Speed of passing remains key for Arsène Wenger’s side

June 6, 2010 at 10:00 am | Posted in Arsenal | 31 Comments
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Despite seeing his side outclassed at Camp Nou last season, technical efficiency and movement remains Arsenal’s forte.

Theo Walcott apparently personifies the stereotypical anatomy of English football; that of “kick and rush.”  All running and no brain he is, according to Chris Waddle. His exclusion from the England squad indicates that Fabio Capello is looking for a more methodical approach which, in all likelihood, may see the Three Lions revert back to the rigidness and “organised muscularity” that has been both the bane and brilliance of England during the years.

Theo Walcott does have his fans however with Brazil’s World Cup winning captain in 1970, Carlos Alberto* picking out the winger-come-striker as the type of player who can offer his team a direct outlet to break from the compactness and short passing likely to be displayed by many teams in the World Cup.

Speed will not beat brains – but it is increasingly about teams having the balance of the two. Speaking of Zinedine Zidane, director of Real Madrid Jorge Valdano said the Frenchman’s “advances are slow but his decisions are agile.” What Valdano means is that, in a rapidly moving game, what set him apart  was his speed of thought and execution. Indeed analysts at the German Sport University Cologne found that the essence of European football nowadays is speed: players are running more (an average of 10 kilometres, 6.2 miles per game) and the ball is circulating quicker therefore decisions need to be made in a snap (the deepest midfielder is typically in possession of the ball for an average of less than one second per contact). At particular moments of Hiddink’s reign and in the second half of this season, Micheal Ballack has been preferred to the more cumbersome Jon Obi Mikel and indeed, German coach Joachim Löw will need to find a solution to his captain’s efficient distribution following his injury. (The finding from the university helped shape Löw’s Euro 2008 tactics and one such ploy was to force opposing wingers inside to the compact block – a tactic which is increasingly prevalent in Europe).

Ruud Gullit waxed lyrical about Wesley Sneijder’s technical efficiency during the Champions League final, effusively highlighting  that Sneijder rarely touches the ball twice in attacking movements and always finds the opportunity to make quick first-time passes to stretch opposition defences. Paul Simpson, editor of Champions magazine, in contrast analysed opponents Bayern Munich’s sloth-like decision-making – this coming from the side who’s rapid interchange of the ball from left to right – with ten men – brutally tired Lyon into submission in the semi-finals. “The only way to beat Inter was to attack them at speed – by that I don’t just mean physical pace but the speed with which the ball travels – and Bayern’s players sometimes took seven touches before passing,” wrote Paul Simpson.

Speed of passing is not lost on Arsène Wenger also who has always modelled his sides on being mobile and technically above the rest. However, despite seeing his side outclassed in that respect by Barcelona’s magicians, Wenger still remains committed to sticking with his philosophies. “Both sides like to play a quick passing game,” he said when discussing the scant positives of the 6-3 aggregate defeat.

The changes in season 2009/10 had sought to make his side more dynamic which, while on the whole have worked, the degree of its effectiveness has been severely affected by injuries and inexperience hindering decision-making and tactical awareness so crucial to the system. In particular, the attacking momentum seemed to suffer with the loss of key forwards – chiefly Robin van Persie (although you can also put a big case forward for Nicklas Bendtner too).

Wenger sees van Persie in the Marco van Basten type mould, having seemingly revised his Dennis Bergkamp type comparisons only the season before. The statistics indicating to him was that van Persie was more suited to making quick decisions higher up the pitch rather than in the hole where he would occasionally take that split second longer, anticipating for the movement he essentially should be at the end of. “Technical superiority can be measured,” said Wenger in Total Youth Football Magazine in 2008. “If I know that the passing ability of a player is averaging 3.2 seconds to receive the ball and pass it, and suddenly he goes up to 4.5, I can say to him, ‘Listen, you keep the ball too much, we need you to pass it quicker.’ If he says ‘no’, I can say look at the last three games – 2.9 seconds, 3.1, 3.2, 4.5. He’ll say, ‘People around me don’t move so much!’ But you have the statistics there to back you up, too.” Former Arsenal midfielder, Stewart Robson is in agreement also: “The key to Arsenal playing well, being penetrative and dynamic, is when players turn on the ball,” says former Arsenal midfielder Stewart Robson. “When they’ve got their back to goal, suddenly they turn and look to play the next ball forward. Van Persie is brilliant is that, he can turn and run with the ball. He makes goals, he scores goals and with that left foot he is a constant threat.”

