The Arsenal Column

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

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 break after that but the crucial thing was that there were chances; 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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Olivier Giroud, master of the wall pass, makes Arsenal play

December 27, 2013

giroud whufc

Olivier Giroud fell to the floor and put his hands to his face. When he took them away, his face revealed a look of great anguish. Of course, the cameras caught it all and with the rain falling heavily, his body drenched, there was even a homoerotic quality about it. For Arsenal fans, it’s become an all too familiar sight; presented with a golden opportunity at key moments in a given game – against Chelsea it was at 0-0, the contest evenly poised, and against Everton (1-1), practically the last kick of the game – Giroud has failed to deliver.

Giroud’s reactions after he misses are almost always the same; he writhes like an animal hit by a tranquiliser dart, after huffing and puffing all game waiting for such a chance to fall his way. To be fair, the two opportunities mentioned were not easy chances by any stretch; against Chelsea, the skiddy surface meant it was always going to be difficult to hit the ball cleanly. But a striker at the peak of his confidence would probably put it away anyway. And his last minute shot against Everton was even harder and it would have been a spectacular outcome had Giroud scored but the ball agonisingly clipped the crossbar instead of dipping underneath.

In the most recent match against West Ham United, Giroud had one glorious chance which he dragged wide. This time he swiped at the turf in frustration. Then, there were two crosses that evaded him, yet, rather than take the hint that Giroud was having a hapless game, Arsenal continued playing the ball up to him. And he kept on returning the ball back to them. Perfectly. That was something he couldn’t miss.

This is generally how Arsenal have used Giroud. Rather than finishing moves, or even acting as a target-man to get onto the end of crosses, Giroud is best as a pivot to bounce passes off. The goal he created against West Ham United – Arsenal’s third in a 3-1 win – shows his importance to the side in a deceptively simple way. The ball was fizzed into Giroud by Theo Walcott; he controlled it, held off his marker and then laid the ball off perfectly for Lukas Podolski to lash home. It’s this ability to bring others into play which is probably why Arsene Wenger has persisted with him for so long (at least, long enough that he doesn’t feel the need to bring another striker in), but it’s also because Giroud’s a big part of his plan for how he wants Arsenal to play.

It started last season, with Arsene Wenger having to remould the side again following the departures of two key players. In previous seasons, the Frenchman’s ability to teambuild has been crippled by want-away stars although this time, Wenger went into the season knowing that this would be the last time it would happen because the Great Darkness over Islington was finally beginning to lift. But his plan really went up a gear on the last day of August 2013 when Mesut Ozil walked through the doors at Arsenal’s London Colney, echoing the first time Dennis Bergkamp set foot inside Highbury’s famous marble hall.

Then, Dennis Bergkamp transformed the culture of the club simply by being different. This time though, Ozil changes Arsenal because he’s just like everybody else in the team – only a little better. His impact has been palpable in the 21 games he’s played so far, scoring 5 goals and creating 9 others. Most notably, though, has been the effect he has made on his team-mates, instilling the self-belief that has been so desperately lacking in recent seasons. Like Bergkamp, the players use Ozi as a “reference”. When he gets on the ball, they know they must provide options for him; they’re now moving into spaces they didn’t before because back then, they weren’t expecting the pass. Each time the players receive the ball from Ozil, it’s like he’s hitting an untapped erogenous zone: “oh, oh, oh!”

Because Ozil is similar to the rest of his team-mates, Arsenal become instantly stronger than they were last season because he reinforces their USP. Think about it this way: if playing against Arsenal was difficult because they pass and move so well, imagine how much harder it’d be with another trickier midfielder in the line-up (who is better than what they have already). As Brian Phillips, writing for Grantland, puts it: “Özil represents Wenger trying to build the most completely fucking Arsenal team this side of Thierry Henry’s 30th birthday.”

