Arsenal 5 – 2 Tottenham: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

February 26, 2012

Given the way Arsenal were playing in recent games, Spurs were always going to score a couple of goals. The first half-hour or so was ominously miserable for the Gunners but the script had a twist! To be fair and honest, the best I expected was a 2-2 draw but Wenger and his players have put me over the moon. Nevertheless, the rest of this article will try to follow Le Boss’ cue and not attach any special meaning to the big score (to the extent possible!).

The opening exchanges were predictable as was the pattern of play after that. Spurs came out with high intensity and pressed the ball all over the pitch. This forced some mistakes from the Gunners and they had to stretch the game in order to resist this pressure. It opened the centre up for the visitors and they exploited Arsenal’s weaknesses twice. On Both occasions they had far too much space in the central area in front of goal and there were a number of mistakes from the Gunners for each goal.

Earlier in the week I’d done a detailed piece on Arsenal’s defensive issues. You might want to check that in case you’d missed it but it’s over 6500 words to go with a bunch of snapshots, so please do so only when you have the time and if you have the interest. The goals conceded weren’t exactly like the examples but many of the observations mentioned in that piece were again visible. Anyway, I don’t want to dwell on them to take anything away from this moment.

On the positive side, it wasn’t that tough to see Arsenal scoring in this game. Even in the opening exchanges when Spurs looked the better side, the Gunners were still creating some chances and were looking like they could score. For instance, RvP went really close in the 15th minute and Rosicky forced a big save. Tottenham too have a number of defensive frailties and they were always going to concede.

The game turned on its head after the second goal which resulted from a soft penalty won by serial diver Gareth Bale. I haven’t seen the incidence carefully enough to comment on it with conviction but it seemed to me the Spurs winger played for the penalty.

Credit to the Gunners for not letting their heads get down. Spurs had started dropping deeper after the first goal and completely went into a shell after the second one. Big mistake. It allowed Arsenal the ability to control the territory and get bodies into the box.

Redknapp had two strikers up front but they were completely isolated and it also left them a body short in midfield where they got overwhelmed. Walcott’s positioning and movement in the first half was very good even if he looked completely bereft of confidence when he did get the ball. This sucked Assou-Ekotto inside and allowed Sagna to push up and play as a winger. Bale was forced into an auxiliary left-back role which made him ineffective in attack and defence. He was nowhere near Sagna when the full-back attacked the ball with great determination and desire. That goal reaffirmed the belief that Arsenal could come back into this one and jolted the visitors out of their undeserved stupor of superiority.

That goal came through sustained pressure and excellent combination play. Arsenal had taken up positions to lay siege around the Tottenham box and that made the difference. First an intricate flick from Theo set up Van Persie for a shot which hit the post. The Gunners were able to retain the ball and had the composure to find the cross and finish. Song, Walcott, RvP, Gibbs, Arteta, and Sagna all deserve credit for that goal.

This is something Arsenal usually lack when they struggle to create chances – combination play involving multiple players in a manner that after one shot on goal the pressure isn’t eased and the second attempt follows soon after against a disorganized and stretched defence.

The equalizer came a couple of minutes later. This time too the first ball into the box was cleared, albeit in a risky and lazy manner, by Assou-Ekotto. But Arsenal had a man lurking on the edge of the box, and Van Persie took full advantage of a defence that was just getting back to shape after dealing with the first attack. His strike was superbly placed and gave Friedel no chance.

It’s important to note that the first ball in behind was for Theo to run on to. Walcott’s positioning and pace were the reason the opportunity was created. Rosicky’s presence high up the pitch put pressure on the left-back and was also a factor in his error.

A minute later the Gunners could have taken the lead but Gibbs, after skipping past a couple of players, narrowly missed a teammate with his pass in the box. Theo too missed a half-chance when he couldn’t effectively latch on to Kyle Walker’s naive attempt to chest the ball inside his own box.

At half-time Arsenal had all the momentum. Redknapp made a couple of substitutions in order to get more bodies in the middle. He brought Sandro on for Saha and Van der Vaart on for Kranjcar. That should have given the visitors more of an ability to control the ball but they were set up to play the long-ball/counter-attack game and never really got hold of the ball despite a change in personnel. For their part, the Gunners deserve plaudits for denying their opponents any time or space on the ball. It was Arsenal’s turn to raise the intensity.

The third goal was a sensational counter-attack from the Gunners. Spurs were pushing men forward and were trying to replicate the kind of pressure they’d created at the start of the game. Vermaelen won the ball just outside the Arsenal box. Song and Gibbs played a one-two in a tight space and both did superbly to resist the pressing. Once a side pressing high up is negated with excellent technical play, they can be caught at the back. Song picked out and unmarked RvP around the halfway line. De Kapitein played it wide to Rosicky who played the second delightful one-two of the move with Sagna. The full-back’s cross was a tad scuffed and there was a bit of luck with the deflection of Assou-Ekotto’s leg but the finish was just sublime as Little Mozart had a very narrow gap to thread with the outside, just had to be, of his weaker foot.

Arsenal had five men in the box against Tottenham’s back four. It was good to see them make different runs instead of getting in each other’s way. It stretched their defence and opened up the angle for the cross/pass from Sagna. Walcott’s movement, in particular, opened the gap for Rosicky’s unmarked run.

The game was open from the start but became more of an end-to-end encounter after that goal. Spurs were pushing bodies forward but bulk of their creativity came from wide areas. In that sense they were a very limited side. Arsenal were rarely in complete control at the back but the defenders worked hard to ensure the worst they did was to concede corners. They also won most of the balls that came into the box and found a block or two when it dropped to an opponent.

At the other end Theo fired a warning shot in the 57th minute when he got in behind and went agonizingly wide of the far post.

The fourth was another phenomenal counter. Once again a number of players were involved. Gibbs won the ball inside the Arsenal penalty box with a neat tackle on Bale. Benayoun was just behind to collect and move it forward. His punt toward RvP was won by Kaboul but Rosicky was first onto the second ball. RvP ran in behind and Little Mozart found him. Kaboul got back to chase and along with his central defensive partner, King, he slowed RvP Down. But Walcott had made a sensational run at the other side of the pitch and arrived at the right time to receive the pass from the skipper. His first touch was a poor one and second a tad fortuitous, but you can’t take anything away from the finish.

A couple of minutes later it was time for a second for Theo. Song’s chip put him in behind with Kaboul the guilty party in defence as he was deeper than everyone else. Walcott’s finish was again excellent as he hit the corner.

Subsequently, Arsenal eased off but Tottenham were a broken, demoralized unit. The best they could do was muster up some pointless long range efforts. Their destroyer-in-chief, England’s next great hope, and the man who should have been Arsenal’s saviour according to the hordes of the clueless – Scotty Parker – was sent off late in the game for a second bookable offence. It was a small detail but this game found Parker way out of his depth.

This wasn’t a bad Spurs side by any means. Undoubtedly their best for years. But it was no match for the ruthlessly purposeful and clinical Arsenal team.

