Gaps in the midfield as Fabianski gifts Porto the initiative

Two errors from Lukasz Fabianski handed Porto the advantage as Arsenal’s failed to put on the defensive show Arsene Wenger had asked of beforehand.

Four years Sol Campbell had to think of something different with his celebration but just as the Champions League final in 2006, jubilation was soon cut to disbelief as two errors handed FC Porto the initiative in the first leg. His header had put Arsenal level to mark his first appearance in the continental competition in three years and nine months this after Lucasz Fabianski inexplicably failed to hold on to a misplaced cross from Silvestre Varela to divert into his own goal. But indecision had already consumed the Pole and in a chaotic period in the match, transcended into hesitation for the veteran Sol Campbell.

The defender accidentally touched the ball back to Fabianski in the wariness that Falcao was breathing down his neck and referee Martin Hansson awarded Porto a free-kick for backpass. The Swede then proceeded to order the ball away from Fabianski’s hands and the home side displaying all their craftiness and opportunism in one moment, taking a super-fast free-kick which no Arsenal defender was ready for, Falcao resuming the simplest task of stroking the ball into the back of the net. Arsene Wenger was furious; the legality of taking an indirect free-kick was not in question should the ref allow it (although it put Arsenal in a no-win situation), and ordering the ball from Fabianski essentially stopped any time-wasting and delaying tactics. But Hansson was in a position no way advantageous to Arsenal or ready himself, impeding the likelihood of Campbell getting back. Contentious decision and contentious goal maybe, but Arsenal still had plenty of time to get back however the Gunners just fizzled out – unable to string two passes together in a stretched encounter. “Schoolboy goals. What can you do? Nothing. After the second goal, we went down,” said Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas. “We are still a little bit soft in that aspect. When we concede a goal we are not strong enough to lift ourselves up. Until the second goal we were having a very good game.”

The two sides were seemingly set-up in mirrored formations but certainly there was more ambiguity in Arsenal’s 4-3-3. Cesc Fabregas was pushed up right behind Nicklas Bendtner at most times while Arsenal’s defensive solidity was predicted to come in the form of a midfield shield but Diaby started slanting slightly to the left. Perhaps that disorientation is systematic of the Gunners defensive problems at the moment. Porto were initially able to profit greatly by doubling up down the flanks, bypassing Arsenal’s first wave of pressure and exposing the relative lack of cover in front. The full-backs motored up and down the wide channels all game and were among Porto’s most active players. Up front, Falcao in particular was industrious and had pushed Vermaelen and Campbell right down the pitch. Porto’s tactics were clearly to defend deep themselves and push Arsenal right back so as to create large spaces in front of the defence to exploit. There was no offsides showing Arsenal’s need to compress space better but on the other hand made difficult by Porto’s live wire front three and an extremely cautious backline.

“We played a good game against a difficult team,” said Porto coach Jesualdo Ferreira. “We showed initiative and left Arsenal with no options. Our forwards adopted strategic positions. Arsenal dominated some parts of the game but it was a balanced game and we also had lots of chances.”

But after falling behind initially, the Gunners played their way back into the match and displayed some neat football around the opposition penalty area. With Nasri and Rosicky on the flanks, it obviously meant less dynamism but Wenger wanted control and in an entertaining first forty-five minutes, Porto were finding it difficult to handle the quick passing. Cesc Fabregas was put on a shackling job by Ferreira and every touch was followed closely by the hungry Fernando – the Spaniard suffering nine fouls in the match. The second-half, however, could not have got off to a worse start as Arsenal fell behind but they were unable to provide any answers. The intensity and expansive nature of the game seemed to have took it’s toll and Wenger reacted, somewhat strangely perhaps to drop Diaby back and push Denilson higher to regain some control and calmness to the match. The Gunners, though, lost their urgency and a late assault at the Porto goal was just that. The tie is still firmly in the balance with Arsenal producing an away goal but the Gunners are in no way favourites – Porto displayed enough danger signs to show they can trouble Arsenal at the Emirates.

FC Porto: Helton, Fucile, Rolando, Bruno Alves, Pereira, Ruben Micael, Fernando, Raul Meireles, Varela, Falcao, Hulk. Subs: Beto, Guarin, Belluschi, Gonzalez, Maicon, Costa, Miguel Lopes.
Arsenal: Fabianski 3, Sagna 5, Campbell 7, Vermaelen 6, Clichy 5, Diaby 7, Denilson 6, Fabregas 6, Rosicky 5 (Walcott), Bendtner 5 (Vela), Nasri 6 (Eboue). Subs: Mannone, Ramsey, Silvestre, , Traore.

