Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Besiktas

August 19, 2014

For the second year running Arsenal have drawn a Turkish opponent in the final round of Champions League qualifying. Last season the Gunners made light work of a tricky game against Fenerbahce so they are favourites to go through at the expense of a team that finished the season 12 points behind the winners of the Super Lig.

I have only seen parts of their impressive preseason that includes wins over Chelsea and Fenerbahce, as well as an aggregate 5-2 victory over Feyenoord in the previous qualifying round. Slavan Bilic’s side come into this game high on confidence and with a strong defensive record. Their main strengths will be their organization, physicality, and hard work. Counter-attacks and set-pieces will be the main offensive weapons.

This could be the kind of game which suits their recently acquired striker as Demba Ba thrives in games where he gets space in the central attacking areas. Karin Frei, Gokhan Tore, and Olcay Sahan are quick, skilful players who can run at defenders and make a decisive contribution in attack. Ozyakup, the youngster who spent a few years with the Arsenal academy, is another talented attacking option at the manager’s disposal.

In order to keep them in check, and to counter the passionate and vociferous home crowd, the Gunners will have to control the ball and play with confidence. Any sloppiness/hesitancy in possession or errors at the start can completely change the dynamic of this game. In a way, this challenge is not very different from playing some of the mid-level Premier League sides except that the Turks have better final third quality and slightly better technical/tactical skills.

Once again, patience in attack, set-piece defending, and sharp tempo could be the key to winning the game. Wenger’s side don’t really need three points from the away leg but a good result here will help them generate some momentum before a tough test at Goodison Park.

It’ll be interesting to see if the manager goes for some changes to his starting eleven. Given the personnel he has, the entire front six could be different from those that started the League opener.

For instance, Wenger could go with – Flamini, Rosicky, Coquelin – Campbell, Giroud, Ox. Still looks pretty strong.

However, I don’t think wholesale changes are needed or advisable. Two or three changes are sufficient to maintain freshness without sacrificing continuity. The Arsenal manager has learnt from previous seasons that a strong line up in away games is the better choice. More changes can be made at home, particularly in a two-legged encounter in which the Gunners hold the advantage after the first game.

Giroud will most probably start as Sanogo has not travelled with the squad. Monreal will be another forced change. Both did well as substitutes in the previous game. One more change may come in the form of Chamberlain starting in place of Wilshere or Cazorla.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Debuchy, Chambers, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – Chamberlain, Giroud, Alexis.

Some might say Santi has not been in the best of form and should be left out. Many fans might prefer to start Campbell in the attacking trio. Ox or Rosicky can also be considered for a central midfield role.

The defence remains the only real area of concern from a depth point of view. Hopefully, we won’t see any injuries.

Wenger has many options and there isn’t one outstanding choice. You can form four or five starting elevens that can do the job and the bench should also hold a couple of quality players in every case. In that sense, it’s more down to the players to perform on the pitch rather than choices of the manager.

P.S. If you’re interested, Youtube has full match videos of their home game against Feyenoord as well as friendlies against Chelsea and Fenerbahce through this beIN Sport Channel.


Arsenal 2 – 1 Crystal Palace: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 18, 2014

The start to the Premier League was always going to be tough for the Gunners, as indeed it was for many other teams. Manchester United lost at home despite numerous seemingly strong performances in preseason. Everton drew, Tottenham got lucky, and the top two from last year had to fight very hard for their wins.

In that sense, and with the knowledge that the Gunners are missing key players, the result against Palace was a welcome one. As Wenger often says though, we must step back from the result and analyze the game without taking it into consideration.

It wasn’t a great game of football from the Gunners. There’s no denying that. At the same time, no one should turn a blind eye to the mitigating circumstances and the difficulties faced by other teams that are fighting for the same prizes. Our analysis must, therefore, differentiate between the problems that were understandable and excusable, and those that need to be addressed urgently.

I’d have easily accepted the reasons (insufficient preseason, key players missing, new players still adapting, etc) for the below par effort had this been a one-off performance. But look back at last season objectively and you’ll recall quite a few game against mid to low level teams where Arsenal had to grind out a result. Playing ugly and winning can be a good thing, but only when it’s a rare occurrence in an otherwise dominant run. Last season the Gunners had successful periods but they weren’t dominant ones. And that was the reason I wasn’t too excited about the title challenge. You could see it crumbling once the big games came around. The first blip came in December and then it was all over by the end of March.

Teams that have to consistently fight very hard to beat the smaller clubs will not be able to repeat those performances against the big sides who offer a much more potent attacking threat and are, as an extension, more secure at the back. So, while we should acknowledge the issues that affect the team, it’s very important to also realize there are certain deeper problems that offer genuine cause for concern.

1) Too slow in the central third

I was expecting Palace to sit a little deeper with their two lines right on top of each other with a gap of around 5-7 meters. For a while, thus, it surprised me when they seemed to be pressing around the centre line. Closer observation made things clearer.

Palace were really just sitting back, about 10-15 yards inside their own half, while maintaining good spacing from a defensive point of view. The Gunners had the ball around the centre line but instead of moving it around quickly, too many players were looking to make something happen all the time. Their desire and spirit were admirable but their tactical maturity and game intelligence were not.

When pass-and-move works as it’s supposed to, the opponents are constantly chasing the ball and have very little time to catch their breath. But sometimes the players in possession don’t make the simple pass that’s become available due to a teammates movement and instead wait for another opportunity for a better pass further forward. This discourages the teammate who’s showed for the ball while the others up front are waiting because they have very little space in a congested area. The rhythm of the possession game is disrupted and the opponent gets a chance to close the ball down higher up the pitch.

This explains how the Eagles were able to press the ball in the centre. They were not very good at it though and committed many fouls. They committed 19 fouls in this game and 12 of those came in the central third of the pitch.

12/19 fouls in the central third

12/19 fouls in the central third

Better teams would have a few successful tackles there instead of the fouls and these would lead to very dangerous counter-attacking opportunities.

To an extent, Arsenal’s problem was understandable. The two players on the right flank were debutants and the midfield combination, with Wilshere and Ramsey in box-to-box roles, isn’t the usual one. Sanogo hasn’t played too many games at the centre of the attack either. It’s hard to find fluidity under such circumstances.

Most of Wenger’s teams played their best football when the players get a run of games together and there is some stability. While it is completely understandable, it’s also not good enough to win the major titles anymore. Injury problems, need for rotations, fixture congestion, and other factors mean that the same line up cannot play bulk of the games. It is, as a result, absolutely imperative that Wenger finds a way to develop the tactical level of his players so they can find the fluidity irrespective of the starting eleven and other circumstances.

They have to rely on their passing and movement to create pockets of space rather than waiting for space to appear in which they can play the killer pass. It can be tedious, but the degree of precision and efficiency they achieve in this process will have a direct bearing on where they finish the season.

2) Defensive thought and set-piece preparation

Palace were resolute in defence and worked very hard. Credit to them for that. However, it’s impossible to say they offered any offensive threat whatsoever. Despite that, the Gunners some contrived to make mistake after mistake in gifting them a goal. This is another major cause for concern.

It started with a poor pass from Chambers. Part of it is excused by his youthful exuberance and inexperience. We can also appreciate that he was trying to do something positive. This though, was another case of a player taking unnecessary risk when many simpler options were available. It is very important that defensive players (Centre Backs, Defensive Midfielders, Full Backs in defensive positions) are constantly aware of the shape of the team at any given moment and work very hard to ensure they don’t lose the ball. And never in a central area because that completely opens the game up for the opponent.

Once Chambers gave the ball away and the counter-attack was on, the second mistake came from Szczesny. He’s been trying to play the sweeper, as was obvious from a couple of preseason games, but he clearly doesn’t know how to pick the right moments. I thought Koscielny was in a good position to deal with the ball and the Pole could have stayed back without any problems.

Having decided to charge forward, Szczesny again betrayed his inability to assess danger as he lumped the ball forward into a very dangerous area where there was no teammate to challenge a grateful opponent. I don’t know whether he was trying to play a pass-cum-clearance, in which case it was poor execution, or if simply didn’t think about what he was doing. The best option for the ‘Keeper in such cases is to put the ball out of play. This gives everyone a chance to get back into position. Obviously, he’d have to adjust his body shape as he arrived at the ball in order to hit it towards the touchline. Time would not have been a problem had he been clear about it from the moment he sensed danger.

The errors by Chambers and Szczesny show a lack of defensive thought that has repeatedly plagued the Arsenal defence over the years in one form or another.

Koscielny made a good block (although the shot was probably going wide) and then a good tackle as the ball went out of play. The danger should have been averted but for Arsenal’s set-piece vulnerability.

There must have been some analysis in the summer that suggested that the Gunners didn’t need a man on any post. Maybe there is merit to it, which will be proven in the long run. This is something we should keep an eye on.

The main problem in defending that corner seemed to be a poor understanding of roles.

For instance, Sanogo was at the near post. Usually strikers are needed there and do a good job of clearing such balls. However, when Chamakh made a run and took up a position just in front of him, the youngster seemed confused. Koscielny then pointed, and presumably said something, after which the lanky forward went a couple of steps ahead to mark one of his predecessors. That little movement probably meant the ball was able to float over his head and drop perfectly for Hangeland.

