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.

Alexis Sanchez can take centre stage for Arsenal

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In his book, Lonely at the Top, a biography of Thierry Henry, Philippe Auclair reveals the psyche of one of Arsenal’s greatest players, although in getting there, the troubled image he has in his native France. In particular is the fascinating account of how Henry ended up at The Gunners, having become an increasingly maligned figure in his country despite winning the World Cup, and having attempted to manufacture moves early in his career to Real Madrid, then to Arsenal.

Henry was desperate to move to North London to rekindle a fleeting relationship he had with then coach, Arsène Wenger, who threw him in for his professional debut for AS Monaco at the age of seventeen amid in-fighting between board members, injuries and bad form. Back then, in the summer of 1994, Wenger had the chance to manage Bayern Munich. However, depending on which report you read, Wenger either resisted the corporate German giants, or that the move was blocked by AS Monaco, who in comparison, were not so much the tiny family-owned business, but if that business operated the only shop-front in a 50-storey building and had its own car-park. And that family was the royal family. In any case, Wenger stayed in the hope that Monaco would grant him a free-hand in teambuilding. A game after handing Henry his debut, however, the Frenchman was sacked.

Despite that, Wenger continued charting Henry’s progress whilst keeping an eye on France’s other youth prospects and it was in one of his trips to follow Les Bleuets that he told Henry that he was “wasting his time on the wing and would have a different career as a centre-forward.” Suffice to say, it would take a nightmarish half a season at Juventus – playing sometimes even as a wing-back – for Henry to realise how right Wenger was. “I won the World Cup as a winger,” Henry says in Lonely at the Top. “I’d already been in the national team, and Arsène was telling me I could have another career as a centre-forward. It was difficult for me to understand.”

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Nobody knows the full extent of the conversation that Alexis Sanchez had with Arsène Wenger before signing for Arsenal, but it is likely Wenger seduced Sanchez by offering him some assurances of his future position, namely by promising to play him up front.  Sanchez, though, when pushed on what was said was unwilling to give an exact answer, possibly because of the language barrier, saying that they only talked about using him in a number of positions, but also possibly because he’s been here before, as settling on his best position has been a bone of contention throughout his career.

In the youth sides, Sanchez was an attacking midfielder, given a free role to dazzle with his quick feet and vast array of tricks. “The first time I saw him I said he had no limits,” says Nelson Acosta, the manager who first drafted Sanchez, as a 16-year-old, into his first team at Cobreloa. “He has everything. Normally in young boys there is something missing, be it skill, or vision, or the ability to beat a man. Not in Alexis. That is very rare.”

Soon Sanchez would be snapped up by Udinese although he would have to wait a while before playing for the first team, twice being shipped out on loan to sharpen his skills. When he came back to Udinese, he took a while to get going, shunted out to the right wing before some genius decided it was best move him back to the centre where he first caught the eye. Here Sanchez flourished playing as a kind of second-striker-winger hybrid – a fantasista in the loosest sense – behind the celestial Antonio Di Natale, scoring 12 league goals and notching 10 assists. His exerts caught the eye of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, who was ever looking for ways to perfect his Barcelona side, and the prospect of dovetailing both Sanchez and Messi was a scintillating one. The first sign of what they could do together was in El Clasico, when Sanchez was used as a poacher in a 4-3-3 and with half-an-hour played, Messi slipped him through with a delicious through-pass. Sanchez didn’t take long to compose himself, slotting the ball into the bottom corner in a soaking wet night in Madrid. It would be the last time, however, Messi would play second fiddle to somebody and for the next three seasons, Sanchez would almost exclusively ply his trade on the right-flank.

It’s not as if Sanchez failed to perform with his distinction in that role: his darting runs off the flank into the box would become a key feature of how Barcelona would play and in his final season, he would score 19 goals, yet he has always felt as something of an interloper, an incorrigible cog in a perfectly oiled system. The way Barcelona play, where the passing is low risk but high percentage, and where opposition defences are set, it requires a sureness to your play that Sanchez was only just beginning to get to grips with. Indeed, if you look at his underlying numbers, you realise just how much his creative instincts were dulled: key passes are at 1.7 per game whilst he only completed 36 dribbles all season. (To put that into account, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Jack WIlshere completed more. It’s likely, when given a central role at Arsenal, those two parts would become a key factor of the team’s play). On the flip side however, his shooting and assists numbers are excellent.

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Created by Ted Knutson (follow @mixedknuts)

It was as if at times, his instincts were dulled, from once playing with the intrepidity of a leader of a street gang in a central role, cooking up ideas behind his angular forehead that you wouldn’t expect, his role was reduced to a ferreter and furrower, running up and down the flanks as if seeing the pitch as elaborate tunnels.

The trouble is, Sanchez always looked like a winger which in itself an achievement in an age where footballers are, at a certain level – below the very best and above the second rate – relatively indistinguishable in terms of athleticism and basic skills. And as Barney Ronay writes, that means “football has become more chess-like, more a matter of the location and exploitation of momentary weakness.” At Barcelona, where almost all outfield players are below six-feet, that problem was exacerbated because the whole team, even down to the goalkeeper, was viewed almost as an extension of the midfield. There was no need for specialist strikers (and defenders as Javier Mascherano would find out). Everybody’s relative skills were taken into account of how they would contribute to goals: Alexis was fast and an excellent dribbler therefore he would run into the box from the flanks.

Playing for the national side in the World Cup was a breath of fresh air. Used in an inside-right position with the freedom to move centrally, Sanchez was outstanding as Chile were agonizing knocked-out on penalties by Brazil, though his best play happens to be just before the World Cup started when he produced three scintillating assists in a 3-2 comeback win against Egypt. Here, he showcased everything that he came to promise when he first burst onto the stage; his impudent dribbling ability, the vision to see a pass and power from deep. Put simply, it was Messi-esque. Perhaps it’s as Wenger once said; that by deploying a central player wide as Barcelona did, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.”

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When Alexis Sanchez joins the first team back from his holidays, the expectations will undoubtedly be high. At that cost, at around £32m, he certainly has to be a game-changer. Certainly, it changes the way Arsenal play if indeed he is deployed as a lone striker, because in the exact opposite way Olivier Giroud brings others into play with his neat touches and flicks, Sanchez, by running the channels, sometimes away from play, can create space for the ball-players to play.

For me he has the three ingredients to play up front that all Arsenal strikers have possessed in the past: 1) the spontaneity to produce something out of nothing; 2) the ability to run behind and stretch defences and 3) excellent dribbling in 1v1 situations. However, there’s a psychological adjustment he would have to make, maybe more so than the physical, as now defenders will be breathing down his neck. For the most part of his career, Sanchez has generally tended to play facing the goal, although having said that, it’s an adjustment he should easily make as protecting the ball, then twisting and turning away from markers is one of his strengths. Indeed, that’s probably why he endears so much to Wenger. Like Henry, who others didn’t see as a central striker (most when at Juventus where Carlo Ancelotti admitted it was one of his great regrets), Sanchez is an all-rounder, capable of dropping deep or pulling wide, and then, as quick as a flash, able to change the emphasis of an attack with his one-on-one dribbling and explosive running. Indeed, that’s exactly what makes Arsenal dynamic: when they’ve got their back to goal, and then suddenly they spin away from markers and look to play the next ball forward. Alexis Sanchez could play a central role in any success Arsenal have next season.

Have Arsenal become easier to press?

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A great attacking performance is such that at first viewing, it seems inherently defensive. Take Liverpool’s 5-1 home win against Arsenal in February this season. It’s true that they looked like they could have scored with every chance such was the alarming regularity they got behind the Arsenal defence. But it was the swirling press of red shirts that was just as memorable, surrounding the Arsenal midfielders in possession and blocking potential passing lanes. And when they regained the ball, the pace and trickery of Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling et al. put The Gunners to the sword.

Great attacking teams don’t just throw caution to the wind when they go forward; effective attacking play is predicated on a solid defensive foundation which allows those players to flourish. It’s indicative of the way Liverpool worked as a team that their best defensive player wasn’t a member of the back four nor a central midfielder: it was Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian won 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions, but was most impressive was the way he filled in the gaps when players moved out of position. In fact, Liverpool’s system is all about little chain reactions: when one players moves, it activates the trigger for another to move into the space. What Coutinho did so well was to make Liverpool’s formation move from a 4-4-2 at various times, to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.

