Five points on Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal

In the end, it was the similarities between the two sides which resulted in such an open encounter. Which is strange to say considering past meetings when Arsenal and Chelsea face has been decided by their differences.

The millions pumped in by Roman Abramovich already indicates an uneven playing field and on the playing field the contrast is evident; it’s usually a battle between aesthetes and results, between romanticism and pragmatism. However, this season’s hiring of Andre Villas-Boas – the deviator from Jose Mourinho’s team of brutal perfectionists – indicates that Abramovich wants to change that image. And in Saturday’s encounter at Stamford Bridge, Villas-Boas attempted to go toe-to-toe against Arséne Wenger for attacking football but ended up looking a bit naïve. Here are some observations from the 5-3 win over Chelsea.

1. High line + lack of pressing = recipe for openness

The defending of both sides presented another opportunity to belittle the use of a high-line but it was the combination of that – and not on it’s own – and a lack of pressing which led to a hectic encounter. Put simply, you cannot play a high defensive line without pressing because it invites the opposition to make passes through the backline. Both sides did that constantly and getting the wide men beyond the back four was a common sight but it was Arsenal in the second-half who reacted, getting tighter to stop the passes out wide and playing a bit deeper (see figure 1). Chelsea, on the other hand, continued to allow Arsenal to get through.

 

03HjS<Figure 1>Arsenal allow Chelsea to pass it deep in the first-half with relatively little pressure but that only invites Chelsea to exploit through the channels. In the second period, The Gunners drop deeper and get tighter, blocking the combination play out wide from developing.

The lack of pressing can be displayed by the goals. For the opener, Arsenal dropped off and allowed John Terry to play a diagonal wide to Juan Mata and his resulting cross was met by the unmarked Frank Lampard. He was afforded a free run at goal because Arsenal sat off early on in the build up and when the long ball was played, the midfield was left marking space, ignoring Lampard’s run. In the second-half, The Gunners got much tighter and stopped those runs having any effect. Chelsea, however, didn’t react and the goals they conceded were of a similar vein. They were often too late to close down and Arsenal were able to get runners beyond. Vitor Pereira, Porto’s new coach and Villas-Boas’ number two last season, says he most differs from the Chelsea manager in their philosophies in the defensive; Villas-Boas is more passive while Pereira is much more aggressive at winning the ball back.

AC Milan set the benchmark under Arrigo Sacchi in the late eighties/early nineties playing a high defensive line (even if the offside laws were favourable) because of their structural pressing. Both Arsenal andChelsea may have tried to be compact in their own halves but their relaxed closing down ensured both sides invited each other forward. Nevertheless, it’s a balance that not only they have had trouble with this season; Manchester United have allowed the most shots because they don’t press intensely AND play a deep line, affording space for opponents between midfield and defence. Manchester City have perhaps got this balance most right, having at least five men back at all times.

As The Short Fuse put it so well on Saturday, “playing a high-line without pressure, though, is hazardous at best and defensive suicide at worst.”

2. The new Arsenal arrives

If it wasn’t instantly obvious how Arsenal would adjust after Cesc Fábregas early on in the season because their passing was soporific and not incisive, it was made apparent here. They played with lots of speed when in possession while Gervinho and Theo Walcott were the perfect foils for Robin van Persie. Arséne Wenger is willing to keep his three forwards up the pitch in order to make Arsenal more dynamic and while it may leave them defensively exposed at times, it can make them devastating at times. Chelsea do the same thing but the difference between the two sides were shown; The Blues’ front three are more crafty and creative while Arsenal, with van Persie in particular, can be unpredictable and erratic but were brutally effective.

03HrS.png<Figure 2> Arsenal v Chelsea successful/unsuccessful dribbles

3. Laurent Koscielny shines once again

Another game and another excellent performance by Koscielny. His rise has been remarkable and it seems he has finally adapted to the vagaries and subtleties of the Premier League. On Saturday, he made dominant showing, most impressively making 8 interceptions. His partnership with Per Mertesacker works because they complement each other well as the stopper and the sweeper which allows Koscielny to use his intelligence to get into position. If, as expected, Thomas Vermaelen comes straight back in, Koscielny may have to adapt his game because the two are very similar. They are Arsenal’s two best central defenders but is it the best partnership? (We think so).

