Arsenal 2-0 Montpellier: On Giroud, Podolski’s movement

podolski-mont

Arsène Wenger’s tactical reputation has been predicated on his insistence on playing the game one way: “his way”. But on Wednesday night against Montpellier, he showed why that perception of him may be a little misguided.

First was the use of Olivier Giroud. At his best, he was the complete striker, delivering two assists, one which was a deft chip over the defence to Lukas Podolski; the other a more routine knock-down. But there was the other side of his game which suggests Arsenal would be foolish to completely rely in Giroud to lead the attack. His distribution was erratic and when he dropped deep, he didn’t always find his team-mate. Wenger says Giroud “still has some work to do” balancing both sides of his game.

However, there is a good reason for Arsenal to stick faith with Giroud to be their focal point. In recent matches, he has been decisive, not necessarily with goals but also with assists (although he has now scored five goals in his last nine matches. His previous eight only yielded one goal). In a sense, Giroud’s goal record is a bit like Thierry Henry’s when he first signed, if you allow me to get carried a *little* away. The Arsenal legend had struck only once in his first twelve league games yet ended up at the end of the season as the team’s top-scorer with seventeen. Giroud may not end up with that many and it’s likely, the goals will be shared but there is scope for a purple patch. And like Henry, whoPhilippe Auclair chronicled in his biography Thierry Henry: Life at the Top, Wenger had little choice but to build his team’s playing style around his talismanic striker. This version of his Arsenal could thrive playing with Olivier Giroud.

Wenger wants to use Giroud as a “target man”. That may sound like a compromise of his established ideals but it’s not. Because Wenger, contrary to common belief, abhors possession for the sake of it. Rather, a team’s dominance is measured by the chances it creates to the ones it concedes. Thus, the more of the ball Arsenal has, the more chances it can create.

With Giroud pushed higher in the second-half against Montpellier and told to stop furrowing for possession deep, Arsenal proceeded to be more effective. They played the ball forward quicker with runners beyond, something which they fail to do in the first-half and that’s where we must add a caveat comes; Arsenal must find their fluency again with the ball at the back because in recent games it’s undermined their effectiveness. When they play the ball quickly, they’re deadly as Spurs with ten men found out.

“Giroud is good when he plays completely on the offside line,” said Wenger. “Sometimes when he doesn’t get the ball enough he wants to come deep. That is not his game. When he is a target man and uses his link-up play, he is fantastic because he can win in the air, he can score with his feet and can be a complete striker.”

Suddenly Giroud makes a lot of sense: in a side who pass the ball accurately in the final third and a striker who wins most of his duels, it could work really, really well.

Podolski-Cazorla

The other facet of Wenger’s tactical acumen is one which we often take for granted as fluidity. That usually involves making subtle alterations to player’s roles as opposed to wholesale formation changes. It’s less easy to understand this say, when he uses a player typically unsuited to a certain role, such as Aaron Ramsey on the right. But the idea might be one such as what he did against Manchester City this season when Arsenal drew 1-1, where Gervinho, playing up front, was allowed to take up the positions which Ramsey vacated to try and get behind with runs from that side. In Lonely at the Top, Auclair talks about a subtle change he noticed to Arsenal’s layout in one game which he said Ray Parlour’s positioning high up the field made the system look like a skewed 4-3-3. Henry proceeded to him explain why Wenger adapted their shape on that occasion. Likewise, Ray Parlour used to drop back when playing with Marc Overmars on the other side, so the Dutchman could play close to the strikers.

Against Montpellier, we saw Wenger continue on with an experiment which he started against Schalke 04 in the previous Champions League game at the Emirates. In that encounter, Wenger was banned from the touchline and as such, the experiment lasted more than it needed to. In fact, it was a bit of a disaster. The idea was to ask Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski to switch positions at various phases of the match, in the hope that it confuses Schalke’s defence and allows the respective players to attack with a degree of unpredictability (see image). It didn’t work because The Germans defended particularly stoutly and Arsenal’s passing just failed on that day.

There was a chance to resurrect that tactic against a Montpellier side lacking in confidence and any attacking bite themselves. Wenger, though, waiting until half-time to apply the change, asking Podolski to get closer to Giroud – who had also been instructed to play higher up the pitch – and when he did, the ever-willing Cazorla would fill in. It was a success this time: Podolski was in the box for the first goal, in which the cross came from his side. And when Podolski scored his goal, Cazorla ensured he back covering.

I’m unsure to what degree you would constitute these movements as instinctive movements; as by-products of Arsenal’s fluid game. But the fact that it didn’t happen besides this 20-25 period hints that it was planned. Indeed, we’ve often seen interchange between Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski this season but not necessarily in the same vein. It’s often in-game, through quick passes between each other (and a full-back overlapping). Here, the interchanges seemed triggered by different phases of play. When the ball when out, they’d switch. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops, if indeed it does.

: Podolski’s positioning in the second-half became more central, drifting closer to Olivier Giroud while Santi Cazorla, especially in the period between 60-75 minutes, slanted to the left-hand side.
: Podolski’s positioning in the second-half became more central, drifting closer to Olivier Giroud while Santi Cazorla, especially in the period between 60-75 minutes, slanted to the left-hand side.
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Schalke 04 overload their right to hurt and stop Arsenal

Uchida

Arsenal’s season so far may be summed up by the quibbles in agreeing a contract with Theo Walcott. Last night, though, it was another striker converted to a winger who made the difference. Jefferson Farfan, playing on Schalke’s right, created the goal that secured 2-0 victory and was a constant menace with his running. The Peruvian showed great promise as a youngster playing as a striker, attracting the attentions of Arsene Wenger, but coach Huub Stevens, who managed him at PSV Eindhoven, took him with him and has since used him mainly as a dangerous winger. Together with Atsuto Uchida, they were a thorn in the side of Arsenal.