Porto Team Statistics Arsenal
2 Goals 1
1 1st Half Goals 1
6 Shots on Target 4
4 Shots off Target 4
6 Blocked Shots 5
2 Corners 9
20 Fouls 11
0 Offsides 0
4 Yellow Cards 1
0 Red Cards 0
46% Possession 54%
110110 Distance Covered (mt) 110086

30 thoughts on “Gaps in the midfield as Fabianski gifts Porto the initiative

  1. as shit as we played last night and we did…porto are an average side,although that doesn’t say too much about us either, we will cream them at home i can guarantee you-they ar poor trvellers & we will well fired up with hopefully a much stronger side.however,the quarters is a far as we’ll go as a beter side will find us out…

  2. For the sack of the wee man and the holy ghost , WILL YOU STOP SIGNING kids with POTENTIAL , is it a football team we have , or a training camp for potential footballers to sell them on and make our directors wealthy.


    1. I’m at a loss to understand – how does this make our directors wealthy? As we don’t pay our shareholders dividends, the only route to a profit can be to have a successful, stable football team, whereby they could sell on their shares at a higher price. I believe the money is there, and personally feel it’s imperative that we get a new goalkeeper, but paying other clubs for developing talent cannot always be the answer

  3. When you have clowns like Campbell ,Sagna ,Clichy and Gallas in defence
    thers,s no way of keeping clean sheets ,it,s that simple.

    1. I disagree with the notion that our defensive frailties stemmed from the back 4.

      I think, in general, our back 4 played very well last night, aside from a lack of concentration by Campbell on one occassion, as well as the ease with which Varela beat Clichy for the first goal.

      As the author mentions, our problems stemmed more from the space in between midfield and defence.
      It seemed that neither Denilson nor Diaby really looked to assume the position vacated by Song, which, in turn, forced Fabregas forward out of the congested central midfield.

      As such, we were outmanned in the centre – leaving Porto players with vast areas of grass to run into.

      I feel this situation is compounded by the inexperience and reatcive nautre of our midfield players.
      Ironically, the best defensive units work under the assumption that their teammates will make mistakes; this means that when mistakes are inevitably made, the players are in a far better position to cover.
      Whilst Diaby and Denilson both had good games, they let Porto’s runners get the wrong side of them far too often, which creates a level of ambivalence in our zonal marking system, and in turn, causes dissaray in the backline.

      In future, I hope that in Song’s absence, Wenger looks to play a Craig Eastmond of whom seems more than comfortable anchoring the midfield.
      I imagine that he has not been made eligible for the CL though, due to the great competition for midfield spaces.

      As a final point, I’d like to say that apart from two major blunders, Fabianski showed brilliant all-round goalkeeping technique.
      I, for one, would like us to persevere with him, in the hope that he can overcome his lack of composure and erratic decision making.

      Good article BTW 🙂

      1. Our system in itself had a huge flaw. We played some sort of a 4-2-4 variant with two half wingers and we did not even compress properly. Now that Nicklas is back, why can’t Cesc play a little deeper? I am sure Nicklas doesn’t need help in closing down the opponents. Our fullbacks also did badly. At least one of them should have moved further up to cover space and help Diaby and Denilson as Cesc wasn’t interested. I also don’t understand why Rosicky and Nasri were playing at the same time. They did not do their defensive work, that is they did not cover space or press effectively.
        And finally, Ovrebo is to refereeing what Lukas Fabianski is to goalkeeping. We need to do a youtube video on Ovrebo’s out of the world performances…

      2. It seems Wenger’s idea was to be a 4-1-4-1 in the attacking phase (Diaby attacking the long ball) but he drops back deeper in the defensive phase alongside Denilson. Your point about teh central midfield positioning is valid and it looks like Porto wanted to take full advantage of the lack of cover. I purposefully reserved criticism of Denilson and Diaby as it looked like they tried but had no real help – similarly the full backs who could have got tighter. The intensity and metal steel from the Liverpool game seem to have been lost.
        Fabianski should be shown faith but unless as you say, he is given matches it will be difficult for him to shake off his nerves.

  4. You all are a joke if you really think Porto can get ANYTHING at the Emirates. That record speak for itself and last nights performance wasn’t that bad other than fabianski ruining it with school boy errors. Also remember we had 5 key players missing but they won’t be missing in 3 weeks time though!!!

  5. I thought Fabregas’s post-match interview was really poor and immature. He’s the captain of the club and should be bringing up things like the blatant penalty that wasn’t given (How many now this season, it must be nearing fifteen or something), the fact that every touch he made was followed by a late challenge that would put him to the ground or the ridiculousness of the second goal. Instead he turned up without checking any replays and basically just said “Dunno, this is a schoolboy team”.

    I agree with Wenger’s assessment of the second goal, it wasn’t a backpass and I’ve never seen anything close to that given or anything similar happen after. The ball was “dead” and open play was dead yet the referee lets Porto take a quick free quick (closer than actual free kick spot) while he can see Fabianski is protesting to his assistant and he’s physically and visually blocking Campbell.

