When Sergio Ramos brought down Yannick Ferreira Carrasco in the Champions League final this year to put an end to a promising Atletico Madrid counter attack, a lot must have been going through his head. Carrasco was playing out of his skin trying to get Atletico back into the game and with two deft touches he managed to motor past Modric and Casemiro to leave Real Madrid’s defense in total disarray. Things looked good for Atletico at that instant; Carrasco had only one defender separating him from the goal and two of his teammates were quick to flank him on either side to create a numerical advantage. Ramos surveyed the situation and in a matter of seconds came up with solutions and assessed the risk involved in all possible courses of action. He could track back as fast as possible banking on Atletico to commit a mistake somewhere or he could take matters into his own hands and tactical foul Carrasco to put a permanent end to the counter. Ramos chose the latter and got a yellow card for it. It was a tradeoff he was more than happy to make.
Tactical fouls have always been an integral part of football. Central Midfielders and Defenders frequently resort to fouling opponents to get out of sticky situations. Like Ramos, Mikel Arteta was among the major proponents of the tactical foul and he used it to great effect throughout his Arsenal career in a Defensive Midfield role. He lacked the pace to recover from difficult situations and was clever in his use of fouls as a damage control option. Fouling opponents is an underrated action from a defensive point of view. It destroys the opponents’ rhythm and momentum, which is extremely important in constructing attacks, and also allows the defending team time to recover. The opponent is reduced to taking set pieces, which are widely accepted to not be an optimal mode of attack. With all these advantages, it is easy to see why players tend to indulge in low risk fouls to stall opponents as long as they are not on a yellow card.
When judging the defensive contribution of players, the value of tactical fouls they commit is often overlooked. Unlike interceptions and tackles, the impact of tactical fouls in match is difficult to compute and can be a complex process. To understand the difference a tactical foul makes, a method to quantify the impact of a foul is needed. One metric that can be employed to estimate the value of fouls is the Foul Impact Quantifier. This is a statistical tool that computes the impact of fouls from a defensive point of view. Below is a table containing Foul Impact Quantifier values for the major fouls in Arsenal’s 3-2 preseason win against Manchester City. It was a game where the referee was quite reluctant to give away fouls but Fernando, Fernandinho and Nacho Monreal made important defensive contributions through tactical fouls.
A major advantage of this metric is that it helps in better analyzing the impact of players whose game is built around breaking play and winning the ball back. Arsenal’s recent acquisition of Granit Xhaka can be a good buy in this regard. He averages a whopping 2.6 fouls a game and this employing the Foul Impact Quantifier to further dissect the value of these fouls only helps in understanding the player’s contribution in defense. Players like Aaron Ramsey, Fernandinho, Arturo Vidal and Gabi contribute significantly this way. To understand their impact in greater detail will be of immense value.
A tactical foul can be described as a deliberate foul on an opponent during a position of disadvantage, after which the defending team has a better chance of not conceding. Distance and numerical superiority of defenders can be employed to determine how good a position is for the attacking team. In chess, there are various software tools available to verify how strong and what the likelihood of winning from such a position is. These tools compute the number of times matches have been won in the past with similar positions. Although a similar system for football would be great, distance to goal and numerical advantage experienced by the attacking team is an effective indicator of how good a specific position is. Going by this definition, tactical fouls generally end up making it easier for the defending team and in many cases the player doing the foul makes a sacrifice by getting a yellow card.
The other kind of tactical foul for which impact is relatively hard to measure is the one that is done high up the field in order to break up play and nip counters in the bud. Players like Alexis Sanchez and Luis Suarez press relentlessly and commit fouls such as these. Fouls committed high up the field usually have low impact but their defensive worth could be underrated and hard to accurately compute. A good tactical foul has a Foul Impact Quantifier value that lies between 20 and 50, but for the above mentioned reasons, to specifically pinpoint a type as the ideal tactical foul is difficult; any foul that provides an improved chance of defending a goal is a foul that is worth the effort.
Sergio Ramos’ foul on Yannick Carrasco had a very Foul Impact Quantifier value (it scored 50) and although the foul sparked a debate on whether Ramos should’ve been sent off or not, the importance of the foul in keeping Real Madrid in the game was largely forgotten. A clever footballer employs tactical fouls to good use and the using Foul Impact Quantifier to evaluate the impact of fouls can be extremely beneficial in understanding defensive contributions made by players.
Formula: This metric is takes into account the distance from the goal and the numerical advantage the opponent has at the time of being fouled. The formula for the Foul Impact Quantifier is (K/(D*N)), where D is the distance from goal, N is the number of players between the fouled player and the goal and K is a constant.
“We are so unpredictable in what we are doing; even for me at the back sometimes it looks a bit weird! Sometimes we lose balance but sometimes it is really good so we have to keep going and focus on our game, especially defensively.” ~ Per Mertesacker
I’ve been trying to figure out Arsenal for a while now. Despite my twenty-two year association with the club (that is, the first game I recall watching them in – Cup Winners Cup in ’95), the last ten years have left me most perplexed. It’s not the lack of titles; I’ve come to terms with the mitigating circumstances following the move to the Emirates and subsequently, the wizardry to keep Arsenal competitive that Arsene Wenger has performed. But rather, it’s the playing style which, despite adding back-to-back FA Cups in the last two seasons, Wenger has had to be innovative – unorthodox actually – to keep Arsenal playing the same way that won trophies in his early years, and to challenge more convincingly.
I often hark back to the above quote from Per Mertesacker to assure me that even those in the best positions can find what happens on the pitch sometimes confusing. At this point, I realise that the answer lies in a case study of Arsene Wenger but he places such an unerring faith in autonomy and freedom of expression on the pitch such that nuances of the team’s tactics are as much a product of symbiosis as it is moulded by hand.
That’s evident by the rapid progression of Hector Bellerin from reserve-squad to starter, or Francis Coquelin, who has shaped Arsenal’s tactics the moment he stepped into the first-team last December. It’s a progression which has been a joy to watch and indeed, it’s not usually this discernible to see a footballer grow as we have witnessed with Coquelin, gaining more confidence game-by-game, becoming “more available” as Wenger says, “and [available] more quickly when our defenders have the ball. He blossoms well.” You can say the same thing about Nacho Monreal, where confidence has shaped him such that he seems unflappable at the moment but, because he started his Arsenal career so well but had a blip in between, we already knew his quality. Plus at that time, he played alongside Thomas Vermaelen so it’s understandable.
Coquelin’s injury has had people trying to work out ways to replace him without upsetting the balance of the side too much. However, an analysis by Chad Murphy, a professor of political science, deduces that Coquelin is near impossible to replace like-for-like because the actions he performs are commonly shared by wingers, not defensive midfielders. He’s a unique player, somebody who passes fairly infrequently considering the position he plays but is actually very press resistant because his dribbling out of tight areas is so good. Yet, therein lies Arsenal’s problems, and why Coquelin’s absence will be hard-felt, because Arsene Wenger has built a system reliant on the characteristics of certain key players – not necessarily robust concepts. And generally, once he finds a system that wins, he grinds it to the ground such that any slight change to that formula can cause Arsenal to stutter – until of course, somebody else makes their relative mark on the team.
Mathieu Flamini is the present incumbent of the holding midfield role and in the 1-1 draw against Norwich City; we got a glimpse of just what he can offer to the team in what is probably the twilight of his Arsenal career. Ironically, just as he was looking to make his stamp on team, The Gunners lost two key players to injury, adding to the uncertainty we’re likely to get in the coming weeks. Those losses proved telling, particularly when you focus on the passivity Arsenal displayed for Norwich’s equaliser. Because the thing with Arsenal’s defending, and probably what is the nezt step for Murphy’s analysis, is that it’s reliant on speed – or what Manuel Pellegrini describes as “defending with pace”.
Overall, The Gunners weren’t unduly threatened but there is a sort-of half-hearted press that they use even against the weaker opponents that puts them in situations where they invite teams at them. I would describe it as a 4-4-2 shape for the most parts with Ozil dropping off once the ball is played behind him. (That ambiguity – is Ozil a striker or a midfielder in the press? – sometimes puts Arsenal into trouble). It’s sort of a zonal-man-marking system where the team moves left and right, and backwards and forwards as a unit but when the ball enters a respective player’s zone, they look to aggressively man-mark that player. Certain players might have more freedom of how aggressively they close down an opponent such as Ramsey or Mertesacker who tend to push out, and sometimes abandon the shape in an attempt to win the ball back quickly – see video below.
For much of the game, though, it must be noted that Arsenal were very comfortable. It was after Alexis departed through injury, however, that the team lost a little spark and that is worrying because he is one of two players that push defenders backwards (the other being Theo Walcott), and also, the partnership between him and Ozil generates much of Arsenal’s attacking thrust. Arsenal tend to slant their play towards the left-side, with Alexis stepping five or six yards infield and Ozil floating wide to create overloads. Against Norwich, Monreal was also an important figure going forward, and again, it’s the understanding he has with Alexis that has become a key part of Arsenal’s game. Indeed, both full-backs actually got forward a lot in the match and that was facilitated by a subtle change to Arsenal’s build-up play from the back.