In the pre-match press conference, ignorant hacks pestered Arsene with questions about a shift in power in North London and about his players letting him down. Well, Thank You folks. That might have served as a good motivating tool for Le Boss.

One must remember though, Arsenal’s real treasure hunt is for the illusive jewel called consistency. Little victories along the way will mean nothing if that hunt isn’t successful sooner rather than later.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Not sure why he was so far off his line for the first goal. Should have read the pass and come early to collect the ball before Bale reached it, which showed poor decision making for the second goal. That pass was made from inside the centre circle and the ball travelled up to a few yards inside the penalty box. Made the saves he could make, distribution remains shaky. Was the weakest link in the side.

Sagna: Excellent goal and a wonderful assist. Worked the flank diligently and had Bale in his pocket for most of the game. Also pushed the Welshman back effectively. Needs to get into the box more often but wisely as he did on this occasion.

Koscielny: Struggled against Adebayor’s movement and physicality. Bad slip in the build-up to the first goal. Wasn’t able to win much against the striker but defended resolutely in the second half and did a good job in a sweeping role winning back possession most often in the defensive areas.

Vermaelen: His positioning and decision making was suspect in the opening half hour or so. But he was a monster when it came to individual battles, winning all 11 of the tackles and duels. Quite like the Vermin Eater gobbling up the pests. Also made the most clearances.

Gibbs: The youngster had a very good game in attack and it seemed he had clear instructions to push up the pitch. More than anything his presence provided width even when Benayoun came inside. That exposed the flank to an extent and he might have done better to read the threat for both the goals but he’s coming back to the highest level so deserves some leeway.

Arsenal were far from assured in defence but the effort was commendable. The problems have been well documented and are clearly not individual issues. That doesn’t mean players in the back four don’t make mistakes or don’t have any weaknesses, just that the more serious problems seem to be in the structure of the team. Once Arsenal get that right, the defenders mostly find a way to keep the ball out of the net. Better is needed if the holy grail of consistency is to be reached but that’s a discussion for another day.

Song: His positioning wasn’t ideal for the first goal as he tracked back into an ineffective area. Also worth checking if he  could have anticipated the pass from  Modric and intercepted it to prevent it reaching Bale in the box? He was close enough to the path of the ball. Excellent game from that point on. Very strong in possession. Played a number of vital passes and, apart from the assist for the fifth, was crucially involved in the build-up of the first, second, and third goals. Also made the most interceptions and won back possession most often in the midfield and attacking areas. MotM in my book despite a few errors.

Rosicky: His bullet header from a corner early in the game set the tone for an excellent outing from Little Mozart. He was able to play higher up the pitch as Tottenham dropped back. That helped. His finish was superb and general link-up play was a throwback to the old days. Apart from setting up and scoring the goal that put Arsenal ahead, he was involved in the second and fourth goals as well.

Arteta: Mr. Efficiency produced another quality effort. Completed more passes than any two Tottenham players combined. Excellent composure and awareness for the assist to a goal that gave substance to Arsenal’s belief. Rarely lost the ball, won 4 of his 5 tackles, and 8 of his 11 duels, and created a good chance for Benayoun.

The midfield wasn’t positioned well enough to handle the early pressure. That put extra load on the defence and opened up the centre. But they were nearly perfect once Spurs dropped back and it was good to see the vice like grip on the game wasn’t loosened despite a number of goals going in. A mature and calm performance from the trio in the closing minutes.

Walcott: Was involved in all the goals, if not as a scorer than with his presence in and around the box. Has his set of weaknesses that won’t go away any time soon but deserves applause for holding his head high and delivering despite negative pressure. Finishing was clinical.

RvP: Had a lot of efforts but didn’t hit the target often enough. But boy was that a finish! Excellent hold up play for the assist as well. Hit the post, set-piece delivery was good, and was always a menace for Tottenham’s central defenders.

Benayoun: He wasn’t in the picture often enough when the big events took place but he had a decent game. Was sturdy on the ball and only made 2 unsuccessful passes out of 31. Offered a good work rate on the flank and his tracking back was integral to the fourth goal. Tested Friedel with his shot early in the second half but could have done with more power.

The choice of the front three had a surprise. Benayoun over Gervinho or AOC was not a choice many would have guessed. Is Wenger going back to picking a technical player on the flank? I believe that’s the correct choice as two direct players has put tremendous pressure on the midfield but we will have to see how it develops because Arsenal don’t really have to players to pull it off on a regular basis.

Benayoun had a decent game but was a yard or two off pace, especially in the early period when he should have been available for receiving a pass more often as the players at the back were under pressure. Theo can’t do it anyway and that isolates Van Persie because the Gunners can’t bring the ball out well enough. Grew into the game though and can play a big role if he gets a chance to develop.

Subs: Jenkinson was efficient, Oxlade-Chamberlain made a number of poor choices on the ball but it didn’t matter, Gervinho barely had any time on the pitch.

Wenger: Deserves credit for lifting the players after a couple of major setbacks. His team’s defending can be disastrous but they can also redefine life as we know it when they’re on song. Loved the way Arsenal mastered Spurs at their own game of counter-attacking while outplaying them on the pitch with the ball.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Spurs

February 26, 2012

Tottenham’s latest visit to the Emirates has to potential to be an uplifting and revitalizing game but it can also, just as easily, pile on the pressure.

Wenger can pick a strong side for this one as the players have had a week to recover from the previous fixture. Koscielny and Gibbs will be given fitness tests and I have a feeling both will get into the starting line-up even if they’re on the edge. In the midfield Ramsey picked up an injury in the previous game so Song and Arteta are most likely to have Rosicky in front of them. Out wide Arsene will have to pick two out of Walcott, AOC, and Gervinho. All three have their sets of strengths and weaknesses and it’s tough to say who is better suited. I’d go with experience.

Preferred line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Gervinho.

Barring fitness issues, I guess the only real talking point in the side is the choice between Theo and Oxlade-Chamberlain. The thing is, it’s not hard to imagine either of them doing well but both have their set of limitations as well. A lot of Walcott’s game relies on the supply that he gets. When he sees a lot of the ball after a slow build-up and in a congested area his output is quite poor. But most people also realize he can be absolutely lethal if he gets the ball early or in behind. With AOC the positives are in his ability to dribble and take on opponents. But the youngster is still in a developing phase and his positioning, decisions on the ball, and tactical awareness aren’t always at the level needed. I guess Wenger just has to take a call based on what he has seen in training this week.

Tactically this should be an interesting game. Tottenham like to come out with high intensity for the opening 10 minutes or so. I expect them to press Arsenal higher up the pitch and in a fairly coordinated manner. The Gunners must avoid making individual mistakes under such pressure. On the other hand, such an approach will also provide openings for Arsenal to make the breakthrough as they will find more space.

If the game is level, or if they take the lead, after the opening salvo from Spurs, they’re likely to drop deeper and will then rely on counter-attacks and long diagonals. Sagna has done well against Bale in the past but the Gunners will have to track his movement, especially if he drifts inside. Van der Vaart is another player who has posed problems to Arsenal with his movement across the pitch after starting in a wide role on the Right.

