“Pep Effect” still looms large on elite club football


So in the end, the final of Europe’s elite club competition, was decided by two goalkeeping errors. Real Madrid v Liverpool may not have been the festival of attacking football many were expecting, but it seemed inevitable, once Mohamed Salah went off with injury, that Real Madrid would run away to victory. That, in part, has been the story of the Champions League this season; “that the escalating economic stratification of the game over the last decade,” writes Miguel Delaney, “has created a situation whereby a few ‘super clubs’ have been virtually guaranteed places in the semi-finals. One of them has been Madrid, along with Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Madrid have not failed to reach the last four since 2009.”

The other, probably ethereal, has been how attacking it has become. The disparity between the top clubs and the rest is obvious during the group stages, but that now extends to the latter stages. As Jonathan Wilson notes, “in the past eight seasons, 21 of 104 games in the quarter-finals or later have finished with a winning margin of three or more; in the eight seasons before that there were only eight. Of the six games played at that stage so far this season, four have been won by three goals or more.”

The most extraordinary of those knockout encounters was how Roma flipped the script and eliminated one of those giants, Barcelona, by reversing a 4-1 first-leg deficit, to win 3-0 in the second-leg on away goals. Juventus nearly managed the same, losing in the end 4-3 on aggregate to Real Madrid, after having scored all three of their goals in the second-leg.

Quite the reason for this phenomenon has been attributed by Simon Kuper for ESPN to “storming”, a clunky term which he has coined, which both describes the high-pressing deployed by those clubs, and attacking the opponent’s goal with speed. Both need not be related.

Indeed, it is true players are running more now and that goals following a quick turnover – 20% of goals in last season’s Champions League can be described as counter-attacks – have increased, however, it is hard to say if pressing, or more precisely, gegenpressing, has had that profound of an effect on modern teams’ approach.

Certainly, only Liverpool of the 8 quarter-finalists can be described as a pressing team, and yet there rise to challengers this season can be attributed in part to Jurgen Klopp reigning in that side of their game. On the other hand, it has been clear in the knockout stages of the Champions League, of the importance of not just creating fast attacks, but of chaos, disorder, and using that to ride the momentum to kill teams. As Unai Emery reveals in an interview to Marti Perarnau, it was the failure to change the conditions of the tie which saw PSG start 3-1 down in the second-leg of the last-16 to Real Madrid, to succumb meekly 5-1 on aggregate. “We needed the match to be crazy,” he says, “but we didn’t manage. Maybe because I started players who would help us control play, instead of accelerate the rhythm of the match.”

Fabio Capello, in the 2016-17 UEFA Technical Report, notes an evolution away from the “Barcelona possession-style that set the trends a few years ago” because without the same quality, “it’s easier to control” (Emery). “I would say that, now,” says Capello, “the trend is that if you win the ball you immediately run at the opponents while they are out of balance and can be surprised. The key is to win the ball back quickly and mount direct collective attacks, entering the penalty area quickly.” Certainly this helps explain Liverpool’s success, as they tend to position three forwards up the pitch to exploit those spaces behind.

As such, in respects to Capello’s observation, you could say what we are experiencing, is a come-down effect from the Pep Guardiola approach to possession, as much we are to pressing from the front. It’s true, teams are closing down higher now, but perhaps, as we saw with Liverpool in the final, it’s not easy to carry it all through a game, let alone a season, but rather to use it in moments, and without good attackers to make it effective. Actually, this was the observation made in the UEFA Technical Report in 2014/15, saying Liverpool struggle to “turn regained possession into clear chances”. Thing have changed this season with the addition of Salah, yet Liverpool’s reliance on making the strategy effective was apparent once he went off.

If anything, what is clear is that teams are still trying to play out from the back, probably even disproportionately so. The best formation for this style of football, as Emery points out, is the 4-1-4-1 and it’s notable, that majority of the teams in the final 16 of the Champions League favour a variant of this sort of shape when they build up. What’s different from the Guardiola dictum is that the coaches are eschewing the positional discipline that the Manchester City trainer espouses, for greater pace or individuality.

Real Madrid are the best example of that even if they deviate, at first glance, most from the 4-1-4-1 shape. Their football is predicated on the base that Casemiro, even if he isn’t your typical pivote, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric provide. You can see when they build up, the clear pattern they create, with the full-backs pushing up, and the two interiors moving into the halfspaces. As Quique Setién, the Real Betis coach says, “Real Madrid are a team who are a little anarchic. They don’t have a permanent shape: although they will play with four at the back and with Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in the middle, the way they set up from there can change.

“That anarchic nature is more a general point, though. Madrid’s players are carried along by the football itself, what they feel in each moment; they’re not guided by tactical rigour or a specific structure. What defines Madrid is their individual ability, how they associate with each other intuitively. Look at players like Benzema, who drifts to the wings and combines, or the full-backs, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal: when Carvajal goes up he doesn’t look to see if the other full-back is deep and that open approach often compromises them defensively.”

“In the middle there’s more control. Modric and Kroos understand each other well, their positioning and passing is excellent. With Casemiro, they are the only players who maintain a certain order.”