Again it involved Flamini, who tended to drift to the flanks to support the full-backs in possession, thus liberating them going forward. Whether this was accidental or not, it’s hard to say, but Flamini specialises in this kind of movement when Arsenal have the ball at the back. Certainly, it falls in line with Arsene Wenger’s strategy of using the ball-winning midfielder as a decoy, dragging opposition midfielders away with him, to create space for the centre-backs to pass through the midfield to either one of the attacking players or Cazorla who drops deep. This tactic tends to be used against teams who don’t press and indeed, Norwich camped 10 players behind the ball for the majority of the game. The intention is that then, it lures those teams to commit one or two players to the press – going against their gameplan really – so that Arsenal have a bit more space in the middle. Norwich didn’t really budge so Arsenal decided to use the sides of the pitch more in a bid to stretch their opponents. In the example below, you can see Flamini urging Monreal forward as Norwich narrow and Arsenal nearly score.
Watch Flamini at the bottom left corner. This is what Arsenal do when teams don’t press; split the CMs sideways pic.twitter.com/5v6CO4TTH4
I find it oddly fascinating to watch this tactic because it goes against the textbook which is to ask one of the deep midfielders to drop in between the two centre-backs to stretch the play. With Arsenal generally resisting the urge to do that, it creates a game-within-a-game, with the midfielders battling with opposition midfielders off-the-ball to follow them. People argue that against the top teams that press, Arsenal would be found out. That hasn’t really been tested because when Arsenal play those teams, they tend to drop off themselves thus playing mainly on the counter-attack. The one time it did work was against Manchester United, when Arsenal blitzed them in the first half-hour, using their ambiguous midfield positioning to confuse United’s marking scheme and Cazorla tending to drop-off in between the centre-backs to pick up the ball. Indeed, his importance in the build-up must be stressed because Wenger calls him the “guide”, because he directs Arsenal’s play from the back rather than dictates, and the team-mates know when they pass it to him, he can get them out of trouble because of his quick-dribbling. That’s one of the reasons why Coquelin will be sorely missed, as together the pair created a unique partnership in the heart of the midfield. Hopefully now, Arsenal can find a different balance.
Tactically, it’s hard to underpin what exactly went wrong for Arsenal on their first fixture of the season beyond a bad day in the office. West Ham’s diamond formation should have suited them; with no coverage on the flanks, Arsenal could theoretically move the ball left and right until they found the moments of superiority that they usually do out wide i.e. 3v2s, 2v1s followed by a third man run. (Indeed, this is something that they did superbly in their 2-0 defeat of Liverpool in 2013 against a similar system). Instead, passes too frequently missed their target while off-the-ball, The Gunners looked lethargic in the press.
Arsene Wenger chose to put the bad performance down to nerves and certainly, the psychological factor cannot be overlooked. After the game he said: “I felt we were a bit nervous and we rushed our game a bit. We didn’t always respect the basics. We wanted to be too quick going forward in first half. I don’t think we were too confident, I would rather say too nervous maybe”. We know all about Arsene Wenger teams and their struggle to master their emotions. In more recent seasons, the issue has been against big teams where the players (and the manager) seem so anxious to make a statement, that when things are not going their way, they can “crack” –and badly – from which there is no fallback position. Paul Hayward of The Telegraph calls this a “conviction deficit”. Arsenal seemed to have bucked that trend last season by their performances away from home against Manchester City and Manchester United, and then, in the Community Shield last week when they beat Chelsea. Yet, by plunging the sword into one of their demons, another one has surfaced in the form of this strange, reversing hex which takes effect in the games where Arsenal are overwhelming favourites. In those games, Arsenal seem to crumble under the weight of expectation, too nervous to play their usual game (think about the FA Cup semi-finals against Wigan and Reading, and then the final against Hull City). Again, The Gunners seemed to get over this superiority complex in the cup final against Aston Villa, where they delivered a performance a calmness and clinical precision to prevail 4-0. However, against West Ham, that anxiousness to play – to make an impression – reared it’s ugly head again, pervading their play such that, to compensate, Arsenal tried to play too fast.
But going back to tactics: I think positional indiscipline also had a part to play in the poor performance – which may tie in closely with nerves anyway, but which I’m hoping doesn’t run through the side in the same way.
We all know that Wenger likes to grant positional freedom to his attacking players, especially to one of the wingers, in this case Santi Cazorla. The key is to find moments where they can destabilize the opponent defence through overloads, and when they set up a triangle on one side, combine quickly with each other to tear open the defence. The issue in this game was that both wide players sought to come inside too early in the build-up, thus not offering the outlet when those overloads are created. You can contrast this with the last time the two sides met: Arsenal won 3-0 and the average touch positions showed that Walcott and Alexis stayed up the pitch and occupied the full-backs all game.
In last Sunday’s fixture, when the ball went wide, it usually ended up at the feet of the full-backs rather than a wide midfielder. Wenger sought to correct that by moving Ramsey to the flanks in the second-half, but unfortunately, West Ham scored quickly their 2nd goal which forced the manager to change things again.
I wouldn’t say the issue was that Arsenal were too clogged in the centre; more that the players failed to offer the right solutions off the ball which led to it. Arsenal actually got the ball wide very early in the build-up, but instead of using that advantage that they had over the diamond by doubling up, Santi Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain were too attracted to the centre. As such, West Ham didn’t actually need to play the diamond that well. They simply had to stay in position and block Arsenal’s passing routes. In that sense, you could say that Arsenal’s star performer in that game, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who caught the eye with the some great driving runs, was part of the problem because it’s his role to stretch play. But his modus operandi is not really to pick the ball up high up the pitch and drive at the full-back; instead, he likes to start deeper, as a traditional right midfielder rather than the right-winger that Wenger is trying to create. In time he will become that player, adding behind-the-defence runs to his game – right now though, he still feels a bit of an interloper in the system, somebody who you expect to create two or three exciting moments in the game but not quite fully integrated. (Of course, Oxlade-Chamberlain still created three good chances in the game which suggests he can be such an explosive player for Arsenal).
With Alexis, while it feels a little bit of the same, he’s a constant outlet, somebody Ozil can feed off because he’s always occupying the right full-back. Remember, Ozil’s game is all about lateral movement and against West Ham, there was nobody to move towards. Indeed, it’s notable that when Alexis came on, he was the one Ozil passed to most in the game.
Ozil had the best chance of the game, a shot blocked after a good one-two with Ramsey high up on the left side of the pitch. It didn’t happen enough because Santi hasn’t got the power to get up and down the flanks – which is why Wenger used Ramsey in such a role last season.
I thought last season Arsenal improved their positional play, the second leg against Monaco a good demonstration of the positional interchange Wenger allows and discipline. When it works, it looks great but it needs good decision-making and a clear head. Arsenal didn’t have that against West Ham.
Arsene Wenger was talking about a striker who he signed in his second season in charge at AS Monaco, the Argentine Ramon Diaz. In training, he would say Diaz was so focused on his finishing that “every time he missed a chance, he went absolutely mad. I said to him ‘calm down’ He said to me: ‘Boss, I played 8 years in Italy; I had one, maximum two chances per game. I knew if I missed one, my game was over.’ That’s a little bit [similar] to the Premier League. You do not get 10 chances. You do not get five. You get one or two and you have to put them away.”
It was this anecdote, with a caveat of sorts, which Wenger chose to repeat before Arsenal’s 1-1 draw against Leicester City, on the eve of the summer transfer window, seemingly throwing the gauntlet to his strikers to be more clinical or be replaced. Arsenal’s riposte was a positive one, shooting 24 times at goal; though at the end of the game Wenger bemoaned the lack of clear-cut chances created. Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring with a near open-goal after Yaya Sanogo had fluffed his lines, but Arsenal were pegged back three minutes later when Leicester equalised and were then able to sit back and comfortably able to see the game out for a draw. The next day, Wenger reacted and splashed out £16m on Danny Welbeck.
In a nutshell, this anecdote also sums up Arsenal’s season, though it’s at the other end of the pitch where it is most relevant. That’s not to say Arsenal have solved their (relatively normal by most standards) goalscoring troubles; Welbeck has slotted straight into the starting line-up but his two league goals is not enough of a return for the promise he’s shown. His hat-trick against Galatasaray was a tantalising demonstration of what he can deliver: a high-class display of controlled aggression mixed with clinical finishing, but on the main, he’s been a little too nice, Will Smith nice.
By and large, however, Arsenal have been bailed out by Alexis Sanchez, whose impact – eight goals and two assists in the league – would have been more salivating if not for the frustrating way Arsenal continuously shot themselves in the foot.
