Danny Welbeck shows finishing touch

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It was all Danny Welbeck could do not to chip it. Bearing down on goal with the goalkeeper hotfooting it off his line, Welbeck’s thoughts would have turned to his miss on his debut against Manchester City – orthat chance for Manchester United against Bayern Munich – when he decided to chip the goalkeeper. Had he pulled it off, we would have been talking about an audacious piece of skill, a moment of daring that epitomised this precocious talent. Indeed, when he chipped Joe Hart, the goalkeeper was flummoxed by the shot though the ball bounced excruciatingly back off the post. Sometimes, however, the chip is the best option. Instead, against Borussia Dortmund, with the score at 0-0, Welbeck hesitated ever so slightly and sent a tame shot wide of Roman Weidenfeller’s post. Arsenal would later lose 2-0.

Thankfully, Danny Welbeck would make no mistake when the opportunity to chip presented itself again this time against Galatasaray, and with the confidence of two goals already behind him, he poked the ball calmly over the onrushing goalkeeper. “The third goal was probably the hardest because I was stretching for it,” said Welbeck after the 4-1 win. “I’ve been in that position a few times, trying to chip the keeper. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t.”

It’s this bouncebackability that Arsene Wenger preaches from his strikers, and why Welbeck endears so much to him because he believes finishing is a learned skill tha can be practiced on the training ground – while Welbeck already does everything else well – and you only worry when the team is not creating the chances. Against Galatasaray, Arsenal were clinical, scoring from the first real chance that fell to them, and with each goal Welbeck (and Alexis Sanchez), showed real composure to tuck the ball away.

Understandably, it’s taking a while for Welbeck to develop this side of his game and it shows the short-sightedness of football that Welbeck was previously judged so harshly on his goalscoring record. Ahead of him he had Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, two strikers who had to adapt their game from being attracted to the ball too much from when they were younger to developing a blood-thirsty appetite for finding the back of the net. Wenger calls this instinct “animalistic.” As Rooney explains, he did “too much running,” when he was younger, “and then didn’t have the energy to get into goalscoring positions in the box. I’m a cleverer player now and know when to run into the box and when not to, and as a result more chances have come my way and I’ve scored a lot more goals for the club.”

Welbeck probably fell victim to this demand at Manchester United where, because he had all the tools to be an explosive striker, goalscoring was expected to come naturally. It’s this sort of paradox modern striker have to juggle because although they are asked to do more – to drop off opposing centre-backs, hold the ball up and make runs behind, whilst pressing aggressively – they have to also find a way to be more economical with such movement. Speaking at a UEFA coaching conference, Roy Hodgson remarked:  “I wonder how this will evolve. There is a danger that this job will become too lonely and too difficult. In many cases, the striker is not just expected to act as a target and to hold the ball up, but also to do a lot of chasing and to work hard as the first line of defence.” Former Juventus coach coach Antonio Conte cited Atletico Madrid’s Mario Mandžukić as an example of the new breed of striker who possesses extraordinary athletic qualities and is, as he put it, “defensively aggressive and committed with a selfless attitude towards defensive duties.”

The after effect of this quest for the apotheosis is that it has created three layers of strikers where once there were two: the best and the rest. Now, is the age of the super striker*: a level beyond what would normally be considered great and out of reach of the rest making them look like footballing Ali Dias; where the achievements of a select few, namely Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, have distorted the market. Where once scoring 20+ goals a season was considered the gold standard, now it is the bare minimum expected of a top-level striker.

Welbeck’s hat-trick against Galatasaray goes some way to proving that he’s not such a bits-and-pieces purchase that some had suggested when Wenger splashed £16million out on him in the summer transfer window. Instead, he’s an amalgamation of a number of different types of strikers. He can play within any tactical framework, whether as wide forward in Arsenal’s 4-3-3 or as a spoiling presence just behind another striker, picking the pockets of opponent playmakers with his long legs. Or more traditionally, he can function as a poacher or a target man.

Indeed, Welbeck in the past has been likened to Nwankwo Kanu by Sir Alex Ferguson which is good news for Wenger whose fetish has been to clone a more mobile version of the Nigerian striker. Indeed, taking account of the tall, rangy strikers he has brought in during the last 15 years, you can almost chart the evolution as a sort of linear sequence starting with Kanu and ending, hopefully, with Welbeck.

When Wenger signed Emmanuel Adebayor he labelled him as like “Kanu with pace”; with Sanogo he said that “he has similar strengths, strong of body, but as well technical skills.” Welbeck meanwhile, has been described as having the “perfect style to play through the middle.” In between, Marouane Chamakh and Olivier Giroud can be seen as aberrations in the perfect genetic line: an over-indulgence in one quality – technical ability – over the other key component of Arsenal’s play: mobility.

Of course, Kanu, in the Wild West days of the Premier League was an extremely artful striker with a deceptive turn of pace, but he probably veered slightly too much to the side of maverick talent. Adebayor, on the other hand, never really won over the fans with his languid style whilst Sanogo is the opposite; endearing to fans after his performance in the FA Cup final as a defence-stretching-forward scuffler creating space for Arsenal’s other more imaginative players to play.

Danny Welbeck is more rounded: a lovely mover around the football pitch who principally tends to float towards the left-hand side, though when he does get the big chances, it usually happens from the right. That shows you the measure of the player that he is because Welbeck’s game is all about sudden little bursts – what coaches call “high intensity sprints” – be it closing down opponent defenders in order to force a mistake or make darting, arrowing runs into the box. His goals against Galatasaray showed how his timing is getting better and the improved understanding he has with his teammates. His hat-trick goal to dink the ball over the ‘keeper was probably his best although the second goal was typical Welbeck: robbing the central defender of the ball, shrugging him off with a dismissive swat of the arm and then finishing Henry-like into the bottom corner.

