The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Thoughts on Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal

October 6, 2014

wilshere cesc

“I wanted to go from A to B and somebody confronted me,” said Arsene Wenger after the game which, if he was talking about the match, would have been a fairly accurate description; instead he was talking about the touchline kerfuffle with Jose Mourinho which added an unsavoury side story to a well-contested, if a little scrappy encounter.

Chelsea won 2-0 thanks to goals from Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, providing two moments of, well, moments if not outstanding quality in a largely even match-up. Yet Chelsea have that extra edge, that killer instinct that Arsenal perhaps do not possess. Or if they do, was not utilised properly. And that, in a sense, was the main source chagrin for Arsenal fans.

Whenever these two sides play, talk is always of the gameplans and here, no side wanted to give anything away (though Arsenal did when Laurent Koscielny felled Hazard for the penalty). Yet Chelsea’s discipline was encased in a system they understand. Positional changes are minimal, most likely counter-specific, and the strategy coherent. Arsene Wenger chose again with their big-game 4-1-4-1 which is not incorrect in its thinking, but can be undermined by where he selects the player.

Here, he wasn’t far off the correct balance – feasibly, all he had to do was switch Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez around. As a result, with both players playing on their “opposite” side, Arsenal’s play was often too central. Of course, this is how Arsenal often play, looking to create overloads and then quickly switch play with a quick, penetrate burst across the line or from deep – though in this case there was nobody to make those runs. Wilshere actually got through a couple of times through neat interplay – and nearly did again but Santi Cazorla shot – but his touch let him down. Danny Welbeck, on the other hand, played curiously more deep-lying than he did against Galatasary, often picking up the ball in the gap just off the two Chelsea centre-backs.

The difference in performance (forgetting opponent quality for a moment) showed how dependent instinct players, nay creative ones too, are on the energy and quickness of thought of those around them. In the aforementioned match, Arsenal had Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stretching the pitch on one side and Ozil’s lateral movement, starting behind Welbeck, making Arsenal fluid. With Ozil starting wide right against Chelsea but never sticking there, it changed the dynamic of how he creates, instead of going inside-to-out; he was going the other direction without any real opposite movement. By switching Alexis to the right, perhaps Arsenal could have had that vertical pentration they sorely needed. In any case, despite his creative performance against Galatasaray, Alexis’s best position is probably on the right where he can burst behind as he’s not really the dribbler that he’s made out to be playing on the left.

The lack of runners exacerbated the issue of the 4-1-4-1 because while Arsenal passed the ball neatly at times, it felt like cautiousness in possession for the sake of it. The joy with Arsenal is how the ball gets from A to B, often by getting off at stops C, D E and Z in the process: the new system, however, seems have a stifling effect on how well Arsenal move the ball – almost as much as Chelsea’s systematic fouling in this match. Nevertheless, Arsenal can still remain optimistic about this season – or more appropriately rather, this team – it just needs the right configuration, because there is an exciting blend in this side. The Gunners attempted 50 take-ons, a staggering amount considering that it was against Chelsea, a side known for their eagerness to close down spaces quickly. Perhaps, the extra dribbles Arsenal attempted were as a result of Chelsea’s tight marking, but at the same time, it shows a daring on the ball that Arsenal have lacked in the recent past.

Looking at the other end of the pitch, the difference between Arsenal and Chelsea might have been summed up by Cesc Fabregas. Not because of the sumptuous pass he provided for Diego Costa for the 2nd goal, but because he delivered what was probably his most disciplined performance in any shirt – annoying it just happened to be for Jose Mourinho and significantly, against his former club. In front of him, Oscar and Diego Costa worked extremely hard in a pressing structure which was more coherent than Arsenal. Jack Wilshere talked about the “5-second rule” Arsenal have when they lose the ball or force the defenders back towards their own goal, though it was visibly evident that whenever he or Alexis pressed up the pitch, the other players didn’t follow – or at least not with the required intensity. On the whole, Arsenal moved up and down the pitch well last season, largely because they played 10metres or so deeper therefore it didn’t require as much fine-tuning.

For Chelsea’s first goal, Arsenal seemed to be stuck a little in between whether to press or stand-off. Granted, The Gunners had just lost possession through Alexis thus they didn’t have enough time to recover but a more coherent strategy would have seen Arsenal get tighter and shuffle across. If it was a hard goal to deal with because Chelsea reacted quickly and Hazard is majestic in this form sort of form, jinxing away from defenders, it showed also how wingers can profit from space in between the full-backs and to the side of the holding midfielder (usually called the half-space). Ozil often exploits this space brilliantly when he plays as a no.10 by drifting wide and then combining quickly with the winger. Arsenal lost that with him starting out wide and he often had to come to the other side to combine. In the moments Arsenal got through, Jack Wilshere was the one who became the spare man and at times, overwhelmed Nemanja Matic.

It didn’t happen enough however; Chelsea snuffed out the space well, especially the Serbian holding midfielder, who didn’t really impose himself due to his sheer physicality but by just “being there.” He has an almost OCDish quality about his defending, a preoccupation with the orderly which is a bit like “shall I go there? Of course I must go there; otherwise our structure won’t make a perfect 4-2-3-1.” Flamini was more eye-catching and busy but while his best work is usually around the edge of the box, he can be a bit standoffish when the ball is in midfield. Arteta, on the other hand, when he plays, is great when he gets tight and presses the opponents in the centre of the pitch, but not so good going backwards and forced to use his pace. It goes without saying, a modern, dynamic midfielder is one which would improve Arsenal massively. If that sounds a little demanding – because who is out there that fits the profile? – that’s the margins Arsenal are judged on in the top matches. And it was margins that made the difference between Chelsea and Arsenal. With only two shots on target posted in the whole match, Chelsea scored with both of them.

