansea have also conceded the most big chances in home games with 22 and the second most very close range shots with 7.The result is that despite a not-so-bad record of shots for and against, Swansea have conceded the most goals in the League.
Swansea’s attack is also awful but they try to make up for all of this chaos with a semblance of order. Owing to the fact that they have Fernando Llorente, Swansea are 3rd in the League in key passes from crosses – getting the ball wide and crossing will be one of their main forms of attack. Routledge is a major outlet here for them with 0.7 key passes from crosses per game but Kyle Naughton adds almost the same threat from the right back position with 0.5 per game.
Where Swansea really shine, however, is on set plays. Here Gylfi Sigurdsson plays a major role. Swansea have one of the worst records for creating from open play, making just 5 goals this season at home. Instead, their goal threat at home comes from set plays where they have 7 goals already, 2nd best in the League. You’d think Llorente is the big threat and he is, but just two goals so far this season at home from set plays.
Arsenal will be tested from set plays, though the numbers of actual shots and goals allowed off these set plays by Arsenal are extremely low: just 13 shots conceded and one goal! Again, that’s in away games only but it’s still a much better record than we all probably expected.
Arsenal do struggle in possession in away games. They are #1 in turnovers due to poor touch with 14.2 per game. Of course Arsenal’s forwards are always going to turn the ball over more than any other player but what surprises is that Francis Coquelin made 1.8 unsuccessful touches per game along with getting dispossessed 1.3 times per game. His replacement, Ramsey makes fewer poor touches (1) but is dispossessed 2 times per game. The net result is a wash with both players averaging 3.1 combined turnovers per game. Granit Xhaka, to compare, only takes 0.9 poor touches per away day and is dispossessed 0.2 times per game.
Other notable error prone players are Gabriel who averages almost a full turnover per game from poor touch, which is utterly unacceptable from a center back. Another is Bellerin who is dispossessed 2 times per90 on average which means that while his touch is fine, he tends to hold on to the ball too much on away days. To put Bellerin’s dispossessed numbers in context, Giroud averages 2.1 per90 and Alexis 2.2 per90 and Aaron Ramsey, as usual, is the most profligate with the turnovers coughing up the ball 3.3 times p90.
Bellerin won’t be available for the match which means that Wenger will either start Jenkinson, Mustafi, or Gabriel on the right. In addition, Coquelin won’t be available for this match and that means Ramsey starting along side Xhaka because Elneny is away on ACON duty for Egypt.
In the good column, Arsenal lead the League in goals from open play with 33, 19 of which have come on away days (also leads the League). Most of this is down to Alexis Sanchez who leads the League in Key Passes from open play with 44. He also leads the League in key passes from open play in away games with 27.
In terms of attack prowess, Arsenal have conceded the second fewest big chances in away games with 9 and created the most big chances in away games with 19 (tied with Liverpool). Clearly, Arsenal are the team to beat in this game.
Swansea’s new boss, Englishman Paul Clement, will have his hands full tactically. Özil has recovered from his Christmas flu and should start this match. Wenger typically likes to use Özil as a line-breaker and space filler. When Wenger had Arteta, he would use the Spaniard’s excellent control in midfield to draw the opposition midfielders deep toward the Arsenal back line. Then Özil would pop up into space vacated by the opposition.
With Arsenal no longer a purely ball-retention side, Wenger now uses Alexis to play a similar decoy role. Alexis drops deep, collects, and creates space for others to move into. That could be either Özil or, when he’s playing, Ramsey. Giroud will almost certainly start at the point of the lance, so expect to see Alexis dropping, collecting, and trying to break lines with either a pass into space he just vacated or with a dribble into a dangerous area. That player will then be set up to cross to Giroud or take their own shot.
Swansea boss Clement is an unknown factor here. He hasn’t had much time to work with his new team and the first order of business must be to shore up the League’s worst defense if they are going to survive relegation. Arsenal’s poor possession stats in away games magnify the fan sense that Arsenal are vulnerable to high pressing teams that are willing to exchange energy for space. Whether Clement has his team prepared to do that or whether they will just sit in the low block is the question.
This isn’t a match they are supposed to win. If I was Swansea’s new manager, I might be tempted to set them up for the high press and roll the dice. For Wenger, his team also need to press high. Swansea’s defenders aren’t good with the ball and starving them of counter attacking service is crucial to keeping their players off the scoresheet.
Projected Arsenal starters:
Gabriel, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal
Lucas, Özil, Alexis