Arsenal’s last fixture was a perfect case in example. The Gunners, having taken the lead with a fine counter-attacking move, finished of course by Alexis, should have then found the restraint within themselves to sit back and soak up the impending pressure that was to come from Swansea. Instead, on a dank, wet evening in Wales, they flooded bodies forward in an attempt to get another goal and were punished, as four minutes later, and two goals worse off, the scoreline was reversed. It was a similar story against Anderlecht four days earlier when Alexis contributed with a superb volleyed goal to help Arsenal to a three-goal lead before they threw it all away for a draw.
Contriving to drop points has been Arsenal’s main problem this season. In a broader sense, it has been Arsenal’s problem for a long time, but last season, however, The Gunners, on the main, managed to reverse that trend by controlling moments better. That is, they ensured that they were a goal up, or at 0-0, for as much as the match as possible, before exploiting their opponents’ tired legs. Arsenal’s failure to do that this season explains why their underlying numbers – their possession per game, shots, dribbles, interceptions etc. – have been very good, yet their position in the league is average by comparison.
The problem, as Michael Caley explains for the Washington Post, is that Arsenal “struggle in the clutch” – that is they tend to fall short in the crucial moments that come between winning and losing, and when the pressure is up. To underline the point, Arsenal have scored first only six times this season, and have gone on to win three of those matches (Burnley 3-0, Aston Villa 3-0 and Sunderland 2-0). Two out of the six matches they have drawn (Leicester 1-1, Hull 2-2) and lost one (Swansea 2-1). On the one hand, however, they have shown some resolve by rescuing a point or winning four out of the five times they have fallen behind by conceding first (Man City, Everton 2-2, Spurs 1-1, Crystal Palace 2-1). The issue is, though, that Arsenal have spent more time losing (244 minutes) than winning (175 minutes), and even when they are winning, contrive to conceded goals very quickly.
As Caley explains, shooting conversion increases or decreases depending on what the game state is. He says, “in general, when a soccer team is losing by a goal, it will convert its shots at a lower rate than when it is winning by the same score. Teams tend to outperform their expected goals by several percentage points when winning and under-perform when losing. This is most likely an effect of defensive pressure. Winning teams will sit back and keep more men behind the ball, while losing teams will push forward looking for an equaliser. And indeed Arsenal has done much more of their attacking in less favourable game states compared to most of their competition.
What makes it worse for Arsenal is that opponents only need to attempt a paltry amount of efforts to score a goal. Currently, Arsenal concedes a goal every 6.4 shots. Wenger pinpoints much of this down to confidence, not focusing enough at key moments or succumbing to complacency when The Gunners do score. Certainly, there is an argument that the defensive efficiency in Arsenal’s game is not there yet. Last season, Arsenal managed this by being pragmatic, by retreating to a low defensive block and then hitting teams when they showed mental or physical tiredness – usually through the lung-busting runs of Aaron Ramsey.
This season, they have failed to find efficiency because the team still seems to be unsure of what it wants to do at various stages or yet, haven’t acquired the game intelligence to carry it out; whether to press high up or sit back. That can be highlighted by the first goal Arsenal conceded in their 2-2 draw against Hull City.
Here, Jack Wilshere urges Santi Cazorla to press when nobody else is, eventually leaving Mohamed Diame free to pass to. Wilshere had the right of it to some extent, as Hull’s player had picked up the ball with his back to goal – which should have been the trigger to press – but where he was wrong was that the whole Arsenal team showed no indication to squeeze play prior, with Hull completing 3-4 passes in that area with relative comfort anyway.
In more recent games, however, Arsenal have been more exposed on the break. As Wenger says, “we have put a lot of effort into our work to be more efficient but we give chances away that very few other teams do. At the moment our opponents have made the most of what we have given away.” The work Arsenal have put in to be more efficient has been two-fold, recurring around how they keep the ball and how they press without it.
Firstly, on their ball work. Wenger says that the team has “progressed since last season in the way we dominate the games and the way we combine,” which may confuse some given Arsenal’s league position, but what people might be missing are the palpable steps Arsenal are taking to improve to their positional play. In that, Wenger is looking to emulate bits of the Germany/Pep Guardiola/Dutch 4-3-3 model wherethe attacking line in the 4-1-4-1 occupies the length of the pitch, thereby always creating angles and options to pass to. As Leighton Baines says, in an interview for The Guardian when talking about Everton’s philosophy which goes along the same branch, “the really top teams who have mastered this way (Dutch Total Football), are the ones that gets success.”
On the other hand, emphasis on death by possession makes it tougher for Arsenal to defeat teams as often; defences are set thus making it more difficult to get through. It has made Arsenal more sterile in effect, one of the things Wenger has strived to avoid. However, he has probably come round to see it as a necessary evil because sterile domination is not really an aim for possession teams; rather, it’s a by-product of their voraciousness to have the ball. Keeping the ball better also has the added effect of protecting the team from the counter-attack, an increasingly important aspect when planning your team in the modern game and what Jose Mourinho calls the “fourth phase”: attacking, defending, counter-attacking, and then, countering the counter.
Increased work on Arsenal’s positional play has sought to protect Arsenal from the counter, with players looking to take up positions off the ball so that all key areas on the pitch are occupied. That can be highlighted by the relationship on the pitch between Santi Cazorla and Alexis who switch positions depending on whether one goes inside, or the other stays wide. As Wenger explains, Welbeck can also join in to fill the gaps. In the past, perhaps, Wenger would give too much freedom to his creative players to go where they want but by incorporating little chain reactions, gaps can be covered. In recent games, Wenger has tinkered the set-up to give it a 4-4-2 gloss, though as a result, the team’s fluency has suffered, most notably in the 3-3 draw against Anderlecht where the ball was frequently turned over.
It is thought that an effective possession game must be backed up a fully synchronised pressing system and this is where Arsenal have failed. Perhaps, they’re not suited to such a high-intensity game because it requires concentration and awareness from the whole team and indeed, such a thing was even admitted by Mario Zagallo of his side when coach of Brazil in 1970. “We played as a block, compact,” said Zagallo in The Blizzard, Issue Three). “Leaving only Tostao up field. Jairzinho, Pele, Rivelino, all tracked back to join Gerson and Clodoaldo in the midfield. I’m happy to see the team in terms of 4-5-1. We brought our team back behind the line of the ball….Our team was not characterised by strong marking.”
Certainly Arsenal have missed Laurent Koscielny and Mikel Arteta for certain passages of the season, to of their most astute players, yet on the other hand, the best pressing teams in the past have been led by not necessarily the best runners, but the men on the touchline, usually infectious, obsessive types – Arrigo Sacchi, Pep Guardiola, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Jurgen Klopp, to name a few. That probably hints at psychological effort required to play such a way, and why perhaps more teams don’t do so when logically, they should because modern players are “taller, faster and stronger, and can press right up to the penalty area” says Arrigo Sacchi. But with Pep Guardiola citing motivational reasons for his departure of Barcelona and subsequently, the lack of pressing from his successor, Tata Martino, it suggests it plays a big factor in coaches using it.
In any case, Wenger says, pressing “isn’t about covering distances, it’s about doing it together” and that probably indicates that he is trying to find a balance between pressing up the pitch in certain moments –Wilshere talks about the five second rule that Arsenal are working on implementing when opponents lose the ball – and dropping back into a compact block. It’s an urgent need for Arsenal to learn quickly because there is a feeling that also there is wasted potential in this side; that with the right configuration, there is an exciting blend in this Arsenal team which is waiting to burst to life.
“I wanted to go from A to B and somebody confronted me,” said Arsene Wenger after the game which, if he was talking about the match, would have been a fairly accurate description; instead he was talking about the touchline kerfuffle with Jose Mourinho which added an unsavoury side story to a well-contested, if a little scrappy encounter.
Chelsea won 2-0 thanks to goals from Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, providing two moments of, well, moments if not outstanding quality in a largely even match-up. Yet Chelsea have that extra edge, that killer instinct that Arsenal perhaps do not possess. Or if they do, was not utilised properly. And that, in a sense, was the main source chagrin for Arsenal fans.
Whenever these two sides play, talk is always of the gameplans and here, no side wanted to give anything away (though Arsenal did when Laurent Koscielny felled Hazard for the penalty). Yet Chelsea’s discipline was encased in a system they understand. Positional changes are minimal, most likely counter-specific, and the strategy coherent. Arsene Wenger chose again with their big-game 4-1-4-1 which is not incorrect in its thinking, but can be undermined by where he selects the player.
Here, he wasn’t far off the correct balance – feasibly, all he had to do was switch Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez around. As a result, with both players playing on their “opposite” side, Arsenal’s play was often too central. Of course, this is how Arsenal often play, looking to create overloads and then quickly switch play with a quick, penetrate burst across the line or from deep – though in this case there was nobody to make those runs. Wilshere actually got through a couple of times through neat interplay – and nearly did again but Santi Cazorla shot – but his touch let him down. Danny Welbeck, on the other hand, played curiously more deep-lying than he did against Galatasary, often picking up the ball in the gap just off the two Chelsea centre-backs.