The goalscorer’s run and Arsenal’s response to that also showed the problems with the requirements of the system as understood by the players. Initially, it was Sanchez marking the giant defender. In fairness, the Chilean was simply marking a zone (probably pre-assigned in training) that the Norwegian was occupying. At first Alexis went with the run of the former Fulham man, as if by instinct. And then, confused, he let him go, glancing back with a worried look to check if his zone had been compromised. All this while, Koscielny was not aware of his counterpart’s movement and it was too late by the time he reacted.

A lot of these things came together for that goal to materialize. Had Arsenal put a man on the back post, or if Sanogo had held his ground, or if Sanchez communicated to Koscielny the moment Hangeland made that run, this goal could have been averted or at least made much harder to score with pressure on the header.

Mertesacker’s return should help things but I think a lot more work is needed on the training ground.

3) Too many take-ons

The Gunners attempted 37 take-ons and lost most of them.

Arsenal Take-ons

Alexis was successful with 3 of his 10 attempts. Ramsey managed 1 out of 6. Sanogo had a fifty percent success rate from his four attempts and Cazorla did just better with 5 out of 8 (although he lost a couple that broke promising moments down).

This numbers are too high and corroborate the tendency to do too much as discussed earlier. When things are not going your way it’s better to revert to the basics and keep things simple. I’d rather they lost possession trying intricate combinations with quick touches, or when making more runs in behind, or via intercepted through-balls rather than lost take-on attempts.

That said, we should see some improvement on this front once the players get their sharpness back. Nevertheless, it would be better if they’re aware of their sharpness levels and make appropriate choices based on that.

The Positives

Apart from the result of course, there were a few other details that were appreciable.

The equalizer was well worked and Koscielny’s header was clever because it was a tough angle.

I also liked the way the team kept going till the end. Wenger made good substitutions. Their concentration levels right at the end were excellent and I also enjoyed the way Koscielny and Giroud directed their headers purposefully.

Debuchy took up really aggressive positions and that can lead to threatening moments if used well.

Some other positives are covered in individual analysis.

This section is much smaller than the problem areas discussed above but don’t take that to be a ratio of the bad and the good from this game. Areas of concern need some elaboration and thus that write up is much longer. We expect Arsenal to win such games, which in turn implies the team is really good. There is no need to explain the strong points we see every day.

Individual Performances

Szczesny: Was a spectator for long periods. Handling was good when the ball did come at him. Didn’t have any saves to make. The lack of defensive thought discussed above is a concern. Could he have done more to organize the defence for the first corner?

Debuchy: Saw a lot of the ball and used it well. I loved his shot on the swivel in injury time and the positions he took up in the box when the ball was on the other flank. Wasn’t really tested in defence. I’m not sure if his aggressive positioning was just natural or part of the game plan. Will have to keep an eye on this in other games and see how it changes based on the opposition. It’s important that the full back doesn’t lose sight of his defensive duties or get in the way of his more talented teammates.

Chambers: One mistake, bad as it was, shouldn’t take too much away from an otherwise assured outing. Was confident on the ball, got tight to the attackers and made tackles when he had to, didn’t commit unnecessary fouls and was wise enough to make one when the opponent got away from him (we’ll have to see how he handles better and faster opponents). Had these moments of stepping out of the defence with the ball, but they seemed hesitant. He can do more with the ball but it’s only fair that some time and experience is needed.

Koscielny: Excellent goal, great block and tackle, good helping hand (or head) for the winner, could probably have done something more to prevent the goal, reliable distribution, seems like he’s picked up where he left off last season.

Gibbs: Was a lot more conservative when compared to his teammate on the other flank, which was a safe choice. Passing could have been better. Seems a little bit off his best at the moment.

Monreal: Was very good in the attacking areas with his positioning, runs, and passing. Gibbs could learn form that. His weakness in one-v-ones was not tested.

Apart from the mistakes discussed above, the defensive players had a very comfortable game. There were times when the full backs were diagonally opposite in the opposition half with Debuchy near the penalty area and Gibbs around the centre line. I’m not sure if this was a conscious tactical choices based on their qualities or if it just worked out that way.

Arteta: Typical game from Arsenal’s captain. Helped with ball circulation constantly, kept things simple and brought others into the game, got into good defensive positions, I liked the way he dropped back at times to let Chambers step up.

Ramsey: Another player who saw a lot of the ball and worked hard constantly. That said, it wasn’t a particularly good performance. He really needs to simplify his game and learn to pick his moments. I don’t know how long these decisive moments are going to last and it’d be a shame if the team dropped points when players are trying too hard.

Wilshere: Was a foul magnet. Played deeper than Ramsey and didn’t venture forward as much. A decent outing but passing could have been crisper/quicker.

Cazorla: He hasn’t looked at his best all through the preseason and this game wasn’t very different. Just seems a little off-the-pace and a couple of promising moves broke down when he was tackled. Movement is good and I think he will do better if the central midfielders and the wide player on the right make full use of his vision and technique. Wenger will probably give some thought to starting him in a central attacking midfield role while Ozil finds fitness.

Sanchez: Saw so much of the ball he seemed more like a midfielder than a forward. Came inside all the time and made a few runs in behind. I’d have preferred it if he spent more time on the defensive line threatening the space behind. Passing needs some calibration. His dummies, the angles on some attempted through-balls, and general movement highlight a great football brain. Now Wenger has to get it to synch with others in the team. Had some interesting moments when playing on the left. I think he can do better from there if he wants to keep coming inside because that provides a more natural passing angle for him as a right-footed player.

Chamberlain: One powerful run that lacked end product. Steady effort otherwise. I think his running on the right and Sanchez on the left can be very interesting in some games.

Crystal Palace completed 123 passes in the game. Arteta was on 100, Ramsey 92. The midfield was in complete control of the ball and territory. But they have to convert that control into greater incisive threat.

Sanogo: His technique is poor and that will limit the contribution he can make, particularly in games where space in the attacking areas is very tight. Also showed his immaturity at times. For instance, he had a great chance to play a one-two with Sanchez and get in-behind but he went for a wildly ambitious shot from outside the box.

Giroud: Had greater presence than Sanogo and was a lot more involved. Good header in the build-up of the winner. Had a couple of other moments in the box that could have troubled Speroni on another day.

Wenger: Some of the problems mentioned above are not new ones, even if the players are new. He’ll have to solve these issues if any sort of a challenge has to last the distance.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Crystal Palace

August 16, 2014

I want to start by saying many thanks to everyone who took the time to share their feedback, and such an overwhelmingly positive one at that, on my article about defending being significantly easier than attacking. Such articles get notably fewer visitors but as long as I know so many people find it useful, I remain motivated to develop the series. Since we’re all back in the mood for Arsenal and the football we love, I’ll hold off on the other articles in that series till the next international break. For now it’s Crystal Palace at Emirates and the buzz is palpable.

The visitors are coming into this game on the back of some turmoil with the departure of their manager Tony Pulis. Their concentration levels during the game could be affected if the players are distracted but we won’t know for sure till we see the performance.

Talking of performance, I won’t be surprised if we again see a very basic system with two banks of four. Keith Millen might even go with 5 across the midfield as he did last October in a similar instance when he was the caretaker.

The idea is pretty simple. Protect the areas most threatening to the goal, i.e. the penalty box and the central areas in front of it. This is done by letting the opponents have the ball in their own half or around the centre line but passes into centre of the pitch are contested and/or discouraged by the presence of the defensive players. Marking in these areas is tight and can get physical. Spaces in wider areas are more readily available for a pass. It’s pretty standard and we see a lot of sideways and backward passing from the side in possession, which is not a bad thing in itself.

One team will defend with the ball while trying to open up spaces through their pass-and-move combinations. The other will defend without the ball but look to rapidly break forward using quick and tricky wingers and/or a strong central striker who can hold up and link play.

The decisive moments for the possession side usually come when the combinations force a mistake or a defensive player switches off. Things are easier if the opponents are a little disjointed and leave more spaces between the lines while being a tad tardy with their tracking. They’ll always have multiple layers of security in front of their goal so breaking through could require patience.

It is vital for the attacking side to make as many runs behind the defence as possible. This can be done in many ways. A through-ball from the central areas, combination play in the wide areas with a delicate ball slid in-behind, and late runs into the box with chipped passes can all lead to promising attacking situations. One-twos are always handy but move involving three or more players are better.

Arsenal don’t always have players who make such runs and that can slow things down. In the pre-season, Alexis Sanchez came central and to the ball more often than he made darts in behind. Hopefully, this will change in this game, although his movement to the centre can open up space for Debuchy who times such runs well.

Wenger’s choice of centre forward could also make a difference. Sanogo will look to go in-behind a lot more than Giroud does.

The team defending without the ball has limited attacking options unless they are extremely proactive and energetic in pressing around the centre line. For the most part, they have to hope for transition opportunities where the side in possession has made some poor tactical choices (and technical mistakes) leaving the defence exposed to runners. Other than that it’s just about gaining territory through long balls and hoping for set-piece chances.

