Five points on Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal

1. Bacary Sagna typifies Arsenal’s defensive performance

The referee had barely put his lips to the whistle when Bacary Sagna punched both arms in the air and let out a cry of both jubilation and relief. Wojciech Szczesny crashed to the floor and held the ball tightly to his chest, knowing that all three points were finally secure. Sunderland had just pelted their 48th cross into the box and a little less than that many long passes, and Arsenal survived them all. When one of them did get through, however, Arsenal had Szczesny to thank (he also made some crucial punches to go with his saves), some wasteful finishing – and Titus Bramble.

It was one of Arsenal’s most impressive defensive performances to date this season, certainly from a last-ditch perspective with Bacary Sagna typifying the fight. This was an important game for him as recently, his form has come into question. Certainly it’s not been of the same high standards he had set in his last five seasons but then again, watch how Carl Jenkinson coped when deputising during the 1-0 win and then see how much of a bitch it is to play right-back for Arsenal.

With Laurent Koscielny a late withdrawal through injury, Sagna had to slot in at centre-back and was excellent. Last week, we talked about how good he is in the air (despite his 5 ft 9 frame) and against Sunderland, the stats bore that out. He won six out of ten of his aerial challenges, and cleared the ball 15 times, 11 of which were with his head. In the second-half, those skills were increasingly asked to come to the fore but in the first-half, with Sunderland playing wider and on the floor, he could use his knowledge of the full-back position to help Jenkinson.

That’s not to say the whole of the game was a war of attrition. Arsenal were so comfortable in the first-half that they should have scored more, playing some beautiful football in the process. But things started to dissipate when Carl Jenkinson was red-carded and Arsenal were forced increasingly back. But they were still a danger in the second-half, particularly on the break and actually at times even with ten men, passed the ball with relative comfort. However, it proved more difficult to hang on as time passed and Arsenal – and Sunderland too – spurned decent openings.

After the red-card, Aaron Ramsey moved to right-back and performed admirably against the dangerous Stéphane Sessègnon. Arsene Wenger waited until the 87th minute to make his final substitution, when Ignasi Miquel replaced Theo Walcott, as Arsenal were still a threat on the counter-attack and they switched to a 5-3-1. They held firm despite the growing number of balls that were now entering the box and when Szczesny grabbed the ball with the last cross of the game, they knew that they secured the win that they deserved.

2. Selection gets the best out of fantastic three

With the way the early decisions went, on another day Sunderland’s wanton intimidation might have ruffled Arsenal. They pressed Arsenal up the pitch and sometimes left a foot in the challenge longer than necessary. But Arsenal’s response wasn’t just to fight fire with fire – indeed, by 20 minutes; they had committed 7 fouls to Sunderland’s 2 – but they simply upped the pace of their passing where it didn’t look possible. Jack Wilshere was the drive and seemingly acted as the resistor as he rebuffed challenge after challenge and when he was on the ball, Arsenal passed faster and faster. Soon, they were rebounding one-twos off each other and got into full flow.

It was perhaps fitting then, that when Arsenal did score, it featured the three players that look unstoppable at the moment with the ball at their feet: first Jack Wilshere, who took three players out with his burst, then Theo Walcott as he spun and played the ball back and finally Santi Cazorla who applied the finish. It was probably no accident too that the goal featured a combination between the three players because the selection to put them on the same line was to encourage them to get on the ball more. Actually, the line that they played on wasn’t a straight one, it was slanted.

Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 saw Cazorla on the left, asked to cut in and link-up with the central midfielders thus allowing Walcott the freedom to play high up. At times, it looked like a 4-2-2-2 but Walcott didn’t get in behind as a wide striker might be expected to – probably because the way Arsenal were set up forced the play to become narrow quickly. Instead, he found space when Arsenal quickly switched emphasis from left to right and he could dart inside his full-back. Walcott had two early chances and of course, the effectiveness of the freedom he was given to move was best demonstrated by his pass to set up Santi Cazorla coming in from deep.

In the second-half, Arsenal’s formation didn’t actually change that much despite the red card. Walcott still buzzed about with freedom, as did Cazorla who ended up wherever he felt he could be dangerous. That liberty wasn’t limited to just an attacking capacity, though, because Cazorla also worked hard defensively to cover the gaps. The one blemish to his performance, though, was that he was so wasteful, failing to hit the target with his four other shots. Nevertheless, it was an impressive performance from Arsenal in attack despite the profligacy. What would have been equally encouraging though, was that not only are Arsenal playing beautiful football again, but they are now more difficult to rough up.