The difference in performance (forgetting opponent quality for a moment) showed how dependent instinct players, nay creative ones too, are on the energy and quickness of thought of those around them. In the aforementioned match, Arsenal had Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stretching the pitch on one side and Ozil’s lateral movement, starting behind Welbeck, making Arsenal fluid. With Ozil starting wide right against Chelsea but never sticking there, it changed the dynamic of how he creates, instead of going inside-to-out; he was going the other direction without any real opposite movement. By switching Alexis to the right, perhaps Arsenal could have had that vertical pentration they sorely needed. In any case, despite his creative performance against Galatasaray, Alexis’s best position is probably on the right where he can burst behind as he’s not really the dribbler that he’s made out to be playing on the left.
The lack of runners exacerbated the issue of the 4-1-4-1 because while Arsenal passed the ball neatly at times, it felt like cautiousness in possession for the sake of it. The joy with Arsenal is how the ball gets from A to B, often by getting off at stops C, D E and Z in the process: the new system, however, seems have a stifling effect on how well Arsenal move the ball – almost as much as Chelsea’s systematic fouling in this match. Nevertheless, Arsenal can still remain optimistic about this season – or more appropriately rather, this team – it just needs the right configuration, because there is an exciting blend in this side. The Gunners attempted 50 take-ons, a staggering amount considering that it was against Chelsea, a side known for their eagerness to close down spaces quickly. Perhaps, the extra dribbles Arsenal attempted were as a result of Chelsea’s tight marking, but at the same time, it shows a daring on the ball that Arsenal have lacked in the recent past.
Looking at the other end of the pitch, the difference between Arsenal and Chelsea might have been summed up by Cesc Fabregas. Not because of the sumptuous pass he provided for Diego Costa for the 2nd goal, but because he delivered what was probably his most disciplined performance in any shirt – annoying it just happened to be for Jose Mourinho and significantly, against his former club. In front of him, Oscar and Diego Costa worked extremely hard in a pressing structure which was more coherent than Arsenal. Jack Wilshere talked about the “5-second rule” Arsenal have when they lose the ball or force the defenders back towards their own goal, though it was visibly evident that whenever he or Alexis pressed up the pitch, the other players didn’t follow – or at least not with the required intensity. On the whole, Arsenal moved up and down the pitch well last season, largely because they played 10metres or so deeper therefore it didn’t require as much fine-tuning.
For Chelsea’s first goal, Arsenal seemed to be stuck a little in between whether to press or stand-off. Granted, The Gunners had just lost possession through Alexis thus they didn’t have enough time to recover but a more coherent strategy would have seen Arsenal get tighter and shuffle across. If it was a hard goal to deal with because Chelsea reacted quickly and Hazard is majestic in this form sort of form, jinxing away from defenders, it showed also how wingers can profit from space in between the full-backs and to the side of the holding midfielder (usually called the half-space). Ozil often exploits this space brilliantly when he plays as a no.10 by drifting wide and then combining quickly with the winger. Arsenal lost that with him starting out wide and he often had to come to the other side to combine. In the moments Arsenal got through, Jack Wilshere was the one who became the spare man and at times, overwhelmed Nemanja Matic.
It didn’t happen enough however; Chelsea snuffed out the space well, especially the Serbian holding midfielder, who didn’t really impose himself due to his sheer physicality but by just “being there.” He has an almost OCDish quality about his defending, a preoccupation with the orderly which is a bit like “shall I go there? Of course I must go there; otherwise our structure won’t make a perfect 4-2-3-1.” Flamini was more eye-catching and busy but while his best work is usually around the edge of the box, he can be a bit standoffish when the ball is in midfield. Arteta, on the other hand, when he plays, is great when he gets tight and presses the opponents in the centre of the pitch, but not so good going backwards and forced to use his pace. It goes without saying, a modern, dynamic midfielder is one which would improve Arsenal massively. If that sounds a little demanding – because who is out there that fits the profile? – that’s the margins Arsenal are judged on in the top matches. And it was margins that made the difference between Chelsea and Arsenal. With only two shots on target posted in the whole match, Chelsea scored with both of them.
It was all Danny Welbeck could do not to chip it. Bearing down on goal with the goalkeeper hotfooting it off his line, Welbeck’s thoughts would have turned to his miss on his debut against Manchester City – orthat chance for Manchester United against Bayern Munich – when he decided to chip the goalkeeper. Had he pulled it off, we would have been talking about an audacious piece of skill, a moment of daring that epitomised this precocious talent. Indeed, when he chipped Joe Hart, the goalkeeper was flummoxed by the shot though the ball bounced excruciatingly back off the post. Sometimes, however, the chip is the best option. Instead, against Borussia Dortmund, with the score at 0-0, Welbeck hesitated ever so slightly and sent a tame shot wide of Roman Weidenfeller’s post. Arsenal would later lose 2-0.
Thankfully, Danny Welbeck would make no mistake when the opportunity to chip presented itself again this time against Galatasaray, and with the confidence of two goals already behind him, he poked the ball calmly over the onrushing goalkeeper. “The third goal was probably the hardest because I was stretching for it,” said Welbeck after the 4-1 win. “I’ve been in that position a few times, trying to chip the keeper. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t.”
It’s this bouncebackability that Arsene Wenger preaches from his strikers, and why Welbeck endears so much to him because he believes finishing is a learned skill tha can be practiced on the training ground – while Welbeck already does everything else well – and you only worry when the team is not creating the chances. Against Galatasaray, Arsenal were clinical, scoring from the first real chance that fell to them, and with each goal Welbeck (and Alexis Sanchez), showed real composure to tuck the ball away.
Understandably, it’s taking a while for Welbeck to develop this side of his game and it shows the short-sightedness of football that Welbeck was previously judged so harshly on his goalscoring record. Ahead of him he had Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, two strikers who had to adapt their game from being attracted to the ball too much from when they were younger to developing a blood-thirsty appetite for finding the back of the net. Wenger calls this instinct “animalistic.” As Rooney explains, he did “too much running,” when he was younger, “and then didn’t have the energy to get into goalscoring positions in the box. I’m a cleverer player now and know when to run into the box and when not to, and as a result more chances have come my way and I’ve scored a lot more goals for the club.”
Welbeck probably fell victim to this demand at Manchester United where, because he had all the tools to be an explosive striker, goalscoring was expected to come naturally. It’s this sort of paradox modern striker have to juggle because although they are asked to do more – to drop off opposing centre-backs, hold the ball up and make runs behind, whilst pressing aggressively – they have to also find a way to be more economical with such movement. Speaking at a UEFA coaching conference, Roy Hodgson remarked: “I wonder how this will evolve. There is a danger that this job will become too lonely and too difficult. In many cases, the striker is not just expected to act as a target and to hold the ball up, but also to do a lot of chasing and to work hard as the first line of defence.” Former Juventus coach coach Antonio Conte cited Atletico Madrid’s Mario Mandžukić as an example of the new breed of striker who possesses extraordinary athletic qualities and is, as he put it, “defensively aggressive and committed with a selfless attitude towards defensive duties.”
The after effect of this quest for the apotheosis is that it has created three layers of strikers where once there were two: the best and the rest. Now, is the age of the super striker*: a level beyond what would normally be considered great and out of reach of the rest making them look like footballing Ali Dias; where the achievements of a select few, namely Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, have distorted the market. Where once scoring 20+ goals a season was considered the gold standard, now it is the bare minimum expected of a top-level striker.
Welbeck’s hat-trick against Galatasaray goes some way to proving that he’s not such a bits-and-pieces purchase that some had suggested when Wenger splashed £16million out on him in the summer transfer window. Instead, he’s an amalgamation of a number of different types of strikers. He can play within any tactical framework, whether as wide forward in Arsenal’s 4-3-3 or as a spoiling presence just behind another striker, picking the pockets of opponent playmakers with his long legs. Or more traditionally, he can function as a poacher or a target man.
Indeed, Welbeck in the past has been likened to Nwankwo Kanu by Sir Alex Ferguson which is good news for Wenger whose fetish has been to clone a more mobile version of the Nigerian striker. Indeed, taking account of the tall, rangy strikers he has brought in during the last 15 years, you can almost chart the evolution as a sort of linear sequence starting with Kanu and ending, hopefully, with Welbeck.
When Wenger signed Emmanuel Adebayor he labelled him as like “Kanu with pace”; with Sanogo he said that “he has similar strengths, strong of body, but as well technical skills.” Welbeck meanwhile, has been described as having the “perfect style to play through the middle.” In between, Marouane Chamakh and Olivier Giroud can be seen as aberrations in the perfect genetic line: an over-indulgence in one quality – technical ability – over the other key component of Arsenal’s play: mobility.
