Newcastle United 1-2 Arsenal: Torreira change brings balance

Matches under Unai Emery have already started to follow a similar pattern. A stuttering first-half, forcing a change to the team, leads to a brief, but generally dominant, passage of play that sees them get over the line. That has been the case in each of the two games for Arsenal since defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea, and indeed, it was no different in the 2-1 win over Newcastle United.

Arsenal were goalless at half-time, not exactly playing poorly but unable to, as Emery said, “input their ideas”. That is broadly, to control the game through possession and to stem the flow of fast attacks that Newcastle sent their way. Therefore at the interval, off went Matteo Guendouzi and on came Lucas Torreira and suddenly the team proceeded to find their fluency. They started playing higher up the pitch, forcing Newcastle back and crucially sapping the press that made life difficult for them in the first-half.

With better possession, Arsenal could finally play the game at their terms. Their reward was the two goals scored in quick succession, both involving heavily the two holding midfielders. First Torreira helped created the free-kick that Granit Xhaka converted from, picking the ball up in the middle and then implanting tempo to the attack with a quick give-and-go with Andre Lacazette. Xhaka himself then was involved in the second goal, darting to the left wing before his cross was eventually followed up by Mesut Ozil.

Emery has now brought on Torreira three times  to such great effect that surely he must be pressing to start. The fall guy unfortunately, looks likely to be Guendouzi who despite acquitting himself well, has not been able to help Arsenal control matches as well Emery would have liked. Maybe he has come to symbolise the beginning of new manager’s era; a player who has all the tools to carry Emery’s demands, yet, perhaps a simpler, more compact version is currently required.

Indeed, this is a slight more aimed at Emery than Guendouzi because it’s clear the manager is so  bogged down on the fine details, the careful positioning of his players, that in the end, he almost always reverts to a simpler formation than the one he started with. Against Newcastle, Emery chose to stick with the amorphous 4-2-2-2 formation that he tried vs Cardiff, but once it was obvious the players were struggling to find the connections on the pitch, he reverted to a pragmatic double-pivot with Xhaka and Torreira at the base. “I am very happy with Matteo and also very happy with Lucas,” Emery said. “Maybe in the second half we needed a little more balance on the pitch with the positioning. Lucas gives us this balance.”

The second-half improvement is borne out by the statistic that Arsenal completed a higher proportion of their passes in the opponent’s half. From only 18% of passes in the attacking third in the first period, that increased to 33% in the second-half. The clip below is perhaps a good example of Arsenal failing to find their connections in the first-half and probably highlights the fact that they played a tad too deep, with Xhaka noticeably gesturing to Guendouzi to push up and get closer to him. Suffice to say, Torreira did just that.

Part of the reason though, for Arsenal’s improvement in the second-half was perhaps that Newcastle tired, and subconsciously dropped back themselves thus inviting Arsenal to play. Indeed, Emery attributes it in part to simple reason that Arsenal scored the first goal and that allowed them to relax and indeed, sometimes the tide of the game turns through the good fortune of an event – a kick-off perhaps because it allowed Newcastle to start the game attacking from the off- rather than an overarching tactical tweak. Still, the substitution of Torreira probably gave Arsenal a rigidity in possession that allowed them to move the ball better. As Pep Guardiola once said it’s better “when the ball goes to the positions players are, than the players move a lot”. That may not align completely with Ozil’s style and indeed that may explain the sometimes perplexing permanence of his positioning, rarely playing on the right flank and drifting in as we’ve come to expect, but rather, starting and staying mainly in the no.10 position. That has perhaps stifled Ramsey a little bit too, and looked better once the change allowed him to move towards the left and the pair no longer clashed in the same areas.

Emery: “In the first half we didn’t control the match like we wanted to. Also, we needed that control to input our ideas. We conceded a lot of chances for transitions and counter-attacks, but not giving away major chances. They had a lot of corners and a lot of possibilities to arrive in our box. In the second half, the balance on the pitch was better – our positioning and when we were attacking we didn’t make the transition easy for us. I think the key is the first goal. This goal gave us the confidence to continue to improve in the match. We finished the match with the result.”