3. Olivier Giroud needs to add robustness to his game. Or something like that

Olivier Giroud does a lot of things. He can hold the ball up, combine quickly with his team-mates, win headers, make poacher-like runs towards the near-post and create chances. The problem is, because he can do all of these things, when he’s not doing at least one of these things well, it’s easy to criticise him. Last week, against Stoke, he was better as a creative fulcrum but when the chances were presented to him, he wasn’t greedy enough to take them. He was afforded the same level of opportunities against Sunderland but he was once again the wall which Arsenal bounced passes off. Except this time, they didn’t really stick and the passes of his own were often very ambitious (who’s heard of a striker who attempts four through balls! – though only one was successful). But Giroud deserves a bit of slack; he’s doing a commendable job as the only recognised striker.

4. Arteta still the main man

When Sunderland began the game by pressing Arsenal up the pitch, it looked like they might pose Arsenal familiar problems when they’re closed down high up the pitch. Alfred N’Diaye in particular harassed Mikel Arteta and his discomfort when marked tightly looked like it might rear it’s ugly head. It’s not that Arteta is not able to manoeuvre away from opponents; his close control is superb. But rather, Arsenal’s strategy to push the midfielders up the pitch and isolate the centre-backs so they have more time on the ball, looked like it might be vulnerable. But like the rest of the half, Arsenal grew more comfortable and Arteta once again showed why he’s indispensable to Wenger. Tactically, he was superb, hassling Sunderland in a gritty early period and was a calming presence when the team went down to ten men. He had Aaron Ramsey alongside him this time and the presence of the Welshman even allowed him to get forward and show his effective, and under-used, burst to get away from opponents.

Ramsey may harbour hopes of making Arteta’s position his own in the near future but whatever he brings to the side with his passing (although his tendency to dwell was almost exposed at one point), he’s not ready to replace in stature.

5. Sunderland should just wing-it

Martin O’Neill’s managerial reputation may be a little over hyped. As a player, he was a nippy little winger who played on the right side for Brian Clough’s NottinghamForest. He’s taken on that style as manager where his teams’ have generally focused on wing-play and getting crosses into the box. But he might have to realise that it’s part of his side’s problem as well.

O’Neill has just brought in Danny Graham and the expectation is that he’ll partner Steven Fletcher up front thus giving Sunderland another body to aim crosses at. Except crossing is a highly inefficient strategy – only about 1.7% of all crosses lead to goals. That’s not to say it should be eschewed altogether but as a primary tactic, it’s not to be relied upon. Because it’s effectiveness is determined by a lot of factors: the amount of crosses you put in, the number of players in the box, the quality of the delivery and your teams’ mentality. And sometimes that’s not enough. Sunderland might be better off adding a little dexterity to their play and mixing it up with their crossing game. Indeed, Sessegnon frequently got the better of Nacho Monreal and then Carl Jenkinson that it seems a little bit of a waste that his other team-mates can’t match his skill, and that his only option was to just fling it in. And indeed, after the 48thcross that Sunderland failed to convert, you’d have expected somebody of Martin O’Neill’s calibre to have recognised that.

Advertisements

Six points on Arsenal 2-1 Newcastle United

1. We’re witnessing the real Arsenal now

Some of the crowd left early but for the rest who stayed, there was a sense of expectedness about Arsenal’s last-minute winner. It came in the fifth minute of injury time as Thomas Vermaelen bundled in a cross from Theo Walcott; never mind that it came from the right-hand side or that Vermaelen constantly got forward, this was another example of Arsenal’s mental strength. With the victory, Arsenal have become the first Premier League side to win four consecutive matches having fallen behind initially. Perhaps, it’s not the most desired recognition because it means Arsenal have teething issues within but for a club which hasn’t consistently faltered in the final stages in the last few season, this shows a quality which Arsenal have, in the past, lacked.

