Tactical observations from Arsenal 0-2 Liverpool

With his feet up and tapas in convenient reach, Cesc Fábregas would have been watching Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat to Liverpool with more than a bit of familiarity about it. While a makeshift and inexperienced team performed admirably, they always looked like they needed something special – someone special – to lift them. That burden often fell on Fábregas but on Saturday, he was able to sit back at home safe in the knowledge that he had chewed out of the bear trap that had began to stagnate him.

Watching as a fan, he could see the creativity Arsenal were missing and as it turned out, the Gunners failed to make count, a twenty-minute period they were dominating before Emmanuel Frimpong’s sending-off. Kenny Dalglish instantly reacted although it was forthcoming one way or another and the substitutions of Luis Suarez and Raul Miereles helped win the game. While Liverpool were the more experienced side, they were inexperienced in the fact they had little played with each other before hand and the 4-3-3 failed to expose Arsenal’s openness in midfield. Suarez in particular, frequently got in between the lines when he came on – something Liverpool’s midfield previously failed to do – and with the man advantage, the movement was too much. Wenger tried to react, moving from the 4-4-1 shape they had after the dismissal to a 4-3-2 but Suarez confirmed the win with a tap in. It was a game lacking technical quality and any real match-winners before Dalglish made the changes. Here are some thoughts:

Samir Nasri gives Arsenal a technical quality

  • If Arsenal gave an improved performance to the one against Newcastle, it was probably down to Samir Nasri. His inclusion was necessary as the Gunners were without so many of their first-choice midfielders and if the patchwork team was to funtion effectively, it needed a link player. To be fair, Nasri has failed to impress in pre-season as the furthermost midfielder but his quality was apparent here without ever fully exerting his craft. As we’ve noted in an earlier article, Arsenal want to play the ball forward quicker and pass it around with speed. Part of the remit is using dynamic forwards on the wings but for the style to work, it needs accurate passers. Nasri may not be part of that future but Arsenal need plenty more players of his ilk if he goes.

Frimpong can mature into a great player

  • With his Noah Puckerman haircut, Emmanuel Frimpong looked like he was only here for a ruckus. And sure enough after eight minutes he was walking on a disciplinary tight rope after a needless row with Jordan Henderson. His sending-off in the second-half seemed inevitable but unfortunately for Arsenal, it also came at a time when they were beginning to get on top. Frimpong himself was dominant in the middle – when Boca Juniors came over for the Emirates Cup they waxed lyrical about the way he married technique with brute strength to keep Juan Roman Riquelme quiet for much of the game – hurrying Liverpool in possession and using the ball intelligently. His passing, encouragingly for a defensive midfielder, was often forward and he gave Arsenal impetus with his drive but his inability to tackle affected Arsenal. He was naïve and excitable but he would have won a lot of plaudits for the way he held the midfield because at times, the amount of space he had to cover would have overwhelmed even the most experienced of professionals. It was probably the reason why Frimpong always looked like going off; the midfield was too open and that made the margin off error in the tackle that more tighter.

Arsenal lacking shape

  • “It’s impossible to replace Fabregas by another Fabregas. We’ll replace him by what we have: Wilshere, Ramsey, maybe Chamberlain,” said Wenger and it seems his answer to replacing his former captain in the meantime is to implement a shared role. This season, Arsenal’s shape is more closer to a 4-3-3 although in the matches against Udinese and Liverpool – less so against Newcastle where the midfield rotation was better – it may be worth making the distinction that it was even closer to a 4-1-2-3. The “1-2” is important as often, the two in front of the holder look to push further forward and press. However, it’s looked more than a bit disjointed recently; Nasri’s discipline was poor in the first-half and Aaron Ramsey has failed to find his place in the system in both the last two games. Frimpong was exposed despite his best efforts and while Arsenal were more secure in the second-half, they are still without a link between midfield and attack.
  • The return of Jack Wilshere can’t come soon enough it seems and he may just as well important linking the play from deep as he is further up. Because in the first-half, Liverpool got tight to Arsenal’s midfielders and pressed them high thus denying the ball out. Wilshere should help Arsenal’s ball circulation and is more comfortable making a double-pivot when the side needs it. Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons for Arsenal’s disorganisation is the fact that the formation is designed to flit in and out of a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 but it lacks the application at the moment to make it work.