Signing Ozil confused people: “Why do they need him? Where would he fit?” they asked. His tactical purpose, though, is alchemical. When others vacate their positions, Ozil slots in meaning that Arsenal always have a zone occupied. He makes the fluidity complete. In the 3-1 win over West Ham, Ozil was instrumental, gliding across the pitch, and combining quickly with team-mates. With Aaron Ramsey pushing up (and later it would be Santi Cazorla assuming the role), Arsenal’s formation transformed into a 4-1-4-1 with Mikel Arteta acting as the base. When Ozil signed, Arsenal went wingerless, but with Theo Walcott providing the depth and the width, there are more options for him to hit. With 8 goalscoring chances created at Upton Park, Ozil’s productivity was Bergkamp-esque but there was one person he found more than anyone else: Giroud.

Frequently Ozil played the ball up to Giroud, either looking for a return or merely just making a run off him to receive the ball from a possible lay-off. It’s not just Ozil; others do the same. Podolski loves to play close to Giroud because he knows he will return the ball back to him. They do that because they know that Giroud, even for a big man, is a deft passer. He has a graceful touch that when it is at its best, is as smooth as Chantilly lace. It helps, though, that Giroud is a big man because it makes him easier to find and that any ball played up to him, he can hold and shield off any opponents. In that sense, Giroud is more similar to Bergkamp than say, Alan Smith who Wenger likened him to. Bergkamp used to implore team-mates to hit the ball up to him, hard if they have to, because he knew he could trap any pass. Giroud, similarly, is targeted by difficult long-balls, as much as the team plays through him with short, simple passes. (Giroud has attempted 98 flick-ons this season, 3rd behind traditional target men, Peter Crouch and Christian Benteke. This also from a side who complete the second fewest long-balls in the league, although it must be said, a lot of Giroud’s flick-on numbers include those with his feet).

There’s an anecdote in Stillness and Speed, Dennis Bergkamp’s “non-autobiography” written by David Winner, where he talks about the wall of his childhood home in Amsterdam where he would endlessly kick the ball back-and-forth, watching the ball come back to him, trapping it and then doing it again but in a different way, and trapping it again. This reminded me of Giroud: if Ozil is the natural heir to Bergkamp, then Giroud is like that wall in Amsterdam that Bergkamp used practice to bouncing passes off – the ball comes back perfect.

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Actually, at this point, it might be helpful to break the piece up and include an excerpt from the book to help understand:

David Winner: I’M TRYING TO picture you aged about eight, kicking a ball against this wall. What would you be thinking?

Dennis: ‘It’s not thinking. It’s doing. And in doing, I find my way. I used the brickwork around the entrance to the building. You see that line of vertical bricks, like a crossbar? Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it. I found that so interesting! Trying it different ways: first one foot, then the other foot, looking for new things: inside of the foot, outside of the foot, laces . . . getting a sort of rhythm going, speeding it up, slowing it down. Sometimes I’d aim at a certain brick, or at the crossbar. Left  foot, right foot, making the ball spin. Again and again. It was just fun. I was enjoying it. It interested me. Maybe other people wouldn’t bother. Maybe they wouldn’t find it interesting. But I was fascinated. Much later, you could give a pass in a game and you could maybe look back and see: “Oh, wait a minute, I know where that touch comes from.” But as a kid you’re just kicking a ball against the wall. You’re not thinking of a pass. You’re just enjoying the mechanics of it, the pleasure of doing it.

‘Later, I’d say: “With every pass, there needs to be a message or a thought behind it.” But that was there from very early, in my body and in my mind. When I was kicking the ball against the wall I’d be trying to hit a certain brick or trying to control the ball in a certain way. You play around with the possibilities, with bounces, for example. You hit the wall and the ball comes back with one bounce. Then you say, “Let’s try to do it with two bounces,” so you hit it against the wall a little bit softer, a little bit higher. With two bounces, it means probably that both bounces are a little bit higher, so you have to control it again, in a different way. You’re always playing around. I wasn’t obsessed. I was just very intrigued the wall by how the ball moves, how the spin worked, what you could do with spin.