In the last few years, we have seen a reaction to possession football, a counter-trend, as characterised by Leicester City and Atletico Madrid. With this approach, the teams tend to play in a 4-4-2, which Emery considers the best to stop teams that look to pass out, as it prevents “the opponent from getting between the lines.” It is a different style of press to the system he prefers, the 4-1-4-1, which he says is more in line with “Bielsa’s style, Guardiola’s style. It’s a more aggressive idea, which exposes you more. When you lose the ball, you win it back as quickly as possible. Anywhere the ball may be, the team has to position themselves to press and win it back. If play stops, everyone goes back to their position. If the ball is in play, we press, all while remaining organised tactically.

“Those are my two outlooks from a defensive point of view. If the ball is in play, you press. If play stops, you reposition yourself. For me, the 4-1-4-1 is the system which facilitates that type of pressing. The 4-4-2 is designed more and more for zonal positioning. It’s less aggressive, but is more difficult to get past.”

Of course, Emery will join Arsenal trying to impose this style – a style which he believes puts him closer in line to Guardiola, Bielsa, than Mourinho, Benitez. As such, his appointment seems more encouraging now than it first was; a chance to prove that he belongs to the elite, and in joining Guardiola and Klopp in the Prenier League, it’s the chance to marry the two styles – possession and pressing – that many coaches have failed to put together convincingly.

Indeed, that’s the other side Pep effect that we’re still fully yet to realise. That teams have been grappling with the idea so long of playing out from the back effectively, that they haven’t really paid enough attention to pressing properly from the front. Modern football should allow teams to do it better and if this season’s Champions League is anything to go by, perhaps we’ll see it more, if at elite club level at least. As Fabio Capello once claimed, we’re in the midst of the third phase of modern football’s evolution; “The Dutch system, AC Milan with [Arrigo] Sacchi and then myself, and then [Pep] Guardiola’s Barcelona.” Before adding each came “twenty years apart.” We’re only halfway through the Pep era.


Arsenal 3-0 Stoke City: Mesut Ozil guides team to win


Arsenal scored three goals in the last 15 minutes to defeat Stoke City. That it proved such a long time coming owed more to Arsenal’s insipid build up play than inspired Stoke defending. Granted, Stoke were disciplined and tenacious; their broadly man-marking approach stifled Arsenal’s free-form style, as moves frequently broke down.

Arsene Wenger was willing to attribute that to Arsenal, in the first-half, lacking “urgency, pace, drive. In the second half, we rectified that.” Delving deeper into the reasons for the improvement, he said there was some tweaks made in the second-half, though “it was not so much about football, more mental. We broke up two weeks ago, came back, switched off…”

Indeed, looking back at the game, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the tactical tweaks were. If anything, it seemed as if he left it on the players to take it upon themselves – namely Mesut Ozil – to grab hold of the game and exert more influence. How Ozil did that can be displayed by his two pass maps from either half. As you can see below, in the first-period, Ozil’s main involvements were nominally down the right. Starting from an inside-right position, he struggled to get hold of the ball, as he was being marked tightly by the Stoke left wing-back, Eric Pieters. As such, he was often forced to come deep for the ball, which is not discouraged in Arsenal’s system, but Stoke, using a 3-4-3 system, were able to pass him on to the left winger, Ramadan Sobhi, who was able to tuck in as Hector Bellerin was left isolated, or one of the central midfielders as Stoke pushed up the pitch.

Mesut Ozil, however, has the keys to the Emirates, and in the second-half, was basically allowed to roam all the way to the left flank and stay there. He did that anyway in parts of the first-half, playing give and gos, and then drifting to the other side, looking for that killer space, but in the second period it was more permanent. Indeed, it’s a tactic Arsenal have used at various games this season, hoping either Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere – the free midfielder in the system – to occupy Ozil’s position, or use it as a ploy to work the ball left-to-right*, and get Bellerin free.

ozil passes

In the 2-1 second-leg Carabao Cup win over Chelsea, Wenger tweaked his system in the second-half to allow Ozil to played more centrally, and it was Granit Xhaka moving into his position on the right, who scored the winner.

In the 2-2 league draw against Chelsea, however, it worked less well, with Ozil’s switch to the right coinciding with a drop off in performance from Arsenal. (Similarly, I also tweeted in periods in the 3-1 win against Milan, Ozil moving from right to left affected Arsenal’s build-up adversely).

Wenger deployed something vaguely similar in the 1-0 win over Newcastle in December, using Ozil in a deeper role therefore allowing Alex Iwobi to take up his position at no.10. “He links up the play,” Wenger said after the game. “When you have problems to build up the game, he comes a bit deeper and Iwobi goes a bit in his position. So overall, we still have a good occupation of the pitch and we know as well that the passing starts well.”

By this point, with Alexis Sanchez looking likely to be leaving the club, Wenger had already made a conscious decision to hand the freedom of the Emirates to Ozil, saying: “I think he takes responsibility and that’s what you want from him. He is more mature, he guides the team very well, he does a lot on the ball and your heart rate always goes down when he has the ball.”

It’s no surprise then, the game against Stoke turned when Ozil decided to drive the team forward by just doing what he wants. It took a good ten minutes, however, for him to decide that attacking from the left would prove more fruitful, and it was his drive into the box that won the first penalty. Of course, the second-goal came from his corner-kick, which was a result of his saved shot.

Before then, however, the warning signs were there that he was beginning to turn the screws, especially when he played a sumptuous through-ball to Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang. Maybe that was part of the reason for his improvement and the decision to move to the left; because there were more options on the left (Bellerin is always isolated), better players even (note how he would often naturally gravitate towards the left when Alexis was there) or that the angle to attack was better (he could face play now, and not constantly be marked when he moved inside to his left foot, whilst he often had his back to play in the first-half).