The other impressive facet to Webeck’s play has been his link-up which is tidy and accurate. His pass success is 86% in the league, a massive improvement on Olivier Giroud’s erratic 68% from last season. Giroud, though, contributed to Arsenal’s play due to his neat flicks and tricks bringing others into play, often acting as a wall to play passes off. Welbeck is a bit different, more likely to end up at the end of moves, but when he drops off too he can be very effective, helping the way Arsenal like to play when they set up triangles on one side on the pitch, then switching the play quickly to the other side. He did this very well against Aston Villa, in particular stoking up an intelligent partnership with Mesut Ozil with both seemingly never too far away from each other. In the 3-0 win they combined 18 times, and two of those times led to goals. Against Galatasary, the combinations were more varied: Welbeck was slipped in by Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain for two of the goals. The other was from a Galatasaray mistake. Each time Welbeck finished with great aplomb.

*The most interesting aspect of the super striker is that they come in all shapes and sizes due to the prevalence of the single striker system. With most top level teams playing a variant of the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, the strikers’ strengths (and weaknesses) can be balance out in a system that covers all bases. For example, in Barcelona’s treble wining side of 2012, Pep Guardiola used David Villa as the more traditional poacher-like player, making runs behind, but he played mainly on the left while Pedro stretched play in the other side. Behind them they had a myriad of ball players that could find them easily but the chief creator and goal-getter was Lionel Messi who, as a false 9, was now given the freedom to pop up wherever he liked.

The most prominent super strikers are Messi, Ronaldo and possibly Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez. Aiming to join them or were once in the list but slipped out are Robin van Persie, Neymar, Diego Costa, Radamel Falcao, Mario Mandzukic, Edinson Cavani and Robert Lewandowski.

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Alexis Sanchez can take centre stage for Arsenal

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In his book, Lonely at the Top, a biography of Thierry Henry, Philippe Auclair reveals the psyche of one of Arsenal’s greatest players, although in getting there, the troubled image he has in his native France. In particular is the fascinating account of how Henry ended up at The Gunners, having become an increasingly maligned figure in his country despite winning the World Cup, and having attempted to manufacture moves early in his career to Real Madrid, then to Arsenal.

Henry was desperate to move to North London to rekindle a fleeting relationship he had with then coach, Arsène Wenger, who threw him in for his professional debut for AS Monaco at the age of seventeen amid in-fighting between board members, injuries and bad form. Back then, in the summer of 1994, Wenger had the chance to manage Bayern Munich. However, depending on which report you read, Wenger either resisted the corporate German giants, or that the move was blocked by AS Monaco, who in comparison, were not so much the tiny family-owned business, but if that business operated the only shop-front in a 50-storey building and had its own car-park. And that family was the royal family. In any case, Wenger stayed in the hope that Monaco would grant him a free-hand in teambuilding. A game after handing Henry his debut, however, the Frenchman was sacked.

Despite that, Wenger continued charting Henry’s progress whilst keeping an eye on France’s other youth prospects and it was in one of his trips to follow Les Bleuets that he told Henry that he was “wasting his time on the wing and would have a different career as a centre-forward.” Suffice to say, it would take a nightmarish half a season at Juventus – playing sometimes even as a wing-back – for Henry to realise how right Wenger was. “I won the World Cup as a winger,” Henry says in Lonely at the Top. “I’d already been in the national team, and Arsène was telling me I could have another career as a centre-forward. It was difficult for me to understand.”

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Nobody knows the full extent of the conversation that Alexis Sanchez had with Arsène Wenger before signing for Arsenal, but it is likely Wenger seduced Sanchez by offering him some assurances of his future position, namely by promising to play him up front.  Sanchez, though, when pushed on what was said was unwilling to give an exact answer, possibly because of the language barrier, saying that they only talked about using him in a number of positions, but also possibly because he’s been here before, as settling on his best position has been a bone of contention throughout his career.

In the youth sides, Sanchez was an attacking midfielder, given a free role to dazzle with his quick feet and vast array of tricks. “The first time I saw him I said he had no limits,” says Nelson Acosta, the manager who first drafted Sanchez, as a 16-year-old, into his first team at Cobreloa. “He has everything. Normally in young boys there is something missing, be it skill, or vision, or the ability to beat a man. Not in Alexis. That is very rare.”

Soon Sanchez would be snapped up by Udinese although he would have to wait a while before playing for the first team, twice being shipped out on loan to sharpen his skills. When he came back to Udinese, he took a while to get going, shunted out to the right wing before some genius decided it was best move him back to the centre where he first caught the eye. Here Sanchez flourished playing as a kind of second-striker-winger hybrid – a fantasista in the loosest sense – behind the celestial Antonio Di Natale, scoring 12 league goals and notching 10 assists. His exerts caught the eye of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, who was ever looking for ways to perfect his Barcelona side, and the prospect of dovetailing both Sanchez and Messi was a scintillating one. The first sign of what they could do together was in El Clasico, when Sanchez was used as a poacher in a 4-3-3 and with half-an-hour played, Messi slipped him through with a delicious through-pass. Sanchez didn’t take long to compose himself, slotting the ball into the bottom corner in a soaking wet night in Madrid. It would be the last time, however, Messi would play second fiddle to somebody and for the next three seasons, Sanchez would almost exclusively ply his trade on the right-flank.

It’s not as if Sanchez failed to perform with his distinction in that role: his darting runs off the flank into the box would become a key feature of how Barcelona would play and in his final season, he would score 19 goals, yet he has always felt as something of an interloper, an incorrigible cog in a perfectly oiled system. The way Barcelona play, where the passing is low risk but high percentage, and where opposition defences are set, it requires a sureness to your play that Sanchez was only just beginning to get to grips with. Indeed, if you look at his underlying numbers, you realise just how much his creative instincts were dulled: key passes are at 1.7 per game whilst he only completed 36 dribbles all season. (To put that into account, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Jack WIlshere completed more. It’s likely, when given a central role at Arsenal, those two parts would become a key factor of the team’s play). On the flip side however, his shooting and assists numbers are excellent.

