Arsenal 2-1 Olympiacos: Victory more comfortable than the media suggests

Everything is big in football these days. When things are going badly, teams are invariably more than just in trouble; they’re in a “crisis. It’s the position where Arsenal are perpetually at and listening to the commentary before, during and after the game read like a funeral concession. Except that it wasn’t that bad – it was good actually – as Arsenal overcame a nervous period after taking a two-goal lead and in the end, the result was more comfortable than the obituaries in the morning papers read.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s assured début was a brief distraction from The Gunners’ supposed woes, The Independent reporting; “Arsenal’s young Ox in the box masks familiar defensive lapses.” Certainly there was a brief aberration after Chamberlain and Santos had given them a great start but Arsenal, starting without at least ten key players, showed resilience to ride through Olympiacos’ increased pressure. In the second-half, without exactly closing the game out, they simply defended by passing their opponents into submission. It was a valuable lesson before the North-London derby on Sunday because Arsenal will have to show more control against Tottenham and in the second-half, they looked as if they had learned. Here are some thoughts on the 2-1 win over Olympiacos:

1. The ball is Arsenal’s best friend; use it.

Arsenal started the game clinically, scoring with their first two shots and while the rest of the half yielded two more attempts and ended with Olympiacos dominating, the first twenty minutes showed where their strengths lie – and they must do it better, more often. They simply passed the ball better, Tomáš Rosický particularly involved and linking play well early on and it was a good way of easing Chamberlain into the game. Keeping the ball is a form of defence and the fact that they did that so well – perhaps, without lacking the penetration – laid the foundations for the early domination. Granted Olympiacos sat off and only started causing Arsenal problems when they started pressing higher up the pitch but having options when on the ball, allows Arsenal to alleviate any such weaknesses. When Olympiakos pressed, The Gunners tried to push up in the midfield to negate those attempts. It didn’t work and it exposed Emmanuel Frimpong so in the second-half and parts in the first, they dropped Mikel Arteta deeper and that’s when Arsenal looked more comfortable.

When Arteta signed, Arséne Wenger said he gives the team “technical security” and indeed, what his composure on the ball gives to the team is noticeable. Ball retention has always been Arsenal’s strength and in recent seasons, they’ve tried to sacrifice that a bit in favour of more dynamism but how they keep it will decide Arsenal’s season rather than without.

“I think you have to give credit to our defence for keeping the result at 2-1 because they did put pressure on us,” said Wojciech Szczęsny to Sky Sports. “It was a great defensive performance in the second half. We did very well. I think we lost the ball too many times in the middle of the park and that created some problems and they looked dangerous on the break.

“We won the first half, we were 2-1 up, it was all about keeping the result that way and we managed to do that. I think we knew what we had to do. We had to keep the ball as long as we can. I thought we looked the better side in the second half and deserved the win.”

2. The official OX-STED Report on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

The young boy from Southampton Academy was schooled well, showing particular excellence in geometry with well-timed diagonal runs. “He can go inside, he can go outside” was one of his teacher’s, Pat Rice, comments from last night and with a bit of pace also, he has the ingredients to become a high-achieving student. The advantage of being home-tutored was also on display, oozing with maturity on the ball and neat dribbling in tight spaces somewhat reminiscent of his father. His head-teacher, Arséne Wenger, feels Chamberlain has the ability to become more involved and play centrally and allied with a good mix of dynamism and incision, he certainly offers something different to Arsenal’s attack. With slight slackness from Andrey Arshavin on the other side, he had to carry some of the slack from his under-performing class-mate and with the regionals coming up on Sunday, is surely a solid bet to start.

Overall Evaluation of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s debut in the Champions League: Outstanding

(For those who are still a bit confused, OX-STED is a play on words of OFSTED, the official regulators for the standards in education in England. They regularly carry out inspections of schools and at the end of it, compile a report of their performance. This is one of Oxlade-Chamberlain).

3. Collective defending problems still persist

It’s hard not to talk about an Arsenal performance without mention of their defensive game; it seemingly comes naturally. And indeed, it seemed as if it was almost an agenda for the broadcasters to dramatise any chance that Arsenal conceded. There are problems but it remains collective rather than a fault of the back-four who, it must be said, performed well considering their relative unfamiliarity with each other. Alex Song, in particular stood out with his reading of play and calmness while Andre Santos has also adapted well.