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<Figure 3> Koscielny interceptions

4. Mikel Arteta gives Arsenal stability

If it wasn’t instantly obvious how Arsenal would adjust after Cesc Fábregas early on in the season because their passing was soporific and not incisive, it is now because of Mikel Arteta. It’s true, he would rather keep it simple than play defence-splitting passes – his pass for van Persie was his first assist – but by keeping the ball moving, he helps Arsenal sustain the pressure. His defensive work can also go understated, by not only helping Arsenal to recycle the ball from the back but also holding his position and allowing Alex Song (for Andre Santos’s goal) to add drive going forward and Aaron Ramsey to revel higher up. The Welshman made his best performance to date and you can’t help but feel it was made possible by Arteta’s presence.

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<Figure 4> Mikel Arteta’s pass completion was at 94%.

5. Arsenal keep Mata quiet…sort of

There was much talk about how Johan Djourou would cope with Juan Mata but it turned out to be a team responsibility. In the first-half, he was fantastic, drifting all over the pitch (although he left his team horribly exposed in defence) and in particular, doubling up on the right. However, in the second-half, Arsenal got tighter and stopped him from getting space on the flanks. The Gunners blocked the easy pass to the flanks and Mata’s influence waned. Apart from his brilliant strike to make it 3-3 that is.

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<Figure 5> Juan Mata’s involvement in both halves. Notice, in the first-half, how his involvement was purely creative, drifting into pockets to get on the ball. In the second-half, he was more frustrated. He still had his only two chances in the game late on and could have added to his belter has his shot not be cleared off the line.

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Modern football reaches a pantheon. Arsenal prevails in attack vs attack

Arsenal's Johan Djourou, at left, with teammates Alex Song, centre and Emmanuel Eboue, at right, challenge for the ball with Barcelona's Lionel Messi during a Champions League, round of 16, first leg soccer match at Arsenal's Emirates stadium in London, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Tom Hevezi)

Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona (First Leg)

This was a match where every detailed seemed to matter just that bit more. Every pass was stressed. Every shot was scrutinised. Every contested challenge, dribble and interception was crucial. Every bounce of Lionel Messi’s hair. The timing of Theo Walcott’s runs. Refereeing decisions. Pep Guardiola’s catwalk struts down the touchline. Every unscrewing of Arsene Wenger’s bottle cap. Every inch Victor Valdes left exposed at his near post. Every substitution. Each moment of ascendancy had to be taken. Those were the margins and fortunately enough, a huge dose of Lady Luck went Arsenal’s way also.

Barcelona played Arsenal off the park for the first forty-five minutes. Or so it should have been. Lionel Messi was sensational in dropping deep and collecting possession then running at Arsenal’s back-line. But Arsenal tried it’s darnest to limit his threat and for keeping it 1-0 and sticking religiously to their gameplan, it nevertheless must go down as a fantastic first-half effort. After the break, however, Arsenal ramped up their intensity and it was Barcelona who looked like they may buckle. Granted, Pep Guardiola’s side had plenty of the possession but that was expected. The Gunners continued to play pro-actively, undeterred by their so-called superior’s level of technical ability. And for that the game must go down as the best of the modern era. Manchester United and Chelsea in the Champions League in 2008 may have been a compelling advert for the speed and power of the evolving game but this was how football should be played: with an unerring technical accuracy, tempo and tactical complexity.