In midfield, Alex Song carries the same get-and-give efficiency that convinced Wenger to splash out on Gilberto Silva after the 2002 World Cup while love him or hate him, Abou Diaby’s transition from defence to attack will be a key weapon in years to come. But much still depends on captain Cesc Fabregas’ influence and whose tug of war with his heart-strings Arsenal must win. The notion that he will not get into the Barcelona side is wrong as there is not a more penetrative central midfielder in world football as Cesc Fabregas (although he is at the moment not Pep Guardiola’s first choice recruit).

Certainly with the uncertainty surrounding Fabregas’ future and Marouane Chamakh’s arrival, much anticipation surrounds the way Arsenal will line-up next season. Chamakh could certainly slot into the right side of the three-pronged attack although it is not his best position while a popular move would be to push Andrey Arshavin behind the main forward to boost penetration should Fabregas not remain. “You see that a guy never loses the ball, so you look at the number of times he passes the ball forward,” says Arsène Wenger. “You can get to the point where you can say, ‘I prefer the one who loses the ball a bit more but tries to play it forward.’” Wenger is adamant, however, that the Russian’s one-on-one skills aid the team better on the flanks.

Nevertheless, just as Carlos Alberto saw key earlier on, how Arsène Wenger sets out his side next season will just as much be about a team which produces his love for endless triangular passing as the ability to break away from such intricate patterns.

*Correction: The initial draft highlighted Carlos Alberto Parreira as commenting on Theo Walcott’s usefulness. That indeed was actually Carlos Alberto, former Brazil captain.

**NB: With the World Cup approaching, the blog will be switching its attention to matters regarding the tournament, providing analysis and features, and where relevant, an Arsenal focus. Stay tuned!

Ten conclusions to make from Arsenal’s season

May 13, 2010 at 4:13 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 26 Comments
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Despite another implosion late in the season, the Gunners have plenty of positives to take forward to next season.

1. Arsenal have learned how to defeat the “lesser” sides

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

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

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

2. Robin van Persie may just be world-class

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

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

3. Gunners must make more of wide positions

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

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

4. Arsenal must invest in their own Milan Lab

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

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

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

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

6. Mature heads needed in a learning environment

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

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

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

7. The Joy of Song

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

8. Cesc Fabregas is still king

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

9. Goalkeeping gloves in uncertain hands

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

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

10. Arsene Wenger still the right man for the job

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

Analysing Arsenal’s pressing system

April 27, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 37 Comments
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Arsenal’s pressing game has suffered since the start of the season mostly due to a matter of distances.
Shortened names are all the rage these days. From Subo (Susan Boyle), R-Pat (Robert Pattinson) and Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), it’s a wonder they still haven’t thought of one for Babyshambles front man Pete Doherty. And after Barcelona swept all before them to bag six trophies last year, with Bordaeux and Chile prevailing as underdogs doing it, Arsenal became the latest side at the start of this season to adopt football’s trendiest tactic – that of “high intensity pressing.”

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

Why Pressing is Important in the 4-3-3

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

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

A Matter of Distances

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

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

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

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

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

The Cesc Fabregas Question

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

Arsenal’s dynamic dribbling duo can drive the Gunners to glory

March 29, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 25 Comments
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The benching of Arsenal’s too most gifted dribblers due to slight knocks did not help the Gunners’ cause in the 1-1 draw to Birmingham.

Two goals. One had a bit of luck; the other was dizzyingly graceful. Yet both were just rewards for the almost impudent desire of both players – although paved with good intentions – to get as close to the goal as possible. Samir Nasri’s jinxing and hypnotic run and finish against FC Porto may last longer in the memory than Andrey Arshavin’s flick between two Hull defenders but the goals evoked memories of the golden age of the dribbler. And while the one man masterclass that is Lionel Messi shows week-in-week-out in La Liga that the art of the dribble is far from dead, modern tactics set out to make sure it’s becoming a marginalised trade. At best, however, the dribbler is a game-breaking trait to have and Arsenal’s movement increased ten-fold with the introduction of Nasri and Arshavin in the 1-1 draw against Birmingham.

