Norwich 1-1 Arsenal: Injuries upset precariously balanced system

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“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”.

Wenger teams have always been distinguished by this trait but usually when going forward; for this team, it’s probably more a hallmark going backwards, in terms of how quick the defenders recover (and the back-four, apart from Mertesacker are rapid) and the distances they cover when the team loses the ball. In that regard, the two key players are Laurent Koscielny, who departed the game early with a groin injury, and Coquelin of course. They tend to bail Arsenal out a lot of times from average defending situations frankly, by being aggressive, winning the ball back quickly and playing on the front foot. That’s what Flamini tried to replicate in midfield but what Gabriel failed (though he tends to be good at that kind of reading of play) with the missed interception before Lewis Grabban finished for Norwich .

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.

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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.

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.

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Arsenal 0-2 West Ham: Positional indiscipline proves costly

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Arsenal 0-2 West Ham: Kouyate, Zarate

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.

Statszone

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.

Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Gunners have more firepower

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Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Giroud, Rosicky

In between two desperate lunging headers, there was calmness, as Olivier Giroud put to bed a nightmare week to send Arsenal on their way to a 2-0 victory over Everton. His goal was trademark Giroud: a dash to the near post before guiding the ball into the bottom far corner. His other key trait, his heading, can fluctuate wildly as from outside play, Arsenal rely on his aerial prowess heavily; however, in front of goal, desperation seems to kick-in, as if scoring them should be a norm for him. Still, his greatest ability is perhaps his determination, as Arsene Wenger alluded after the win; that he kept searching for the chance.

The whole team too needed to respond and they did, although this was probably a more promising step forward than the other “reactions” we have witnessed this season following setbacks.  Previously, the response has been for Arsenal to stand off and cede possession just to give a little solidity to their defensive game in that sense, the Monaco game was a bit of an aberration, where the Gunners totally dominated) and although here, Wenger said “we could do better with the ball”, The Gunners were more proactive in their approach without it. As such, the game was more or less even (possession 48%/52%): when one team attacked, the other tended to press early then drop back into a compact shape. As 7amkickoff noted on Arseblog News, tackles (11-12), territory (50.5% – 49.5%), crosses (26-24), corners (8-9), seem to corroborate that but Arsenal were far more purposeful in the attacking third.

Arsenal try to press, centre-backs follow Lukaku

The early period, between 15-20 minutes, was dominated by Everton. Perhaps that was to be expected because Arsenal were always going to be a bit cautious after the 3-1 defeat to Monaco in midweek. On the other hand, Everton made it difficult for Arsenal to really gain a foothold in the match by being a bit risk-free themselves on the ball, stretching the pitch with the full-backs and looking to lure Arsenal out.

At times it worked, especially when they bypassed Arsenal on the flanks and had The Gunners forward players turned. It probably hints at Arsenal’s weakness as much as Everton’s strength when they push Seamus Coleman and Luke Garbutt forward because Arsenal’s press is not entirely co-ordinated.

It’s not unusual to see the forward players – namely Alexis Sanchez – gesticulate and cajole their team-mates to push up the pitch though no-one follows, or if they do, they usually do it with a brief burst of intensity. Indeed, Alexis’s pressing should be the signal for Arsenal to up their intensity; instead as he goes by himself, it often shows up the rest of the side, or has the unwanted effect of exposing the midfield. That’s the issue with Arsenal: there doesn’t seem to be clear understanding between the team on when to move up the pitch together, or what the triggers are to really up their intensity. Against Everton, that natural cautiousness meant Arsenal were able to retain a compact shape and cut out the passing lanes to Lukaku. Still, there were moments when the body twitched, and in that sense, it’s a tortuously fascinating experience to watch Arsenal grapple with the concepts of moving and reacting as a team together, as if Wenger asked them to analyse ten Salvador Dali paintings before sending them out on the pitch.