Danny Welbeck is more rounded: a lovely mover around the football pitch who principally tends to float towards the left-hand side, though when he does get the big chances, it usually happens from the right. That shows you the measure of the player that he is because Welbeck’s game is all about sudden little bursts – what coaches call “high intensity sprints” – be it closing down opponent defenders in order to force a mistake or make darting, arrowing runs into the box. His goals against Galatasaray showed how his timing is getting better and the improved understanding he has with his teammates. His hat-trick goal to dink the ball over the ‘keeper was probably his best although the second goal was typical Welbeck: robbing the central defender of the ball, shrugging him off with a dismissive swat of the arm and then finishing Henry-like into the bottom corner.
The other impressive facet to Webeck’s play has been his link-up which is tidy and accurate. His pass success is 86% in the league, a massive improvement on Olivier Giroud’s erratic 68% from last season. Giroud, though, contributed to Arsenal’s play due to his neat flicks and tricks bringing others into play, often acting as a wall to play passes off. Welbeck is a bit different, more likely to end up at the end of moves, but when he drops off too he can be very effective, helping the way Arsenal like to play when they set up triangles on one side on the pitch, then switching the play quickly to the other side. He did this very well against Aston Villa, in particular stoking up an intelligent partnership with Mesut Ozil with both seemingly never too far away from each other. In the 3-0 win they combined 18 times, and two of those times led to goals. Against Galatasary, the combinations were more varied: Welbeck was slipped in by Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain for two of the goals. The other was from a Galatasaray mistake. Each time Welbeck finished with great aplomb.
*The most interesting aspect of the super striker is that they come in all shapes and sizes due to the prevalence of the single striker system. With most top level teams playing a variant of the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, the strikers’ strengths (and weaknesses) can be balance out in a system that covers all bases. For example, in Barcelona’s treble wining side of 2012, Pep Guardiola used David Villa as the more traditional poacher-like player, making runs behind, but he played mainly on the left while Pedro stretched play in the other side. Behind them they had a myriad of ball players that could find them easily but the chief creator and goal-getter was Lionel Messi who, as a false 9, was now given the freedom to pop up wherever he liked.
The most prominent super strikers are Messi, Ronaldo and possibly Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez. Aiming to join them or were once in the list but slipped out are Robin van Persie, Neymar, Diego Costa, Radamel Falcao, Mario Mandzukic, Edinson Cavani and Robert Lewandowski.
In his book,Lonely at the Top, a biography of Thierry Henry, Philippe Auclair reveals the psyche of one of Arsenal’s greatest players, although in getting there, the troubled image he has in his native France. In particular is the fascinating account of how Henry ended up at The Gunners, having become an increasingly maligned figure in his country despite winning the World Cup, and having attempted to manufacture moves early in his career to Real Madrid, then to Arsenal.
Henry was desperate to move to North London to rekindle a fleeting relationship he had with then coach, Arsène Wenger, who threw him in for his professional debut for AS Monaco at the age of seventeen amid in-fighting between board members, injuries and bad form. Back then, in the summer of 1994, Wenger had the chance to manage Bayern Munich. However, depending on which report you read, Wenger either resisted the corporate German giants, or that the move was blocked by AS Monaco, who in comparison, were not so much the tiny family-owned business, but if that business operated the only shop-front in a 50-storey building and had its own car-park. And that family was the royal family. In any case, Wenger stayed in the hope that Monaco would grant him a free-hand in teambuilding. A game after handing Henry his debut, however, the Frenchman was sacked.
Despite that, Wenger continued charting Henry’s progress whilst keeping an eye on France’s other youth prospects and it was in one of his trips to follow Les Bleuets that he told Henry that he was “wasting his time on the wing and would have a different career as a centre-forward.” Suffice to say, it would take a nightmarish half a season at Juventus – playing sometimes even as a wing-back – for Henry to realise how right Wenger was. “I won the World Cup as a winger,” Henry says in Lonely at the Top. “I’d already been in the national team, and Arsène was telling me I could have another career as a centre-forward. It was difficult for me to understand.”
Nobody knows the full extent of the conversation that Alexis Sanchez had with Arsène Wenger before signing for Arsenal, but it is likely Wenger seduced Sanchez by offering him some assurances of his future position, namely by promising to play him up front. Sanchez, though, when pushed on what was said was unwilling to give an exact answer, possibly because of the language barrier, saying that they only talked about using him in a number of positions, but also possibly because he’s been here before, as settling on his best position has been a bone of contention throughout his career.
In the youth sides, Sanchez was an attacking midfielder, given a free role to dazzle with his quick feet and vast array of tricks. “The first time I saw him I said he had no limits,” says Nelson Acosta, the manager who first drafted Sanchez, as a 16-year-old, into his first team at Cobreloa. “He has everything. Normally in young boys there is something missing, be it skill, or vision, or the ability to beat a man. Not in Alexis. That is very rare.”
Soon Sanchez would be snapped up by Udinese although he would have to wait a while before playing for the first team, twice being shipped out on loan to sharpen his skills. When he came back to Udinese, he took a while to get going, shunted out to the right wing before some genius decided it was best move him back to the centre where he first caught the eye. Here Sanchez flourished playing as a kind of second-striker-winger hybrid – a fantasista in the loosest sense – behind the celestial Antonio Di Natale, scoring 12 league goals and notching 10 assists. His exerts caught the eye of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, who was ever looking for ways to perfect his Barcelona side, and the prospect of dovetailing both Sanchez and Messi was a scintillating one. The first sign of what they could do together was in El Clasico, when Sanchez was used as a poacher in a 4-3-3 and with half-an-hour played, Messi slipped him through with a delicious through-pass. Sanchez didn’t take long to compose himself, slotting the ball into the bottom corner in a soaking wet night in Madrid. It would be the last time, however, Messi would play second fiddle to somebody and for the next three seasons, Sanchez would almost exclusively ply his trade on the right-flank.
It’s not as if Sanchez failed to perform with his distinction in that role: his darting runs off the flank into the box would become a key feature of how Barcelona would play and in his final season, he would score 19 goals, yet he has always felt as something of an interloper, an incorrigible cog in a perfectly oiled system. The way Barcelona play, where the passing is low risk but high percentage, and where opposition defences are set, it requires a sureness to your play that Sanchez was only just beginning to get to grips with. Indeed, if you look at his underlying numbers, you realise just how much his creative instincts were dulled: key passes are at 1.7 per game whilst he only completed 36 dribbles all season. (To put that into account, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Jack WIlshere completed more. It’s likely, when given a central role at Arsenal, those two parts would become a key factor of the team’s play). On the flip side however, his shooting and assists numbers are excellent.
It was as if at times, his instincts were dulled, from once playing with the intrepidity of a leader of a street gang in a central role, cooking up ideas behind his angular forehead that you wouldn’t expect, his role was reduced to a ferreter and furrower, running up and down the flanks as if seeing the pitch as elaborate tunnels.
The trouble is, Sanchez always looked like a winger which in itself an achievement in an age where footballers are, at a certain level – below the very best and above the second rate – relatively indistinguishable in terms of athleticism and basic skills. And as Barney Ronay writes, that means “football has become more chess-like, more a matter of the location and exploitation of momentary weakness.” At Barcelona, where almost all outfield players are below six-feet, that problem was exacerbated because the whole team, even down to the goalkeeper, was viewed almost as an extension of the midfield. There was no need for specialist strikers (and defenders as Javier Mascherano would find out). Everybody’s relative skills were taken into account of how they would contribute to goals: Alexis was fast and an excellent dribbler therefore he would run into the box from the flanks.
Playing for the national side in the World Cup was a breath of fresh air. Used in an inside-right position with the freedom to move centrally, Sanchez was outstanding as Chile were agonizing knocked-out on penalties by Brazil, though his best play happens to be just before the World Cup started when he produced three scintillating assists in a 3-2 comeback win against Egypt. Here, he showcased everything that he came to promise when he first burst onto the stage; his impudent dribbling ability, the vision to see a pass and power from deep. Put simply, it was Messi-esque. Perhaps it’s as Wenger once said; that by deploying a central player wide as Barcelona did, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.”
For me he has the three ingredients to play up front that all Arsenal strikers have possessed in the past: 1) the spontaneity to produce something out of nothing; 2) the ability to run behind and stretch defences and 3) excellent dribbling in 1v1 situations. However, there’s a psychological adjustment he would have to make, maybe more so than the physical, as now defenders will be breathing down his neck. For the most part of his career, Sanchez has generally tended to play facing the goal, although having said that, it’s an adjustment he should easily make as protecting the ball, then twisting and turning away from markers is one of his strengths. Indeed, that’s probably why he endears so much to Wenger. Like Henry, who others didn’t see as a central striker (most when at Juventus where Carlo Ancelotti admitted it was one of his great regrets), Sanchez is an all-rounder, capable of dropping deep or pulling wide, and then, as quick as a flash, able to change the emphasis of an attack with his one-on-one dribbling and explosive running. Indeed, that’s exactly what makes Arsenal dynamic: when they’ve got their back to goal, and then suddenly they spin away from markers and look to play the next ball forward. Alexis Sanchez could play a central role in any success Arsenal have next season.