*At the start of the season, Arsenal went the other way for better effect, from right to left, especially against Swansea, switching the build-up to Kolasinac.

In the end, Arsenal were indebted to Mesut Ozil, but that cannot be considered a sustainable strategy. There needs to be a greater focus on the positional play from the other top coaches in the league that has seen, not Wenger’s tactics become outdated as such, but overtaken.

He relies on a sort of locational play as I’ve seen someone call it, with the 4-2-3-1 as the template, but through guided habits and one-twos and wall-passes as the trigger to up the tempo. It works because he generally tends to pack the side with ball-players – more so this season to the detriment of 1v1 ability – who just know where to move. They can play in short spaces and bump passes off each other such that it alleviates any positional deficiencies Arsenal have. But this relies on Arsenal having good days, and for the most part, against Stoke, it didn’t work.

The free-form structure meant Arsenal’s play was naturally funnelled into central areas as players overlapped and swapped positions, but that’s also where Stoke found it easiest to man-mark. If Arsenal wanted to drag Stoke out of position, they needed to use width better, and create holes where the players followed them. Of course, it took a long while, and Ozil, realising that opening the pitch up might have meant moving to the other touchline, did that.


Mustafi playing risky game


I took some stick tweeting that Shkodran Mustafi had a good first-half because he made some absolutely vital tackles. That anxiety that spread because of Arsenal’s erratic display meant that his good work – or anyone’s for that matter – was overlooked. And Mustafi normally compounds that nervy feeling because he defends on both spectrums of daring and stupidity at the same time. However, he made three tackles in the first-half that denied Stoke in very promising positions, coming after Arsenal gave the ball away. (Though below I replicate only two of them, and one from the second-half).

mustafi tackles

When you watch Mustafi you get the feeling he gets such a rush from charging out and winning the ball that it’s almost a game-within-a-game that he is playing. But, as I’ve written for Arseblog in the pass, Arsenal’s defensive system relies on risk. Impetuous is encouraged rather than tempered. That’s because Arsene Wenger knows Arsenal’s openness can put the team in uncompromising situations. He says he’s willing to accept that risk to arm Arsenal’s offensive game. That might make Mustafi look stupid at times – and indeed, he doesn’t help himself – but Wenger knows his defenders’ value if they can step out and stop attacks quickly.

Understanding the impact of Tactical Fouls


By Karthik (@thinktankkv)

When Sergio Ramos brought down Yannick Ferreira Carrasco in the Champions League final this year to put an end to a promising Atletico Madrid counter attack, a lot must have been going through his head. Carrasco was playing out of his skin trying to get Atletico back into the game and with two deft touches he managed to motor past Modric and Casemiro to leave Real Madrid’s defense in total disarray. Things looked good for Atletico at that instant; Carrasco had only one defender separating him from the goal and two of his teammates were quick to flank him on either side to create a numerical advantage. Ramos surveyed the situation and in a matter of seconds came up with solutions and assessed the risk involved in all possible courses of action. He could track back as fast as possible banking on Atletico to commit a mistake somewhere or he could take matters into his own hands and tactical foul Carrasco to put a permanent end to the counter. Ramos chose the latter and got a yellow card for it. It was a tradeoff he was more than happy to make.

Tactical fouls have always been an integral part of football. Central Midfielders and Defenders frequently resort to fouling opponents to get out of sticky situations. Like Ramos, Mikel Arteta was among the major proponents of the tactical foul and he used it to great effect throughout his Arsenal career in a Defensive Midfield role. He lacked the pace to recover from difficult situations and was clever in his use of fouls as a damage control option. Fouling opponents is an underrated action from a defensive point of view. It destroys the opponents’ rhythm and momentum, which is extremely important in constructing attacks, and also allows the defending team time to recover. The opponent is reduced to taking set pieces, which are widely accepted to not be an optimal mode of attack. With all these advantages, it is easy to see why players tend to indulge in low risk fouls to stall opponents as long as they are not on a yellow card.

When judging the defensive contribution of players, the value of tactical fouls they commit is often overlooked. Unlike interceptions and tackles, the impact of tactical fouls in match is difficult to compute and can be a complex process. To understand the difference a tactical foul makes, a method to quantify the impact of a foul is needed. One metric that can be employed to estimate the value of fouls is the Foul Impact Quantifier. This is a statistical tool that computes the impact of fouls from a defensive point of view. Below is a table containing Foul Impact Quantifier values for the major fouls in Arsenal’s 3-2 preseason win against Manchester City. It was a game where the referee was quite reluctant to give away fouls but Fernando, Fernandinho and Nacho Monreal made important defensive contributions through tactical fouls.


A major advantage of this metric is that it helps in better analyzing the impact of players whose game is built around breaking play and winning the ball back. Arsenal’s recent acquisition of Granit Xhaka can be a good buy in this regard. He averages a whopping 2.6 fouls a game and this employing the Foul Impact Quantifier to further dissect the value of these fouls only helps in understanding the player’s contribution in defense. Players like Aaron Ramsey, Fernandinho, Arturo Vidal and Gabi contribute significantly this way. To understand their impact in greater detail will be of immense value.

