Exploring the Chance Quality Index: Why more chances doesn’t necessarily mean more goals

Karthik (KV) seeks to establish why more chances don’t necessarily mean more goals.

How do you win a football game? The simplest answer would be to score more goals than the other team. So, how do you score more goals than the other team? Create more chances than the other team and you are likely to score more than them. How accurate is that statement? Not very accurate, in fact. What we can conclude with certainty is that, the team that creates chances of higher quality is likely to score more compared to the other team.

At every press conference that Arsene Wenger has had to attend in the past few years, he would respond to the customary question on possible transfers by stating that he always opts for ‘quality over quantity.’ Signing a player of top quality is more important than signing 3-4 players just to fill the void. We can apply the same principle to chances created. The probability of scoring from a chance of very high quality is more compared to scoring from three chances of mediocre quality. For better clarity, OPTA describes a chance as ‘assists plus key passes.’ Is it possible to measure the quality of a chance? Yes, that is what I have tried to do in the following lines.

The factors affecting the quality of a chance are:

  1. Distance from the goal
  2. The angle by which the goal is visible.
  3. The number of opponent players surrounding the player with the ball.

Based on this, we can say that Chance Quality is:

  1. Inversely proportional to the distance from goal.
  2. Inversely proportional to the number of opponent players surrounding the player taking the shot.
  3. Inversely proportional to angle A as shown.

Therefore,

C.Q.I = cos(A)/D*P

Where, A is the angle between the line joining the centres of the two goals and the line joining the centre of the goal to the point from where the shot is taken. D is the distance between the centre of the goal and the point from where the shot is taken. P is the number of opposition players close to the player when the shot was taken. It is to be noted that Cos of the angle A is taken because, due to the property of the Cos function, as A increases, Cos(A) decreases and that is exactly what we need.

The Ade”Can’t hit a barn door”bayor problem:

If you rewind a few seasons back to the 2008-09 season, you would realize that Arsenal lost 6 games, drew 12 and finished fourth. Teams that we lost to included Fulham, Hull City, Aston Villa and Manchester City. All of them won by a one goal margin (except for Man City) and all the games were dominated by Arsenal, in regards to possession. The number of shots taken by Arsenal also outnumbered the other teams, but the other teams just sat deep and chose the right moment to counter attack and create chances which had a high C.Q.I rating (statistics have shown that 43% of the chances created from transitions get converted to goals). At that time, everyone were busy criticizing the finishing of the Arsenal strikers like Emmanuel Adebayor and the inability of our defensive midfielders to stop perform better and not concede(Alex Song and Denilson), when the actual problem was that Arsenal lacked the creative firepower to breakdown teams and create high quality chances. A study on the recently concluded Barca-Milan game showed that, while Barca dominated possession(65%) and had 18 shots on target compared to Milan’s six, Milan had the best opportunity to score in the game, with a shot that had a C.Q.I rating of 0.08(which looks like a small number, but is actually higher than other shots).

The only shot off target by Milan proved pivotal – it was the best chance of the game, missed by Robinho with no defenders in front.

How can the C.Q.I be of help?

A higher C.Q.I pass means a better chance of scoring. So, players who create more number of C.Q.I passes are extremely valuable to the team. For example, in the Barca-Milan game, Xavi, Messi and Dani Alves created chances with high C.Q.I rating and they were also the best players on the pitch. It can also be used to analyse games and bring about changes. Iniesta wasn’t creating much, so Rodrigo Tello came on and immediately created a chance with a fairly high C.Q.I rating. It can even help develop tactics. For instance, we know that counter attacks tend to result in goals 43% of the time, so it makes sense to leave a player that creates high C.Q.I chances high up the pitch (like Messi). ‘The Invincibles’ Arsenal team had great players like Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires who created chances with high C.Q.I and won games playing counter attacking football.

Conclusion

So often coaches have bemoaned the loss of a game which they felt they had deserved but succumbed because the other team just purely finished their chances. It happened last night with Barcelona claiming they should have won when in fact, they failed to create a better chance than Milan which was fired over by Robinho early on. Indeed, one article after the game questioned why Robinho regularly gets picked even though he hits the target with 44% of his shots and misses some great chances to boot (Ibrahimovic has 60%;  El Shaarawy’s, Pato 52%). (As it turned out, the author concluded that goals are not everything as Robinho causes trouble with his movement – and that’s what creates chances for Milan).