Thankfully against Everton the shape was more promising and the line just the right height not to allow Romelu Lukaku the chance to run behind. Still, Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny were diligent in their efforts to mark Lukaku, often following the striker across the pitch. It’s undoubted that having the two centre-backs in the backline aids Arsenal’s pressing strategy, to get the team up the pitch, because both players love to intercept and win the ball back early. In Wenger’s pressing game, whole team essentially has to man-mark and get tight, and Gabriel and Koscielny’s style might just be the platform to transform Arsenal into a better pressing outlet.

Ozil, Cazorla central to the way Arsenal create chances

Once Arsenal settled, the game proved to be an intriguing, if not entirely entertaining, example of how two sides noted for their treatment of the ball, can be so different. What the match showed is that possession football is diverse – as diverse as the game itself (as everybody passes the ball) – and that there is no such thing as a single, homogeneous style of build-up play.

Arsenal’s style is mainly position-based, and as such, it’s easy to identify the typical passing lanes. The centre-backs pick up the ball and look to feed one of the midfielders, in this case Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla (though neither is as adept in deep positions as the absent Mikel Arteta. Coquelin is improving, though he’s far from a prober, rather a player who uses his first touch to open up passing lanes), who in turn has the option of passing it to a myriad of attacking players who have committed forward in front of him. With this approach, Arsenal look to have as much of the play in the opponents half as possible and it’s up to the players, based on a know-how accumulated over time and matches, to find solutions.

Everton on the other hand, have the majority of their play at the back and are happy for it. Instead, they look to work space patiently by stretching the pitch as wide as possible in the hope that eventually, this will create a bit of space for one of the midfielders in the 4-3-3 to find a killer pass.

In this game, Arsenal were much better equipped, and with the attacking quality they have, looked to get them combining as often as possible quickly in tight spaces. The way Arsenal do this is by creating a numerical advantage on one part of the pitch by committing an extra man to the build up.* Naturally that suits Ozil, who loves to drift into the channels, though with Alexis going the other way, found it more fruitful to move to the left. Kieran Gibbs would then come haring down the touchline to offer an outlet to play a penetrative pass forward, or wait for Santi Cazorla who would push forward to create an extra man. The aim is to create numerical advantage through overloads; situations of 3v2, 2v1, or 4v3, particularly in tight spaces and then suddenly break through with a incisive pass or late run.

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There was was a bit of apprehension about Arsenal’s play against Everton that meant they didn’t quite profit from these moments as they might have, (because those moments against Monaco were when Arsenal over-committed) though the best moments that wasn’t goals featured such build-up. Hector Bellerin’s blocked chance halfway through the first half and two Santi Cazorla long range efforts a few such examples. In the end, Arsenal showed the special quality that they have above Everton to make the difference; Olivier Giroud’s expert finish and then Ozil’s fantastic cutback to find Rosicky which sealed the win.

*
Mikel Arteta explains how Arsene Wenger cultivate moves like this in a feature for Four FourTwo Performance:

“At Arsenal, we do a lot of exercises where you have to play through the mannequins, but you can use cones. This is a great drill because it’s real; you’re moving and finding the holes to play the diagonal pass, just like in a match.

“The drill starts with player one passing the ball through two mannequins to player two, who with one touch steps through the next two mannequins. He then passes the ball to player three on the outside. Player three returns the pass and begins his run around the three mannequins, forming a triangle

“Playing one-touch football, player two and three exchange passes between mannequins one, two and three. Once player three has run past mannequin three he plays the ball back to player two and sprints around mannequins four and five.

“Receiving the pass, player two takes one touch through the mannequin gate and plays a diagonal pass to player three as he runs past mannequin five.

“The process repeats itself, with each player swapping positions in a clockwise direction. This drill will help you during a game when out to create two versus one situations against a defender.

“It’s also great for finding the spare man. Think of player two as a midfielder and player three as a full back or winger on the overlap.”