The midfield has to find it’s rhythm and shape back. Arsenal went on a strong run after the defeat in the reverse fixture as the defence got excellent support from the three midfielders. It’s hard to say why that’s not been consistently visible since the turn of the year but it’s easy to predict Arsenal will struggle without getting their tactical cohesion back.

Tottenham’s full-backs have the pace to match Arsenal’s wingers but they can make mistakes if isolated. Recently, Arsenal haven’t moved the ball well enough or at the right speed to achieve that. Gervinho can also find a lot of joy between the lines if he picks his runs across the width of the pitch in an intelligent manner. Such movement is vital to Arsenal’s ability to open  opposition defences but hasn’t been seen often enough in the recent past. Again movement alone is never sufficient and those in possession must also display the ability to find the player getting into such spaces. Vision and execution too have been problem areas during the rough patch.

Many fans will also be looking for a much improved effort from Szczesny who hasn’t delivered a satisfactory performance on a consistent basis in the last few weeks. The youngster’s reflexes, positioning, and decision making will surely be tested in this game.

I will be very surprised if both sides don’t score in this game. Given Arsenal’s recent defensive efforts, anything less than two goals for Spurs will be an improvement. With that in mind Arsenal would need three goals or more to win this one. To be honest, it’s difficult to visualize that happening. The best I can see from Arsenal is a draw. The Gunners have the ability to win the game against such opponents but they’ve not performed at that level for quite some time now. Watching Arsenal getting back to form in the North London Derby can be one of the highlights of the season but only the optimists will expect that in this game.

My biggest wish from this game is to see a better collective defensive effort. Everything else can be built on that and the fourth place can be achieved. I really do want the Gunners to focus on that because in the recent seasons there have been far too many phases where one defensive frailty or another have cost the team crucial points and Cup ties. Similarly in reverse, strong runs have also been built on well-organized team efforts where the combined output is much better than the sum of the parts.

This game will also be a good test of the mental strengths of this side. This season they’ve achieved some remarkable comebacks and many consider the current squad to be stronger in that regard. In less than nine hours we will learn more.

 


A Detailed Look At Arsenal’s Defensive Issues – Tactics, Shape, Mistakes, …

February 24, 2012

To say the Gunners were woeful in defence against Milan will be an understatement. It was a shocking performance. The 8-2 debacle at United earlier in the season didn’t occur completely by accident either and we can be fairly certain this isn’t the last time Wenger’s side have crumbled defensively.

Before going further, it’s necessary to unequivocally state that this isn’t a doom and gloom piece. Arsene Wenger is an excellent manager but like all individuals, he has his set of strengths and limitations. This article is an attempt to explore the details that make Arsenal such a weak defensive unit but it must be read in the context that the Gunners have consistently been in the top five defences in the Premier League and have fared much better than many sides that rely primarily on defensive tactics.

Before criticizing, one must acknowledge that there are phases, often large ones every season, where the side does really well. For instance, at the end of 28 games in the Premier League last season, Arsenal had conceded fewer Premier League goals than Manchester United, and were going strong in all competitions. A significant portion of that run also came with Djourou and Squillaci in the centre of defence and Fabianski behind them. Obviously, something was being done right and, in such periods of domination, the quality of personnel doesn’t seem to be as big a factor as it is routinely made out to be.

Having said that, it’s impossible to deny it all went pear shaped after the Carling Cup final as the season ended with a disastrous collapse. To an extent then, the issue at Arsenal seems to be one of consistency. But consistency isn’t a quality that can be taught or bought. It’s borne out of a combination of tactics, efforts put in training, and other individual qualities like concentration, awareness, discipline, etc.

Furthermore, football is one of the most intrinsically linked team games. Having a poor attack or a disjointed midfield could easily make the back four look like a bunch of clowns. In that regard, defending is always a team effort where all the eleven players have to pull their weight.

Recently, there was an interesting piece by Omar Chaudhari comparing certain passing trends in the Premier League. The following chart borrowed from that piece shows the number of successful final third passes needed to score a goal against each side.

Not surprisingly, this year’s five best defences thus far are in the top six positions. Swansea are the only side in the top six of that chart that are not a part of the best six defences in the League. It seems fairly intuitive – if a side is defensively solid, opponents will need more passes to break them down and such a team will concede fewer goals as a direct result.

Sadly for Gooners, Arsenal are languishing near the bottom of that list along with most of the relegation candidates. This year, in particular, has been a significantly difficult one for the Gunners and they are in 11th place when it comes to goals conceded, but even that is still too big a difference from their 19th place on that table.

Based on those numbers one could also say the other teams have a greater ability to sit back and absorb pressure. Certainly, it corroborates well with the general observation that United, Chelsea of the recent past, and City this season look a lot more comfortable when they drop deep. There is a degree of composure and assuredness about their defending. In contrast, Arsenal’s aren’t always convincing at the back and one gets the feeling a lot of the defending is desperation stuff that does tend to work but not as often and rarely in the big games.

Indeed, the recent defeat against Milan was a classic example. Arsenal had greater possession and made more passes but the hosts seldom looked under pressure. They were able to get into a solid defensive shape and kept all the play in front of them. In stark contrast, the Gunners were caught on the break often, and even when they were deep they couldn’t really defend well as was seen with the kind of time and space available to the Milan players for the first goal.

Essentially, this provides a fairly strong indication that it is relatively much easier to score against Arsenal than it is against the other bigger clubs in England, or around Europe if we extend this argument based on observations from the Champions League games.

Unfortunately, while it is easy to say the Gunners are defensively weaker than comparable clubs, a clear-cut solution doesn’t exist because it isn’t a straightforward problem. In order to discuss this we need to look at the problem areas in detail. Before doing that though, it will be helpful to look at some of the general principles of defending.

Basic Principles of Defence

The following list is neither comprehensive nor authoritative but is my abridged interpretation of some of the fundamentals of defending that one is likely to see in coaching manuals. Hopefully, it will be fairly illustrative and will help us while discussing specific examples and some of the broader defensive patterns later in the piece.

 1) Pressure: A player who is closest to the ball looks to close down the opponent in possession. Often teams try to apply pressure not only on the player in possession but also on the teammates who can receive a pass. This is a crude definition of pressing, which is usually done with an aggressive intent of winning the ball back. Pressure can also be applied simply to force backward passes in order to give the defensive players some time to get back in their positions. Such an approach is a conservative one and is used when teams don’t want to push or retain too many bodies up the field, especially when they don’t have the ball.

2) Delay: It’s important to slow the opponents down. When a team is in possession their attempt is to stretch the play and thus many of their players are spread over the length and breadth of the pitch. It’s very difficult to defend from many of these positions so these players need time to get back into areas where they can make a meaningful defensive contribution. Slowing down the opponents by applying pressure and by taking up positions to cut passing channels is called delay.