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Cardiff 2-3 Arsenal: Emery makes slight tweak to fit Ozil in

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By the time Mesut Ozil’s number came up, six minutes before the end, there was an acceptance that he had done enough. For some reason he has a point to prove; to show to people, the coach, that he fits into Unai Emery’s philosophy. In the end, his impact on the match was subtle, inconspicuous almost – an improvement in the second-half nevertheless, that coincided with Arsenal eventually securing the win.

It was Ozil’s involvement in the second goal that displayed why he is so priceless to Arsenal, and why Emery must find a way to fit him in. He picked up the ball midway though Cardiff’s half, stopped, surveyed the scene, then almost as if the gears suddenly clicked into place, zipped the ball to Lacazette’s feet. The striker then played the ball first time round the corner perfectly for Aubemayang to curl home. It’s not inconceivable that Ozil planned the whole move through. Except that he probably wanted the return from Aubameyang as he made a run beyond him that for a split second, opened up space for the number 14 to shoot.

Indeed, before the game, Emery said that where Ozil will play will change; depending on the opponents, and the players that are available. “I like the possibility to have the player play different positions on the pitch,” the manager said. “It depends each match and it is the same for other players too. For that, Mesut has played with me on the right wing and also as No 10 and we are going to continue to do that.”

Here, the selection seemed like a happy compromise. Ozil started in a position in between no.10 and right wing – which was at times, neither really. As a result, in the first half, he looked slightly confused as to where to be on the pitch. Lacazette was in his areas, Ramsey was getting the ball in the space he likes to receive it, Bellerin too – and even Matteo Guendouzi as this denied him from dropping deep.

The shape similarly was a strange one as once more, Emery varied his structure in order to find the perfect balance. He used broadly what was a 4-2-2-2 in possession against Cardiff with Aubemayang vacating the left flank at times to support Lacazette in attack. Ozil occupied an inside right position though weirdly fixed rather than the roaming role he was usually given by Wenger. He was often on the same line as Ramsey in the first-half, with Guendouzi and Xhaka making the double pivot behind, the latter drifting more towards the left side, allowing often Guendouzi to pick up the ball from deep central positions.

As explained though, he never really got going in the first period. In the second-half however, through his own volition or as a result of better spacing from the team, as Emery reasoned, Ozil grew in influence. He began drifting to the other flank, much like he did under Wenger, following his own inimitable sense of intuition that just knows where to be on the pitch, that sparked intermittentnly, impetus to Arsenal’s play. The Gunners seemed, not so much to lack that in the first half, but were so preoccupied with fulfilling Emery’s demands to a tee that it was stifling. [Lacazette: “He [Emery] wants us to keep the ball and possession. Today we made a lot of mistakes, even though he told us before to be careful. If we listen to what we asks us, then we can do a lot.”] Ozil’s disorder then, was like an enzyme that got Arsenal going.

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Ozil before Arsenal’s second goal to came it 2-1: roamed mainly across the pitch v Ozil after the goal, becoming more disciplined

“I think today in the second half Mesut played a good match because he worked every minute that he was on the pitch,” said Emery. “Maybe with the control and possession [we had] in the second half, and the positions on the pitch, he feels better on the pitch.

“I want to give every player the same condition and every player is very important. With Ozil and his quality, I think we need… his quality for the team.”

The other big decision that again saw Arsenal needing a boost to get over the line was bringing Lucas Torreira in for Guendouzi. So far Emery has resisted the temptation to start him, instead using Xhaka in a base with Guendouzi to presumably help with ball circulation. Bringing Torreira in then adds a little more pragmatism to the setup, but one which has changed the dynamism to Arsenal’s attacks for the basic reason that it simplifies Arsenal’s approach.