The two ends of the spectrum were in some sorts displayed in Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Hull City as the home side looked to remain compact and overcrowd the space in the centre for Arsenal’s more technically proficient players to play. As a result, Samir Nasri – the Gunner’s highest central midfielder – found his best work to be when linking up with the players out wide. At it was it was Andrey Arshavin who did find the early goal but even that, expectedly was hard work as he was instantly surrounded by three Hull defenders before firing in. As displayed by these examples, if the wide areas are the positions with the most space, then it is far better off taking advantage of them with your most gifted dribblers. Indeed, that represents part of Arsene Wenger’s thinking when deploying such players as the Marseilles man on the flanks – his ingenuity allowing Arsenal to retain a passing style but still possessing the option to be more dynamic. “What is important is to keep the balance between giving the ball in the final third and scoring goals,” said Wenger after Nasri’s goal against Porto. “On this occasion he made the right decision and has the talent to do it.” And he also added: “He is a very intelligent boy, a quiet boy. He analyses what is happening on the pitch very quickly. He has good technical potential…I believe with the pace he has he can play on the flanks.”

Following Wenger’s ideology early this season of having two different types of wingers on each flank, usually one dynamic and one more technical (although that has recently been challenged by deploying Rosicky and Nasri on opposite flanks to control play better), Nasri’s best chances of starting is on the right, with the left side most likely to be occupied by Arshavin. The Russian can sometimes feel like an incorrigible maverick but Wenger is in no illusions as to his explosiveness. “He is always marked very tight and people do not give him a lot of room,” said the manager. “Everybody who plays against Arshavin says ‘make sure you mark him tight’. But even when he is marked tight in some of the so-called less big games, when you look at the tape afterwards, you always think ‘this movement was good’, or ‘this pass was great’. He always turns up with something special. He can be quiet for 20 minutes, and then suddenly turn up with something decisive. That is what you want from the big players – the big players make you win the big games.” Indeed, at Porto it was arguably his dynamic play, creating three of the goals which helped turn Arsenal’s fortune around.

Dribblers can feel a chancy luxury to have and that is perhaps why managers are more reluctant to play them out wide as it requires quick acceleration made all the more difficult as there is less room to run at the full-back on his outside foot and can lead to moves breaking down. Nevertheless it’s the variation and dynamism that they provide which can turn matches as shown by Arjen Robben’s tantalising displays against Fiorentina, scoring the all-decisive third goal to send Bayern Munich through.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson has so expertly analysed the increasing use of wingers on the opposite sides to their preferred feet but while that makes dribbling easier (allows the winger to attack the full-back’s weaker side) that is not specifically the main advantage that is to be exploited. In Fulham’s recent 3-1 defeat to Tottenham, Damien Duff starting on the right, hardly spent much of the game attacking his man directly as he found cutting in would only lead to more congestion so he realised if he was to succeed in dribbling, it was to in dribbling with movement. The goal he created for Bobby Zamora was created by doubling up in the centre, leaving the left-back Assou-Ekotto with no-one to mark and forcing the central defender, Sebastien Bassong to push up to deal with the extra man he became. In tandem with Arjem Robben at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, the dribblers found a new dimension starting on the ‘wrong’ flank so as to say and which complemented the team’s style.

It seems like the game is taking a holistic route and if it is true as former Ecuador manager Luis Fernando Suarez argues, that taking advantage of wide areas is the key to opening up teams, that can only be exploited best by what’s happening around you. Antonio Valencia has particularly profited for Manchester United by the way his side build up play, allowing him to stretch play on the right as the opposing full-back is forced to tuck inside because of United’s moving of the ball from left to right. And in moments, the defender got too tight he found space to exploit in the centre, winning the penalty against Liverpool by running on the inside of Insua and causing the foul by Mascherano.

And so returning to the 1-1 draw at Birmingham, the starting line-up featuring a front three of Theo Walcott, Nicklas Bendtner and Tomas Rosicky instantly looked worrying at St. Andrews – even more so than the pitch. No real unpredictability and not enough complementation, Walcott was always going to struggle with a lack of creativity in the line up not helped by his style. Switching to the left flank may have been another option yet you couldn’t help think the versatility and explosiveness of Nasri and Arshavin were huge losses in opening up the Blues defence.

Tweaked Arsenal aim to capitalise on Cesc Fábregas’ craft

February 24, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 34 Comments
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Arsene Wenger has made three slight adjustments to his side following key defeats in the league, one of them pushing Cesc Fábregas higher up.

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal can pressure more efficiently by emulating Barcelona

February 15, 2010 at 10:00 am | Posted in Arsenal | 26 Comments
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Karthik (KV) explains why and how Arsenal pressing game is to improve if they are to better guard themselves when possession is lost.

In an interesting article for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how Vivek Ranadive coached a team of twelve year olds into the US nationals , this despite being a Basketball novice. Upon undertaking the role, he set about changing the way his girls played, because as he understood it was all very tentative playing a game where essentially both sides took turns to attack and this he felt, invited the opposition to attack. So using his tactical knowledge of football, Vivek encouraged his team to use a full-court press in order to get the ball back as quick as possible which helped elevate the team despite perceived limitations in their skills.