3) Depth: Good defences work in layers. That means if a player makes a mistake, or is beaten by the skills or pass-and-move combinations, others are present to provide cover. The most common allusion that you might have heard from pundits is “two banks of four”. Having depth helps slow down the opponents even further and provides fail-safes. Imagine a side defending with a deep-lying defence and midfield just in front. If an opponent get between the lines in a central area, one of the central defenders will likely move up to put pressure on the ball. The associated full-back will look to tuck in and provide cover for the space vacated by the centre-back. The idea is to have sufficient bodies between the ball and goal.

4) Balance: The defence has to be balanced around the ball. The players who aren’t immediately pressing the ball must be in a position to cover passing channels, to track runs, or to provide cover for others moving out of position. So if the ball goes wide on the left, the right-back will tuck in and come inside the box. That might leave the right flank empty but it doesn’t pose any immediate threat. Leaving the back post free would be a lot more risky.

5) Compactness: A key objective for any defence is to limit time and space for the opponents. It cannot be achieved if players are spread all over the field. Depending on tactics chosen a side could choose to make different areas of the field compact. For instance, Barcelona press really high up the pitch and like to win the ball back early. Their defenders spend a lot of time around the centre line. Many teams make the midfield congested with a relatively high line of defence. Then there are cases, like the approach Inter adopted against Barca, when teams drop deep around their own penalty box. In such cases the back four or five usually starts off around the edge of the penalty box and drops even deeper as the ball goes wide. Dropping deep is probably the most commonly used approach towards achieving a compact defensive structure but even then the exact positions taken up by defenders vary based on the tactics that their managers favour.

6) Individual Judgment: While coaches can design training drills and provide general instructions, it’s up to the players to make the decisions on the pitch. When to press, when to back off, when to double up, when to tackle, when to clear, when to hold, when to drop deep, and when to step up are just some of the choices that players have to make in a fraction of a second on a constant basis. It might not be right to classify a player’s decision making as a basic principle but it’s vital to the appropriate execution of any defensive system that the team plans on using.

As a culmination of tactics and individual decisions, teams end up in different defensive shapes. There isn’t a clearly defined shape that a side must take up as a lot depends on the quality and tactics of the opponents and the given situation in a game. But the purpose of the shape is to facilitate the proper execution of the above mentioned principles while providing a guiding structure to the individuals on the pitch. Players must be in good positions to delay the move, provide depth, maintain balance, and remain compact. Through that they must then be able to either force an error like a misplaced pass, make a tackle/interception, or force a shot from a position that is less likely to threaten the goal. Having the ability to launch a counter-attack can be an added bonus.

It’s important to note that any defensive shape, while broadly rigid, has to be flexible and must constantly adapt in order to account for the movement of the attackers. Just forming two lines of four, for instance, is therefore not sufficient to make a solid defence.

Specific Instances

A Caveat: The following snapshot based analysis is not an ideal approach for looking at defensive shapes/issues as it’s possible to find frames in almost all the games that can make a solid defence look porous or, just as easily, give a compact feel to a disorganized one. But the examples chosen should give us sufficient evidence to elaborate on the aforementioned principles and for the broader discussion that follows. That said, if possible, watching the videos of these incidents is highly recommended.

1) Valencia’s goal for Man United on Jan 22nd 2012 (Arsenal 1 – 2 Man United).

Most Arsenal fans reading this piece will not have forgotten United’s opening goal in the recent home defeat. Lasting memory of that goal was a 2-v-1 on the wing that led to Giggs’ assist when Djourou was too narrow and Ramsey couldn’t cover Nani and the Welshman at the same time. Some might also recall Vermaelen’s failure to put in a strong challenge at the back post as Valencia rose high to head it in.

There is nothing wrong with those observations but it’s worth rewinding the play back to look at the previous attack and its contribution to the eventual build up of the goal.

Michael Carrick had the ball around ten yards or so inside his own half. There was no pressure on him so he had ample time to pick out a pass.

Van Persie and Oxlade-Chamberlain are pressing high up the pitch but their teammates aren’t pushing up. Rosicky can be seen just inside the Arsenal half but he is at least 10 yards away from the ball.

Carrick then picks out a long pass and as the camera pans around, it captures a very insightful image of Arsenal’s organization.

All three midfielders are in or around the centre circle. Vermaelen is relatively high up the pitch and almost in line with Song and Walcott, presumably to track Valencia so that he can’t receive the ball with ease. Walcott is closer to the Right touchline and is also at least 10 yards inside the Arsenal half.

In the frame above, Rooney is seen receiving this long pass, it would be harsh to label it a long ball, from Carrick. A few observations immediately stand out. Mertesacker is not tight on the forward but is holding his position. In itself there is nothing wrong with backing off, especially against a skilful player who could turn the defender and get through on goal.

The two red lines show big gaps between a) the midfield and the back line, and b) the left-sided central defender and the left-back.

We can also see that a simple long pass has bypassed Arsenal’s first line of defence – in other words, the depth is easily negated and there is hardly any delay – and now the central defence is under tremendous pressure. Furthermore, the defence is unbalanced because there is a big gap on the left side. Rooney has so much space he can afford a poor touch or he could just play it away from himself so that he can turn on the ball and face the goal.

Once Rooney knocks the ball a few feet away from him, either deliberately or due to a poor touch, Mertesacker moves up to put some pressure on the ball. Not doing that would have been instant suicide as the striker would have large gaps to pick passes or time to have a crack at goal.

Welbeck’s diagonal run has taken Koscielny away. The German defender is pushing the English striker away as Song comes chasing back. An even bigger gap has opened up on the left side of Arsenal’s penalty box. Valencia is looking to get into this space while Vermaelen is tracking that run.

There is some pressure on the ball but hardly any depth or balance. And even the kindest of souls can’t call it compact.

Rooney tries to find the run of Valencia but Vermaelen has done well to get back. It’s worth noting that while the Belgian does make an interception, he’s been forced into a desperate lunge. This means he couldn’t really control the ball and it rolled away towards the penalty spot.

All the six Arsenal players in that frame are chasing back and looking at their own goal. Many are out of position. One long pass, a couple of touches from a striker, and an attempted through-ball have completely destroyed Arsenal’s defensive shape. Since it wasn’t a great move the problem has to be with the way the Gunners defended. It includes the positioning of a number of players and the choices they’ve made.

As the ball rolled away to a very dangerous spot right in front of goal, and Welbeck was in a position to attack it, Vermaelen didn’t have much of a choice but to hack it clear. Since he isn’t really looking to pick a pass, and has been forced into hoofing with his weaker foot, the ball doesn’t find a teammate. Walcott’s inability to put in a better challenge didn’t help either.

Evra won the ball and played it forward to Nani with Giggs making an overlapping run on the flank.

Again there is little to no pressure on the ball as the players were sucked in towards the centre and left. Three defenders are within two yards of each other in the red circle. Djourou is narrow for a right-back but the positions of others have forced him to take up such a role or the centre would be completely exposed.

From this point on it was only a matter of a simple cross and a relatively easy finish.

