Arsenal 0-2 West Ham: Positional indiscipline proves costly

arsenal whufc

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.

Advertisements

Wing-wizards prove the difference for Arsenal against Blackburn Rovers

The writing was on the wall for Blackburn Rovers even before Gaël Givet’s red card effectively ended the contest for them – as early as the first minute in fact. Theo Walcott found it too easy to creep behind the defence and receiving Francis Coquelin’s pass, he was able to slide in a cross for Robin van Persie to score. This is what happens when everything falls into place for Arsenal and despite the brief aberration that was Morten Gamst-Pedersen’s equaliser, this was as perfect as Arsenal have played this season. Perhaps it’s not possible to read to much into a defeat of the league’s worst defence; the kind of beleaguered opponents that Arsenal thrive upon and should dismantle given their style. But they certainly did just that anyway.

For Arsène Wenger, it was the perfect response to their profligacy previously against Bolton Wanderers and given that the team’s game is based on confidence, Arsenal should take every positive from the 7-1 win. However, there was another part of this win which would provide Wenger with every inch of satisfaction and it was the contribution of the wide men.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott were superb, stretching the play before cutting into Blackburn like a pair of flying daggers. They played slightly differing roles, giving Arsenal a balance they had before lacked. Oxlade-Chamberlain, on the left, showed dexterous footwork allied with the ability to see the penetrative pass. Walcott, though, prefers to kill through subtle movement, darting off the right flank to deliver decisive passes. Indeed, the wide area has been a problem position for Arsenal in that it hasn’t delivered what they’ve wanted. Gervinho has got into great positions before inexplicably suffering from frequent bouts of nervousness; Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fearlessness is a marked contrast. And that Arsenal’s play has become more vertical, it’s forced Walcott into a more orthodox winger role. At least recently, Arsenal have shown visible steps to improve their ball retention. Here though, everything fitted into place as Walcott delivered three assists and he was rampant in creating for chances, evidently boosted by the presence of an overlapping full-back. Meanwhile Chamberlain – some regard as the player Walcott was supposed to be – showed his all-roundedness by scoring two goals, some fantastic footwork and a great understanding already with Robin van Persie.

It might be notable that the terminology Wenger uses to describe the system fluctuates, often in the same press conference, sometimes as the team playing with three “strikers” or “wingers”, highlighting the dual role. If the creative part of the game has slotted into place, the goalscoring hasn’t. Saturday – or rather, Wednesday night following the 0-0 draw with Bolton – might be the turning point. “[Sharing the goals around] was a problem I faced in all the press conferences at the start of the season,” said Wenger. “If he doesn’t score, who scores, you know? It was right, I couldn’t deny that. But I always felt that if you look at our numbers the trio of Gervinho, Walcott and Van Persie were involved in all the goals so they are more the providers because we play with two wingers. But the wingers can score as well, like today. It is something that is needed and we need some more goals from midfield as well.”

If there’s one affect the ideological slant has had on Arsenal’s play, it’s been their ability to keep the ball for sustained periods but here they had a lot of the play in the opponent’s half. That gave a great platform for the front three to revel and by keeping those wide players high up the pitch, it gave the midfielders a constant outlet behind.  Blackburn manager, Steve Kean, explains: “It is very very difficult to affect the game against a side like Arsenal, they keep possession really well, they kept their wide players wide all game and that made it difficult for us.”

Arsenal-v-Blackbrun

Arsenal 2-1 Bolton: Arsenal’s second typified the effectiveness of the team’s game plan. By keeping two wingers up the pitch, Blackburn’s full-backs were forced to play narrow. But, with Arsenal keeping the ball so well and creating space by dragging defenders around, they were able to get behind with alarming frequency. Song was superb in aiding that part of the game, often threading key through-balls to the forwards.

But while it might have been a game where everything went their way, it wasn’t the case for Tomáš Rosický who looked visibly frustrated at some of the things he tried to pull off. A kicked bottle summed his mood as his shot at 6-1 was deflected wide. It wasn’t a bad performance by the Czech; he showed the fluidity he brings to the side and was brilliant as Arsenal responded to Blackburn’s equaliser. In fact, Rosický’s role was a great “decoy” role as he roamed across the pitch to create space for his team-mates. Indeed, in the lead up to Arsenal third, Rosický’s part was understating as he was felled playing a quick one-touch pass for van Persie to free Oxlade-Chamberlain to score. Perhaps a bit of his anxiety came from seeing his other attacking peers make a direct contribution to the goals and sensing that extra penetration may set him apart from his rival in the position, Aaron Ramsey. Nevertheless, in midfield, Mikel Arteta and Alex Song once again set the platform and all game, they instigated and probed. Song, in particular, gives Arsenal a drive that they have missed following the injuries to Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby but his forte has since becoming his ability to play the ball round the corner as it is, the attack-braking tackles. Below the chalkboard shows how often he tried the pass behind, failing on four occasions but finding his man with a through-ball, three times (which is actually a large amount by any footballer).