Against West Ham when Torreira came on, the team went from an asymmetric 4-3-3 to a standard 4-2-3-1 that covered the flanks better, and that allowed Arsenal to manage the game better. At Cardiff, Torreira came up with the assist for the winner, and generally was tenacious without the ball. Perhaps a midfield of Xhaka and Torreira is a little slow for Emery’s liking (pace wise), and in the back of his mind, maybe he is wary of seeing a repeat of the approach Arsenal took against Chelsea where they sat back. He also seems to favour an asymmetric approach, but so far – which further adds to Torreira’s viability – Emery is unwilling to deviate from using two number 6s to achieve this balance.

Preseason suggested a use of a 4-3-3 and the team extensively practiced the approach, but once Emery realised the profile of players he has in his midfield – his squad – he has tried to tinker with a number of variations to suit them. Without wingers, the full-backs provide the width whilst the “wide” midfielders are no.10s nominally tuck in. Indeed the key reason Arsenal failed to find their fluency against Cardiff, according to Neil Warnock, was that they were often left exposed. “I thought their full backs were as poor as they’ve been when you look at the games they’ve had this season. We had some great chances today.” Cardiff especially had success down their left side as Ozil in the first-half failed to transition to the flank quick enough. (They played 10 out of 13 crosses from Ozil’s side in the first period). Nevertheless, the full-backs were often the best players especially Monreal on the other flank, whilst Bellerin wasn’t as effective without the in-to-out runs that Henrikh Mhkitaryan normally provides. Ozil was better, as noted when he went the other way, towards the left in the second period, but in the first-half, it was conspicuous the absence of any such movement from him.

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Arsenal’s right-sided bias was more pronounced v West Ham

For Emery, the positioning of the attacking midfielders are very deliberate in order to help with the “spacing” and allow Arsenal build out properly. So far, that has been the primary focus for Arsenal under the new coach, the pressing emphasised as well of course, and he accepts there will be growing pains as he guides the team towards to the Guardiola dictum that characterises the modern game.

Emery: “It’s very important for me to continue doing this and improving. If you play every time long balls, you lose possession and momentum. We take risks in moments of the match, but when you break their pressing on the pitch you can find space for attacking the opposition. It is for that it’s clear you can maybe do one mistake like today and one action, but we need to continue with this personality. We need to continue also then to do the mix, to [play a] long ball with the space for the first action, and the second action to win possession on the pitch and then continue going forward to the opposition goal.”

Arsenal 3-1 West Ham: Quest for balance continues

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Unai Emery’s quest to find the right balance continued with a 3-1 win over West Ham  United. It was not the most convincing of victories, and after the game, Emery chose to talk about the slight tweaks that led to what he thought, were improvements to Arsenal’s performance. Chiefly, he focused on how Arsenal went from being too open in the first-half, to adding defensive stability in the second-half, without affecting too much the attacking fluidity.

To underline this change, Emery focused on the first goal which he said ended with one full-back, Hector Bellerin, assisting the other, Nacho Monreal. However, he said that this goal wouldn’t have been possible if Arsenal hadn’t played so daring, but of course, in the first-half, playing in this way exposed the defence, particularly behind the full-backs themselves (or mainly, Bellerin). In the second-half, however, he changed it so the defensive midfielders would offer more protection to them.

“We needed to win today and we needed to show our supporters one match with the three points – it was the first objective of today,” said Emery. “But it’s clear we need to improve and we need to improve on working to not concede many chances like today for the opposition… It is clear today that maybe in the first half we wanted to use the right back and left back in the attacking moments and we needed the balance with the midfielders. In the first half, we conceded a lot of options. But in this balance, the first goal is in one action with Hector, finished by Nacho. And another option we didn’t do this attack with the fluidity and the balance for the transition.

“I think in the second half we found this balance better, because we spoke in the dressing room and after the substitutions of players, it made a difference in the second half and it is very important also to help and we need every player….. It’s clear that if we defend with more people in the moment, we can lose our performance for the attacking moments. For that, we need the balance not to lose our attacking moments with this balance. But I think we need to improve. Today, I think the first half and the second half is very different.