It’s easy to criticize Djourou for not doing more to prevent the cross or Vermaelen for not attacking the ball at the back post. But when you look at the build-up, and don’t forget it all happened in a matter of seconds, it seems harsh to criticize the individuals. It could be that Vermaelen was just a tad disoriented and catching his breath. He probably didn’t get the time to look back and see where Valencia was.

Anyway, the idea of this post is to look at the details but not to get lost in individual examples. So let’s take the observations with us and leave the conclusions for later.

2) Robinho’s second goal for Milan on Feb 15th 2012 (Milan 4 – 0 Arsenal).

Before getting into the move that led to the goal, it’s worth exploring the manner in which Arsenal lost the ball around the centre line.

Song was in possession just inside the Milan half. The hosts were impeccably organized and cut out most of the passing channels. Their midfield diamond is clearly visible and is preventing any kind of forward pass. The back line is virtually perfect. The two strikers, encircled, are floating and ready to pounce on any counter-attacking opportunity but are also in good positions to intercept a long pass (Robinho) and to prevent Song from moving inside (Ibrahimovic).

The bold red lines show the passing options available to the midfielder. Essentially, he can either go sideways or backwards. There is space in front of Milan’s left-back but that would be a tough pass to complete as Song doesn’t have that much time on the ball and he doesn’t have the right body shape to chip the ball. By the time he set’s himself up for that pass, Boateng could easily nick the ball and launch a counter. Furthermore, if Song doesn’t get it inch perfect the left-back can win it and release Robinho towards the goal.

So, not only are Milan exceptionally organized from a defensive point of view, they have players in good positions to break at speed. Some people would say a side’s ability to launch a counter-attack is also an integral defensive principle as it forces the opponents into making safer passes, which usually go sideways or backwards.

At this point it’s necessary to acknowledge that Arsenal could have troubled them more with quicker passing and better use of the flanks. The re-laid portions of the pitch played a part too. But this isn’t a discussion about all the specifics of that game so these points can be left aside.

Song plays the most obvious safe pass towards Gibbs. Nocerino comes out to close the full-back down. This particular snapshot doesn’t cover it but the midfield diamond shifts a bit towards the left. Rosicky moves into the space in front of Gibbs. Abate, not visible in the frame, come out to put pressure on the Czech midfielder.

Space opened up behind the right-back and Gibbs tried to run into that. But Abate got really tight on Rosicky and didn’t allow him to turn or pass into that space. Meanwhile, Nocerino tracked the run of Gibbs to ensure that even if a pass was made the full-back would not be free to run at the goal or cross with ease.

This and many other passages of play in that game provide textbook examples of the principles discussed earlier in the article. Milan were compact, well-balanced, had two or three layers of depth, and slowed play down with their positioning. Not only did Milan retain superb defensive shapes throughout the game, their players showed a degree of defensive intelligence in reading the game that isn’t always visible when the Gunners are defending.

Moving forward, the pressure from Abate forced a heavy touch from Rosicky, who then had to slide to prevent Ibrahimovic from pouncing on the loose ball. Unfortunately, his sliding pass was over hit and went beyond Arteta towards Robinho. This set up the counter-attack.

Robinho collects the loose ball. Arteta tries to get back to put pressure on him. Boateng makes a forward dash and is closely followed by Song. Arsenal’s central defenders aren’t in the picture but are about 20 yards inside their own half. This makes it easy for Robinho to find Ibrahimovic before making another forward run. Sagna, only partially visible at the top of the picture, races back to get into a defensive position.

In the above snapshot we can see Vermaelen has stepped up and is helping Arteta in order to pressurize Ibrahimovic and delay or thwart his pass. Sagna has gained good ground. Song too has done a decent job of tracking Boateng’s run. Djourou is watching Robinho’s movement and is in a decent covering position.

Ibrahimovic held on to the ball for a while and Arsenal shepherded him away from goal. He got support in a wide area but Arsenal had sufficient bodies behind. Gibbs too got back from the forward run that he’d made.

Djourou gets tight on Robinho and unwittingly ends up playing a one-two with Ibra. That in itself wasn’t a problem as Milan hardly had any bodies in dangerous areas.

Arsenal seem to be in a decent defensive position. The defensive line looks very good. Boateng has run into an off-side position wide on the Right. Ibra doesn’t have too many options and virtually nothing in the box.

But closer examination shows a few weaknesses. Sagna can’t really put pressure on the ball because of the wide player. Ibra can slip him through if the full-back goes for a challenge. This means the striker has a lot of time on the ball. Arteta was chasing him but has eased off. Djourou has to provide cover for Sagna if Ibrahimovic decides to cut inside. Both these defenders are square-on and in good positions but with limited choices. They have to react to the play they can’t act proactively.

The gap between Djourou and Vermaelen seems too big given the circumstances and the time that Ibrahimovic has. Robinho spots this and tries to run into that space. Vermaelen reads that and accelerates towards that area.

Interestingly, and perhaps by accident, the Swedish striker plays the pass behind Robinho, who has to check his run, and across Arsenal’s defensive line. That also forces Vermaelen to check his run but the defender slips. Song is too far away to make a timely challenge. Robinho gets a free strike at goal from a central area on the edge of the box. One can’t really expect him to miss from there too often.

Now you could say it was just an unfortunate slip. But would it have been avoided if Vermaelen had been a couple of yards closer to Djourou. That way he would not have had to run as fast and turning might have been easier. Song too could have been closer to the centre but he’d just tracked a run to a wider area and can perhaps be excused.

The problem for Arsenal was that the defensive line wasn’t as well balanced as it could have been, thus offering a gap to the opponents, and there was absolutely no depth even on the edge of the penalty area. The shape of the side also meant there was very little pressure on Ibrahimovic when he was making the pass. A slip from one player completely exposed the goal from an otherwise harmless looking situation.

3) Nathan Dyer’s Goal for Swansea on Jan 15th 2012 (Swansea 3 – 2 Arsenal).

Again most Gooners will probably recall Ramsey getting caught in possession in the build-up to this goal. After that it was a simple enough square pass that allowed another opponent a clear strike at the Arsenal goal from a central area.

Once again it’s worth looking at the sequence of events but this time I’ll limit the snapshots. Arsenal originally lost the ball halfway inside the Swansea half when Ramsey’s pass to RvP was intercepted by a defender who stepped up. He then found Dyer who got the better of Miquel’s attempt to tackle around the centre line. Song did well to delay the run. This allowed the defenders to get back in position and eventually Nathan Dyer’s pass was intercepted by Miquel.

With players chasing back, Arsenal were really congested in the centre, which did force the misplaced pass but there were few options for the Gunners on the ball. Miquel played it to Benayoun and ran forward. The Israeli passed it back to Arshavin who then found Ramsey. The rest has probably been shown in highlights more often than one would like to watch. Let’s focus on a slightly different aspect of that goal.