A tactical foul can be described as a deliberate foul on an opponent during a position of disadvantage, after which the defending team has a better chance of not conceding. Distance and numerical superiority of defenders can be employed to determine how good a position is for the attacking team. In chess, there are various software tools available to verify how strong and what the likelihood of winning from such a position is. These tools compute the number of times matches have been won in the past with similar positions. Although a similar system for football would be great, distance to goal and numerical advantage experienced by the attacking team is an effective indicator of how good a specific position is. Going by this definition, tactical fouls generally end up making it easier for the defending team and in many cases the player doing the foul makes a sacrifice by getting a yellow card.

The other kind of tactical foul for which impact is relatively hard to measure is the one that is done high up the field in order to break up play and nip counters in the bud. Players like Alexis Sanchez and Luis Suarez press relentlessly and commit fouls such as these. Fouls committed high up the field usually have low impact but their defensive worth could be underrated and hard to accurately compute. A good tactical foul has a Foul Impact Quantifier value that lies between 20 and 50, but for the above mentioned reasons, to specifically pinpoint a type as the ideal tactical foul is difficult; any foul that provides an improved chance of defending a goal is a foul that is worth the effort.

Sergio Ramos’ foul on Yannick Carrasco had a very Foul Impact Quantifier value (it scored 50) and although the foul sparked a debate on whether Ramos should’ve been sent off or not, the importance of the foul in keeping Real Madrid in the game was largely forgotten. A clever footballer employs tactical fouls to good use and the using Foul Impact Quantifier to evaluate the impact of fouls can be extremely beneficial in understanding defensive contributions made by players.

Formula: This metric is takes into account the distance from the goal and the numerical advantage the opponent has at the time of being fouled. The formula for the Foul Impact Quantifier is (K/(D*N)), where D is the distance from goal, N is the number of players between the fouled player and the goal and K is a constant.

Leicester City, Atletico Madrid style a reaction to possession football, not a paradigm shift


The nature and order of things in football is often described as being “cyclical” – that is to imply that trends, after an indefinite period of time, will return to a state of normalcy. Take for example the recent dominance of Spanish teams in Europe and the subsequent lack of involvement in the latter stages by English clubs; Gary Neville says that “it works in cycles. You cannot always be at the top. Maybe we are having a period where we are in a little bit of a dip. But it may change around completely next year or the year after.” Similarly, Luis Enrique cautions that Barcelona’s success won’t last forever; that it’s the “obvious reality.” Arsene Wenger on the other hand, talked about finishing as being “cyclical”, which actually correlates with analytics which argues that conversion rates for teams tend to level off after a while.

Wenger also used the term to talk about the one of the other big talking points in football lately: the success of “efficiency” based football as espoused by Leicester City and Atletico Madrid. It has people questioning whether there is a paradigm shift away from possession football, and while Wenger argues that there is a lull in its effectiveness recently, he says that “over a longer period, possession will still dominate.”

The trend towards sitting deep and hitting teams on the counter is all the more surprising considering that three years ago, Fabio Capello claimed that we were in the midst of the third phase of modern football’s evolution; the era of “tiki-taka”. Speaking at a coaching conference in Dubai, he listed the three influential teams: “The Dutch system, AC Milan with [Arrigo] Sacchi and then myself, and then [Pep] Guardiola’s Barcelona.” Before adding “those are the three fundamental phases of football evolution, which came 20 years apart.”

That Atletico and Leicester City have managed to split this era, which by Capello’s dictum is only eight years in, with a markedly different type of football, might be less to do with a paradigm shift, and more as a reaction to Barcelona, and more pertinently, Guardiola, taking possession to the farthest extreme. The most famous example of radical possession meeting hyper-defence was in 2010 when Inter Milan met Barcelona in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and accrued only 19% of the ball, albeit with 10-men. Jose Mourinho afterwards said he didn’t want his team to have the ball.

Indeed, it’s notable that since then, when teams have faced Guardiola sides, they’ve not try to match possession with possession because they’ve found that it’s not possible; Barcelona/Bayern Munich are far superior in terms of execution and talent. Instead, they’ve had to find a compromise between their normal way and playing with just enough ambition to steal a goal. When Atletico beat both sides in this year’s Champions League, it’s probably the first time a team has done so with “efficiency-based football” (that’s what we’re going to call it now) as their default style. Previously, Bayern Munich under Juup Heynckes demolished Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2013 but they’re perhaps the only side who were comfortable switching between having the ball, and “parking the bus.”

Indeed, part of the success of that Bayern Munich side which won the treble in that same year, was the simple fact that they had better (the best) players. As Roman Grill, Philip Lahm’s agent tells Martin Pernanau in Pep Confidential; “the players were coming up with the tactical solutions themselves on the pitch.” That’s the thing with systems: it’s the presence of star individuals, rather than tactics or coaches, which have the biggest transformative effect on a side’s fortune. Netherlands and Ajax had Johan Cruyff; AC Milan under Arrigo Sacchi had Marco van Basten; Barcelona have Lionel Messi; whilst the Invincibles were heavily reliant on Thierry Henry. Even heavily defensive sides like Inter Milan’s Catenaccio team of the ‘60s under Helenio Herrera were indebted to the powerful running of Giacinto Facchetti at wing-back, and Sandro Mazzola at no.10. Even Claudio Ranieri has admitted that his side wouldn’t have achieved the same level of success last season were it not for the goalscoring contributions of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy.

Atletico are perhaps different because they play with the characteristics of their coach, Diego Simeone, and it’s arguable that they wouldn’t have achieved what they have without the demands he places on the team.  He asks his players, beyond the tactical plan that they have, to run harder than everyone else and it’s this intensity that is probably the defining factor of this era, and what links his Atletico side to Guardiola’s teams.