Thomas Vermaelen makes Arsenal more secure

  • One plus for Arsenal, however, was the performance of ThomasVermaelen. He won almost everything  and often compensated for the errors and inexperience of others. Even with two left-footers at the back and one of them a debutant in Ignasi Miquel, he was still unflustered and even tried to give Arsenal some impetus with his surging runs. It’s no coincidence Laurent Koscielny looks better at the back with Vermaelen but as soon as quick as one solution was found, another problem arises and sure enough, Koscielny was forced off with a back spasm. It compounded more misery to a makeshift back four who, by playing one inexperienced full-back and one on the wrong side, were unable to bring the ball out effectively.

Forwards ineffective

  • While one may wonder why Theo Walcott merited an autobiography this early in his career, the revelation that Fabio Capello tried to curb his runs inside is a curious insight. Here against Liverpool, it set an interesting backdrop to whatever he did but whatever he did, were almost irrelevant. His runs inside were of little use if Arsenal failed to hold the ball effectively and by drifting inside early on in Arsenal’s build-up, was not available to pick the ball up out wide. Nevermind he was marked out of the game by the fantastic Jose Enrique, those runs have become less useful if Arsenal are not working the ball well. That almost also makes the work of Robin van Persie redundant as his movement to drop deep to find space was effective last season because of the central build up before switching the play wide. Not the other way round at is increasingly becoming now.
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Arsène Wenger will have to find a way to recreate Samir Nasri’s craft

After Samir Nasri had waltzed through the Fulham defence – twice – to score two goals for Arsenal in their 2-1 win in December, The Guardian ran the rather flattering headline, “Samir Nasri evokes memories of Best.” Now, some would question the wisdom of a comparison between one of the greatest players in a generation and one who’s career is just fledgling but footballers should be allowed comparisons. The initial feeling of awe and overriding ecstasy can be so large that it induces such sentiments and superlatives and besides, comments like that are never meant to be taken at face value. However, watching it again and you can see why the goals at, descriptive level at least, evoke memories of the great player. Nasri tip-toed past his opposition defenders with much impudence and ease that it was reminiscent of the swagger of Best at a similar age. And on a destructive level, when was the last time a player was able to conjure up the same level mastery and skill to see off the opposition? Perhaps it hasn’t been so prevalent in the Premier League era but there are similarities between Nasri’s goals against Fulham andGeorge Best’s in the 1968 European Cup Final against Benfica.

Samir Nasri’s immediate comparisons are with Zinedine Zidane but Arsène Wenger is quick to play down the playing styles between the two. “The flexibility of his hips is similar to Zidane but Zidane was a different player,” he said. “Zidane was more a guy who creates openings through his skill, Nasri is more direct. Cesc Fabregas is a passer of the ball, Nasri is a guy who is more half-winger; a wing midfielder. He has his own style but he is quick and tricky and very flexible.”

To look at Nasri, you wouldn’t necessarily attribute him to the elegance and athleticism Wenger speaks about. His smile is slightly buck-toothed but that only adds to his boyish handsomeness. His play, splayed with trickery, cunning and a deceptive turn of pace indicates the intrepidity of a leader of a boy’s gang, harking back to the football he played on the streets of Marseilles. He has bulked up a bit also, he has a Bart Simpson belly almost, and has shown he has the determination and maturity to fight for his team, as displayed by the matches giving him the captain’s armband.

Nasri’s performances this season have been scintillating and has backed up Wenger’s faith in his players’ capability of delivering at the age of 23-24 years old. The loyalty and belongingness he feels for the club is part of what the youth policy aims to instil and Nasri wants to stay for longer. “Samir is happy at the club, the coach believes in him, the directors believe in him as well,” told his agent, Jean-Pierre Barnes to the Daily Express. “He said to me, ‘You won’t believe the great atmosphere in the changing room, I’ve rarely experienced anything like this.’”