While in it’s infancy (give us the funding!), Chance Quality Index has it’s merits if anything to challenge the established conceptions of chances and the likelihood of winning a game. Indeed, it was Wenger who once remarked, “the measure of football is the ratio of chances created to chances conceded” and that he concluded means Arsenal deserve to win the game as they have dominated. This is surely dependent on the quality of chances you create, is it not?

If that is true, however, then Arsenal should follow the route of Barcelona who believe possession is “nine-tenths” of the game. That should ensure Arsenal keep down the number of shots they concede which is currently at 10 per game in the league (and consequently, help them press better) – Barcelona’s is 7 despite both teams creating on average 17 shots per game. But that is patently not Arséne Wenger’s style as he says he’d rather a player who takes in a risk in their passing in the final third than play it safe – for Barcelona, it’s all about the quality of the chance. Wenger prefers urgency and while we are seeing a better drilled Arsenal this part of the season, the fact that they have gone down in half of the games recently, shows there’s gaps in the system.

It’s unfortunate Milan-Barcelona yielded no goals; it seemed the perfect encounter to experiment CQI because it carried with it, the old adage that possession (for Barcelona) should equal chances and consequently, a win – but that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, good chances are harder to come by when defences defend deep as Milan did because the attacking team is hindered by a lack of time and space. Milan on the other hand, had less chances but the best one on the night as Robinho fired over. Had the chance fell to Ibrahimovic, it might have gone in. That’s one of the issues with C.Q.I; it’s still subjective as much as it tries to quantify the art of the chance. Because some players are much more composed in front of goal. Take for instance, Thierry Henry’s goal against Leeds in the FA Cup; for some players, the chance may be harder due to the angle, the defender haring down on Henry’s back and not to mention the technique. But such was the familiarity of him in that position, it was almost a 10 out of 10 chance. It’s notable that in the game against Milan, coincidentally enough, Wenger altered the system so Henry could get into such situations. But it’s probably not the varying expertise of the player taking the shot that’s most important with the Henry chance; sometimes the angled shot IS the optimal way to score.

Back to the goalless draw at the San Siro, Pep Guardiola might have argued that his side deserved to win but Milan might have been the most aggrieved as a shot in the third minute flew over. It proved pivotal.

Advertisements

The evolution of Robin van Persie

van persie liverpool

Not a week goes without a prelude to Robin van Persie but every time, he seems to justify it. This week, he single-handedly – well almost as he required wonderful goalkeeping from Wojciech Szczesny and some woeful finishing from Liverpool – earned Arsenal a 2-1 win at Anfield. And again he scored a technically perfect goal. There were some who criticised Pepe Reina for being beaten at the near post but such is his expert technique that he killed the ball dead from Alex Song’s lofted pass to volley pass Reina. His first, however, was a bit more banal but van Persie has made a habit of scoring such goals and that’s significant because a couple of seasons, such a transformation didn’t seem possible.

Van Persie has been crucial to Arsenal even as early as 2005 but his involvement was regularly curtailed by injury; he has only played more than forty games in two seasons. But back then, he was playing as a number 10, the role previously assumed by Dennis Bergkamp. He had the same swivel of the hips, the deliciously dinked passes and the ability to score spectacular goals but many question his maturity. Even so, considering that he was liable to miss matches, some would also question whether playing van Persie in such a crucial position was a wise idea. It needn’t matter because Arséne Wenger thought not to consign him to a number on the pitch. He’s a “football player,” said Wenger. “Who you expect to create something special. You do not think they have to score so many goals, they added that to their game.”

Wenger initially deployed van Persie in 2009, in a roaming capacity in a role nowadays referred to as the “false nine.” It worked a treat but no sooner had van Persie got the hang of it, he succumbed to injury. It wasn’t until 2011 when we saw the best of him again but he had refined his game and has since gone on a superb goalscoring run (currently on 43 league goals in 46 games). Indeed, that has been a rarely-talked about part of van Persie’s evolution: each time Wenger has implemented a series of tactical and strategic changes to their play, van Persie has adapted and yet consistently delivered the goals.