But it is more significant given that Arsenal has beaten the best team of the current generation and one who is light-years ahead of the rest because of the philosophy bestowed onto them by Johan Cruyff (although their financial ethics must be questioned). Whenever anyone has played the Catalan giants, they almost certainly contest in one way; to defend deep and look to counter attack and all with an air of inevitability and fear. Only Villarreal has deferred from the modus operandi but it has only served to highlight the difficulties of facing Barcelona at their own game. “You’re always on the border of collapsing against them,” said Arsène Wenger, after last night’s 2-1 victory and it seemed like it may go that way for Arsenal as well after they made a fantastic start to the game in the first ten minutes. Somehow a good ten minutes becomes a positive thing when facing Barcelona.

Arsenal fought fire with fire and although the possession count was a superior 66%-34% to Barcelona, it was not as if The Gunners tried to concede possession to their opponents. Arsenal pressed and squeezed Barcelona. It worked but at the same time, failed to work also. Messi had a fantastic chance when he chipped wide when one-on-one with Wojcjech Szczesny and had a goal disallowed for offside. But the highly integrated, highly compact pressing from Arsenal, which at most times was never 25 metres apart from the first line of defence to the last, constantly broke up play.  Arsenal’s best play was mostly on the turnover but fortune favours the brave and as a result, they also had their fair share of possession. Jack Wilshere in particular was so impressive that he never gave the ball away in the first-half. He had a composure in front of defence beyond his years and a discipline which was crucial to the moment. The central midfield pair delegated roles accordingly, as Alex Song continued charging for the ball, knowing that he was the better tackler and Wilshere the better circulator.

Arsenal did get a bit of joy when defeating the first line of Barcelona pressing which consisted on Pedro, Messi and David Villa. The threesome tried to close the defenders down high up the pitch but if Arsenal bypassed it, they found space down the wings because it exposed Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the middle. Emmanuel Eboue galloped up and down while Samir Nasri had Dani Alves in knots at times. But by also keeping the front three high up the pitch and the keep ball that Barcelona are capable of, it sucked Walcott and Nasri, in particular, centrally and Alves himself continued bombing up and down.

Arsenal’s strategic defending

It is true Messi had a barnstormer in the first-half but he was eventually squeezed out for big periods in the second. Lethargy had a part to play but also, Barcelona cannot really be asked to defend for 90 minutes and against a team like Arsenal, it was also going to concede chances on the break. Arsenal’s tactic was as it has always been this season; strategic defending that incorporates the Dutch principles of through-marking and winning the ball back quickly. Through-marking sees the players behind the first presser looking to eliminate the next pass through tight-marking and close attention. It is highly dependent on the structure and distances between players and Arsenal’s 4-4-1-1 in the press, which was Arrigo Sacchi-esque, ensured the team could match up well numerically. Laurent Koscielny typified the strategy as he continued to nick the ball away from the Barcelona attackers.

Much was to be made of the two central defender’s style before the game and by the end, showed that their style of winning the ball back quickly, which has been the mantra of Arsenal’s defensive strategy this season, was a masterstroke. The high-line got them in to trouble on occasions but apart from a Messi miss and a lack of concentration from Gael Clichy, it worked to great effect. Villa tried to take advantage by getting in between Johan Djourou and Koscielny and in that one instance, it worked.

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<Figure 1> Arsenal’s defensive outline. Arsenal squeezed the play, looking to stop Barcelona from playing their game. Their backline was adventurously high and that meant at most times, a distance of 25 metres between attack and defence.

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<Figure 2> Lionel Messi’s completed passes. Arsenal’s compactness shows in Messi’s passing graph. The Argentine had a free striker role and dropped deep to collect possesion but Arsenal tried not to let him get into the final third. (Courtesy of Zonal Marking and Total Football iphone app.)

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<Figure 3> Arsenal Interceptions (Courtesy ofSleepy_Nik and and Total Football iphone app.)

In the second-half, Arsenal was more effective, more tighter and this allowed the side to comeback in the fashion that they did. Robin van Persie’s goal had a bit of good fortune but the build up was just what Wenger would have wanted. Quick passing, quick interchange and dynamic movement. Clichy’s dinked pass had Gerard Pique a bit flat-footed, enough for van Persie to exploit. Andrey Arshavin’s goal was even better as an interception at the edge of their own box started a crisp counter attack which saw two great passes by Wilshere and Cesc Fabregas to free Nasri and he showed fantastic composure to tee-up Arshavin to place home.