To understand this, first we must go back. As it’s been said, football goes in cycles: in the early-to-mid-2000s, physicality reigned, allowing enforcers and destroyers to proliferate in the midfield and pushing deep-lying playmakers such as Pep Guardiola out of the game. It was about “specialisation and individuals”, scorned legendary AC Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi, and not about the team. Sooner though, Guardiola returned, this time as coach, to revolutionise the game, dominating with his Barcelona side through a technical proficiency which showed-up teams who played with destroyers. Possession was king although they had one other factor (beyond an infectious coach and the best player in the world) that denied other clubs from copying – superior fitness levels.

Now, with the advancement of sports science, and with teams really testing the limits of competitive advantage, we’re probably seeing the final push in terms of fitness and conditioning that has seen Leicester City and Atletico propelled to the forefront.

Wenger, however, believes things will level off and once more, possession will dominate. At the moment, though, the game has become broadly transition-based; in the midfield of most teams, you will see players who are capable of switching between going forwards and backwards easily. These players might not be the most imposing physically. Indeed, they might be former no.10s, usually small, scuttling, scurrying types, but because of their nimble footwork and glide on the ball, have been pushed back into a deeper role so that defence can be turned into attack in the blink of an eye.

N’Golo Kante sums up this trend although it’s his fitness levels that has amazed. The joke last season was that he was two players rolled into one but it’s this standard that he saw in the team’s first few training session to eschew the “Italian tactics” and only ask that “they all ran hard.” Guardiola espouses something similar in Pep Confidential when he says that “we enjoy our work when we play well and we run and run and run. In order to enjoy our best play, we need to run a lot.”

When Guardiola faced Simeone in the Champions League semi-final, however, there was probably no difference between how hard the teams ran. Instead, what might have been crucial is what part of the pitch they ran.

Actually, both Guardiola and Simeone are very similar in that they like to squeeze the pitch and make it smaller, except both do it at different ends of the pitch. Like Dutch Total Football and the AC Milan sides of the ‘90s were influenced by the changes of the offside law, so have Atletico, with the current, hazy interpretation possibly forcing them to play so deep in their own half, instead of squeezing the pitch towards the opposition goal. Barcelona also initially benefited because as teams dropped deeper, it opened a large space in the centre which they used to dominate. However, with the advantaged gained from controlling the centre diminishing, the space behind is now the key. The issue is how you exploit it.

(That might explain Arsenal’s pursuit of Jamie Vardy. By having someone with extreme pace forcing opponents’ back, it allows Arsenal to take control of the centre. Which in turn then, paradoxically might draw teams back out to allow Arsenal feed the striker in behind. Curiously, at the end of last season, though he didn’t use him in those matches, Wenger said Walcott was better suited when teams defend deep and Arsenal control games).

The history of football is the manipulation of space, and Jerome Boateng realised in the Champions League semi-final when he tried to catch the opponent off-guard with a long pass from the back. However, the ball was snuffed out and Atletico were able to go down other end of the pitch to kill Bayern Munich off. That one play summed up the contrast in tactics – philosophies – between the teams because in the end, Atletico only needed 27% of the ball to win the game.

In the final, things were reversed somewhat with Atletico having 52% possession but they weren’t able to play the role of the aggressors convincingly. That’s why Wenger says of Leicester City that “you cannot last like that. If they win a title like that, you have to say well done and respect…..It shows that if it is done well it can be very successful. But over a longer period, possession will still dominate.”

Arsenal 0-2 Barcelona: Gameplan undone by devastating counter-attack (also best team in world)

There’s a neat phrase that Arsene Wenger used the last time Arsenal faced Barcelona at the Emirates which most accurately describes what it feels like to face to European champions. “You’re always on the border of collapsing against them,” he said after the 2-1 win in 2011 – or in others words, when you feel the most secure, that’s when you’re in the most trouble. And indeed, that’s precisely when Arsenal lost the 1st leg of their most recent Champions League encounter, and in all probability, the tie.

With Arsenal mounting their own attacking down the other end, suddenly they were caught short at the back, and after committing a number of risks to stop the break, Lionel Messi had the chance to coolly slot the ball into the net. It was a huge blow for Arsenal as it came at a time when they were beginning to take the ascendancy and the momentum improbably looked like it might swing their way. Yet, as Messi said afterwards, he expected that Arsenal “were not going to be able to keep up the pressure” and that gaps on the counter-attack would open up. Wenger too, was acutely aware of the threat Barcelona posed when the ball was lost thus he set up The Gunners in a way where he sought the minimise the chances they had to take advantage on the break. And it worked a treat largely up until the 70th minute when Arsenal over-committed for the first time in the night and were punished. When the second-goal went in, The Gunners’ mood seemed deflated, Messi tucking away a penalty after he was brought down by substitute, Mathieu Flamini.

After the game, Wenger was highly critical of the 1st goal, using words like “naïve”, and “technically average” to describe what he saw. “Of course I’m disappointed,” he said on the official website, “because we put a lot of energy into this game. I felt that we lost at the moment that we looked more capable of winning the game, and we also lost it in a way which we could not afford to give them. It’s a bit disappointing to give them the goals that we did, especially the first goal. I feel that we were extremely guilty and have no excuses for that goal.”