Playing as the false nine in 2009, van Persie brought others into play with his movement which, at the time, was crucial because it allowed those strikers vying with him for a central role to remain involved, Nicklas Bendtner and Eduardo could still play alongside him on the right and left of the attack, respectively. Just as significant, Arsenal no longer required such a tactically demanding player to play alongside Cesc Fábregas; the three man midfield that they used ensured that the multitude of creative players they possessed could be used. When he finally put his injury curse behind him midway through the 2010/11 season, his goalscoring came to the fore, necessary because Arsenal were shorn of their most creative player, Fábregas, and he constantly had to bail out the team out with his spontaneity. And this season, van Persie’s explosiveness typifies Arsenal’s new-found back-to-front directness but were it not for his goals, we’d probably be talking about how monumental a failure the tactic is. Either side of him, Gervinho and Theo Walcott haven’t nearly scored enough goals and as the captain, van Persie is right to deflect attention to their creative output but even Wenger would have expected his three-striker system to yield more goals beyond his talismanic forward. (Wenger: “We have players who deliver fantastic numbers of assists – I think Gervinho and Walcott are among the best providers in the world if you look at the number of assists. But I know there are more goals in them and I am sure from midfield we need some goals as well. They will be welcome tomorrow.”)

The above reason also serves as another reason why van Persie is a perfect captain for this club, beyond his stature amongst the players, as van Persie’s leadership is also tactical. The Dutchman works so hard to get back into position when the team defends, acting as the reference point for their defensive structure (or the half press which they tend to use). He alludes to this example by action in an interview for Arsenal.com, stating the somewhat obsessive need to perfect his average of 11.5km covered per game. Which, on it’s own, is an extraordinary statistic but even more so because it comes from a striker; normally, you’d expect a midfielder to work as hard as van Persie does. (Van Persie covers the most distance of any player in the Premier League at 6.148 miles per game).

Talk of anyone being the most “complete striker” might seem a bit exaggerated but in van Persie’s case, it’s wholly justified (backed up by Arrigo Sacchi no less, the legendary coach who advocated a universalistic style made by universalistic players). Van Persie’s movement is superb, dragging defenders all over the pitch. Indeed, Jurgen Klopp, Borussia Dortmund’s manager, says he’s “rarely ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box.” The coach, in the 3-1 defeat away to Arsenal, promised to stop the supply to van Persie to stop him from scoring but the nature of his play was an altogether unfamiliar threat. Van Persie constantly peels of his marker, whether playing on the shoulder or picking up possession. And if he does pick up the ball around the box, all manner of things can happen – he essentially made the second against Liverpool possible with his movement followed by his excellent technique – which highlights the joy of Robin van Persie at the moment and long may it continue because he’s deserved it.

Van Persie’s evolution can almost be seen as a journey; he has gone from number 11 from his time as a winger for Feyenoord, to a number 10, to a false 9 before making the final transition to where he is now as a number 9. But naturally of course, Robin van Persie says he’s neither; he’s a 9-and-a-half.

Eight points on Arsenal 2-1 Sunderland

Isn’t it nice to have normality for once? In a sense, this was a typical Arsenal home performance. They dominated the first quarter of the match and for all the world looked like their technical superiority will run wild before a chronic aberration before half-time contrived to throw open the game. The rest of the match is then played in the attacking half as Arsenal push forward in search of the winner. Robin van Persie provided it and also opened the scoring, taking his tally in 2011 to 23 goals in 25 games. It’s a fantastic return but one that highlights the imbalances of this Arsenal side, namely the reliance on their captain. Here are some observations from the 2-1 win over Sunderland.

1. Little Mozart pulls the strings

Arsenal showed great link-up and interchange in the first 25 minutes and much of the reason why was the ambiguity the midfield three played with. Mikel Arteta often dropped deep to pick up the ball thus allowing Alex Song to push up while Tomáš Rosický roamed. As a result Sunderland found it difficult to mark. They matched up in the centre in terms of formations, both sides playing a variant of the 4-3-3 although Sunderland’s was much more defensive; a 4-5-1 in fact. Rosický in particular, revelled from the extra movement around him and was key in the first goal. He gave Arsenal an urgency on the ball and as displayed by his passing graphic, made a number of passes in the final third. It’s a shame he couldn’t sustain it but that was perhaps expected, having come off a gruelling international schedule. Nonetheless, his replacement, Yossi Benayoun, showed spark after coming on. Most encouragingly though, is Rosický’s with Arteta which looks very impressive.

03Z9K

 

2. Reliant on Robin?

There are some statistics which suggest Robin van Persie has had to play more orthodox this season (such as no. of dribbles, dispossessed) although they’re not as revealing as his main stat; the goals he has scored. 51% of Arsenal’s league goals in 2011 have come from the Dutchman and he looked Arsenal’s best chance of scoring on Sunday. He’s crucial to the way Arsenal play but the team might not be as reliant on van Persie as the statistics seem to suggest. That’s because Arséne Wenger simply hasn’t given as much game time to his other strikers, tending to stick to what works. And that means more minutes – and invariably goals – for van Persie.