When Arshavin is about to pass to Ramsey, Song is quite a way behind Dyer and between the winger and Arsenal’s goal. Miquel has moved up the field while Arshavin has come inside. Both can be criticized for their positions but the build-up and the consequent congestion in the centre forced this situation. Song, as a defensive minded player who could see the game in front of him, should be aware of the resultant gap on the left of the defence.

As seen above, Song completely loses track of Dyer and is sucked inside. Arshavin is chasing back so there isn’t a great need for him to take up a central position. Even if he does come inside, he should at least be aware of the gap at left-back and the run of the winger. Song, in this case, seemed to get caught ball-watching and was more reactive – he was ambling back and only sprinted once he saw the pass being played towards Dyer – than proactive from a defensive point of view.

The Broader Patterns

Different people can have different ideas, many almost equally valid, about certain details of a football game. For instance, three top managers might look at the goals Arsenal discussed above and identify different areas they’d like to improve. Since there isn’t a single easily identifiable and addressable issue, it’s better to look at the broader patterns.

The first case, Valencia’s goal, highlights a number of such patterns. Regular readers might remember various match reports on this blog having phrases like, “Arsenal lost their shape”, “The midfielders were in a no man’s land”, “big gaps between defence and midfield”, and “X defender hoofed the ball but it came back into the defensive third within seconds”. This was a classic example.

The opponents are able to reach Arsenal’s defensive third with ease, the defenders work hard to clear it but do so more in a desperate manner than an assured one largely because of lack of support. It doesn’t stay out for long and the cycle repeats. If the opponents don’t have the quality of Giggs or Valencia, Arsenal might even survive such spells. It then looks like gritty defending but isn’t always pretty and certainly not without a number of worrying moments.

Ultimately, it is a matter of percentages. The more often opponents get in or around the penalty area the more likely they are to force a succession of mistakes and score. Sometimes though, it seems the Gunners are unlucky as the opponents score from their only shot on target but it is usually because the quality of chance conceded is really good or some hapless defender has made a mistake when working hard in an inefficient system.

It’s also extremely important to remember that Arsenal aren’t inept at defending in every game or they’d have been relegated. The defensive weaknesses come to the fore when Wenger’s preferred system of play breaks down i.e. his side isn’t able to dominate the ball as well or isn’t able to move it well enough to push the opponents deep into their own half on a consistent basis.

This is the reason the defence tends to struggle against the big teams on a more frequent basis and is one of the root causes of the poor runs against Man United and Chelsea in recent past.

To be fair to Arsene and Arsenal, defending is harder for a side that sets out to play with an attacking mentality. More so, if the opponents are extremely disciplined and well-organized at the back and prove difficult to penetrate as this forces attacking players into wider and deeper areas. Chelsea’s recent woes – despite their supposedly proven defenders, players with winning mentalities, and big money purchases – are another excellent example of the difficulties in defending when trying to play with an attacking mindset.

Most teams start the game with a defensive approach and build on it. Barcelona are probably the only side in recent history of the game that has won major trophies after starting games with a positive, attack-minded approach.

But that cannot be an excuse for the Gunners. If they don’t have the technical qualities of Barcelona, or a player like Messi in their ranks, they have to find a different solution that works. Yes injuries have been a problem, especially when they seem to target a particular area like all the centre-backs or full-backs. The impact of refereeing decisions can also be debated and acknowledged. Nevertheless, there is a need for Arsenal to have a better ability to sit back and defend when the backs are against the wall.

Can you recall the last time Arsenal had a really assured defensive performance against a quality opponent? Not a gritty one where they fought hard to protect a lead but one where you couldn’t quite see the opponent scoring. Milan did it to Arsenal, United and Chelsea have done it often enough, but it’s hard to recall such efforts from the Gunners.

A positive approach is commendable and highly cherished by many fans. But is it justified when 10 players are injured, just to take an example, and the available squad doesn’t really have the quality to play the dominating game for 90 minutes?

The second example illustrates Arsenal susceptibility to the counter-attack. This is another problem that occurs intermittently but more often, obviously, against the top clubs. The Gunners have also exited a number of Cup competitions by conceding goals on the break against big and small clubs.

The number of times a cross or a corner from Arsenal results in a counter-attack from the opponent is alarming. Milan probably created half a dozen such chances in just one game. This particular issue wasn’t described in the examples above but stems from similar problems of shape and decision making. There usually isn’t enough pressure on the second ball when the cross/corner is first headed or punched clear. The gaps between the players are large and more often than not opposing strikers are able to receive the ball without a strong enough challenge. After that defenders are under pressure as they have to cover large spaces. This forces some mistakes and opponents can easily reach Arsenal’s penalty area.

The Swansea example is more about individual errors. Even highly regarded players like Song, Sagna, and Vermaelen make a number of mistakes that have serious consequences. Either the player switches off, or makes a poor judgment call, or get’s in someone else’s way, or just makes a poor tackle/clearance/pass/choice in a dangerous area.

Often these errors result after spells of sustained pressure from the opponent that is caused by the failure of the system of play. Individuals look bad but aren’t as culpable as a casual observer might think.

These are some of the common patterns one is likely to see when the Gunners are struggling defensively. A lot of the defending will involve chasing the ball and desperate clearances/hoofs. Too many players will get dragged off their positions. In most cases they can’t be faulted for effort, in fact sometimes the effort put in is too high and that leads to other problems.

Those watching carefully might see the defenders completely switching off after winning the ball back in some instances. They would have spent so much energy through intense concentration and incessant chasing over a short period of time that they just don’t have the energy to then play the ball out from the back. Naturally, it happens when the side has been under sustained spells of pressure. That’s when one usually sees a demoralized, disjointed unit that appears to be a bunch of clueless and disinterested players.

Those who studied the way Milan defended might have noticed the way the Italians controlled the pace of the game through their defending. They couldn’t match Arsenal’s energy and pace in an end-to-end encounter. So they didn’t play it. They used the principle of delay rather delightfully by simply holding excellent defensive positions till they could win the ball and launch a counter. They allowed Arsenal to keep the ball but channeled the Gunners into wide areas and then forced them to pass backwards or into a crowd of well-organized defenders. Essentially, they managed to keep the play in front of them for large periods of the game. That way the Rossoneri also conserved their physical and mental energies while frustrating the Gunners. In order to succeed at that, all their players had to be on the same page tactically. They also had to read the game well and constantly cover the passing channels.

Wenger’s side really struggles to achieve this. One of the chief causes is that even when they try, quality opponents find it easy to play the ball around them. It’s as if they just don’t read the game well enough. Two or three Gunners might be closing a player down but if he has the composure he can find a pass through them as they just stand and watch. It happens far too often and with almost all the players so it can’t be about individuals. This has to come from the manager and the way he and his coaches think about the game as that translates into training drills and ultimately shows in players’ instincts on the pitch.

Solutions!

Now comes the tricky part. Most Gooners aren’t happy at this point in time, understandably so. Such an article can easily add fuel to the impression that everything is rotten in Wenger’s reign. That is not the case and certainly not the intention behind this write-up.