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Created by Ted Knutson (follow @mixedknuts)

It was as if at times, his instincts were dulled, from once playing with the intrepidity of a leader of a street gang in a central role, cooking up ideas behind his angular forehead that you wouldn’t expect, his role was reduced to a ferreter and furrower, running up and down the flanks as if seeing the pitch as elaborate tunnels.

The trouble is, Sanchez always looked like a winger which in itself an achievement in an age where footballers are, at a certain level – below the very best and above the second rate – relatively indistinguishable in terms of athleticism and basic skills. And as Barney Ronay writes, that means “football has become more chess-like, more a matter of the location and exploitation of momentary weakness.” At Barcelona, where almost all outfield players are below six-feet, that problem was exacerbated because the whole team, even down to the goalkeeper, was viewed almost as an extension of the midfield. There was no need for specialist strikers (and defenders as Javier Mascherano would find out). Everybody’s relative skills were taken into account of how they would contribute to goals: Alexis was fast and an excellent dribbler therefore he would run into the box from the flanks.

Playing for the national side in the World Cup was a breath of fresh air. Used in an inside-right position with the freedom to move centrally, Sanchez was outstanding as Chile were agonizing knocked-out on penalties by Brazil, though his best play happens to be just before the World Cup started when he produced three scintillating assists in a 3-2 comeback win against Egypt. Here, he showcased everything that he came to promise when he first burst onto the stage; his impudent dribbling ability, the vision to see a pass and power from deep. Put simply, it was Messi-esque. Perhaps it’s as Wenger once said; that by deploying a central player wide as Barcelona did, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.”

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When Alexis Sanchez joins the first team back from his holidays, the expectations will undoubtedly be high. At that cost, at around £32m, he certainly has to be a game-changer. Certainly, it changes the way Arsenal play if indeed he is deployed as a lone striker, because in the exact opposite way Olivier Giroud brings others into play with his neat touches and flicks, Sanchez, by running the channels, sometimes away from play, can create space for the ball-players to play.

For me he has the three ingredients to play up front that all Arsenal strikers have possessed in the past: 1) the spontaneity to produce something out of nothing; 2) the ability to run behind and stretch defences and 3) excellent dribbling in 1v1 situations. However, there’s a psychological adjustment he would have to make, maybe more so than the physical, as now defenders will be breathing down his neck. For the most part of his career, Sanchez has generally tended to play facing the goal, although having said that, it’s an adjustment he should easily make as protecting the ball, then twisting and turning away from markers is one of his strengths. Indeed, that’s probably why he endears so much to Wenger. Like Henry, who others didn’t see as a central striker (most when at Juventus where Carlo Ancelotti admitted it was one of his great regrets), Sanchez is an all-rounder, capable of dropping deep or pulling wide, and then, as quick as a flash, able to change the emphasis of an attack with his one-on-one dribbling and explosive running. Indeed, that’s exactly what makes Arsenal dynamic: when they’ve got their back to goal, and then suddenly they spin away from markers and look to play the next ball forward. Alexis Sanchez could play a central role in any success Arsenal have next season.

Olivier Giroud, master of the wall pass, makes Arsenal play

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Olivier Giroud fell to the floor and put his hands to his face. When he took them away, his face revealed a look of great anguish. Of course, the cameras caught it all and with the rain falling heavily, his body drenched, there was even a homoerotic quality about it. For Arsenal fans, it’s become an all too familiar sight; presented with a golden opportunity at key moments in a given game – against Chelsea it was at 0-0, the contest evenly poised, and against Everton (1-1), practically the last kick of the game – Giroud has failed to deliver.

Giroud’s reactions after he misses are almost always the same; he writhes like an animal hit by a tranquiliser dart, after huffing and puffing all game waiting for such a chance to fall his way. To be fair, the two opportunities mentioned were not easy chances by any stretch; against Chelsea, the skiddy surface meant it was always going to be difficult to hit the ball cleanly. But a striker at the peak of his confidence would probably put it away anyway. And his last minute shot against Everton was even harder and it would have been a spectacular outcome had Giroud scored but the ball agonisingly clipped the crossbar instead of dipping underneath.

In the most recent match against West Ham United, Giroud had one glorious chance which he dragged wide. This time he swiped at the turf in frustration. Then, there were two crosses that evaded him, yet, rather than take the hint that Giroud was having a hapless game, Arsenal continued playing the ball up to him. And he kept on returning the ball back to them. Perfectly. That was something he couldn’t miss.

This is generally how Arsenal have used Giroud. Rather than finishing moves, or even acting as a target-man to get onto the end of crosses, Giroud is best as a pivot to bounce passes off. The goal he created against West Ham United – Arsenal’s third in a 3-1 win – shows his importance to the side in a deceptively simple way. The ball was fizzed into Giroud by Theo Walcott; he controlled it, held off his marker and then laid the ball off perfectly for Lukas Podolski to lash home. It’s this ability to bring others into play which is probably why Arsene Wenger has persisted with him for so long (at least, long enough that he doesn’t feel the need to bring another striker in), but it’s also because Giroud’s a big part of his plan for how he wants Arsenal to play.

It started last season, with Arsene Wenger having to remould the side again following the departures of two key players. In previous seasons, the Frenchman’s ability to teambuild has been crippled by want-away stars although this time, Wenger went into the season knowing that this would be the last time it would happen because the Great Darkness over Islington was finally beginning to lift. But his plan really went up a gear on the last day of August 2013 when Mesut Ozil walked through the doors at Arsenal’s London Colney, echoing the first time Dennis Bergkamp set foot inside Highbury’s famous marble hall.