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Giroud’s neat flicks and touches are crucial to the way Arsenal play and it is clear, watching Giroud execute those passes, that he takes immense pride in seeing them find his team-mates. There is a painstaking meticulousness to them that can occasionally frustrate, yet, at the same time; Giroud often sees pictures that others don’t, like his passes last season against SwanseaCity and Montpelier, or most famously, in October, against NorwichCity. To walk through that goal again; Jack Wilshere receives a pass from Santi Cazorla, plays it back to him and continues running to an empty space behind Giroud. He already anticipates the ball will get to him but probably never pictured that it would, the way that it did. Giroud touches the ball to Wilshere who, surprised by the earliness that it reaches him, flicks it back. Giroud, though, is not flinched by the quick pass and instead, flicks the ball aback gain with the outside of his boot through two defenders into the path of Wilshere. The pass was so good that all Wilshere had to do was stick a boot out and the ball rebounded in. It was natural that some Arsenal fans got carried away after that; that type of telepathy, accuracy and instinct develops over time, and it’s not hard to see Giroud’s role in accelerating the type of football that Wenger wants.

As Philippe Auclair tells Arseblog, Giroud “is not just a big guy who is good at holding up the ball with his back to goal. He’s somebody who loves to play with ‘first intention’ as we say in French; somebody who can flick the ball around the corner, is always looking for a quick solution when the tempo of game has to be accelerated. He’s always looking to create something, a creator in the box. It’s something that Arsenal have been lacking for a while.”

Of course, there’s a trade-off and that is Giroud is probably not as clinical in front of goal as a striker in a top club side should be. His movement to get onto the end of chances is also fairly predictable, often making a darting run towards the near post but usually little else. And perhaps, looking beyond his fantastic link-up play, a different type of striker who makes runs across the channels thus stretching play might improve Arsenal’s efficiency even more. But because Giroud can do everything – “physical presence, technique and charisma” Giroud is the “type of striker who is difficult to find nowadays”, Wenger says – it means it carries little risk for a team that is still adapting to each other, still working out each others’ movements. In that sense, Giroud then, acts as a bit of a buffer, lessening the impact of this adjustment period by taking hits for the team as they strive to find better balance and understanding. That’s why Wenger is willing to overlook some of his deficiencies – namely his goalscoring, which fans are understandably less forgiving of – because Giroud makes the team play. (Which begs the question: When Arsenal becomes fully in tune with each other, perhaps then Wenger might be more willing to leave out Giroud than he is at the moment?)

However, that’s not to say Giroud is untouchable in Wenger’s eyes because I’ve not seen a player come under such heavy scrutiny from Wenger in all his time in charge. After Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Montpellier in the Champions League last season, Wenger said that “technically it was not one of his [Giroud’s] best games … sometimes when he doesn’t get the ball enough he wants to come deep. That is not his game. And in a 3-1 comeback against Norwich City towards the end of the campaign, he said “I think he had a very, very average first half,” before adding “and a very, very positive and influential second half.”

Arsenal have practiced a lot on Giroud’s technique, he reveals, on the training ground and in particular, the type of moves we saw regularly against West Ham United and earlier this season. He doesn’t have to make the final pass. Dennis Bergkamp similarly derived great pleasure from making the “pass before the assist. Look at the goal,” he says, “and look at the assist, but most importantly, look at where the attack starts from.” Often Giroud is involved. Even if he’s not, he’s a useful decoy, making runs across defenders to create space elsewhere.

It’s probably best not to view Giroud as your orthodox striker but rather, as an extension of the midfield – although he’s the player who has the biggest responsibility to finish. (“You need more players who can create that special opening and I believe that Europe uses fewer strikers than before,” says Wenger). Certainly, Giroud would love to score more: the pain inflicted by missing a chance is evident in his reactions. But Giroud is determined not to let that put him down: his unique role as a goal-getter as well as a goal-creator is one that he relishes. “Strikers are judged on their goals, he says. “But we must also [provide] assists and that is what I try to do: help my team-mates. It is easy to play with people like Jack, Mesut, Santi or Tomas – all my offensive team-mates. We have good relationships on the pitch and when we play one-touch football, it is a pleasure. We try to do it in every game, and when we succeed it is fantastic.”

giroud shots so far

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Arsenal fall short of Dortmund test but can take plenty of positives

October 23, 2013

arsenal dortmund lewandowski

The tendency, when a team loses the game in the manner which Arsenal did, is to dissect the winning goal in such detail that nothing else prior to that really mattered. And in a sense in the Champions League, that’s right.