In an intriguing tale from Ancient Chinese philosophy, Butcher Ding was summoned by his village leader to perform a task that overwhelmed his fellow butchers who seemed to possess the same level of blade wielding skills; he had to sacrifice an ox as part of a ritual to consecrate a sacred bell. Unfazed by the task at hand, Ding went about cutting up the ox with nonchalant ease. When an astonished village chief demanded an explanation, Ding reveals, “The secret is to not approach the problem with your eyes, but with your spirit.” Novices like us probably won’t be able to entirely comprehend Butcher Ding’s methods but it is said that Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud offered similar explanations when asked about their wonder goal against Norwich City. (Though Wilshere supplied the final touch, can it really be counted as his goal solely?).
There are two fundamental requirements to breakdown parked buses; either depend on players to get past opponents through pace and dribbling ability or depend on fast circulation and understanding between players. Arsene Wenger is the type of manager who relies on his players’ combination play to break down defences and it’s quite fair to conclude the spontaneous understanding between the players reached its peak this season. The first half of the season saw some breathtaking moves from Arsenal with Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud combining like brothers having a kick around in the backyard. The French striker did an admirable job with his back to the goal, letting the midfielders create play by knocking passes off him.
For the second part of the season, Arsenal had been missing those runs from deep (from Ramsey) that glue Arsenal’s passing game together. Because without somebody breaking into space, who have Arsenal’s myriad of ball players got to pass it to? Instead, play in that period would look soporific, lacking urgency and easy to pick off. Indeed, the way Arsenal play, bumping passes off each other, it requires little triggers so that the players know when to move their passing game up a gear. Ozil is brilliant at that, moving quietly into space, trading a few innocuous passes, always with his head up waiting for the moment to increase the tempo and his team-mates seem to feed off that. Ditto Ramsey’s runs from deep.
To play truly great attacking football, a blind instinctive awareness – or “blind understanding” as Wenger calls it – of one’s teammates is fundamental and at moments this season Arsenal played attacking football of the highest quality.
Second Lesson: Is Mertesacker-Koscielny the best?
Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny complement each other perfectly; Koscielny is the fast and aggressive man marker while Mertesacker is the solid presence who sweeps behind; Koscielny is the forward thinking instigator while Mertesacker is one of the safest distributors around, etc. The partnership has had an appreciable season and has contributed immensely to achieving the second highest number of clean sheets in the Premier League, and conceding the fourth least number of goals. On average, the partnership averages 4.5 interceptions and 1.8 offside calls per game while only being dribbled past 0.7 times per game. Laurent Koscielny’s and Per Mertesacker’s value in the attacking phase is unmatched as they top the passing accuracy charts with the former passing with 93.5% success and Mertesacker with 93%(he attempted 538 more passes) success. These rudimentary statistics don’t tell the complete story but keen observers will agree that the ‘Mertescielny’ is one of the best partnerships in the world.
Indeed, their partnership follows what has become a trend whenever teams play a back four: one of the centre-backs attack and the other covers. Against two strikers, though, the duo has shown how much their relationship has prospered because against such a set-up, both defenders have to mark (as opposed to playing against a lone-striker where Mertesacker will normally attack the ball and Koscielny drops back). As such, that puts demands on the holding midfielder to provide cover, which leads us on to the next lesson…
Third Lesson: Defensive Reinforcements
At the beginning of the season, the signing of Mathieu Flamini seemed an astute one from Le Boss as he performed dependably in his first few games. But as the season progressed, his weaknesses became apparent and playing him alongside Mikel Arteta only magnified them. In attack, Flamini offers almost nothing other than safe passing (91% success) and decent running, which means going backwards, he tried to compensate with his defensive positioning, which more than once, most notably against Southampton, Swansea has cost the team (click for image example). Mikel Arteta did slightly better than Flamini but his susceptibility to pace has become a prominent weakness of his. He has also been quite easy to dribble past, being bypassed 1.7 times per game. This figure is very much on the higher side as Flamini is dribbled passed less, at 0.4 times per game, with one particular weakness of Arteta is that he allows opponent midfielders to blitz past him in counters far too easily. That figure, though, chimes with what his game is about: Arteta loves to press up the pitch, looking to win the ball back quickly, an underrated trait of his. Flamini on the other hand brings hustle but his tendency is to drop deeper and cover spaces.
Another defensive midfielder would be imperative, particularly with Bacary Sagna leaving – one who slots in between the centre-backs in the build up to help better utilize the full backs as they can be important weapons to breakdown packed defences. Arteta’s distribution skills are better than he is given credit for (although his passing can be slightly on the slower side at times) but a defensive midfielder with better defensive positioning would help improve Arsenal’s defensive stability.
Fourth Lesson: Aaron Ramsey is the man
This is the most obvious lesson of the seven. Aaron Ramsey had a blistering first half of the season when he was our best player by miles. Then he got injured for a while before coming back to deliver top four in the premier league and an FA Cup. Last season he was praised for his reliable performances alongside Arteta, where he combined intelligent running and an unrivalled work rate to become an important member of the team. This season saw him transform into an insanely confident footballer with outrageous skills as he went on an almost unstoppable run where he kept scoring, assisting and embarrassing opponents much to the joy of the Gunners faithful. Arsene Wenger kept reiterating Aaron Ramsey’s hunger to improve (he seems to have that Thierry Henry-like obsession about football) and this has seen him become the best player in our team. In the FA Cup final against Hull City, one could see Aaron Ramsey trying hard to force the winner in extra time. Despite a few improbable attempts from long range, he kept trying and eventually scored and it is this quality of delivering in decisive moments that has proved vital for Arsenal many a times. It is almost like there is a ‘What? What else were you expecting?’ kind of brash arrogance (in a subtle way, if that is possible) about him and it would be great if it rubs off on the team.
Fifth Lesson: Mesut Ozil provided only a glimpse
Big things were expected from Mesut Ozil and he seemed to be on the right track as he scored thrice and assisted four times in his first seven games. Since then he has only three goals and seven assists and most have been swift to brand him a flop. To do so would be very harsh on the German playmaker as his real contribution to Arsenal’s possession play shouldn’t be judged just by his assists and goals scored statistics.
He was expected to play the ‘Bergkamp role’, playing behind Olivier Giroud to be at the end of moves. But Ozil’s duties lie slightly deeper as he is given the responsibility to dictate play and perform an important role in the build up. As Wenger says, “the quality of his passing slowly drains the opponent as he passes always the ball when you do not want him to do it. That slowly allows us to take over.” Thus, extra layers are added to Ozil’s worth to the side; he’s all at once, an attacking weapon, a master controller and a defensive force, allowing Arsenal to keep opponents at arm’s length, and luring them into a sense of comfort that is also complacent.
Ozil averages 63 passes per game (behind only Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey in the team), constantly peeling to either wings (his preferred control centre seems to be that channel off the centre towards the right wing) to try various angles and combinations. His combination with Aaron Ramsey has been one of the more fruitful ones and has played a substantial part in the latter’s rise. Arsene Wenger is confident that the German wizard would deserve a statue at the Emirates by the time he leaves Arsenal but Mesut Ozil will have to elevate his game by a notch to attain such levels. Everyone knows he can.
Sixth Lesson: Olivier Giroud requires competition
Whoscored.com rates Olivier Giroud as Arsenal’s second best player behind Aaron Ramsey. While that is a little farfetched, it shows Giroud has had an acceptable season as Arsenal’s Number One Striker™. Netting 18 times and providing 9 assists in 43 games is decent output for a forward but Giroud has that wildly irritating knack of going into a run where it looks exceedingly improbable for him to score.
His major assets are his link up play and aerial ability, although his combination can desert him at times due to a first touch which at its best, can be silky smooth like delicate fingers working up Chantilly lace or just plain awful. Arsene Wenger took a huge gamble by not bringing in strikers in the transfer window and he was forced to rely entirely on the Frenchman who was bound to be affected by fatigue. As the season wore on, it wasn’t necessarily his finishing skills that let Arsenal down but his propensity, as the lone striker, to play a little bit like a totem pole. That works when there are runners getting beyond him – Ramsey and Walcott are key – but often, it relies on moves being perfect and that’s not always possible. When Yaya Sanogo has deputised, though he has still yet to break his mark for the club, it shows what value a striker can add purely by running the channels – that means sometimes away from play – stretching defences and creating space for runners. Indeed, in the cup final, Giroud was probably the one who profited most from Sanogo’s presence, as this meant he was afforded the freedom to do what he’s unable to do when he plays up front on his own: run. It seems unlikely, unless he adds a mean streak to his game, that Sanogo will push Giroud hard for a starting spot in the near future, nor is a switch to a 4-4-2 system in the offing, meaning it is absolutely necessary to bring in a different type of striker to compete with Giroud.