Then, Dennis Bergkamp transformed the culture of the club simply by being different. This time though, Ozil changes Arsenal because he’s just like everybody else in the team – only a little better. His impact has been palpable in the 21 games he’s played so far, scoring 5 goals and creating 9 others. Most notably, though, has been the effect he has made on his team-mates, instilling the self-belief that has been so desperately lacking in recent seasons. Like Bergkamp, the players use Ozi as a “reference”. When he gets on the ball, they know they must provide options for him; they’re now moving into spaces they didn’t before because back then, they weren’t expecting the pass. Each time the players receive the ball from Ozil, it’s like he’s hitting an untapped erogenous zone: “oh, oh, oh!”

Because Ozil is similar to the rest of his team-mates, Arsenal become instantly stronger than they were last season because he reinforces their USP. Think about it this way: if playing against Arsenal was difficult because they pass and move so well, imagine how much harder it’d be with another trickier midfielder in the line-up (who is better than what they have already). As Brian Phillips, writing for Grantland, puts it: “Özil represents Wenger trying to build the most completely fucking Arsenal team this side of Thierry Henry’s 30th birthday.”

Signing Ozil confused people: “Why do they need him? Where would he fit?” they asked. His tactical purpose, though, is alchemical. When others vacate their positions, Ozil slots in meaning that Arsenal always have a zone occupied. He makes the fluidity complete. In the 3-1 win over West Ham, Ozil was instrumental, gliding across the pitch, and combining quickly with team-mates. With Aaron Ramsey pushing up (and later it would be Santi Cazorla assuming the role), Arsenal’s formation transformed into a 4-1-4-1 with Mikel Arteta acting as the base. When Ozil signed, Arsenal went wingerless, but with Theo Walcott providing the depth and the width, there are more options for him to hit. With 8 goalscoring chances created at Upton Park, Ozil’s productivity was Bergkamp-esque but there was one person he found more than anyone else: Giroud.

Frequently Ozil played the ball up to Giroud, either looking for a return or merely just making a run off him to receive the ball from a possible lay-off. It’s not just Ozil; others do the same. Podolski loves to play close to Giroud because he knows he will return the ball back to him. They do that because they know that Giroud, even for a big man, is a deft passer. He has a graceful touch that when it is at its best, is as smooth as Chantilly lace. It helps, though, that Giroud is a big man because it makes him easier to find and that any ball played up to him, he can hold and shield off any opponents. In that sense, Giroud is more similar to Bergkamp than say, Alan Smith who Wenger likened him to. Bergkamp used to implore team-mates to hit the ball up to him, hard if they have to, because he knew he could trap any pass. Giroud, similarly, is targeted by difficult long-balls, as much as the team plays through him with short, simple passes. (Giroud has attempted 98 flick-ons this season, 3rd behind traditional target men, Peter Crouch and Christian Benteke. This also from a side who complete the second fewest long-balls in the league, although it must be said, a lot of Giroud’s flick-on numbers include those with his feet).

There’s an anecdote in Stillness and Speed, Dennis Bergkamp’s “non-autobiography” written by David Winner, where he talks about the wall of his childhood home in Amsterdam where he would endlessly kick the ball back-and-forth, watching the ball come back to him, trapping it and then doing it again but in a different way, and trapping it again. This reminded me of Giroud: if Ozil is the natural heir to Bergkamp, then Giroud is like that wall in Amsterdam that Bergkamp used practice to bouncing passes off – the ball comes back perfect.

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Actually, at this point, it might be helpful to break the piece up and include an excerpt from the book to help understand:

David Winner: I’M TRYING TO picture you aged about eight, kicking a ball against this wall. What would you be thinking?

Dennis: ‘It’s not thinking. It’s doing. And in doing, I find my way. I used the brickwork around the entrance to the building. You see that line of vertical bricks, like a crossbar? Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it. I found that so interesting! Trying it different ways: first one foot, then the other foot, looking for new things: inside of the foot, outside of the foot, laces . . . getting a sort of rhythm going, speeding it up, slowing it down. Sometimes I’d aim at a certain brick, or at the crossbar. Left  foot, right foot, making the ball spin. Again and again. It was just fun. I was enjoying it. It interested me. Maybe other people wouldn’t bother. Maybe they wouldn’t find it interesting. But I was fascinated. Much later, you could give a pass in a game and you could maybe look back and see: “Oh, wait a minute, I know where that touch comes from.” But as a kid you’re just kicking a ball against the wall. You’re not thinking of a pass. You’re just enjoying the mechanics of it, the pleasure of doing it.

‘Later, I’d say: “With every pass, there needs to be a message or a thought behind it.” But that was there from very early, in my body and in my mind. When I was kicking the ball against the wall I’d be trying to hit a certain brick or trying to control the ball in a certain way. You play around with the possibilities, with bounces, for example. You hit the wall and the ball comes back with one bounce. Then you say, “Let’s try to do it with two bounces,” so you hit it against the wall a little bit softer, a little bit higher. With two bounces, it means probably that both bounces are a little bit higher, so you have to control it again, in a different way. You’re always playing around. I wasn’t obsessed. I was just very intrigued the wall by how the ball moves, how the spin worked, what you could do with spin.