Arsenal started the game using a staggered 4-3-3 in the middle, with Granit Xhaka anchoring, and Matteo Guendouzi and Aaron Ramsey to the left and right side of him respectively. As shown by the first-goal, it was mainly a lop-sided system with Guendouzi dropping back to pick up possession, changing the formation to a 4-2-3-1 at times and Ramsey pushing up. Bellerin was the main outlet (44% of attacks came down his side), constantly offering width down the right-flank, and he dovetailed extremely well with Henrikh Mhkitaryan who provided a neat counter-balance to the right-back’s surging runs by positioning himself slightly inside. Indeed, this is how Emery has tried to build his attacks, asking the two attacking midfielders to narrow (then make in-to-out runs) and the full-backs to provide the width. Guendouzi’s positioning is such that he then drops off to provide protection behind, whilst using his energy to counter-press if the ball broke loose. Of course, the implementation didn’t match the theory as often Arsenal were caught on the break and the passing was sloppy.

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In the second-half, Emery changed the formation to a 4-2-3-1 with Lucas Torreira joining Xhaka in the middle, and Ramsey playing the number 10 role. This was more like the system he used in the first two games of the season, and here the balance was better defensively even if the passing still remained inconsistent. Ramsey pressed high up the pitch, whilst Torreira generally hung back to cover Bellerin’s surges forward.

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At the moment, it seems like the latter formation is the best style for Arsenal given that they are still developing their style, whilst Emery indicated before the 3-2 defeat to Chelsea that he probably doesn’t have the right profile in midfield to use a 4-3-3 – most of his central midfielders are no.6s who can play no.8.

“We can speak about the No 6, the No 8 and the No 10 [roles],” said Emery. “Torreira today is a six, eight. Normally every player has two positions – Torreira is six, eight. Maybe also Elneny is six and eight. Xhaka maybe also six, eight. Matteo [Guendouzi] maybe six, eight or eight, six.

“Maybe another player, a more attacking player like Aaron Ramsey, he is more of an eight, 10 – but this possibility to play with two or three midfielders, it depends on each match whether to change or not and the demand in each match. Whether we can do one midfielder more either more attacking or more defensive, it depends.”

It was Ramsey, though, who summed up Arsenal’s approach in the most simplest and frankest of terms: “Emery wants us to press and press really high up the pitch, so that’s the biggest thing really and then obviously we’re trying to figure it out going forward as well, so hopefully we can combine the two next week and get another win under our belt.”

Chelsea 3-2 Arsenal: Both sides grapple with attacking systems

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“Trust the Process”. The quote made famous by the basketball team, Philadelphia 76ers, after the 2013-14 season when general manager Sam Hinkie took control of the team, it’s become the mantra of sorts for Unai Emery’s early days in charge of Arsenal. One the one hand, it suggests of course, the freshness of ideas that the new manager brings, but also of the need to move Arsenal away from the Wengerisms that still mark the team, and to a modern, Guardiola-influenced style.

There are two prongs to what Emery has tried to achieve – to gain more confidence in building up from the back and to aggressively press high up the pitch. So far, in the matches against Man City and Chelsea, the growing pains have been evident as Arsenal have made a number mistakes, and have looked exposed by the demands. Still, the signs are encouraging, and that was encapsulated best by Arsenal’s second goal in their 3-2 defeat to Chelsea, an eighteen-pass move which began from Petr Cech, and ended with Alex Iwobi arriving late in the box to score the goal.

The goal was a far cry from the troubles Arsenal had playing out from the back against Man City, and if the result is like this, Emery should be vindicated very soon for preaching faith in the “process”. It’s the other part of the philosophy, however, where results haven’t been so obvious. Yes, Arsenal pressed well in parts against City, but versus Chelsea, it was the failure to get out of their own half in the second period that contributed to their downfall. Emery wasn’t so clear why Arsenal dropped so deep. He seemed to suggest it was the inability of the team to push up the pitch, and subsequently, not allow the optimal positioning to press, which forced them to drop instinctively to their own box (rather than anything planned. Emery did replace Granit Xhaka for Lucas Torreira at half-time, the substitution which some suggested embody the reactive tactics in the second-half if not one of the contributors to it). Whilst Chelsea, on the other hand, also ramped up the intensity and kept possession so well that the ball hardly went out of play.  “I think we conceded a lot to Chelsea and in the second half we need to keep control of the match, with the ball and with the positioning,” said Emery. “I think maybe in the second half we lost the positioning in the pitch and were too deep in some moments.”