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Danny Welbeck shows finishing touch

October 2, 2014

welbeck finish

It was all Danny Welbeck could do not to chip it. Bearing down on goal with the goalkeeper hotfooting it off his line, Welbeck’s thoughts would have turned to his miss on his debut against Manchester City – or that chance for Manchester United against Bayern Munich – when he decided to chip the goalkeeper. Had he pulled it off, we would have been talking about an audacious piece of skill, a moment of daring that epitomised this precocious talent. Indeed, when he chipped Joe Hart, the goalkeeper was flummoxed by the shot though the ball bounced excruciatingly back off the post. Sometimes, however, the chip is the best option. Instead, against Borussia Dortmund, with the score at 0-0, Welbeck hesitated ever so slightly and sent a tame shot wide of Roman Weidenfeller’s post. Arsenal would later lose 2-0.

Thankfully, Danny Welbeck would make no mistake when the opportunity to chip presented itself again this time against Galatasaray, and with the confidence of two goals already behind him, he poked the ball calmly over the onrushing goalkeeper. “The third goal was probably the hardest because I was stretching for it,” said Welbeck after the 4-1 win. “I’ve been in that position a few times, trying to chip the keeper. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t.”

It’s this bouncebackability that Arsene Wenger preaches from his strikers, and why Welbeck endears so much to him because he believes finishing is a learned skill tha can be practiced on the training ground – while Welbeck already does everything else well – and you only worry when the team is not creating the chances. Against Galatasaray, Arsenal were clinical, scoring from the first real chance that fell to them, and with each goal Welbeck (and Alexis Sanchez), showed real composure to tuck the ball away.

Understandably, it’s taking a while for Welbeck to develop this side of his game and it shows the short-sightedness of football that Welbeck was previously judged so harshly on his goalscoring record. Ahead of him he had Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, two strikers who had to adapt their game from being attracted to the ball too much from when they were younger to developing a blood-thirsty appetite for finding the back of the net. Wenger calls this instinct “animalistic.” As Rooney explains, he did “too much running,” when he was younger, “and then didn’t have the energy to get into goalscoring positions in the box. I’m a cleverer player now and know when to run into the box and when not to, and as a result more chances have come my way and I’ve scored a lot more goals for the club.”

Welbeck probably fell victim to this demand at Manchester United where, because he had all the tools to be an explosive striker, goalscoring was expected to come naturally. It’s this sort of paradox modern striker have to juggle because although they are asked to do more – to drop off opposing centre-backs, hold the ball up and make runs behind, whilst pressing aggressively – they have to also find a way to be more economical with such movement. Speaking at a UEFA coaching conference, Roy Hodgson remarked:  “I wonder how this will evolve. There is a danger that this job will become too lonely and too difficult. In many cases, the striker is not just expected to act as a target and to hold the ball up, but also to do a lot of chasing and to work hard as the first line of defence.” Former Juventus coach coach Antonio Conte cited Atletico Madrid’s Mario Mandžukić as an example of the new breed of striker who possesses extraordinary athletic qualities and is, as he put it, “defensively aggressive and committed with a selfless attitude towards defensive duties.”

The after effect of this quest for the apotheosis is that it has created three layers of strikers where once there were two: the best and the rest. Now, is the age of the super striker*: a level beyond what would normally be considered great and out of reach of the rest making them look like footballing Ali Dias; where the achievements of a select few, namely Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, have distorted the market. Where once scoring 20+ goals a season was considered the gold standard, now it is the bare minimum expected of a top-level striker.

Welbeck’s hat-trick against Galatasaray goes some way to proving that he’s not such a bits-and-pieces purchase that some had suggested when Wenger splashed £16million out on him in the summer transfer window. Instead, he’s an amalgamation of a number of different types of strikers. He can play within any tactical framework, whether as wide forward in Arsenal’s 4-3-3 or as a spoiling presence just behind another striker, picking the pockets of opponent playmakers with his long legs. Or more traditionally, he can function as a poacher or a target man.

Indeed, Welbeck in the past has been likened to Nwankwo Kanu by Sir Alex Ferguson which is good news for Wenger whose fetish has been to clone a more mobile version of the Nigerian striker. Indeed, taking account of the tall, rangy strikers he has brought in during the last 15 years, you can almost chart the evolution as a sort of linear sequence starting with Kanu and ending, hopefully, with Welbeck.

When Wenger signed Emmanuel Adebayor he labelled him as like “Kanu with pace”; with Sanogo he said that “he has similar strengths, strong of body, but as well technical skills.” Welbeck meanwhile, has been described as having the “perfect style to play through the middle.” In between, Marouane Chamakh and Olivier Giroud can be seen as aberrations in the perfect genetic line: an over-indulgence in one quality – technical ability – over the other key component of Arsenal’s play: mobility.

Of course, Kanu, in the Wild West days of the Premier League was an extremely artful striker with a deceptive turn of pace, but he probably veered slightly too much to the side of maverick talent. Adebayor, on the other hand, never really won over the fans with his languid style whilst Sanogo is the opposite; endearing to fans after his performance in the FA Cup final as a defence-stretching-forward scuffler creating space for Arsenal’s other more imaginative players to play.

Danny Welbeck is more rounded: a lovely mover around the football pitch who principally tends to float towards the left-hand side, though when he does get the big chances, it usually happens from the right. That shows you the measure of the player that he is because Welbeck’s game is all about sudden little bursts – what coaches call “high intensity sprints” – be it closing down opponent defenders in order to force a mistake or make darting, arrowing runs into the box. His goals against Galatasaray showed how his timing is getting better and the improved understanding he has with his teammates. His hat-trick goal to dink the ball over the ‘keeper was probably his best although the second goal was typical Welbeck: robbing the central defender of the ball, shrugging him off with a dismissive swat of the arm and then finishing Henry-like into the bottom corner.

The other impressive facet to Webeck’s play has been his link-up which is tidy and accurate. His pass success is 86% in the league, a massive improvement on Olivier Giroud’s erratic 68% from last season. Giroud, though, contributed to Arsenal’s play due to his neat flicks and tricks bringing others into play, often acting as a wall to play passes off. Welbeck is a bit different, more likely to end up at the end of moves, but when he drops off too he can be very effective, helping the way Arsenal like to play when they set up triangles on one side on the pitch, then switching the play quickly to the other side. He did this very well against Aston Villa, in particular stoking up an intelligent partnership with Mesut Ozil with both seemingly never too far away from each other. In the 3-0 win they combined 18 times, and two of those times led to goals. Against Galatasary, the combinations were more varied: Welbeck was slipped in by Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain for two of the goals. The other was from a Galatasaray mistake. Each time Welbeck finished with great aplomb.