But back to the deficiencies and it seems The Gunners can’t seem to find a balance between their typical “gung-ho” style and playing a little bit cautiousness from the start. Indeed, it must be noted that when they went unbeaten in eight games from October to mid-December, Arsenal typically won by low scores, usually delivered by Robin van Persie. Against Newcastle United, van Persie wasn’t required to be at his best (although his movement continues to be superb) and it was the same against Milan but Arsenal still produced a performance of great character and substance. Perhaps Arsenal are finally coming to their own with only 3rd place to concentrate on. Because now they can take the risks that their play wants as they know they have more recovery time if they expend all their energy. And certainly, it showed as Arsenal pressed more proactively against Newcastle than they generally have this season, usually winning the ball higher up the pitch.

In the match programme, Arsène Wenger said that Arsenal “can play at a pace that, arguably, nobody (else) can sustain” and as we’ve seen this season, that involves taking full advantage of the side’s speed. In a sense, the game reasserted the new way Arsenal  look to break down sides now, shorn of a central creative figure like Jack Wilshere of Cesc Fábregas, as they’re always looking for the quick release behind otherwise, everything goes down the flanks. Theo Walcott was superb, dovetailing with Bacary Sagna while van Persie’s movement was always sought, either from a ball over the top or through by Alex Song or a cross from out wide. But the reason why Arsenal have found such a holistic style this late in the season, might probably fall down to the fact that the team is now settling into habitual patterns and the cautiousness that we saw early season, having stemmed from a certain unfamiliarity with each other. Because, as much as the signings might have been reactionary, it takes a lot more time and integration to alter mindsets and get a team to properly know each other and finally, Arsenal look in tune.

2. Arsenal profit from a right-side bias

Tactically, much of Arsenal’s success came from the flanks, especially on the right-hand side. Arsenal gave a glimpse of that tactic early on, by aiming goal-kicks at Bacary Sagna and twice he freed Theo Walcott behind. The focus on that side – as it has been for much of the season – was paying off as Jonas Gutierrez was often forced all the way back and even as the defensive winger, he was not getting any joy out of it. Theo Walcott dovetailed with Sagna superbly as they constantly took on their man and aimed in crosses – most encouragingly, low ones too. On the other side, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, couldn’t force himself into the game as Tomáš Rosický – the midfielder who tends to drift left – was similarly dragged to the right. Indeed, it was more discernible on Monday night that Arsenal favour the right side because of the pace of their attacks but this season, the majority of play has tended to operate towards that side. (The season  average is at 37% for attacks origination from the right, and 30% from the left).

3. Van Persie scores when he wants

Arsenal only needed a minute to cancel out Newcastle’s goal with Robin van Persie putting the finishing touches to a equally swift move. Actually, it required three touches to be precise and each one was as devastating as it was expert; his first was to kill off Theo Walcott’s fizzing cross and open up his body, his second to take it away from the defender and the third, a powerful shot into the corner. The nature of Arsenal’s winner overshadowed the quality of the first and again van Persie showed why he is the best striker in the world at the moment. Indeed, his evolution is slightly going against convention in the fact that he’s playing more conventionally because the two best players in the world, Ronaldo and Messi, have scored all their goals unorthodox roles. It must be admired then, how van Persie has refined his game to resist his natural urges to continually drop deep and now all his instincts have gone towards getting onto the final ball. His movement was superb – wizardy almost – as he continuously spun off his marker to find space. Michael Williamson will attest to that when he was beaten for the first.

4. Newcastle’s approach

Considering that Newcastle United won so many aerial duels (19/28 although Demba Ba never won it in the box and while when they did, it was through a predetermined set-piece aimed at Williamson), it poses the question why they didn’t play two forwards. Of course, that would mean ceding a centre-midfield which they probably wouldn’t have won any way but it would have always gave them an outlet to get away from the battle in the centre. Cheik Tiote did a good job moving the ball and closing Arsenal down but whenever  he did get it forward, attacks often broke down straight away. And that’s because Arsenal squeezed the play well and won the ball back quickly. However, by choosing to go one forward and Gabriel Obertan operating off Ba, they played into Arsenal’s hand as Laurent Koscielny in particular, got to the ball first  constantly while, as we’re going to find out, it meant Vermaelen could get forward often without being a danger to his team (although the winner came when Newcastle switched to a 4-4-2).

