David Silva’s inside game creates tactical anarchy

David Silva  is quite a player, isn’t he? Shorn of many outstanding individuals, Silva has risen above the challengers to claim the crown as the Premier League’s top talent.  But perhaps, therein lies the question.Manchester City-Arsenal was a great advert for the league, argues Michael Cox for ZonalMarking.net – it was played at a pulsating pace, full of trickery and cunning and not to mention great technical ability –  but it lacked a certain control the best European counterparts, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona, are masters at. Indeed, is it that the hectic nature owes in part, to the failure of English sides in the Champions League and thus the extra space allowing David Silva to become the best in the league?

Cesc Fábregas talks similarly of the Premiership, saying in Four Four Two magazine as being “alocado” (crazy). On the other hand, a mix of continental astuteness and British urgency has seen Fábregas start the season wonderfully in La Liga and key part of Pep Guardolia’s plans. But the manager has also commented on the tactical “anarchy” that Fábregas brings to the side, sometimes to eager to get forward and thus relinquishing some of their vice-like grip on matches. Yet, control might not have been paramount in this game and in Manchester City’s case, Roberto Mancini was perhaps happy to cede some possession as he was always going to play through his front four. Nevertheless, Manchester City did have control for large periods of the game with and without the ball and showed ruthless ambition on the break Arsenal did not have. For The Gunners, they lacked spark in attack. They essentially also played with a front four although the difference between the sides’ interpretations was noticeable.

Gervinho made his best performance in an Arsenal shirt in terms of involvement, attempting 48 passes (42 successful) and was generally Arsenal’s biggest threat. But he, like the rest of the team, lacked end product. The Gunners looked best when he got involved, often linking up with Robin van Persie and taking up his spaces but while it highlighted what was good about Arsenal, it proceeded to show what could be better. Because City’s front four did it better. David Silva jinxed and drifted from his right-flank and that dragged Arsenal’s defenders this-way-and-that. When he vacated his right position, Mario Balotelli often took up his space. If he didn’t, Sergio Aguero did. Samir Nasri also had a neat game and the goal was perhaps the only time, in an attacking instant, where the coaches tactical plan paid off. Manchester City won the ball back and suddenly the front four darted into life, breaking with speed before Silva anticipated Balotelli’s shot. It’s generally difficult to defend from breaks – highlighting why Arsenal are often punished despite the paucity of chances they concede; most are quick breaks/counter-attacks – but Laurent Koscielny’s confusion summed it up as Nasri played the pass to Balotelli, somehow popping up on the left. They did it in the Carling Cup and Mancini’s selection, choosing Kolo Toure at centre-back to read Arsenal’s attacks, indicated he wanted to do it again.

While City’s attack interchanged and buzzed, Arsenal’s jerked and in the end, was too functional. Aaron Ramsey often found himself in dangerous pockets but lacked the movement to deliver a telling pass. Theo Walcott, on the other hand, isolated himself on the right-flank and when he did get into good positions, was not found.

This was not a bad Arsenal performance but just a bit short of Manchester City’s exuberance in possession. Wenger has decided to go with a three striker policy although in the meantime, it’s alienating Yossi Benayoun who would have revelled in the spaces “between-the-lines.” The tactic depends 1) on technique, which Mikel Arteta has provided, 2) on movement, which had usually come from the midfield three rotating but Wenger, in the last three games, choosing to play closer a 4-2-3-1 and 3) creativity, which Ramsey wasn’t too comfortable with and Alex Song unable to break forward as he has. His pass which found Gervinho in the first-half was an uncharacteristically rare moment of incision.

Arsenal clearly suffered without any full-backs and when they did push forward in the second-half when the personnel changed, they were punished on the break. That’s why Wenger has pushed Ramsey forward more recently although this time, his tactic failed to pay off. If they had either one of Andre Santos or Bakary Sagna, Arsenal might have been more confident of getting at least a point. As it was, both sides pressed without achieving the desired impact, creating a game of pass the parcel. It was up to, then, the two front fours to decide the game and it was David Silva who came up with the clincher, causing anarchy to Arsenal’s defence.

Pass masters: Both teams’ main threat came from clever passes, Sergio Agüero in particular making shallow runs to beat Arsenal’s defence. *NB: We couldn’t produce an image better than The Guardian’s to illustrate the article so we stole their’s instead. All royalties will be paid to the trustees of the media group in due course. When we actually make some money from this site. If we do. Actually, we lose more money than we make.