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Giroud’s neat flicks and touches are crucial to the way Arsenal play and it is clear, watching Giroud execute those passes, that he takes immense pride in seeing them find his team-mates. There is a painstaking meticulousness to them that can occasionally frustrate, yet, at the same time; Giroud often sees pictures that others don’t, like his passes last season against SwanseaCity and Montpelier, or most famously, in October, against NorwichCity. To walk through that goal again; Jack Wilshere receives a pass from Santi Cazorla, plays it back to him and continues running to an empty space behind Giroud. He already anticipates the ball will get to him but probably never pictured that it would, the way that it did. Giroud touches the ball to Wilshere who, surprised by the earliness that it reaches him, flicks it back. Giroud, though, is not flinched by the quick pass and instead, flicks the ball aback gain with the outside of his boot through two defenders into the path of Wilshere. The pass was so good that all Wilshere had to do was stick a boot out and the ball rebounded in. It was natural that some Arsenal fans got carried away after that; that type of telepathy, accuracy and instinct develops over time, and it’s not hard to see Giroud’s role in accelerating the type of football that Wenger wants.

As Philippe Auclair tells Arseblog, Giroud “is not just a big guy who is good at holding up the ball with his back to goal. He’s somebody who loves to play with ‘first intention’ as we say in French; somebody who can flick the ball around the corner, is always looking for a quick solution when the tempo of game has to be accelerated. He’s always looking to create something, a creator in the box. It’s something that Arsenal have been lacking for a while.”

Of course, there’s a trade-off and that is Giroud is probably not as clinical in front of goal as a striker in a top club side should be. His movement to get onto the end of chances is also fairly predictable, often making a darting run towards the near post but usually little else. And perhaps, looking beyond his fantastic link-up play, a different type of striker who makes runs across the channels thus stretching play might improve Arsenal’s efficiency even more. But because Giroud can do everything – “physical presence, technique and charisma” Giroud is the “type of striker who is difficult to find nowadays”, Wenger says – it means it carries little risk for a team that is still adapting to each other, still working out each others’ movements. In that sense, Giroud then, acts as a bit of a buffer, lessening the impact of this adjustment period by taking hits for the team as they strive to find better balance and understanding. That’s why Wenger is willing to overlook some of his deficiencies – namely his goalscoring, which fans are understandably less forgiving of – because Giroud makes the team play. (Which begs the question: When Arsenal becomes fully in tune with each other, perhaps then Wenger might be more willing to leave out Giroud than he is at the moment?)

However, that’s not to say Giroud is untouchable in Wenger’s eyes because I’ve not seen a player come under such heavy scrutiny from Wenger in all his time in charge. After Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Montpellier in the Champions League last season, Wenger said that “technically it was not one of his [Giroud’s] best games … sometimes when he doesn’t get the ball enough he wants to come deep. That is not his game. And in a 3-1 comeback against Norwich City towards the end of the campaign, he said “I think he had a very, very average first half,” before adding “and a very, very positive and influential second half.”

Arsenal have practiced a lot on Giroud’s technique, he reveals, on the training ground and in particular, the type of moves we saw regularly against West Ham United and earlier this season. He doesn’t have to make the final pass. Dennis Bergkamp similarly derived great pleasure from making the “pass before the assist. Look at the goal,” he says, “and look at the assist, but most importantly, look at where the attack starts from.” Often Giroud is involved. Even if he’s not, he’s a useful decoy, making runs across defenders to create space elsewhere.

It’s probably best not to view Giroud as your orthodox striker but rather, as an extension of the midfield – although he’s the player who has the biggest responsibility to finish. (“You need more players who can create that special opening and I believe that Europe uses fewer strikers than before,” says Wenger). Certainly, Giroud would love to score more: the pain inflicted by missing a chance is evident in his reactions. But Giroud is determined not to let that put him down: his unique role as a goal-getter as well as a goal-creator is one that he relishes. “Strikers are judged on their goals, he says. “But we must also [provide] assists and that is what I try to do: help my team-mates. It is easy to play with people like Jack, Mesut, Santi or Tomas – all my offensive team-mates. We have good relationships on the pitch and when we play one-touch football, it is a pleasure. We try to do it in every game, and when we succeed it is fantastic.”

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Mesut Özil’s mastery of space makes Arsenal play

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In the end, it was the only thing Mesut Özil had to break sweat to do. Not the finish – which was a master class in watching the ball all the way and not hurrying the technique – but actually getting there, as he was still a long way away from play – the only time in the match – and as he reached Aaron Ramsey’s cut-back, he expertly guided on the half-volley into the top corner.

Özil’s goal set Arsenal on their way to a superb 2-0 win against Napoli, scoring from the type of move that when Arsenal perfect, is usually too slick, too evasive for opponents to handle. It has been an impressive start to the season, one though, which has seen Arsenal make a slight shift to the way they normally play. Because in six league games,Arsenal’s average possession has dropped from 58% last season, 60.2% in 2011-12 and 60.3% in 2010-11, to just 53.7% this season. That may just be a case of a streamlined Arsenal side still working out how best to play with each other but this is an Arsenal side also, which manages moments better.* In that, it might be more similar to the early 2000s Wenger sides, and not the nearly teams of 2007-08 and 2010-11, which played a mixture of joy and ruthlessness that can be both intoxicating and devastating – as Napoli found out in the first 15 minutes.

Roy Hodgson says that football matches are not decided over ninety-minutes, but in a handful of incidents (or transitions as it might be said in coaching terms) and it’s about picking these moments to be truly effective.

The Arsenal Way, though, has taken a bit of a battering in recent years, exacerbated by the trophy drought. Previously it was vibrant brand of football – mixed with discipline and steel – that weaved intricate patterns up the pitch like delicate fingers up Chantilly lace. In the past few years it became ever more intricate, more possession-based (as popularised by Spain and Barcelona) and even comical as moves could feature 15-20 passes but be soiled by a miss-kick in front of an open goal (sorry Gervinho). The old way, though, looks like it is coming back (probably even inspired by Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich), owed in large part, to a record-breaking German: Mesut Özil.