The rise has been almost inexorable but whereas last season, he was sometimes criticised for not being assertive enough on the ball, this season he has added a ruthlessness and dynamism to his game which has been crucial to Arsenal’s challenge. Playing on the right side at the beginning of the campaign but recently moving to the left with a smattering  of matches in the middle, Nasri has scored 14 goals in 28 matches and has been tipped, like one former Arsenal midfielder, to bag the individual player prizes at the end of the season. There looked no stopping him, that is, until a hamstring injury on 33 minutes of the 2-1 win over Huddersfield struck. The Frenchman is set to be out for three weeks and because of his importance to the team’s dynamics, Arsène Wenger will have to try and recreate his style in his absence.

One of Samir Nasri’s main assets is his versatility. Whether on the right or left side of the front three this season, he almost acts as a balancer to Arsenal’s lop-sidedness in the 4-3-3. With a forward on the other side – earlier this season it was Andrey Arshavin, recently it has been Theo Walcott – his ability to mix up his game gives Arsenal a variety and an unpredictability. He has the temerity to take on his opponents and create chances but a criticism of Arsenal has been they are too elaborate at times, so his ability to get behind has been very effective for The Gunners. Against Tottenham, he bamboozled Benoit Assou-Ekoto by making a diagonal run centrally to open the scoring and did that all day against Fulham, so much so that the starting left-back, Matthew Briggs, had to be taken off midway through the first-half. “Like every player that is good on the ball he was too much attracted by the ball,” said Wenger when analysing Nasri’s impact. “We wanted him to do more runs off the ball, going in behind [the defence] without the ball because we have many players who can give him the ball.”

But perhaps most impressively is the understanding and link-up he has struck up with Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie in recent matches. The triumvirate’s mixture of technical excellency, intelligence and dynamism makes for a potent partnership and the interchange between the three cannot be rivalled in the Premier League. With all of them on the pitch, responsibility can be shared; losing one of them and it places more demands on other two to create. Against Everton, Wenger attempted to try the slightly out of form Tomas Rosicky on the left (although much of it down to a lack of minutes) due to his combination of creativity and guile. However, partly down to Everton’s marking game, dropping their two wingers back to double up on Arsenal’s wide men, Rosicky was unable to influence. As it was, Andrey Arshavin, who was similarly out of form, was introduced and his directness, brought Arsenal back into the match.

But therein lies Wenger’s conundrum; if he starts with Arshavin, Arsenal will have a speed about their game and the ability to get the ball forward quickly but due to his individualism, will lose protection out wide. Nasri and Walcott have done well to cover the spaces on the flanks, thereby alleviating some of the inefficiencies the side had earlier in the season and have allowed the team to press better. With Rosicky, you will get the latter because of his abilities as a half-winger but may lack a bit of penetration and sharpness to balance the system. With a crucial month in February that may decide Arsenal’s season, it’s a dilemma Wenger and Arsenal will need to address.

Samir Nasri dazzles but structural problems still persist

Arsenal 2-1 Fulham

The similarities are uncanny. The balletic elegance, the dazzling dribbles that begin with a drop of a shoulder and leave the opponents mesmerised; the impudent disregard of the opponent with the ball at the feet and the cool composure in front of goal. Samir Nasri evoked memories of Zinedine Zidane with his two goal salvo against Fulham on Saturday, yet, comparisons between the two feel somewhat like they shouldn’t be entertained. The Arsenal midfielder is it doing from the flanks. Which is, of course, where Zidane played towards the end of his career at Real Madrid but not after he redefined the role of the playmaker. Samir Nasri looks at home here.

When he signed from Marseille in 2008, Nasri showed flashes but for every dazzle, there was deceit and he looked like a frustrated playmaker shunted further away from play. But for creative schemers like Luis Figo, he has found the wings allow space to wreak havoc and when he cuts inside, as he did for both of his goals, the opposition defence is found wanting. Arsene Wenger has been patiently waiting for Nasri to bloom into fruition and and one can see why as it’s easy to see how he perfectly fits into Arsenal’s system. It’s a dual role he has (which we identified last season that Arsenal needs to improve on), half as a playmaker and half as a winger, which he fully understands now.

Wenger said before the 3-2 defeat to Tottenham:

“You see he is improving and see where his potential is and you think he is going the right way,’ Wenger added. ‘It is normal that at 23 you are better than at 22. ‘If you ask him, he will want to play in the middle. If you ask me, at the moment, I see him more on the flanks, but it’s not like our players on the flanks are prisoners of that zone.”