    Then again what do you expect from a referee who is pretty much renowned for his utter incompetence and delivering of controversial big game decisions which often make no sense time and time again.

  6. I think we can beat them at the Emirates, but what an absolute shocker from Fabianski. Agreed though, we had a lot of time to get an equalizer.

  7. 2-1 away from home is not a disaster, we got that crucial away goal which is so important in these two-legged ties.

    all we need to do is win at the emirates, which we will. expect another open game in which porto will give us a few problems, but arsenal will DESTROY them at the back.

    MY PREDICTION: Arsenal 4 or 5 Porto 0 or 1 max

  8. Paulo Sousa’s grasp of English may have made it difficult to understand but he made a good point in the analysis that backs up our analysis on squeezing play. With Arsenal stretching play, in the defensive transition, it is difficult to get back and close down quickly. They use much of their intensity to get forward but if it breaks down, are too tired to get back. That stil does not excuse them from a couple of instances where Nasri and Rosicky were lax tracking back. Also while Denilson was energetic and generally solid considering the space he had to cover, a bit more measured intensity is needed as Song has so expertly displayed this season.

  9. We were all looking for A performance that would say volumes about this Arsenal team. Well we got it. Unfortunatley it was the wrong one! We seem to be easily out manouvered and tactically we are certianly not one of the most adept teams. Yes we have injuries but with the talent on display last night we should have managed a better result.

    I was VERY disappointed in the ease at which Porto were able to cut through us at times. Our midfield was AWOL for most of this match. We continually keep getting beat down the left hand flank-how many more goals have we got to give away down this side for AW to realise that we are suspect here and Clichy is exposed!

    And what can i say about our goalkeeping! Better keep my mouth shut. Feel sorry for Lukasz but hey you either have it or you don’t and the poor lad appears to be the latter. AS a Gooner, I hope I am proved wrong.

    1. Cesc allowing Porto to get 3v2 in the central mid by being so high-up the pitch when we didnt have the ball was root cause of the midfield being so easy to play thru.

      Every we did match 3v3 in that area Porto fail to pass thru and ended up going backwards.

      Recovery into shape to stop counters is still a big weaknesses for us

  10. Fabianski has all the technical attributes. He is just so keen and eager to push up hence the wrong footing for the 1st goal. He also is erratic mentally. At least these things can be ironed out. I hope we persevere as he clearly has something. He made some good catches on crosses.

    As usual our errors cost goals. Its happened a lot this season. I’m sure no side has a mistake to goal ratio like ours. It must be 1:1!!!

    I feel we’ll need at least 2 goals to beat Porto and fear we will not keep a clean sheet.

  11. @ the brain, Very interesting that you had the term “gaps in midfield” in your headline, i thought Cesc was very tactically naive by allowing Porto to play with 3v2 bcuz he was so high-up the pitch when we didnt have the ball thus Porto were able to manuever the ball from middle to the flank were the had success.

    1. It did look like a specific tactic which was odd from Wenger as he wanted defensive solidity so I’d assuming that would come from a midfield shield – but it was all very assymetric in the most important part of the field. Cesc ran a lot – but much seemed like wasted energy and like you say, Porto – didn’t really exploit as such – but had joy.

  12. So, here’s a question. Is the 4-3-3 a success? Or did it simply work because teams hadn’t had the opportunity to find us out? I am really tired of seeing Clichy overrun on the right. It seems like our super LB has become quite ordinary.

    Also, what has happened to Eboue?I think a lot of teams will want him this summer if he doesn’t get more time for us. His dribbling and passing are simply excellent.
    I feel that our attack really comes to life when he is on the pitch, although Rosicky did pretty well today in that stage of the game.

    1. Difficult to say. We all know the start of the season was very much a success but the two defeats (City and United) show how crucial it is that injuries do not happen (no Arshavin – missing penetration and no Fabregas – missing his control).
      The teams moves have become less effective so Fabregas is pushed up even higher in attacking instances although he’s always been a pressurizer of the ball high up the pitch. Denilson or similarly Diaby were then able to cover to the left if required while we all know how much work Bendtner and Eboue get through on the right. There is some basis that Nasri and Rosicky are not intensive enough and on other moments, too high up the pitch to get back quickly.
      On one hand there seems mental fatigue, on the other the team is just not as effective. It seemed at the start of the season, some of the over elaborate possession keeping was lost. RVP’s movement helped create dynamism by giving the wide men and the central midfielders space to run.

      1. @The Brain, mentally, this team is very suspect. I heard from a very good source, that Fabianski was crying in the dressing room and on the flight back to London, so he will very unlikely to be in the squad this weekend. Without a strong and remorseless mentality, you will achieve nothing in the sport.