Much was made of Guardiola’s substitution of David Villa for Seydou Keita. In one sense it was defining but you could understand his reasoning. Barcelona was losing the dynamism and potency that their possession game is famed for and as a result Villa was kept quiet. He wanted to retain control and defend via possession; however, it only served to hand some initiative to Arsenal. Wenger was spot on with his substitutions which saw Nasri just hold his position deeper with Fabregas also dropping back and Nicklas Bendtner replacing Walcott. Guardiola’s tactic, however, also showed his flaws as he wanted to make a artistic impression when the game should have been killed off –  to teach an educational lesson with their belief in keeping the ball on the floor and moving at all times.

“We made more chances and in general terms, we have had a very good game,” said Guardiola. “But Arsenal is good at playing the position and exposing the weaknesses. When they get past the first pressure line, they are very fast. For many years they have set an example in Europe.”

The return leg at Camp Nou promises to be special and judging by the last three games against each other, the first-half will be crucial. But right now, Arsenal can celebrate even though the game is only at the halfway point. They have beaten the best team in the world and in a style that never at one moment, betrayed their own. This was a game where ascendancy had to taken. Where every moment was crucial. When football reached a pantheon. When Arsenal prevailed in attack versus attack.

Exploiting the uncertainties of marking – when it’s not man, zone or ball

Recent trends have sought to take advantage of uncertainties in marking as debate still persists on whether the best option is to mark men, zones or the ball.
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The damage to Arsenal in their 3-1 defeat by United may have been done on the counter but Arsène Wenger feels it was their uncertainty in their marking that helped contribute to the situation. “We have to focus on delivering a completely different performance [against Chelsea on Sunday] because today we were never close in our marking and you do not win big games like that,” he said. “We gave them too much room everywhere and afterwards Rooney takes advantage of it. We conceded two goals which were ‘corner for us, goal for them’ – two goals, the second and third. I believe it was much more with our positioning and the intelligence of our positioning that we were wrong.”

The asymmetric 4-3-3 has been a huge success for the club this season but recently, teams have exploited the space afforded to them after bypassing the first line of pressure and the uncertainty it creates. Commit numbers forward (in conjunction with speed is a great weapon) and it causes havoc to not only the zonal-marking system, but to the lesser-used in mainland Europe (more prevalent in Eastern Europe however), the man-marking system. The idea in the defensive phase is to squeeze play, as Barcelona has so expertly displayed under Pep Guardiola, only conceding a miserly 10 goals this season so far and at a rate of 0.5 goals per game. Such a tactic may be anomaly in today’s game as teams usually look to drop back into a defensive block, most commonly a 9-1 split depending on the footballing culture. Nevertheless it’s a desire to be compact that both styles relate. “The trend,” says Gerard Houllier, “is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball.”

With teams defending more compact and the physical development of the game complicating matters, it means teams have had to find more effective ways of breaking down opponents. “Transitions have become crucial,” says Jose Mourinho. “When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position.”

The Inter Milan manager has also previously expressed his preference for “between the lines” players; those players that are unpredictable in their movement by getting into difficult to mark areas. Indeed, with the influence of playmakers proceeding to become limited due to the prevalence of players with destroying capabilities, between the line players are seen as key to unlocking opposition defences. Some playmakers have been ushered into stealth positions; Luca Modric and Robert Pires profiting from starting from wide areas while others like Deco reinventing themselves as interiors. Deco himself was marginalised to the point of periphery by Darren Flecther and Michael Carrick in 1-0 win over Manchester United earlier in the season and it was only when Anelka dropped deeper in to the hole to support him, did the playmaker get some joy. The caveat here being, that the best playmakers have survived in the hole by displaying effective movement and getting and providing support. Slaven Bilic best sums up the trend: “When defending, great teams want many behind the ball. When attacking, players from all sides. We have to be compact, narrow to each other. It’s about the movement of 10 players now.”

