Five points on Arsenal 1-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers

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Since Mick McCarthy was charged for fielding a weakened team against Manchester United in 2009, he hasn’t been the same. Not just that he won’t roll over again against “stronger” opposition so easily but he’s rarely had to make the same drastic reshuffle to his pack. Because it was he who was one of the first to highlight the importance of rotation to the mainstream media so it’s slightly strange he hasn’t been pressed to do so (though that may be because Wolves play much less matches than top Premier League sides). “I read an article where Carlo Ancelotti had said that the risk of injury in one game is 10%,” said McCarthy justifying his changes in that infamous game. “And then that goes up to 30% or 40% if another intensive game follows in three or four days. We believe that anyway, but that came from the Milan Lab research centre set up by AC Milan.”

Indeed, that’s been the trend in the Premier League this season; unforced rotation has almost non-existent amongst the top clubs this season because they’ve just been unwilling to deviate from a formula. Arséne Wenger may have thought about resting Robin van Persie had his team played on the same day as everybody else but the dropped points from his closest challengers gave Arsenal an window of opportunity they had to take. One of those changes saw Yossi Benayoun slot in on the right, making only now, his first league start for Arsenal as Wenger finally budged on his three striker system. Nevertheless, Benayoun was detailed to play more of a direct style instead taking a creative role although he still contributed with the assist for Arsenal’s only goal. But, such has been their luck this season, Wolverhampton equalised though a fortuitous goal and then survived an onslaught in the final third of the game as goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey performed heroics to deny Arsenal.

1. How the changes saw Arsenal shape up

As mentioned Benayoun started on the right although he constantly swapped positions with Gervinho throughout the game. Tomas Rosicky also began the game and much of early impetus came through him. As Ramsey has, Rosicky undertook a energetic role although with a bit more finesse and was unlucky that some of his through passes did not find their men. Indeed, the front men started so dangerously in the first thirty minutes but in lacking that conviction in the final third, it always gave Wolves hope, even if they hardly saw any of the ball. At the end of the game, as Arsenal threw everything forward, it wasn’t necessarily creativity that suffered although Wenger might not have saw it that way; they just could find a way past Hennessay. Wenger on the other hand felt Arsenal betrayed a bit of their technical philosophy and they should have kept a calmer head. Perhaps that’s why Benayoun was taken off even though he might have been the type of player which suits that occasion. Benayoun had a pass accuracy of 61% and although he created two chances, his care-free approach saw him replaced.

<Figure 1> Yossi Benayoun’s game is certainly laden with risk as he seeks to attempt the killer-option. He may have been partly inaccurate but it presents Arsenal a different option; one which none of the wide players have. The issue is, will Wenbger deviate from his three striker ploy?

2. Robin van Persie more dangerous as the orthodox striker

Van Persie has an extraordinary goalscoring record this season but he’s also taken a ridiculous number of shots. Against Wolves, van Persie attempted 12 shots with five on target. He should have probably scored and he looked more dangerous, as he has all this season, playing up the pitch. His movement was fantastic and as well as getting behind on more than a number of occasions, he dragged the Wolves defence all-over the pitch. On the other hand, his link-up play can be erroneous as a heavy touch and too much time on the ball can retard his impact. His spontaneity has been his biggest strength and while he was unable to use it to his full advantage and he became desperate after the break, he was still Arsenal’s best chance of winning.

<Figure 2> Van Persie pass received and shots attempted.

3. When nothing goes right, nothing goes right for Arshavin

Andrey Arshavin isn’t having the best of relationships with the fans; his introduction was met with groan and bemused looks and some things he attempted achieved the same reaction. He had one snap shot, showing the unpredictability Wenger was banking on. His chalkboard below isn’t so interesting except that what failed, happened on the right; the rest was accurate. It probably shows that he is not a crossing type – that of which he attempted at the end of the game from the right – while he mostly looks to play quick and go’s inside – the ones on the left. His position echoes another substitute’s, Marouane Chamakh, who again failed to make an impact. His time is ticking.

<Figure 3>Andrey Arshavin’s peculiar pass chart.

4. Aaron Ramsey: a viable full-back option?

As Arsenal chased the winner, they dropped Aaron Ramsey into full-back. His first contribution after his immediate arrival was to drive at the Wolves defence, nearly putting in Robin van Persie. He was later playing at right-back and was able to provide the passes and drive Johan Djourou was not. Certainly this was against backs-to-the-walls opposition therefore Wolves were unable to test his defensive game but with wing-backs being an important part of Arsenal’s play, perhaps is not such a far-right option.

5. Wolves defend in a pack

Wolves deserve some praise – if indeed most. Arsenal played well but ultimately failed to break through and that must go down to some brave defending and a little bit of luck. A moral victory may be that they forced Arsenal to crosses and not enough ground play in the final quarter of the game. Nevertheless, the defence and crucially, Wayne Hennessey, got in the way for Arsenal.

http://arsenalcolumn.co.uk/2011/01/24/arsenal-turn-up-the-style-and-add-tactical-steel-as-well/

Arsenal 3-0 Wigan Athletic

Arsenal are winning over their doubters – and they are doing it in typical style. Match of the Day pundit and former Liverpool defender, Alan Hansen, has perennially shrugged off Arsenal’s title chances but now sees them as Manchester United’s closest challengers.

But beneath their impressive form lies something more substantial, something a bit un-Arsenal even about their performances. Their is a mental focus and maturity, which, in past seasons may have had a knock-on effect on consistency. Their is a resilience also – owing to their cleans sheets in the last four matches – and a tactical obduracy which perhaps we have not seen during the second-half of the decade gone by. And despite missing a hat full of good chances here in the 3-0 win over Wigan Athletic, there seems to be more sting in Arsenal’s play. Theo Walcott adds directness and Cillit Bang to Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie’s flash and dazzle while Alex Song and Jack Wilshere do the dirty work behind. The back four looks more of a unit as well and that understanding was displayed when Wigan came out of the half-time interval with greater intention. Arsenal dropped back to make two straight lines of four and if needed, the wide forwards tracked the opposition full-backs all the way back. However the test is yet to come for The Gunners.