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Aaron Ramsey has been central to Arsenal’s progress

Speaking just after Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in October, Aaron Ramsey acknowledged he can – or rather, must – get better. “I have produced some good performances so far and maybe just need to be a bit more consistent throughout games,” he said. This was after a North-London Derby in which he came under a lot of flak despite scoring the equaliser for Arsenal. One of the criticisms was that his passing was unnecessarily ambitious – an absurd argument it might be felt, considering this was Arsenal but Arsenal was also going through one of the roughest times in its near history. However, after the defeat, we wrote that the team “was still searching for their identity” but since then, they have gone on an eight-game unbeaten run in the league.

Aaron Ramsey’s role in that sequence has been largely unheralded. It’s not that he hasn’t been pivotal – Mikel Arteta and Alex Song have been more so in the middle – and he’s made important contributions. A clever dink to find Gervinho in the 5-3 win over Chelsea capped off a brilliant performance after which Michael Cox of ZonalMarking.net hailed Ramsey as a better prospect than Jack Wilshere. He’s Wenger’s go-to man as well, usually tasked with tactical briefs before the match or at half-time with the main objective of taking the game “by the scruff of the neck.” The first signs of that were against Bolton Wanderers when he was pushed higher more closely resembling the formation to a 4-2-3-1 shape as Wenger sought to take advantage of Ramsey’s energy; the Welshman covers the most amount of ground in the Premier League. The same tactic was deployed against Tottenham, where he scored his first goal and the other time against Marseilles where he got his second. Perhaps that’s natural to give instructions to a young player as Ramsey as older heads need less guidance but once again it highlights the detail of the role he is playing.

In recent games, Aaron Ramsey has been pushed higher from the start of the match and there might be a few reasons for that. Perhaps, Arsenal have gotten over their fears at the start of the season and are more confident that they can remain secure for the majority of the match. Essentially though, this was perhaps Wenger’s preferred set-up, having one of the midfielders in a three push up further forward so the formation can flit in-and-out of a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. With Ramsey, they can win the ball higher as he did in the lead up to Arsenal’s winner at Norwich City. It’s a tactical role and that’s likely to be the case against Manchester City. It’s not exactly the “free” role that Cesc Fábregas played last season but it has some similarities. Ramsey’s through passing has progressively gotten better and not just making five assists in all competitions, he also has five pre-assist (as in the pass just before the actual assist). Ramsey also often presses higher than Robin van Persie and is the first to back him up. His brief, at many times, is to mark the first-passer in midfielder (he did so up against Luka Modric) and against Manchester City, that is likely to be the in-form Gareth Barry. But in a battle of two 4-2-3-1’s, it’d be movement that will be key and that’s where Aaron Ramsey’s drive might be crucial.

Because neither side is likely to play with recognised full-backs – or at least on the correct side (although Micah Richards, if fit, will be a huge threat) – therefore the game will probably be split into two obvious defensive/attacking splits. The four Arsenal defenders will mark and follow the four City attackers while Ramsey just might be the one who finds a bit of space. Knowing the full-backs won’t provide the same attacking thrust as Andre Santos and Carl Jenkinson did earlier this season, Wenger might feel he can afford to take the risk and commit an extra body forward because he’ll have enough back anyway. Such highlights the trust Wenger’s has in Aaron Ramsey and the confidence that he can deliver in the biggest game this season.

Predicted line-ups

Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny – Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Arteta, Song, Ramsey – Walcott, Gervinho, Van Persie.
Subs: Almunia, Rosicky, Arshavin, Frimpong, Chamakh, Benayoun, Miquel.

Man City (4-2-2-2): Hart – Richards, Lescott, Kompany, Zabaleta – Toure Yaya, Barry – Silva, Milner – Aguero, Balotelli. Subs: Pantilimon, Dzeko, Johnson, Savic, Nasri, Toure, De Jong.

Manchester City set their stall out to frustrate Arsenal

Arsenal 0-0 Manchester City

Manchester City may have been content to come to the Emirates and play for the draw but for owners Abu Dhabi United Group, there will come a time when they reach a crossroads between results and aesthetics. It is perhaps too premature in their investment to demand City play like Arsenal so, in the current time line, it is expected that their profile-driven transfer policy to bring in the flair. But if sugar-daddy ownerships of the past are anything to go by, it will be their long-term objective to see the kind of football played by Arsenal last night albeit at the conclusion of a different result than the 0-0 produced here.

As Barcelona has shown, and especially if they continue to raise the bar as they have in recent seasons, the establishment of a good youth system as Arsenal have now, offers the best chance of free-flowing, attacking football. It is a point Johan Cruyff stressed in 2005 when watching an Champions League match between Arsenal and Ajax which he blamed the quality on show on the youth structure on both sides. “A very poor game,” said Cruyff of the encounter which The Gunners at 2-1. “Both teams had some injuries but even so, there was a lot of poor play, a lot of poor technique. I think the difficulties go back to the youth development systems. If you have a good youth development system, then it is obvious first team will one day be good too. It’s not hard to get things right; all that is required is a lot of hard work.”