Ernesto Valverde tried to exploit Arsenal’s uncertainties in their zonal-marking from set-pieces and that’s where their goal and their other best chance came from. For their first corner, Ibagaza drilled one cross to the edge of the box as Arsenal were busy getting into position at the edge of their six-yard box. As a result, Orbaiz was allowed a short unmarked and in the ensuing scramble, Arteta blocked brilliantly off the line. Ibagaza later tried two short corners, one successful in causing mayhem in the box if nothing else and the other resulting in a goal. Once again, Arsenal allowed a run into the box unmarked and David Fuster headed accurately in. It seems the main benefit of zonal-marking, which was to allow Arsenal to concentrate better on attacking the ball rather than the distractions of marking, is slightly working against them. Now they are more preoccupied with getting correctly into position and that gives opponents an advantage.

The second collective issue that reared it’s head against Olympiacos is the vulnerabilities Arsenal have when they lose the ball. The Greek side tried to take advantage whenever Arsenal lost the ball and particularly benefited from getting shots from around the edge of the box. Like Barcelona, as the Rubin Kazan boss identified when they faced them two years ago, Arsenal’s propensity to push men forward leaves them exposed in front of the back four. From transitions, if teams can commit men forward and make those “Frank Lampard” runs, it gives them an area of opportunity because Arteta and Rosicky are unable to get back quick enough, . Thankfully, Arsenal weren’t punished but it’s always been a problem for them and certainly, Arteta’s presence alongside the holder does give the team more security this season. On the other hand, Arsenal pressed better and it seems watching from a higher vantage point does have it’s benefits. Wenger admitted before the match that from up in the stands “you can detect moments of weakness and bad positioning. It is good for working out coordination in your lines.” The switch back to the 4-2-3-1 seems like an answer to that.


How Arsenal have been shaping up for 2011/12

Midfield rotation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strikers on the wings

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

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

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

Set-piece configurations

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

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

Relaxed pressing

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

Kieran Gibbs adds a new dimension

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

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

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

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

Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona (First Leg)

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal’s strategic defending

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

How do you stop Lionel Messi?

Even the most extensive database on earth can find no solution. Try typing into Google, “How to stop Messi” and while it produces 2,660,000 search results, none come anywhere close to answering the million pound question. When Arsenal faced Barcelona in the Champions League last season, they resisted the calls to treat Lionel Messi with special dispensation but instead, they considered him the same as everyone else and the results were disastrous. Messi was instrumental in the first leg as Arsène Wenger’s side survived an onslaught in the first twenty minutes but in the second leg at Camp Nou, delivered what he so promised at the Emirates as he ran amok to complete a devastating  twenty-one minute hat-trick.

He’s not omnipotent although his mother tells us he is just angelic. Nor is he a mutant although his minute stature is because of a hormone defect he had as a youngster which enables humans to grow. And he certainly isn’t a holographic character, which, essentially some have described him as. (Theo Walcott and Arsène Wenger, “Messi’s like a PlayStation”). He is simply a human being. An extraordinary one at that, however, and one so ahead of his peers at this current moment that there was no doubt he was to be crowned FIFA’s world player of the year despite Xavi’s most mesmeric efforts. This season, Messi has scored an amazing 40 goals in 34 games, a feat which Cristiano Ronaldo is doing his darnest to try and make look as insignificant as possible. (Currently Ronaldo has 34 goals in 36 games and the rivalry should prove to be the most defining of a generation since Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbaur).

When Arsenal faces Barcelona in Wednesday’s clash at The Emirates, the immediate question will be whether or not they should man-mark Messi and the answer will almost certainly be “no.” Wenger will put faith in his team’s ability to squeeze Messi out of the game through their improving structural pressing. It is tactic that is to be admired and it is only one of the two ways to approach Barcelona.

Man marking

The supposed problem with marking Lionel Messi is that invariably you neglect the other individuals that make Barcelona brilliant. And there are a lot of those. But it is also a risk that it may be worth taking as it strips Pep Guardiola’s side of their most spontaneous player and that is more easier, in theory, to defend against. Taking Messi out of the game, some argue, leaves you essentially facing Spain, a weak argument perhaps given that there are massive structural differences not to mention changes in personnel but it serves to highlight the dynamism Messi gives. Wenger was virtually implying that very point in the 4-1 defeat last season although he knew that if he did state it pointedly, questions will be fired back at why he didn’t detail a man to follow the Argentinian. But can you really mark Messi out of a game because his impact goes beyond what he does on the ball? Sticking close to him creates space elsewhere for others to exploit and also leaves you with one man short in another area of the pitch while his movement is always proactive, always finding ways to be useful in one way or another. Chelsea did that successfully in 2009 as Jose Bosingwa followed him from left-back but it was with an ultra-defensive approach Arsenal is not willing to take.

That was two years ago and it shows just how far tactically Barcelona have come to stop such instances occurring again. Messi has now almost exclusively played a free role, last season behind the forward, this season as the central forward. If Arsenal have plans for any such individuals, positioning will almost always complicate them.