There are other such examples in the past of good defence aiding devastating attacking play. When Ajax beat Liverpool 7-3 in the European Cup over two legs in 1966, Bill Shankly peculiarly declared that “they were the most defensive team we have ever met.” Then there were the two famous 5-0 wins over Real Madrid: the first, by AC Milan in 1989, which put Arrigo Sacchi on the map; while in 2010, we remember mostly the way Barcelona kept the ball, in particular the controlling forces of Xavi and Messi, but just as important was the way they pressed their opponents, hunting in packs to win the ball back.

Indeed in Chris Anderson and David Sally’s The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong, they find, using statistical evidence, that keeping a clean sheet helps a team more than scoring lots of goals does. That’s what the basis was for Arsenal early season form, with Arsene Wenger telling Arsenal Player: “It’s very important for the confidence of the team that we have such a [defensive] stability. As I said many times, we are an offensive team, but you are only a good offensive team if you have a good defensive stability.”

Sadly, that assurance in defence has dissipated in recent matches, most crushingly when Arsenal were defeated 6-0 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The irony was that Wenger’s worst defeat waited until his 1000th match in charge of Arsenal. Still, The Gunners are in with an outside shot of the title, and have a great chance to break their nine-year trophy drought with the FA Cup but in my opinion, that owes much to the defence – which individually, is perhaps Wenger’s best for a long time. Those big defeats Arsenal suffered, against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, which have put a damper on their season, mainly originated from Arsenal frequently giving the ball away in midfield thus exposing the back four repeatedly.

For me, a large part of Arsenal’s vulnerability – that good players, like Aaron Ramsey, who Arsenal have missed massively, can alleviate – stems from the unique way they bring the ball out of defence. To understand that, first we must understand Wenger.

Explaining Arsene Wenger’s philosophy is a trickier task than at first it actually seems. It’s widely accepted that he’s an attacking coach but can that be distinguished from a coach that favours possession first? For example, his Arsenal side do not stretch the pitch as wide as other possession-orientated sides might; instead the Wenger way is to stretch the field vertically in the build up to avoid the press, and then drop a midfielder in to pick up the ball in the extra space. Other teams such as Barcelona – at the far end of the attacking-possession extreme – stretch the play horizontally, firstly by splitting the centre-backs and then dropping a midfielder in between.

Instead, the main focus for Wenger is on expressionism and autonomy, cultivated on the training ground by small-sided matches – games of 7v7 or 8v8 – to encourage better combination play. (Think about how, in the first-half in the 2-0 win against Crystal Palace, Lukas Podolski kept on drifting inside too early in the build up instead of, as he should have, hugging the touchline to open up space. It was later in the second-half, when he curbed his tendencies to get on the ball, that he attempted his first shots in the game).  The importance of possession is preached of course – Arsenal practice a drill called “through-play” whereby a team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively – but keeping the ball must have means: patience is only tolerated to an extent. Cesc Fabregas expands: “Wenger showed me a lot, but wouldn’t say ‘I want you to copy what I show you.’ He let me find by myself the player I was meant to be. Now whenever I have the ball I look to gain yards. This sense of verticality, it’s Wenger. He made me an attacking player.”

“Wenger always said to me: ‘Forward, Cesc, forward! Attack! Attack!’ From a young age I heard him say that. All the players he’s coached will tell you: the eyes must always look to the opponent’s goal. He didn’t really like spending training working on defensive strategies. What he loves is seeing his team take initiative and create chances.” And comparing Arsenal to Barcelona, Fabregas says: “Wenger didn’t really like it when we kept ball for long periods, he thought it counter-productive & sterile keeping the ball but not really doing anything with it (not attacking), he (Wenger) hated that. What (Wenger) loves is goals. For example, if at 3-0 up we could still score two more, he’d push us to do so. The Barca style is more composed. You have to string passes together. Bam. Calm. Bam. Calm. I had to adapt to team’s needs which are different from Arsenal. Here I must play as the coach wants and respect the philosophy of the team.”

This idea of verticality works against most sides as they tend to defend deep against Arsenal, and while that throws up problems of its own, Wenger is secretly happy to face those sides as it means Arsenal have most of the play. However, it can be a problem when teams play high up, as we have seen against Southampton, Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Liverpool to name the most troubling.

Wenger’s aware of this, but he places great faith on his two centre-backs to pass the ball out and one of the central midfielders, usually Mikel Arteta dropping in. He says: “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle. I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure. I am comfortable with that, although sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

What Arsenal do is, instead of opening the pitch horizontally to evade the press as other possession sides usually do (typically that means splitting the two centre-backs wider and dropping a midfielder in between or asking one of the midfielders to move laterally), they push the team up the pitch to create space in the middle of the pitch for one of the central midfielders to pick up the ball in extra space. The problem is when say Wilshere (who is not very good with the ball deep) or Arteta get the ball there, they’re often isolated and thus easy to dispossess. Often, they have to try and dribble their way out as Mesut Ozil was forced to when he was tackled in the build up to Liverpool’s 3rd goal. In fact, if you cast your mind back to the defeat 3 out of 5 of their goals came from Arsenal relinquishing possession meekly.

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Arsene Wenger takes great stock in players who have the dexterity and close control to get out of tight situations, as he said recently when describing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s strengths in central midfield: “He has the sense of positional play and he has the qualities which you want to see in the modern game,” Wenger said. “He has that capability to break through because there is a lot of pressure in the modern game. So those players who have the ability to get out of that pressure are of course very important.”

If they don’t, then it can prove catastrophic as Ozil continually found against Liverpool when he dropped deep and instead, was forced to pass backwards or attempt to dribble through. Bear in mind that there is no right or wrong way – Liverpool have often been in uncompromising situations when they split their centre-backs – it depends on how well you execute your plans and Arsenal are better than most. And better teams are more likely to expose chinks, as Liverpool did and then Chelsea in their 6-0 win. Again, goals were relinquished through easy concession of possession in midfield, as Chelsea not only pressed up the pitch, but intelligently and structurally.

Ozil’s options are compressed as he opts to dribble past Henderson in an attempt to go forward instead of passing it backwards to Mertesacker or Arteta.
Ozil’s options are compressed as he opts to dribble past Henderson in an attempt to go forward instead of passing it backwards to Mertesacker or Arteta.

However, in the recent Champions League encounter against Paris Saint Germain, Chelsea tried to replicate the same tactics but frequently hit a brick wall. Why? Well, for one, they were without their master presser, Nemanja Matic, who is cup-tied in Europe, but the way Paris play under Laurent Blanc, it’s like a game-within-a-game they play at the back, taking risks with the ball in an attempt to draw the opposition out. Chelsea tried to press but each time they did, they were rebuffed either from brilliant close control, especially from Marco Verratti, or intelligent positional play from the Paris players, stretching the pitch horizontally, and then dropping a midfielder in the extra spaces to the side of Chelsea’s attackers so they couldn’t press effectively.

Arsenal could take some hints. For me, Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s foremost deep-lying midfielder, is fantastic at keeping Arsenal’s intensity high in matches where the team is on the front foot and can play in the opponent’s half; indeed, that’s how Wenger used him in the 4-1 win against Everton and 1-1 draw with Manchester City. But when the opponent forces him to play almost as a quarter-back, he can be easily nullified. What Arsenal need to do is offer more rotation; when one of the central midfielders drop deep to pick the ball up, the other pushes up so that it’s harder to mark. Indeed, that’s what Aaron Ramsey did so well before his injury, often out-passing his own teammates and the opponents’. Therefore it’s suffice to say also that how Arsenal cope with high pressure depends on the personnel available.