For large periods of the 2-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal dominated but were dealt a sucker punch when Dortmund broke quickly and scored when Robert Lewandowski arrived unmarked at the back-post. There were a series of flashpoints leading up to the goal, however, which were particularly influential; why Bacary Sagna had committed that far up the pitch; why Tomas Rosicky and Mesut Ozil only cantered back; and why Kieran Gibbs decided to get tight to the player in possession instead of holding his position as Arsenal were outnumbered. In the end, Arsenal might want to focus on the wider issues that contributed to the defeat, namely how tired they looked, especially as they played very well on the whole. But in the Champions League, the margins are thin, as Borussia Dortmund themselves found out two years ago when they crashed out of the group stages, that it’s imperative to take advantage of the good spells you have, and to stay firm when you’re on the back foot.

Former Bayern Munich goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, underpins perfectly what makes the Champions League different to the Premier League: “The Champions League can hardly be compared to the respective domestic leagues,” he said. “The tempo is higher, the teams play tactically smarter, mistakes are ruthlessly punished and the referees are more lenient. In the European game, you have to be well organised, wait for your chances and take them when they come.”

At the final whistle, Arsene Wenger was particularly hurt, saying that for the two goals (Aaron Ramsey was dispossessed for the first) Arsenal were “naïve” (in contrast, Jurgen Klopp praised the “maturity” of his team). However, the problem of naivety has been levelled at The Gunners for a while, and indeed, except for the run in 2006 when they reached the final, Arsenal haven’t altered their approach much for the European stage and they’ve been punished. Could defeat be a turning point?

To be fair, Wenger’s side have shown more awareness recently and they started the game in cautious fashion – although perhaps overly so. They were unable to enforce the same intensity on the game as they did in the early minutes when they defeated Napoli 2-0. Instead, they dropped back, looked to get into shape and build a platform from there. In short, it was the perfect defensive strategy for Europe. But on the flip-side, Arsenal were guilty of being too passive when they allowed Dortmund to open the scoring. Mikel Arteta intercepted the pass, played it to Ramsey who, shorn of options, and the best option really was to punt the ball away as Arsenal were so deep, was dispossessed. Again, you can level at Arsenal that they were a bit naïve because Dortmund come to life when they force opponents back. When Ramsey received the ball, Klopp pressed the button from the stand to activate Dortmund’s gegenpressing and in an instant; he was surrounded by three yellow shirts. Marco Reus stole the ball away, Lewandowski passed it to Henrikh Mkhtarian, and the Armenian finished.

arsenal bvb domination

Managing Moments: The minutes where the match was won.  Courtesy of UEFA.com. Click to enlarge.

It took a while for Arsenal to get back into the game, and when they did, they moved the ball magnificently. Initially, they found it hard as Dortmund got tight to the midfield and denied them space. Passes went astray: Jack Wilshere had a pass success rate of 50% from 30 passes. But then again, it was players like Wilshere who helped Arsenal negate the early press, by gliding past with skill. It was ironic that Arsenal conceded the opener when Ramsey was dispossessed because Arsenal’s close-control was outstanding and indeed, it was Ramsey’s sidestep away from Sven Bender which opened the space for Bacary Sagna, and his cross fortunately found it’s way for Olivier Giroud to score.

Increasingly, the most space was to be found out wide because of the narrowness of both midfields. Arsenal played a 4-2-3-1 without wingers and similarly, Dortmund’s front four prefer to interchange. That meant Mesut Ozil was unable to influence, and although he likes to drift to the flanks, it showed how successful Dortmund’s tactic was that they able to shepherd him wide at every opportunity. “They are difficult to break down,” said Wilshere. “They have good team shape. We wanted to get Mesut [Özil] on the ball but they made it difficult for us.”