 

*The most interesting aspect of the super striker is that they come in all shapes and sizes due to the prevalence of the single striker system. With most top level teams playing a variant of the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, the strikers’ strengths (and weaknesses) can be balance out in a system that covers all bases. For example, in Barcelona’s treble wining side of 2012, Pep Guardiola used David Villa as the more traditional poacher-like player, making runs behind, but he played mainly on the left while Pedro stretched play in the other side. Behind them they had a myriad of ball players that could find them easily but the chief creator and goal-getter was Lionel Messi who, as a false 9, was now given the freedom to pop up wherever he liked.

The most prominent super strikers are Messi, Ronaldo and possibly Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez. Aiming to join them or were once in the list but slipped out are Robin van Persie, Neymar, Diego Costa, Radamel Falcao, Mario Mandzukic, Edinson Cavani and Robert Lewandowski.

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Alexis Sanchez can take centre stage for Arsenal

July 17, 2014

alexis

In his book, Lonely at the Top, a biography of Thierry Henry, Philippe Auclair reveals the psyche of one of Arsenal’s greatest players, although in getting there, the troubled image he has in his native France. In particular is the fascinating account of how Henry ended up at The Gunners, having become an increasingly maligned figure in his country despite winning the World Cup, and having attempted to manufacture moves early in his career to Real Madrid, then to Arsenal.

Henry was desperate to move to North London to rekindle a fleeting relationship he had with then coach, Arsène Wenger, who threw him in for his professional debut for AS Monaco at the age of seventeen amid in-fighting between board members, injuries and bad form. Back then, in the summer of 1994, Wenger had the chance to manage Bayern Munich. However, depending on which report you read, Wenger either resisted the corporate German giants, or that the move was blocked by AS Monaco, who in comparison, were not so much the tiny family-owned business, but if that business operated the only shop-front in a 50-storey building and had its own car-park. And that family was the royal family. In any case, Wenger stayed in the hope that Monaco would grant him a free-hand in teambuilding. A game after handing Henry his debut, however, the Frenchman was sacked.

Despite that, Wenger continued charting Henry’s progress whilst keeping an eye on France’s other youth prospects and it was in one of his trips to follow Les Bleuets that he told Henry that he was “wasting his time on the wing and would have a different career as a centre-forward.” Suffice to say, it would take a nightmarish half a season at Juventus – playing sometimes even as a wing-back – for Henry to realise how right Wenger was. “I won the World Cup as a winger,” Henry says in Lonely at the Top. “I’d already been in the national team, and Arsène was telling me I could have another career as a centre-forward. It was difficult for me to understand.”

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Nobody knows the full extent of the conversation that Alexis Sanchez had with Arsène Wenger before signing for Arsenal, but it is likely Wenger seduced Sanchez by offering him some assurances of his future position, namely by promising to play him up front.  Sanchez, though, when pushed on what was said was unwilling to give an exact answer, possibly because of the language barrier, saying that they only talked about using him in a number of positions, but also possibly because he’s been here before, as settling on his best position has been a bone of contention throughout his career.

In the youth sides, Sanchez was an attacking midfielder, given a free role to dazzle with his quick feet and vast array of tricks. “The first time I saw him I said he had no limits,” says Nelson Acosta, the manager who first drafted Sanchez, as a 16-year-old, into his first team at Cobreloa. “He has everything. Normally in young boys there is something missing, be it skill, or vision, or the ability to beat a man. Not in Alexis. That is very rare.”

Soon Sanchez would be snapped up by Udinese although he would have to wait a while before playing for the first team, twice being shipped out on loan to sharpen his skills. When he came back to Udinese, he took a while to get going, shunted out to the right wing before some genius decided it was best move him back to the centre where he first caught the eye. Here Sanchez flourished playing as a kind of second-striker-winger hybrid – a fantasista in the loosest sense – behind the celestial Antonio Di Natale, scoring 12 league goals and notching 10 assists. His exerts caught the eye of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, who was ever looking for ways to perfect his Barcelona side, and the prospect of dovetailing both Sanchez and Messi was a scintillating one. The first sign of what they could do together was in El Clasico, when Sanchez was used as a poacher in a 4-3-3 and with half-an-hour played, Messi slipped him through with a delicious through-pass. Sanchez didn’t take long to compose himself, slotting the ball into the bottom corner in a soaking wet night in Madrid. It would be the last time, however, Messi would play second fiddle to somebody and for the next three seasons, Sanchez would almost exclusively ply his trade on the right-flank.

It’s not as if Sanchez failed to perform with his distinction in that role: his darting runs off the flank into the box would become a key feature of how Barcelona would play and in his final season, he would score 19 goals, yet he has always felt as something of an interloper, an incorrigible cog in a perfectly oiled system. The way Barcelona play, where the passing is low risk but high percentage, and where opposition defences are set, it requires a sureness to your play that Sanchez was only just beginning to get to grips with. Indeed, if you look at his underlying numbers, you realise just how much his creative instincts were dulled: key passes are at 1.7 per game whilst he only completed 36 dribbles all season. (To put that into account, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Jack WIlshere completed more. It’s likely, when given a central role at Arsenal, those two parts would become a key factor of the team’s play). On the flip side however, his shooting and assists numbers are excellent.

 

Created by Ted Knutson (follow @mixedknuts)

Created by Ted Knutson (follow @mixedknuts)

It was as if at times, his instincts were dulled, from once playing with the intrepidity of a leader of a street gang in a central role, cooking up ideas behind his angular forehead that you wouldn’t expect, his role was reduced to a ferreter and furrower, running up and down the flanks as if seeing the pitch as elaborate tunnels.

The trouble is, Sanchez always looked like a winger which in itself an achievement in an age where footballers are, at a certain level – below the very best and above the second rate – relatively indistinguishable in terms of athleticism and basic skills. And as Barney Ronay writes, that means “football has become more chess-like, more a matter of the location and exploitation of momentary weakness.” At Barcelona, where almost all outfield players are below six-feet, that problem was exacerbated because the whole team, even down to the goalkeeper, was viewed almost as an extension of the midfield. There was no need for specialist strikers (and defenders as Javier Mascherano would find out). Everybody’s relative skills were taken into account of how they would contribute to goals: Alexis was fast and an excellent dribbler therefore he would run into the box from the flanks.