Then there’s the intricate, almost one-paced play Arsenal play. At times this season, it’s been exhilarating: the team goals against Sunderland and Norwich are some of the best I have seen and that burgeoning understanding can only get better with time and a full complement of healthy players. But the statistics also say this is probably the worst of Wenger’s sides at keeping the ball, dropping to fifth in the Premier League for average possession per game at 56%, down from the last three seasons of 60%+. Of course, this is partly a purposeful ploy from Wenger, implanting a pragmatic side to Arsenal’s game, as they are more willing to drop off and soak up pressure, gradually working a foothold in the game and taking the chances that come. However, it’s also hard to ignore that they now take four less shots per game and concede one more shot on average per game than they have in the past few seasons. Is it a strategic fault that Arsenal have or is it the players that account for the drop-off?

There’s an argument that Arsenal also lack enough players with the change of pace and direction that has been the standard of Wenger sides in the past. Chiefly, that has been levelled at striker Olivier Giroud who it is said could run the channels more, thus opening space for the attacking players behind him. Giroud, while his link-up play brings others into play, is mainly static, exclusively playing in between the two centre-backs and as such Arsenal’s play can look predictable, and it relies on moves being perfect.

Indeed, it’s even arguable that Arsenal don’t use him enough as a target man to bring more variety into their play – or rather that they can’t because his ball retention is wildly inconsistent. It’s more convenient (and frustrating as well) to think of Giroud as an extension of the midfield, another pass before Arsenal eventually get inside the box.

One must also consider the psychological factor in appraising whether Arsenal are more susceptible to the press. Because so much of Arsenal’s play is predicated on passing the ball well and playing attractive football, thus creating a perception of superiority that is often enough to overwhelm teams lower down. But against the top sides 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”. In that sense, Arsenal needs not just strong individuals, but technical leaders (players like Xabi Alonso, who sets the tempo, ideologue for Real Madrid) or more damningly even, a more robust footballing strategy beyond merely “expressing” yourself.

*Think back to when, before the 1-0 defeat to Manchester United, Mesut Ozil saidwe are going to Old Trafford to have fun – and that is why we are going to win.” What we saw instead was a very timid Arsenal performance, visibly uncertain about the best way to break down a defensive United side.

This can also tie in with Arsenal’s vulnerability to the high press because players are not sure where to move on the pitch to evade the pressure. Above all, though, it seems that what we need to see most to alleviate this flaw is a more confident Arsenal, one with real relief belief in the way they play – and of course, their best players fit and available together.

How Olivier Giroud can improve in front of goal

A deft flick. An Ibrahimovic-style swivel and shot. A power header. A half-volley across the goalkeeper. A chip, an overhead kick and an edge of the box curler. Olivier Giroud’s pre-season goals have been impressive for the variety they have come in, indicating an improvement to the one part of his game that needed most work – his finishing. Last season, Giroud scored 11 goals (and 17 in all competitions) which is a fair return considering Arsenal shared its goals among the front four. Yet, digging deeper into the numbers and it shows that it could have been so much better.

Those 11 goals Giroud scored in the league came at a conversion-rate of 10.3% – a poor return for any top striker considering 17-18% is believed to be par. (To put that into context, he had the worst efficiency of any striker who scored more than ten goals and the 10th lowest in the league, putting him alongside the likes of such esteemed company as Carlton Cole and Andy Carroll).

To further compartmentalise his shooting, we can see just how erratic Giroud was inside the box. Last season, he took 64 shots from the central area (figure 1), scoring 9 times but those goals came only at a conversion rate of 14%; hardly an improvement from his overall figure of 10%. (As a comparison, Luis Suarez was just as uncouth as Giroud around the box but scored more goals: 23 at a conversion rate of 12%. But filtering those shots he took from the central areas of the box, and his conversion rate jumps to 26%).

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Looking at where Giroud shoots from in graphic form further highlights how he can improve:

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In simple terms, it’s obvious that Giroud must show more composure to improve his finishing. That’s why his pre-season form has been so encouraging: his strikes have been of a wide variety. Indeed, after Giroud scored with a spin and a shot against Indonesia, even Wenger was unable to hide glee; it’s this type of dexterity that Giroud must show if he is to improve on his goalscoring record.

Certainly, that’s one of the misconceptions about Giroud. To look at him, you wouldn’t associate him with good footwork but that’s what he specialises in, to varying success (which we’ll talk about more in depth later). When he was signed for the club, it was thought that he’d add another dimension to Arsenal’s attack and while he’s a viable Plan B, it’s his heading which has really let him down.

We can see from the graphic below, courtesy of @11tegen11, that actually Giroud is not bad with his feet. Of course, a large number of his shots still find the stands but when he hits the target, he is great at finding the corners.

giroud feet shots

However, when we superimpose those shots plus the ones which he takes with his head, he frequently hits it straight at the goalkeeper. This is bad because by not finding the corners, Giroud is limiting his chances of scoring by 40%.

giroud all shpts

BUT, and there’s a big but here, the reason why Giroud’s headers are letting him down because often they’re from outside the 6-yard box.Studies by the authors of StatsBomb show that actually, headers have more chance of scoring than a normal shot because often they’re taken from closer to the goal. Giroud, though, frequently heads from outside the 6-yard box, either because his movement is not good enough or that Arsenal’s game doesn’t encourage headed shots therefore when he does, he often has to head from further back to get away from defenders. (The good thing about analysing Giroud’s shots is that it helps us learn the type of movement that Giroud makes. Typically, he likes to peel to the left side of the box so that he can open up his body to shot across goal or meet a low cross. When it comes from the right-hand side, the movement is again similar, however, he’s more reluctant to shoot with his feet. Instead, he’s a better threat from the air but if he does, he’ll often try and get in front of his marker and poke the ball towards goal).

However, despite saying all this, there’s one statistic that stands out from the rest last season and that is that Giroud missed 19 clear-cut chances (which is basically a free attempt on goal with just the striker and the goalkeeper). It’s not made clear what proportion of those chances are headed or ground efforts but at least he’s with the type of company he could get used; because only Robin van Persie (23) missed more clear-cut chances than Giroud. At least he’s getting into the right positions….

Arsenal place faith in brains over brawn

Alex Song’s £15million move to Barcelona, only days after the club announced the sale of Robin van Persie, means Arsenal have now covered the cost of investment on Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla entirely. As Gunnerblog writes; “it’s almost as if we planned it like this.”

Whether or not you feel this is good practice for a football club supposed to be competing for top honours doesn’t matter; the mood of the Arsenal online Diaspora seems to be a resounding “meh.”

That he has been described byBarcelona’s sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, as a complete player. “Skillful and tactical, he is good on the ball and very fit. He has experience of top level competition and knows how to cope with high pressure and big demands”.” means little (which, at the same time is a good thing, as Arsenal fans have recently acquired a pathological obsession on dwelling on the past). As such I feel compelled to defend the legacy of a man whose Arsenal career can only be described as “unsung.”

It’s true that Alex Song has a tendency for the indiscipline – which might boil down to his excitable character – and last season, he did abandon some of his tactical duties. But it seems he has attracted an unfair proportion of the blame for the goals Arsenal conceded. Indeed, there’s this growing idea that Arsenal must play – or rather be better – with a sole holding player. Perhaps, but the growing demands on technique and fitness means increasingly, it should be about the team. And certainly, one can make an argument against the team’s shape for Song’s diminishing defensive statistics (and their goals allowed column).

tumblr_m95ortbbka1r01uxc

Because last season, Song simply had to do more for the team than he had in previous seasons. In 2009/10, he was the deepest midfielder, breaking down attacks and moving it along to one of the midfielders in front of him when he won it. In 2010/11, he shared the role with Jack Wilshere and as such was allowed to get forward intermittently, contributing with four goals. But even though Arsenal conceded more goals in that campaign than in the previous one, structurally it’s probably when they were at their most impressive (and the implosion in the last quarter made it look worse than it was). Last season, though, Song had no Wilshere and the dynamics of the double pivot changed. Arteta and Song shared roles without either player taking full responsibility so Song pushed up to do what Wilshere usually did; give impetus with his running and to dink passes – to more success – over the defence. And what’s more, Song was required higher up the pitch because for large chunks of the season, Arsenal lacked full-backs and as such it meant creativity was almost always central. The problem of creativity was further compounded by Wenger’s prolonged experimentation with a three-striker system up top (which continued to be a problem in their first fixture this season against Sunderland). In 2010/11, remember that Arsenal had Nasri to share the burden to create from out wide even if Cesc Fabregas did tend to monopolise creativity. Defensively, the relaxed pressing last season also made it easier for teams to turn Arsenal from back to front and as such, easier to get at the backline.