Seventh Lesson: This team can play both ways
It comes as a surprise that Arsenal hasn’t topped the possession table (they’re fourth behind Southampton, ManchesterCity and Swansea) this season given that they’ve done so in each of the last three seasons. This season, Arsenal has conceded that extra bit of possession to maximize efficiency in ‘moments’. Fewer shots have been taken this season (13.8 compared to 15.7) and creating qualitatively better chances seems to have been the focus.
A great attacking performance is such that at first viewing, it seems inherently defensive. Take Liverpool’s 5-1 home win against Arsenal in February this season. It’s true that they looked like they could have scored with every chance such was the alarming regularity they got behind the Arsenal defence. But it was the swirling press of red shirts that was just as memorable, surrounding the Arsenal midfielders in possession and blocking potential passing lanes. And when they regained the ball, the pace and trickery of Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling et al. put The Gunners to the sword.
Great attacking teams don’t just throw caution to the wind when they go forward; effective attacking play is predicated on a solid defensive foundation which allows those players to flourish. It’s indicative of the way Liverpool worked as a team that their best defensive player wasn’t a member of the back four nor a central midfielder: it was Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian won 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions, but was most impressive was the way he filled in the gaps when players moved out of position. In fact, Liverpool’s system is all about little chain reactions: when one players moves, it activates the trigger for another to move into the space. What Coutinho did so well was to make Liverpool’s formation move from a 4-4-2 at various times, to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.
There are other such examples in the past of good defence aiding devastating attacking play. When Ajax beat Liverpool 7-3 in the European Cup over two legs in 1966, Bill Shankly peculiarly declared that “they were the most defensive team we have ever met.” Then there were the two famous 5-0 wins over Real Madrid: the first, by AC Milan in 1989, which put Arrigo Sacchi on the map; while in 2010, we remember mostly the way Barcelona kept the ball, in particular the controlling forces of Xavi and Messi, but just as important was the way they pressed their opponents, hunting in packs to win the ball back.
Indeed in Chris Anderson and David Sally’s The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong, they find, using statistical evidence, that keeping a clean sheet helps a team more than scoring lots of goals does. That’s what the basis was for Arsenal early season form, with Arsene Wenger telling Arsenal Player: “It’s very important for the confidence of the team that we have such a [defensive] stability. As I said many times, we are an offensive team, but you are only a good offensive team if you have a good defensive stability.”
Sadly, that assurance in defence has dissipated in recent matches, most crushingly when Arsenal were defeated 6-0 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The irony was that Wenger’s worst defeat waited until his 1000th match in charge of Arsenal. Still, The Gunners are in with an outside shot of the title, and have a great chance to break their nine-year trophy drought with the FA Cup but in my opinion, that owes much to the defence – which individually, is perhaps Wenger’s best for a long time. Those big defeats Arsenal suffered, against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, which have put a damper on their season, mainly originated from Arsenal frequently giving the ball away in midfield thus exposing the back four repeatedly.
For me, a large part of Arsenal’s vulnerability – that good players, like Aaron Ramsey, who Arsenal have missed massively, can alleviate – stems from the unique way they bring the ball out of defence. To understand that, first we must understand Wenger.
Explaining Arsene Wenger’s philosophy is a trickier task than at first it actually seems. It’s widely accepted that he’s an attacking coach but can that be distinguished from a coach that favours possession first? For example, his Arsenal side do not stretch the pitch as wide as other possession-orientated sides might; instead the Wenger way is to stretch the field vertically in the build up to avoid the press, and then drop a midfielder in to pick up the ball in the extra space. Other teams such as Barcelona – at the far end of the attacking-possession extreme – stretch the play horizontally, firstly by splitting the centre-backs and then dropping a midfielder in between.
Instead, the main focus for Wenger is on expressionism and autonomy, cultivated on the training ground by small-sided matches – games of 7v7 or 8v8 – to encourage better combination play. (Think about how, in the first-half in the 2-0 win against Crystal Palace, Lukas Podolski kept on drifting inside too early in the build up instead of, as he should have, hugging the touchline to open up space. It was later in the second-half, when he curbed his tendencies to get on the ball, that he attempted his first shots in the game). The importance of possession is preached of course – Arsenal practice a drill called “through-play” whereby a team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively – but keeping the ball must have means: patience is only tolerated to an extent. Cesc Fabregas expands: “Wenger showed me a lot, but wouldn’t say ‘I want you to copy what I show you.’ He let me find by myself the player I was meant to be. Now whenever I have the ball I look to gain yards. This sense of verticality, it’s Wenger. He made me an attacking player.”
“Wenger always said to me: ‘Forward, Cesc, forward! Attack! Attack!’ From a young age I heard him say that. All the players he’s coached will tell you: the eyes must always look to the opponent’s goal. He didn’t really like spending training working on defensive strategies. What he loves is seeing his team take initiative and create chances.” And comparing Arsenal to Barcelona, Fabregas says: “Wenger didn’t really like it when we kept ball for long periods, he thought it counter-productive & sterile keeping the ball but not really doing anything with it (not attacking), he (Wenger) hated that. What (Wenger) loves is goals. For example, if at 3-0 up we could still score two more, he’d push us to do so. The Barca style is more composed. You have to string passes together. Bam. Calm. Bam. Calm. I had to adapt to team’s needs which are different from Arsenal. Here I must play as the coach wants and respect the philosophy of the team.”
This idea of verticality works against most sides as they tend to defend deep against Arsenal, and while that throws up problems of its own, Wenger is secretly happy to face those sides as it means Arsenal have most of the play. However, it can be a problem when teams play high up, as we have seen against Southampton, Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Liverpool to name the most troubling.
Wenger’s aware of this, but he places great faith on his two centre-backs to pass the ball out and one of the central midfielders, usually Mikel Arteta dropping in. He says: “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle. I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure. I am comfortable with that, although sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”
What Arsenal do is, instead of opening the pitch horizontally to evade the press as other possession sides usually do (typically that means splitting the two centre-backs wider and dropping a midfielder in between or asking one of the midfielders to move laterally), they push the team up the pitch to create space in the middle of the pitch for one of the central midfielders to pick up the ball in extra space. The problem is when say Wilshere (who is not very good with the ball deep) or Arteta get the ball there, they’re often isolated and thus easy to dispossess. Often, they have to try and dribble their way out as Mesut Ozil was forced to when he was tackled in the build up to Liverpool’s 3rd goal. In fact, if you cast your mind back to the defeat 3 out of 5 of their goals came from Arsenal relinquishing possession meekly.
Arsene Wenger takes great stock in players who have the dexterity and close control to get out of tight situations, as he said recently when describing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s strengths in central midfield: “He has the sense of positional play and he has the qualities which you want to see in the modern game,” Wenger said. “He has that capability to break through because there is a lot of pressure in the modern game. So those players who have the ability to get out of that pressure are of course very important.”
If they don’t, then it can prove catastrophic as Ozil continually found against Liverpool when he dropped deep and instead, was forced to pass backwards or attempt to dribble through. Bear in mind that there is no right or wrong way – Liverpool have often been in uncompromising situations when they split their centre-backs – it depends on how well you execute your plans and Arsenal are better than most. And better teams are more likely to expose chinks, as Liverpool did and then Chelsea in their 6-0 win. Again, goals were relinquished through easy concession of possession in midfield, as Chelsea not only pressed up the pitch, but intelligently and structurally.
However, in the recent Champions League encounter against Paris Saint Germain, Chelsea tried to replicate the same tactics but frequently hit a brick wall. Why? Well, for one, they were without their master presser, Nemanja Matic, who is cup-tied in Europe, but the way Paris play under Laurent Blanc, it’s like a game-within-a-game they play at the back, taking risks with the ball in an attempt to draw the opposition out. Chelsea tried to press but each time they did, they were rebuffed either from brilliant close control, especially from Marco Verratti, or intelligent positional play from the Paris players, stretching the pitch horizontally, and then dropping a midfielder in the extra spaces to the side of Chelsea’s attackers so they couldn’t press effectively.
Arsenal could take some hints. For me, Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s foremost deep-lying midfielder, is fantastic at keeping Arsenal’s intensity high in matches where the team is on the front foot and can play in the opponent’s half; indeed, that’s how Wenger used him in the 4-1 win against Everton and 1-1 draw with Manchester City. But when the opponent forces him to play almost as a quarter-back, he can be easily nullified. What Arsenal need to do is offer more rotation; when one of the central midfielders drop deep to pick the ball up, the other pushes up so that it’s harder to mark. Indeed, that’s what Aaron Ramsey did so well before his injury, often out-passing his own teammates and the opponents’. Therefore it’s suffice to say also that how Arsenal cope with high pressure depends on the personnel available.