Alex Song passes

On song – and with Alex Song’s passes – Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott can be a formidable foil for Robin van Persie who got his 22nd league goal with a hat-trick. He took home the match ball but the day belonged to Arsenal’s wing-wizards as they put The Emirates in a spell with their performance. It’s as David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, told SI.com: “the two wingers are creating waves while Van Persie dances and plays in the splashes that they make.”

Five points on Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United

chambo-v-United

The best play of the encounter was a defensive tackle but it’d go almost untalked about after the melodrama which preceded Manchester United’s equaliser. Just after he had created the equaliser, the lively Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was taken off and replaced by Andrey Arshavin. Cue the Emirates crowd to collectively spit out their dummies and after Danny Welbeck had won the game for Manchester United, the substitution took symbolic value as the Arsenal team was jeered off at the end. However, that probably wasn’t the most pivotal substitution as almost straight after, Sir Alex Ferguson reacted and sent on Park Ji-Sung to replace Rafael. Antonio Valencia shifted to right-back and his driving run was more difficult to deal with with more space. The Ecuadorian squeezed into the box, played a one-two before finding Welbeck to score the winner.

It’s not the first time Arsenal have conceded so quick after they had regained a foot-hold in the match; they did it only last week against Swansea City and the way The Gunners switched off momentarily was reminiscent of the defeat to Tottenham. The second-goal came from a quickly taken free-kick and Arsenal never quite organised themselves to deal with the overload United created on the left for the opener. Arsenal’s goal, though, was a sweeping move, perhaps highlighting just how Arsenal have changed and it all originated from a tackle. Laurent Koscielny’s brash certainty that he would return with the ball when others would have panicked one-on-one in the box with Rafael was outstanding; his tackle even better without losing balance and he capped it off by having the composure to find Tomas Rosicky. He played it to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chamberlain reversed passed to Robin van Persie and the Dutchman squeezed in at the far post. It was the classic break-away goal, from back to front in 16 seconds and actually originated from a counter of United’s own. Here are some observations from the game.

1. United profit from left-side bias

Arsenal actually started the better side and for twenty minutes, dominated possession. The rotation in the midfield was better than it had been in recent games with Rosicky checking his forward runs to stay disciplined to the left side of Alex Song (as Mikel Arteta might have done). It seemed part of this decision, as it is not Rosicky’s game to stay back, stemmed from Arsène Wenger’s preoccupation of not allowing Manchester United any space out wide. It worked for a while although more due to Arsenal’s keeping of the ball. But, they dropped off halfway through the half and United started to work space out wide. In particular, with Antonio Valencia stretching the pitch on the right, it opened up play on the left. Luis Nani threatened while Patrice Evra always provided good support but it was with Ryan Giggs helping out did United ultimately cause damage. Arsenal eventually stumbled on Theo Walcott to defend their right hand-side but with his goalscoring agenda and Arsenal themselves biased slightly to their left, United were able to overload that side for their first goal.

united-v-arsenal-times1

2. What do the central midfielders do?

The absence of full-backs to provide support and the three striker system puts the central midfielders in a precarious position. Is their duty primarily to create or to hold position? Of course, over the course of the game, it flits in-and-out but Arsenal looked cautious with what they did in the first while United looked confident and executed their functions quicker in comparison. In the second-half, they didn’t seem so inhibited by a contrast of instructions and pushed higher up the pitch as they naturally prefer.

One issue this season has been the split of roles between midfield and attack. Clearly, Wenger’s tactic is to leave dynamism part more to the front three – and in a sense the goalscoring too – while the midfield plays a supporting role. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s involvement in the build up from the left-hand side helped bridge that gap between attack and midfield as it is something two “natural” wingers do not give. And while Aaron Ramsey also provides a double function, Jack Wilshere’s drive in the centre has been greatly missed. (Ramsey’s graft has not come without pain; he has been dispossessed 68 times, followed by van Persie at 61 but it shows Ramsey is not necessarily playing as a midfielder but somewhere in between. Only Paris’ Nene has been dispossessed more in the Top 5 leagues in Europe. Via Whoscored.com)

“I agree we are a little bit less good than last year with possession of the ball,” said Wenger in the Daily Mail. “But it’s down to the structure of the team a little bit, because we play this year with two wingers who are real wingers. And, you know, we are as well a bit more vertical than last year and a little less possession [based].  When we played for a long period with Gervinho, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott we were dangerous, basically, always through our wings, but a little less in control possession wise.”