*

 To understand Mesut Özil’s movement, I refer you to a scene in the Minority Report (about 1:36:00) where Tom Cruise, on the run from the police in a crowded mall with a pre-cog as hostage (somebody with the ability to see the future), suddenly finds himself surrounded. On all sides police are zeroing in and for a moment, amid the flurry of movement and busyness, he has nowhere to turn. The pre-cog, though, tells him not to move because in a few seconds, a man selling balloons will obscure their view, allowing a convenient escape. What Özil would do on the pitch, wouldn’t be too dissimilar, except he wouldn’t hold his position because he never stops moving, but to use the man with the balloons as a decoy, running in behind in the space he has just vacated.

*

Özil’s spatial awareness is extraordinary. He’s a little like WALL-E, surveying the area and then scuttling into the spaces where others don’t go. His special move is drifting into wide areas (I write for Arsenal.com that his role might be best described as an inside-forward) and this is why he works so well at Arsenal. Wenger has always maintained he prefers wide players who roam inside, but with Özil then moving into those spaces that the wide player vacates (in recent games, it has usually been Jack Wilshere in that role), it means Arsenal always have a zone occupied: Özil makes the fluidity complete.** Indeed on the training ground, Arsenal practice a drill called “through-plays” which is an exercise which aims to help players learn where their team-mates are. With Özil always slotting in, filling the empty spaces, it’d make finding each other on the pitch more natural.  One can also see why Özil’s lateral movement (and indeed the team’s) helpful in the defensive phase as it means whenever Arsenal lose the ball, there is somebody always covering, ensuring that the players are still evenly distributed across the pitch. Indeed, that was one of the things Arsenal’s front four did so well against Napoli because whenever the attacking players swapped over, they made sure that they stayed in that position until the next phase of play.

** Santi Cazorla expands on Arsenal’s fluidity in an interview with talkSPORT: “I speak with the coach and tell him I can play wherever you want. My preference is to start on the left but then [as the game unfolds] go to the middle. Wenger speaks with me before every game and he’ll say: ‘You play on the left, but only left when we don’t have the ball. When we have the ball, you can come in – you are free.’”

Özil also has this unique dribbling style that makes him so effective, running with the ball almost side-on as if showing the opponent the ball, with his head always up. He’s always looking to change direction or slip a quick pass. Indeed, Arsenal have submitted to his creed as much he has Arsenal’s, with it especially notable against Napoli, Mikel Arteta slipping quick passes to Ozil because he knew swiftness would be key to making the most of his strengths. In the same way Santi Cazorla made Arsenal tiki-taka again after signing, Özil’s master of space makes Arsenal fluid. “I think he is like the team,” said Wenger. “He had an outstanding first half (against Napoli) where you had everything you want to see from a great player – individual skill, team play, finishing, final ball… just sit there and enjoy it. I believe as well that he enjoys playing football and you could see that. He enjoys playing with his partners; he has integrated very quickly into the team, with the mentality. He came as well in a period where we are doing well and that maybe made it easier.” Özil’s team-mates will probably concur too; he’s certainly made things easier.

How Olivier Giroud can improve in front of goal

A deft flick. An Ibrahimovic-style swivel and shot. A power header. A half-volley across the goalkeeper. A chip, an overhead kick and an edge of the box curler. Olivier Giroud’s pre-season goals have been impressive for the variety they have come in, indicating an improvement to the one part of his game that needed most work – his finishing. Last season, Giroud scored 11 goals (and 17 in all competitions) which is a fair return considering Arsenal shared its goals among the front four. Yet, digging deeper into the numbers and it shows that it could have been so much better.

Those 11 goals Giroud scored in the league came at a conversion-rate of 10.3% – a poor return for any top striker considering 17-18% is believed to be par. (To put that into context, he had the worst efficiency of any striker who scored more than ten goals and the 10th lowest in the league, putting him alongside the likes of such esteemed company as Carlton Cole and Andy Carroll).

To further compartmentalise his shooting, we can see just how erratic Giroud was inside the box. Last season, he took 64 shots from the central area (figure 1), scoring 9 times but those goals came only at a conversion rate of 14%; hardly an improvement from his overall figure of 10%. (As a comparison, Luis Suarez was just as uncouth as Giroud around the box but scored more goals: 23 at a conversion rate of 12%. But filtering those shots he took from the central areas of the box, and his conversion rate jumps to 26%).

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Looking at where Giroud shoots from in graphic form further highlights how he can improve:

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In simple terms, it’s obvious that Giroud must show more composure to improve his finishing. That’s why his pre-season form has been so encouraging: his strikes have been of a wide variety. Indeed, after Giroud scored with a spin and a shot against Indonesia, even Wenger was unable to hide glee; it’s this type of dexterity that Giroud must show if he is to improve on his goalscoring record.

Certainly, that’s one of the misconceptions about Giroud. To look at him, you wouldn’t associate him with good footwork but that’s what he specialises in, to varying success (which we’ll talk about more in depth later). When he was signed for the club, it was thought that he’d add another dimension to Arsenal’s attack and while he’s a viable Plan B, it’s his heading which has really let him down.

We can see from the graphic below, courtesy of @11tegen11, that actually Giroud is not bad with his feet. Of course, a large number of his shots still find the stands but when he hits the target, he is great at finding the corners.

giroud feet shots

However, when we superimpose those shots plus the ones which he takes with his head, he frequently hits it straight at the goalkeeper. This is bad because by not finding the corners, Giroud is limiting his chances of scoring by 40%.

giroud all shpts

BUT, and there’s a big but here, the reason why Giroud’s headers are letting him down because often they’re from outside the 6-yard box.Studies by the authors of StatsBomb show that actually, headers have more chance of scoring than a normal shot because often they’re taken from closer to the goal. Giroud, though, frequently heads from outside the 6-yard box, either because his movement is not good enough or that Arsenal’s game doesn’t encourage headed shots therefore when he does, he often has to head from further back to get away from defenders. (The good thing about analysing Giroud’s shots is that it helps us learn the type of movement that Giroud makes. Typically, he likes to peel to the left side of the box so that he can open up his body to shot across goal or meet a low cross. When it comes from the right-hand side, the movement is again similar, however, he’s more reluctant to shoot with his feet. Instead, he’s a better threat from the air but if he does, he’ll often try and get in front of his marker and poke the ball towards goal).