Arsenal gunned down in derby stand-off

Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Arsenal

There is a fantastic conversation, in Issue Four of The Blizzard, between Didier Deschamps and Jean-Claude Suaudeau, where the former World Cup winner (and now France coach), mentions that in today’s game, there are “two zones of truth…if you’ve got a great keeper and a great striker, you’re not that far from victory.” Set against the backdrop of Barcelona’s impending Champions League triumph in 2011, a 3-1 win over Manchester United, Deschamps comments may have come about due to the helplessness one feels when facing the Catalan side. Naturally, Suaudeau, a former coach of Nantes and someone who is from the same philosophical bloodline as Arsene Wenger, disagreed. He said that “a game is won in midfield. Only the midfielders are able to find the right way to play. They are the animators. They are the inspiration. The more players of that kind you’ve got, the more you can hope to win in the long term.”

As it happened, he was proved right, as Manchester United were comprehensively outplayed in the final, suffocated by Barcelona’s asphyxiating press and expert ball manipulation.

Yet, after Arsenals 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday afternoon, it was hard not to side with Deschamps. Had Arsenal had a high-class finisher up front, perhaps The Gunners would have made more of their fleeting but mainly promising forays forward. And between the sticks, if David Ospina had exuded more confidence, perhaps he wouldn’t have meekly flapped at Moussa Dembele’s header before the ball fell to Harry Kane to equalise. At the end of the game, that’s the line Wenger chose to go with, saying that Arsenal gave “two cheap goals away”, the winner from Kane originating from an unchallenged cross from the left-wing.

However, that’s altogether too simplistic a way to explain the result, and conveniently absolves the team from what was a strange performance. Arsenal were out-passed by Spurs, which was not altogether a surprise considering that that’s been The Gunners’ tactic in the last few games: to sacrifice a bit of possession for the good of the team structure. Yet, it was the knock-on effect – what people described as “being out-fought” – that was the most galling aspect of the defeat.

Wenger hit the crux of the issue when he said that once Arsenal went ahead, they “thought too much about defending, and not enough about playing.” In other words, the gameplan which has broadly served them well recently, to stand-off, soak up pressure and keep opponents roughly at hands length, became self-pervading, such that when Arsenal got the ball, possession became almost an anomaly – unnaturally to the overall pattern of the game – and the players were almost dumbfounded with what to do with it. Indeed, they were often so far deep that they were unable to play the ball out, while Spurs’counter-press confounded the misery.

Loss of possession (through miscontrol/dispossession). Arsenal = red (mainly in own half), Spurs = blue (mainly in attack)
Loss of possession (through miscontrol/dispossession). Arsenal = red (mainly in own half), Spurs = blue (mainly in attack)

Key attacking players had off days; not least Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla, the midfielders who Suaudeau says set the tone of how you play. In the case of Cazorla, so mesmeric in Arsenal’s recent good form, was harassed each time he got the ball and not even his ambidexterity was able to get out of the swarm of white shirts that surrounded him. Ramsey was even more of a disappointment, either miscontrolling the ball or running into blind alleys. It didn’t help that there was very little structure when Arsenal got the ball, and because they were so deep, relied instead on impossibly quick combination play at the edge of their own to progress up the pitch. It’s no wonder that they resorted to playing long-balls to Olivier Giroud: – which, on another day would have been a perfectly good response to evading Spurs’ press (Ospina to Giroud, 14 times, was Arsenal’s most frequent passing combination). Instead, the French striker increasingly had to funnel deep for the ball and even when Arsenal found him, there was little strategy behind except rely on his muscularity, and hope that Danny Welbeck could neglect his defensive duties for a moment to get close to him. In those instances that he did, he looked dangerous, essentially creating the opening goal with his run, yet on other occasions, his narrow positioning allowed Danny Rose get forward unopposed.

With Arsenal losing so late, it’s understandable that some chose to assign defeat to two errors (though that explanation disregards everything that happened before – namely the pressure that Spurs put Arsenal under prior) and that Deschamps says the two most important players are the goalkeeper and the striker: there’s so much in between that is unknown. Especially considering the midfielders Arsenal had, it’s hard to understand how their considerable know-how didn’t inspire the team, and allow them to pass through Spurs’ first line of pressure. For some, you can pinpoint to Arsene Wenger laissez-faire coaching stylewhich compels the man on the ball to find solutions himself rather than through rigid instruction. For others, it was as simple as key players not “turning up.” That might be closer to the truth. As Wenger says, the way Arsenal play is fragile. “Our game is [about] psychology and the mental aspect. In the final part of the game when the result is not settled, it’s always very important.”