As we all know, back in 2005, Arsenal were capable of producing kaleidoscopic football of the highest quality, particularly in the league, but had difficulties imposing their style in Europe. There was no such trouble asserting themselves here against Manchester City, who under Roberto Mancini play with a typically continental caution, showing the level they still need to aspire to. Arsenal’s sheer artistry alone, at times, forced The Blues on the backfoot and they should have been three up when the whistle sounded for half-time.

Arsenal dominant but fail to capitalise from transitions

Arsène Wenger’s side looked particularly dangerous on transitions and in the first period, it was the key to their dominance. All aspects of their strategic defending fell into place and that stopped City from having any joy from the game. The midfield and attack forced Kolo Toure and Vincent Kompany to try and build from the back but never allowed them to make the pass through to the midfield. The first line of pressure created a barrier which Manchester City were on the whole unable to penetrate. If they did get through, however, the Arsenal defence were quick to squeeze the space and tried to win the ball back quickly. Carlos Tevez ploughed a lone furrow and got no purchase out of Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny.

Tactically, this was a game where space was a premium and it needed a side to take advantage if the space was afforded. Arsenal were left to rue their misses in the first-half because there was a feeling if a goal was scored, it would open up the floodgates against an uninspiring City side without David Silva. Jack Wilshere’s drive looked a good medium to break down the sea of sky blue shirts in front of the penalty box and indeed, he may have felt he could have done better with either one of his chances which Joe Hart saved and he put wide respectively.

The two 4-2-3-1′s ultimately meant marking duties were very obvious and the late runs across or through the defence was needed to catch the defenders out. Robin van Persie played very high up the pitch and tried to roam across the back-line – a clever idea – but needed the support of runs in his place. Too much of Arsenal’s play was in front and that made it a bit too easy for Manchester City to grow accustomed to as the match wore on. “When you play against Arsenal they are very dangerous with their passing and movement from around 18 yards out and they can hurt you,” said goalkeeper Joe Hart. “We kept a good line and were disciplined and they were ultimately forced to start shooting from distance which is a credit to the lads in front of me.” Centre-back Kompany concurred: “The first 15 minutes was the hardest. We had to dig in, and it was really hard at times. But the longer the game went on, the more comfortable we became defensively.”

With Samir Nasri on the left, the Frenchman was able to get more involved with play centrally and he linked-up with Cesc Fabregas numerously. However, by switching him to the left, Arsenal lost his ability to get behind which he used to great effect in games against Tottenham and Fulham starting from the right. Theo Walcott tried but because of City’s flat defence, found himself with more space if he stuck out wide. That was fine with City because orthodox meant predictability and that’s more easier to defend. Essentially, Arsenal needed a way to drag the defenders out. Van Persie worked hard and his movement would have been best rewarded if his teammates were able to make diagonal runs inside. That was what Wenger tried to bring with Nicklas Bendtner’s introduction on the left but it was ultimately flawed. With the clock running down, The Gunners needed as much of the ball in the box as possible and the fact that they didn’t try a direct threat with Walcott on before taking him off, baffled some of the home fans. Andrey Arshavin’s flicks and tricks only attracted groans from the Emirates support.

It should not be underestimated how difficult breaking down a team with ten men behind the ball is and for that, Arsenal should be commended. The way City were structured drew boos at the final whistle but for years starved of glory, City fans don’t care otherwise. Abu Dhabi United Group may be willing to accept that with Mancini in the short-to-medium term, as they seek to attain results and establish themselves as a big club in the same way which they felt they couldn’t in the carefree manner under Mark Hughes. Indeed, there are similar situations all over the Premier League as teams look to corroborate their on-field demeanour with a solid structure. The paternal-like figure of Alan Pardew seems to indicate so at Newcastle against the meek Chris Houghton and the five-year contract allows Mike Ashley to restart what he couldn’t when he took over the club. Aston Villa have hired Gérard Houllier, someone more used to understanding and accepting the technical demands Martin O’Neill. The situation at Blackburn, however, is ill-advised – and that’s not just a pun indirectly attacking the use of agents in the decision-making process.

If Manchester City want to play like Arsenal, they may find the best way is organically, through establishing and cultivating a strong youth system, as opposed to buying out the world’s top footballing talent. As it was, they signalled their intentions by setting their stall out at the Emirates – and succeeding in stopping The Gunners from scoring.