Nevertheless, it’s probably best not to look back but look forward instead to this season and with the departure of Song, it especially elevates the stature within the team of Arteta. If anything, he is now Arsenal’s ideologue – bright, opinionated (at Everton, he was known for having tactical discussions with the manager, David Moyes) and technical – he represents Arsene Wenger’s trust in brains over brawn.

Wenger described Arteta last season as a “real midfielder – that means he can defend and he can attack” and against Sunderland showed why the manager places so much faith in him. Arteta made 4 tackles and 4 interceptions as well as making over 100 passes but what was most impressive was the intensity of which he covered ground. A couple of times he filled in for his centre-back and even got into the position when tracking back which I like to call the “third centre-back”.

[image lost] Via @1DavidWall: Arteta (8) played the deepest of Arsenal’s three starting central midfielders, with Cazorla (19) pulling the strings.

On the training ground, Arsenal have been working very hard on holding their shape and keeping/moving the ball better and that, Wenger sees, is the remedy to both their attack and defence. Because it’s as Athletic Bilboa coach, Marcelo Bielsa, says; “attacking football has nuances” and it’s controlling and understanding those nuances – how to dictate tempo and the dangers to expect when you lose it – which will make Arsenal better.

The two players who have submitted to this creed the most – talking extensively about team shape in interviews – are the team’s two leaders: Thomas Vermaelen and Arteta. (Robin van Persie similarly believed in moving as a team and led by example through his running to get back into position when the team defends, acting as the reference point, but perhaps it’s more effective to organise team-mates from their positions than higher up).

Similarly, the pressure is also high on Steve Bould (and Neil Banfield too for that matter) to make a robust impression in his first season as assistant coach and he showed – as early as the eleventh minute against Sunderland- he can make big decisions. Bould noticed that twice, Sunderland had opportunities to score from attacks originating from fast breaks down the channels so after Jack Colback stole ground in the midfield to shoot, he instructed the full-backs to be more aware whenever they get forward. Thereafter, The Black Cats mounted no serious threat and of the 84 teams that played in the Football League and Premier League in the first weekend, they were the only side not to win a corner.

Post Song, the methods of Arsenal may initially seem unclear. But what it does do is force Arsenal is to place even greater trust in their identity. And what bigger test is there of that than the one which they face next; away to Stoke City.

*Note: For all intents and purposes (whatever that means), match reports will now be published for my new column on Arseblog (with thoughts if I care enough about you guys, on here). My latest piece can be accessed here on Arsenal’s shift away from the “three strikers” tactic used last season. Editorials will still feature on this blog. Thanks for reading.

Sergio Busquets: Re-inventing the midfield pivot role

Karthik Venkatesh (KV) argues why Sergio Busquets is one of this generation’s most important players. Oh, and why that also makes him the perfect foil to the the sitcom character, Barney Stinson.

Sergio Busquets is the ultimate ‘Bro’ on the pitch. His game is so astonishingly altruistic that he can be fittingly compared to the perfect ‘wingman’ who will do his all to set you up with that girl of your wildest fantasies. Once he gets the ball, it seems like all he does is greet the ball and say; “Hello! Have you met my genius friend, Xavi?” Here are three good reasons why Sergio Busquets is an extremely vital cog in the Barca team and the foremost ‘team player’ in the world today.

Passing Efficiency

The prime reason for Sergio Busquets’ near perfect passing success rate is that he knows where to pass to even before he receives the ball. His awareness of the players around him is extraordinary, enabling him to complete the process of choosing and executing in a matter of seconds. In the game against Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey, Busquets took an average of 1.6(!) seconds to complete a pass. In some cases, he dispatched the ball within a heart attack causing 0.4 seconds. His game is mostly about releasing the ball quickly and it is fair to say that he has more than achieved the goal. In the recently concluded La Liga season, Busquets completed 91.9% of his passes successfully.

Personifying efficiency, Busquets is technically compact, finding solutions in jet speed to pick out a free team mate. He uses the ‘fake’ to a great deal of impact to open up space in a passing lane and also ensures that he hits the ball with minimal rotation, so his team mate can play another one touch pass. Xavi Hernández, quite possibly the greatest midfielder of this generation, describes Sergio Busquets as “fundamental”. He says: “Busi sees you quickly, he always takes the simple option. He reads the game well and moves the ball with precision, in as few touches a possible.” Here is the graph showing the relation between his passes and the time it took to complete them:

[image lost]

Tactical Intelligence

Sergio Busquets performs a key role as the “pivote” of the team, playing in between defence and attack. This role involves carrying out a number of tasks. In the defensive phase, Busquets crucially moves into space to cut off passing lanes for the opponent, forcing him to play the least dangerous pass. He uses his sharp anticipation skills to win the ball back by intercepting it in midfield and immediately transfer it to a well positioned teammate. His primary function is to ‘receive and release’ and he performs this task flawlessly due to his astute reading of the game and tactical intelligence.

He plays an extremely crucial role in attack also. The basic foundation of Barcelona’s tiki-taka style of play is creating triangles. Busquets, being an imperative component in midfield, moves into space when his teammate has the ball to form triangles and increase passing options. The spontaneity with which he carries out this task is critical to the circulation of the ball and a ‘destroyer’ in midfield would retard the flow of circulation, unlike Busquets. Also, when in possession of the ball, Barcelona morph into several formations ranging from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, and Busquets dropping deep in between the center backs is the trigger which changes the structure. When he drops in between the center backs, they are allowed to move laterally and cover space out wide. This in turn pushes Daniel Alves higher up the pitch, meaning the right winger cuts inside to make use of space vacated by Messi dropping deep, increasing the number possibilities of attack. Watch how Sergio’s off the ball movement from CDM to CB causes a chain reaction which eventually leads to a goal. “Xavi and Iniesta are the most creative midfielders in the world, but, above all, there is Busquets,” says Javier Mascherano, who is highly regarded to have a keen eye on the beautiful game. “He has the talent to play for any team anywhere in the world, but he’s made to play for this team. Literally, he’s the perfect guy. He robs the ball, he has superb technical skills and brings tactical order. I watch him and try to learn from him.”

Selfless Playing Style

Barcelona, a team obsessed with attacking football and scoring goals, scored a whopping 114 goals in the league last season. Only one of the 114 goals was scored by Sergio Busquets (1goal and 1 assist), a stat which belies the fact the he is a major force in the Barca midfield. Of his one goal, Sergio Busquets jokes that that is an error on his part: “I made a mistake once.” Always preferring to not hog the limelight, Busquets is the ultimate team man, focusing on plugging gaps and covering space, instead of venturing forward and having fun with the likes of Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas. Statistics show, for example, that Dani Alves, nominally Barcelona’s full-back, spends more time in the opposition half than his own. “The coach knows that I am an obedient player who likes to help out and if I have to run to the wing to cover someone’s position, great,” he says. “I genuinely enjoy watching the full-back run up the pitch and going across to fill in. I spend the game calculating: how many on the left? How many on the right?”

Standing 189cm tall, Sergio Busquets standing between his Barcelona teammates looks like Gulliver amidst a bunch of Lilliputians. As comfortable in a scrap as with the ball at his feet, Sergio is ever ready to leap to the defense of his teammates, putting himself in the dangerous situation of getting carded. The perfect amalgam of intelligence and the ability to do the dirty work for others sets him apart from his more famous and celebrated teammates. When questioned about the style of his game, Busquets says: “My only obsession is not to lose the ball and to give my all, make sure I leave it all on the pitch. I am here to help. I have to be intense.” Del Bosque agrees: “He is an example of generosity, always thinking of the needs of the team rather than himself.”