This season Arsenal has replicated the formation of the treble winning Barcelona side by shaping up in the 4-3-3. Playing stylish yet effective football seems to be the mantra of both these clubs but recent results against Manchester United and Chelsea show that imitating the formation has not led to similar successes for Arsenal. These encounters exposed the chinks in the armour and Arsenal’s Achilles heel seemed to be leaving space for the opponents to exploit when possession was lost. Since these defeats, fans have clamoured for the return of the early season team ethic where the side implemented high-intensity pressing to get the ball back and ward off the counter. Seemingly, the work-ethic hasn’t been there despite covering more or less similar distances to the opponents. What exactly has changed since?

In this article we will detail Arsenal’s pressing system and how they can more effectively compress space.


As Chelsea have displayed this season, they are a wonderful passing side and have shot to the top of the Premier League table playing attractive football but up against Arsenal, they were willing to forget all that happened before. They knew that battling for possession would be pointless – one will always be better than the other which would inevitably turn the game into one of thrust and counter-thrust – so they sacrificed some of the initiative and made sure they were better equipped in moments of transition. The result was that with Arsenal choosing to play an expansive style, Chelsea was able to exploit the Gunners on the break as shown in the second goal, with Didier Drogba taking full advantage of uncertainties with a powerful run and finish.

For Arsenal the problem comes in playing such an expansive style which often exerts a massive strain on the defense. The idea in the 4-3-3 is to stretch play therefore creating more angles in the pass but the flip side is that if Arsenal loses the ball they will be left unorganised and disoriented in the defensive phase making it easy for teams to take advantage of the space. So therefore, when they lose possession, they need to find a way to maintain the shape. This is the fundamental aim of pressing. Let us see why we need to press teams.

1. If you pressurize an opponent near his goal, the chances of him losing it in a compromising position are high and may result in a goal.
2. And the above helps in an attacking sense as the more you have the ball, the more you can create and score.
3. Our system leaves only 3-4 at the back and pressing helps counter potential counter attacks.
4. It allows for the side to remain compact so even if players are out of position, the space is closed up quickly.

It is widely known that for a team to press from the front, they need to push up from the back. Ball pressure is all about the space and options the opponent has. Reduce those two things and ball pressure becomes more effective. Therefore, compressing space and advancing high up the pitch results in a compact midfield which can play efficient passes and also less space for an opponent to start an attack. Even if they do so, the midfielders and the attackers are in a good position to retrieve the ball. To put it in better words, the team is in a position to play an attacking defence.

How to press effectively?

Due to the nature of stretching in the 4-3-3 system, there are huge packets of space left in between the wings and near the wingers. In the past few matches, Arsenal have let in counter attacking goals due to mistakes in defending, marking and not covering space. Let us analyse the different options we have to deal with counter attacking scenarios and how we can nullify it through intelligent pressing (below, the key zones as highlighted by the red areas). Remember that the main aim here is to slow down the opponents and force them to play a misplaced pass. The principal condition is that regardless of where the ball is lost the man closest to it will pressure.

The Wing

Trapping the opponent by driving him towards the touchline is an effective tactic. This uses the touchline as an extra defender and it will lead to the opponent passing back or misplacing the pass. Two defenders take part in this and the third can join if feasible. To further add to the trapped attacker’s misery, Arsenal can overload to that side to further take away the opponent’s options. What does this mean? The whole team shifts slightly to that side to take away the player with the ball’s options. One midfield marks their midfielder closest to the trapped player while the forwards roam across their backline. This gives the feeling of asphyxiation to the trapped player, increasing the chance that he will make a bad choice and give away the ball in a bad (good for us) spot. This also helps in the sense that if the trapped player does manage to pass to one of his teammates, there will be an Arsenal player close by to fall on him quickly. However, the risk of executing this strategy is that one cross field ball to the other flank will almost automatically result in a goal. But not everyone has the vision of Cesc to do that sort of a thing! Anyway, the defenders should move into a position to intercept the ball.

Through the centre

Things are tougher now as the centre provides a 360 degrees field view as opposed to a 180 degrees view on the wings. This is why the likes of Arshavin cut in as they have wider options. How does Arsenal press in this situation? It depends on where the players are with reference to the ball. As soon as the side lose the ball in the centre, the advanced midfielders, attackers must press aggressively and isolate the opponent quickly, to slow them down. This will give the much needed time for the defenders to get back into shape and intercept the loose balls by their expert reading of the game. The central defenders’ role is interesting – push up too much and there is the threat of the opponent taking advantage of the space behind. Barcelona is essentially a freak case because as they are so good at keeping possession and movement, they force more players backwards therefore the threat is minimised. However, the most successful teams have shown, and recently USA against Spain, that keeping one up or even two, gives a greater chance of scoring and indeed such is the case of the direct nature of the Premier League.