It is quite possible that Wenger will go with Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield with both having the license to go forward at times (in their so-called box-to-box roles) while Arteta offers some protection to the defence. In Millen’s position, I’d be tempted to have two very quick players on the flanks as well as a sharp centre forward instead of Chamakh. Gayle, Bolasie, and Frazier Campbell could be interesting choices that can test Arsenal’s tactical solidity, particularly with a rookie in the centre of defence and a relatively slow defensive midfielder. If they can occasionally leave Bolasie up the pitch, to take one example, when Debuchy takes up an advanced position, the visitors will give themselves a genuine chance to trouble Szczesny. Of course, in order to execute this while protecting their goal, they’ll need impeccable organization and decision making from the two defensive lines. Frustrating the Gunners through resolute defending and forcing ambitious attacking choices is also a way to gain counter-attacking opportunities.

Given their current situation, I feel the visitors will be happy with a point and anything more will be a bonus. Arsenal have not done well in opening fixtures over the last few years. Part of this could be linked to a lot of overseas tours and disrupted pre-season training. This season that training has been affected by the World Cup and it’s understandable that Wenger’s side are not quite at their best yet. Palace have a chance to cause an upset if they play with genuine desire and resolve. Aston Villa’s opening day upset last season offers them an excellent blueprint to copy.

The Gunners are the better side and even without the first choice starting line-up Wenger has enough talent at his disposal to get the three points. With Arsenal, in the recent years, there have always been two questions – Can they win? And will they win? The answer to the first is almost always in the affirmative but the second one has proved to be a stumbling block, often of their own making.

The pairing of Wilshere and Ramsey in central midfield makes me nervous because of their defensive limitations. Hopefully, Arteta will be able to run the game and one of the two will take up good positions to support him at the time of transitions. If they attack well, the need for defending might be eliminated altogether.

The central defence is also an area of concern because Mertesacker is not yet ready and there exists the possibility of Koscielny being played when giving him a rest would be better. I don’t know all the facts of the current situation but the past choices of the manager do justify the worries. Monreal in central defence could lead to problems if Chamakh starts for the visitors, or if any of their quick attackers gets a chance to run at him.

We might see,

Szczesny – Debuchy, Chambers, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Ramsey, Wilshere – Alexis, Sanogo, Cazorla.

It’s the starting line-up that produced an entertaining and decisive first half against City in the Community Shield and seems fairly well-balanced. I hope they start on the front foot with that pesky no-trophy-in-x-years monkey off their backs. The energetic, fast-paced game that we saw against City could be enough to secure an early goal or two, which will really get the crowd going and open the spaces up.

I know a lot of Gooners are extremely gung-ho about this season in general and this game in particular. While I can fully appreciate the reasons for such feelings, at a personal level I am still taking the cautious optimism route. There are some details that I want to see resolved. It could happen very quickly but I’m going to watch the first couple of months to see how things develop before I join the excitement bandwagon.

P.S. After reading the responses here and on twitter, I’m now completely confident that anyone who likes the pre and post match analysis on this blog will really enjoy the article linked to the first paragraph. Do take a few minutes (Pretty long and detailed) to read it if you haven’t done so already.


Reading The Game Part I: Defending Is Significantly Easier Than Attacking

August 13, 2014

Imagine how your reaction would be if a cricket match ended with one team scoring 6 runs against the other’s total of 8. How about a basketball game with a 3-1 final score? 150-148 runs over nine innings in baseball?

We expect certain types of scores in various sports. Results like those mentioned above would cause serious seismic activity in the world of professional sports. In fact, it seems safe to say it just won’t happen because these are completely against the nature of each sport.

In the same way, we have come to accept football as a low scoring game. An average of around 3 goals a game through a league season or any major tournament would be considered pretty good. 10-8 is the kind of scoreline one would see in friendly games where no one really cares about the results and anything in the high two digits is practically unthinkable.

Being low scoring is the inherent nature of the game and most of it comes from the rules. Now, I like it this way and I’m not saying it needs to change. But as fans and people who have a lot vested in the game (in an emotional and financial sense) we need to really understand this so that it is deeply imbued in any analysis we make of players, game situations, tactics, results, etc.
At this point, if you fully understand just how much easier defending is compared to attacking, skip straight down to the section titled “Why this matters”. If not, ponder on the reasoning presented next.

Let’s start with a very simple but extremely important question – How often does a team try to attack and how often does it succeed?

Before going forward we need to be completely clear about a couple of points -
1) I’m talking about defending being much, much easier than attacking but not saying that defending is easy in itself. You and I could form a team and keep clean sheets on the way to major trophies if defending were easy, per se. Ensuring the ball stays out of the net is very hard work and demands qualities like discipline, concentration, determination, physical strength, and intelligence to name a few. This is strictly a comparative discussion and at no point should we lose sight of that.
2) There are certain specific moments in the game when defending is indeed harder than attacking. For instance, a penalty results in a goal more often than it is saved. But these are isolated and comparatively rare cases, and are often a result of one or more avoidable mistakes so we can ignore them from this discussion.

With that in mind, let’s come back to the question at hand. Obviously, every time someone takes a shot at goal they are trying to attack.

Last season Manchester City scored 102 League goals from 673 shots for a conversion rate of just over 15 percent. Liverpool got 101 from 651 at a marginally better success rate. I don’t want to spend time compiling data for all the clubs but my past experience crunching such data suggests that between 15-20 percent is about the average range for a team’s chance conversion rate. Sometimes it’s a little higher but very rarely does it cross 25 percent.

One of the excellent graphs in this phenomenal article on Messi tells us that of the 866 players who’ve played over 50 games in the last few years, only two have a conversion rate greater than 25 percent. And these are players with a low volume of shots taken. Messi is around 22 and Ronaldo is below 15 percent. It seems the numbers are relatively consistent whether we are looking at individual players or teams in general.

Let’s say on an average 20 percent of the shots go in across the board (Various leagues, international competitions, etc.). It’s hard to be exact about this number but a little variance won’t matter too much as you’ll soon see.

If 1 in 5 attempts to attack are successful, we can also say 4 in 5 attempts to defend are successful. That’s a huge difference right there. A crude but not entirely incorrect way to look at this would be that defending is four times as successful as attacking, ergo that much more easier.

Someone might argue, at this juncture, that a lot of those shots don’t even hit the target. Could this be a case of bad attacking rather than defending being easier?

Imagine for a moment that an average Premier League player is alone on the pitch with no constraints of time and space. Would he miss an unobstructed, ‘Keeper-less net from the kind of locations most of the shots are actually taken? The biggest factor in shooting inefficiency is not the player’s own quality but the fact that he is being closed down by the opponents, has very little time in which to react, and has to find a way to beat a goalkeeper in the net.

Even the absolute best players around the world only complete around 1 in 2 of the so-called gilt-edged chances and less than 1 out of 4 regular chances. This has less to do with them being rubbish and more to do with the difficult nature of scoring. Commentary like, “He’d have scored that 9 times out of 10″, does not help because it’s hardly ever backed up by facts.

This is also linked to the aforementioned case of penalties being harder to defend. Many of the variables affecting the striker adversely are taken out of the equation when a penalty is taken.

Once you move beyond the highlights and start observing the details that are edited out to pack in all the excitement in a short period of time, it’ll become clear that missed shots are not as much a case of bad attacking (although in some individual instances they are and can be very frustrating) as they are an indication of defence having a negative influence on the efficiency of attack in one way or another. It is important to remember that I’m not saying there isn’t a difference between quality of individual attackers or the offensive potential of various teams. The point is that even the absolute best have fairly modest conversion rates and the others are only worse.

Moving on, let’s consider other indicators of a team trying to attack. Do you think a player crosses the ball to admire the flight of the ball across the face of goal? There are 20-25 crosses per game on average in the Premier League. Usually, less than 5 are successful. That’s another 15-20 attempts to attack that are unsuccessful. They don’t even lead to a shot.

How about through-balls that are intercepted or run out of play? What about unsuccessful dribbles?

If we pause and think about it, almost every clearance, tackle, interception, foul, or the ball going out of play, result in an attack being thwarted. Sometimes we tend to think of attacks only when the ball is in the final third. That’s not completely correct.

A team could be consolidating its position at the back so that it’s players can get into a position to attack after they’ve retreated deep to defend. Or they could be in the build-up phase in the midfield and trying to unlock the oppositions organization. These are not obvious moments of attack but they are part of the attacking process. Any event that breaks this process means the defence has won a minor battle and one attack is blunted.

Let’s say a team takes 15 shots and scores 3 goals for a 20 percent success rate. Now we add in say 10 fouls, 12 interceptions, 18 tackles, and 35 clearances by the opposition (again I’m relying on past experience to think the numbers should be close to the averages). We’d have 3 goals in 90 attempts for a success rate of about 3.33 percent. And we haven’t even counted the ball going out of play.

I believe it’s safe to say that most teams are successful with 1-5 percent of their attacks. Some might have even less success but very few will be higher.

As far as I’m concerned, this should no longer be a topic of debate but really the first rule of football – Defending is much, much, much easier than attacking.

Why This Matters

Managers and analysts at the top of the game understand this unwritten law instinctively. It’s one of the fundamental reasons defensive players cost so much less than attackers. This will never change. To me, 30 million spent on a pure defender is about as sensible at 100 million spent on a striker. It also makes the fee paid for David Luiz the most senseless transfer amount ever, but I should control my tendency to digress.