5. Alex Song and Mikel Arteta switch roles

As Arsenal looked to press higher, Alex Song was used mainly in a box-to-box role. The truth is, that has been almost his default role this season as he has delivered some telling assists while Mikel Arteta dropped back naturally to pick up possession. But here, Song clearly started off with the brief to try and win the ball back higher up. Arteta on the other hand, kept the ball moving from deep, completing a weighty 52 passes in the first half. In the second half, Song dropped back while Arteta probed. But the Spaniard rarely uses his passing to penetrate and for a while, it looked like his technical ability would be better suited in a more advanced role. As it was, Song broke from his shackles and gave the drive for the move that eventually led to the winner.

6. Thomas Vermaelen leads the way forward

Barcelona’s use of midfielders in the backline points to a wider trend – that of a move to a purer game. Defenders are now required to have an almost faultless technical ability as they tend to have most of the ball and thus start attacks. With Vermaelen though, the centre-back offers more than playmaking because he’s also a goal-threat. So often in the game, he pushed up looking for that space to run into while Song dropped back. And often he was forced to abort his run as Newcastle blocked off the space. But he broke forward in the last minute – strode rather – while the rest ran full-bloodedly into the box. His movement is often superb and it’s no surprise that he found the ball at the back post unmarked – he already has two to his name from such runs and assisted Arteta against Wigan. Indeed, with Arsenal’s game seeking to give as much space to the centre-backs in the build up and the fact that they are usually the “spare” man, it can be such a dangerous weapon. Of course, it carries it’s inherent weaknesses but when you can get forward unmarked – and let’s face it, the striker will rarely track the centre-back – it can be a match-winner. Which it turned out to be.

Eight points on Arsenal 1-1 Fulham

The argument that Arsenal are reliant on Robin van Persie would prove most conclusive when the Dutchman isn’t scoring goals, as opposed to when he is. So, in the first league match in seven games in which he has failed to score, are Arsenal reliant on Robin van Persie? That answer is probably yes although the overriding reason for Arsenal’s mute performance on Saturday seemed to be down to fatigue as well as Fulham’s obdurate defending.

Arsène Wenger admitted his team lacked accuracy in their passing and that proved crucial given Fulham defended as they did. Essentially though, Arsenal were too functional and the selection was in need of a little invention. Yossi Benayoun’s impressive cameos deserved a bigger stage while Abou Diaby was deemed not match fit to start – both players will surely take their starting births against Manchester City in midweek. As a result, Wenger pushed Aaron Ramsey up the pitch from the outset before the inevitable fatigue factor came into affect and he had a couple of chances himself to give Arsenal the lead. Robin van Persie had a shot cleared off the line but he was forced to take more of a creative role because Arsenal’s passing lacked urgency. The fact that Theo Walcott has laid on so much of his goals highlights just how Arsenal have changed; where it was once about quick passing around the box, they now procrastinate that movement before feeding the ball to the wide men to deliver. Thankfully, Walcott’s movement was good and given the opportunity to test John-Arne Riise, he impressed. The Gunners though failed to break down Fulham’s defence and the 4-4-2 in the second-half suited the urgency of the situation.

Fulham, on the other hand, have carved out a niche in recent years of being organised and tough to break down and despite the flurry at the end, were well worth the point. They would have preferred to play a more functional Arsenal and it showed; in the moments where passed with urgency they looked very good. Unfortunately, Vermaelen’s goal  and the sustained pressure soon after came much too late to force the win although they mustn’t be too unhappy at the result.

1. Aaron Ramsey plays the second-half from the beginning

A key feature of Arsenal’s second-halves – when they are searching for the win – has been to push Aaron Ramsey up the pitch and aiming to profit from his drive. But Wenger initiated that straight away against Fulham, indicating he had always had reservations about Aaron Ramsey’s fitness levels. The Welshman picked the ball higher up the pitch than normal but what was most notable was that he also pressed higher making Arsenal’s formation look more like a slanted 4-4-2 off the ball. But of course, Arsenal do not press intensely therefore the closing down was more about positioning and he did well to help create a barrier to stop the easy pass from midfield. As a result, Fulham had a lot of the ball just inside their half.

04Gdh.png
Fulham matched Arsenal in possession in the first-half before The Gunners gradually grew more dominant. The relaxed pressing this season meant Fulham could have a lot of the ball in front of the defence with Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu happy to oblige.