3. Mikel Arteta: the new Denilson

But only better. Arséne Wenger may have searched long and hard for a replacement for Cesc Fábregas but his most taxing search has been looking for a second-function midfielder to give security to Arsenal when they attack. After Gilberto, Flamini, Denilson, Diaby and Wilshere have all played that role while Melo and M’vila had been heavily linked and Arteta is the newest name on the list. He gives Arsenal “technical security,” as Wenger said after the 1-0 win over Swansea but he has measured his sharp passing with discipline, something which Arsenal sorely need.

Replace Denilson with Arteta in this quote Wenger made in 2009 of the Brazilian on loan at São Paulo but make sure you repeat the caveat “only better” when you finish.

Denilson Arteta gives us stability. Because we’re a team that goes forward, we need to win the ball back in strong positions and he contributes to that. He’s a good passer and keeps it simple – which is always a sign of class.”

4. Arsenal’s biggest flaw

Sunderland came back into the game with 25 minutes gone and by the end of the half, could have went into the interval leading. Lee Cattermole’s header was superbly blocked by Wojciech Szczęsny after Sebastian Larsson had equalised and it came after a period of sustained pressure by Sunderland. They pressed Arsenal higher and effectively man-marked their midfielders ensuring any space to be found had to be hard earned. Not coincidentally, Arsenal’s pressing game relaxed – and it seems it’s a common occurrence in this part of the match this season – and this invited Sunderland at them. Arsenal’s biggest flaw has been their relaxed pressing – which in fairness has gotten better each game – which focuses on shape first before closing down. Sunderland felt that if they got tighter to Arsenal and press their midfielders, they could turn the game into a scrap. They succeeded in this period – and thankfully in this period only – to trouble Arsenal although it might be stressed, fairly sporadically. The boos at half-time seem to suggest otherwise, though.

03Q2LArsenal’s passes when they dominated in first-half (0-25mins) and when Sunderland pressed (25-45mins)

 5. Laurent Koscielny remains unsung

The player with the best aerial success in the Premier League? Tick. Arsenal’s heading woes may be well documented but Laurent Koscielny stands on the shoulders of giants in this regard….ahem, excuse the pun. His overall aerial success rate was at 86% before the game (12/14) and against Sunderland, he won 6 out of 7 of his challenges. He’s just as good on the ground too, often nipping in to steal the ball and making crucial interceptions but his covering of the full-back was his most impressive contribution on Sunday.

6. Carl Jenkinson’s party trick

He likes to cross it and he’s very good at it too, putting real bend and whip to his deliveries at the most times. Just as well Arsenal are the footballing equivalent of Ronny Corbett in the box.

03FQM

7. Emphasis on forward three after Cesc departure/Wilshere injury

In Wenger’s attempts to make Arsenal more dynamic, he’s willing to let the three forwards stay up the pitch. That means there can often seem to be a disjointedness between Arsenal’s attack and midfield – which is heightened greater by Cesc Fábregas’s departure. But because no-one, apart from Alex Song, perhaps, is fully comfortable making through-passes, the playmaker role is now shared. Dynamism then, is expected to come from the forward three who are given more license to move around the pitch. So far, Gervinho and Theo Walcott are yet to fire but ifthe three striker ploy works, as they tried in pre-season, it could be deadly.

8. Sunderland had van Persie’s free-kick coming

Without Jack Wilshere, Arsenal have lacked that somebody to suddenly change the impetus of an attack down the centre. In past games, Alex Song has attempted to replace his drive has but overall on Sunday, as a team, Arsenal showed more willingness to run at defenders. They constantly won free-kicks at the edge of Sunderland’s box due to the Black Cats’ incessant tactical fouling – which I’d argue is as bigger evil than diving. Arsenal won 12 free-kicks in their opponent’s half and used four different takers – Arteta, Walcott, van Persie and Santos – to try and take advantage. Van Persie’s superb free-kick – the 2nd best of the day however – was just deserts for Sunderland’s persistent fouling to stop potentially more  damaging danger from materialising.

How do short, on the move strikers at Barcelona help break the bus?