Playing for the national side in the World Cup was a breath of fresh air. Used in an inside-right position with the freedom to move centrally, Sanchez was outstanding as Chile were agonizing knocked-out on penalties by Brazil, though his best play happens to be just before the World Cup started when he produced three scintillating assists in a 3-2 comeback win against Egypt. Here, he showcased everything that he came to promise when he first burst onto the stage; his impudent dribbling ability, the vision to see a pass and power from deep. Put simply, it was Messi-esque. Perhaps it’s as Wenger once said; that by deploying a central player wide as Barcelona did, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.”

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When Alexis Sanchez joins the first team back from his holidays, the expectations will undoubtedly be high. At that cost, at around £32m, he certainly has to be a game-changer. Certainly, it changes the way Arsenal play if indeed he is deployed as a lone striker, because in the exact opposite way Olivier Giroud brings others into play with his neat touches and flicks, Sanchez, by running the channels, sometimes away from play, can create space for the ball-players to play.

For me he has the three ingredients to play up front that all Arsenal strikers have possessed in the past: 1) the spontaneity to produce something out of nothing; 2) the ability to run behind and stretch defences and 3) excellent dribbling in 1v1 situations. However, there’s a psychological adjustment he would have to make, maybe more so than the physical, as now defenders will be breathing down his neck. For the most part of his career, Sanchez has generally tended to play facing the goal, although having said that, it’s an adjustment he should easily make as protecting the ball, then twisting and turning away from markers is one of his strengths. Indeed, that’s probably why he endears so much to Wenger. Like Henry, who others didn’t see as a central striker (most when at Juventus where Carlo Ancelotti admitted it was one of his great regrets), Sanchez is an all-rounder, capable of dropping deep or pulling wide, and then, as quick as a flash, able to change the emphasis of an attack with his one-on-one dribbling and explosive running. Indeed, that’s exactly what makes Arsenal dynamic: when they’ve got their back to goal, and then suddenly they spin away from markers and look to play the next ball forward. Alexis Sanchez could play a central role in any success Arsenal have next season.

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Seven Lessons from the 2013-14 Season

May 24, 2014

wenger bottle

First lesson: Improved Understanding in Attack

In an intriguing tale from Ancient Chinese philosophy, Butcher Ding was summoned by his village leader to perform a task that overwhelmed his fellow butchers who seemed to possess the same level of blade wielding skills; he had to sacrifice an ox as part of a ritual to consecrate a sacred bell. Unfazed by the task at hand, Ding went about cutting up the ox with nonchalant ease. When an astonished village chief demanded an explanation, Ding reveals, “The secret is to not approach the problem with your eyes, but with your spirit.” Novices like us probably won’t be able to entirely comprehend Butcher Ding’s methods but it is said that Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud offered similar explanations when asked about their wonder goal against Norwich City. (Though Wilshere supplied the final touch, can it really be counted as his goal solely?).

There are two fundamental requirements to breakdown parked buses; either depend on players to get past opponents through pace and dribbling ability or depend on fast circulation and understanding between players. Arsene Wenger is the type of manager who relies on his players’ combination play to break down defences and it’s quite fair to conclude the spontaneous understanding between the players reached its peak this season. The first half of the season saw some breathtaking moves from Arsenal with Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud combining like brothers having a kick around in the backyard. The French striker did an admirable job with his back to the goal, letting the midfielders create play by knocking passes off him.

For the second part of the season, Arsenal had been missing those runs from deep (from Ramsey) that glue Arsenal’s passing game together. Because without somebody breaking into space, who have Arsenal’s myriad of ball players got to pass it to? Instead, play in that period would look soporific, lacking urgency and easy to pick off. Indeed, the way Arsenal play, bumping passes off each other, it requires little triggers so that the players know when to move their passing game up a gear. Ozil is brilliant at that, moving quietly into space, trading a few innocuous passes, always with his head up waiting for the moment to increase the tempo and his team-mates seem to feed off that. Ditto Ramsey’s runs from deep.

To play truly great attacking football, a blind instinctive awareness – or “blind understanding” as Wenger calls it – of one’s teammates is fundamental and at moments this season Arsenal played attacking football of the highest quality.

Second Lesson: Is Mertesacker-Koscielny the best?

Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny complement each other perfectly; Koscielny is the fast and aggressive man marker while Mertesacker is the solid presence who sweeps behind; Koscielny is the forward thinking instigator while Mertesacker is one of the safest distributors around, etc. The partnership has had an appreciable season and has contributed immensely to achieving the second highest number of clean sheets in the Premier League, and conceding the fourth least number of goals. On average, the partnership averages 4.5 interceptions and 1.8 offside calls per game while only being dribbled past 0.7 times per game. Laurent Koscielny’s and Per Mertesacker’s  value in the attacking phase is unmatched as they top the passing accuracy charts with the former passing with 93.5% success and Mertesacker with 93%(he attempted 538 more passes) success. These rudimentary statistics don’t tell the complete story but keen observers will agree that the ‘Mertescielny’ is one of the best partnerships in the world.

Indeed, their partnership follows what has become a trend whenever teams play a back four: one of the centre-backs attack and the other covers. Against two strikers, though, the duo has shown how much their relationship has prospered because against such a set-up, both defenders have to mark (as opposed to playing against a lone-striker where Mertesacker will normally attack the ball and Koscielny drops back). As such, that puts demands on the holding midfielder to provide cover, which leads us on to the next lesson…

Third Lesson: Defensive Reinforcements

At the beginning of the season, the signing of Mathieu Flamini seemed an astute one from Le Boss as he performed dependably in his first few games. But as the season progressed, his weaknesses became apparent and playing him alongside Mikel Arteta only magnified them. In attack, Flamini offers almost nothing other than safe passing (91% success) and decent running, which means going backwards, he tried to compensate with his defensive positioning, which more than once, most notably against Southampton, Swansea has cost the team (click for image example). Mikel Arteta did slightly better than Flamini but his susceptibility to pace has become a prominent weakness of his. He has also been quite easy to dribble past, being bypassed 1.7 times per game. This figure is very much on the higher side as Flamini is dribbled passed less, at 0.4 times per game, with one particular weakness of Arteta is that he allows opponent midfielders to blitz past him in counters far too easily. That figure, though, chimes with what his game is about: Arteta loves to press up the pitch, looking to win the ball back quickly, an underrated trait of his. Flamini on the other hand brings hustle but his tendency is to drop deeper and cover spaces.

