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

Kroos-Gabi

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.

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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.

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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.

“My philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble” ~ Wenger

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Arsene Wenger has always been wonderfully inventive with who he casts in the role of Arsenal’s defensive midfielder, and sure enough Francis Coquelin’s pathway to the side has been no less remarkable. We know the story by now: on another non-descript loan in his fifth year at the club, Coquelin was recalled amidst an injury crisis in midfield. He wasn’t expecting to play because things don’t just happen like that, but little did he know that Wenger had birds watching every pass, tackle and mistake that he made, and each favourable/unfavorable report sent back to headquarters served to shape his very future. Luck had played his part too, but when everything down to the last detail concerns a man like Wenger, luck will eventually favour you.

A place had opened up in the side for Coquelin because of injuries – and also because, as Martin Keown revealed during Arsenal’s 2-0 FA Cup win over Hull City, Wenger was looking for someone that could provide the snarl and aggression that Mathieu Flamini did, but more crucially, play more proactively, pushing the team up the pitch. Coquelin did this, reinvigorating the side through the way he did things simply: winning the ball back and passing it quickly. At the same time, other pieces began to align: Mesut Ozil returned from injury back to his favoured position, Olivier Giroud came back like a dog unleashed, and Arsene Wenger could chose from a settled squad.

These things all come together to explain Arsenal’s unbeaten run which began in February and ended at the start of the week, against Swansea. What it showed that finding attacking chemistry takes time and continuing on the Coquelin theme, as does somebody who bends to the will of the side. As Tim Stillman writes for Arseblog, “for Wenger, the defensive midfielder is usually the last piece of his puzzle.” Yet, as we found out in the 1-0 defeat to Swansea, Coquelin is still some way from the perfect fit. He’s as good as Arsenal have got – a halfway house between Mikel Arteta and Flamini – though to be truly “The Answer”, he needs to add more subtlety to his game.

In that game, Coquelin was constantly found wanting as the outlet in possession at the back. In fact, he’s the exact opposite: a decoy when Arsenal have the ball in defence, looking to shuffle opponent midfielders this way and that to open up space for the centre-backs to pass through. Indeed, after the 3-1 win over Hull City, Wenger praised the way Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker stayed composed with the ball at the back, patiently waiting for an opening to develop. Coquelin by contrast, rarely took responsibility for this and in an opening 35 minutes, when Arsenal assumed a two-goal lead, he only made 9 passes. Against Swansea he was more involved yet hardly the pivot that you need when defences are set. Wenger, though, is inventive in that regard when details his midfielders to push up the pitch, to force the opponents back so that Arsenal can play as much as possible in their half. I expand on this tactic in my most recent Arseblog column.

In that game, he also asked Ozil and Santi Cazorla, in addition to Ramsey, to drop deeper for the ball and use their 1v1 ability to get into space or play the pass through. It will be interesting to see how this tactic will develop; whether it was the players who initiated this move by being drawn to the ball or Wenger is trying to draw the opponent’s backline out simultaneously – a la PSG – to play the ball over the top (thus the recent recasting of Theo Walcott up front).

Though the big issue is the role of Coquelin. Does he take it on himself to become a more nuanced midfielder? Because he is a far more subtle player than given credit for; his first-touch is clever which he uses to get out of trouble, while he has two good feet. And we haven’t seen his reaction if opponents press Arsenal up the pitch. Does he continue to follow the same movements away from the ball carrier? The call for him is not to become a playmaker but if he doesn’t get on the ball enough, then Arsenal’s fluency can suffer, especially if other attacking players, Ozil or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain say, are forced to come towards the ball and away from the goal. As Johan Cruyff used to say, if the holding midfielder is not involved in the build-up, then he becomes a “block”, stopping you from passing the ball out effectively. More pertinently he adds, “if you bring the ball out well initially, then you’ll play well. If you don’t do that then there’s no chance of playing well.”