What are we doing now? How to proceed?

The above tactics are basic pressing techniques used by teams to press effectively. Teams like Barcelona have numerous pressing techniques and they are the masters of compressing space. “Without the ball,” said Pep Guardiola, “we are a horrible team. We need the ball, so we pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back early.” What they do is they push back the opponents to let the defence read the game and push forward. The midfielders are quick to get on to any loose balls and the full backs get tight on the wingers. One of Guardiola’s newest ploys to perfect the perfect side of last season is in the defensive phase, push the defensive midfielder back into central defence thereby making it a 3-4-3, allowing greater organisation and the ability shift left and right more easily.

The 1-0 win over Liverpool displayed such improvements – Clichy and Eboue were quick to impose themselves on the wide men while the double pivot in front of the back four gave both a lateral and longitude organisation.

Our expansive game exposes huge spaces in between and the Gunners are probably the most vulnerable side in the transition. What Arsenal cannot do is reverse the previous results. But what they can is learn from their mistakes, compress space quickly and pressing efficiently will help concede lesser goals.


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United show the best form of attack is to counter

February 1, 2010 at 10:00 am | Posted in Arsenal | 31 Comments
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Manchester United’s game plan of containment, control and speed on the counter left Arsenal outgunned at the Emirates.

It was time again for Sir Alex Ferguson to get re-acquainted with the back of his hand. The wily Scotsman has enough big match experience – and success – against contemporary Arsenal to comfortably make it his chosen specialist subject on Mastermind as his side went about dismantling Arsenal’s title bid and reaffirming their’s. Manchester United met thrust with counter-thrust and vice versa but where much more ruthless from the latter.

There was little to separate the teams with half an hour on the clock as both teams found it troubling to break down each other’s defence from open play. United opting to play without Ryan Giggs missed a bit of invention in the final third and as a result Arsenal sucked up their attacks and looked to punish them on the break – Andrey Arshavin going closest with a drive wide of Edwin Van der Sar. But Arsenal have been slow starters this season, having scored only once before fifteen minutes in the league and once they started getting into their groove, Manchester United sensed their moment pounce. Luis Nani’s wonderful trick and run forced the ever-growing culpable Manuel Almunia to claw into his own net (although in fairness the cross looked to be headed for Park at the back post).

However, it was two devastating moments on the break that settled the tie. William Gallas was crowded out in the United box following a corner and as the ball fell to Wayne Rooney, the England striker, starting the counter-attack ended it with a finish of real conviction after running close to the full length of the pitch. Rooney then showed Arsenal the movement they tried to create with Arshavin as the false nine, as the forward took three defenders out by dropping short and the rest was rudimentary for Park.  There were only two options for Gael Clichy  – gamble and close down the attacker but risk the early pass or delay and hope the angle narrowed. As it turned out, Clichy left it two late for the latter and Park poked the ball past Almunia (could the ‘keeper have been more committed?). Counter-attacking is not merely a policy for Manchester United but a deadly and utterly ruthless weapon in their armoury. “Counterattacking has always been part of our game, particularly away from home, and we capitalised on those opportunities,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. “Arsenal play a lot of good football and get to the edge of your box regularly, but if you can win the ball there and counterattack quickly you’ll have chances against them.”

“Transitions have become crucial,” says Jose Mourinho, who always seeks to keep his side organised with five at the back in guard of such moments. “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.” That was the situation that was also posed to Arsenal; the Gunners’ expansive style meaning more resources are committed forward and therefore less organisation at the back. And those gaps are even bigger this season due to the play being stretched on account of the switch to 4-3-3 and cover for the full-backs minimal. Sir Alex would have targeted the right-hand before hand with or without Valencia and deployed a ‘defensive’ winger on the other side. The slight surprise was in deploying Carrick as the deep-lying playmaker as the manager decided to sacrifice a bit of energy for extra tactical nous lower down, while Scholes’ creativity was to be translated higher up the pitch.

Arsenal in contrast were unlikely to play any differently. Arsene Wenger went into the game wanting to control proceedings but found in front of him a sea of black shirts who were very committed in not opening the floodgates and letting Arsenal have the initiative. Dynamism on one hand has waned since their electric start to the season and the late flurry could not hide the defects. The best Wenger can hope his side can regroup and find that extra spark again.