If you’re an Arsene Wenger fan, think of the effort he put in to keep Fabregas or even RvP at the club, and contrast that with the ease with which he sold someone like Song even though the Cameroonian came up with some assists in the season before he was let go. Players who can consistently make decisive contributions in the attacking third are very hard to find. Defensive players can be replaced by others more easily or by tweaks to the system of play.

Defending is about redundancy over and above anything else. There are at least three lines of defence in any team. And if they do their job well , often players from one line get a time to join the others and redouble the redundancy. That means you can make mistakes and get away with it. It happens all the time.

Attack, on the other hand, is all about precision. Everything must fall into place for the ball to go into the net. And each attack has multiple points of failure. That’s why it can be broken up in different areas of the pitch.

Usually, there are multiple defensive mistakes when a goal is scored. Some of those are forced by the quality of the attack while others are entirely avoidable.

Granted, there are times when a goal seems to materialize completely out of luck. But once you develop the habit of looking past individual instances onto the broader patterns, the battle between defence and attack becomes apparent and you start to see probabilities instead of luck.

There was a phase in the recent past when it seemed that Arsenal played really well in game but the opponents had one or two good moments and scored a freakish goal which cost the Gunners valuable points. In the early days, I used to think it was just dumb luck. But as it happened over and over, a closer analysis revealed deeper issues in the Arsenal defence. It had to do with shape, choices, concentration, and other important details. Having worked on that over the last couple of seasons, Arsenal have been able to cut down on many of those freakish goals that they conceded.

The second vital reason to understand this unstated law is that it helps one assess the quality of defending and attacking much better. If we know that the game is stacked in favour of the defence, a clean sheet can then be seen in a different light. In other words, a clean sheet, in itself, should never be seen as a sign of great defending.

In my opinion, there are two fundamental ways to defend-
1) Control the ball
2) Control the space

The great Barcelona side of recent years did both and exceptionally. They didn’t have particularly great defensive players but by reducing the number of times the ball got to their defensive third and the number of opponents who could get there in a staggering manner, they created a very strong defensive system. This, of course, is the best form of play and, quite naturally, the hardest to execute.

The second way is to control the ball but a little bit inside your own half. A little compromise is made in terms of control of space. Even then, pick and choose the moments to attack carefully and your defence will be fairly safe. Most of the top teams do this. You’ll notice in such performances that the goalkeeper is almost a spectator.

The third way is to let the opposition have more of the ball, if necessary, but to defend with great energy and cohesion around the centre line. A compromise is made on possession but greater counter-attacking threat is available, which can, in turn, deter the opponent from pushing numbers forward.

Then the team could drop deeper, midway through their own half or on the edge of their box. This is the approach most of the smaller teams use.

The worst case scenario is a parked bus with almost all the players in and around one’s own penalty box.

In a given game, any of these methods could be successful. That is why I said a clean sheet, or even a result, should not be used to judge the quality of defending.

Short term success is achievable through various means. A relegation candidate could beat one of the other top sides with a parked bus and a smash-and-grab at the other end. But in the long run they won’t win much that way.

Similarly, teams like Inter Milan could even park the bus all the way to the Champions League trophy. What happens after that? They’re now playing play-offs for the Europa League. Chelsea were in the Europa League soon after their Champions League triumph. These teams cannot build a legacy like Barcelona did or find the kind of consistency we’ve seen from Bayern.

Don’t get me wrong, the point is not to say that every team should try and play like Barcelona or Bayern. That’d be incredibly daft. Each team has different types of players, different circumstances, varying managerial capabilities, and so on. And each has to find its own unique solutions.

The understanding of the ease of defence and related issues discussed above is more for analytical purposes. Various questions need to be answered when we watch a team like Inter Milan win the Champions League or a relegation candidate scalp a title contender in the league. For instance, how repeatable is that performance?

A lot of people get so caught up in the result that many superlative narratives of heroism are built around the result. These are useless. They take focus away from the specifics, which can help us understand the game better as well as hinder any preparation one could make for future games.

The best managers know how to step away from the result and look at the game but very few people who write or talk about the game get this.

The problem is not limited to developing an understanding of any team’s qualities. Narratives develop around individual players too and many myths are created.

Sticking with the Inter Milan example for continuity, do you recall Julio Cesar being hailed as the world’s best goalkeeper and Maicon as the best right back? What happened to them when Mourinho and that solid defensive system went away?

The general narrative shifts to form. “He’s lost form”, they say. That’s total nonsense. The reality is that the guy had very specific skills that shone in a given approach and it led to excellent results. The moment that approach was gone the players lost their magic and became ordinary.

This happens in the case of many defenders and goalkeepers who look good in a tight, deep-lying, defence. But they don’t quite succeed when the organization of the team changes or they transfer to a different club where the requirements are not suited to their qualities. The reverse can also happen. Pique, for instance, is a much better defender in the central third of the pitch than he is in his own box.

Remember the big, strong defender Arsenal desperately needed? Chris Samba was the answer at one time. What happened to him after he moved away from the parked bus of Blackburn Rovers?

The performance of Chelsea’s defenders has been fascinating to watch as their managers and tactics have changed. Did you see how many of them struggled when playing a high line? John Terry became a joke for a while. Now he’s supposedly regained form. Not a coincidence that Mourinho is back at the club.

We must also understand that defence is always the work of the collective. Organization, coordination, communication, tactical intelligence, and practice are the key to building that redundancy so vital to a consistently strong defence.

Unfortunately, the limited nature of stats available and the general idea that defenders and goalkeepers are responsible for defending has led to common acceptance of a fallacy, but it’s crucial that we realize-
Goalkeepers do not keep clean sheets. Back Fours do no keep clean sheets. Only the whole team can keep a clean sheet.

Look at the number of defenders Liverpool has bought in recent years. Has it really made their defence better? In contrast, Arsenal’s defensive improvement over the last couple of years has mostly been related to structural solidity and the work done on the training ground.

Of course, quality of players matters to an extent. But it’s imperative that people don’t get caught up in that alone. In order to break out of that habit we need to start seeing defence for what it is and focus on the specifics.

One example of looking at relevant details is the role of the so-called DM. Most of the top teams have strong defences because they minimize the action in front of their goals. This is done by controlling the ball and for that they need a deep-lying midfielder who is extremely intelligent at recycling possession. A lot of the passes that seem meaningless and frustrating to the casual observer are actually very good tactical choices that keep the defence safe.

In many of the games where Arsenal suffered heavy defeats, one of the primary causes could be traced back to Cazorla, or Chambelain, or Özil, or someone else losing the ball cheaply in midfield just in front of the exposed defence. This happens very rarely when Arteta is in those areas but others also need to take up responsibility for shielding the ball because the midfielders have to rotate and interchange positions at times.

The whole idea that a mythical, superman of a DM would somehow jump in a break play up after a terrible loss of possession is ludicrous. Just look at the big defeats suffered by Spurs last season and the physical qualities of their midfielders. Capoue, Paulinho, Dembele, and Sandro all fit the profile of the kind of player some Arsenal fan’s have been demanding. Indeed, Capoue and Paulinho were both quite in demand as far as certain Gooner circles were concerned. It didn’t work for them at Spurs and there is no reason to believe they’d have done much better at Arsenal. That’s because the problem is not one that can be solved primarily by physical qualities but is more tactical in nature.

The Purpose Of This Reading The Game Series

This is not an article on Arsenal’s defence or defensive midfield issues so I’m going to stop now and let you ponder on the points made above. It is very important that you don’t get caught up in examples but just use them to understand the broader points made for that is the purpose of this article.

For a long time now I’ve been meaning to write a series of articles on various aspects of the game to describe how I see football. It’s not complete, it’s not perfect, but I’m hopeful it’ll help some readers observe more from the same 90 minutes of action that they see.

My hope is to create a thread that connects the philosophy of managers, general principles and tactics in football, and the impact of qualities of individual players, so that we can better understand what we see on the pitch.

In the future I want to write about the importance of off-the-ball movement, the physics and maths of football (space, time, angles), impact of our own limitations, and other such topics. In a way, this series is anti-reductionism. The articles will be long and detailed as this one is (although this is much shorter than it would have been if I’d gone into compiling data and dug up more examples for each point), but the points are fairly straightforward once you see them.

It is crucial that you don’t reflexively respond with dismissive oversimplifications. For example, someone might say, “Yeah, that’s all well and good but in the end it’s all about balance.” Such a sentence would be completely accurate and utterly useless because it doesn’t help us understand the specifics of the game that matter.

Also remember that in football everything is interconnected. Some of the examples above are very selectively presented to illustrate a point. For instance, teams often use more than one way of defending from the classification given above. I did not go into that because this isn’t an article on how a team should or can defend. It can come later once the basic building blocks are in place and beyond dispute.

Please let me know if such a series is of interest to you. Since the readers of the blog have varying levels of knowledge and interests, such articles take up a lot of my time because it’s hard to figure out the level of detail I need to go into. I have to decide whether it’s worth putting in that time to develop this series. All thoughtful comments, critical or encouraging, are most welcome.