Barcelona’s clever use of short, tricky forwards have made them an unpredictable force against defensive-minded teams and particularly have allowed Lionel Messi to revel. By Karthik (KV)
______________________________________________________________________________

At Camp Nou, Barcelona fielded a forward line of Messi, Bojan and Pedro to battle it out against the determined defense of Arsenal. One similarity between these players that springs to our mind is their height – all three are 170cm or less. How then did these players, with their slight build and a hardly awe-inspiring physique wreak havoc to Arsenal’s backline?

Movement

Movement is to Barcelona what oil is to a machine. Barcelona, arguably the most attacking team in the world, encounters teams week in and week out which just park the bus in front of their goal to stop Barcelona from scoring and playing freely. They are a side who rely heavily on movement to breakdown defenses and score goals. They require a well drilled, fast and a quick thinking frontline for their team to function properly. Bojan, who is an out-and-out striker by trade, possesses all these qualities. He is technically brilliant, intelligent, blessed with great ball control, balance, vision and devastating acceleration. “There are only a few players who have a magical touch,” the Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola said, “and Bojan is one of them.” As the spearhead of the attack, his movement along with Messi’s is vital to opening up space elsewhere for other players to make the most of. This cannot be more critical as the relentless machine that is Barcelona function superlatively only if there is no one restricting the flow. They need to keep getting better and find better ways to disintegrate defenses.

The unorthodox forward

In the olden times of England, the centre-forward tended traditionally to be a big target-man figure – what Brian Glanville intelligently labels as “the brainless bull at the gate”. His job was, essentially, to meet crosses and hold up the ball with his imposing form. Elsewhere, though, where skill was prioritized over physicality, he soon became something rather more subtle, and there is evidence to suggest that by the 1920s it was not uncommon for centre-forwards in central Europe and in Latin America to drop deep and roam around the ground freely. Over time, we have seen hybrid strikers who can hold the ball up and also play as a false nine leading the attack for most of the big clubs. But Bojan is a different type of striker. He may not quite offer the flexibility of style but he moves about the pitch without restraint in search of open spaces. This enhances the fluency of movement which the likes of Xavi and Iniesta crave for. “People think we had these big strong players, but we had guys like Evani and Donadoni who were slight. No they became big strong players because of their positioning and movement. That’s what made them seem big” said Arrigo Sacchi. Similarly, the likes of Messi, Bojan and Pedro compensate for their slight physique with intelligent movement and by dropping between the lines. Bojan is capable of playing on the wings too, which adds to his versatility.

The Decoy

Basketball is a game which is all about movement the movement of players on court. Teams plan beforehand and devise intricate plays to attract double teams and isolate a player. As play is generally compressed into one half, it is extremely interesting how much impact a simple movement from the center to the wing makes enough space for the man on the ball to drive inside. The man off the ball is as important as the man with it. The same comparison can be made on attacking teams like Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United which rely heavily on movement of players to score goals. Lionel Messi, most certainly the best player in the world, is used as a decoy by Pep Guardiola. The goals in the first leg of the quarterfinal match against Arsenal, demonstrate this. Defenders are attracted to him and neglect the presence of other players, who are just as capable of inflicting damage. In the average position graph above, we can clearly see the amount of space available for Xavi (6) to thread in his passes. Messi (10) has the ability to attract the direction of play towards him. With their movement, they will be able to outwit bigger and brawny defenders, which may be why Silvestre was drafted in place of Sol Campbell.

The Arshavin experiment

Arsene Wenger’s love for short players with meteoric acceleration led to his brief experiment with Andrey Arshavin, a shrewd player, up top as a Center Forward was largely a failure. Arshavin, who is 172 cm high, relied on swift movement to create space for others. But, due to the injury crisis at that time, the right personnel weren’t there to take advantage of his movements. Lack of penetration and dynamism on the wings were major reasons for the failure. But pushing Fabregas higher up the pitch seemed to be the right solution but the return of Bendtner, a hybrid striker himself, ended the short-lived experiment.

What next?

Will we see more of the Bojans and the Messis leading the line? May be not on a regular basis as things may get one-dimensional and easy to defend against. What the hybrid striker offers is flexibility of styles and options for the manager when things are not going as per plan. Ibrahimovic is certainly not the ‘brainless bull in front of the gate’ type of player. They may present an alternative such as the long ball, but not quite the fluency of movement that the players like Bojan and Messi offer. But they too are versatile in their own way, which may see more being deployed up front in the near future.

Next up: Analysing Arsenal’s Pressing Game.