Conclusion

If Barney Stinson, the serial womaniser in the television series “How I Met Your Mother”, ever notices Sergio Busquets doing his job for either Barcelona or Spain, he would at once convince/beg Sergio Busquets to accept the coveted position of being Barney Stinson’s wingman. Even if he has to only utter the lines, “Hi! Have you met my friend Barney?” and leave, Sergio will do it so perfectly that Barney’s efficiency, just like Busquets’ passing efficiency, will touch the ninety percent mark. Such is the effectiveness and impact of Sergio Busquets, the unheralded hero of modern day football.

Euro 2012: Breaking the Andrea Pirlo Code

pirlo

At the turn of the century, Andrea Pirlo, the bright young hope of Italian football, led the Italian under-21 team to European glory. Playing behind the strikers as a “trequartista”, Pirlo was one of the best players of the tournament, contributing with a number of assists and goals. His exploits as captain, didn’t fail to go unnoticed as managers across Italy earmarked him as the next great no.10 to don the blue of Italy. Life was seemingly nice and sunny for young Andrea; he completed a dream move to Inter Milan but in three years at the club, he failed to make the breakthrough. Because ahead of him, competing in the same position, he found the celestial Roberto Baggio – one of the finest playmakers all time – and as a result, Pirlo was loaned back out to his first club, Brescia.

Shunted and abandoned, it looked like was all doom and gloom for one of Italy’s great young talents. But little did he know that all these events would lead to quite possibly the most important conversation of his life with Carlo Mazzone, the coach at Brescia at the time. This is how the conversation unfolded, in the words of Mazzone:  “I was managing Brescia when Pirlo still considered himself a “mezzapunta” (attacking midfielder). I told him to play in front of the defenders, because he had vision. ‘But I like goals,’ he told me, unconvinced. ‘You score four or five a year,’ I replied. ‘Play in this position and you’ll score even more. Let’s try it for two weeks. You’ll be a base playmaker.’ “I told him to play two games without asking questions. Afterwards he told me: ‘I feel very comfortable here. I get the ball all the time.’ He found out how it worked. If I’d told him I was going to play him as a libero ahead of the defenders, he’d have run away terrified! Calling him a base playmaker convinced him.”

Twelve years later and Andrea Pirlo is considered as one of the greatest players of his generation. In his position as the deep-lying playmaker (or base playmaker as Mazzone likes to call it), he is almost peerless, performing the role in a way that must be considered unique in the modern game. But what is it precisely that he does which makes him the supreme playmaker right now? Below, Karthik Venkatesh (KV) tries to decipher the “Andrea Pirlo Code”.

Analysing Andrea Pirlo’s role

Andrea Pirlo is a smart man. He uses his strengths to add his own spin to the deepest midfielder role. He possesses arguably the game’s best long ball, unparalleled vision and a sophisticated technique. Despite being the deepest midfielder, he bagged the most number of assists in Serie A (13) for Juventus last season. As soon as he receives the ball, Pirlo begins a mini-game, where the objective is to provide the pass that finds his teammates with a large amount of space and less number of opponents to get past. He starts a routine process that involves the following:

  1. Technique: Pirlo started out behind the strikers and a pre-requisite for playing in the hole is high technical ability. He uses this to hold on to the ball and assess passing options on the move. Zbigniew Boniek, the former Poland player and coach, who is definitely in awe of Pirlo’s ability to not lose the ball, says,”To pass the ball to Andrea Pirlo is like to hide it in a safe.”

  2. Pirlo finds a way out when he is pressed: When being closed down, if he is unable to create space for himself or his teammates through dribbling, he uses the short pass wisely and chooses the safest pass. Being the key player in the team’s midfield, he often attracts more than one opponent and he immediately finds a free player close by. He doesn’t retard the flow and keeps the ball circulation going. But beware, Pirlo sacrifices a marginal drop in passing percentage to try and attempt adventurous passes over the top. That is probably the greatest difference between Pirlo and the other deep-midfielders. (Pirlo has completed 354 of his 459 attempted passes (77%), and has a forward passing accuracy of 76%).

  3. The long ball is his deadliest weapon: Once he finds space even for a split second, he is lethal and doesn’t miss the opportunity to use the long ball to set up one-on-one situations for the striker. He is probably the quickest in the world to spot a run from his teammates. Against England, Pirlo attempted a staggering 30 long balls!

  4. The master of the switch: Pirlo switches play to the wings excellently. One of his common moves against England was the pass to Federico Balzaretti down the left flank (who surprisingly found lots of space as England neglected pressing the full backs high up). They are highly effective in that the player who receives the ball finds himself in oodles of space and generally encounters at most one opponent facing him directly. “Today, I’d say the greatest passer is Juventus’s Andrea Pirlo,” says Sandro Mazzola for Champions Magazine. “His footballing intelligence exploits angles and avenues others just don’t see. Then his exceptional technique enables him to flight the pass brilliantly over distance, and to weight every delivery even when under pressure.” And as an interesting aside note, he adds: “It fills me with pride  – and pains me a little – to recall that I spotted him when he was just a teenager at Brescia Calcio and convinced Internazionale  Milano to sign him up.”

  5. Assists the assister: Other than having the highest number of assists in Serie A, Pirlo will most probably also have the highest number of ‘pass before an assist.’ He is always on the look-out for the pass that will empower his teammates and lead to a goal.

  6. Chance creator: Andrea Pirlo is a high C.Q.I chance creator. His pass to Balotelli against England was one of the highest we have ever recorded.

  7. Goal scorer: One must not forget that Pirlo is a high caliber free kick taker and he also has a great shot that can beat the best of keepers.

Here is a flow chart which roughly summarizes Pirlo’s game:

pirlo flowchart

How do you stop Andrea Pirlo?

To completely isolate and nullify Pirlo’s impact is close to impossible. But what can be done is mark him closely and deny him the space to exert his game. As you can see from the flow chart, you can limit him to safe short passes by restricting the amount of space he gets (like how Park Ji Sung did for Manchester United in their 4-0 win in 2010), but he will still hurt you by quickly circulating the ball and getting it to players further forward. Pirlo has his downsides too. He’s not so physical built as modern footballers are these days so there is an incline that he can be pushed aside by far stronger teams. Nevertheless, he almost always negates this with an amazing balance and ability to shield away multiple opponents at once off the ball (at times, bordering on nonchalance).  Pirlo’s defensive contribution in terms of tackles and interceptions is modest at best, but one must take into account that he is shrewd when it comes to positioning and does a great job just by occupying the space in front of defenders. Against Spain in the final, Pirlo will obviously see far less of the ball, but he will be a dangerous threat on the counter with his ability to hit long passes behind Spain’s high line.

Perhaps the best chance of negating Pirlo is not to focus on him individually but to try and disrupt the team’s fluency, hence breaking up his effectiveness. Spain are probably the best at doing this as they hound the opposition once they lose the ball and often Pirlo is the one who receives it first. But it’s their brilliant defensive shape which doesn’t get the attention it deserves because through the use of through-marking to aid their pressing, they are fantastic at stopping opponents find their man.

Why don’t more teams use a Pirlo-esque player in deep-midfield?

There aren’t many players in the world who have the skill set that Andrea Pirlo possesses. To use those skills in a deep position and still exert total control over the game requires a great understanding of the role and few players can match him in that regard. Xabi Alonso and Paul Scholes spring to mind, but they have far fewer assists when compared to Pirlo and they are more of instigators, whereas Pirlo is well and truly the  playmaker of the team. Another caveat is that, Pirlo usually requires players like Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and De Rossi (who has been splendid this tournament, possibly Italy’s second most important player) to do the defensive job and offer drive higher up the pitch. Pirlo is only as good as his midfield partners. (To add to that, Italy use a “magic square” formation in the middle which is exclusive to specific midfield functions. As Michael Cox notes, the player who is expected to be the “trequartista”, Ricardo Montolivio, is not and is asked by Cesare Prandelli to get back to make an extra central midfielder in defence).