Read my latest Arseblog Tactics Column: SWANSEA FRUSTRATE AS COQ BLOCKED

Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Gunners have more firepower

arsenal-everton-bellerin

Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Giroud, Rosicky

In between two desperate lunging headers, there was calmness, as Olivier Giroud put to bed a nightmare week to send Arsenal on their way to a 2-0 victory over Everton. His goal was trademark Giroud: a dash to the near post before guiding the ball into the bottom far corner. His other key trait, his heading, can fluctuate wildly as from outside play, Arsenal rely on his aerial prowess heavily; however, in front of goal, desperation seems to kick-in, as if scoring them should be a norm for him. Still, his greatest ability is perhaps his determination, as Arsene Wenger alluded after the win; that he kept searching for the chance.

The whole team too needed to respond and they did, although this was probably a more promising step forward than the other “reactions” we have witnessed this season following setbacks.  Previously, the response has been for Arsenal to stand off and cede possession just to give a little solidity to their defensive game in that sense, the Monaco game was a bit of an aberration, where the Gunners totally dominated) and although here, Wenger said “we could do better with the ball”, The Gunners were more proactive in their approach without it. As such, the game was more or less even (possession 48%/52%): when one team attacked, the other tended to press early then drop back into a compact shape. As 7amkickoff noted on Arseblog News, tackles (11-12), territory (50.5% – 49.5%), crosses (26-24), corners (8-9), seem to corroborate that but Arsenal were far more purposeful in the attacking third.

Arsenal try to press, centre-backs follow Lukaku

The early period, between 15-20 minutes, was dominated by Everton. Perhaps that was to be expected because Arsenal were always going to be a bit cautious after the 3-1 defeat to Monaco in midweek. On the other hand, Everton made it difficult for Arsenal to really gain a foothold in the match by being a bit risk-free themselves on the ball, stretching the pitch with the full-backs and looking to lure Arsenal out.

At times it worked, especially when they bypassed Arsenal on the flanks and had The Gunners forward players turned. It probably hints at Arsenal’s weakness as much as Everton’s strength when they push Seamus Coleman and Luke Garbutt forward because Arsenal’s press is not entirely co-ordinated.

It’s not unusual to see the forward players – namely Alexis Sanchez – gesticulate and cajole their team-mates to push up the pitch though no-one follows, or if they do, they usually do it with a brief burst of intensity. Indeed, Alexis’s pressing should be the signal for Arsenal to up their intensity; instead as he goes by himself, it often shows up the rest of the side, or has the unwanted effect of exposing the midfield. That’s the issue with Arsenal: there doesn’t seem to be clear understanding between the team on when to move up the pitch together, or what the triggers are to really up their intensity. Against Everton, that natural cautiousness meant Arsenal were able to retain a compact shape and cut out the passing lanes to Lukaku. Still, there were moments when the body twitched, and in that sense, it’s a tortuously fascinating experience to watch Arsenal grapple with the concepts of moving and reacting as a team together, as if Wenger asked them to analyse ten Salvador Dali paintings before sending them out on the pitch.

Thankfully against Everton the shape was more promising and the line just the right height not to allow Romelu Lukaku the chance to run behind. Still, Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny were diligent in their efforts to mark Lukaku, often following the striker across the pitch. It’s undoubted that having the two centre-backs in the backline aids Arsenal’s pressing strategy, to get the team up the pitch, because both players love to intercept and win the ball back early. In Wenger’s pressing game, whole team essentially has to man-mark and get tight, and Gabriel and Koscielny’s style might just be the platform to transform Arsenal into a better pressing outlet.

Ozil, Cazorla central to the way Arsenal create chances

Once Arsenal settled, the game proved to be an intriguing, if not entirely entertaining, example of how two sides noted for their treatment of the ball, can be so different. What the match showed is that possession football is diverse – as diverse as the game itself (as everybody passes the ball) – and that there is no such thing as a single, homogeneous style of build-up play.

Arsenal’s style is mainly position-based, and as such, it’s easy to identify the typical passing lanes. The centre-backs pick up the ball and look to feed one of the midfielders, in this case Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla (though neither is as adept in deep positions as the absent Mikel Arteta. Coquelin is improving, though he’s far from a prober, rather a player who uses his first touch to open up passing lanes), who in turn has the option of passing it to a myriad of attacking players who have committed forward in front of him. With this approach, Arsenal look to have as much of the play in the opponents half as possible and it’s up to the players, based on a know-how accumulated over time and matches, to find solutions.