There’s an argument that Arsenal also lack enough players with the change of pace and direction that has been the standard of Wenger sides in the past. Chiefly, that has been levelled at striker Olivier Giroud who it is said could run the channels more, thus opening space for the attacking players behind him. Giroud, while his link-up play brings others into play, is mainly static, exclusively playing in between the two centre-backs and as such Arsenal’s play can look predictable, and it relies on moves being perfect.
Indeed, it’s even arguable that Arsenal don’t use him enough as a target man to bring more variety into their play – or rather that they can’t because his ball retention is wildly inconsistent. It’s more convenient (and frustrating as well) to think of Giroud as an extension of the midfield, another pass before Arsenal eventually get inside the box.
One must also consider the psychological factor in appraising whether Arsenal are more susceptible to the press. Because so much of Arsenal’s play is predicated on passing the ball well and playing attractive football, thus creating a perception of superiority that is often enough to overwhelm teams lower down. But against the top sides the players (and the manager) seem so anxious to make a statement,* that when things are not going their way, they can crack –and badly – from which there is no fallback position. Paul Hayward of The Telegraph calls this a “conviction deficit”. In that sense, Arsenal needs not just strong individuals, but technical leaders (players like Xabi Alonso, who sets the tempo, ideologue for Real Madrid) or more damningly even, a more robust footballing strategy beyond merely “expressing” yourself.
*Think back to when, before the 1-0 defeat to Manchester United, Mesut Ozil said “we are going to Old Trafford to have fun – and that is why we are going to win.” What we saw instead was a very timid Arsenal performance, visibly uncertain about the best way to break down a defensive United side.
This can also tie in with Arsenal’s vulnerability to the high press because players are not sure where to move on the pitch to evade the pressure. Above all, though, it seems that what we need to see most to alleviate this flaw is a more confident Arsenal, one with real relief belief in the way they play – and of course, their best players fit and available together.
– Kroos’s excellent pass set up the key moment in the match – Bayern Munich’s “sterile” domination a by-product of their technical superiority – Wenger needs to improve his side’s ball-retention to really kick on
In the end, Arsenal’s Champions League aspirations were cut down to size by one glorious pass by Toni Kroos. The Bayern Munich midfielder, picking the ball up 10-yards outside the penalty box, lifted it over a static Arsenal defence who could not help but stand and watch, as if somebody had stopped time and simply placed the ball in the air and restarted time again. Arjen Robben, who initially played the pass to Kroos, was alive to the opportunity and pounced on the give-and-go, trapping the ball superbly and inducing Wojciech Szczesny into a foul. David Alaba missed the subsequent penalty but it was clear, having seen out Arsenal’s early storm, that the game would turn on that sending off and that one superb moment of vision from Kroos.
It’s not that Arsenal didn’t have the quality to get back into the game but that piece of inventiveness in a way, already highlighted the technical edge that Bayern held over Arsenal, at least at face value. It’s true that Arsene Wenger’s side could harbour much regret from the 2-0 defeat, especially from the way they started the game and then should have had the lead when on eight-minutes Mesut Ozil horribly messed up from the penalty spot. Still, Arsenal’s gameplan was working superbly for the first 15-20 minutes, unsettling Bayern on the ball and breaking quickly. They had lots of joy down the right, especially with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and then the targeted flick-ons from Yaya Sanogo and Bacary Sagna. But then, the game starting to settle into an ominous pattern: Bayern Munich increasingly began to monopolise possession and play the game outside Arsenal’s box. There were sporadic moments to attack after that but the crucial thing for Arsenal was that there were chances on the break; something which was taken away from Arsenal after the red-card before half-time. (To put into context how the game was taken away from Arsenal in the second-half, Bayern Munich completed 494 passes after the break. By comparison Arsenal managed just 38).
Technically, this Bayern Munich side is probably somewhere in between the two ball-hogging Barcelona sides which entertained Arsenal at the Emirates in 2010 & 2011, and the Bayern side which Arsenal faced last year. Indeed, in those matches, those teams found out that they couldn’t dominate The Gunners for the full ninety-minutes and as such, there was valid reason here for Arsenal to harbour great regret.
Yet, it was Bayern Munich’s superior technical quality – something that’s ingrained in their mentality much deeper than just being able to pass the ball accurately – which allowed them to assume the tie away from Arsenal.
In the past, Wenger has talked about this as sterile domination (most recently he has said this about Southampton, saying that their possession, in Arsenal’s 2-0 win in November, was an “illusion”); or in other words, passing the ball for passing sake. But for those sides, sterile domination isn’t an aim: it’s a by-product of their voraciousness to be better than the rest at manipulating the ball. In that sense, it’s a grave error for Wenger to continue dismissing the necessary-evil(?) of sterile domination. It forces teams back, and provokes teams to play, at 0-0, in a way that seems inherently defensive (anti-football even in some cases), and it makes it harder to counter-attack against them. Of course, in recent times, there’s been a movement against possession-fixated sides that has been used to great effect called counter-pressing, most devastatingly used by Bayern Munich in the Champions League against Barcelona. Arsenal have tried to adopt those methods to some degree this season and indeed, before the red card in this match.
The most piercing comment of the match was not, however, Wenger’s indignation of the triple-punishment that his side suffered after Robben’s “play-acting” but rather, the approach that he revealed pre-match that they were going to take, which was to defend first. That was him accepting that Bayern are the better side, which in itself is not new information, however, it should put to bed the notion that when two possession-based attacking sides meet, we’re likely to see a festival of goals. Indeed, it’s more likely we’ll see one team defend for large periods and the other try to weather the storm – and possibly after going a goal down, forced to react. That in itself is a bit of a regret: we rarely ever see two sides defined by possession go toe-to-toe on equal footing for the whole match: one is usually a cut above the other. The last I remember seeing such a game was in 2010 when Argentina defeated Spain 4-1 in a friendly with near 50-50 possession each. Other similar encounters, Arsenal’s 2-1 win at the Emirates in 2011 against Barcelona saw Arsenal only accrue 36% of the ball. That, though, after weathering a first-half Barca storm and then having to go Catenaccio in the aggregate defeat away. (Pep Guardiola’s Bayern against Tata Martino’s Barcelona might be the closest we come to seeing possession v possession).
Richard Whittall, editor of The Score, makes a similar point. When you see two sides like Arsenal and Bayern Munich, and then the comprehensive way Arsenal in which were erased from the match red-card after, you wonder why a team as technically proficient as The Gunners couldn’t react. Yet, it’s often forgotten that possession football is diverse – as diverse as the game itself – and usually the best teams are the ones who cultivate possession. In his piece, Whittall uses the example of Manchester City’s defeat 2-0 defeat to Barcelona, saying:
And yet ten minutes in last night, the illusion there is a single, homogeneous style in build-up play in Europe was undone by the clear juxtaposition of the lanky giants in Blue taking on the upright, two-touch-and-go efficiency of the boys in red and purple (what are Barca’s colours, exactly?). One of these teams was not like the other. One of them didn’t belong.
If that seems a little harsh an analogy to use on Arsenal, a team who under Wenger have captivated the world for over 15 years, consider Pep Guardiola’s dismissal of interchangeability and fluidity as a tactic. In a way, he could be dismissing Arsene Wenger’s style which is to grant players the freedom to move around the pitch when in the attacking-third. On the training ground, that’s cultivated by small sided games of 5v5, 7v7 etc. to encourage spontaneous combination play or by drills such as one called “through-play” whereby the team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively and pass the ball between them. For Wenger, the main focus is on expressionism and autonomy. The importance of possession is preached of course but keeping the ball must have a means: patience is only tolerated to an extent.
Guardiola’s approach, however, is more scientific, more hands-on. Players must see the pitch as a grid, each occupying a “square” and making sure each one is filled. He says moving the ball is more important than the man moving as that’s the best way to work opponents. Thomas Muller explains: “It isn’t about having possession just for the sake of it, that’s not the concept. It’s about using possession to position the team in the opposition’s half in a way that makes us less liable to be hit on the break.
Guardiola’s methods are not to be used as a stick to beat Wenger with: he deserves to have faith in the way he works, while his Arsenal side is one that continues to play better football than most. Indeed, at 11 v 11 he had realistic reasons to expect that Arsenal could win this game. However, there are teams that are taking the game to new levels now, and watching the way Bayern Munich stretched the pitch, time after time creating overloads and opening up half-spaces, it’s little wonder that Arsenal weren’t able to get back in the game after Szczesny saw red.
**NB: Pep Guardiola after the match: “Today we again saw that it all depends on possession. We should have fought harder during the first ten minutes. It’s a question of personality; you need to want the ball. We are not a great counterattacking team, as we don’t have the physical requirements for that. We always need to have the ball, that’s what it boils down to.”