At Arsenal, we have many players who can perform that role. Denilson, once described by Le Boss as a cross between Tomáš Rosický and Gilberto Silva is talented enough to play that role. Besides being suspect in his positioning, he has a long way to go as he doesn’t quite have the vision and long passing required to be the playmaker of the team. Mikel Arteta has proven to be one of the best midfielders of the season and Alex Song has shown that he too is more than capable of doing the job, with his dribbling, and who can forget those exquisite chipped passes over the top for Robin van Persie. But the best bet is our very own ‘Spanish’ player, Jack Wilshere who possesses all the required attributes like vision, technique, passing, positioning and quick decision making to succeed in that role. But is it an intelligent decision to not use his skills higher up the pitch? Probably not, but he is the closest Arsenal can get to Andrea Pirlo, the most stylish and yet, the most important player in the world.

Arséne Wenger has recast his side following the departure of Cesc Fábregas

Few teams have such an idealogical slant as Arséne Wenger’s Arsenal. In a video commemorating the Club’s 125th anniversary, the official website implores fans to explore the “passion, visionary philosophy and belief in youth that the Club inspires.” And certainly, Gus Hiddink believes that Arsenal are still one of the best sides in the world, less perhaps because of their reliance on youth, but mainly due to the attacking way they play football. “It’s true that, today, Barcelona leads the way — as Arsenal has done in the past,” he said in Issue Zero of The Blizzard. “And, in my opinion, still does, even if things haven’t worked their way in the Champions League so far.” However, that was five months ago, before Arsenal’s season imploded in their face like a birthday cake from Sue Sylvester.

Since then, Arsenal have sold off their most distinctive player, Cesc Fábregas. He was the one who was the most synonymous with their style and one who validated their game. Wenger built a system around him to get the best out of his ability to find team-mates that no-one could. Samir Nasri is set to follow and it seems that ideological slant is about to deviate somewhat, focusing less on the tippy-tappy concentrating more on the dynamic.

Arséne Wenger has recast his side following the departure of his captain. They are less focused on possession although it remains a key part to their strengths. However, Wenger’s aims this season are primarily to get the ball forward quickly and pass it with speed. It translates to a more direct approach; in the two games this season against Newcastle and Udinese, Arsenal essentially played with three strikers. Robin van Persie was backed up by Gervinho and Arshavin either side of him in a 4-3-3 formation in the first game and Marouanne Chamakh lined up alongside Theo Walcott and Gervinho at home to Udinese. The result was less passing through the middle and more focus on wing-play. Of course, the upshot of that is that Arsenal’s passing becomes less accurate as shown by the statistics against Udinese. UEFA.com list that The Gunners attempted a total of 546 passes, however, only 69% reached their target; way below their average of around 80%. They also made more fouls than Udinese and took less shots indicating that there may be an ugliness about Arsenal’s play this season.

On the other hand, they were markedly more accurate with the ball against Newcastle but as was often the case last season, they had trouble breaking down the opposition defence. Without players like Fábregas, Samir Nasri and the injured Jack Wilshere, Arsenal not only lose some of their ability to retain possession but incisiveness too. At St. James Park, there was an evident split between midfield and attack highlighting the need for a link player but also the change in emphasis for Arsenal away from the middle and to the flanks.

In the last couple of seasons, Wenger has tended to balance out the wings with one creative player –sometimes referred to as a “half-winger” — and a more dynamic winger the other side. His options this season, though, seem less varied; if Nasri departs it only leaves Arshavin as a player vaguely described a creative winger while Tomas Rosicky will probably get more time in the centre. By playing “strikers on the wings”, Arsenal’s aim is to try and get those two wide forwards behind as quickly and often as possible in an attempt to break down typically obdurate defences they face. One goal thus far in 2011/12 perhaps indicates it is still very much a work in progress but again, for the tactic to work, it is very reliant on the central midfielders to link up the attack. At Newcastle, the distance between midfield and attack was often too large. Aaron Ramsey, playing the playmaker role, likes to drop deep to pick up possession but in doing so, somebody else must occupy the space that he leaves. Tomas Rosicky didn’t and it must be noted Jack Wilshere does this very well therefore the cohesiveness of the whole unit was a bit disjointed. On the plus side, however, the rotation between the three central midfielders does give Arsenal a lot of ambiguity and fluidity and perhaps one of the arguments against Arsenal with Fábregas, no matter how brilliant he was, was that the side were too reliant on him. Now, the three can alternate responsibility.

One of the key differences between the Newcastle and Udinese encounters was Arsenal’s possession and passing accuracy statistics. While The Gunners held the ball for longer in the league, that may be down to the cautiousness of Alan Pardew’s side and the superior tactical nous of the Italians who came to exploit any Arsenal weaknesses.

Possession, as I’ve argued many times, is a form of defence for Arsenal. Indeed, it is for any ball-hungry side. Against Newcastle, by keeping the effectively ball, Arsenal stifled any hint of ambition the Toon Army had. As a result, they looked more secure as a unit although to be fair on the defence, they have been supremely organised these last two games. Wenger, though, lamented the “speed of our passing” in the 0-0 draw as one of the reasons for failing to break Newcastle down so perhaps as a reaction, they tried to raise the intensity of their game against Udinese. They made a breathtaking start, taking the lead in three minutes, but a little concerning was that they never let up. If possession is as much a form of defence as it is attack, they were unable to take the sting from game by holding onto the ball. The fast-paced football inevitably impacted on their ability to keep it for prolonged periods and that always gave Udinese a chance on the break. Perhaps most culpable was Alex Song, who more than just being overly exposed and heavily dependent to maintain Arsenal’s shape, had a pass success of 63%.

The presence of a Wilshere or Fábregas may have helped Arsenal keep Udinese at bay by way of keep-ball and as it turned out, they finally realised the error of their ways and killed off the game in the last twenty minutes. The introduction of Emmanuel Frimpong in that period cannot be understated as he helped Arsenal maintain a 4-2-1-3 shape. Indeed, structure has always remained Arsenal’s biggest weakness as their over-attacking approach tends to require more resources to push forward, leaving gaps at the back and that’s why effective use of the ball is ever more important. It can suffocate teams up the pitch and deny them from springing a quick breakaway. On the other hand, being less reliant of possession does increase Arsenal’s counter-attacking potential and in the absence of so many key players against Liverpool, it may be Arsenal’s best outlet of scoring.

We can probably put down some of the indecision and inaccuracy to the newness of the team and the need to get used to each other. Indeed, one of the reasons Wenger so wants to keep Nasri is that there would be no need to adapt as an understanding is already in place. Nevertheless, if Wenger is hoping to get Arsenal to be more dynamic again, it would still need a heavy dose of technical accuracy therefore the return of Wilshere and possibly a new signing to augment the new approach, cannot come soon enough.

How Arsenal have been shaping up for 2011/12

Midfield rotation

With all the talk of Arsenal’s pre-season performances centring around defensive meltdown, it’s arguable (and we will argue that in our next article this week) that replacing Cesc Fábregas – or at least replicating his creativity – will be Arsenal’s main concern this impending season. Frustratingly for us tactical anoraks and dissectors, he hasn’t played a single minute in pre-season which means any tactical conclusions that are to made — if Cesc Fábregas stays of course — will be treading on the hypothetical.

In the friendlies this summer, Samir Nasri and Aaron Ramsey have exclusively played in the playmaker role but to mixed success. While Ramsey has shown the positives and freshness he can bring to the team, Samir Nasri has frankly been disappointing. He is supposedly the heir apparent to the more commonly known “Fábregas-role” but he has shown a underwhelming lack of football application recently, which his national team coach, Laurent Blanc, alluded to: “I hope that Samir, whether he stays with Arsenal or not, will play well for France, which was not the case in the last three matches.”

It seems to be that Nasri has resorted back to the same mannerisms that made him a fledgling talent instead of the match winner he was becoming halfway through last season. Arséne Wenger once said Nasri “was a bit too much attracted to the ball” and his displays in pre-season seem to have gone down that route against. Against Hangzhou Greentown in particularly, he tended to drift and follow the ball when he would be more useful looking to get into space. His other weakness is that his passing is not as penetrative as Fábregas’ but in pre-season, he either attempted too many or was not assertive enough. It’s a far cry from the start 2010/11 where he looked like the obvious successor to Fábregas —  there is, of course, time riddle out these inaccuracies because there is too much talent in Nasri — but he has since been usurped by Aaron Ramsey.