Fulham matched Arsenal in possession in the first-half before The Gunners gradually grew more dominant. The relaxed pressing this season meant Fulham could have a lot of the ball in front of the defence with Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu happy to oblige.

Ramsey should have probably scored with one of the cut-backs he received but his movement continues to improve and it’s not gone unnoticed. Robin van Persie singles out his intelligent runs against Norwich: “He was a bit unlucky against Norwich as he should probably have been passed to on a couple of occasions when he’d shown great movement to get into good positions,” said van Persie. “I should definitely have given him one ball, looking at it again, and there were other times too. If he keeps going that, though, he’ll score goals.”

04Bqf
Ramsey ensured he got on to the end of moves as well as starting them. His drive set the tone for the early exchange.

2. Arsenal miss Sagna. 3. And Fulham try to target that

The absence of Bacary Sagna hasn’t been made as obvious as it might have from a defensive viewpoint as Laurent Koscielny and on Saturday, Johan Djourou, have filled in with admirably. But it was from an attacking viewpoint as Arsenal hardly passed the ball our from deep on the right side.

04vXj
Fulham targeted Arsenal’s right-hand side particularly in the absence of Sagna. As a result, Djourou was denied possession from deep and Arsenal’s play was slanted to the left.

However, that’s not to say Djourou is poor on the ball. Rather, Fulham targeted him in the build up and the movement of Clint Dempsey constantly dragged him in the centre. What Martin Jol did well was to keep Dempsey up the pitch – almost as a left-ish striker thus denying Djourou from getting forward. His deployment was the reverse of a defensive winger; whereas someone like Dirk Kuyt (a defensive winger) would try and stop the attacking full-back influencing by tracking him all the way back, Dempsey stayed up the pitch to give Djourou second doubts about getting forward. Djourou couldn’t and he was under pressure each time he got forward. In the second-half, Fulham dropped back into their own half and the Swiss was more freely able to get forward. However, while his passing was surprisingly safe, he was unable to provide the overlap Sagna so typically provides. (Part of that may go down to the switch to the 4-4-2 thus making Arsenal more direct).

04Vrj
Johan Djourou’s passes in either half.

4. Walcott impresses as a winger

The upshot of Fulham targeting Johan Djourou was that he was unable to support Theo Walcott and get on the overlap. As a result, Walcott was forced to play a more orthodox role and he performed that very dangerously. His cross led to Arsenal’s equaliser and along with the powerful runs of Andre Santos on the other side, he stood as Arsenal’s best chance of creating another goal.

04Ytm
Theo Walcott received most of his passes on the touchline as John-Arne Riise gave him little space behind while the blocking of Djourou overlapping meant a lot of his early passes were backwards.

5. Bobby Zamora didn’t fancy Per Mertesacker

Per Mertesacker’s Arsenal career has been solid if not spectacular and being a novice, he might have expected to be given a more sterner test in Europe’s best league™. But so far, he’s been given an easy ride with Bobby Zamora choosing to play on Thomas Vermalen’s side instead. The battle between the two was intriguing and Zamora looked to have the last laugh when Vermaelen put through his own net. But the Belgian was determined to put that right and he came up with the winner after a run which went unmarked. (Surely, Zamora wasn’t expected to track him, was he?!) Fulham’s play generally slanted down Arsenal’s left, however, so perhaps that’s the reason why Zamora was mostly up against Vermaelen. But Mertesacker should expect busier afternoons than this.

04fVh
Bobby Zamora picked the ball up mainly on the left.

6. Fulham’s lack of adventure shows in Wojiech Szczesny’s kicking

“Good ball retention starts from the keeper” writes Zonal Marking but job is made easier if the opponent let’s you. Fulham were more than happy to let Szczesny play it short and he did, attempting only one long pass. Which, inevitably, was unsuccessful.

04Bpf

8. Van Persie the creator

When Robin van Persie first assumed the no.9 position, he was thought to be unsuited to the role because he liked to dropped deep to pick up the ball. In the early parts of that tactical reshuffle, Arsenal profited from van Persie getting into space and playing his team-mates in. He did that again against Fulham, particularly in the first-half and he was unlucky his pass to Andrey Arshavin was ruled out for offside. He played a bit deeper, usually looking to give moves some impetus as Arsenal’s passing was, at times, too slow while Fulham defended deep to deny him any room behind. Mentally, Arsenal never looked fully focused in breaking down such a stubborn defence and the switch to 4-4-2 at the end was necessary. He still roamed around the pitch and Arsenal looked more urgent in the final ten minutes, van Persie still reminding everyone that he can perform a creative role if needed.