Another defensive midfielder would be imperative, particularly with Bacary Sagna leaving – one who slots in between the centre-backs in the build up to help better utilize the full backs as they can be important weapons to breakdown packed defences. Arteta’s distribution skills are better than he is given credit for (although his passing can be slightly on the slower side at times) but a defensive midfielder with better defensive positioning would help improve Arsenal’s defensive stability.

Fourth Lesson: Aaron Ramsey is the man

This is the most obvious lesson of the seven. Aaron Ramsey had a blistering first half of the season when he was our best player by miles. Then he got injured for a while before coming back to deliver top four in the premier league and an FA Cup. Last season he was praised for his reliable performances alongside Arteta, where he combined intelligent running and an unrivalled work rate to become an important member of the team. This season saw him transform into an insanely confident footballer with outrageous skills as he went on an almost unstoppable run where he kept scoring, assisting and embarrassing opponents much to the joy of the Gunners faithful. Arsene Wenger kept reiterating Aaron Ramsey’s hunger to improve (he seems to have that Thierry Henry-like obsession about football) and this has seen him become the best player in our team. In the FA Cup final against Hull City, one could see Aaron Ramsey trying hard to force the winner in extra time. Despite a few improbable attempts from long range, he kept trying and eventually scored and it is this quality of delivering in decisive moments that has proved vital for Arsenal many a times. It is almost like there is a ‘What? What else were you expecting?’ kind of brash arrogance (in a subtle way, if that is possible) about him and it would be great if it rubs off on the team.

Image created by @Dorkkly

Image created by @Dorkkly Click to enlarge

Fifth Lesson: Mesut Ozil provided only a glimpse

Big things were expected from Mesut Ozil and he seemed to be on the right track as he scored thrice and assisted four times in his first seven games. Since then he has only three goals and seven assists and most have been swift to brand him a flop. To do so would be very harsh on the German playmaker as his real contribution to Arsenal’s possession play shouldn’t be judged just by his assists and goals scored statistics.

He was expected to play the ‘Bergkamp role’, playing behind Olivier Giroud to be at the end of moves. But Ozil’s duties lie slightly deeper as he is given the responsibility to dictate play and perform an important role in the build up. As Wenger says, “the quality of his passing slowly drains the opponent as he passes always the ball when you do not want him to do it. That slowly allows us to take over.” Thus, extra layers are added to Ozil’s worth to the side; he’s all at once, an attacking weapon, a master controller and a defensive force, allowing Arsenal to keep opponents at arm’s length, and luring them into a sense of comfort that is also complacent.

Ozil averages 63 passes per game (behind only Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey in the team), constantly peeling to either wings (his preferred control centre seems to be that channel off the centre towards the right wing) to try various angles and combinations. His combination with Aaron Ramsey has been one of the more fruitful ones and has played a substantial part in the latter’s rise. Arsene Wenger is confident that the German wizard would deserve a statue at the Emirates by the time he leaves Arsenal but Mesut Ozil will have to elevate his game by a notch to attain such levels. Everyone knows he can.

Sixth Lesson: Olivier Giroud requires competition

Whoscored.com rates Olivier Giroud as Arsenal’s second best player behind Aaron Ramsey. While that is a little farfetched, it shows Giroud has had an acceptable season as Arsenal’s Number One Striker™. Netting 18 times and providing 9 assists in 43 games is decent output for a forward but Giroud has that wildly irritating knack of going into a run where it looks exceedingly improbable for him to score.

His major assets are his link up play and aerial ability, although his combination can desert him at times due to a first touch which at its best, can be silky smooth like delicate fingers working up Chantilly lace or just plain awful. Arsene Wenger took a huge gamble by not bringing in strikers in the transfer window and he was forced to rely entirely on the Frenchman who was bound to be affected by fatigue. As the season wore on, it wasn’t necessarily his finishing skills that let Arsenal down but his propensity, as the lone striker, to play a little bit like a totem pole. That works when there are runners getting beyond him – Ramsey and Walcott are key – but often, it relies on moves being perfect and that’s not always possible. When Yaya Sanogo has deputised, though he has still yet to break his mark for the club, it shows what value a striker can add purely by running the channels – that means sometimes away from play – stretching defences and creating space for runners. Indeed, in the cup final, Giroud was probably the one who profited most from Sanogo’s presence, as this meant he was afforded the freedom to do what he’s unable to do when he plays up front on his own: run. It seems unlikely, unless he adds a mean streak to his game, that Sanogo will push Giroud hard for a starting spot in the near future, nor is a switch to a 4-4-2 system in the offing, meaning it is absolutely necessary to bring in a different type of striker to compete with Giroud.

Seventh Lesson: This team can play both ways

It comes as a surprise that Arsenal hasn’t topped the possession table (they’re fourth behind Southampton, ManchesterCity and Swansea) this season given that they’ve done so in each of the last three seasons. This season, Arsenal has conceded that extra bit of possession to maximize efficiency in ‘moments’. Fewer shots have been taken this season (13.8 compared to 15.7) and creating qualitatively better chances seems to have been the focus.

The trend in the Premier League this year has been not to press defences (Southampton being the exception; they’ve kept 58% possession on average mainly due to their ball winning mechanisms) but to forming two compact banks of four. Arsenal did the same last season and showed their prowess on the counter many a times, which makes it even more disappointing that Arsenal lost to Liverpool and Chelsea in that manner due to flawed strategy. It is apparent that this team has the personnel to execute both strategies effectively and Arsene Wenger has done reasonably well to juggle his approach midway games.