One of the contributors to Arsenal’s suprisingly poor pressing has probably been Emery’s baffling decision to move to a 4-2-3-1 have deployed a (staggered) 4-3-3 in most of pre-season. He said that the “three in the middle” helps with the pressing, yet with players like Mesut Ozil, Xhaka and Torreira back, has seemed to try and find a way to fit them in. He also mentioned the other issue of maybe not having the correct profile in midfield to play 4-3-3 as most of his options are no.6s first, and not enough no.8s who can morph to no.10 or no.6s and vice-versa. “We can speak about the No 6, the No 8 and the No 10 [roles],” said Emery. “Torreira today is a six, eight. Normally every player has two positions – Torreira is six, eight. Maybe also Elneny is six and eight. Xhaka maybe also six, eight. Matteo [Guendouzi] maybe six, eight or eight, six.

“Maybe another player, a more attacking player like Aaron Ramsey, he is more of an eight, 10 – but this possibility to play with two or three midfielders, it depends on each match whether to change or not and the demand in each match. Whether we can do one midfielder more either more attacking or more defensive, it depends.”

Against Manchester City, Arsenal used the 4-2-3-1 with Aaron Ramsey in the no.10 position to aggressively press high up the pitch. Against Chelsea, it was Ozil who started behind the striker, but his role in the press was markedly different in that, while he would also help Aubemayang at times to stop the ball coming into midfield, he generally stayed tight on Jorginho. Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi behind him then took Ross Barkley and Ngolo Kante respectively. Here, Arsenal used instead a sort of man-marking structure customised specifically for the way Chelsea build-up. Suffice to say it didn’t really work out as the Blues easily played through Arsenal, especially stretching Xhaka and Guendouzi sideways. Chelsea like to build with associations – triangles on either flank (Kante, Azpilicueta and Pedro on one side, Barkley, Alonso, and Willian on the other, more aggresive side) and as illustrated by the examples split Arsenal’s midfield, then took advantage with balls over the top as The Gunners struggled to get tight. Emery’s reaction in the second-half was seemingly therefore to drop off in the second-half and defend on the edge of the box to squeeze that space. By accident or design, however, it resulted in inviting more and more Chelsea towards their goal and it was no surprise that the winner came from Arsenal lacking an outlet to get out.

Essentially, however, in the first-half, neither side knew how to grapple with each other’s attacking system. Arsenal’s best moments were fleeting, though in them, created big chances. Ozil, Aubemayang, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi all missed from cutbacks or low, driven crosses. In these instances, Arsenal’s combination play was good, getting the really full-backs high, and allowing the two wide players to come inside and overwhelm the gapsto the side of the holding midfielder, Jorginho. Indeed, for the 18-pass move for the second goal, it was really enjoyable to see Mkhitaryan work across the pitch, overloading Jorginho’s zones before his low cross found Iwobi who similarly now drifted to the other side of the Chelsea man. Maurizio Sarri after the game, talked about how Chelsea in this period, needed to defend better the ball behind the midfield.

“We did very well in the last 25 minutes today, but we have to work and improve in the defensive phase, and we are not only talking about the defenders,” Sarri said. “If we want to defend by looking only at the ball, we need to stay very compact and press in the other half. In that 15 minutes, we were not able to do that, and so we were in trouble.

“We need to continue, and press and press and press in the other half, otherwise for us there may be a problem. We will be in trouble in the defensive phase and not able to move the ball like we did in the first 25 minutes. I hope in two months we will be able to play for 90 minutes like we did the first 25 minutes.”