However, despite saying all this, there’s one statistic that stands out from the rest last season and that is that Giroud missed 19 clear-cut chances (which is basically a free attempt on goal with just the striker and the goalkeeper). It’s not made clear what proportion of those chances are headed or ground efforts but at least he’s with the type of company he could get used; because only Robin van Persie (23) missed more clear-cut chances than Giroud. At least he’s getting into the right positions….

The evolution of Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale

While Gareth Bale often finds his free-kicks hit the back of the net with pinpoint accuracy, Theo Walcott can sometimes see his shanked horribly off-target. Both practice hard at set-pieces; Theo Walcott more so on his technique than necessarily trying to craft a niche from such shooting opportunities. For Gareth Bale, detail is everything, from the stance to the run up, and he strikes the ball in particular way so that it achieves maximum top spin rather than bend.

From that example, one might dissect a harsh conclusion of the paths of the two careers, but come the North London Derby on Sunday; both will start the match at roughly the same places of their football careers. And at 6pm, one might even overtake the other.

For most people, with both players at 23 years old, Bale is in front. His form has been scintillating for the last two years but never has he played better than he is now. He models his game conspicuously on Cristiano Ronaldo and may soon reach his level. But while Bale admits admiration for the 2008 Ballon d’Or winner, he identified this evolution last season under Harry Redknapp. Indeed, the same can be said of Theo Walcott, who has finally been given his chance to play as a central striker having been destined to play there in his head at least, since he was placed under the wing of Theirry Henry. However, if there is uncertainty about one of the player’s future and excitement about the other’s, it’s because Gareth Bale’s style just fits better in today’s game.

“He is quick and powerful, technically gifted and can strike the ball ferociously with his left foot,” eulogised one piece by Jonathan Wilson for the Guardian, summing up why Bale has provoked such joy among spectators. If the modern game’s fixation on conditioning has a means to an end, it’d be a player like Gareth Bale. Theo Walcott, on the other hand, has bags of pace but wants to play as a poacher, a position which was horribly exposed as a dated craft against the might of Bayern Munich (although Arsene Wenger has still used Walcott up front in a number of high-profile games). To be fair to Walcott, his finishing is probably his other great trait (although, and while I don’t want to encourage comparisons, you wouldn’t say it’s massively superior to Bale who is deadly anywhere from about 45 degrees from the centre of the goal.

The main objective, though, of both players is to play with freedom so that they can be explosive and for that, credit must go to the coaches.Gareth Bale has talked highly about the tactical structure put in place by manager, Andre Villas-Boas, which allows him to cut inside with the security that his position is covered. Tottenham Hotspur work rigorously on shape in training. For Wenger, the deployment of Walcott centrally has been years in the making, stating that by playing a player wide, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.” That probably explains the apprehension in not using Walcott in a striking position earlier and certainly, in recent months, his dribbling has improved dramatically. There’s still uncertainty about what is Theo Walcott’s best position but given the freedom he’s been allowed by Wenger, has allowed him to turn in more consistent, game-changing performances. (Although the by-product is that it has said to have exposed Bacary Sagna, and perhaps that’s an area Villas-Boas’s side have the upper-hand over Arsenal).

The evolution of the Bale and Walcott ties in nicely too, with my piece two years ago on the contrasting styles of the two players. Because, while comparisons between the pair are always going to persist, they’re actually more similar in role now than they were even last season when both played as wingers. Then, Bale was the traditional touchline hugger and Walcott a modern-day inside forward, attempting to profit from the spaces in between the full-back and the centre-back (something which he still does frequently now).

Freedom has made both players more effective, although for Bale it’s made the bigger difference. Two seasons ago, when I wrote a piece entitled, “Crossing is football’s greatest divide” I concluded that Bale’s style of getting to the byline and getting crosses in is very inefficient and almost out-dated. The statistics concurred, finding that although 27% of all goals scored in 2010/11 came from crosses, only 1.6% of ALL crosses lead to goals. Bale’s return was similar at 2%. Walcott’s, whose style was about timing his runs and then measuring crosses if need be on the other hand, was 53%. A professor, Jan Vecer from the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, has taken this research further and published a paper (which you can download here) highlighting the negative impact crossing has on scoring.

Since the change in style, to a roaming role, Bale has doubled his goalscoring output on each of the last two seasons with 15 goals. His assists have dropped this season, creating only one goal (although he’s setting up much more chances than he did in previous seasons), indicating that he’s become more self-centred with more freedom. However, if Bale read Vecer’s paper today, “Crossing in Soccer has a Strong Negative Impact on Scoring: Evidence from the English Premier League”, it’d give him very sound advice, telling him to give up crossing altogether. Because conversely, despite the change in role, Bale is actually crossing more! Vecer says that teams like Arsenal and Tottenham “have the potential to score one more extra game per match if they reduced open [play] crossing.”

Certainly, that’s not what Theo Walcott’s game is about although circumstances dictate he puts the ball into the box more than he should. Statistically, though, he is doing the right things and with 11 goals and 8 assists in the league, Walcott might actually be the key player when the North London Derby kicks-off at 4pm on Sunday.