Ramsey is not a typical No.10; he prefers to pick up possession from deep rather than operate in the gap between midfield and attack but thus far, he has created a good chemistry with his two central midfield partners. If he drops back to pick up possession, it opens up space for one of his midfield partners to stride further forward. In the Emirates Cup it was mainly Tomas Rosicky although Jack Wilshere has looked threatening when using his drive further up field. What this tends to mean is the formation, rather than the 4-2-3-1 it is when Fábregas plays, looks more like a 4-1-4-1 with two midfielders either side of Alex Song. Indeed, some of Arsenal’s most cohesive performances last season came when Cesc Fábregas attempted to make a midfield three thus allowing one of his partners to push forward. It was frustrating not to see the Arsenal captain take part against Benfica because it would have then helped to see if this was a purposeful ploy from Wenger to encourage greater rotation between the midfield. As it is, we can perhaps pass it off as part of Ramsey’s natrualistic tendencies to want to play with the game in front of him although Neil Banfield, Arsenal’s reserve coach, gives the greatest insight into the Gunners’ tactics for this season after Arsenal XI’s 3-0 win over Woking. “[Tactically] we are working a lot on winning the ball back fairly quickly,” he said. “Getting our shape and quick rotation from midfield so there is quite a lot we’re looking for this season.”

Of course, the other advantage to Ramsey dropping back to pick up position is that it creates a natural vantage point to spray passes to the wide forwards of which is to become a key feature of Arsenal’s play in 2011/12.

<Figure 1> As happened against Benfica, the opposition when facing Arsenal, tend to press down the middle and get tight, stopping Arsenal from passing the ball out from the back. In the defeat, Alex Song tried to evade the attentions of his marker by moving left and right, opening up space for Aaron Ramsey to pick up the ball. This in turn allows Jack Wilshere to push forward into the No.10 role Ramsey may have started in and gives Arsenal an ambiguity which is harder to defend.

Strikers on the wings

In the matches Arsenal played at the Emirates Cup, they have tended to play with at least one striker on the flanks. That, at least, may have been forced upon Wenger as in the early games in the summer, he had Ryo Miyaichi and Theo Walcott to call upon — at the Emirates both were injured — while Arsenal’s forward players tend to be versatile anyway. What this resulted in, in the two matches against Boca Juniors and then New York Red Bulls, was a narrower attack but more men in the box as essentially Arsenal used three strikers. Against New York Red Bulls, the trio were Benik Afobe, Robin van Persie and Gervinho. And certainly, with van Persie tending to drop deep to pick up the ball, it opens up space for one of those strikers to occupy his position.

It maintains to be seen how this tactic will develop if Nasri goes back to the right or when Walcott and Andrey Arshavin come in. Wenger has tended to balance out the wings with one creative player –sometimes referred to as a “half-winger” — and a more dynamic winger the other side. His options next season seem less varied; if Nasri departs it only leaves Arshavin as a player vaguely described a creative winger while Tomas Rosicky will probably more time in the centre. There was plenty of interchange in pre-season, Gervinho particularly impressing and making sure he was always available. He’s the type of player, like van Persie, Song or Fábregas, that make the system who, when missing are evidently missed. Utilising the space behind the opposition through diagonals will be key, especially as space is already a premium whoever Arsenal are up against and Gervinho does that particularly well. His drive tended to lift the pessimistic atmosphere at the Emirates and is always deadly on the counter-attack.

<Figure 2> Arsenal faced a packed defence against New York Red Bulls with space at a premium. Arsenal struggled as the game wore on as their opponent camped more and more deeper but they still had good chances in the first-half to score. Aaron Ramsey getting behind was a key feature but as much was the wide men who constantly looked to profit in the spaces that Robin van Persie left behind when he dropped short. As a consequence the attack narrowed but Arsenal had more men to target in the box. Maybe Wenger got some of his inspiration from Barcelona who tend to flit in and out of a narrow and stretched front line and the wide forwards looking to get beyond Messi is a key feature.

Set-piece configurations

Arsenal’s woes from set-plays have been well documented. The most widely agreed solution is that Arsenal need a more dominant defender to slot in alongside Thomas Vermaelen and while that may be the case, Wenger is of the solution there is a more deep rooted problem than that. Of the 42 goals The Gunners conceded last season, 22 came from set-pieces but further delving into that statistic reveals only six came from corner kicks; the rest from free-kicks. That seems to suggest Wenger’s assertion that it is as much, a concentration and anticipation issue, as free-kicks whipped tend to be more varied and can cause confuse the defence as they are often back-tracking. Picking up your man in a man-marking system then becomes a bit of a muddle so it may be better to do away with the needless jostling for space and concentrate on what matters most: winning the ball. A zonal-marking system has now been deployed although we haven’t been able to fully examine it beyond corner kicks (although the goal conceded against Greentwon Hangzhou suggests a mixture, predominantly man-marking is used at free-kicks).

<Figure 3> The zonal-marking system displayed is a change from last season whereby Arsenal used a mixture of both although it was pre-dominantly man-marking. There is a curved line of six defenders at the edge of the six yard box, containing Arsenal’s best headers of the ball with the striker at the near post. Time will tell how the new layout will work as Premier League teams generally put pressure on the goalkeeper. (In this picture, the New York attacker is doing the same). It’s the same structure many teams who play a zonal-marking system use and it might be notable to say that the “Famous Four” under Geroge Graham also used zonal-marking.

Relaxed pressing

Arsenal’s pressing was also more relaxed. In this picture below, you can see Arsenal are more cautious, generally pressing more intensely if the ball gets into their own half or when they trap a defender. Last pre-season, Arsenal were practising an aggressive but structured pressing system but seem to have abandoned that. The structure is still there using the principles of through-marking but the intensity has been reigned in.

Kieran Gibbs adds a new dimension

Gael Clichy’s performances last season, while not the disaster some fans have made out, didn’t really rise above the average. Defensively he was generally solid and particular when Arsenal pressed, he was magnificent but he tended to handle pressure badly and suffered from a lack of concentration which sometimes led to him giving away dangerous opportunities. In attack he was not very effective – which was understandable given that he was forced to play cautiously as he wasn’t afforded the same protection as Bakary Sagna on the other side. (Sagna had the added bonus of having Alex Song in front of him in the double pivot as opposed to Clichy with Jack Wilshere).

It maintains to be seen just what Kieran Gibbs will bring defensively although he does look very comfortable if a bit carefree but he should make a huge difference to the attack. Already in the warm-up games he was very influential, getting into the box frequently and making dangerous runs and importantly, he crossed in for Robin van Persie in the 2-1 defeat to Benfica. A less talked about contribution he may bring is his ability to break down deep-lying defences as is often the case for Arsenal. Full-backs are generally the only players “free” on the pitch although against Arsenal that’s not always the case. Nevertheless, his bursts down the left can leave the defence unaware and he does have a dynamism about him which is hard to counter-act.

The Cesc Fábregas dependencia

If Cesc Fábregas does leave Arsenal this season, it would be without any notable legacy. He should go down as one of the legends. Indeed he is one of Arsenal’s greatest individuals; the statistics and archive footages will testify to his outstanding ability but crucially, the trophies do not. He has, of course, won the best of the lot: the World Cup but it’s the manner of his involvement which is precisely why he hankers for more silverware. Coming off the bench to set up the winner, as he has done numerously for Spain, Fábregas showed his unparalleled ability to open teams with his penetrative passes but there’s a feeling inside him, that despite that genius, he hasn’t shown enough for it. At least, not at club level which should reaffirm his status back home. When the chance came to prove himself when Arsenal went to Barcelona, he was non-existent and at home, he was overshadowed by his heir, Jack Wilshere.

His ambition has been hampered by the youth development policy and one that, at 24, thrusts Fábregas into the role of a reluctant leader. Encapsulating what Arsenal is about since the “Invincibles” team broke up: skilful, spontaneous and confident in possession – the type of player that makes Arsenal a joy to watch – he has had to mature and lead a generation without the presence of big name players and that has left a bit of fragility in him that can occasionally frustrate. Indeed, that is the argument some have made against Wenger’s handling of the transition. That the youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and swagger in possession – have effectively taken over the team. And the other qualities that made them great – ruthlessness, power, organisation and experience – have been seen as an after-thought. It all displays the delicacy of the project the team has embarked upon since the move to The Emirates but the thread keeping Fábregas at the club is seemingly what is holding it all together.