Those who appreciate details will have seen that the issues at Arsenal are clearly not limited to one or two individuals or a small set of problems. Too many factors are interlinked and that makes it genuinely hard to solve them.

It would be prudent to remember that many managers can set a team up to defend. Alex McLeish’s Birmingham side were very hard to break down at their home. They also won a Cup on the back of that ability. But they also got relegated. Martin O’Neill is excellent at organizing disciplined, tenacious defensive units. It wasn’t that long ago when his Villa side were widely predicted to usurp Arsenal’s Champions League spot. It never materialized despite a fair amount of spending. Similarly, teams like Dortmund and Porto, to name just two, that have won domestic titles, often struggle to show the kind of consistency that Arsenal have shown. Clearly, Arsenal aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be – although, it must be said, the loss of Cesc and Nasri has made this the weakest Arsenal squad in recent years.

Moreover, Football isn’t limited to defensive organization. As already stated at the start, all aspects of the game are intrinsically and intricately linked. Most managers who create a strong defensive unit, especially in England, usually end up relying on long balls and set-pieces for goals.

Eventually, it’s about finding the right balance between attack and defence. Every manager tries, but among billions of people who love the game, and thousands who’ve played it at the very top, there are only a handful who’ve found a good balance on a consistent basis at the highest level in a managerial capacity.

Look closely at the details over the last few seasons and you’ll see that Wenger is trying hard. There are a lot of changes that have been attempted, and many have been successful in patches. For instance, last season the Gunners had this tendency to drop back to the halfway line in most of the away games and the big ones at home. They kept a relatively high line and compressed play in the upper portion of their own half. This brought a fair bit of success including the League’s best away record (despite the horrific form at the end!), a hard fought win over Barcelona, and a run to the Carling Cup final.

Such an approach also had its weaknesses. Some teams played balls over the top to trouble the Arsenal back four. It cost them some points and Cup replays. But more often than not it worked even with the likes of Djourou and Squillaci in defence. Then came the successive losses in the Cups and everything collapsed.

This season the Gunners are dropping deeper at the back. It’s hard to say whether that’s due to the presence of Mertesacker who is relatively slower or is a tactical choice from the coaches. But that approach too was working well for a period of three months or so. It minimized the space behind the defence and, with Arteta making a significant defensive contribution, created a relatively strong defensive unit. Now that too has broken down but it’s not easy to pin-point the causes. Are the players making mistakes because they are too tired, or because they are playing out of position, or due to a number of changes in the back four, or for some other reason? Unless the problem can be clearly and precisely identified, it can’t practically be solved. It’s one of the main reasons why Arsene finds it hard to curb a negative cycle in a matter of days.

Having said all of that, a strong need for a new coach in the defensive area has to be mentioned. In a hypercompetitive environment created by wanton spending, Wenger hasn’t been able to create a side that can handle periods of chaos in an assured and controlled manner. While the complex nature of Arsenal’s problems can be appreciated and Wenger’s knowledge, capabilities, and efforts commended, it’s very hard to ignore the crying need for better performances.

A fresh, highly qualified mind that is in-sync with Wenger’s philosophy but also brings additional defensive nous to the table would be Arsenal’s best acquisition. The point, of course, is not to say that Wenger doesn’t know the basic theoretical points mentioned in this post. That would be preposterous. But he hasn’t found a way to consistently transfer the theoretical knowledge into practice. A new approach, different drills, harder effort, and single-minded dedication can take his side to the next level.

The budget available to the manager or the policies of the club – especially transfer related – are unlikely to change overnight, only a minor miracle will abate the number and nature of injuries that Arsenal players suffer from, and sundry factors like the performance of officials, the state of pitches in away games, or the tactics of opponents are not likely to change any time soon.

Something must give. And it must be something that can be observed, controlled, measured, and improved over a period of time. Change for the sake of change doesn’t always work. Wenger brings a lot to the table. He’s done better than most, arguably everyone, considering the budget he’s worked on. But in the context of what is expected from Arsenal, that hasn’t been enough. Perhaps for the board it is and maybe for some fans. But for many fans there is room for improvement. Most importantly, from the manager and his players’ perspectives there is a need for a better, let’s just say, output. Cesc wanted more. Van Persie wants more. Arsene suffers a lot when the side loses.

Defence is one area where Arsenal can really do better without spending big. But when in-house solutions aren’t working, one has to look outside. It won’t be easy but the long term gains will more than justify the pains taken. And someone has to take the pains or the suffering will continue!

Apologies for the blurry nature of some of the images. Most can be enlarged by clicking on them. That might give a, er, better picture. This piece turned out to be much longer than I’d anticipated so I really want to thank you for reading. Hope it added some value.

 


Sunderland 2 – 0 Arsenal: Belated Thoughts

February 20, 2012

This is depressing. Even when I was mentally prepared for a bad result that performance was just too hard to take. Even though I believe Arsenal would be better of not competing in the Cups, the manner of defeat has been excruciating. For the last couple of days I just kept away from the internet and any football news. Despite that, it’s not easy to write this.

I don’t want to go into any kind of an analysis of the game or the individuals. It was something we have seen in the past often enough; opponents working hard to chase the ball – all credit to them for that, scoring from one shot on target, Arsenal not getting a penalty, struggling to create much otherwise, conceding another on a counter-attack.

It’s really hard to pin-point what went wrong and it just seems safer to say everything did. Oddly enough, the players who got injured – Coquelin, Squillaci, and Ramsey – were not the ones who’d been overworked in recent weeks. I guess the Gunners are just not getting a break right now.

Wenger did go with a strong side but even that didn’t help. Both managers touched upon the midweek exertions in their own way and it clearly had an impact. There could be an argument that Arsene should have played some of the more fresher players. For instance, RvP anyway didn’t get any support/service in this game, how much worse could Chamakh have done? Maybe his presence could have given Arsenal a different option, who knows.

Then again, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho couldn’t do much in this game. Walcott has been an easy target this season but such games show Theo isn’t always the problem. For all the hype around him, AOC never looked like he could do much against such a well-organized defensive unit. The point, of course, isn’t to criticize the youngster but just to show that change in personnel doesn’t always work.

That is all the more relevant in the case of Arsenal where the system of play is the biggest strength. When that fails or the opponents counter it well with their stifling tactics, everything else seems to fall apart. The defence looks very poor, the attack toothless, and the midfielders appear to be a bunch of clueless amateurs chasing the ball.

It is here that Arsene has to find a plan B. When the passing game isn’t working as well and the opponents are consistently threatening on the break after incessant, synchronized pressing, why can’t Arsenal sit back deep in their own half and absorb the pressure? Why doesn’t a side blessed with so much pace (Walcott, Gervinho, and AOC can probably match the quickest players of any side in the League) know the way to use it against a side that is willing to come out? Would the result have been different if Arsenal had the ability to start the game with a predominantly counter-attacking approach?

Then there are the usual observations. Why do set-pieces and crosses from Arsenal result in so many counter-attacks? Why is it that the opponents have only one shot on target but end up with 2 goals!? Why do the freak goals keep on coming? Why are many of the usually reliable players seemingly losing the plot at the same time?