It starts against Ipswich Town on Tuesday, where we will see if the changes can produce the same level of intensity and concentration they displayed in their last four league matches. In those quartet of games, Arsenal has settled on their preferred line-up and it has been noticeable in the domestic tournaments, that the replacements have lacked the same fluidity and structure. If injuries plague the side as they do in the ensuing part of the season and as it so fatefully did in the 2007/08 season, or indeed, just the need to rotate, Arsenal need all squad members adhering to the team’s requirements.

The blueprint to Arsenal’s form

  • Pressing and structure

That such request wasn’t quite the same for Andrey Arshavin, who has often been afforded a liberty different to his team-mates. Arsène Wenger makes frequent reference to his numbers and indeed, he is often utilised as Arsenal’s impact player but at what impact on the team’s structure? His selfishness is part of his charm as you can expect him to make a key contribution given the moment however it has become obvious that the Russian can’t be relied on to put a defensive shift. This bearing in mind also, his role on the left is already highly subsidised. That is not to sound like a unnecessary attack on Arshavin but it is to highlight how a change of personnel can affect a team’s dynamic. By shifting Nasri on the left and bringing in Walcott, Gael Clichy is given protection and Arsenal are less lop-sided. They can also cover ground better, as in the past, it left a lot of work for Song and Wilshere to get through.

The other notable change is that of the centre-back pairing. Laurent Koscielny was identified by Wenger as the defender to fit in strategically to Arsenal’s plans and while Sebastian Squillaci had a place in the manager’s mind, he was brought in later in the summer transfer window. His injury enforced Djourou’s prolonged run of games at the back and has given the team more balance. Squillaci offers a first-ball/second-ball partnership but the profile perhaps doesn’t complement Arsenal’s way of playing. The two defenders must be all-rounders therefore allowing the side to push up and play a high line. Djourou’s strength is aerially and that is why he was brought in against Chelsea but he also has a technical ability and mobility that Squillaci didn’t have, that forced Arsenal to defend deeper.

The pressing from The Gunners is more structured now; more sensible and strategic than intense whereas last season, it may have looked like a flurry of shirts blindly at the ball. Arsenal follow the Dutch principle of “through marking” which means eliminating the next pass through tight-marking. For example when a midfielder, such a Cesc Fabregas pushes out and presses an opponent, his team-mate(s) must back him up by getting tight and eliminate all other passing options. Below is the graphic illustrating the use against Wigan’s 4-3-3.
a-v-wigan

<Figure 1> Arsenal’s pressing this season is more focused on stopping the pass through midfield.Against Chelsea, Arsenal did that expertly. They let the centre-backs have possession of the ball but ensured it was difficult to build out play forward. John Obi Mikel was pressed tight in the first-half and when he was taken off in the following half, Arsenal gained their two goals by intercepting Michael Essien. It was a tactical blunder by Chelsea who, by stripping themselves of the best ball circulator, made them susceptible to the press. Against Manchester City, they were less intense but similar made it difficult for them to play the ball out. Wigan had a good amount of the ball, particularly in the start of the second-half but Arsenal’s quick closing down of space, this time in defence, made it non-threatening possession.

  • The universal striker

“Van Persie is a technical striker with short, sharp movements and [he] can bring other players in, said Wenger.” “In our system that is very important. He works hard for the team like all the other strikers and he is a left-footed player who gives different angles in the build up of the game. He depends on his physical sharpness.”

A key feature of the win against Wigan was the amount of times the Arsenal midfielders took up central positions despite Robin van Persie bagging all three goals. The Gunners had twenty-four shots, the front four making up the majority of them. Van Persie’s movement brings others in and he profited for his hat-trick by Walcott taking a central role. Van Persie was then able to proceed unmarked to poke in the third. Fabregas’s burst helped win the penalty and generally, Arsenal’s build up around the box was too wizardry and pacey – as Hansen noted – for Wigan to cope. The triumvirate of van Persie, Fabregas and Nasri in particular looks scintillation and with the technical excellency being backed up behind, it has put Arsenal in a good position for the second-half of the season.

Ten conclusions to make from Arsenal’s season

Despite another implosion late in the season, the Gunners have plenty of positives to take forward to next season.
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1. Arsenal have learned how to defeat the “lesser” sides

The fact that Arsenal remained in the title race for as long as they did, despite losing both times to Manchester United and Chelsea, and falling away at Tottenham and Manchester City, was very much due to Arsenal’s new-found ability to beat the bus. In previous seasons, sides who set out with ten men behind the ball knew full well that the tactic could seriously decrease the Gunner’s effectiveness. Arsenal only wanted to play through them and that made it easier to defend against.

To counter that, Arsene Wenger sought his side to be more dynamic. His idea – borrowed from the philosophies of Dutch Total Football and adapted by Johan Cruyff at Barcelona – was to stretch play to create more space and hence more angles to attack from. The result saw the making of Robin van Persie in a hybrid striker role and the midfielders late runs, particularly at the start of the season, disrupting the opponents marking systems. “I believe the midfield was not a problem this year because we created so many chances from midfield and we dominated nearly all the games in midfield,” said Wenger at the end of the season.

The goal tally dipped towards the latter stages of the campaign yet Arsenal’s increasing  mental strength allowed them to turn adverse situations into positive ones by scoring a number of late winners. “The manager trusts us to do the job,” said Alex Song. “If the referee says we have four minutes or two minutes left then the boss says ‘don’t panic, be confident and play’. That means if the opposition team drop we have the chance to score. The mentality has changed for us.”