Everton on the other hand, have the majority of their play at the back and are happy for it. Instead, they look to work space patiently by stretching the pitch as wide as possible in the hope that eventually, this will create a bit of space for one of the midfielders in the 4-3-3 to find a killer pass.

In this game, Arsenal were much better equipped, and with the attacking quality they have, looked to get them combining as often as possible quickly in tight spaces. The way Arsenal do this is by creating a numerical advantage on one part of the pitch by committing an extra man to the build up.* Naturally that suits Ozil, who loves to drift into the channels, though with Alexis going the other way, found it more fruitful to move to the left. Kieran Gibbs would then come haring down the touchline to offer an outlet to play a penetrative pass forward, or wait for Santi Cazorla who would push forward to create an extra man. The aim is to create numerical advantage through overloads; situations of 3v2, 2v1, or 4v3, particularly in tight spaces and then suddenly break through with a incisive pass or late run.

arsenal everton

There was was a bit of apprehension about Arsenal’s play against Everton that meant they didn’t quite profit from these moments as they might have, (because those moments against Monaco were when Arsenal over-committed) though the best moments that wasn’t goals featured such build-up. Hector Bellerin’s blocked chance halfway through the first half and two Santi Cazorla long range efforts a few such examples. In the end, Arsenal showed the special quality that they have above Everton to make the difference; Olivier Giroud’s expert finish and then Ozil’s fantastic cutback to find Rosicky which sealed the win.

*
Mikel Arteta explains how Arsene Wenger cultivate moves like this in a feature for Four FourTwo Performance:

“At Arsenal, we do a lot of exercises where you have to play through the mannequins, but you can use cones. This is a great drill because it’s real; you’re moving and finding the holes to play the diagonal pass, just like in a match.

“The drill starts with player one passing the ball through two mannequins to player two, who with one touch steps through the next two mannequins. He then passes the ball to player three on the outside. Player three returns the pass and begins his run around the three mannequins, forming a triangle

“Playing one-touch football, player two and three exchange passes between mannequins one, two and three. Once player three has run past mannequin three he plays the ball back to player two and sprints around mannequins four and five.

“Receiving the pass, player two takes one touch through the mannequin gate and plays a diagonal pass to player three as he runs past mannequin five.

“The process repeats itself, with each player swapping positions in a clockwise direction. This drill will help you during a game when out to create two versus one situations against a defender.

“It’s also great for finding the spare man. Think of player two as a midfielder and player three as a full back or winger on the overlap.”

Arsenal gunned down in derby stand-off

Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Arsenal

There is a fantastic conversation, in Issue Four of The Blizzard, between Didier Deschamps and Jean-Claude Suaudeau, where the former World Cup winner (and now France coach), mentions that in today’s game, there are “two zones of truth…if you’ve got a great keeper and a great striker, you’re not that far from victory.” Set against the backdrop of Barcelona’s impending Champions League triumph in 2011, a 3-1 win over Manchester United, Deschamps comments may have come about due to the helplessness one feels when facing the Catalan side. Naturally, Suaudeau, a former coach of Nantes and someone who is from the same philosophical bloodline as Arsene Wenger, disagreed. He said that “a game is won in midfield. Only the midfielders are able to find the right way to play. They are the animators. They are the inspiration. The more players of that kind you’ve got, the more you can hope to win in the long term.”

As it happened, he was proved right, as Manchester United were comprehensively outplayed in the final, suffocated by Barcelona’s asphyxiating press and expert ball manipulation.

Yet, after Arsenals 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday afternoon, it was hard not to side with Deschamps. Had Arsenal had a high-class finisher up front, perhaps The Gunners would have made more of their fleeting but mainly promising forays forward. And between the sticks, if David Ospina had exuded more confidence, perhaps he wouldn’t have meekly flapped at Moussa Dembele’s header before the ball fell to Harry Kane to equalise. At the end of the game, that’s the line Wenger chose to go with, saying that Arsenal gave “two cheap goals away”, the winner from Kane originating from an unchallenged cross from the left-wing.

However, that’s altogether too simplistic a way to explain the result, and conveniently absolves the team from what was a strange performance. Arsenal were out-passed by Spurs, which was not altogether a surprise considering that that’s been The Gunners’ tactic in the last few games: to sacrifice a bit of possession for the good of the team structure. Yet, it was the knock-on effect – what people described as “being out-fought” – that was the most galling aspect of the defeat.