Hybrid option Nicklas Bendtner can present a new dimension to Arsenal’s attack

Karthik (KV) explains how Nicklas Bendtner can bring back a much-needed presence to the Arsenal attack following the injury to Robin van Persie.
______________________________________________________________________________

“I want to be top scorer in the Premier League, top scorer at the World Cup and, within five years, I want to be among the best strikers in the world” were the lofty aims set by a giant striker at the beginning of the season. Nicklas Bendtner was on course to maturing into a top class hybrid striker before injury stopped his progress. Now with Robin van Persie injured, Arshavin has taken the ‘false 9’ role that the Dutchman made his very own, with mixed results. In this article, I will try to explore how Arsenal’s style of play can be impacted with the return of Nicklas Bendtner.

The return of the deadly Dane will add a new dimension to the team. It will influence everyone, even the goal keeper. Almunia will have an added option of “hoofing” the ball high up to either hold the ball or take it and attack. It allows the defenders and of course the midfielders to think differently.
In my previous article, I highlighted the use of our ‘strikerless’ system, where van Persie was the focal point. Due to the movement and the interchangeability provided by the 4-3-3 formation, we were able to thump most of the teams which came in our way. This is how our 4-3-3 strikerless formation works with van Persie as the false 9, against other teams who mostly line up in a 4-2-3-1.

The main purpose of this formation is to outnumber the two defensive midfielders by letting van Persie drop deep. He takes position with the deeper lying Central Midfieler as reference, i.e. he positions himself in between the CBs and the Defensive midfielder. This allows exchange of passes with pass master Cesc and puts the wingers, primarily Arshavin in goalscoring positions. All of a sudden the two double pivots are in an island surrounded by Arsenal players. They can pass around the double pivots without trouble.

Note that in the diagram, the wingers are positioned as decoys to keep the full-backs involved. In the absence of van Persie, Arshavin has taken the main forward position and has added his own tricks to the role.

What does Nicklas Bendtner bring to this role?

Before I begin, I would like you all to rewind a bit to the first goal we scored at the Merseyside few months back. At the heart of the move was Nicklas Bendtner who emphatically took out Leyton Baines and then passed it in. Later in the 6-2 mauling of Blackburn, he finished the rout by scoring a long ranger. Against Dynamo Kiev, he finished of a long over the top through ball from Fabregas. These goals highlight his versatility, adaptability and flexibility.

He has the technical ability, vision, passing and above all a sizeable frame to improve upon the job done by van Persie and Arshavin. The advantage with Bendtner is that, he can play as a ‘false 9’ or as an out and out striker. He is sure to win headers and he can also hold the ball up. In the graphic before, I explained how van Persie moves deeper to create confusion. But Bendtner can also move the opposite way without any trouble. He was employed in the wings to add dynamism in the first few matches of this season and to pose smaller full backs with an altogether different proposition because of his height. His dribbling skills and close control will help him succeed in the forward role while Sagna and Clichy (the left back in general) can also put in accurate crosses in the box for Nicklas to head in.

On the whole, Nicklas Bendtner presents a new dimension to the team and we will have more chances of scoring goals. In the coming decade, hybrid strikers like Bendtner, Ibrahimovic and Berbatov will often be called upon to spearhead the attack as they possess something of all the qualities required to lead the line. Their introduction will spell the end for specialist roles. The young Nicklas may not exactly be as good as Ibrahimovic, but he can certainly be even better with more games in that role.

“For me, a striker is not just a striker,” says Jose Mourinho. “He’s somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2.” The hybrid Dane certainly fits the description.

Tuesday:  Analysing Arsenal’s defensive game (I know I promised it two weeks ago but…boo hoo).

Roaming Robin the focal point in Wenger’s master plan

Robin van Persie’s new role at the tip of the Arsenal front three is sought to bring more variety to the side’s attacking play.
_______________________________________________________________________________RVP

Few would have had Thomas Vermaelen as Arsenal’s top scorer in the early stages of the season, not least because he is a defender but the Belgian had also yet to kick a ball in the Premier League before his £10million move from Ajax and who others decided against signing because of his height. And while it would have been surprising to him also, Arsène Wenger will argue it was all part of his master plan all along.

Wenger had been preparing for this current campaign towards the end of last season by switching the formation to a 4-2-3-1, one born out of necessity after the Gunners faltering title challenge but also allowing him to experiment from within. Games against Chelsea and Villarreal at home saw his side pressuring up the pitch at a high tempo; Alex Song and Samir Nasri dropped deeper while he was preparing for life after Emmanuel Adebayor by opting not to go with the Togolese striker for the final two games of the season.