Carl Jenkinson has risen to the responsibility

Carl-Jenkinson

Football players often talk about fulfilling “dreams”; as if the vocation they are already in isn’t one. But when they speak of fulfilling “dreams”, it often encompasses to some degree, a revision of the ones they had in their childhood: playing for the best team possible, winning your first international cap, or like a New Star Soccer game, progression from anonymity to super-stardom  beginning from the lower echelons of the football league to the team that you support. Of course, it rarely happens that way but for one player in particular, he can realistically say he is “living the dream”.

Two years ago, Carl Jenkinson was playing in the Blue Square Premier League with Eastbourne before he spent another loan spell at non-league side Welling United FC. He had barely played ten games for his parent club, Charlton Athletic, before the unexpected call from Arsenal came. It might have had something to do with former coach, Phil Parkinson, who spent a brief time at Arsenal after he was sacked although Arsène Wenger insists Jenkinson was under the radar for a while, particularly because of his stints with Finland U-19 and U-21. “It was a very steep learning curve for me,” says Jenkinson. “I believed I was capable of playing at the highest level, and sometimes it is about getting seen by the right people at the right time.”

Jenkinson was instantly thrust into the limelight in his début season and endured some difficult periods but this season, at the age of 20, he has matured into a dependable figure for Arsenal. In his latest matchagainst Montpellier at the intimate Stade de la Mosson, and particularly up against the intense pressure the team faced in the second-half,Jenkinson came out with a much-heralded performance. His low cross to assist Gervinho for Arsenal’s winner capped a superb all-round display.

Jenkinson‘s presence in the starting eleven has seemingly been steadier than his counterpart on the other side, Kieran Gibbs, who has caught the eye with marauding runs and his understanding with LukasPodolski. (Of Arsenal’s ten goals this season, eight featured build up from the left and only two towards the right). In some ways, that’sJenkinson‘s job; acting as a balancer for Arsenal as they press-on with more fruitful combinations on the other side. Indeed, one of the reasons for Arsenal’s defensive success this season has been the cautiousness of their full-backs.

The team worked on it extensively in pre-season but old habits just as quickly resurfaced when Arsenal entered the field for their first match of the season against Sunderland. As early as the eleventh minute, SteveBould noticed that twice, Sunderland had opportunities to score from attacks originating from fast breaks down the channels. Therefore, he instructed the full-backs to be more aware whenever they get forward. Thereafter, The Black Cats mounted no serious threat and of the 84 teams that played in the Football League and Premier League in the first weekend, they were the only side not to win a corner. Perhaps the cautiousness has suited Jenkinson because it was the area he was considered weakest – positionally – and in the tour of Asia against Manchester City, that was exposed. Can he show just how far he has progressed in a small space of time in the upcoming game against them? Certainly, the way Arsenal defend now, getting back into a compact 4-4-1-1 shape and the wingers double up have protected him much better.

There is, however, a flip-side to instructing your full-backs not to get forward as frequently. Because, as we know from last season in particular, when Arsenal were stripped of all of their natural full-backs, it has had a big effect on the team’s fluency getting forward. It was one of the reasons why Arsenal failed to get off the mark after their first two games of the season. Full-backs are now one of the most crucial positions on the pitch; they often start as the “free” man and also need to possess the all-round game to make a difference at both ends of the pitch. Arsene Wenger says “having a full-back who creates is an important part of winning.” Indeed, I’d put down Wigan Atheltic’s miraculous turnaround last season to the signing of left wing-back JeanBeausejour. Before he arrived at the club, Roberto Martinez used a central midfielder, David Jones, in that position. Before defeat to Swansea in March, they were hovering in the relegation zone; 11 games later, they had picked up 23 points out of33. In a strange way, JeanBeausejour gave the team balance and in that sense, we are seeing the same thing with Arsenal and their two full-backs this season.

Last season, I talked a lot about the bias Arsenal had towards the right-side and the subtle various it had on Arsenal’s play; the runs of TheoWalcott to break out of the triangles they created while the use of a right-footed winger on the left meant play tended to slant anyway. This season, Arsenal are using both flanks equally as much – indicating how well they are switching the ball from side to side – but it’s interesting to note *how* the build-up differs on each side.

attack-sides

As we can see from the player influence diagram below and the pass graphics, the build up is deeper on the right-hand side than it is on the left. This might be for a number of reasons; (i) Thomas Vermaelen’s tendencies to step out thus allowing Gibbs to advance higher up the pitch; (ii) Per Mertesacker acting as the “stopper” therefore staying deeper while (iii) Mikel Arteta usually starts towards the right of the double-pivot. And (iv) Arsenal’s best combination play, between SantiCazorla, Lukas Podolski and one of the central midfielders, happens on the left.

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That difference between two flanks can be shown by the chalkboards of Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs in the game against Sunderland. (It’s the mirror image of last season where the build up generally started deeper on the left as opposed to the right. Click here to see example).

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Gibbs is allowed the freedom to get forward more easily due to more options around him. As a result, his passes are less frequent and involve a lot of “give-and-goes”. One might say the responsibility is considerably less in this regard for Gibbs as opposed to Jenkinson who is asked to be “out-ball” for Arteta or Mertesacker. By the same token, Jenkinson has a tougher task passing the ball out because he often has to go inside or back. As such, opposition might press him higher up the pitch. That was certainly the case against Montpellier Who doubled up on Jenkinsonwhenever Arsenal moved the ball wide. And because of Gervinho’s propensity to drift inside, he never really was an option for Jenkinson to pass to down the line. (Click here to open .PDF file to see average positions). Nevertheless, Jenkinson handled the pressure superbly and when he did get forward, he whipped the ball a fantastic ball forGervinho to score. It’s the one part of his game which he hasn’t quite delivered on this season although we know just how well he can cross it – Jenkinson has made 15 tackles so far in the Premier League, joint seventh with four other players – but just like the mantra that has pervaded the collective this season, Jenkinson realises that he has a job, first and foremost, to do for the team. And he’s quietly risen to the responsibility.