In the 1986 World Cup quarter-final, the Argentina coach Carlos Bilardino switched from a 4-3-1-2 to the 3-5-2, playing Maradona, not as the playmaker even though he had performed there with much success in the previous rounds, nor as a traditional forward but as a second striker playing in between the lines. Disrupting the oppositions marking by operating in areas that were hard to pick up, the forward reveled, scoring two famous goals. Accordingly, it is from such precise moments that zonal-marking has usurped man-marking as a side’s overall form of marking. A central defender could have tracked Maradona for most of the game but that would also mean tracking him at times when the forward is without the ball. Zonal-marking means the defender can see both man and ball and while it is not a fool-proof method, it is a far more flexible and composed method, allowing the side to keep their structure and remain compact.

However, former Juventus defender and manager, Ciro Ferrara feels the strenuous approach of zonal-marking may cause confusion and invariably, problems. “I passed from just ‘stop your opponent reaching the goal’ mentality to ‘wait for your opponent, stop him, get the ball and pass it to start an attack,’” he said. “I didn’t just have to re-evaluate my position; I had to improve the fundamentals become more nimble, look up, gain a better picture of the whole pitch. It wasn’t easy.”

Thomas Vermaelen may fit the bill of such a defender who can more than handle Ferrara’s concerns but that wasn’t exactly the case when Park Ji-Sung ran forward to score the third for United. As far as Vermaelen was concerned, in the build up to the goal, Wayne Rooney was his man so he followed him out of his zone as the striker dropped short. But in doing so, Rooney had also entered Alex Song’s and Samir Nasri’s zone, so both men, in conjunction with Vermaelen proceeded to make the challenge on the man whom they all thought were theirs. That one move, took three defenders out and allowed United to pass the ball forward to Park who had run on unmarked. The key tactical success therefore in open play lies in disrupting the patterns of marking and taking advantage of the moments of uncertainty.

In the modern game the full-back is usually the only unmarked player on the pitch up to  a certain point and given they have space to make the runs, can cause great damage. This was expertly displayed by Brazil in the Confederations Cup final in 2009 when Maicon’s constant late surges created two goals in their 3-2 comeback against USA. And Sagna twice laid on Robin van Persie with crosses on the right hand side in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Tottenham.

Traditional strikers are disappearing and what we are seeing now is all-rounded forwards who, not only have the capabilities of scoring but also the means to bring others in to play. “We used to say the midfielders are the guys who bring the strikers alive but what is happening now is the strikers are the guys who can bring your midfielders alive,” said Wenger. “They come to score from deeper positions and you can really do that with one-man up front.” Teams have deployed ‘false nines’ to recreate the threat but they are not everlasting. Strikers need to be hybrids as displayed by the ineffectiveness of Andrey Arshavin in big matches as more competent defences are quick to compress the space to which it then becomes one-dimensional. Robin van Persie is a big miss in that regard as he could play both the role of creator and goalscorer giving Arsenal more unpredictability and variation. “Robin Van Persie, when he played we always scored three or four goals. 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.”

But as tactically sophisticated as football can sometimes seem, it is stopping midfielders running from deep that has still yet to find a solution. Even zonal-marking has not been able to address the old age problem. The answer could lie in defenders developing marking in relation to the ball. But it’s difficult to see how Denilson may have benefited from such insight when chasing down Manchester United’s blistering counter attack for the second goal. All eyes were on the ball and his positioning was satisfactory – but he only needed one glance backwards to spot Rooney and potentially stop the back of the net rippling, rather than understanding his position in relation to the ball.

Maybe then, it’s down once again to Arrigo Sacchi’s all-conquering and somewhat over-zealous AC Milan side in 1989 and ’90 to indicate the way forward. “All of our players,” said Sacchi, “always had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his team-mates.” Defender Franco Baresi also adds: “With Sacchi, we focused on creating rather than breaking down, defending spaces rather than marking men. The secret? At all times you must know your position, where you are standing, and you must participate in the action – even if you are far from the ball.”