But rather than go like-for-like with Nicklas Bendtner or “fox-in-the-box” Eduardo, his replacement was to be Robin Van Persie, the forward who had found his best work to be as the second striker. But in that the Dutchman had also found what was his most productive season, (largely because of staying injury free of course) making 10 Premier League assists and scoring 20 goals in all competitions. However it wasn’t a case of exaggerating his star performer’s skills but rather an attempt to make his fluid, attacking side more effective.

Arsenal had just gone through a frustrating season with teams like Stoke and Bolton knowing that men behind the ball could seriously disrupt their play. They were fully aware that Arsenal would only play one way and that was to play through them therefore all they had to do was to sit deep and stay focused for the full ninety in the hope of getting at least a result.

In anticipation of a potential repeat, Arsène Wenger has looked to alter the way his team works but still retaining the one-touch, pass and move style of build up. The switch to a 4-3-3 is more than just a means to accommodate the plethora of central midfielders in the side. It allows his team to pressure high up the pitch, bring the game early to opposition and allows more angles in the pass to keep the ball moving.

Robin Van Persie’s role as the central forward is key to this style. Fabio Capello says that “in the modern game, the only formation is 9-1,” which means teams must defend and attack as a team but also acknowledging the importance of the forward as a base which to build play around.

In this position the Dutchman is not necessarily inhibited by playing a role that he is not used but rather allowing him to do the things he is best at. He can drop deep, drag defenders out and make space for others to run into. There is so much space a team can deny behind you which invariably means conceding greater space in front. And with players like Fabregas who thrive on having the ball in such areas and the chance for others to interchange the potential danger becomes unexpectedly larger.

Pep Guardiola talks about the ‘llegada’ (arrival), a late arriver into the box who can progress beyond the forward unmarked, causing much surprise to the opposition defence and such a tactic is now a vital part in Arsenal’s game. “It can get a little bit lonely for him (van Persie),” says Wenger. “But that depends how quick and how massive the support is we give him. I believe that we work on that, you know? That he gets quick support and he needs people around him because he’s a combination player, more than a physical player. That’s why the distances within our side are important, that he’s not isolated.”

The unpredictability gives greater depth to attacks and makes it hard to mark players. In more than a couple of instances against Wigan, van Persie dropped into the centre circle and instantly Eduardo and Eboue darted in from the flanks and sought to take advantage of the space left behind. Late arriving midfielders is still a ploy which many teams find hard to deal, giving an element of surprise to attacks and more goals.

And as fitness improves, so do the demands of players therefore the next evolution in football is likely to be how the different players interpret their roles (maybe the return of the sweeper is on the cards?). For example Cristiano Ronaldo played on the left of a fluid 4-4-2 in Man United’s 2007/08 triumph but was expected to carry the same goalscoring duties of a striker while on the other side, Park Ji Sung despite playing in the same position per se, was more defensive, tracking back and pressuring but also expected to get in the box. We can see in the centre of midfield, while still a diamond in the rough, Diaby’s importance, as defensively he covers for the left forward and makes tackles for the team while his strong, late running is considered one of the best by Wenger.

Other subtle changes to the Arsenal set-up can sometimes see Alex Song drop back almost as the third centre back. The application and desire has improved among the ranks and the Cameroon ace has certainly shown the necessary advances to become a vital part of the team, stopping counter attacks by reading the game well. The full backs look to be more aware of transitions and are expected to squeeze the space against wingers and pin them back. And after having been criticised at the start of the season for lacking size, the Gunners have notched seven goals from free-kicks and corners as Wenger has realised the value of set-pieces and has fielded some of his tallest sides in recent seasons.

The French manager has also talked about the importance of distances and Arsenal need to make sure they are not being too stretched defensively. That means pressuring high and squeezing the space by pushing up. This is the area where Arshavin may be key as although his fitness levels are not the highest, the Russian puts in a hardworking shift closing down early on while his dynamism adds balance. “When you play with Arshavin you are never on your own, when you play with Theo Walcott you are never on your own,” Wenger told The Daily Telegraph. “Playing with strikers depends on the support you will get from the rest of the team. I wanted to see how it works because we have many offensive players and maybe we have to tighten up a bit in midfield to keep balance between offence and defence and I wanted to see how it works. I am quite happy with it.”