04vYj
Van Persie got onto the end of two crosses in his last game against Dortmund and generally ran the channels well. Against Fulham, with Arsenal playing with two players hugging the touchline, he tended to remain central.

Arsenal: Szczesny (6), Djourou (6), Mertesacker (6), Vermaelen (7), Andre Santos (7), Song (6), Ramsey (6), Arteta (6), Walcott (6), van Persie (6), Arshavin (5).
Subs: Fabianski, Diaby (6), Koscielny, Frimpong, Gervinho(4), Chamakh (4), Benayoun.

Fulham: Schwarzer (5), Baird (6), Hangeland (6), Senderos (6), Riise (6), Etuhu (7), Murphy (7), Dempsey (5), Ruiz (6), Dembele (6), Zamora (6).
Subs not used: Etheridge, Johnson (4), Kasami (4), Gecov, Hughes, Frei, Briggs.

Ratings breakdown: 1-3: Absolute stinker, 4: below par; ineffective. 5: par, average. 6: Above average; solid if unspectacular. 7: Impressive; good performance. 8-10: Substantial impact, match winning.

NB: Our thoughts go to Gary Speed and his family. Speed impressed me very much as a player and also a human being. I remember thinking, with a bit of luck, he could have achieved more in the early/mid nineties and not just his superb league title triumph with Leeds United. It was a dream for him to become Welsh manager, something you work your whole life for and for some reason – and I think his privacy deserves to respected at this moment – it was gone in an instant. May Gary Speed rest in peace.

Borussia Dortmund 1-1 Arsenal: BVB treat Arsenal to a taste of their medicine

In the end there were two Arsenals: the one from North London and the one from the westernmost region of Germany. Both teams tried to play the same way but for a long time last night, Borussia Dortmund out-Arsenaled The Gunners and did everything the way they would have wanted to. In the end, Arsenal will be content with the draw although it leaves with a bit of a sour taste due to the way it came; Ivan Perišić’s wonder goal from the edge of the box came on the 88th minute. For Dortmund though, it was a spectacular way to mark their return to the biggest stage but it was the way they played, that ensured that their return is warranted.

Jurgen Klopp’s side outclassed Arsenal but for profligacy in front of goal, we could have seen a different result. For much of the match they had The Gunners boxed inside – partly due to the way Arsenal were set up – but also because of asphyxiating pressure they put them under. Dortmund pressed – very hard – and it seemingly looked as if they wouldn’t let up. Indeed, they couldn’t because their game plan hinged on stopping Arsenal getting forward so that they themselves could spend as much time in the opponents half as much as possible. When it didn’t pay off – such as a spell of ten minutes in the second-half and around an hour or so – they panicked. But other than that, Dortmund were superb.

They pressed high up the pitch, never letting the defence play the ball out from the back and quickly putting pressure on Arsenal’s sole holding midfielder, Alex Song. They created a line when they didn’t have the ball and that made it hard for Arsenal to pass through. It was particularly effective when it got wide as they suffocated Bakary Sagna for space and closed down his passing options. At full-back, there’s a limited number of passing options you can make as the square ball to your stronger side is effectively null (because of the touchline). And whenever they got the ball, the movement was intelligent and incisive, Mario Gotze in particular was a handful, drifting in from the left but the real plus was the return in form of Shinji Kagawa who ran the channels very well as the “false 10”.

Arsenal’s problems, however, were as much self-inflicted as Dortmund’s mechanical pressing forced them. They played a high-line which BVB constantly sought to get men beyond but it was a lack of cohesion in front that was the real cause of the trouble. Arsenal’s 4-3-3 isn’t the real problem although in this game, there were valid assertions that they should have gone with a 4-2-3-1. Perhaps an available Arséne Wenger in the dugouts would have altered the team as he did in the second-half against Swansea. But the overriding flaw in Arsenal’s game is that it just doesn’t work – you can’t not press and play a high line at the same time – and for that you can accuse Wenger of tactical naivety. Maybe it’s just that; that he’s trying to account for his team’s youthfulness that sees him focusing firstly on shape before they press but that merely invites the opposition at them.