On the right

With Barcelona’s formation, there is bound to be some interchangeability with Messi swapping with Pedro at some point in the game, and the right-winger shifting into David Villa’s position as he takes up the striking role. On the right, Messi will look to drift infield by initially starting on the right. Dani Alves will bomb forward regardless, nevertheless, his central tendencies will open up space for the Brazilian right-back. Barcelona’s keep ball means there is a constant movement of players and while it would seem like Messi is drifting into a congested area, it will certainly make space for someone else. If anything, it will give Barcelona a spare man centrally – a tactic Chelsea used well in their 2-0 win over Arsenal earlier this season as Florent Malouda occupied Alex Song, affording Ashley Cole the space to get forward. Arsenal’s wide men will almost certainly have to track back but there is still much onus on Song and Jack Wilshere to shuffle right and left. One can envisage a similar scenario for the pair to contend with while even moving centrally alerts the two centre-backs of a player entering their zone and one will at some point have to cover him.


<figure 1>1.Messi cuts in from a right-wing position therefore creating the space for Alves to run into. 2. By occupying his place in the centre it gives Barca a man advantage but also engages either the full-back to push out of position, a centre-back to push out or a midfielder to watch him. If Messi plays on the rihjt, it’s not an undesirable position because it means Arsenal can double up and squeeze him out the gmae but here he tries to ensure a man advantage. 3. The space that Koscielny vacates is spotted by Villa who looks to make a darting run behind.

False nine

Messi, however, is likely to play as a false nine. It is a tactical trend which Arsenal have been at the forefront in recent times and with Robin van Persie being able to combine dropping off with the timing of runs off the shoulder of the defender, have a striker for Barcelona to worry about. Nevertheless, it’s Messi which is the focus and his deployment in the position has scratched many-a-heads. Opposition are unsure of whether to stick tight or stay back and at most times, are left to do neither. Central defenders hate marking space, at that is particularly true of Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny, who prefer to win the ball back quickly. As they don’t fancy marking space, they invariably push up and that creates space behind. With Barcelona using two wide forwards, Pedro and Villa will look to take advantage, not to mention the effervescent Alves and the wily thinking of Xavi.

As mentioned, Koscielny and Djourou like to get tight, which at first seems tactical suicide, but if they do get it right, it could be a master stroke. The best option is still to play deep against a false nine and against Barcelona in general. They seldom look to do the orthodox even if their spectacular is made to look mightily easy. Inter did that last season in the most defensive of approaches although their first leg 3-1 win serves as a protocol. The kept their three strikers up the pitch and defended in a unit that shifted left and right (similar to Arsenal’s). But Barcelona are not oblvious to the ploy of defending deep, so instead of looking  to play into opponents hands by playing an orthodox forward who will play as the same line as them, they look to drag the defenders out by playing with the space in front. Arsenal will have to patient as it will be the greatest test the youngsters have faced mentally.

There is another salient point and that is how Messi has adapted to the centre-forward position. It is not an inhibiting role although it puts him closer to defenders as it may have seemed for Wayne Rooney. He is still encouraged to find space but in a sense he’s liberated as he’s playing higher up and is more ambiguous than before.


<figure 2>1.Messi drops off into a  false nine position thereby committing one of the centre-backs to follow him. 2. The effect is two-fold on the defence. Djourou is then made to shuffle across to help cover the space and likewise is the right-back as he doesn’t want to create a too big a gap between he and Djourou. Either way, Villa looks to take advantage of the extra space by hugging the touchline or looking to get behind.

Arsenal pressing

Arsenal will stay true to their word and look to press up the pitch. It will be crucial, then to form an effective wall that frustrates Barcelona’s passers. Sergio Busquets is the best one touch passer in the world but Arsenal should not worry about him. Stopping Xavi and Andres Iniesta from getting to the supply line will be key. It may be more effective then, for Arsenal to drop Cesc Fabregas back to make a five man midfield rather than press as a 4-2-4 as they have this season. Last season at the Camp Nou, the tactic failed because The Gunners pressed with a 4-1-4-1, taking out the rest with one pass and exposing Denilson; this season, the adoption of the Dutch principles of through-marking should help Arsenal stay compact and squeeze the space. This will stop Messi because as Alves says and in some ways displayed by Argentina’s abject failure in the World Cup, it’s the team that must be stopped first. “I believe the secret to marking Messi is to not worry about marking him,” says Alves. “Because he doesn’t play alone and has a team by his side. That’s the key to marking Messi.”

Villarreal pressing in 1-1 draw last season. Pep Guardiola: “In the game, we were unable to score a decisive second goal. We struggled to get past Villarreal’s first line of pressure in the pitch and that made the match an end to end affair.”

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

Recent trends have sought to take advantage of uncertainties in marking as debate still persists on whether the best option is to mark men, zones or the ball.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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