Arsenal were stronger in the second-half and as they sensed they had the ascendancy, tried to increase the tempo. Rosicky, on a yellow card, dropped back in midfield to play a more conservative role, helping Arsenal distribute the ball better (as in the first-half, he was often penalised for over-zealous tracking back) while Ramsey pushed higher to press Dortmund. But, they only created one real chance when Santi Cazorla hit the crossbar after a flowing move and were later punished by Lewandowski for over-committing. (The importance of Theo Walcott is obvious when Arsenal have days like this; lots of good approach play but need something else, someone to make runs behind, to break from the neat and intricate).

Indeed, the second-half raises an interesting question, one which Wenger might have to find a solution to if his side are to succeed in Europe: if creating chances is the hardest thing to do in football, perhaps instead of pushing too much (too early) when in control, maybe it’s better to assert the dominance (and then push towards the end)?

Arsenal’s style has always been a bit gung-ho, although the signs are they are beginning to add greater game intelligence to their game and learning how to “manage moments”. Had Mathieu Flamini not been concussed, he surely would have started, given Arsenal the protection they sorely needed. Mikel Arteta did a fantastic job – making 11 tackles – but there’s no doubt Arsenal missed Flamini’s guided hustle in front of the back four.

Finally, there was another question raised about Arteta’s passing; that it was too ponderous, too safe. That’s a little unfair but certainly; he could do a little more to make Arsenal’s passing game quicker. That was mostly down to his positioning as he’s always looking to move up the pitch to give space to the centre-backs in the build up, when perhaps he should be doing more to create better passing lanes for himself. What that entails is moving wider to pick up the ball or occasionally drop in between the centre-backs. Flamini’s passing is often under-appreciated but one thing he does well is to always move into the channels to create better angles to receive the pass. The double-pivot is probably Wenger’s preferred option in Europe – and that means Aaron Ramsey will have to miss out playing in his favoured position. However, it might be the right choice to allow Arsenal to prodress in Europe.

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Mesut Özil’s mastery of space makes Arsenal play

October 4, 2013

Mesut Özil Napoli

In the end, it was the only thing Mesut Özil had to break sweat to do. Not the finish – which was a master class in watching the ball all the way and not hurrying the technique – but actually getting there, as he was still a long way away from play – the only time in the match – and as he reached Aaron Ramsey’s cut-back, he expertly guided on the half-volley into the top corner.

Özil’s goal set Arsenal on their way to a superb 2-0 win against Napoli, scoring from the type of move that when Arsenal perfect, is usually too slick, too evasive for opponents to handle. It has been an impressive start to the season, one though, which has seen Arsenal make a slight shift to the way they normally play. Because in six league games, Arsenal’s average possession has dropped from 58% last season, 60.2% in 2011-12 and 60.3% in 2010-11, to just 53.7% this season. That may just be a case of a streamlined Arsenal side still working out how best to play with each other but this is an Arsenal side also, which manages moments better.* In that, it might be more similar to the early 2000s Wenger sides, and not the nearly teams of 2007-08 and 2010-11, which played a mixture of joy and ruthlessness that can be both intoxicating and devastating - as Napoli found out in the first 15 minutes.

Roy Hodgson says that football matches are not decided over ninety-minutes, but in a handful of incidents (or transitions as it might be said in coaching terms) and it’s about picking these moments to be truly effective.

The Arsenal Way, though, has taken a bit of a battering in recent years, exacerbated by the trophy drought. Previously it was vibrant brand of football – mixed with discipline and steel – that weaved intricate patterns up the pitch like delicate fingers up Chantilly lace. In the past few years it became ever more intricate, more possession-based (as popularised by Spain and Barcelona) and even comical as moves could feature 15-20 passes but be soiled by a miss-kick in front of an open goal (sorry Gervinho). The old way, though, looks like it is coming back (probably even inspired by Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich), owed in large part, to a record-breaking German: Mesut Özil.