Thoughts On Community Shield, Vermaelen, and Captaincy

August 10, 2014

Earlier today I wanted to make sure my memory wasn’t playing games and the match tomorrow was indeed designated as a friendly. So I googled “Charity Shield designated friendly”. There wasn’t a really funny result or suggestion that I’ve to share here but I was surprised when many results came up for Community Shield instead. It just reminded me that almost a decade has passed since I took any serious interest in this game. So much so that the name change hadn’t even registered mentally.

And then it felt good. For though it is probably nothing more than a very serious friendly game, the fact that Arsenal are involved means something good happened last season. It also took me back to the early part of the Millennium when a casual foreign fan might’ve been forgiven for believing this was the customary Arsenal-V-United game played to mark the start of a new season.

How things have changed. And keep changing…

I’m really looking forward to this game, not as another “trophy” to be won, but as a barometer for the preparedness of Wenger’s side. This upcoming season promises to be one of the most competitive in recent memory and the Gunners will need a fast start.

Arsenal’s World Cup winners are not back in training yet and it’s reasonable to expect them to miss the opening weeks of the season. I truly do hope Wenger doesn’t rush any of them no matter what happens in this period.

This is important because it means the players we shall see on Sunday will bear the responsibility to perform and deliver for the club till after the first international break.

Unless a centre back, who’s had a great preseason elsewhere, comes in ready to play, young Calum Chambers could have a big role to play at the heart of the Arsenal defence alongside Koscielny with very little in the form of back up options available.

In the rest of the positions Wenger seems to have plenty of choices even if there appears to be room to better the centre of midfield. I would love to talk about Diaby as one of the great options but it just feels better to leave him be for at least six months or so just to see how everything goes. No hopes, no pressure, no judgments…

Wenger is almost spoilt for choice (although you might say cosistency and quality remains to be proven in some cases) up front. Any of Sanchez, Campbell, Sanogo, or Giroud (if he’s improved his fitness) can play at the head of the attack. The first two, Chamberlain, Cazorla, and even Rosicky can play in the wider areas. Spain, the Czech Republic, or Britain could provide the main attacking midfielder while the German enjoys a well deserved holiday. The manager also has players to allow for variation in formation and approach.

I have a feeling one of Joel Campbell or Podolski will leave the club before the transfer window closes and thus this is a crucial period for the Costa Rican lad to build on his preseason promise. I know Wenger has said he wants to keep Campbell at the club but it won’t be a surprise if he’s let go. He has to force himself into the starting line up during this month and then produce the quality that proves he belongs at this level. Hopefully, he’ll get a fair few minutes against City, preferably a start.

Here’s the team I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Debuchy, Chambers, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – Campbell, Sanchez, Chamberlain.

It’ll be great if the front three can interchange positions and combine in the final third with Santi (hasn’t quite looked in form thus far in preseason) pulling the strings. Such a team would also give us an indication of the quality and quantity of defensive work we can expect from the explosive attackers.

I’m also keen to see if Ramsey can control his instincts and show greater game intelligence by carefully picking the moments to charge forward. Against some of the smaller teams in preseason he’s spent a lot of time in and around the opposition box. That won’t work in the big games and the Gunners have to avoid a repeat of last season’s soul-crushers at all cost. In my opinion, even though last season was a breakthrough year for him, 2014-15 will represent a bigger period in the Welshman’s career. He made phenomenal decisive contribution last season but now he has to show he can also control the games, particularly the big ones. That’s the next step. If he takes that, Rambo will be very close to the top five midfielders in the world, and Arsenal will move towards being very serious contenders for the major trophies. It’d be understandable if Ramsey doesn’t have the same decisive impact as he did in 13-14 and that makes the need to evolve as a player even greater. He could end up frustrated at a lack of impact and get caught in the vicious cycle of trying to do too much leading to greater inefficiency, or he could channel his desire into areas that will help the team synergy and let others flourish while he controls the game. It’s a tricky balance to achieve and he’s probably still a bit young to master this but I definitely want to see some effort in that direction.

There are six substitutes available to each manager in this game as it’s officially a friendly. Wilshere should get some time on the pitch. Wenger might even start him in central midfield and push Cazorla to the left. I’m not a fan of Jack in central midfield but his manager has a lot of faith in the veteran youngster. The Englishman probably has more to prove than any of his teammates this season and for that alone I’d understand if Wenger gave him a lot of game time, at least till Özil gets back.

Rosicky, Sanogo, Giroud, Diaby and Monreal should also see some action.

Vermaelen

Moving on, I’d like to say goodbye and good luck to Vermaelen. He started with a bang and became a star after his first season. The impact of his goals meant few noticed the defensive mistakes at the time. They only came to the fore after the goals dried up and the team went through a lean patch. Nevertheless, I thought he was a good enough player and could have done more with regular game time. Part of his struggles coincided with the period when Arsenal had structural weaknesses in their collective defence, which were only really sorted last year and that too in a limited way. Barcelona should be a good place for him and unlike some of the other Arsenal players who’ve gone there, the Belgian could have an excellent career as long as he gets a stable start and doesn’t make any errors in the opening games. It could boil down to the quality of Luis Enrique’s management and the work rate of the squad.

This transfer also reminds me of an email I got a few days back from a friend(modified the last line)…

2005: Juventus sign ARSENAL CAPTAIN Patrick Vieira.

2006: Juventus MANAGER Fabio Capello RESIGNS.

2007: Barcelona sign ARSENAL CAPTAIN Thierry Henry.

2008: Barcelona MANAGER Frank Rijkaard SACKED.

2011: Barcelona sign ARSENAL CAPTAIN Cesc Fabregas.

2012: Barcelona MANAGER Pep Guardiola RESIGNS.

2012: Man Utd sign ARSENAL CAPTAIN Van Persie.

2013: Man Utd MANAGER Ferguson retires.

2014: Barcelona sign TV5 Arsenal captian

Omens not good for Luis Enrique.

On the subject of Captaincy, Wenger has a few interesting possibilities.

Promoting Arteta, who did the job most of last year anyway, is the simplest option but the Spaniard may not be a regular this year and might even leave in a year. Those are not the kind of things that have prevented Wenger in the past so I won’t be surprised if the Spaniard does get the armband.

Mertesacker is another interesting candidate because he is likely to be a regular starter when fit and will be coming back with a World Cup winners medal. While I don’t have any connection with the inner workings of the dressing room, it’ll be a surprise if the German is not a popular member. He certainly comes across as a team player. Remember what Loew said after the win over France,

“When I told him last night (that he won’t be starting), he said ‘Alles klar’ coach, I’m here to help the team any way I can’. It was incredibly professional. He’s extremely important to the team.”

Or this on the subject of leadership and relationship with fans

That said, he did lose his place in the German starting line-up as he struggled when playing in a high line. The same might happen at Arsenal and could depend on what Wenger can do before the transfer window shuts.

Rosicky is another very good candidate but also one who is likely to be on the bench more often than the pitch. I wouldn’t want to see Wilshere or Ramsey given such a responsibility right now when they still have a lot to learn and prove. Özil is different. He should just be left to do his thing on the pitch without extraneous burdens. Giroud, Koscielny, Santi and some of the other players don’t quite feel the right choice for different reasons.

I think Arteta as Captain and Per his deputy would make sense. The reverse also works just as well but since Mertesacker won’t be starting the initial games, the Spaniard is probably the simpler choice.

Before ending, I want to mention these Classified ads in Nigeria that might be of use to Gooners in the region.


Thoughts On Debuchy, Ospina, Chambers, Jenkinson, And Emirates Cup

August 1, 2014

The last couple of weeks have been good for Arsenal as some of the obvious holes in the squad have been plugged with quality players who are, for the most part, comparable to the ones they are replacing or even somewhat better.

This being a late article, here are some quick observations that stand out about each of transfers including comparisons with departing players.

Debuchy

Even though the new Arsenal right back started over his predecessor for France at the World Cup, I’ve a feeling he will have to prove himself all over again at Arsenal. It’s not because his quality is questionable, but more due to the important role that Sagna played for the Gunners.

Wenger’s team uses the flanks as an outlet almost all the time when they are trying to build from the back and the opponent is working hard to close the options down in the centre of the field. Sagna’s technical ability, the willingness to receive the ball under pressure, composure in holding and passing it, and other skills like concentration, physicality, and tenacity made him a vital cog in this process. Debuchy is coming from a team that didn’t pass the ball as much as Arsenal. According to stats on Squawka, there is a clear difference in their passes per 90 (Sagna – 53; Debuchy – 36) and pass accuracy (S- 85%; D- 73%).

It won’t be a surprise if Debuchy improved his numbers just by virtue of being in a technically stronger side this season but this is an aspect I’ll be watching closely in the first few competitive games. His passing accuracy for France at the World Cup was just below 78% but total number of passes was still close to his Newcastle number. Any breakdown in the buildup play can lead to defensive problems as well as that situation of the attack being separated from the defence without a link in between. The adjustment here has to be very quick.

It’s interesting that the two are very close to each other in terms of aerial duels contested and won because that’s another outlet for Arsenal when the opponent is somewhat successful with their pressing.