So where next for Arsenal? Chelsea at Stamford Bridge…

Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United: Almunia (og) 33, Rooney 37, Park 52, Vermaelen 80.

Arsenal: Almunia (5), Sagna (6) (Bendtner), Gallas (6), Vermaelen (6), Clichy (5), Fabregas (6), Song (7), Denilson (6) (Walcott) , Nasri (5), Arshavin (6), Rosicky (5) (Eboue).
Subs not used: Fabianski, Ramsey, Silvestre, Traore.

Man Utd: Van der Sar 6, Rafael Da Silva 6, Jonathan Evans 6, Brown 6, Evra 6, Scholes 6 (Giggs), Carrick 7, Fletcher 6, Nani (Berbatov) 8, Rooney 8, Park 6 (Valencia).
Subs not used: Kuszczak, Owen, Gibson, De Laet.

Referee: Chris Foy (Merseyside).

Arsenal Team Statistics Manchester United
1 Goals 3
0 1st Half Goals 2
3 Shots on Target 3
13 Shots off Target 6
4 Blocked Shots 3
8 Corners 5
9 Fouls 12
0 Offsides 0
1 Yellow Cards 0
0 Red Cards 0
80.8 Passing Success 75.2
18 Tackles 36
94.4 Tackles Success 77.8
53.1 Possession 46.9
50.6 Territorial Advantage 49.4

The comprehensive Arsenal v Manchester United preview

January 29, 2010 at 10:00 am | Posted in Arsenal | 15 Comments
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Arsenal’s next fixture in their crucial sequence of four games sees the Gunners face Manchester United. We give the lowdown on the encounter.

Which Manchester United will turn up?
Some grumbles of discontent have begun to surface among fans recently of Sir Alex Ferguson’s continuous tinkering of his side – he has gone 105 consecutive matches now without picking the same team twice in a row – and that unpredictability means it difficult to know what line-up the manager is to send out and in which system. The 4-4-2 has garnered 15 goals in the last four games it has been used although for the big games, Sir Alex has tended to favour the 4-5-1. And with strong performances against Chelsea and most recently Manchester City, the 4-5-1 seems the most likely choice away to Arsenal.

United’s changing face
Losing to Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final was to Sir Alex, the equivalent of defeat to Real Madrid at home in the Champions League quarter-final in 2000. United had just been crowned European champions the year previously on both occasions but the severity of the defeats meant the manager had to reconsider the way his side functions. “We had a spell after we won the Champions League in 1999 when we had to change our thinking,” said Ferguson. “We lost to PSV and Anderlecht away and others on the counterattack.” This season, not only have they lost Cristiano Ronaldo, out went fans favourite Carlos Tevez across the city, the two key components of their 2007/08 double winning side. Manchester United have churned out some pretty uninspiring performances thus far but their functionality means they are still in the hunt for most trophies.

Inspiration seemingly comes in the form of Mourinho’s 4-3-3 at Chelsea. The wingers look to support the lone striker – typically Wayne Rooney – in attack but in the defensive phase drop back to a more orthodox 4-5-1. The key dynamics of the system, though, is the deployment of their three star central midfielders – Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes. The latter holds while Ferguson seeks to take advantage of Carrick and Fletcher’s high fitness levels therefore they can pressure more higher and aggressively up the pitch. Maybe also, the manager feels he can bring more out of Carrick’s creative and shooting abilities  – an area they’ve lacked in central midfield and have been unable to replicate with Anderson and Gibson.

Between the lines
It can be argued, by taking the minutest details of a team’s system, that United’s use of a flat 4-3-3 contributed partly to their defeat to Barcelona in the final. On the other hand, Barcelona  played with four bands to make it a 4-1-2-3 and with players constantly moving about made it difficult for Manchester United to match up. Having players ‘between the lines’ makes for more unpredictability and taking advantage in such areas final third of the pitch can be decisive. “I don’t like to play the 4-4-2 in two lines,” says Jose Mourinho. “I like the match in between lines and players with dynamic creativity to do that. What are you a midfield player or an attacker? Nobody knows.” This is still a criticism with Manchester United – that they are lacking players to do the damage in between the lines – although they will argue it’s the angles they attack from and the sheer intensity they do so, that is their central strength.