2. Robin van Persie may just be world-class

Arsene Wenger believes Robin van Persie is on par with the likes Lionel Messi and Xavi and indeed, the coming World Cup may prematurely bring forward that assertion but the Dutchman feels that can only be justified on the back of an injury-free season. And certainly, the stats do highlight another case of “what could have been” as in the sixteen games he has played in the league, van Persie has scored 9 goals (a conversion rate of 17%) and made 7 assists – meaning he has made a direct contribution to the result at least once in every game. Arsenal felt the brunt of his absence also as in the 17 games he did play in all competitions before his injury, the club scored 51 goals, an average of 3 goals per game. In the middle period without van Persie, 53 goals were scored in 30 games – the average dipping to just over 1.5 goals per game. (There are two keys factors in this stat; the fact that Nicklas Bendtner returned helped boost the goal tally somewhat while a small period where Arsenal had fought their way back in to the title race also saw an upturn of goals. But for the most part, the Gunners lacked a forward which seriously hampered their goal threat).

Van Persie’s involvement as the spearhead of the attack will surely also mean any evaluation of where the team goes will take into account his vast improvement. Becoming the focal point of Arsenal’s style and it could be argued he revolutionised the dual role up front. His movement created space for the midfielders to run into while developing a goalscoring instinct in the box. “Robin Van Persie, when he played we always scored three or four goals,” said Wenger earlier this season. “He didn’t score too many [himself] but he made a lot. Not only with passing, but with movement and the quality of that movement. Strikers open walls for the deeper players. That is a big part in the modern game.”

3. Gunners must make more of wide positions

A key aspect of switching to the 4-3-3 is that it gives Arsenal more natural width. That may seem a problem, however, given that Arsenal do not play with traditional wingers in the outside forward roles but in the modern game, wide players are expected to perform a number of different functions. The current trend is for teams to play “inverted wingers” giving them an added dimension in the attack. That means goals are more likely to be scored by wingers by cutting in on their preferred foot while it also creates more unpredictability in the team’s movement and the decision to cross the ball or dribble.

The Gunners wide men, given that the ball has reached the channels more than ever this season, must realise their importance in providing greater dynamism and variation to the attack. Arsenal’s crossing success, before the 4-0 at Fulham was the lowest in the league at 16% (the Premiership average is 21%) with the cross success from the right hand side at 18.5% and the left, 12.7%. Bakary Sagna has visibly improved his crossing this season and upon the recommendation of William Gallas, told to make more runs on the inside similar to Emmanuel Eboue. But given the slight lack of movement and willingness to get in the box – especially seen in the middle stages of the season where the Gunners lacked a natural forward – there is still a slight apprehension in delivering the ball into the box quickly.

4. Arsenal must invest in their own Milan Lab

You can blame the part-artificial turf on the Emirates pitch, the movement the players have to exert in a typical matchday or just plain old bad tackling but whatever the reason, there is no doubt Arsenal need to develop their own injury-assessment centre. The most famous of which is the Milan Lab (interestingly enough also situated in Milan) which has successfully prolonged the careers of a number of players so much so that they feel maximum age for a top-class footballer is now 40 (as opposed to the 34 previously thought).

Bruno Demichelis, now at Chelsea, and his team pioneered the ground-breaking work at the fitness lab by analysing data to see how they can predict and therefore reduce injuries suffered by their players. Non-traumatic injuries have now decreased (that means muscle pulls etc.) to around 80-90% and are looking to identify structural problems in players by using chiropractic techniques that may lead to injuries (Tomas Rosicky could benefit greatly from this). In 1996, Arsene Wenger revolutionised the club, from everything from the diet to the way they play, and seemingly the next step is to develop a fitness reasearch centre of their own to make Arsenal a truly modern superclub . “The first step to prevention is to analyse the problem and keep stats,” says Jan Ekstrand, Head of UEFA’s medical committee. “The second is to evaluate the mechanisms behind injuries, the third to introduce preventive methods, and the fourth to evaluate these methods have worked.”

5. Gunners yet to get their heads around pressing in the 4-3-3

Pressing has always existed in Arsenal’s system but not more important has it been upon the implementation this season of the 4-3-3. In previous seasons, the framework in the flexible 4-4-2 was provided in the form of zonal-marking – the positions and when to press were more or less rigidly defined. The current formation, as Denilson has particularly found out, can seem to fluctuate between a number of systems and that defeats the desired organisation of the side. Typically, pressing is done according to the Dutch framework of “through-marking” on account of the need to stretch the play. For example when a midfielder pushes out and presses an opponent, his team-mate(s) must back him up by getting tight and eliminate all other passing options. However, in moments where the opposition bypasses the first wave of pressure and commit numbers forward, that could often leave gaps ripe for exposure and the system of through-marking itself then become exposed. A good pre-season, correcting the faults of the pressing system is very much-needed to give the side the “defensive efficiency” Wenger is looking for.

6. Mature heads needed in a learning environment

The impact of Sol Campbell translates far greater than his exerts on the pitch. Off the pitch, he is a wise head who offers years of experience and know-how in the game and that is very much-needed in Arsenal’s environment of learning. Arsene Wenger’s desire is to breed an organic connection between each player to create an almost telepathic understanding but imaging the benefits of having a senior member of the “Invincibles” around – someone to give crucial advice in situations not yet experienced.

Wenger has blamed the maturity of the players in key games this season and indeed, that developing mental strength means it hampers his tactical flexibility. The young players have made huge strides this season and the experiences they’ve encountered will make them stronger for next season but mature heads could mean – whether a part-time coach like Martin Keown or a seasoned-pro – a quicker transition from a player of potential to one of great substance.

“It is important you have players like Silvestre, Sol Campbell and Almunia, who are very influential,” says Wenger. “They have done it before so players listen to them.” In short, Arsene Wenger can’t afford to see the back of one of Gallas and Campbell, and certainly not the both of them.