At Signal Iduna Park, Arsenal allowed Dortmund to stride forward with ball from the back and as the midfield attempted to organise itself in their own half, the back four pushed up at the same time. As a result, the two nearly collapsed on top of each other to become one indistinguishable band.Dortmund pushed their full-backs further up the pitch penning Arsenal in their own half and that meant the formation almost became a 7-3. As it showed; you can’t not press and play a high a line at the same time; they’re two incompatible beings.Dortmund showed how it should have been done, pushing the excellent Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic forward and the midfield and attack pressing high up the pitch as a unit. Sebastian Kehl’s error for Arsenal’s goal showed the risks an expansive game has as ironically, it was one of the few times Arsenal closed down high up the pitch that the opener came from. Theo Walcott’s pass to find Robin van Persie after a neat interchange was wonderfully weighted.

That was one of the few good moments from Arsenal and considering the pressure they were put under, they defended with their backs-to-the-wall superbly. And at periods their passing was snappy and direct but that was mixed with some woefully inaccurate ones too. Strong individual performances go to Laurent Koscielny and Song who recovered from nervy starts while Mikel Arteta showed the assurance Arsenal need technically as well as tactically even if it wasn’t the dominant performance he was signed for.

However, despite the nature of the performance and the end result, the fact that a second anxious game in a row didn’t result in a defeat will see Arsenal’s confidence grow. If that keeps happening, Arsenal will surely recover their former glories. And who knows, maybe then they will reach the level that Borussia Dortmund showed in UEFA Champions League Match Day 1!

Dortmund press Arsenal’s full-backs and the problem with Wenger’s defensive strategy

Pat Rice cannot wait for the return of Arséne Wenger to the dugouts – the manager still has one game remaining in his touchline ban from UEFA – and it’s easy to see why having put through a stern examination of his coaching credentials that he didn’t want. While against Udinese the comfort of the early goal dictated the encounter, he got no such assistance away to Borussia Dortmund as Jürgen Klopp sought to impose his style as quickly as possible. And they did, creating an overwhelming swirl of yellow and black around Arsenal in possession. It was a strategy that earned them many plaudits last season and while they haven’t made the best of starts this year, they aimed to put that right against Arsenal, the team that in the past, have been the model of the tireless, high-intensity and rapid passing game they displayed on Match Day 1.

The players were turbo-charged from the off; indeed the popular image of Borussia Dortmund today is that of the “Duracell Bunny”, the wind-up rabbits that front the promotion of the battery manufacturer’s products and Dortmund certainly lived up to their metaphor. They hounded Arsenal on the ball at the back so much so you could see the gears in The Gunners mechanics clicking and stuttering into place, trying to find a solution. Should the midfielders drop back or push forward to counter/negate the press? Or should the centre-backs risk Arsenal’s philosophical game and pass the ball long? Because, as magnificently as Dortmund did press, it’s been a ongoing problem that Arsenal have had to contend with.

Tuesday night’s troubles were indicated in pre-season when SL Benfica did well to stop Arsenal playing in part although The Gunners reacted well when Alex Song tried to evade the attentions of his marker by moving left and right, allowing his partners to pick the ball from deep instead. Unfortunately Arsenal didn’t do that enough at Signal Iduna Park, with Mikel Arteta only receiving 23 passes. Contrast that to Song, Arsenal’s main outlet from deep, who received 33 passes. Arséne Wenger’s answer usually is to push his midfielders up the pitch when opponents close down but that was similarly problematic as all it did was lessen the options the defenders can pass to so they were forced to pass it amongst each.

“The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

Dortmund know Arsenal won’t play very long; indeed, perhaps therein lied another issue. The Gunners stretch the play length-wise, up the pitch but don’t laterally. We know how Barcelona stretch their two centre-backs across the pitch at the start of attacks so that it increases the distance that the opponents can get compact. As a result, a midfielder can then drop in as they’ll have more space now. Manchester United did that well against Benfica last night and the fact that their play is naturally wide made it difficult for the Portuguese side to squeeze the play.