Debuchy seems busier of the two when comparing some of the defensive metrics. He wins more tackles, loses more tackles, makes more interceptions and blocks, and commits more fouls. Again, it’s hard to pinpoint just how much of this is down to the playing styles of the two teams rather than individual qualities. That said, I do get the feeling that Debuchy is slightly more aggressive as a defender and is looking to break forward and get into attacking areas compared to Sagna who was more about providing width and options on the flank even when he got into advanced areas.

Despite his relatively reserved style, fighting spirit, tendency to chase back at full tilt, and endless stamina, there were enough instances in the last couple of years when we all have thought the full-back was not where he should have been. Part of this is down to the manager’s instructions and this is another area where I want to see how Debuchy performs. I’m not convinced he has some of Sagna’s aforementioned qualities and there could be trouble if he keeps getting caught higher up the pitch.

On the positive side, there is a greater chance of getting decisive attacking contribution from the man who’s come to London than the man who’s gone to Manchester. A clever and quick interception just inside the Arsenal half, for instance, could provide a great launch pad for the pace that Wenger could have at his disposal if key players remain fit. I’m also hoping for slightly better crossing, timing of overlapping runs, and attacking contribution on set-pieces from the former Newcastle man.

All-in-all, Debuchy seems like a reasonable replacement for an important player with some risks that will have to be identified and mitigated, and the potential to be a little more exciting and decisive.

Ospina

Fabianski’s Arsenal career has been crazy. From some unbelievable howlers to keeping goal in the title-drought-ending FA Cup win, he’s evoked all kinds of extreme emotions. I thought it was nice that he left with a trophy, but it also felt like something that was good for all concerned. There was something about Fabianski, maybe just the multitude of mistakes from the past, that made it very hard for me to trust him as main goalkeeper at the club.

Given that I’m not a big Szczesny fan either, it seemed essential that the club brings in someone who can do better. Wenger’s answer is Colombian international David Ospina.

In case you haven’t read/seen these already, here are a couple of interesting articles on the Nice guy

And here are a couple of videos…

I haven’t seen much of him outside of the World Cup and some video YouTube, but even in this limited watching experience a few qualities are immediately obvious.

He seems like a goalkeeper with great reflexes and one who keeps his eye on the ball till the very end. That latter part is a big improvement on Szczesny who has this tendency of committing far too early. Training with the Colombian can help the Pole improve. Arsenal’s latest Ligue 1 import is also better than the current goalie when it comes to recovering after making the first save. It’s another crucial detail because both have the tendency to put the ball back into the danger area from the initial save.

None of the Arsenal goalkeepers in recent years have been particularly good in the air and Wenger has finally found some degree of control at the back in such situations by getting his outfield players, mainly centre backs, to take more responsibility. The Colombian does seem the aggressive type but I’m not convinced he will be any better than Szczesny at commanding the air in the penalty box. In that sense, this will still be a work in progress for the coaching staff as they have to ensure the ‘Keepers don’t drop the ball, so to speak, on set-pieces and crosses.

The Colombian’s aggression will also be worth watching when it comes to one-v-ones. Szczesny is adept at giving away penalties and been lucky to get away without a red card on more than one occasion. Fabianski’s wanderlust has given many a gooner a nervous breakdown. Can Ospina do better? I don’t know the answer to that but I’m very eager to find out. He can offer a marked improvement to the Gunners if he combines his concentration and ability to watch the ball till the very end with intelligent decision making, something which might take a bit of time to develop in a new, faster, and more physical league.

While I don’t encourage drawing direct conclusions from it, the following stats comparison using the Squawka tool is quite interesting.

Ospina Stats Comparison

click to enlarge

All things considered, it’s hard to make a case for Szczesny being the first choice. I hope Wenger is ruthless and decisive here.

Chambers and Jenkinson

There has been a need for a versatile defensive player at Arsenal for at least a couple of years now. Wenger has tried to sign a few such players during this period including the likes of Smalling and Jones, who are, in part, comparable to the latest young gun that Wenger has signed.

Calum Chambers seems like a talented prospect with potential to be a very good multifaceted defensive player. He seems to have composure, technique, and game intelligence, which should provide a solid foundation. He lacks experience, obviously, and his mental attributes haven’t really been tested yet to the fullest extent. This will happen over the next season or two as he takes the field in high pressure games. I’m hoping to see a steep learning curve along with the burning desire to get better with every game.

In recent years I’ve felt that a lot of young players have hit their performance ceiling just after or shortly before starting their top flight Arsenal careers. Afobe, Aneke, JET, Miquel, Frimpong, Coquelin, Eastmond, Eisfeld, and others have been on the fringes without quite making the cut in a convincing manner. At this moment, it’s hard to say even the likes of Szczesny, Wilshere, and Chamberlain deserve to be first choice for Arsenal even though they came in with much higher talent than their aforementioned young teammates. The likes of Djourou and Senderos didn’t fulfill the promise shown in their younger years either. Exploring this in depth calls for a separate article so I won’t get into the merits and demerits of the observation.

Nonetheless, Jenkinson is another example. I can’t say he’s improved a lot during his stay at the Emirates. There is a common misconception – Even leading to amusing suggestions that he should start ahead of Sagna after the Frenchman returned to fitness – that he did very well in a phase when Sagna was injured but the reality was that he was used in a more conservative role to hide his weaknesses. His performances were effective but hardly excellent. This was covered in various articles on this blog during that period and was pretty evident once the Frenchman got back to fitness and showed everyone what Arsenal had been missing.

Chambers is undoubtedly an improvement on the West Ham bound Arsenal fan in almost every aspect, except maybe pace and stamina but we’ll have to watch and see on that. That said, I hope Jenkinson has a good time at West Ham leading to a respectable top flight career and potentially bringing a substantially higher chunk of change to the Arsenal coffers than the 3 Million reportedly offered by Hull recently.

I’m also hopeful that Chambers will have a better time at Arsenal than many of the young players listed above mainly because of his better game intelligence. It should allow him to absorb more from his teammates and coaches, which in turn should result in a higher yield from the same hard work.

Emirates Cup

To say that the World Cup has been disruptive to Arsenal’s preparations for the upcoming season would be a massive understatement.

From the first choice eleven that I’d pick, Koscielny, Giroud, Debuchy, Sanchez, and Ospina have only come back to training in the last week or so. Mertesacker and Özil are still on vacation while Walcott is injured. Even if Szczesny starts in the first few games, that’s seven first choice players with little or no preseason training.

Furthermore, those who have been training didn’t quite look up to speed in the last game against the New York Red Bulls. Even with the caveat that it’s relatively early days in preseason, there is some cause for concern in my opinion because Arsenal have a tricky start to the season.

With those thoughts in mind, the importance of the Emirates Cup cannot be overstated. I don’t mean that they have to win the trophy. That’s pointless. But the players have to click together and find their sharpness/rhythm back. Wenger’s teams are generally extremely dependent on flow/momentum because so much of the play is instinctive and interlinked. Mertesacker and Özil might not be physically ready for those games and the lack of a centre back signing along with the uncertainty around Vermaelen only makes things more complicated. Arsene Wenger has to figure out his starting line-up for the first couple of games, at least, and he doesn’t have too many friendly games to suss his options out.

The training camp in Austria was a permanent fixture not too long ago and I believe bringing it back on the itinerary instead of a prolonged overseas visit was a good idea for this season. The performance of the team in the Emirates Cup will tell us if I’m right in thinking that. And more importantly, it’ll give us a good idea about the team’s readiness for a serious challenge.


Welcome Alexis Sanchez And A New Age For Arsenal

July 12, 2014

The Özil transfer took a long time before it felt real. And now this. Sanchez Signs. One big transfer can be – not that it should – dismissed as a freakish happenstance. More so because some of the other reported big deals (strikers) never came to fruition. With Alexis arriving though, I’m convinced Arsenal have taken a big step up towards the elite (in the financial sense) clubs.

In the past the big players moved between the great Italian clubs and those in Spain or Bayern Munich. Oil money has had some influence on that in recent years but very few truly world class players have moved to England in their prime or just as they were entering their prime. The likes of Henry and Bergkamp, of course, were big players and had massive careers but they didn’t really come to Arsenal with impressive numbers/form for their former club.

Obviously, the Gunners aren’t still at a financial level where they can spend absurd amounts we’ve seen lavished on Bale and Suarez, but I, for one, have this belief that Wenger will now be able to compete for many of the top quality players that were outside the club’s reach not too long ago. Given that this growth is organic and seems sustainable, everyone at Arsenal FC deserves commendations for their role.

This might be premature but I also get this feeling that the Financial Fair Play rules are having an effect. I’ve always believed this can only succeed if all the wealthy owners want to bring some order to the chaos of the transfer world. And while they will inevitably find creative ways of getting some things done, we are unlikely to see a few clubs hoarding all the big players even if they don’t truly need them.

Put it all together and it seems we are moving to a new age for Arsenal FC. What happens on the pitch will still be down to the performances of the manager, players and the staff (that’s a big, separate discussion) but we can say they have a fair shot now. In a way, even the detractors should be happy because one of the main excuses should soon be off the table if it isn’t already.

Time will tell us more, as it invariably does, so now let’s shift focus to the reason we’re all so excited.