3. Arsenal push up in the second-half

At half-time in the Champions League Quarter Final in 2009/10, Arsenal pushed their defensive line up the pitch 10m to counter Barcelona. The result saw them concede two quick goals in similar fashion but also saw them rally to draw the game. In some ways, it was the same here. The midfield pressed higher, making it more a 4-3-3 (or 4-1-4-1)  than the slanted 4-2-1-3 it was in the first-half, and the back line got tighter to the strikers. As a result, Arsenal squeezed United’s play (although they did leave space behind) and had the better of the opportunities up until their goal. The upshot of this however, was Manchester United looked threatening every time they broke and could have scored with one of the Welbeck chances. Culann Davies (@CWDailyGooner) cites Laurent Koscielny as key to setting the blueprint for Arsenal’s increased intensity and certainly, once they can free Thomas Vermaelen  from left-back, they will have an impetuous centre-back pairing to aid their collective game. As Koscielny stated in the programme: “It also helps our attackers if we win the ball in the opposition half, so we need to work hard in all areas.”

Rosicky slanted his play towards the left in the first half (part of the reason for United’s dominance on the other side), performing a more disciplined role. However, as Arsenal pressed higher, Rosicky was more able to initiate attacks

4. The Ox looks best on the left

It’s not Wenger-like not to attack but his substitution to take of Oxlade-Chamberlain for Arshavin was a bit naive. He felt Arsenal could win the game – which is a fair ambition – but knowing Arsenal’s insecurities, he should have played it more safe. Yossi Benayoun would have given Arsenal more control through possession while still possessing the killer pass option. But also, because he is a popular player amongst the group, would probably have not drawn such a reaction from van Persie.

Van Persie was probably most discontent with the sub because it came in a period in the second-half where his movements were beginning to be understood – van Persie had made some fantastic runs in the first half which were not found. Chamberlain was himself, errant in the first-half while Walcott never got into the game telepathically or technically. But in the second, and playing mainly on the left, Chamberlain was able to get into central areas (a bit Gareth Bale-like if wanting to be sacrilegious) more often. Indeed, as a winger who’s job it is to stretch play, he can’t get involved as much on the right even though he was still very dynamic in the chances he got. Wenger eventually settled on Chamberlain at wide left and he gave Arsenal a balance.

On the other hand, Walcott has seemed to have suffered not being able to get behind. Van Persie is playing closer to a centre-forward’s role this season and this has restricted Walcott to an orthodox role.

Chamberlain’s passing in the first half show him unable to get involved effectively although his running did create two chances. In the second-half, he was able to roam more centrally and created Arsenal’s goal.

5. Arsenal good enough to finish fourth but…

Bemoaning a mass injury crisis is a fair excuse if for one season but to oversee it for two or three years, is poor strategic planning. In regards to the full-back position, Wenger knew before January both Andre Santos and Carl Jenkinson would be out for most of the season therefore a short-term option should have been drafted in. But just as much an oversight might be in the central midfield where two key midfielders, Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, were set to miss much of the season. Crucially, it’s in a position Arsenal lack; the Arteta role. Tomas Rosicky performed admirably to check his enthusiasms although that invariably drew Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick forward with time on the ball; nevertheless, his passing is always a plus. Indeed, one of the criticisms levelled at Arsène Wenger last season was that he failed to make use of the squad in the final stretch of the season and already this season, there is talk of fatigue. Arteta has been relied upon to stay fit, and amazingly he has, for the bulk of the campaign and he’s proven crucial. Somewhat bafflingly, however, Yossi Benayoun hasn’t been used as often as his talents deserve while Park Chu-Young is actually a better player than his anonymity has made of him. The athleticism of English football, though, has set him back considerably.

The unwillingness to change has shown Arsenal to have a tactical inflexibility although one option, Marouane Chamakh, has always been available as a Plan B on the bench. Indeed, the problem might be the players are too similar rather than a lack of depth and that’s why Wenger’s pining his hopes on injured players returning. Arsenal have the squad to get fourth place but we might not see it.

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.