Looking back, there were a succession of moments that felt avoidable at the time that snowballed into the opening goal: the decision to cross from Hector Bellerin, Francis Coquelin’s failure to track Neymar, Per Mertesacker’s desperate lunge up the pitch, (unluckily) the ball going through Laurent Koscielny’s legs and then lastly, Petr Cech’s dive. Some were more pivotal than the others though looking at it from the other perspective, it illustrated the margins that you need to get right to stop this fabled triumvirate. Luis Suarez who slipped the ball through Koscielny’s legs, Neymar ghosting past his markers and taking two looks to see where Messi was before Cech’s despairing dive to try and stop the first-time shot that didn’t arrive.

However, straight after the final whistle, I chose to highlight the action that started prior to Arsenal getting the ball into box, when Coquelin decided to play a pass backwards. In itself, it’s hard to apportion blame to him although Wenger too, seemed to direct his rage at the wrong choice of pass, though it’s not entirely clear whether he’s talking about Bellerin’s cross or Coquelin’s decision to go backwards.

The players didn’t give them a counter-attack on purpose. They want to defend it. It’s just that the first pass is not right, the first position is not right, you lose the ball when you don’t want to lose it and then suddenly you’re out of position and they take advantage of that. It’s not because the players do not want to respect the instructions, they were just caught by the pace of the game. It was an unexpected wrong pass or unexpected position of the first play.”

I’m intrigued by the use of the term “first pass”. If, as Jose Mourinho says, there are broadly four phases to tactical planning: attacking, defending, counter-attacking, and then, countering the counter, then it seemed like Wenger instructed his team against taking any overt risks in the build up. In a sense, it was a sort of disciplined positional play designed so that if Arsenal lost the ball, the players were in the right position to either win it back quickly, or filter into shape. That could seen by the selection of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who rarely deviated from the right flank, staying very wide so that if Arsenal lost it, he could get back to stop the ball going to Neymar. It was perhaps pivotal then, that in that attack, Theo Walcott had drifted centrally and then Arsenal were stuck with an overload up the pitch, with nobody near Neymar forcing the defence to shuffle to the side of the pitch.

Coquelin’s pass got the immediate blame because the frustration was palpable; the whole crowd groaned as the ball went backwards. Still, although momentum in the move was abruptly lost, impetus was quickly regained when Mertsacker played a through pass to Ramsey to then turn the ball round the corner to Bellerin. Perhaps Wenger was angry at the cross, and not that Coquelin didn’t go back towards where the ball came from, where the numbers were, and instead went to Mertesacker despite having most of the men in front of the ball. Because he said after the game, that the team was too “impatient in the build-up, we lost balls that we usually don’t and that’s not because Barcelona forced us to do it.” This Barcelona side will let you pass through them when you get the chance but you can’t lose it so each attack has to be considered. But Wenger felt at that moment, the team lost their “cautiousness to defend. What we knew was going to be vital for us was not to give them a counter-attack, that’s where they’re at their most dangerous.”

Before that, Arsenal played a very good game, using a mid-to-low block and a combination of tight-marking to stifle Barcelona’s service to the front three. They deployed mainly a 4-4-2 shape which sought to spring Mesut Ozil’s shadow striker running when the ball was won, and have him or Giroud drop back into midfield when Barcelona tried to stretch Arsenal side to side. The space to break was down the channels, because Barca essentially defend with 7 men, the front three narrowing when the ball is up the other end so that they can spring a quick counter-attack.

Though possession was overwhelmingly their opponent’s, The Gunners knew that, because Barcelona use a sort of rigid positional play until they get it in to the final third, if they held their shape when the ball was with Sergio Busquets and the centre-backs, they could stop them finding a fluency. It worked for the most part, with the occasional lapse of concentration towards the end of the first-half nearly costing them. Still, Arsenal arguably had the best chance of the half when, Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up a loose ball after the ball was blocked from a shot by Bellerin, but his effort was dragged straight at an imbalanced Ter Stegen. Suarez might have felt he had two better chances right at the end of the first-half (and one when he hit the post later in the second-half) once heading past the far post and another scuffing wide of Cech from a move originating from an attack where Arsenal were too hasty.

In the second-half, space seemed to open up as Arsenal sought to press a little higher. In fact, Barcelona looked like they might be the ones to blink first. Instead, increasing forays into the Barcelona half lured Arsenal into a false sense of security from which Messi and co. punished them.

Norwich 1-1 Arsenal: Injuries upset precariously balanced system

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“We are so unpredictable in what we are doing; even for me at the back sometimes it looks a bit weird! Sometimes we lose balance but sometimes it is really good so we have to keep going and focus on our game, especially defensively.” ~ Per Mertesacker

I’ve been trying to figure out Arsenal for a while now. Despite my twenty-two year association with the club (that is, the first game I recall watching them in – Cup Winners Cup in ’95), the last ten years have left me most perplexed. It’s not the lack of titles; I’ve come to terms with the mitigating circumstances following the move to the Emirates and subsequently, the wizardry to keep Arsenal competitive that Arsene Wenger has performed. But rather, it’s the playing style which, despite adding back-to-back FA Cups in the last two seasons, Wenger has had to be innovative – unorthodox actually – to keep Arsenal playing the same way that won trophies in his early years, and to challenge more convincingly.

I often hark back to the above quote from Per Mertesacker to assure me that even those in the best positions can find what happens on the pitch sometimes confusing. At this point, I realise that the answer lies in a case study of Arsene Wenger but he places such an unerring faith in autonomy and freedom of expression on the pitch such that nuances of the team’s tactics are as much a product of symbiosis as it is moulded by hand.