Arsenal also, it seems, do not have specified men in between the lines but Arsène Wenger’s idea is for the system to be able to morph into a 4-1-4-1, both in the defensive phase and in attack where the midfielders are required to get close to the main forward who is likely to be Nicklas Bendtner. It is primarily Cesc Fabregas’ role to get into such positions, playing as the interior and given more freedom to create chances. The captain has also added greater dynamism to his game, taking on defenders with his developing power not too dissimilar to Steven Gerrard.

Mind the gaps
Recent uncoverings of the Arsenal style have found a chink in the Gunners armour. The most successful opposition teams have been able to expose the space in front of the defence by bypassing the first defensive phase and getting men forward to take advantage of one-on-ones and indecision.

This is because in the defensive phase, the idea is for Arsenal to compress space quickly but that is a difficulty in itself when you factor stretching play is a means of attacking. If the build up breaks down, as opponents have been doing by pressuring up the pitch or alternatively, playing the ball deep early, the distances between the forward players and defence becomes greater (as displayed by below. (Bear in mind United’s intention in the defensive phase is to drop back as opposed to Arsenal’s which is to pressure up the pitch first). Also could Arsenal reverse the tactic and pressure early Paul Scholes and test his reaction times? Fulham did this particularly well as the midfielder gave away a couple of loose balls.

Football Fans Know Better

The best solution for Arsenal would be the return of a tired Alex Song back into the holding role, partnered slightly to the left by Denilson. This should ensure the Brazilian can push left as he and Diaby have done in the role beforehand with much success to cover for the space in front of Clichy. This area may be even more crucial should Sir Alex Ferguson choose to deploy Antonia Valencia or even Nani to hug the right touchline. In one of the wide forward positions, Nicklas Bendtner, Samir Nasri or Emmanuel Eboue are options for Wenger due to the extra attention they give to tracking back.

Transitions and set-pieces
Transitions and set-pieces more than anything have been the bane of Arsenal in recent season and will be key once again for both sides. Every team is able to counter these days but the most successful sides have made it their weapon, not their main policy. But it is not just winning the ball in the defensive third of the pitch that can lead to a counter – teams have found that winning the ball in midfield is the crucial area to spring a quick attack from. “Transitions have become crucial,” says Mourinho (again). “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.”

Effective widemen
Effective wing play may just be key especially as both teams like to stretch play and Ecuadorian Antonio Valencia has been in fine form. More orthodox than many of United’s great wingers of the pass, he found multitudes of room against Manchester City in the first leg by hugging the touchline while his central midfielders worked the full backs inside by switching play quickly. Defensively Valencia also has his plus points as against Chelsea he successfully helped nullify the threat of Ashley Cole by pinning him back.

Patrice Evra has had another fine season at left back and indeed the full-back position has become key in the modern game as it has become the only position where the player is unmarked. Arsenal’s full-backs, however, have been slightly more conservative in their roles, choosing to be more selective although Bakary Sagna showed his threat against Tottenham when he foraged forward unmarked twice to set-up two goals. Higher up the pitch, can Andrey Arshavin get into areas to take on the defender one-on-one as he likes? Indeed, if Bendtner does start, the support he provides to the forward will be crucial and especially testing to rookie full-back Rafael.

Arsenal’s key men
Sol Campbell- This will be the real test of Sol Campbell’s mobility. Barcelona have shown you don’t have to be particularly quick to be a success in a high line, instead astute reading of the game is order of the day. Campbell expertly marshalled Agbonlahor and restricted use of his pace and once again will have to be aware as Rooney likes to run the channels on the break.

Nicklas Bendtner – The Dane has a confident streak but has yet to translate that consistently over a season. Hopefully with injuries behind him, Bendtner can push on and give Arsenal a direct outlet they have been so missing. Playing as the focal point, the Gunners will be hoping the midfielders can play around the big forward while also giving Arsenal an outlet from the numerous times they reach the wide positions. An added bonus he possesses is the option to play the ball early from defence and relieve pressure on the backline. “If Eduardo is out, am I ready to come in?,” said Bendtner. “I wouldn’t be here if I was wasn’t ready. If I play Sunday, I will be ready as well and Manchester United is the sort of big game you’d love to come back into.

Manchester United’s key men
Ryan Giggs – Like Benjamin Button, Ryan Giggs seems to be only getting younger. If he starts on the left as anticipated, Ferguson will expect the Welshman to cut inside and deliver killer passes to Wayne Rooney as he did in winning the penalty in the 2-1 win when the two sides last met. “It was the kind of pass we’ve been trying in training all week,” Ferguson said of the assist. “We got one.”