7. The Joy of Song

It’s difficult to praise Alex Song this season without treading in the vicinity of a pun. Put simply, his performances in the centre of midfield have been unsung. Quite why that is the case may be because of his seemingly languid style and certainly, in the first parts of the season, his tackles may have seen to be a bit clumsy. However, the stats show that is not the necessarily the case, as he has the highest success rate of tackles won in the side (83.9%), making 87 tackles and 89 interceptions. But the Cameroon midfielder is much more than an enforcer as he plays with an almost beastly grace, often seen pirouettes and tip-toeing away from markers and passing with great assurance. Probably Arsenal’s most improved player this season, making a metamorphic rise and the greatest example of Wenger creating an environment to allow the embryonic development of his players.

8. Cesc Fabregas is still king

Anything that happens in the summer concerning the club will no doubt revolve around Arsenal’s talismanic skipper. There is news already that Barcelona are preparing a bid to bring back their prodigal son to Camp Nou after landing David Villa but there is a club that need him more. Cesc Fabregas has had another stupendous season, weighing in with 15 goals and 13 assists in the league and at the ripe old age of 23, carries much burden in the way Arsenal play. No player has made as much forward passes in the championship as him and that highlights the creative responsibility and balance weighed on Fabregas’ shoulders. “I believe in them [the players] because if you compare them two years ago and this year they are tremendously improved,” evaluates Wenger, before adding. “And if they continue to play together, especially with Fabregas, they have a good understanding.”

9. Goalkeeping gloves in uncertain hands

It’s an over-simplistic view that the goalkeepers are to blame for the number of goals shipped in (as our analysis shows that the quality of chances the Gunners allow is far greater than opponents allow due to the expansive style of the team) but neither Manuel Almunia or Lucasz Fabiasnski commanded the presence and confidence in the defence that is required. How you achieved that is almost mythical as Jens Lehmann’s career has always been clouded with mistakes and calamities but somehow rose to the respect of his team-mates.

“As a player, I learnt very quickly that, when you are at Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and now Chelsea, you have to be more than just a good technical goalie,” says former Arsenal goalkeeper and coach, Bob Wilson. “You can`t really coach presence. It is an indefinable thing, but I believe in it so much. Once you have passed the first exam to prove you can play – and Manuel and Lukasz have – then the bit you have to pass is that extra dimension. It`s the bit that marks you out from the rest. That is the one area that is lacking.” What is certain, however, is that goalkeeping is very much a confidence thing and neither first choice or second are in that zone yet.

10. Arsene Wenger still the right man for the job

Now that the debt clouds are clearing we should see a more proportional Arsenal and despite the increasingly uncertain environment, Arsene Wenger has navigated the club admirably through and kept them competing year after year. Signings will have to be made and are going to be made – and no one has a better eye for talent that Wenger. Arsenal will compete next year…

Analysing Arsenal’s pressing system

Arsenal’s pressing game has suffered since the start of the season mostly due to a matter of distances.
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Shortened names are all the rage these days. From Subo (Susan Boyle), R-Pat (Robert Pattinson) and Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), it’s a wonder they still haven’t thought of one for Babyshambles front man Pete Doherty. And after Barcelona swept all before them to bag six trophies last year, with Bordaeux and Chile prevailing as underdogs doing it, Arsenal became the latest side at the start of this season to adopt football’s trendiest tactic – that of “high intensity pressing.”

Enter the first game and a swirling cloud of red, snapping and snarling at the heels of each Everton player, giving them no time to rest, was a welcoming surprise from a jittery pre-season campaign trialing the same tactics. Somehow such usually difficult opponents were swatted away with great ease and efficiency also, and it was not just defensively Arsenal had found improvements on – the Gunners put six past Everton. Arsenal were voracious in attack, averaging around three goals per game and even though they leaked the odd goal, it seemed at last Arsène Wenger had found the right balance and the players were tactically maturing. But fast-forward to defeats at Barcelona, Tottenham and Wigan and that pressing system has started look fragmented, no less exposed by the Catalan side and their pressing standards.

Why Pressing is Important in the 4-3-3

As Barcelona have shown, pressing is as much an art to them as a through ball, with Pep Guardiola claiming that his side would not be as effective as they are were it not for the mechanism put in place of pressing the ball when it is lost. And after watching Barca’s dismantling of Arsenal in this year’s Champions League, many felt that that was the key difference between the two teams – that Barcelona had a more thorough defensive system in place to complement their attacking style. The need to press in either sides variant of 4-3-3 is a pertinent one as it allows allows the side to remain compact in a way not offered by most formations. Typical formations are more concerned with zones therefore when possession changes hands, they can more easily fall back into a defensive block to retain their shape and press within. “There is less high-intensity pressing from the front in advance areas (in top-level European football),” says Fulham boss Roy Hodgson. “This is partly because concern of the interpretation of the offside law has led to teams to play deeper. Sides are sill compact, but this is mainly in their own half of the pitch.” Teams who played a similar style – the Ajax sides of the late 60’s0/early 70’s, Dynamo Kyiv and Holland in ’74 – were able to do this because the interpretation of the offside law meant they could play in a small area of the pitch to squeeze the opponents.

The 4-3-3 deployed by Barcelona and Arsenal is unique in that, when in possession, in order to be dynamic in attack and offer more angles in the pass, the side is required to stretch play up the pitch. However that is also what makes it such a specialised formation in the modern game because the danger is, when you lose the ball, the distances between your players will be large and thus presents a great opportunity for opponents to exploit. Therefore, the need arises for the team to compress space and that is best served by pressing the opposition when the ball is lost. Which sounds simple enough, however, pressuring still requires a structure –  a framework –  which all players should be willing to conform to. And that, in essence, was the gulf in execution between Barcelona and Arsenal in both legs of the quarter-final.

A Matter of Distances

Much of Arsene Wenger’s talk early in the season was one of maintaining correct distances and indeed the different defensive assignments he gave to his players led him to label the formation as a 4-1-4-1. The midfield four behind Robin van Persie as it were, were to pressure along the same band as each other with Alex Song the self-titled stopper of counter attacks.