There is still much work to be done for the tactic to be a success in the long run with van Persie acknowledging there is still room for improvements in his all round game. And there will be days when things fail to click therefore Bendtner’s and Eduardo’s more orthodox manner will be called upon more centrally. But with 25 goals scored in eight matches (not including Carling Cup) and a hat full chances that could have gone either way in Manchester there’s every chance that Arsène Wenger has this time found the right formula.

Robin Van Persie represents new breed of ‘hybrid’ strikers

Robin Van Persie showed that he is more than a support striker by leading the line against Roma, a sign that the requirement and ability of strikers is changing.
____________________________________________________________________________robin-van-persie_1350374c1

“Van Persie is Dennis Bergkamp – with goals,” enthused Arsene Wenger before the game at Tottenham. And while the Dutchman failed to inspire Arsenal to a win against their North London rivals and the two goalless draws in between, Van Persie has been involved in all goals the Gunners have scored this year when he has been on the pitch. But against Roma he did what the Arsenal legend failed to convincingly do; lead the line by himself.

Of course Bergkamp was from a different era and ultimately of a different style, one of the best ever in his position but with his frame one may feel the Dutchman could have fulfilled that role. Indeed the closest players to his style now may be Dimitar Berbatov of Man United and Alan Dzagoev of CSKA Moscow who is a wonderfully fleet footed second striker, both all about touch and movement.

The fact that Robin Van Persie can play in this higher role signals an evolution in the requirement of strikers. “Robin’s always had the vision and the talent, but what really stands out for me is how he’s developed into a team player,” continued Wenger. “It’s a remarkable transformation. And the fact he is 25, you know he’s going to get better. His best years are in front of him.” His heading ability must not be underestimated and has great touch and balance but more crucially he is making the correct decisions, which is the difference in top level football.

Strikers have evolved and are now expected to do more; to use their intelligence to drop off into space and play in team mates while also being able to make runs to stretch opposition. Goalscoring need not be a forwards principle purpose; an increased mobility and interchangeability in strikers has lessened the need for the traditional ‘goal-poachers ‘ while there is a greater expectation on midfielders to contribute goalscoring-wise. “For me, a striker is not just a striker,” says Jose Mourinho. “He’s somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2.”

Tactically the game has changed with greater cautiousness especially of transitions in play. Defensively teams are stronger and the game could now be argued as one of many little battles where a goal poacher won’t have enough in his armoury to win and will require more work from team-mates.

As a result the traditional 4-4-2 is seen as harder to play. “I think 4-4-2 is simply the most rational formation in most cases. In fact, it’s the essence of reason. With a 4-4-2, 60% of your players are occupying 60% of the pitch. No other formation is as efficient in covering space,” Wenger says but even he has had to utilise Van Persie as the fifth midfielder by detailing him to track back. “If I have a triangle in midfield, Makelele behind and two others just in front, I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things. That’s why I think the popularity of 4-4-2 will come to an end in England. It has to. It does not work against teams like us.” All of Arsenal’s forwards can lead the line, play behind and out wide bar perhaps Adebayor. This allows the Gunners more flexibility and poses greater problems to opponents both tactically and individually, as essentially Arsenal could switch to a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 as displayed at Roma.

World Cup winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira even predicts that strikers may be a thing of the past. Wishful thinking it may sound but his notion is not unrealistic; it makes for harder marking, dragging defenders out with the movement to disrupt the tactical, compact block teams tend to defend in. “Systems are dying,” says Slaven Billic. “When defending, great teams want many behind the ball. When attacking, players from all sides. We have to be compact, narrow to each other. It’s about the movement of 10 players now.” When successful it is hard to mark as displayed by Man Utd last season as Ronaldo scored 42 goals while the other strikers still manager 15+ themselves. However effective utilization of movement requires great stamina which is one of the reason why the great Total Football sides had found it hard to continue.

With Arsenal’s five ‘hybrid’ strikers who can perform both roles of the forward in a 4-4-2 and more Arsenal can more easily than others achieve the balance of attacking fluidity and defensive solidity. Of course such strikers are not a new thing but the idea of them are as it was once thought teams should have a little and small partnership; one to run behind and one to link up and allow more variety. Fans who are not yet convinced of Bendtner usually feel the Dane should play as a natural target man but which is an old-fashioned notion. Yes maybe at the end of the game when the team should go gung-ho to save the match it is the best option but when you have two strikers who can do both, it can be more dynamic and less predictable.

While a Peter Crouch and a Micheal Owen have their merits as specialists, especially if things are not going well, it would be better if a team could have a player that can do both their jobs to get things right the first time.