That’s evident by the rapid progression of Hector Bellerin from reserve-squad to starter, or Francis Coquelin, who has shaped Arsenal’s tactics the moment he stepped into the first-team last December. It’s a progression which has been a joy to watch and indeed, it’s not usually this discernible to see a footballer grow as we have witnessed with Coquelin, gaining more confidence game-by-game, becoming “more available” as Wenger says, “and [available] more quickly when our defenders have the ball. He blossoms well.” You can say the same thing about Nacho Monreal, where confidence has shaped him such that he seems unflappable at the moment but, because he started his Arsenal career so well but had a blip in between, we already knew his quality. Plus at that time, he played alongside Thomas Vermaelen so it’s understandable.

Coquelin’s injury has had people trying to work out ways to replace him without upsetting the balance of the side too much. However, an analysis by Chad Murphy, a professor of political science, deduces that Coquelin is near impossible to replace like-for-like because the actions he performs are commonly shared by wingers, not defensive midfielders. He’s a unique player, somebody who passes fairly infrequently considering the position he plays but is actually very press resistant because his dribbling out of tight areas is so good. Yet, therein lies Arsenal’s problems, and why Coquelin’s absence will be hard-felt, because Arsene Wenger has built a system reliant on the characteristics of certain key players – not necessarily robust concepts. And generally, once he finds a system that wins, he grinds it to the ground such that any slight change to that formula can cause Arsenal to stutter – until of course, somebody else makes their relative mark on the team.

Mathieu Flamini is the present incumbent of the holding midfield role and in the 1-1 draw against Norwich City; we got a glimpse of just what he can offer to the team in what is probably the twilight of his Arsenal career. Ironically, just as he was looking to make his stamp on team, The Gunners lost two key players to injury, adding to the uncertainty we’re likely to get in the coming weeks. Those losses proved telling, particularly when you focus on the passivity Arsenal displayed for Norwich’s equaliser. Because the thing with Arsenal’s defending, and probably what is the nezt step for Murphy’s analysis, is that it’s reliant on speed – or what Manuel Pellegrini describes as “defending with pace”.

Wenger teams have always been distinguished by this trait but usually when going forward; for this team, it’s probably more a hallmark going backwards, in terms of how quick the defenders recover (and the back-four, apart from Mertesacker are rapid) and the distances they cover when the team loses the ball. In that regard, the two key players are Laurent Koscielny, who departed the game early with a groin injury, and Coquelin of course. They tend to bail Arsenal out a lot of times from average defending situations frankly, by being aggressive, winning the ball back quickly and playing on the front foot. That’s what Flamini tried to replicate in midfield but what Gabriel failed (though he tends to be good at that kind of reading of play) with the missed interception before Lewis Grabban finished for Norwich .

Overall, The Gunners weren’t unduly threatened but there is a sort-of half-hearted press that they use even against the weaker opponents that puts them in situations where they invite teams at them. I would describe it as a 4-4-2 shape for the most parts with Ozil dropping off once the ball is played behind him. (That ambiguity – is Ozil a striker or a midfielder in the press? – sometimes puts Arsenal into trouble). It’s sort of a zonal-man-marking system where the team moves left and right, and backwards and forwards as a unit but when the ball enters a respective player’s zone, they look to aggressively man-mark that player. Certain players might have more freedom of how aggressively they close down an opponent such as Ramsey or Mertesacker who tend to push out, and sometimes abandon the shape in an attempt to win the ball back quickly – see video below.


For much of the game, though, it must be noted that Arsenal were very comfortable. It was after Alexis departed through injury, however, that the team lost a little spark and that is worrying because he is one of two players that push defenders backwards (the other being Theo Walcott), and also, the partnership between him and Ozil generates much of Arsenal’s attacking thrust. Arsenal tend to slant their play towards the left-side, with Alexis stepping five or six yards infield and Ozil floating wide to create overloads. Against Norwich, Monreal was also an important figure going forward, and again, it’s the understanding he has with Alexis that has become a key part of Arsenal’s game. Indeed, both full-backs actually got forward a lot in the match and that was facilitated by a subtle change to Arsenal’s build-up play from the back.

Again it involved Flamini, who tended to drift to the flanks to support the full-backs in possession, thus liberating them going forward. Whether this was accidental or not, it’s hard to say, but Flamini specialises in this kind of movement when Arsenal have the ball at the back. Certainly, it falls in line with Arsene Wenger’s strategy of using the ball-winning midfielder as a decoy, dragging opposition midfielders away with him, to create space for the centre-backs to pass through the midfield to either one of the attacking players or Cazorla who drops deep. This tactic tends to be used against teams who don’t press and indeed, Norwich camped 10 players behind the ball for the majority of the game. The intention is that then, it lures those teams to commit one or two players to the press – going against their gameplan really – so that Arsenal have a bit more space in the middle. Norwich didn’t really budge so Arsenal decided to use the sides of the pitch more in a bid to stretch their opponents. In the example below, you can see Flamini urging Monreal forward as Norwich narrow and Arsenal nearly score.