The auxiliary left central midfielder was to have a stabilizing role – one to cover for the left forward (who was usually Andrey Arshavin because of his tendency to drift infield) and the other, to drop slightly more deeper to help out Song.

That ploy would of course allow Cesc Fabregas to push further up the field and enable the captain to exert greater influence between the lines and pressure higher. However, slowly but surely, as Arsenal’s goals dried after van Persie’s injury, Fabregas was pushed closer to the main forward in order to create goals but rather than it multiplying his impact, it proceeded to inadvertently upset the balance of the side.

That problem was in part highlighted in the 2-1 defeat against FC  Porto, where Swansea manager Paulo Sousa, commentating for ITV Sport, mentioned that Arsenal’s problem with pressing was in balancing their intensity. The gap between attack – the first line of pressure – and defence was too large and that made it a difficult transition from the attacking phase to the defensive phase. So if Tomas Rosicky, starting on the left in that game, pressured the right-back high up the pitch – of which he attempted on a number of occasions – his hard work would invariably fall flat as one pass could essentially free the defender from the Czech’s advances. And that made it all the more difficult for Rosicky to track back as the ball is hit forward quickly.

In truth, that was only half the story as Porto purposely made it difficult for Arsenal by looking to stretch the game as much as possible, defending very deep and stationing the three forwards in direct confrontation with the Gunners defenders at all times. Nevertheless the idea was to expose burgeoning problems in Arsenal’s defensive phase which, after a good start to the season, was feeling the strain of chasing silverware.

The Cesc Fabregas Question

Arsene Wenger once stated you are more worried about correcting the creative side of a team than the defensive balance and indeed as Arsenal’s attacking play started to become stale, Cesc Fabregas was pushed higher up the pitch. The game against Liverpool, following successive defeats to Chelsea and Manchester United, saw Arsenal attempt to revert to a more pragmatic approach to balance both sides and it proved successful. The full-backs got tighter to their opposing wingers and likewise the two central midfielders to their opposite numbers while Fabregas and Arshavin led the way in closing down aggressively high up the field. And just as that re-found stability looked set to reignite Arsenal’s title challenge, old habits soon kicked in.

The biggest problem is seemingly in the centre where teams, especially during December and January, where able to profit from the gaps in the centre. On paper, it looks like pushing Fabregas higher may have had an adverse impact on the balance. Yet, Barcelona, in their new variant of 4-3-3, whereby Guardiola has deployed Messi in an interior role similar to Fabregas indicates that is not necessarily the case. The difference comes in how rigidly Barcelona stick to their individual and collective assignments and press aggressively not just the ball carrier, but to eliminate all passing options completely. That means when the forward presses, he will continue all the way even if the ball is passed backwards while his team-mates back him up by looking to get tight and at times, get in front of potential passing options. That tactic may in part explain why opponents are not so willing to go direct as confidently against Barcelona and of which enables the Barca defenders to be more assured in taking the risk to push up. Because it is true that, if teams go direct more quickly, as Inter did in their 3-1 win, Barcelona can be exposed from the ball over the top. Indeed, Aston Villa, Burnley, Everton, Fulham and West Ham have displayed similar tactics against Arsenal, stopping the Gunners from passing the ball out from deep and profiting through gaps in the channels.

If one uses the example of Rafael Marquez in the second leg, four or five could go and press him as they did in Arsenal’s 4-1-4-1 in the defensive phase but that would surely result in inefficiency. It may theoretically claustrophobe the target but not necessarily stop him making a pass to an opponent were he was in space. So when Marquez had the ball, having the vision the Mexican has and the movement his teammate’s do, all it took was for Xavi or Buqsquets to drop into a pocket of space and an opportunity opened up. And on the occasions that one player did press Marquez, the others did not quite follow up and get tight on the potential passing options on offer. What that will inevitably lead to is inefficient pressing, which if not followed through correctly will become false pressing – which is not exactly pressing at all.  The different defensive assignments Wenger has given to his players are there for a reason and are there to help balance the side defensively – the 4-3-3 can feel like chain reactions and one player’s movement can impact on the effectiveness of another. Simon Kuper, writing for the Financial Times, wrote of how Bayern Munich’s strikers, under Louis Van Gaal, “harries their defenders, not in order to win the ball but to pressure a pass to central midfield, where Bayern will win it.”

It is an area Arsenal must improve upon otherwise repeats of how Denilson was exposed in the centre during the 3-1 defeat to Manchester United are likely occur again. It seems at the moment, the Brazilian is stuck in transition of which system of marking to follow – zonal, man-marking or neither. Gael Clichy’s indifferent early form goes some way to suggest this is also indicative of more than one of his team-mates. “With 4-3-3 it’s all about choosing when to go and when to stay rather than just going for the sake of it,” says the left-back.

Final Thoughts

In that respect, Alex Song has been a vital cog in Arsenal’s pressing system as he has looked the one who has most benefited from closing down early. His presence in the middle often results in a better team performance for the Gunners and allows Arsenal to win the ball back quickly. Robin van Persie is also arguably a better presser of the ball than Nicklas Bendtner but it also must be stressed the importance of the role the Dane played early in the season on the right hand side of the attacking trident. That Nasri and Rosicky have had more game time later on in the season in wide areas may have also had an adverse effect on the pressing game as their tendencies are not so forward thinking and quite lackadaisical. Arsenal have also been bad starters of games, only scoring twice in the league in the opening fifteen minutes which can again explain that Arsenal need time to adjust to the distances.

Pressing however, is best realised by a good attacking game, and that Arsenal have not been as dynamic in attacking in the second part, nor as obsessive in possession of the season has probably undermined their confidence in pressing the ball high up. Nevertheless, as a team collective, there is no doubt that the pressing game has been for the better for Arsenal and with the players maturing each time. They have less been exposed on the break as previous seasons and the strain their expansive style causes on the back is not as apparent. Thomas Vermaelen has improved Arsenal’s winning back of the ball and that Arsenal are the best utilisers of the offside trap indicates an effective back line which only needs greater synchronicity with the midfield. “I think we all want to get the ball back very quickly,” explains Bakary Sagna. ”Everyone is defending quicker and the forwards are doing more. It helps us play as a team. We worked a lot on this in pre-season because we changed the formation and we have to keep working on it.”