Schalke overload the right

Schalke’s success mainly came from the right-hand side where they could double up and at times, even triple up on Andre Santos who had a bad game. It wasn’t necessarily all his fault; he was left suicidally isolated from much of the game and had to contend with the late runs of Uchida – who should normally be picked up by the left-winger – and Farfan’s touchline-hugging.

So strong were Schalke on that side that 50% of their attacks came from the right. It probably wasn’t a predetermined tactic to exploit Santos but it was most certainly a concious one – they just have better players on that side.

Focusing down the right-hand side wasn’t just an attacking move; it was also a defensive one as Schalke knew Arsenal are also best when combining down their left. Therefore, whenever Arsenal picked up the ball on that side, Marco Höger shuffled towards his right to close the Gunners down. Indeed, he isn’t necessarily Schalke’s first-choice midfielder – that’s spot goes to Jermaine Jones – but considering hisgood performance in the weekend against Borussia Dortmund, Huub Stevens made a deal with his two midfielder that he will give both players a half each. Höger would begin the first and set the tempo of high pressing and Jones would simply pick up where he left off in the second-half. It’s probably fair to say Höger didn’t all succeed; Stevens was unhappy at the “passive” start Schalke made (although he praised the organisation) but after 30 minutes, the Germans finally got into the game and imposed their true style. When Serge Gnabry lost the ball in the lead up to Schalke’s second, it was Roman Neustädter who nipped in with the interception and Jermaine Jones who lead the charge for the counter-attack.

schalke-attack

Cazorla-Podolski

If Schalke are clearly stronger attacking down their right, then Arsenal have their most fruitless passages of play when attacking down their left-hand side. However, that was also part of their problem at The Emirates.

If anything, Arsenal tried to get too much out of the Cazorla-Podolski dynamic that has been the most visible feature of their play this season. That they persisted, though last night, was quite baffling considering Schalke were constantly marauding down that flank while Arsenal seemed more preoccupied getting correct certain idiosyncrasies of their game.

The key to Santi Cazorla’s game is that he plays with freedom, gliding across the final third and making clever, vertical runs to get into space. Podolski on the other hand, thrives whenever Cazorla gets near him, attempting to use his quick passing and low centre of gravity to play little give-and-goes. The problem was, Cazorla too often started wider than Podolski an as such, it became a case of the two players getting too close to each other. And instead of Podolski making runs in the channels inside of left, he was only really able to get through on the outside.

There might have been two reasons that contributed towards this: 1) Schalke defended so well around their box that Arsenal’s joy could only come from the wide-areas but just as Norwich denied them, so did they. 2) With Aaron Ramsey drifting inside anyway, areas on the right side that Cazorla usually likes to operate were already occupied. However, this point is slightly a moot one. Because, like the dynamic with Podolski, Cazorla could still have drifted wide. Indeed, on a couple of instances he did link-up with Ramsey, it looked promising. It might be, though, that Cazorla prefers to pick up the ball with his body angled to play hence his predilection to slanting to the left.

a-v-schalke

It was defensively, though, that the Cazorla-Podolski dynamic affected the team the most. With Podolski given freedom of sort to drift inside and then Cazorla take up his position out wide, it often left no one getting back to help Santos. Indeed, Santi Cazorla was asked increasingly to drop back as the two interchanged in the attacking phase yet neither really wanted to get back to defend. At one point, Cazorla threw up his arms at the absence of a player filling in while Thomas Vermaelen seemed to signal to Francis Coquelin to cover. The young midfielder often did but with Steve Bould’s creed defending in two banks of four, he was perhaps unwilling to sacrifice the base that two central-midfielders give, therefore the onus was on one of Podolski or Cazorla to get back. It often left Arsenal a mess positionally down the left flank.

Arsenal’s problems

Arsenal’s problems are well documented; it seems like everyone has an opinion. Except, Arsenal’s AGM this morning shed little light on the problems with playing staff beyond the need for a new striker. At various points against Schalke, Arsenal tried three players different players up front with Podolski often interchanging to take up the second striker or centre-forward position. It was though, Gervinho, who played the role for most of the match with little impact. His movement was uncertain and jerky while his take-ons were often unsuccessful. The Ivorian looks better as a forward when drifting in between the left centre-back and the left-back as he did v Manchester City and he started that way until Arsenal began to play more down their left.

It might be worth a punt now for Wenger to go back to what was his Plan A and use Lukas Podolski as a number 9. Certain they could do with his individuality and spontaneity around the box which is lacking throughout the team, let alone up front. Indeed, that touches on the wider issues of what really is Arsenal’s problem. That their play is too predictable at times and that was   summed up by the way they tried to force Cazorla to interact more with Podolski. It might be that Cazorla tried to force it on himself. But that may be futile because the relative freedom that the team played with at the start of the season stemmed from the unfamiliarity they had with each other and thus, established patterns were still yet to be formed. It’s dangerous for Arsenal to fall into habits that are too obvious.

It’s probably too early to expect too much out of Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky and even Theo Walcott considering he has one foot on the way out. But the fact it, they give Arsenal something different to break out of the passive passing. Against Schalke, that was the problem; because they lacked penetration, that drive (perhaps a chance now for Ramsey to play in the middle given that he made some good runs?) they needed to pass the ball even better than they are now and hope that that may open up space (indeed, after the Norwich defeat, Mikel Arteta preached more “patience” with the ball). In the meantime, though, Arsenal will have to find the resolve within themselves to get out of this period of impotency.