        Tactically, Wenger hasn’t been steadfast in dedication to a 4-3-3. When the tough times have come, he has resorted to the 4-5-1 of yesteryear that got us nowhere. I really don’t see where this playing Rosicky and Nasri wide will get us. If he does want to change, he should be more progressive, a 4-3-1-2 or a 3-5-2 or something. Ferguson made changes to a 3-5-2 when he had injuries, we have injuries and still do the same things with ‘inferior’ players.

        1. Fabianski had good reason to cry. He simply lost the game for us with two colossal mental errors. Hopefully we still win the tie. I would love to see Rosicky tucked in besides Cesc for the Sunderland game and Eboue played out wide. Diaby will be out and Rosicky’s dynamism in the middle could be welcome.

        2. The mental problem you allude probably on some level, hampers Arsene Wenger’s tactical changes. But on the whole he likes spaces on the pitch to be covered efficiently and I can’t see him regress from wide men, or indeed, he may feel, somewhat inefficient wing backs.
          But a tactical change may invogorate things and especially, by playing in a 4-3-1-2, the movement could be very effective. Certainly the defensive game would be better than it is already. One dimensional but dangerous also, Stoke could be a good moment to change things as they hate movement.

  13. I agree. For Sunderland play Song, Cesc and Rosicky in midfield and up front 3 of Nasri, bendtner and Eboue.

    Rosicky can be relied on to work hard and put in a shift in the centre as well as being effective going forward. Of course he can no longer play 90 mins so Denilson will come on and stifle.

    We have enough to beat Sunderland but I feel we will be flat and if Sunderland want to come and get at us early we could get caught

  14. Hi Brain, Great blog first time poster.

    I’m just following up from yesterday’s comments on ACLF. I did read your earlier article (am qualified to comment on the diagrams you made, not Football Tactics: I thought they worked well, really helpful. Probably time consuming but it would be great to see some more). I thought that your article had been referenced to make a more general and vague point.

    I enjoyed Paolo Sousa’s comments on ITV in Weds. too. Like the ITV commentators he also said that AFC made some early adjustments in that game that worked (a scary first few minutes, but including the adjustments, no more then you’d expect at that level). I haven’t watched it again, but his final assessment (I’m paraphrasing) was that in spite of his observations, & apart from those (unmentionable)! errors, AFC did OK, and he expects them to win the tie. Of course there’s always room for improvement (tactically).

    There’s a really interesting snippet towards the beginning of the Guardian Football podcast yesterday where the amiable sounding journalist Paul Doyle reveals an ongoing conversation he’s been having with AW: “What are your team’s weakness’?” is the question he asked at the beginning of the season and after the ManU/Chavs Games. If you haven’t already caught it, it was cool.

    Total tangent.

    Against Liverpool (a great, disciplined ‘tactical’ performance) right at the death Theo was getting a little jip from the home support.
    On a couple of occasions he could have run down the clock a little, but generally, I thought he was under instruction to help the team keep a compact shape, so for example Babel couldn’t slice through us, like in the CL SF, and so wasn’t pressing the Liverpool defence enough. In the end, a great bit of skill from Babel made him some space, but that was purely down to his skill, and Al’s save was brilliant. Were those accusing Theo of being too naive, themselves being naive? Actually, it’s not that much of a tangent, as I think AW’s answers in the reference above are relevant, if Theo was being a little slow. I also think it usually takes about a month for his brain to shake off the rust and catch up with his feet after an injury layoff. Fair enough, he is very fast.

    1. Hi nice to hear from you. I’ve been following the debate Arsenal’s defensive game on ACLF – we have gotten worse defensively since the start of the season and as you well know Wenger is not blind(!), so I think we can trust him to get it right.
      BTW- where do we find the podcast? Thanks

  15. There really isnt much tactical analysis to be done about this game. it all boils down to personell decisions that Arsenal has made strategically, specifically a refusal to invest in squad depth.

    Lets put it this way:
    1) If We had a proper goalkeeper and no the dropped Almunia would he have fumbled the ball into the net? No. And with a real #1, would we have beeen in a amore secure league positon for Fabianski to be getting more games by now in his career, yes.

    2) Why didnt we since September have all our defenders on the job? Had Sol or any expereinced defender been here since September, playing together there would be no dithering on the ball. I know certainly that Gallas would have whacked it out for a throw in right a way. Ditto for Vermalen.

    In the end this isnt about tactics. Its about Arsenal’s refusal to cull even a one or two of the weeds among the fringe players, in favour of. For example
    – cconsidering we have Arshavin and Nasri, what are BOTH Eduardo and Vela doing on the roster?
    – As Denilson clearly isnt physically enoough, fast enough or tactically good enough to displace – or sub for – both Song and Diaby’s position, why dont we have an experienced player on the roster instead who CAN?

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