Wayne Rooney – The England forward has nineteen goals in twenty-one games and he owes much of that good form to curbing his altruistic instincts and playing in a more orthodox manner. He has stated Valencia has kept him on his toes because he expects the winger to fire in more crosses than Ronaldo used to from the same flank.

Predicted Line-Ups
Arsenal (4-3-3): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Campbell, Clichy; Song, Denilson, Fabregas; Nasri, Arshavin, Bendtner
Subs from: Fabianski, Eboue, Silvestre, Traore, Ramsey, Eastmond, Rosicky, Walcott

Man Utd (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Brown, Vidic, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs; Rooney
Subs from: Kuszczak, Rafael, Neville, Anderson, Nani, Gibson, Owen, Berbatov, Park, Diouf

Analysing Arsenal’s defensive system

January 19, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Posted in Arsenal | 18 Comments
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The number of goals conceded by the Gunners has much to do with the side’s expansive style of football.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hybrid option Nicklas Bendtner can present a new dimension to Arsenal’s attack

January 18, 2010 at 9:45 am | Posted in Arsenal | 30 Comments
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Karthik (KV) explains how Nicklas Bendtner can bring back a much-needed presence to the Arsenal attack following the injury to Robin van Persie.

“I want to be top scorer in the Premier League, top scorer at the World Cup and, within five years, I want to be among the best strikers in the world” were the lofty aims set by a giant striker at the beginning of the season. Nicklas Bendtner was on course to maturing into a top class hybrid striker before injury stopped his progress. Now with Robin van Persie injured, Arshavin has taken the ‘false 9’ role that the Dutchman made his very own, with mixed results. In this article, I will try to explore how Arsenal’s style of play can be impacted with the return of Nicklas Bendtner.

The return of the deadly Dane will add a new dimension to the team. It will influence everyone, even the goal keeper. Almunia will have an added option of “hoofing” the ball high up to either hold the ball or take it and attack. It allows the defenders and of course the midfielders to think differently.
In my previous article, I highlighted the use of our ‘strikerless’ system, where van Persie was the focal point. Due to the movement and the interchangeability provided by the 4-3-3 formation, we were able to thump most of the teams which came in our way. This is how our 4-3-3 strikerless formation works with van Persie as the false 9, against other teams who mostly line up in a 4-2-3-1.

The main purpose of this formation is to outnumber the two defensive midfielders by letting van Persie drop deep. He takes position with the deeper lying Central Midfieler as reference, i.e. he positions himself in between the CBs and the Defensive midfielder. This allows exchange of passes with pass master Cesc and puts the wingers, primarily Arshavin in goalscoring positions. All of a sudden the two double pivots are in an island surrounded by Arsenal players. They can pass around the double pivots without trouble.

Note that in the diagram, the wingers are positioned as decoys to keep the full-backs involved. In the absence of van Persie, Arshavin has taken the main forward position and has added his own tricks to the role.

What does Nicklas Bendtner bring to this role?

Before I begin, I would like you all to rewind a bit to the first goal we scored at the Merseyside few months back. At the heart of the move was Nicklas Bendtner who emphatically took out Leyton Baines and then passed it in. Later in the 6-2 mauling of Blackburn, he finished the rout by scoring a long ranger. Against Dynamo Kiev, he finished of a long over the top through ball from Fabregas. These goals highlight his versatility, adaptability and flexibility.

He has the technical ability, vision, passing and above all a sizeable frame to improve upon the job done by van Persie and Arshavin. The advantage with Bendtner is that, he can play as a ‘false 9’ or as an out and out striker. He is sure to win headers and he can also hold the ball up. In the graphic before, I explained how van Persie moves deeper to create confusion. But Bendtner can also move the opposite way without any trouble. He was employed in the wings to add dynamism in the first few matches of this season and to pose smaller full backs with an altogether different proposition because of his height. His dribbling skills and close control will help him succeed in the forward role while Sagna and Clichy (the left back in general) can also put in accurate crosses in the box for Nicklas to head in.

On the whole, Nicklas Bendtner presents a new dimension to the team and we will have more chances of scoring goals. In the coming decade, hybrid strikers like Bendtner, Ibrahimovic and Berbatov will often be called upon to spearhead the attack as they possess something of all the qualities required to lead the line. Their introduction will spell the end for specialist roles. The young Nicklas may not exactly be as good as Ibrahimovic, but he can certainly be even better with more games in that role.

“For me, a striker is not just a striker,” says Jose Mourinho. “He’s somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2.” The hybrid Dane certainly fits the description.

Tuesday:  Analysing Arsenal’s defensive game (I know I promised it two weeks ago but…boo hoo).

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