And after the 2-1 win over Fulham, he added:

“We scored two exceptional goals from Samir that were a combination of touch, intelligence, special talent and calmness. He needed to be patient to finish in both situations and he did very well. I’m happy because he had a game that at the start was only based on coming to the ball and now he has more variation in his game. His game is improving and of course he is more efficient.

Like every player that is good on the ball he was too much attracted by the ball. We wanted him to do more runs off the ball, going in behind [the defence] without the ball because we have many players who can give him the ball.”

Nasri’s two goals evoked “memories of Best”, was the Guardian’s headline but it came with a caveat as the “defence is laid bare”, it continued. Arsenal simply tore apart Fulham in the first 20 minutes but the Cottagers gradually came into the match with each chance Arsenal failed to put away. Much of the Gunners dominance in the first quarter of the match, lay in the way the front four performed.

Andrey Arshavin, Tomas Rosicky and Marouanne Chamakh looked lively every time the ball went forward (although in the case of Chamakh, the ball spent too much time going backwards as he passed up one too many shooting opportunities to tee-up someone else) but they were also impressive as a form of defence. The quartet hardly allowed Fulham time and space to pass the ball out and that was typified by the first goal. The midfield forced a pass back which was miscontrolled by Aaron Hughes allowing Arshavin to pounce on the loose ball. His pass found the penetrative run of Nasri and he rounded two players with such impudent ease before smashing Arsenal into the lead. Nasri’s second goal was just as good and he had time pirouette on to his right foot to give Arsenal the three points.  That was of course before Diomansky Kamara had equalised and Fulham gave Arsenal quite a scare.

The bookmakers and critics alike see Arsenal as third favourites because of a certain fallibility they have in defence. Fulham’s goal could certainly be classed as unlucky as Laurent Koscielny became dazed when he collided with Sebastien Squilacci but the Emirates crowd could sense an equaiser coming. Kamara had already tested the offside trap on a couple of occasions and the law averages said he would do again if things remained like it did. And he did, although that after he had scored, as Fabianski did well to deny the striker one-on-one just before the break. The high line, which has not been as high as in previous seasons, was forced to push up as the central defenders sought to compromise for the space conceded in front. A compromise which, judging by his recent quotes; Arsene Wenger is fully aware of.

“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.”

arsenal ful 1

<Figure 1> Arsenal press Fulham. The front four’s marking duties are displayed as Hughes has the ball in defence. Rosicky acts as the second forward while Wilshere and Song back up the quartet’s closing down.

As shown by figure 1 Arsenal looked to press high up the pitch. It is perhaps, less intense than last season, only due to the fact it has now become more strategic. Last season, it often felt like a flurry of red and white shirts at the man in possession. Now, as the front four press, each with a duty to man mark – not tightly but in close proximity to one of the back four – Jack Wilshere and Song, back up by getting tight to eliminate the next nearest passing options – the two holders. This worked well in the first few minutes but even if pressing is hard to maintain for the whole ninety – strategic defending aims to soften the intensity required – Premier League opponents often find a way to escape by playing directly. Suddenly the tables were turned and Fulham pressed higher up the pitch, but they also gave Arsenal problems because they aimed the ball quicker to Kamara while midfield runners looked to support him.

If the front four press it places huge demands on the two holders. That means they must cover the space around them and with Arsenal’s emphasis on squeezing the space high up, that means a compromise behind. A long ball from the defence (figure 2) can expose this space and getting back means a great deal of intensity needs to be exerted by Song and Wilshere. As a result, the game lost its structure somewhat and the second-half became end-to-end.

a-v-fulham-2

<Figure 2>How the pressing affects the unit. As Arsenal press, gaps enlargen behind which Fulham looked to take advantage of as they became more direct in the second-half.

Arsene Wenger feels if Arsenal can score more, those structural inefficiencies can be offset. However, that is surely fanciful. It remains to be seen if it’s a peccadillo that can be bettered as the season wears on but at the moment, it’s more like a scab which, if the opposition can pick upon it, will always leave Arsenal vulnerable.