Against Manchester City, Arsenal were the underdogs with a poor record against the top sides, thus had nothing to lose. At Tottenham, the drop-off-and-let-them-have-the-ball strategy conflicted with their underlying philosophy and belief of being technically superior to most other sides. Cautiousness pervaded their whole play such that it becamethe approach. Santi Cazorla, who perhaps symbolises what Arsenal are about at the moment, was the first to be replaced, not necessarily because of his inability to find a team-mate, but mainly because he was far too passive in defence.  In that case, you might ask why Wenger didn’t ask his team to push up 10-15 metres up the pitch. The answer is probably that the team didn’t know how to because the pressure from Spurs was incessant.

The strategy off sitting-off and defend as a compact block in their own half is something which Wenger usually deploys in certain, difficult moments of the season, as he did last season against Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool – though Arsenal were battered in the final two games – and certainly, it’s a viable tactic with the right motivation. The Brazil 1970 team were one such team who were convinced to work as a collective and drop off “behind the line of the ball” as a 4-5-1 because coach, Mario Zagallo, said his “team was not characterised by strong marking.”Similarly you can say the same thing about Arsenal who brought in Welbeck for his industry while Francis Coquelin, in holding midfield, was one of the few players who stood out. In the end, however, Arsene Wenger paid for his team’s own callowness, an approached that tipped too close to defensive than Arsenal are used to.

Thoughts on Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal

“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.

Difference in possession philosophy defines Bayern Munich’s approach against Arsenal

Arsenal-FC-Bayern

– 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.”

Arsenal fall short of Dortmund test but can take plenty of positives

arsenal-dortmund-lewandowski

The tendency, when a team loses the game in the manner which Arsenal did, is to dissect the winning goal in such detail that nothing else prior to that really mattered. And in a sense in the Champions League, that’s right.

For large periods of the 2-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal dominated but were dealt a sucker punch when Dortmund broke quickly and scored when Robert Lewandowski arrived unmarked at the back-post. There were a series of flashpoints leading up to the goal, however, which were particularly influential; why Bacary Sagna had committed that far up the pitch; why Tomas Rosicky and Mesut Ozil only cantered back; and why Kieran Gibbs decided to get tight to the player in possession instead of holding his position as Arsenal were outnumbered. In the end, Arsenal might want to focus on the wider issues that contributed to the defeat, namely how tired they looked, especially as they played very well on the whole. But in the Champions League, the margins are thin, as Borussia Dortmund themselves found out two years ago when they crashed out of the group stages, that it’s imperative to take advantage of the good spells you have, and to stay firm when you’re on the back foot.

Former Bayern Munich goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, underpins perfectly what makes the Champions League different to the Premier League: “The Champions League can hardly be compared to the respective domestic leagues,” he said. “The tempo is higher, the teams play tactically smarter, mistakes are ruthlessly punished and the referees are more lenient. In the European game, you have to be well organised, wait for your chances and take them when they come.”

At the final whistle, Arsene Wenger was particularly hurt, saying that for the two goals (Aaron Ramsey was dispossessed for the first) Arsenal were “naïve” (in contrast, Jurgen Klopp praised the “maturity” of his team). However, the problem of naivety has been levelled at The Gunners for a while, and indeed, except for the run in 2006 when they reached the final, Arsenal haven’t altered their approach much for the European stage and they’ve been punished. Could defeat be a turning point?