Follow Karthik on Twitter – @thinktankkv

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Have Arsenal become easier to press?

April 4, 2014

arsenal chelsea press

A great attacking performance is such that at first viewing, it seems inherently defensive. Take Liverpool’s 5-1 home win against Arsenal in February this season. It’s true that they looked like they could have scored with every chance such was the alarming regularity they got behind the Arsenal defence. But it was the swirling press of red shirts that was just as memorable, surrounding the Arsenal midfielders in possession and blocking potential passing lanes. And when they regained the ball, the pace and trickery of Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling et al. put The Gunners to the sword.

Great attacking teams don’t just throw caution to the wind when they go forward; effective attacking play is predicated on a solid defensive foundation which allows those players to flourish. It’s indicative of the way Liverpool worked as a team that their best defensive player wasn’t a member of the back four nor a central midfielder: it was Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian won 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions, but was most impressive was the way he filled in the gaps when players moved out of position. In fact, Liverpool’s system is all about little chain reactions: when one players moves, it activates the trigger for another to move into the space. What Coutinho did so well was to make Liverpool’s formation move from a 4-4-2 at various times, to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.

There are other such examples in the past of good defence aiding devastating attacking play. When Ajax beat Liverpool 7-3 in the European Cup over two legs in 1966, Bill Shankly peculiarly declared that “they were the most defensive team we have ever met.” Then there were the two famous 5-0 wins over Real Madrid: the first, by AC Milan in 1989, which put Arrigo Sacchi on the map; while in 2010, we remember mostly the way Barcelona kept the ball, in particular the controlling forces of Xavi and Messi, but just as important was the way they pressed their opponents, hunting in packs to win the ball back.

Indeed in Chris Anderson and David Sally’s The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong, they find, using statistical evidence, that keeping a clean sheet helps a team more than scoring lots of goals does. That’s what the basis was for Arsenal early season form, with Arsene Wenger telling Arsenal Player: “It’s very important for the confidence of the team that we have such a [defensive] stability. As I said many times, we are an offensive team, but you are only a good offensive team if you have a good defensive stability.”

Sadly, that assurance in defence has dissipated in recent matches, most crushingly when Arsenal were defeated 6-0 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The irony was that Wenger’s worst defeat waited until his 1000th match in charge of Arsenal. Still, The Gunners are in with an outside shot of the title, and have a great chance to break their nine-year trophy drought with the FA Cup but in my opinion, that owes much to the defence – which individually, is perhaps Wenger’s best for a long time. Those big defeats Arsenal suffered, against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, which have put a damper on their season, mainly originated from Arsenal frequently giving the ball away in midfield thus exposing the back four repeatedly.

For me, a large part of Arsenal’s vulnerability – that good players, like Aaron Ramsey, who Arsenal have missed massively, can alleviate – stems from the unique way they bring the ball out of defence. To understand that, first we must understand Wenger.

Explaining Arsene Wenger’s philosophy is a trickier task than at first it actually seems. It’s widely accepted that he’s an attacking coach but can that be distinguished from a coach that favours possession first? For example, his Arsenal side do not stretch the pitch as wide as other possession-orientated sides might; instead the Wenger way is to stretch the field vertically in the build up to avoid the press, and then drop a midfielder in to pick up the ball in the extra space. Other teams such as Barcelona – at the far end of the attacking-possession extreme – stretch the play horizontally, firstly by splitting the centre-backs and then dropping a midfielder in between.

Instead, the main focus for Wenger is on expressionism and autonomy, cultivated on the training ground by small-sided matches – games of 7v7 or 8v8 – to encourage better combination play. (Think about how, in the first-half in the 2-0 win against Crystal Palace, Lukas Podolski kept on drifting inside too early in the build up instead of, as he should have, hugging the touchline to open up space. It was later in the second-half, when he curbed his tendencies to get on the ball, that he attempted his first shots in the game).  The importance of possession is preached of course – Arsenal practice a drill called “through-play” whereby a team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively – but keeping the ball must have means: patience is only tolerated to an extent. Cesc Fabregas expands: “Wenger showed me a lot, but wouldn’t say ‘I want you to copy what I show you.’ He let me find by myself the player I was meant to be. Now whenever I have the ball I look to gain yards. This sense of verticality, it’s Wenger. He made me an attacking player.”

“Wenger always said to me: ‘Forward, Cesc, forward! Attack! Attack!’ From a young age I heard him say that. All the players he’s coached will tell you: the eyes must always look to the opponent’s goal. He didn’t really like spending training working on defensive strategies. What he loves is seeing his team take initiative and create chances.” And comparing Arsenal to Barcelona, Fabregas says: “Wenger didn’t really like it when we kept ball for long periods, he thought it counter-productive & sterile keeping the ball but not really doing anything with it (not attacking), he (Wenger) hated that. What (Wenger) loves is goals. For example, if at 3-0 up we could still score two more, he’d push us to do so. The Barca style is more composed. You have to string passes together. Bam. Calm. Bam. Calm. I had to adapt to team’s needs which are different from Arsenal. Here I must play as the coach wants and respect the philosophy of the team.”

This idea of verticality works against most sides as they tend to defend deep against Arsenal, and while that throws up problems of its own, Wenger is secretly happy to face those sides as it means Arsenal have most of the play. However, it can be a problem when teams play high up, as we have seen against Southampton, Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Liverpool to name the most troubling.

Wenger’s aware of this, but he places great faith on his two centre-backs to pass the ball out and one of the central midfielders, usually Mikel Arteta dropping in. He says: “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle. I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure. I am comfortable with that, although sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

What Arsenal do is, instead of opening the pitch horizontally to evade the press as other possession sides usually do (typically that means splitting the two centre-backs wider and dropping a midfielder in between or asking one of the midfielders to move laterally), they push the team up the pitch to create space in the middle of the pitch for one of the central midfielders to pick up the ball in extra space. The problem is when say Wilshere (who is not very good with the ball deep) or Arteta get the ball there, they’re often isolated and thus easy to dispossess. Often, they have to try and dribble their way out as Mesut Ozil was forced to when he was tackled in the build up to Liverpool’s 3rd goal. In fact, if you cast your mind back to the defeat 3 out of 5 of their goals came from Arsenal relinquishing possession meekly.

arsenal_pool

Arsene Wenger takes great stock in players who have the dexterity and close control to get out of tight situations, as he said recently when describing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s strengths in central midfield: “He has the sense of positional play and he has the qualities which you want to see in the modern game,” Wenger said. “He has that capability to break through because there is a lot of pressure in the modern game. So those players who have the ability to get out of that pressure are of course very important.”