I find it oddly fascinating to watch this tactic because it goes against the textbook which is to ask one of the deep midfielders to drop in between the two centre-backs to stretch the play. With Arsenal generally resisting the urge to do that, it creates a game-within-a-game, with the midfielders battling with opposition midfielders off-the-ball to follow them. People argue that against the top teams that press, Arsenal would be found out. That hasn’t really been tested because when Arsenal play those teams, they tend to drop off themselves thus playing mainly on the counter-attack. The one time it did work was against Manchester United, when Arsenal blitzed them in the first half-hour, using their ambiguous midfield positioning to confuse United’s marking scheme and Cazorla tending to drop-off in between the centre-backs to pick up the ball. Indeed, his importance in the build-up must be stressed because Wenger calls him the “guide”, because he directs Arsenal’s play from the back rather than dictates, and the team-mates know when they pass it to him, he can get them out of trouble because of his quick-dribbling. That’s one of the reasons why Coquelin will be sorely missed, as together the pair created a unique partnership in the heart of the midfield. Hopefully now, Arsenal can find a different balance.

Arsenal 0-2 West Ham: Positional indiscipline proves costly

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Arsenal 0-2 West Ham: Kouyate, Zarate

Tactically, it’s hard to underpin what exactly went wrong for Arsenal on their first fixture of the season beyond a bad day in the office. West Ham’s diamond formation should have suited them; with no coverage on the flanks, Arsenal could theoretically move the ball left and right until they found the moments of superiority that they usually do out wide i.e. 3v2s, 2v1s followed by a third man run. (Indeed, this is something that they did superbly in their 2-0 defeat of Liverpool in 2013 against a similar system). Instead, passes too frequently missed their target while off-the-ball, The Gunners looked lethargic in the press.

Arsene Wenger chose to put the bad performance down to nerves and certainly, the psychological factor cannot be overlooked. After the game he said: “I felt we were a bit nervous and we rushed our game a bit. We didn’t always respect the basics. We wanted to be too quick going forward in first half. I don’t think we were too confident, I would rather say too nervous maybe”. We know all about Arsene Wenger teams and their struggle to master their emotions. In more recent seasons, the issue has been against big teams where 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”. Arsenal seemed to have bucked that trend last season by their performances away from home against Manchester City and Manchester United, and then, in the Community Shield last week when they beat Chelsea. Yet, by plunging the sword into one of their demons, another one has surfaced in the form of this strange, reversing hex which takes effect in the games where Arsenal are overwhelming favourites. In those games, Arsenal seem to crumble under the weight of expectation, too nervous to play their usual game (think about the FA Cup semi-finals against Wigan and Reading, and then the final against Hull City). Again, The Gunners seemed to get over this superiority complex in the cup final against Aston Villa, where they delivered a performance a calmness and clinical precision to prevail 4-0. However, against West Ham, that anxiousness to play – to make an impression – reared it’s ugly head again, pervading their play such that, to compensate, Arsenal tried to play too fast.

But going back to tactics: I think positional indiscipline also had a part to play in the poor performance – which may tie in closely with nerves anyway, but which I’m hoping doesn’t run through the side in the same way.

We all know that Wenger likes to grant positional freedom to his attacking players, especially to one of the wingers, in this case Santi Cazorla. The key is to find moments where they can destabilize the opponent defence through overloads, and when they set up a triangle on one side, combine quickly with each other to tear open the defence. The issue in this game was that both wide players sought to come inside too early in the build-up, thus not offering the outlet when those overloads are created. You can contrast this with the last time the two sides met: Arsenal won 3-0 and the average touch positions showed that Walcott and Alexis stayed up the pitch and occupied the full-backs all game.


In last Sunday’s fixture, when the ball went wide, it usually ended up at the feet of the full-backs rather than a wide midfielder. Wenger sought to correct that by moving Ramsey to the flanks in the second-half, but unfortunately, West Ham scored quickly their 2nd goal which forced the manager to change things again.

I wouldn’t say the issue was that Arsenal were too clogged in the centre; more that the players failed to offer the right solutions off the ball which led to it. Arsenal actually got the ball wide very early in the build-up, but instead of using that advantage that they had over the diamond by doubling up, Santi Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain were too attracted to the centre. As such, West Ham didn’t actually need to play the diamond that well. They simply had to stay in position and block Arsenal’s passing routes.  In that sense, you could say that Arsenal’s star performer in that game, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who caught the eye with the some great driving runs, was part of the problem because it’s his role to stretch play. But his modus operandi is not really to pick the ball up high up the pitch and drive at the full-back; instead, he likes to start deeper, as a traditional right midfielder rather than the right-winger that Wenger is trying to create. In time he will become that player, adding behind-the-defence runs to his game – right now though, he still feels a bit of an interloper in the system, somebody who you expect to create two or three exciting moments in the game but not quite fully integrated. (Of course, Oxlade-Chamberlain still created three good chances in the game which suggests he can be such an explosive player for Arsenal).

With Alexis, while it feels a little bit of the same, he’s a constant outlet, somebody Ozil can feed off because he’s always occupying the right full-back. Remember, Ozil’s game is all about lateral movement and against West Ham, there was nobody to move towards. Indeed, it’s notable that when Alexis came on, he was the one Ozil passed to most in the game.

Ozil had the best chance of the game, a shot blocked after a good one-two with Ramsey high up on the left side of the pitch. It didn’t happen enough because Santi hasn’t got the power to get up and down the flanks – which is why Wenger used Ramsey in such a role last season.

I thought last season Arsenal improved their positional play, the second leg against Monaco a good demonstration of the positional interchange Wenger allows and discipline. When it works, it looks great but it needs good decision-making and a clear head. Arsenal didn’t have that against West Ham.