Wenger hit the crux of the issue when he said that once Arsenal went ahead, they “thought too much about defending, and not enough about playing.” In other words, the gameplan which has broadly served them well recently, to stand-off, soak up pressure and keep opponents roughly at hands length, became self-pervading, such that when Arsenal got the ball, possession became almost an anomaly – unnaturally to the overall pattern of the game – and the players were almost dumbfounded with what to do with it. Indeed, they were often so far deep that they were unable to play the ball out, while Spurs’counter-press confounded the misery.

Loss of possession (through miscontrol/dispossession). Arsenal = red (mainly in own half), Spurs = blue (mainly in attack)
Loss of possession (through miscontrol/dispossession). Arsenal = red (mainly in own half), Spurs = blue (mainly in attack)

Key attacking players had off days; not least Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla, the midfielders who Suaudeau says set the tone of how you play. In the case of Cazorla, so mesmeric in Arsenal’s recent good form, was harassed each time he got the ball and not even his ambidexterity was able to get out of the swarm of white shirts that surrounded him. Ramsey was even more of a disappointment, either miscontrolling the ball or running into blind alleys. It didn’t help that there was very little structure when Arsenal got the ball, and because they were so deep, relied instead on impossibly quick combination play at the edge of their own to progress up the pitch. It’s no wonder that they resorted to playing long-balls to Olivier Giroud: – which, on another day would have been a perfectly good response to evading Spurs’ press (Ospina to Giroud, 14 times, was Arsenal’s most frequent passing combination). Instead, the French striker increasingly had to funnel deep for the ball and even when Arsenal found him, there was little strategy behind except rely on his muscularity, and hope that Danny Welbeck could neglect his defensive duties for a moment to get close to him. In those instances that he did, he looked dangerous, essentially creating the opening goal with his run, yet on other occasions, his narrow positioning allowed Danny Rose get forward unopposed.

With Arsenal losing so late, it’s understandable that some chose to assign defeat to two errors (though that explanation disregards everything that happened before – namely the pressure that Spurs put Arsenal under prior) and that Deschamps says the two most important players are the goalkeeper and the striker: there’s so much in between that is unknown. Especially considering the midfielders Arsenal had, it’s hard to understand how their considerable know-how didn’t inspire the team, and allow them to pass through Spurs’ first line of pressure. For some, you can pinpoint to Arsene Wenger laissez-faire coaching stylewhich compels the man on the ball to find solutions himself rather than through rigid instruction. For others, it was as simple as key players not “turning up.” That might be closer to the truth. As Wenger says, the way Arsenal play is fragile. “Our game is [about] psychology and the mental aspect. In the final part of the game when the result is not settled, it’s always very important.”

Against Manchester City, Arsenal were the underdogs with a poor record against the top sides, thus had nothing to lose. At Tottenham, the drop-off-and-let-them-have-the-ball strategy conflicted with their underlying philosophy and belief of being technically superior to most other sides. Cautiousness pervaded their whole play such that it becamethe approach. Santi Cazorla, who perhaps symbolises what Arsenal are about at the moment, was the first to be replaced, not necessarily because of his inability to find a team-mate, but mainly because he was far too passive in defence.  In that case, you might ask why Wenger didn’t ask his team to push up 10-15 metres up the pitch. The answer is probably that the team didn’t know how to because the pressure from Spurs was incessant.

The strategy off sitting-off and defend as a compact block in their own half is something which Wenger usually deploys in certain, difficult moments of the season, as he did last season against Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool – though Arsenal were battered in the final two games – and certainly, it’s a viable tactic with the right motivation. The Brazil 1970 team were one such team who were convinced to work as a collective and drop off “behind the line of the ball” as a 4-5-1 because coach, Mario Zagallo, said his “team was not characterised by strong marking.”Similarly you can say the same thing about Arsenal who brought in Welbeck for his industry while Francis Coquelin, in holding midfield, was one of the few players who stood out. In the end, however, Arsene Wenger paid for his team’s own callowness, an approached that tipped too close to defensive than Arsenal are used to.