For Emery also, it is a work in progress. The signs are positive in terms of the philosophy, the process, yet it might be the manager himself, rather than the players, who need to be more flexible here. Traditionally, and Pep Guardiola has been caught on camera saying it too, Emery is a 4-2-3-1 man and quickly, he has reverted to it. He has shown adaptability at PSG, accepting the possession approach, and that has semingly changed his outlook. In an interview with Marti Perarnau, he said “..my two outlooks from a defensive point of view [are]: 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. That’s the case with Marcelino’s teams, Quique Sanchez Flores’ teams, Saint-Étienne when we last played them…

“I am not ruling out the possibility of a 4-4-2. That’s not the idea that I privilege, but if it allows me to be more competitive, then I’ll go towards it without hesitating. We sometimes used it in Sevilla. I would put Banega in a playmaker position, and have him move to the second striker position without the ball. With two strong, physical players behind him, it provided me with the necessary cohesion to press.

“In my case, the idea was not to win the ball back and counter as quickly as possible, but rather to equip ourselves once we had the ball. What Guardiola’s Barcelona did magnificently. We win the ball off of them, but those bastards always won it back. And Pep is doing it with City now. High pressure and win the ball back to start again once in position.”

In his first two games of the season, Emery has deployed a mixed approach of the two he described. The key is now finding the balance.

Arsenal 0-2 Manchester City: Growing Pains

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In Unai Emery’s first game in charge, it was the passing, not pressing, which was the main focus. Petr Cech was under the most scrutiny during the game, and afterwards, he provided the best breakdown of Arsenal’s approach.

“We came to the game with our objectives to grow up as a team” he said, “to learn our way, how we want to play and obviously we had the task of doing it against one of the best teams, so it was difficult. But at times we did really well, and we put them under some pressure as well. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t find that final pass to finish the opportunities off.

“We set this out and I think you need to be brave to do that and carry on even when you know the pressure is coming and we managed to do so. There are things we need to improve, the second phase to go through that build up, but overall it was a positive performance.”

Cech himself was one of the key men in helping Arsenal build effectively, but he looked ungainly beginning attacks. Indeed, in one instance, he nearly passed the ball into his own net when the ball was played back to him by Matteo Guendouzi.

“I have to say that I enjoy it because I played under different managers with different styles and over most of my career I was always asked to play long, so this is a pleasant change for me and it will be very useful when you want to beat a team who controls the game through possession. You need to create the superiority in the back when you build up and obviously today they are very used to playing a high press and they did it very well. At times they put us under pressure but I think we did pretty well over the course of the game.”

Arsenal tried to go toe-to-toe with Man City in possession, to not let their opponent’s exert their influence on the ball, but there was clearly a gulf in experience in playing this way, and that’s reflected in the first-half stats. Arsenal attempted 42% of all their first-half passes in their defensive third, whilst it was only 23% for City – highlighting just how comfortable they are at playing out and finding practiced combinations on the pitch (and not to mention, getting through Arsenal’s press).

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Unai Emery surprisingly chose to go with a narrow 4-4-2 shape, going against nearly all the indications he showed in pre-season. In those friendly games, Guendouzi was the standout player due to the way he dropped between the two centre-backs to collect the ball and spread. Here, against Manchester City, that duty was shared with Granit Xhaka, and Arsenal struggled to find fluency. Indeed, before the season started, Emery himself seemed to intimate that to play with “three in the midfield” was the best shape to allow Arsenal to progress the ball properly. Against City, attempts to build from the back were clunky, with the full-backs often marked, and the attacking midfielders unable to recieve the ball between the lines. Instead, it relied heavily on Xhaka and Guendouzi to drop in mostly to the sides of the centre-backs, but no one to play it to. Below is where it initially didn’t work…

..and when Arsenal got it right.

Manchester City’s shape was a joy to behold. The amorphous approach caused Arsenal no end of problems.

And then switching off for the goal.

“Pep Effect” still looms large on elite club football

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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

ozil

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.