How Pep Guardiola is looking to improve on perfection

Just how does Pep Guardiola improve on the most successful club side in a calendar year? We detail the tactical changes the Barcelona coach has made to his side to make them even better.
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After Barcelona’s 1-0 win over Estudiantes in the Club World Cup in which the Catalan side recorded a never before paralleled, six cup wins in a calendar year, manager Pep Guardiola turned to his assistant Tito Vilanova, with bleary eyed with tears of joy, seemingly asking “where do we go from here?” Just how does Pep Guardiola possibly improve upon perfection?

In truth, Guardiola has been planning his quest to create a footballing monster team since he served his apprenticeship as a rookie coach, among others paying a visit to Arsenal’s training ground to see just how Arsene Wenger grants his side the capacity to play with such a euphoric spontaneity and the audacity although he didn’t have to look further than the Dream Team he was an integral part of in the early nineties. He soon took over as Barcelona B coach in 2007 and not coincidentally in one of this season’s group stage matches his starting eleven featured seven La Masia graduates. And when he took over the senior squad a year later he made it the team mantra “diversity in counsel, unity in command,” and then proceeded to strip off the negative influences and shirkers such as Ronaldinho and Deco. That continued at the start of this season also, as he almost unthinkably got rid of a key component of his treble winning side in Samuel Eto’o in a gargantuan part exchange deal to bring in Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the opposite direction. That move people said was going to give Barcelona a Plan B, the option to play direct especially after the way Chelsea shackled them in last year’s Champions League semi-final first leg by playing an ultra-defensive game. And it worked, with Barcelona putting all three past Sporting Gijon in their first game of La Liga from headers but as each match wore on, Guardiola was indicating he had in mind, more than a Plan B, Plan C or even a Plan D. He was looking to add more variety to his Plan A than a Muttiah Muralitharan over, all at the seamless barking of instructions.

Against Stuttgart, in the Champions League Second Round First Leg, Barcelona became unstuck against the German side’s pressuring high up the pitch. Stuttgart, playing a 4-4-2 against the default Barcelona 4-3-3 was able to profit from attacking the wings with speed and the forwards dropping into space with movement – just as Athletico and Villarreal have done in previous season and indeed this season. For the return leg, however, Guardiola switched to what looked like a 4-2-4 and with Lionel Messi revelling behind the forward the Argentine hit a superb hat-trick (and also doing the same the following game against Real Zaragoza). Pep Guardiola is adamant though that this formation hasn’t a name and its asymmetry lends itself to the strengths of the team to cause unpredictability. “Our rivals have studied us a lot and we have to look for alternatives,” said the captain Carlos Puyol. “The important thing is the intensity [we play]; the tempo and that we want the ball.”

Indeed this maxim is what makes the layout and Guardiola’s men were able to cause havoc to Stuttgart’s planning in the way they were set-up. In the centre of midfield, Seergio Busquets and Yaya Toure played alongside each over though not in the same lines, with Toure slightly higher up and slanted towards the left. Iniesta was deployed as the half-winger out wide, used more for his intricacy and link up while Pedro was the more dynamic on the right, looking to engage the full back and pin him back. The result saw a collection of hard to mark individuals in attack and a system which was almost all about chain reactions in the defensive phase to make staying compact easier. “This new look was implemented so that Messi could connect into the game more often because it’s good for us when does,” explained Guardiola when using the same system earlier this season in a 2-1 win over Malaga – though the scoreline hardly reflected the complete domination Barcelona had on the match. “We found him more often than in other games. It also to puts him closer to Ibra. It’s as if Messi were an ‘interior.’ They (Xavi and Busquets) were never on the same line. We have never played with a double pivot. However, we did make a small adjustment with the wingers and their defensive roles.” So in essence the formation was a 4-1-1-1-1-1-1 but numbers will never portray what Guardiola wanted to outline. [Carlo Mazzone’s quote on between-the-lines players may help: “There are trends in football. This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.]

Barcelona’s formation as per the 4-0 win over Stuttgart in the Champions League Second Round Second Leg.

At varying moments in this season, Guardiola has also deployed a back three with either a defensive midfielder dropping back or in introducing another centre-back. The full-backs then become wing-backs and depending on his personnel at disposal, the formation resembles a 3-4-3 (used by Johan Cruyff when coach and was very confident in minimising the risks because of the team’s ability to keep the ball) or a 3-1-3-3.

The tinkering though doesn’t stop there because in the signing of Zlatan Ibrahmovic is a player who creates room for others by roaming around the pitch, doubling up or dropping deep to cause uncertainty in marking and pulling defenders out of position. That tactic enables players like Xavi and Keita to get in the box unmarked which the neither the system of zonal or man-marking has got to grips with yet. The biggest point argued in the loss of Samuel Eto’o, however, is said to be the ability for the forward to get behind the defense otherwise Barcelona may lead themselves to a trap of over-elaborateness. The stats do seem agree with Eto’o fans to some degree as according to OPTA Ibrahimovic has been caught offside the most this season in La Liga yet that stat also may highlight the fact that the Swede just needs to time his runs better. But as displayed in the Champions League win over Manchester United, does this switch indicate a move away from the false nine – the role Messi deployed in the final? Indeed, with Eto’o, the interchange of positions is seamless but with Ibrahimovic it can only be used in periods. Nevertheless, that hasn’t detracted Guardiola from doing so and in doing so presents another problem to the opposition which so far, no-one has been able to answer.