To be fair, Wenger’s side have shown more awareness recently and they started the game in cautious fashion – although perhaps overly so. They were unable to enforce the same intensity on the game as they did in the early minutes when they defeated Napoli 2-0. Instead, they dropped back, looked to get into shape and build a platform from there. In short, it was the perfect defensive strategy for Europe. But on the flip-side, Arsenal were guilty of being too passive when they allowed Dortmund to open the scoring. Mikel Arteta intercepted the pass, played it to Ramsey who, shorn of options, and the best option really was to punt the ball away as Arsenal were so deep, was dispossessed. Again, you can level at Arsenal that they were a bit naïve because Dortmund come to life when they force opponents back. When Ramsey received the ball, Klopp pressed the button from the stand to activate Dortmund’s gegenpressing and in an instant; he was surrounded by three yellow shirts. Marco Reus stole the ball away, Lewandowski passed it to Henrikh Mkhtarian, and the Armenian finished.

Managing Moments: The minutes where the match was won.  Courtesy of UEFA.com. Click to enlarge.
Managing Moments: The minutes where the match was won.  Courtesy of UEFA.com. Click to enlarge.

It took a while for Arsenal to get back into the game, and when they did, they moved the ball magnificently. Initially, they found it hard as Dortmund got tight to the midfield and denied them space. Passes went astray: Jack Wilshere had a pass success rate of 50% from 30 passes. But then again, it was players like Wilshere who helped Arsenal negate the early press, by gliding past with skill. It was ironic that Arsenal conceded the opener when Ramsey was dispossessed because Arsenal’s close-control was outstanding and indeed, it was Ramsey’s sidestep away from Sven Bender which opened the space for Bacary Sagna, and his cross fortunately found it’s way for Olivier Giroud to score.

Increasingly, the most space was to be found out wide because of the narrowness of both midfields. Arsenal played a 4-2-3-1 without wingers and similarly, Dortmund’s front four prefer to interchange. That meant Mesut Ozil was unable to influence, and although he likes to drift to the flanks, it showed how successful Dortmund’s tactic was that they able to shepherd him wide at every opportunity. “They are difficult to break down,” said Wilshere. “They have good team shape. We wanted to get Mesut [Özil] on the ball but they made it difficult for us.”

Arsenal were stronger in the second-half and as they sensed they had the ascendancy, tried to increase the tempo. Rosicky, on a yellow card, dropped back in midfield to play a more conservative role, helping Arsenal distribute the ball better (as in the first-half, he was often penalised for over-zealous tracking back) while Ramsey pushed higher to press Dortmund. But, they only created one real chance when Santi Cazorla hit the crossbar after a flowing move and were later punished by Lewandowski for over-committing. (The importance of Theo Walcott is obvious when Arsenal have days like this; lots of good approach play but need something else, someone to make runs behind, to break from the neat and intricate).

Indeed, the second-half raises an interesting question, one which Wenger might have to find a solution to if his side are to succeed in Europe: if creating chances is the hardest thing to do in football, perhaps instead of pushing too much (too early) when in control, maybe it’s better to assert the dominance (and then push towards the end)?

Arsenal’s style has always been a bit gung-ho, although the signs are they are beginning to add greater game intelligence to their game and learning how to “manage moments”. Had Mathieu Flamini not been concussed, he surely would have started, given Arsenal the protection they sorely needed. Mikel Arteta did a fantastic job – making 11 tackles – but there’s no doubt Arsenal missed Flamini’s guided hustle in front of the back four.

Finally, there was another question raised about Arteta’s passing; that it was too ponderous, too safe. That’s a little unfair but certainly; he could do a little more to make Arsenal’s passing game quicker. That was mostly down to his positioning as he’s always looking to move up the pitch to give space to the centre-backs in the build up, when perhaps he should be doing more to create better passing lanes for himself. What that entails is moving wider to pick up the ball or occasionally drop in between the centre-backs. Flamini’s passing is often under-appreciated but one thing he does well is to always move into the channels to create better angles to receive the pass. The double-pivot is probably Wenger’s preferred option in Europe – and that means Aaron Ramsey will have to miss out playing in his favoured position. However, it might be the right choice to allow Arsenal to prodress in Europe.