Marking then isn’t just a case of man, zone or ball. Because, it seems, everything in football is relative.

Denilson can rekindle the lost art of midfield tackling

Arsene Wenger may have bemoaned the lack of good tacklers these days but what are the reasons for the demise and does he have one right under his nose?
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“I see very few good tacklers nowadays,” said Arsene Wenger most probably reminiscing of the horrendous moment that ended Eduardo’ season and also Arsenal’s title aspirations at the same time last season. Tackling has been the talk of the Premier League in recent games with cards being dished out like confetti  for challenges where one must side with the Frenchman. Indeed a player Wenger identified as one of the lost breed of clever tacklers was involved in what was probably the worst tackle ever and one which even had his own team mate Michel Platini proclaim that he thought he was dead, because “he had no pulse and looked pale”.

Along with Patrick Battiston, Wenger bracketed Frenchmen André Chorda and Christian Lopez in the same category. “A good tackle is beautiful to watch because in the tackle the player is already making a pass, not just clearing the ball. Most of the tackles nowadays they go in blindly. When you do a good tackle you are relaxed because you master every movement.”

His description may seem fanciful and indeed looking at the profile of some  defenders, can fit quite a few in. Rio Ferdinand, Carvalho, Cannavaro (in the 2006 World Cup) and Pepe; in fact the trend nowadays is for central defenders to be mobile and technically secure. Even the arguably less aesthetically pleasing defenders such as Vidic and Terry are very adept at passing the ball. It is maybe not enough from these defenders that Wenger sees as they are not sweepers; the position the manager himself played but one which has since disappeared.

However the bulk of these rash tackles have featured midfielders with Wenger suggesting improved pitches are the reason for the lack of good tacklers. Players are able to control and turn more freely while it allows for better passing and movement. The greater technical emphasis has probably made having a specialised tackler more difficult because while they may be stronger at winning the ball back, hinder the teams passing momentum. Currently most teams play with deep lying playmakers in defensive midfield, able to initiate attacks and break down play just as the sweeper used to and with second strikers or playmakers.

Players in between channels are seen as the key to unlocking defences and one of the reasons for the demise of the box-to-box midfielder. “There are trends in football,” says former Roma manager Carlo Mazzone. “This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.”

“Today’s football is about managing the characteristics of individuals and that’s why you see the proliferation of specialists,” says former AC Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi.  ”The individual has trumped the collective. But it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reactive, not pro-active.”

“For example, we knew that Zidane, Raul and Figo didn’t track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend,” he said when talking about his stint as Real Madrid’s director of football . “But that’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplier effect on the players’ abilities. In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them with y amount of specialists?”

But such defensive midfielder’s can’t have everything. They must be able to pass, be tactically aware and strong in the tackle a difficult equilibrium to find. Sacchi believed in players being able to play a number of positions and hence do more and his AC Milan team played a high pressure game with the team defending in a organised defensive unit. “The trend is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball,” says Gerrard Houllier. Defending is such a way allows for greater balance especially as deep playmakers are converted attacking midfielders in some cases (Pirlo, S. Petrov, Murphy, Scholes, Denilson) and while there is more utilisation of the dual defensive midfield shield that allows organisation.

For Arsenal the departure of Matthieu Flamini has had a great effect;  hardworking and strong positionally and in the tackle as well. The only weakness was his limited technical ability but in his replacement, Denilson can offer more. Like all great defenders, at most times they are not required to even make a tackle to win the ball as his interception stats shows; the Brazilian is second only to Clichy in the league (109 to Clichy’s 118). Playing with much simplicity, Denilson is not the type of player one notices but the work he puts in is tremendous and is also able to initiate attacks. The boy from the favelas in São Paulo can be better and more expansive, but that will come with games and with quality players around him.

As Wenger says, there may not be too many intelligent tacklers but the player described as “a little bit in between Tomáš Rosický and Gilberto” can be the one to rekindle the lost art of tackling in the midfield.