Pressing of full-backs

With all the talk about how well Dortmund played, Arsenal actually had more possession in the first-half. The selection, Benayoun ahead of Frimpong suggested Wenger would try and dominate through possession. Klopp realised this too so he set up his side to work very hard off the ball and when they got it, work the channels to try and get in behind. In fact, Dortmund were content with letting Arsenal’s centre-backs pass the ball, especially Per Mertasacker, who they thought may have more chance fumbling with time on his hands while the more competent passer, Laurent Koscielny was afforded less due to Mario Götze’s tendencies to drift in. As a result, there was a slant towards the left-hand side and Bakary Sagna, the right back, found it was him who was put under the most pressure.

Dortmund’s pressing usually starts when the ball moves towards midfield or out-wide to the full-backs although the two forwards created an initial barrier that stops the easy pass going through. BVB did this very well, creating a line and getting tight when the centre-backs had the ball but when the ball reached the full-backs, ramped up their efforts to close down thus making it hard to start moves off. And certainly, with the success that they had, you wonder why more teams don’t do the same particularly because of the way the game has developed, the full-back has most time on the ball and often start moves off. At the end of the game, both Sagna and Kieran Gibbs made the most passes for Arsenal but by denying them time on the ball, they were unable to influence and spread play wide effectively – their main avenue of attack this season. (Alan McInally, co-commentating for Sky, observed how often Arsenal were forced to play the ball back to their defenders).

Image lost

<Figure 1> Bakary Sagna was targeted by Dortmud’s pressing, particlarly early on. Whenever the ball reached the wide areas, he was instantly surrounded and making it difficult to find a pass through. The tactic was very effective in the first-half when Arsenal tried to get on the offensive so much so, it’s a wonderment more teams don’t do it more often. Full-backs have such a prominent role in a building attacks and the fact that they stopped him getting forward, affected Arsenal’s game. The knock on feature in pressing a full-back is that it then limits the angles he can pass the ball. Here, Sagna is not offered a 360 degree vision as the side to his stronger foot is closed off due to the touchline. He is thus compelled to pass it back or to the congested centre or else, to try and find a way past Grosskreutz who gets tight.

Arsenal’s (lack of) pressing invites Dortmund forward

It’d be unfair not to praise the way Arsenal defended (not to mention seriously questioning the partisanship of this blog!) because it was an atypically resilient performance with their backs-to-the-wall. Alex Song, in particular, was magnificent in front of the defence although it was he who also had the feel the full brunt of Dortmund’s high-tempo strategy. However, Arsenal’s problems were as much self-inflicted as they were thrust upon them because they simply invited the opposition at them. BVB had three good chances to score in the opening twenty minutes, exposing the kinds of weaknesses that were displayed in the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United. That it nearly happened again shows that there is a serious flaw in Wenger’s defensive strategy and cannot all be excused by unfamiliarity between the players.

Arsenal’s defensive line was all over the place but the real trouble stemmed from the non-existence of a pressing game high up the pitch. If the back four want to push up then the midfield must do so in accordance. However, Arsenal tend to sit off in their own half and that just invites the opponents at them and more crucially, the chance to spring the offside trap. As the game wore on, the midfield dropped even deeper so the chance to get behind was limited but the lack of pressing was still shown by the level of last ditch defending they did; Dortmund had 22 shots in all, 16 in the second-half and half of those were blocked efforts.

Arsenal, with the best defence in open play last season, were not in need of such a drastic overhaul to their pressing and ironically, it was when they did press up the pitch that they created the goal. They say from up the stands you can analyse the action better and you’d hope Wenger, watching from the perfect vantage point, can learn from the side he says pressed the best he’s seen this week and make the changes the side desperately needs.

Image lost

<Figure 2> The lack of synchronicity between the instructions of the defenders and the midfielders is shown. While the back-four push up to play a high line, the midfield doesn’t follow suit. In fact, they are more concerned with shape – which is all well and good – but by not getting tight, they are essentially allowing the opposition at them. This makes it ripe for Dortmund to attempt the ball over because they are not under pressure to make the pass. At times on Tuesday night, the two conflicting strategies meant the positions collapsing on each other as the midfield dropped deep in their own half, pressing too late and the back-four pushing up. In the second-half, particularly that was the case as Arsenal were unable to get out of their own half.