If they don’t, then it can prove catastrophic as Ozil continually found against Liverpool when he dropped deep and instead, was forced to pass backwards or attempt to dribble through. Bear in mind that there is no right or wrong way – Liverpool have often been in uncompromising situations when they split their centre-backs – it depends on how well you execute your plans and Arsenal are better than most. And better teams are more likely to expose chinks, as Liverpool did and then Chelsea in their 6-0 win. Again, goals were relinquished through easy concession of possession in midfield, as Chelsea not only pressed up the pitch, but intelligently and structurally.

ozil liverpool

Ozil’s options are compressed as he opts to dribble past Henderson in an attempt to go forward instead of passing it backwards to Mertesacker or Arteta.

However, in the recent Champions League encounter against Paris Saint Germain, Chelsea tried to replicate the same tactics but frequently hit a brick wall. Why? Well, for one, they were without their master presser, Nemanja Matic, who is cup-tied in Europe, but the way Paris play under Laurent Blanc, it’s like a game-within-a-game they play at the back, taking risks with the ball in an attempt to draw the opposition out. Chelsea tried to press but each time they did, they were rebuffed either from brilliant close control, especially from Marco Verratti, or intelligent positional play from the Paris players, stretching the pitch horizontally, and then dropping a midfielder in the extra spaces to the side of Chelsea’s attackers so they couldn’t press effectively.

Arsenal could take some hints. For me, Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s foremost deep-lying midfielder, is fantastic at keeping Arsenal’s intensity high in matches where the team is on the front foot and can play in the opponent’s half; indeed, that’s how Wenger used him in the 4-1 win against Everton and 1-1 draw with Manchester City. But when the opponent forces him to play almost as a quarter-back, he can be easily nullified. What Arsenal need to do is offer more rotation; when one of the central midfielders drop deep to pick the ball up, the other pushes up so that it’s harder to mark. Indeed, that’s what Aaron Ramsey did so well before his injury, often out-passing own teammates and the opponents’, so it’s suffice to say that how Arsenal cope with high pressure also depends on the personnel available.

Then there’s the intricate, almost one-paced play Arsenal play. At times this season, it’s been exhilarating: the team goals against Sunderland and Norwich are some of the best I have seen and that burgeoning understanding can only get better with time and a full complement of healthy players. But the statistics also say this is probably the worst of Wenger’s sides at keeping the ball, dropping to fifth in the Premier League for average possession per game at 56%, down from the last three seasons of 60%+. Of course, this is partly a purposeful ploy from Wenger, implanting a pragmatic side to Arsenal’s game, as they are more willing to drop off and soak up pressure, gradually working a foothold in the game and taking the chances that come. However, it’s also hard to ignore that they now take four less shots per game and concede one more shot on average per game than they have in the past few seasons. Is it a strategic fault that Arsenal have or is it the players that account for the drop-off?

There’s an argument that Arsenal also lack enough players with the change of pace and direction that has been the standard of Wenger sides in the past. Chiefly, that has been levelled at striker Olivier Giroud who it is said could run the channels more, thus opening space for the attacking players behind him. Giroud, while his link-up play brings others into play, is mainly static, exclusively playing in between the two centre-backs and as such Arsenal’s play can look predictable, and it relies on moves being perfect.

Indeed, it’s even arguable that Arsenal don’t use him enough as a target man to bring more variety into their play – or rather that they can’t because his ball retention is wildly inconsistent. It’s more convenient (and frustrating as well) to think of Giroud as an extension of the midfield, another pass before Arsenal eventually get inside the box.

One must also consider the psychological factor in appraising whether Arsenal are more susceptible to the press. Because so much of Arsenal’s play is predicated on passing the ball well and playing attractive football, thus creating a perception of superiority that is often enough to overwhelm teams lower down. But against the top sides the players (and the manager) seem so anxious to make a statement,* that when things are not going their way, they can crack –and badly – from which there is no fallback position. Paul Hayward of The Telegraph calls this a “conviction deficit”. In that sense, Arsenal needs not just strong individuals, but technical leaders (players like Xabi Alonso, who sets the tempo, ideologue for Real Madrid) or more damningly even, a more robust footballing strategy beyond merely “expressing” yourself.

*Think back to when, before the 1-0 defeat to Manchester United, Mesut Ozil saidwe are going to Old Trafford to have fun – and that is why we are going to win.” What we saw instead was a very timid Arsenal performance, visibly uncertain about the best way to break down a defensive United side.

This can also tie in with Arsenal’s vulnerability to the high press because players are not sure where to move on the pitch to evade the pressure. Above all, though, it seems that what we need to see most to alleviate this flaw is a more confident Arsenal, one with real relief belief in the way they play – and of course, their best players fit and available together.

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Difference in possession philosophy defines Bayern Munich’s approach against Arsenal

February 20, 2014

Arsenal FC Bayern

- Kroos’s excellent pass set up the key moment in the match
- Bayern Munich’s “sterile” domination a by-product of their technical superiority
- Wenger needs to improve his side’s ball-retention to really kick on

In the end, Arsenal’s Champions League aspirations were cut down to size by one glorious pass by Toni Kroos. The Bayern Munich midfielder, picking the ball up 10-yards outside the penalty box, lifted it over a static Arsenal defence who could not help but stand and watch, as if somebody had stopped time and simply placed the ball in the air and restarted time again. Arjen Robben, who initially played the pass to Kroos, was alive to the opportunity and pounced on the give-and-go, trapping the ball superbly and inducing Wojciech Szczesny into a foul. David Alaba missed the subsequent penalty but it was clear, having seen out Arsenal’s early storm, that the game would turn on that sending off and that one superb moment of vision from Kroos.