Tweaked Arsenal aim to capitalise on Cesc Fábregas’ craft

Arsene Wenger has made three slight adjustments to his side following key defeats in the league, one of them pushing Cesc Fábregas higher up.
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Oscar Wilde once wrote, “experience is simply the name we give our mistakes” but following the defeat to FC Porto in the Champions League where two errors gifted the tie, Cesc Fábregas has had enough of experience. Defeats to Chelsea and Manchester United where avoidable goals had put Arsenal out of the contest had already irked the captain enough, his body language in those matches displaying an air of resignation and Arsène Wenger has seemingly caught Fábregas’ drift – and responded by playing him higher up the pitch.

The need for slight adjustments had been somewhat displayed before those crucial matches, with Everton, Aston Villa and Bolton not just stifling Arsenal’s fluency to certain extent but also creating their fair share of dangerous opportunities. Wenger could not use the excuse, conceding chances is the “consequence of our philosophy a bit” which at the start of the season was compensated by the effectiveness in which Arsenal tore apart teams, as those sides had already took the game to Arsenal. Cesc Fábregas had already shown his importance to the side by coming off the bench to inspire the Gunners to a 3-0 win over Aston Villa at home although Arsenal had already put in a good team performance but lacking bite and has been the main benefactor of tackling high up the pitch. However, with much of Arsenal’s best success this season based on a holistic culture, could alleviating someone’s role disrupt the balance of the team?

In the past three matches, Wenger has sent his side out in an asymmetric 4-3-3 formation which could almost be described as a 4-2-Fábregas-3 given the amount of freedom the Spaniard has been granted and entrusted to do that higher up the pitch. Unlike last season in which Fábregas looked lost at times in the role, this season he has added greater penetration to his game, scoring 12 goals in 23 games and making 13 assists to boot. “He has become a complete midfielder because he can defend now, he has kept his vision and I believe he has added some physical power to his game,” said Wenger. “If you compare Fabregas two years ago and today, physically they are completely different. He has got that injection of power to his body and that makes him a different player.”

Playing asymmetrically is much to do with granting an euphoric mind-set and defensively is all about chain reactions. The two midfielders behind Fábregas do not play as a double shield but one slightly slanted to the left and pushing on a bit. In recent games, that role has been engaged by Diaby and Ramsey and tellingly they have been instructed to be more disciplined. This is so the flanks are less exposed in the defensive phase and Arsenal are not under-manned in the centre. Alex Song though remains the glue in an attempt to keep the side compact and his intensity, interceptions and anticipation help stem the oppositions raids. He has also against Liverpool and Sunderland allowed Emmanuel Eboue to flourish and as Slaven Bilic so expertly analysed, when playing with two covering midfielders the side must allow the full backs to bomb forward. The Ivorian’s urgency has been a plus in defensive transitions as Wenger looks to instruct his full-backs to get more tighter to the winger while curiously, unlike most defenders who profit from being initially unmarked by attacking on the outside, he has benefited from Arsenal’s stretching of play to cause havoc by foraging inside. One would wonder how even more devastating Maicon of Inter Milan would be if a similar ploy could be replicated at his club.

The tweak however is not just a reactionary fix; it is hoped it will rekindle the early season mentality where it was all about collectivism and will give Fábregas the chance to play more naturally, where eventually he starts deep and pushes on ‘between the lines’ as offered by the re-discovered balance. “Cesc likes to be at the start of things and then get on the end of things,” said Wenger early on in the season, explaining his desired intentions. “And he can push forward more this season because he has two players around him who can defend.”

Analysing Arsenal’s defensive system

The number of goals conceded by the Gunners has much to do with the side’s expansive style of football.
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The history of tactics, as Jonathan Wilson puts it, is the history of the manipulation of space. So when Arsène Wenger wanted his side to become more dynamic in order to break down deep-lying opponents, his idea – borrowed from the philosophies of Dutch Total Football and adapted by Johan Cruyff at Barcelona – was to stretch play to create more space. But the flip side of such an expansive style requires a careful balancing act at the other end, as opening up the pitch for midfielders to exploit gaps means the distances between attack and defence must be well deliberated. The solution, as Barcelona have so expertly displayed, especially under Pep Guardiola in recent seasons, is through high intensity, asphyxiating pressuring of the opponents. “Without the ball,” said the Barca coach, “we are a horrible team. We need the ball, so we pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back early.”

The stats so far seem to support the shift to 4-3-3 – or they do in an attacking sense at least. A voracious Arsenal have so far plundered in 53 goals in the league this season, at a goals to game ratio of 2.6 but profligacy on both sides of the pitch in big games mean the figures may not be as impressive as they were during the start of the season. At the back, the Gunners have conceded 23 goals, five more than the best defence in the league (Chelsea) and four more than Birmingham. What will be most displeasing, however, is that those goals have only come from a stingy 61 shots on target. Does that suggest Arsenal concede far higher quality chances than other teams or should more blame be attached to the goalkeeper Manuel Almunia? Certainly those are the shots which trouble the goalkeeper the most but it also backs up Wenger’s assertion that nowadays his men between the sticks need to have a far greater all-round game to them as their reflexes seemingly are only troubled two or three shots a game. “Every [modern] rule that has come out in football has taken something away from the ‘keeper,” says Wenger. “That means basically today he must be good with his feet, good with his hands, be very quick, be highly focused for 90 minutes, not make any technical mistakes and it makes the job very hard.”

Universality breeds fluency seems to be the maxim in defence also. For Arsenal to play a passing game, the defenders must be technically proficient in order to keep the ball circulating while being masters of reading the game and mobile to snuff out potential danger.

It can be also argued, however, that such an expansive style can put much strain at the back. The theory is that the more elaborate a team becomes, the more possession they will have hence requiring greater resources. So when Bakary Sagna makes his frequent forays forwards to support the attack, Gallas is needed to push wider, and as the defensive line stretches, the gaps become larger. Playing an expansive style will cause more resources to be used thereby creating undue strain at the back. Of course the trade-off for this is effectiveness but as all personnel are ball players it is harder to shake off that elaborate nature. On one side Wenger has tried to make the side more dynamic, the other looking to ensure his side is organised at the back. “I believe we have quality defenders and it’s more a case of balancing the team defensively,” said Wenger during the disappointing campaign last season. “It’s always easier to correct what doesn’t work defensively; if you don’t create chances you are always more worried.”