*

 To understand Mesut Özil’s movement, I refer you to a scene in the Minority Report (about 1:36:00) where Tom Cruise, on the run from the police in a crowded mall with a pre-cog as hostage (somebody with the ability to see the future), suddenly finds himself surrounded. On all sides police are zeroing in and for a moment, amid the flurry of movement and busyness, he has nowhere to turn. The pre-cog, though, tells him not to move because in a few seconds, a man selling balloons will obscure their view, allowing a convenient escape. What Özil would do on the pitch, wouldn’t be too dissimilar, except he wouldn’t hold his position because he never stops moving, but to use the man with the balloons as a decoy, running in behind in the space he has just vacated.

*

Özil’s spatial awareness is extraordinary. He’s a little like WALL-E, surveying the area and then scuttling into the spaces where others don’t go. His special move is drifting into wide areas (I write for Arsenal.com that his role might be best described as an inside-forward) and this is why he works so well at Arsenal. Wenger has always maintained he prefers wide players who roam inside, but with Özil then moving into those spaces that the wide player vacates (in recent games, it has usually been Jack Wilshere in that role), it means Arsenal always have a zone occupied: Özil makes the fluidity complete.** Indeed on the training ground, Arsenal practice a drill called “through-plays” which is an exercise which aims to help players learn where their team-mates are. With Özil always slotting in, filling the empty spaces, it’d make finding each other on the pitch more natural.  One can also see why Özil’s lateral movement (and indeed the team’s) helpful in the defensive phase as it means whenever Arsenal lose the ball, there is somebody always covering, ensuring that the players are still evenly distributed across the pitch. Indeed, that was one of the things Arsenal’s front four did so well against Napoli because whenever the attacking players swapped over, they made sure that they stayed in that position until the next phase of play.

** Santi Cazorla expands on Arsenal’s fluidity in an interview with talkSPORT: “I speak with the coach and tell him I can play wherever you want. My preference is to start on the left but then [as the game unfolds] go to the middle. Wenger speaks with me before every game and he’ll say: ‘You play on the left, but only left when we don’t have the ball. When we have the ball, you can come in – you are free.’”

Özil also has this unique dribbling style that makes him so effective, running with the ball almost side-on as if showing the opponent the ball, with his head always up. He’s always looking to change direction or slip a quick pass. Indeed, Arsenal have submitted to his creed as much he has Arsenal’s, with it especially notable against Napoli, Mikel Arteta slipping quick passes to Ozil because he knew swiftness would be key to making the most of his strengths. In the same way Santi Cazorla made Arsenal tiki-taka again after signing, Özil’s master of space makes Arsenal fluid. “I think he is like the team,” said Wenger. “He had an outstanding first half (against Napoli) where you had everything you want to see from a great player – individual skill, team play, finishing, final ball… just sit there and enjoy it. I believe as well that he enjoys playing football and you could see that. He enjoys playing with his partners; he has integrated very quickly into the team, with the mentality. He came as well in a period where we are doing well and that maybe made it easier.” Özil’s team-mates will probably concur too; he’s certainly made things easier.

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Aaron Ramsey makes the difference in battle of 4-2-3-1

September 19, 2013

ramsey marseille

After Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Marseille, Arsene Wenger attempted to explain Theo Walcott’s form in front of goal as “cyclic. You have cycles where everything goes for you and after every game where it’s a bit less,” he said. The same can be said of most things in football: of the success of club sides and nations, and similarly, formations and tactics.

For a large period of the 2000s, 4-2-3-1 was the favoured approach replacing 4-4-2 as the default way of playing. And while there tends to be more variations of play these days – hinting at football moving onto its next cycle – the 4-2-3-1 still remains the most popular approach. The reason behind this is simple: the 4-2-3-1 affords coaches the most even way to distribute players across the pitch. It’s not infallible, however, and as interpretations of players’ roles change, gaps have been exploited in recent times.

On Wednesday night on Matchday 1 of the Champions League, both Marseille and Arsenal played with 4-2-3-1 formations and although for the majority of the match it played out a stalemate, the different interpretations of the system ensured an interesting encounter.