It’s not that Arsenal didn’t have the quality to get back into the game but that piece of inventiveness in a way, already highlighted the technical edge that Bayern held over Arsenal, at least at face value. It’s true that Arsene Wenger’s side could harbour much regret from the 2-0 defeat, especially from the way they started the game and then should have had the lead when on eight-minutes Mesut Ozil horribly messed up from the penalty spot. Still, Arsenal’s gameplan was working superbly for the first 15-20 minutes, unsettling Bayern on the ball and breaking quickly. They had lots of joy down the right, especially with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and then the targeted flick-ons from Yaya Sanogo and Bacary Sagna. But then, the game starting to settle into an ominous pattern: Bayern Munich increasingly began to monopolise possession and play the game outside Arsenal’s box. There were sporadic moments to attack after that but the crucial thing for Arsenal was that there were chances on the break; something which was taken away from Arsenal after the red-card before half-time. (To put into context how the game was taken away from Arsenal in the second-half, Bayern Munich completed 494 passes after the break. By comparison Arsenal managed just 38).

Technically, this Bayern Munich side is probably somewhere in between the two ball-hogging Barcelona sides which entertained Arsenal at the Emirates in 2010 & 2011, and the Bayern side which Arsenal faced last year. Indeed, in those matches, those teams found out that they couldn’t dominate The Gunners for the full ninety-minutes and as such, there was valid reason here for Arsenal to harbour great regret.

Yet, it was Bayern Munich’s superior technical quality – something that’s ingrained in their mentality much deeper than just being able to pass the ball accurately – which allowed them to assume the tie away from Arsenal.

In the past, Wenger has talked about this as sterile domination (most recently he has said this about Southampton, saying that their possession, in Arsenal’s 2-0 win in November, was an “illusion”); or in other words, passing the ball for passing sake. But for those sides, sterile domination isn’t an aim: it’s a by-product of their voraciousness to be better than the rest at manipulating the ball. In that sense, it’s a grave error for Wenger to continue dismissing the necessary-evil(?) of sterile domination. It forces teams back, and provokes teams to play, at 0-0, in a way that seems inherently defensive (anti-football even in some cases), and it makes it harder to counter-attack against them. Of course, in recent times, there’s been a movement against possession-fixated sides that has been used to great effect called counter-pressing, most devastatingly used by Bayern Munich in the Champions League against Barcelona. Arsenal have tried to adopt those methods to some degree this season and indeed, before the red card in this match.

The most piercing comment of the match was not, however, Wenger’s indignation of the triple-punishment that his side suffered after Robben’s “play-acting” but rather, the approach that he revealed pre-match that they were going to take, which was to defend first. That was him accepting that Bayern are the better side, which in itself is not new information, however, it should put to bed the notion that when two possession-based attacking sides meet, we’re likely to see a festival of goals. Indeed, it’s more likely we’ll see one team defend for large periods and the other try to weather the storm – and possibly after going a goal down, forced to react. That in itself is a bit of a regret: we rarely ever see two sides defined by possession go toe-to-toe on equal footing for the whole match: one is usually a cut above the other. The last I remember seeing such a game was in 2010 when Argentina defeated Spain 4-1 in a friendly with near 50-50 possession each. Other similar encounters, Arsenal’s 2-1 win at the Emirates in 2011 against Barcelona saw Arsenal only accrue 36% of the ball. That, though, after weathering a first-half Barca storm and then having to go Catenaccio in the aggregate defeat away. (Pep Guardiola’s Bayern against Tata Martino’s Barcelona might be the closest we come to seeing possession v possession).

Richard Whittall, editor of The Score, makes a similar point. When you see two sides like Arsenal and Bayern Munich, and then the comprehensive way Arsenal in which were erased from the match red-card after, you wonder why a team as technically proficient as The Gunners couldn’t react. Yet, it’s often forgotten that possession football is diverse – as diverse as the game itself – and usually the best teams are the ones who cultivate possession. In his piece, Whittall uses the example of Manchester City’s defeat 2-0 defeat to Barcelona, saying:

And yet ten minutes in last night, the illusion there is a single, homogeneous style in build-up play in Europe was undone by the clear juxtaposition of the lanky giants in Blue taking on the upright, two-touch-and-go efficiency of the boys in red and purple (what are Barca’s colours, exactly?). One of these teams was not like the other. One of them didn’t belong.

If that seems a little harsh an analogy to use on Arsenal, a team who under Wenger have captivated the world for over 15 years, consider Pep Guardiola’s dismissal of interchangeability and fluidity as a tactic. In a way, he could be dismissing Arsene Wenger’s style which is to grant players the freedom to move around the pitch when in the attacking-third. On the training ground, that’s cultivated by small sided games of 5v5, 7v7 etc. to encourage spontaneous combination play or by drills such as one called “through-play” whereby the team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively and pass the ball between them. For Wenger, the main focus is on expressionism and autonomy. The importance of possession is preached of course but keeping the ball must have a means: patience is only tolerated to an extent.

Guardiola’s approach, however, is more scientific, more hands-on. Players must see the pitch as a grid, each occupying a “square” and making sure each one is filled. He says moving the ball is more important than the man moving as that’s the best way to work opponents. Thomas Muller explains: “It isn’t about having possession just for the sake of it, that’s not the concept. It’s about using possession to position the team in the opposition’s half in a way that makes us less liable to be hit on the break.

Guardiola’s methods are not to be used as a stick to beat Wenger with: he deserves to have faith in the way he works, while his Arsenal side is one that continues to play better football than most. Indeed, at 11 v 11 he had realistic reasons to expect that Arsenal could win this game. However, there are teams that are taking the game to new levels now, and watching the way Bayern Munich stretched the pitch, time after time creating overloads and opening up half-spaces, it’s little wonder that Arsenal weren’t able to get back in the game after Szczesny saw red.

**NB: Pep Guardiola after the match: “Today we again saw that it all depends on possession. We should have fought harder during the first ten minutes. It’s a question of personality; you need to want the ball. We are not a great counterattacking team, as we don’t have the physical requirements for that. We always need to have the ball, that’s what it boils down to.”

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