Indeed, one of the tenets of this 4-3-3 solution requires all playes to squeeze the space quickly when defending. Starting from the front, it has been a dignified success for a young team who’s natural instinct is too look forward. “I think we all want to get the ball back very quickly,” explains Bakary Sagna. “Everyone is defending quicker and the forwards are doing more. It helps us play as a team. We worked a lot on this in pre-season because we changed the formation and we have to keep working on it.”

As with all formations, there are subtleties underneath that render the labeling of systems as semantics. Tony Adams comment that the formation is indeed a 4-1-4-1 helps shed some light on the attacking and defensive responsibilities of individuals. Using the main forward as the focal point, the two wide men and central midfielders either side of the defensive midfielder look to play around him. Pushing up between the lines, it allows the side to better combat deep-lying teams and interchange positions. In the defensive phase, the quartet pressure in the same band up the pitch rather than having to drop back completely thereby not inviting the opposition at them.

However, as mentioned earlier, once entering the defensive phase Arsenal must suffocate the space quickly, which is a difficulty in itself when you consider stretching the play is fundamental to this style. Thus the problem that may arise is if the opponents bypass the first wave of pressure and are left with space, particularly down the channels, to attack one-on-one. “You have to stay away from one-on-ones,” explained Eugenio Fascetti to World Soccer Magazine when discussing the position of the libero (and incidentally he was the last manager to deploy a traditional libero in Serie A – while coaching Bari in 2000). “If your opponent plays with one striker, there should be no excuses. One of the two centre-backs must get him, the other sweeps from behind. If there are two strikers, one of the full-backs must mark him, leaving the centre-back free. In zonal marking, this is complicated. It’s easier to have someone like De Rossi tracking back and acting as libero, with two centre-backs busy marking the two strikers.”

Indeed Alex Song has been Arsenal’s Danielle De Rossi if using Fascetti’s analogy. The defensive midfielder’s secondary role is to cover for the central defenders, his primary as a dynamic screen in front of the back four, getting the ball back quickly and allowing for the side to keep shape from transitions.  “I know that my position is crucial in the team,” the Cameroon midfielder said. “When everyone is attacking, I want to hold, so that if we lose the ball I’m the first defender in the midfield to stop any counter-attacks and passes coming through. It’s a vital role – I just need to close quickly and give the ball forward when I receive it. This year we have done well, everyone’s contribution when we have lost the ball has been very good. We’ve turned quickly to defend just as we turn quickly to attack when we win it.”

And despite it being a successful, there is still room for improvements. It’s like the saying in Brazil goes; “trying to organise a football team is like having a small blanket on a cold night – pull it over your neck and your feet get cold, cover your feet and your neck freezes.” The side has worked on a system of pressuring high up the pitch and closing down quickly, but it can be made even more difficult once the team opens up the pitch in the search for goals. “It’s difficult to have so many people going forward and as well have everybody straight away defending well,” says the French manager. “It’s a consequence of our philosophy a little bit.”

Although Arsenal do not concede many chances – which highlights the effectiveness of the defensive system during approach play and that a big part of defence is attack – the chances conceded are usually of a greater quality. Take for example Manchester City, who had five shots on target and ended up scoring four of them, three as a result from transitions. It’s easier to score when afforded more space and against a less organised defence, especially if teams get given ample one-on-ones to attack with speed. Landon Donovan had a great game for Everton in the recent 2-2 draw, taking advantage of the multitude of space given out wide to take on Armand Traore who was caught indecisive, not just because of his tender age, but also for the lack of cover in front of him. The idea has been for the full-backs, in anticipation of potential danger, follow the winger and squeeze them of space early.

Brazil under Dunga has specifically set-up his team to guard and take advantage of transitions, displaying how key readying yourself for such moments are in the modern game. Arrigo Sacchi, the zealot but fantastic former AC Milan coach used to have his side practice defending with five back, all organised against ten unorganised attacking men. The result; the defending side always won. Jose Mourinho also likes to have five back in anticipation of transitions and has had great success (although it can be argued Arsenal are doing the same especially as Wenger has told his full-backs to be a bit more selective in their forays forward).

The most concerning of all for the Gunners has been defending from set-pieces, where from the same passage of play, 14 goals have gone past them in 28 goals conceded in Europe and the league. Part of it can be blamed to the height issue (or bravery, tracking runners etc.), another mentality. (Long balls through the middle and picking up the loose ones where a problem last season, this season the statistics are a bit more scattered). It is evident in Almunia in particular the trust isn’t there in his players while Fabianksi and Manonne are impulsive to the airborne pass.

Further analysis of the defensive system can come in the form of Barcelona and Wigan who are teams at two ends of the 4-3-3 spectrum. The former suffocate opponents through constant attack and pressure; the latter just haven’t got the skills to be as consistent either on the ball, defensively or ruthlessness, culminating in the 9-1 mauling by Tottenham. Attacking is one part of the system and teams that have denied Arsenal space through the centre by pressing high and stopping the ball getting wide, have generally posed the Gunners backline more problems [and better results too West Ham (2-2), Everton (2-2), Burnley (1-1) and Fulham (0-1)].

Overall, however, Wenger will not be much too disheartened by his rearguard collective. Being the most effective offside trap in the League – catching the opponents out 91 times already – shows a harmonious defensive unit and one that is good at squeezing play. Of the (slightly) higher number of goals conceded compared to their direct title rivals, some have been rendered insignificant due to the result being out of question. Others, such as the 3-0 defeat to Chelsea was disappointing but with analysis mostly concerned with the attacking failings, ergo it shows confidence in a quality backline. It’s maybe as Wenger says; for an attacking side, it’s only when you don’t create chances that defensive question marks come to the fore. And Arsenal have been scoring their fair share.