Marseille’s formation was more standard with two holding midfielders playing behind a number 10 and two fairly orthodox wingers although Andre Ayew did tend to drift infield a few times. Arsenal’s, on the other hand, was more fluid, with Jack Wilshere playing narrow on the left and Theo Walcott stationed high up the pitch, almost as a striker. All eyes, however, were on the two playmakers, Mathieu Valbuena and Mesut Ozil, and instantly both were involved heavily. Valbuena attempted a couple of long-range efforts while Ozil put through Walcott for a header, and was snuffed out when he tried to find Walcott again later. But Ozil’s influence soon began to wane while Valbuena’s increased. That’s because Marseille’s 4-2-3-1 was better equipped at disrupting Arsenal’s passing, with the two holders, Imbuna and Romao, frequently breaking up play.

Valbuena, though, kept on influencing, not necessarily directly as he created zero chances in the game, but with the pass before. And that, in an effect, highlighted why he’s so important to Marseille because in this set-up, he’s their only real link-man. The wide players stick wide and stretch the pitch, therefore what Valbuena does so well is drift to those flanks and combine with them. In a sense, he’s just doing what’s natural to him having played the majority of his professional career as a wide-player. Yet, he’s also clever enough to understand that that’s where the space is in today’s game because most teams play with two holding midfielders denying the space in front of the defence. Indeed, for a while, orthodox No.10s were in danger of becoming extinct due to the proliferation of 4-2-3-1, but they’ve since had to evolve and become accustomed to lateral movement, or even further or deeper on the pitch to evade their markers. “The word enganche (playmaker) is dangerous,” says Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone. “But, I like enganche, although with some variations. More like the playing style of Zidane, call it a prototype of enganche? That evolved into the enganche roles today of Kaká, Totti, Pirlo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. I believe enganche today must come from another sector, there must be wider variety of options.”

valbuena ozil

Roaming laterally is what Ozil loves to do too, acting as both a playmaker and auxiliary winger due to the intelligent runs he makes. He was fantastic at exploiting this space on his debut against Sunderland but against Marseille’s flat 4-2-3-1, his root to the channels was blocked. It was different to Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 where Aaron Ramsey frequently pushed forward and as such, Mathieu Flamini essentially had to cover the spaces on his own. Perhaps on another day, Arsenal might have been exposed but then again, they can because they rely heavily on their astronomical fitness levels to get back, running on average 11.3k km in the match, while Marseille only managed 10.3k km.

Arsenal, however, were more effective going forward because their creativity was plural. Jack Wilshere had a particularly strong first-half drifting off the left-flank and his movement highlighted the other way in which the 4-2-3-1 can be exposed. Because by drifting infield, it asks a lot of the opposing winger to remain alert to track his movement, or if the full-back follows him, slot back into the defence. It’s significant that Arsenal’s opening goal came from such an attack, with Kieran Gibbs taking advantage of this vacant space to cross, and with a little bit of help from Morel, Walcott volleyed home. However, the drawback to Wilshere constantly moving inside was that it horribly exposed Kieran Gibbs; nonetheless he performed admirably with little to no help.

By Wilshere also moving infield, it created an overload in the midfield and thus gave Arsenal a numerical advantage where previously it was stalemate. Indeed, it’s a tactic a lot of top sides are using nowadays, abandoning one flank – usually the left – and then having someone stationed high up the pitch on the other side for a quick switch of emphasis (e.g. Manchester United with Kagawa and Valencia). For some teams, there isn’t a higher tactical purpose for playing an attacking midfielder wide other than a way of fitting all those creative players in (for example, Brendan Rodgers, who christened the clunky term “false 7”, plans to move Coutinho back to the number 10 position as soon as he gets a proper left winger). However, for Arsenal, the benefit is that it gives them a numerical advantage whenever teams pack the middle and encourages the type of combination play that makes them so deadly.

The final say, though, went to Aaron Ramsey, not Ozil or Wilshere, despite conceding a last minute penalty. And in a sense, it was logical. The other two playmakers started much closer to the two holders but Ramsey’s positioning, by playing 10 metres or so deeper, meant he had more time and space to assess the game, to measure his passes and crucially, time his runs into the box. When Gibbs played the ball up to Ramsey with five minutes to go, he had three players around him. But by the time they could react, Ramsey had already made up ground against them and was able to fire the goal that gave Arsenal the three points.

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