I must confess I was a bit premature in the praise for Owen Coyle and an improved Bolton. To be fair to him, it won’t be easy to change the habits of players who have spent their lifetimes training for a combination of “kick them off the park” and “hoof and chase” football.
Coyle could have shown the right intent with a stronger midfield but the moment I saw his starting line up it was clear that we are in for another defensive aerial battle and for some brute force on the ground. Bolton didn’t have any control on the midfield right through the game and their approach was to simply bypass it. As we can see from the following chart comparing the passing styles of the two teams, the visitors launched it long at every given opportunity.
Arsene was diplomatic with his post match comments when he mentioned that Bolton used their strengths well. The truth is the visitors were no match for Arsenal and when Fabregas is in the kind of mood that he was, even the best teams would struggle.
I was also impressed by the fact that we got in behind on so many occasions. Most of the times Arshavin is either waiting on the left or drifts inwards, this time he made some really good runs and the players on the ball (Cesc and Rosicky) were on the same wavelength. To me that looked like a tactical decision and something that we had worked on in training. With players like Arshavin, Walcott, and Vela in the squad we should really punish teams like Bolton and Blackburn when they push so far forward.
I’m not particularly worried that we didn’t take our chances in this game. If this really is something we are working on, it can be a really big weapon and most of the smaller teams will be ripped apart if they push forward. It will have a direct impact on the number of men they can have in attack and will reduce the threat from long balls even further.
It’s something our full-backs should also do more often. When play is squeezed at one end, we have enough space on the other flank for a full-back to get in behind. Gibbs tried making a couple of runs but he wasn’t spotted as well as Arshavin was. Once again it’s something that needs to be perfected in training. Given the fact that we haven’t completely sorted out our defensive issues I can see this as a lower priority task.
The second noteworthy aspect was that this game was another big test for Wilshere. In order to understand this we should see his passing stats for the three games he’s played in. Against Blackpool he made 58 passes in the whole game. That comes to around one pass every 1.55 min. Against Bolton he made 27 passes in 59 minutes at one pass every 2.14 min. In terms of accuracy, against Blackpool Wilshere had 93% and in this game he had 85.
None of these stats are bad by any stretch nor do they reflect poorly on the youngster. Given his age they are exceptional. But they do show that he had a tougher time against Bolton. This is also seen from the fact that he lost 3 of his 4 tackles on Saturday, whereas he won 4 out of 5 against Blackpool. His stats against Bolton were similar to his stats against Liverpool where he made one pass every 2.14 min (88%) and lost 4 of his 6 tackles.
I don’t wish to be critical of the youngster in anyway but in my opinion he was our weak link. Fabregas often came deep to allow him to run into space so that it was easier for him to receive and make passes. The technical quality of Rosicky also made a big difference as he came inside quite often in the central third to act as an additional midfielder. While Walcott played only 66 min (and they were 66 scintillating minutes) against Blackpool he largely remained on the right and was involved much less as can be seen from the following comparison.
I think Jack is learning and such games are the best possible education. He will have seen how Fabregas moves on the pitch, how he uses his body to shrug off physical challenges, the decisions he makes, and how he creates space and time for himself. This will help him fine tune his own game which is already at a very high level. Once he develops (in a couple of years) we can be sure he will be on the ball more often and his overall involvement will be a lot more significant. This is why giving chances to youngsters is so important.
Looking at the passing chart for Rosicky and the fact that Arshavin played so high up and more centrally, I thought we were not playing a 4-3-3 but a variant of the 4-4-1-1. I’m not sure if this was a conscious tactical decision. It seemed more like a natural result of the freedom given to players and real time decision making by intelligent players who could read the game and be in the right spot.
I think It’s important that we use systems that work best with the players on the pitch. For instance, with Rosicky on the right it would be unfair, even stupid, to think that he will hug the touchline and play as a winger. And if he plays as a Right midfielder rather than a winger the others would automatically have to adapt seamlessly converting a three man midfield into a four man one. There are many such intricacies in a game and they develop only after the players get a chance to play together for a while. That’s also the reason why keeping the squad together is vital.
I feel it’s important that we have this flexibility. In games when we don’t do well one gets the feeling that the players have run out of ideas. The movement and understanding is not at the highest level and most players seem stuck to their positions. On the other hand when we do play well it’s very difficult to describe out football with one formation.
The final aspect I want to discuss is the goal we conceded. It is clear that our defenders are still working on an understanding and are learning to deal with the long balls. On the whole we’ve not done too badly so far even though we’ve conceded three goals, all due to collective failures in defence.
Once again we got caught out from a long ball. I’m not using the snapshots for this analysis as it would make the post unbearably long (and I’m a bit short on time) but if you’ve seen the goal repeatedly (painful as it was) you’ll see what I mean.
Squillaci loses the first header, which is acceptable. Koscielny’s positioning is good as he provides cover. However, he tries a difficult header and doesn’t get it right. But the real problem was that no one was tracking the run of Lee. Since he normally plays on the right we cannot expect a midfielder to track it. Should Gibbs have done better in tracking that run? It’s difficult to say as it was straight down the middle.
To me the biggest culprit was Eboue. He could clearly see that Lee was making a run and that he was not being tracked. The Ivorian should’ve sprinted alongside Lee and we would never have been in trouble. There is an argument that the ball might have been headed towards Eboue and he was waiting for it but that doesn’t cut it. Eboue should be reading the danger better and even if the ball had been headed his way he would anyway have been nearer the ball than Lee even if he was tracking the run of the Bolton winger.
Even after Lee got the ball Almunia did well to force him wide. If Eboue had woken up and dashed back in support, Lee would not have had so much time to pick his man. Finally, Elmander was the only striker in the box. We had three defenders but all of them were like headless chickens. If any one of them had decided that “I’m just marking this lone striker”, he could have put in a better challenge to put Elmander off. No guarantees that it would have worked but it would be worth a try. I think Gibbs was the one who made an effort but it wasn’t good enough.
Once again this is something that we have to work on in training. Most of the times when teams punt it long they won’t have too many players in the box. If our defenders know their roles clearly, and don’t switch off, chances are that we will deal with these threats relatively easily.
I also wanted to discuss the cameo by Denilson and the phenomenal shift put in by Chamakh but this is getting too long so will leave it for some other time. Overall, I’m pleased with the way we played and it’s set up the next 20 days perfectly.