Alexis Sanchez – How does he improve the Gunners

I enjoyed reading some critics, or haters as they’re amusingly labeled, belittling the significance of the transfer by saying the Chilean wasn’t a starter for Barcelona or that he was a discard/reject. Would you call a player whose 27 League starts were bettered by only 4 members of the squad a fringe player? Is a guy who is fourth in La Liga when counting goals and assists a failure?

At a club with a complex dynamic, the world’s best player, and many other exceptionally talented individuals vying for a handful of attacking spots, it’s understandable that Sanchez didn’t always get to play when or where he wanted. The arrival of Suarez – as Barcelona succumb to the tendency of signing a superstar or the demands of their new manager – would undoubtedly make things even more difficult for Alexis.

I also believe he hasn’t quite hit the heights his potential at Udinese promised. The Chilean is more composed and tactically aware now but he hasn’t hit the ceiling as far as the quality and quantity of his output goes. At least in part, this seems to be down to the fact that he couldn’t complete express his skills when Messi was the main man (understandably).

The fact that he has understood his position and took a swift decision is a big positive in my opinion. As with Özil last season, I think Sanchez comes to Arsenal as a world class player who can still get better.

Alexis already has many attributes that make him standout.

His finishing is exemplary, touch and close control are superb, dribbling is a joy to watch, pace and power can be terrifying for the opponents, tenacity and fighting spirit will be appreciated by fans of English football, and his selfless style will suit Wenger’s plans perfectly.

The fact that he is comfortable with both feet (scores most of his goals with the right foot I believe) and has played various roles at different clubs and the national team already means Wenger will have good tactical flexibility.

I can visualize him starting on the left in some games with Walcott on the right and Giroud (or another striker) in the center. He can go down the line to supply the other two, cut inside to shoot or slide a pass for Walcott, join the striker to offer another attacker in the box for attacks developing down the right, and make runs in behind if the space is available.

Sanchez could also start centrally or move there late in games if Arsenal are playing a more conservative game. The Gunners chose to sit on a lead many times last season and he could thrive on the space available if the opponents have to push forward.

Alternatively, Cazorla on the left and Sanchez on the right could give the Gunners good balance and opportunities for combination play in attacking areas. It’s not hard to imagine them interchanging positions seamlessly with the likes of Özil and Ramsey. On occasion, the Chilean can also play off the lead striker if Wenger wants to leave two up front.

This flexibility means Wenger can also rotate his players more often, assuming most stay fit. It would be great to have one or two players getting a rest in a rotating manner when the team is playing every three days. Last season one could pretty much predict the injuries to Ramsey and Özil from their early workload. Hopefully, this time Wenger will be able to offer most of his players a balanced distribution of work. It could be the single biggest decisive factor in what they can achieve but details of this probably belong in a different article.

Some Caveats

Sanchez has a good disciplinary record but he is an aggressive player and will have to be careful with his reactions to some of the gratuitous fouls and physical challenges he will undoubtedly receive. He’ll also have to quickly adapt to a different approach to refereeing where remonstrations, exaggerated falls (not that he is a serial diver), or waving of imaginary yellow cards could lead to him being vilified very quickly.

I’m not sure he is used to playing with his back to goal, a trait important for any central striker in Wenger’s team, so if (when) he does play down the middle, either he’ll have to show a very steep learning curve or the team will have to adapt. These things don’t always work out as smoothly as some of us imagine.

As a wide attacker, Alexis is more a striker than a midfielder. That means he won’t see as much of the ball as someone like Cazorla does, for instance, in that role on the left. Retaining the ball and circulating it is extremely important to the way Arsenal play. Losing it more frequently (Sanchez also has a relatively high rate of losing possession) can make the game stretched and uncomfortable. Furthermore, the strength of collective defending can be severely tested if Özil, Walcott, Sanchez, and Giroud all start together. In that situation, both wide players would be capable of surrendering possession cheaply (Even Giroud’s touch is not consistent) and neither will consistently track their opposing full back. Sanchez is a fighter and a hard worker (better than Walcott in that regard) but I think he would prefer to do more chasing in the opposition half than his own.

In that sense, Wenger will have a tough job in identifying the right balance for his starting eleven. It is not unthinkable that he might not know what his best eleven is at the start of the season and some trial and error could be needed. Hopefully, that phase will not have enough errors to cost the team vital points.

Bottom Line

I think Alexis Sanchez is a fantastic acquisition for Arsenal that gives further evidence that the work done to build the stadium and with the new deals is beginning to pay off, and promises to fill some of the vital gaps that led to dropped points and disappointments last season. Hopefully, this signing is only the start of good things to come this season as much of work remains to be done on and off the pitch.

P.S Here is a quick stat comparison that I’d done using the Squawka tool. The quality of each players’ teammates, opponents, etc. is different but it still feels like useful data. You can visit the link and compare the players on other stats if interested.

Sanchez Stats Comparison


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Hull City

May 17, 2014

The Norwich game ended up being a formality. Ramsey’s goal was immensely enjoyable and it was nice to see Diaby and Wilshere back on the pitch. Beyond that there isn’t much to talk about so I’ll come straight to the game we’ve all been waiting for eagerly.

Hull have picked up 1 point from their last five games and that was against relegated Fulham. They’ve lost 15 of their 18 games against the top 9 in the League. Arsenal topped the table when counting points taken against teams in the bottom half. The Gunners are coming into this Final on the back of five straight wins and have done the double over the Tigers scoring five unanswered goals in the process.

As far as any dictates of logic are concerned, Wenger’s side have to be the overwhelming favourites for this game with the usual caveats of the gap between teams being close and anything can happen on a given day being applicable.

There shouldn’t be any major surprises in this game. Hull are a competitive team and the game will certainly be very close till the first goal goes in. The two biggest factors that Arsenal will have to deal with are their own nerves and the opponents desire driven physicality.

Let’s cover anxiety first. I remember the tentativeness from the opening exchanges against Birmingham in the League Cup final. Szczesny was saved by an incorrect offside flag from conceding a penalty, and maybe a red card, really early in the game after the team failed to control the ball or its shape. Nerves can affect the decision making of players, their touch, and the speed with which they react. The resulting technical or tactical errors can level the game up in terms of the quality of the two sides and, if the mistakes are in dangerous zones, it can very quickly hand the initiative to the opponent.

That said, this time around I do have higher hopes. Arsenal have cut out many of their common errors from the recent past. For instance, in that penalty incident mentioned above, Song let his runner through when the team had a high-ish line that wasn’t straight. The frequency of such errors has definitely reduced off late. Those were still the days of struggling against the long ball but that’s another area where Wenger’s side have improved noticeably. There is more experience, greater composure, and a tendency among individuals to take responsibility to keep the vital defensive areas secure. All that should keep the goal relatively better protected even if the players exhibit a degree of hesitancy in expressing their game.

We did see a little bit of this against Wigan. Arsenal’s football wasn’t at the expected level, to put it politely. And Mertesacker’s uncharacteristic error reminded us that one potentially decisive error can come at any time. Nevertheless, over the course of 90 minutes, I have to say Arsenal were a lot more secure at the back than they’d have been a few years earlier. The equalizer that took the game to extra time was also a reminder of the fact that you can always get something from the game if you keep plugging away even when you’re not at your best.

The second factor is a little more complicated. Hull are not going to come up with a novel tactical approach that completely flummoxes the Gunners or produce technical football that will outclass Wenger’s side. What they can do is fight. When I say ‘desire driven physicality’, I don’t mean they’ll get violent. Commitment is the key word here. Most English sides don’t give up. And when it’s a Cup Final we can be sure the Tigers will have some bite. They’ve nothing to lose. All they’ve to do is stay organized – a strength of Steven Bruce, challenge for every ball, throw their bodies on the line when needed, and wait for their chance. They can score from a set-piece, a long range shot, or pounce upon a bad mistake by the Gunners. It’ll become easier for them if Wenger’s side are rattled or show some anxiety induced timidity early on. They’ll also gain confidence as time goes unless the Gunners take the lead.

As ever, the first goal will be very important. Arsenal have the highest PPG ratio (2.79) in the League when games scoring first are considered. Even though Hull are 11th in that chart, their 2.21 PPG is nothing to be scoffed at. Both teams have lost only 1 League game in which they’ve scored first. If we reverse that criterion, Wenger’s team have picked up 0.83 PPG from the 12 games where they’ve conceded first including two wins. Hull have 0.18 PPG (4 points) from the 22 games where they’ve let the first one in and just one win.

This will make the initial tactics interesting. Should Arsenal go for broke? Should Hull sit back and absorb some pressure to make sure they’re safe? What happens if both teams go for it?

The answer will lie as much in the tactical choices of the managers as it will in the way the players feel and are able to express themselves on the pitch. Nerves can be contagious. Just one or two players showing signs of tentativeness can drag the whole team down and that can change the entire tactical dynamic of the game. In this regard, Hull have a slight advantage because expectations are low and they have nothing to lose. It’s already a fairy tale run for them. They can enjoy the event and express themselves without fear. The ape clinging on to Arsenal’s back will have to be tamed quickly if the Gunners are to have fun. Respective fans can make a meaningful contribution. Groans from the Arsenal faithful, for instance, can be severely counter-productive.