He is the talisman; the highest profile player at the club and a leader of his generation. If he, who embodies it, ceased to believe in Arsène Wenger’s project then what hope does a youth development policy have?  One of the first products of the project, Gael Clichy, has already departed to a team which must be considered an antithesis of Arsenal, showing that winning matters most if you want to foster a sense of loyalty. Even coming through the ranks of your boyhood club is not reason enough to stay and Arsenal fans will be hoping Clichy’s expected successor, Kieran Gibbs, will not follow the same route of Ashley Cole. Samir Nasri is reportedly next to want a way out but if Fábregas departs, it must surely signal the end of youth project.

If already the transfer seems as if it will be a monumental one, consider the difficulties that Arséne Wenger will have to face in trying to replace his star player. Because the issue is not merely one of changing personnel; it’s also schematic one as Arsenal have built their system around the man who they feel is the most effective player in the game.

Fábregas makes the passes, he breaks down opposition defences and general makes Arsenal dynamic. In the last five seasons, the Spaniard has made 60 assists – no player has made more in the top five leagues. The official Premier League statistics has it at 71 but they tend to count indirect or passive assists (i.e. penalties won or deflections). Nevertheless it underlines his all-round contribution to the team. In that period, he has also created the most chances in the Premiership at 466 and most frequently too – last season he made a chance every 28.6 minutes from open play. The team shape is moulded so that it can make full use of Fábregas’ ability to find gaps that others can’t, fitting him in the playmaker role of the 4-2-3-1. It underlines his immense improvement that he is able to play this role now because it was once thought he was too slow and too weak to play with his back to goal but he has since added a robustness and directness to his game as shown by his frequent cameos off the bench for Spain. Even so, he has mastered the art of evading from his marker and ensures he doesn’t have to play as a typical number 10 would. Rather, he drops deep to pick up the ball, often making a midfield three and is the main man in the press. As a result, Arsenal also concede less goals because they keep the ball better. For them, possession is a form of defence and if they are to improve next season, it’ may be wiser to strengthen the areas that they are best at as opposed more trivial matters.

But despite playing a central role as a team’s chief chance creator – something which he manages to do unselfishly as he is overwhelmingly a team player – this means it comes to a situation where the other ten players are effectively looking to play everything through him. They depend on him to make the final pass – as one team-mate said this season  –  so what this results in, is the player himself landing a hat full of assists while his team-mates assists/key chances per game ratio can be unimpressive. Wenger realises that Fabregas is crucial to the team if they are to a land a trophy – no-one does what he does better – and until others mature quickly, they will continue to depend on him. The statistics weigh heavily in Cesc Fábregas’ favour: In the 22 games he started in 2010/11, Arsenal won 64% of their matches but that figure plummets to 34% when doesn’t feature. To put this into the context of last season, Fabregas missed 13 games and Arsenal lost 4 of them – such form is not title-winning and is unlikely to inspire him much confidence in the team.

With thanks to 7am Kickoff for the statistics. The dependence on Cesc Fábregas is shown last season by Arsenal’s results when the captain doesn’t play and when he does.

Letting Fábregas go is unquestionable at the moment but history is not against teams that have prospered when talismanic figures leaves the club. When Michael Owen left, Liverpool instantly won the European Cup. Likewise Marseille when star striker Jean-Pierre Papin departed. Perhaps the style of relying on a goalpoacher is unsuited in Europe and it took their main player to leave for Liverpool and Marseille to realise a holistic route is more fruitful. Certainly that was the case with Manchester United and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

It was, in 2006, a clash with their future talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, which forced van Nistelrooy out of the club at a time when it was felt unthinkable. But despite his brilliant record of goals, ultimately the club’s trophy haul during his five years at the club suggests he wasn’t success. The team was imbalanced towards him and essentially for Sir Alex Ferguson, engineering a fallout with his ‘star’ striker was one of his best ideas as United haven’t looked back. The rigid 4-4-2 became a flexible and dizzyingly high-tempo 4-3-3 which at times became “strikerless” – unfathomable given van Nistelrooy’s legacy – as Manchester United progressed past the quarter-finals for the first time between 1999 and 2007. Indeed, the secret of Sir Alex’s success has been his ability to scrap and evolve sides, especially when it seemed key individuals departing had left them in limbo. For a while, the Scotsman had trouble replacing Roy Keane – perhaps one of the reasons why the 4-4-2 system didn’t work with van Nistelrooy – looking to bring an enforcer type in a similar mould to him and no doubt inspired by Patrick Vieira. But later he realised that it would be difficult to recreate Keane’s qualities so instead of looking to replace him with one outstanding and possibly costly individual, found two, dropping Paul Scholes back and using him in a double shield. Arsenal had similar trouble replacing Vieira but unlike United, they initially went backwards.

Arsenal, under Wenger, would normally play a double pivot – two disciplined midfielders in front of the back four – but with Fábregas breaking through and making himself undroppable, it meant finding a way to utilise a box-to-box midfielder whose creative tendencies would see him get involved further up the pitch thus disrupting some of the balance. Vieira and Fabregas didn’t work so Wenger made the difficult decision to let his captain go. However, the solution, a split midfield with Gilberto solely holding was too inefficient. At the same time, it was becoming more and more evident that Fábregas needed greater freedom to  because, as Henry once said: “If you let Fábregas play he can kill a team.” In the Champions League, Wenger switched to a 4-5-1 which the midfielder to get forward with more security nearly reaped instant rewards. In 2007, Wenger discarded Gilberto and brought in the highly energetic Mathieu Flamini to cover the ground that Fábregas would be leaving. It so nearly worked at a master-stroke but ultimately it proved to be too exhausting to last the season, the manager eventually switching to the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 we see now. Perhaps Wenger has learnt from this past, not only utilising Fábregas high up because they need his vision, but it’d be much more efficient to have him as high up the pitch as possible without affecting the defensive balance of the team.

If Cesc Fábregas leaves, this does not instantly mean Arsenal are doomed. To the contrary, the “Ewing Theory” (when a team prosper after their biggest star – or in Arsenal’s case, perhaps a couple if Nasri also departs – leaves the club) may see that that as soon as Cesc walks away, Arsenal will start winning things again. Indeed, their best performances last season were when they took a holistic route. We’ve already said last season, from the months from the middle of December to the end of February, Arsenal were the best team in the league. That’s scant consolation perhaps to Arsenal ending up fourth but it showed, when the parts start to function as a unit, The Gunners can be unstoppable. Fábregas was a key member his dependence wasn’t overwhelmingly evident: Samir Nasri pitched in as a wide playmaker, Jack Wilshere continued probing as did Alex Song graft. Theo Walcott stretched the defence on the right, creating and profiting from the runs Robin van Persie made. Certainly the Dutch striker rising to the occasion has been one of Arsenal’s plus points, helping take the load off Fábregas.

A taster of Arsenal might play without Fábregas was in end-of-season clash with Manchester United when the holistic route was at it’s best. In that game Fábregas’s anticipated successor, Jack Wilshere, who represents the new Arsenal with his rapid “change-of-direction” and glide on the ball, stepped up to the occasion and was given more freedom in a more natural 4-3-3 to wreak havoc. Perhaps that’s the lesson Arsenal can take from the game: that they shouldn’t be fearful of losing their best player and worry about how to replace him directly – that may be nigh on difficult with someone of his vision – but they can certainly reshape. It’s not impossible. When Patrick Vieira departed in 2005, it was thought he would by leaving a huge hole in the midfield but Cesc Fábregas stepped up. When Thierry Henry left, it was not just their greatest ever player that was leaving; it was an icon. But Cesc Fábregas stepped up, nonetheless, to become the main man. Arséne Wenger will be hoping there are plenty of other Cesc Fábregas’ in the team waiting take up the mantle whether he departs in the near future or not.

*Statistics courtesy of OPTA and @Orbinho.