One thing Arsenal absolutely must avoid is quick transitions from the central third of the pitch. That means players on the ball have to make the right choices even if it means safe passing that seemingly goes nowhere. Similarly, individuals will have to be stronger in possession. The likes of Santi and Özil have shown a tendency to surrender possession when harassed. This can really fire up the opponents while also opening the route to goal.

Control the ball, ride the challenges, and push the opponents back. Openings will come if they are willing to endure the grind. That doesn’t mean sharp passing and constant movement should be abandoned, just that it’s important to shield the ball in order to control the vital territories on the pitch.

Wenger should have no complaints as far as player availability is concerned. His biggest problem might be in deciding who to leave out of the squad.

I’d like to see,

Fabianski – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski.

While the choice of goalkeeper is debatable, the rest of that line up is Wenger’s best starting eleven on current form in my opinion.

To be honest, I’m finding it very hard to see why Arsenal shouldn’t win this game. Worryingly though, far too many times in the recent past, Wenger’s side have shown me how wrong I was when thinking like that. I’m sure many other Gooners are in the same boat and it’s really up to the players to take it to shore and settle the issue once and for all.

I’m amused by the thought of just how vastly different many peoples’ season reviews will be based on the result of just this one game. It has been a good season in my opinion with the potential to become an excellent one if the Gunners perform to their ability. Or it can become a nightmare with no place to hide. Among the many reasons I’d considered for the delay in the extension of the manager’s contract, one was that Wenger wants to give Arsenal the chance to change their mind should his team fail. It’ll certainly be very bad timing for any renewal should the Gunners stumble. Then again, announcing a new deal with monkeyless backs, and the FFP slowly making its presence felt, will surely shine a bright light towards the future.

One way or the other, this could be a historic day for Arsenal.


Quick Thoughts On West Brom And Norwich

May 11, 2014

Arsenal’s fourth one-nil win of the season took the Gunners to 76 points. Only seven times in the entire Wenger era (or the Premier League period for that matter, including the first three seasons that had 42 games each) have the Gunners picked up more points. A win against Norwich will make it the fifth best points haul in the same time frame.

It is still not where it should and can be, but it’s tough to dismiss the performances or the quality of the squad as substandard. Much of the results this season have been, as obviously noted by many, built on a strong defensive foundation. The same was the case against West Brom.

After a strong start and an enjoyable, well-worked goal – once again a good set-piece variation with quality delivery, and Giroud contributing with his head while using his physical strength – the Gunners became sloppy as time went by. They had enough decent-ish chances to score the second but the cushion goal never came. Collective defending in front of two strong central defensive performances was needed to hold fort and secure the points.

I liked Özil’s movement into the wide areas and his ability to find Podolski’s runs, Cazorla’s positioning and timing in the centre, and the fact that Arsenal built quite a few attacks down their left. But it’s impossible to shake the feeling that players of this quality can do much better. Maybe they were going through the motions because the result didn’t really matter. Nevertheless, it was good to see that the sloppiness didn’t extend to the defending.

Norwich – Momentum Matters

It’s unlikely that the Canaries will stay up. It’s hard to guess how a team will play in such a situation. Each player will probably react in a different way and that might affect the overall output of the team. Or they could all buy into the idea of bowing out with a positive memory and give it their all.

Arsenal don’t have much to gain except, as discussed above, taking the points tally to their fifth best in the Premier League era. That said, there might be something in this game for the Gunners from a psychological point of view. Going into the FA Cup final on the back of five wins will probably have a favourable impact on how the team starts that game, if not the whole performance.

Norwich have the 3rd worst defence in terms of goals conceded with 60 shipped in 37 games. But you’ll be surprised if you haven’t already noticed, the Canaries have the fourth best defence at home with just 16 goals conceded in 18 games. Liverpool had to fight for a win there recently while City and Everton have dropped points at Carrow Road.

Their problem is the League’s worst attack. And because of that I’ll be extremely disappointed if the Gunners don’t keep another clean sheet, which would be their 17th of the season. Never since 2000-01 have Wenger’s side kept that many in one League campaign.

Since it’s hard to guess the patterns of play, I’m just hoping Arsenal will be professional and focussed enough to get the job done. It’ll be nice to have more memorable goals and a repeat of the reverse fixture but it’s not a necessity. More variations on set-pieces and different attacking combinations should indicate that the team and coaching staff are using the time well.

Wenger could be tempted to start some of his fringe players but I’d like to see a strong eleven getting in the groove for next Saturday. Rhythm is very important for the Gunners.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski.

Fabianski in place of Szczesny would be an interesting choice. That would probably complete the ideal line-up for the FA Cup final based on current form and fitness.

Of course, Ramsey should not be risked if he is not fully fit. That applies to pretty much any player at this stage and, in that regard, I was glad the Welshman didn’t feature in the final home game of the season.


Thoughts On Hull And Newcastle

April 28, 2014

The visit to the KC Stadium turned out to be a fairly comfortable one, as expected. Hull have not done very well against the big sides and their performance in this game didn’t merit any points either.

That’s not to say the hosts were pushovers. The first half-hour was competitive. Both sides had some half-chances and Arsenal had a clear penalty denied. Hull, as most Steve Bruce sides are, were compact an well-organized in front of Steve Harper. The Gunners weren’t getting a clear sight of goal and some individual quality was needed. It came in the form of a combination between Özil, Cazorla, and Ramsey. Their movement, understanding, and technique were excellent which put the Welshman in an excellent position to score. He was his usual efficient self.

I enjoyed the second goal a lot more. The counter-attack started with a feisty challenge – we’ve seen these called as fouls – and ended with a sublime finish. I loved the ground Ramsey covered and the way Podolski simply struck the ball instinctively. The German is such a natural finisher it’s a shame he doesn’t do more on the pitch or he’d be one of the best in the world. His assist provider again showed his uncanny knack for getting into the right spaces at just the right time.

That tendency was fruitful again for the third goal as Ramsey arrived at the top of the box at the perfect moment to meet Cazorla’s cut-back. When in full flow, these players make football look very easy. The kind of impact Ramsey’s had this season, not just in decisive moments like goals and assists, but also in making others better by his instinctively astute positioning, has made him practically irreplaceable in the side. It’s good, obviously, but also a bit concerning because without him the output of the whole side drops and there isn’t an equivalent replacement in the squad at the moment.

Hull, in fairness, did have some moments which could have gone their way on another day – Livermore’s shot that struck the bar, for instance. But on the balance of play this was a comfortable win for the Gunners and I doubt that would have changed even if Hull had scored with one of their attacks.

Newcastle – The vagaries of form.

The Magpies ended 5th in the League not too long ago. The very next season they also flirted with relegation. After the first 18 games of this season, it looked like Pardew’s side were back on track as they were 6th in the Premiership just 6 points off the top. Since boxing day though, they’ve lost 12 of their 17 League games while picking up just 13 points. Supporting the Toon should probably be prescribed remedy for any football fan found criticizing his club’s short term form.

The likely patterns for Monday night’s game, therefore, are a bit hard to call. There have been a couple of big scoring games between the sides (7-3,4-4) but four of the last seven encounters have also seen a solitary goal or less. The only common element has been that every game has been tight – even last season’s double-digit thriller was quite even till the final 15-20 minutes – and that Arsenal have not lost since 2010 when, if memory serves, Chris Hughton oversaw a win at the Emirates on the back of an Andy Carroll goal.

Life is not the same for Carroll, Hughton, or Newcastle but the Gunners are in a familar position of needing to win in order to ensure their spot in the Champions League qualifiers.

For the most part, I’m inclined to believe this should be a win for the Gunners. It could also be a comfortable one if the visitors fail to turn up as they’ve been prone to off late. But Pardew’s return to the touchline and Sissokho’s to the starting eleven might lift them. Wenger’s side should be prepared to grind out a result if things don’t work smoothly.

Having the decisive players back and the rest between games should help. The combination play in midfield and attacking areas is getting back to a high level and Newcastle’s main aim will be to disrupt Arsenal’s rhythm. Sometimes, with their manager’s encouragement, this can lead to the Geordies getting too physical. Arsenal might have to ride the challenges, so to speak, in order to establish their tactical will on the game. Part of that will also include not losing the ball when shoved and is applicable to the likes of Santi and Özil who aren’t still suited to such battles.

The defence has some standards problems to deal with. Remy has pace and finishing skills, Sissokho is powerful, and set-pieces can always be a problem. If Arsenal concede a goal it will most probably be linked to a terrible individual mistake or two.

Newcastle’s best attacking hope is to press aggressively in the central third of the pitch. Most teams don’t use these tactics against the Gunners, probably for fear of exposing their backline and goal, but bravery is sometimes needed on the pitch. With nothing to lose, given their position in the table, Pardew should take this chance to be bold and proactive. That could make this a very interesting game to watch and a truly challenging one for the Gunners.

The visitors will have to rely on luck if they let the hosts control the ball and the centre of the park.

Wenger should be able to pick a very strong team,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski.

I don’t like Cazorla on the right but he seems to have a very good understanding with Ramsey and Özil.

The importance of the first goal remains as high as it’s ever been.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,358 other followers