These aren’t new issues so I don’t want to dwell on them. I am just writing this to get it off my chest. Apologies to those who came here looking for a balanced piece. This time I just can’t do it.

Arsene has a week to sort out some of the issues in training. After that the Gunners have a few big games in quick succession. Such efforts can easily see a string of defeats pile up. Thankfully, it isn’t all about individual players and so there is scope for improvement. The strong run in the final months of last year wasn’t a fluke. It can be repeated. But it won’t be easy for Le Boss.

Enough said. You’ve probably moved on from the game or have suffered just as much. So I don’t want to bring the memories back. Thanks for reading this belated rant.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Sunderland

February 18, 2012

Arsenal have travelled from one disastrous pitch to another this week – losing two centre-backs in the process, albeit to entirely different injuries – and are now back at the scene of that inspirational win last Saturday that has been washed away from most Gooner minds by the midweek mayhem in Milan.

Will the performance at the Stadium of Light reignite Arsenal’s season? Somehow I doubt it. Not just because one demoralizing performance is usually followed by another, or the number of defeats that we have already seen this season in games that follow Champions League encounters; it’s just hard to define what reignite would mean in the context of the current situation that Arsenal find themselves in.

I have strongly maintained the club needs to drop out of one or both the Cups in order to put in a strong challenge for fourth. That opinion hasn’t changed and, to an extent, the result at Milan was a positive in that regard. Regular readers know I am not a fan of the artificial pressure that is created by the no trophies for X years mantra. Right now it’s more important for Arsenal to secure Champions League football in order to retain the best current players and also to attract the quality ones that Wenger could be interested in.

It must be noted that, when I say dropping out of the Cups could help the push for fourth in the League, it does not mean just throwing the games away. Only that Arsene should not risk key players or those on the edge in such games. Give the fringe players a chance, adapt tactics to their qualities, and make them give their best for a result. Be prepared for a disappointment but don’t play for one.

Now, while I don’t think getting to the next round of the FA Cup will be that big a positive, it’s impossible to deny the impact of two successive losses in Cup games. Last season has already provided a chilling example of the kind of slump the Gunners can fall into after such defeats. A repeat of that will make the dreadful start to this season look like a dream run.

It’s not an easy choice for the manager then. When is it ever!? But he will have to find a way to ensure his players don’t suffer from the exertions of this tie and that the club doesn’t have to endure two horrific efforts within a few days.

Team selection will not be straightforward but I would like to see a few players rested. Up front, Gervinho should come back into the side on the left with Oxlade-Chamberlain moving to the right. Chamakh should get a game because Van Persie can do with a break, especially on such a pitch.

At the back the choices are limited. Sagna, Djourou, and Vermaelen will have to start. Gibbs could again get an hour’s playing time if he hasn’t suffered from his efforts at Milan.

In the midfield I’d like to see Coquelin get a game alongside Arteta. In front of them it would be better to have Benayoun or Ramsey for the work rate.

Preferred starting eleven

Szczesny – Sagna, Djourou, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Coquelin, Benayoun, Arteta – AOC, Chamakh, Gervinho.

This side might not have enough creativity to open up a dogged and well-organized Sunderland side but they should be able to keep things tight. If Benayoun can make some interesting runs in attacking areas or the Ox and Gibbs can land a few good crosses for Chamakh, Arsenal can nick a goal or two.

Van Persie or Arshavin can come on late in the game if the Gunners need some extra bite.

That said, I don’t expect Arsene to make that many changes. He did confirm in his interview that he will refresh the side but it’s always difficult to be sure about Wenger’s intentions. Gervinho will most likely come back into the side but I’ll be surprised if there are other changes. At most one more. Wenger will probably go with the same midfield he’d played at Sunderland last Saturday.

Tactically, this game won’t be very different from the League game. Sunderland will be compact in defence and will rely on counter-attacks and set-pieces. They could get some ideas about attacking Arsenal on the break if they study Milan’s tactics but whether they have the players to execute those moves remains to be seen.

Le Boss thinks the hosts will be more aggressive with their tactics in this game. That could work in favour of Arsenal as it could open space up in the Sunderland half. But if a relatively weaker side is selected, they’ll have to demonstrate the technical prowess needed for handling the pressure that O’Neill’s side is likely to put on them.

For Arsenal, the key will be in winning the aerial duels, closing down the runners on the flanks that are chasing the long balls, ensuring the defenders aren’t exposed to a 1-v-1 or a 2-v-2 on the break, and avoiding basic errors at the back.

In attack, the Gunners will have to rely on better and more intricate combinations. It should not be about a winger running with the ball and looking for Van Persie or a wide player crossing it for De Kapitein. Other players have to be involved and the tactical approach must suit the strengths of the Gunners who are on the pitch. For instance, if Chamakh starts, there should be a greater emphasis on crosses and layoffs. If Benayoun plays, others should be alert to his dribbles, movement, and sudden threaded passes. Coquelin, if he gets a chance, and Arteta should also try their luck from distance. And so on.

The state of the pitch could also have an impact on the tactics that Wenger chooses. If it’s not conducive to running with the ball or for playing measured through-balls, Arsene might try to add an extra midfielder on the wings as he did against Milan. That didn’t work out very well but tricky players aren’t always effective on a dodgy surface anyway so there is no reason to assume playing fleet-footed wingers is the better choice. This is one of those decisions where a manager’s choice is hailed or criticized not on its merits but based on the final result.

I do expect a higher intensity from the hosts as this is a Cup tie and they will be coming into the game without having played an energy-sapping midweek fixture. That could be the big difference as, in the final minutes of the previous tie, Arsenal benefitted from a similar rest.

I don’t have a particularly positive feeling about this game but, to be honest, I am rather indifferent about the result. As long as the players selected do their best and there aren’t any further injuries I’ll be happy. One should not get the feeling Sunderland went through just by appearing on the pitch. If they play well and get through all credit to them.


AC Milan 4 – 0 Arsenal: Outthought And Outplayed

February 16, 2012

There isn’t much to analyze in such a game. Or you could say there is so much to analyze that one could write a book.

This wasn’t a great Milan side but it was tactically and technically far superior to Arsenal. It isn’t often that one sees a game where the opponent deserves a 4-0 win over Arsenal but in this one there could be few grudges, even if one of the goals was off-side (which I am not sure of anyway).

I’d heard that Milan had relayed the flanks on their pitch but wasn’t really aware of the extent of impact that would have until I actually saw the pitch just before the start of the game. It was clear Arsenal were not going to get much joy down the wings.

Tactically, this gave a massive advantage to the hosts who were happy to sit narrow in defence and midfield. They only used the width of the pitch to spread the play while attacking but most of their runs and counter-attacks came down the middle.

Arsenal, on the other hand, looked completely clueless against this approach. The ball couldn’t be played out wide with the kind of pace that would give them any advantage. It was hard for the players to run with it in the wide areas or to dribble as it kept wobbling. This allowed the defenders to stay deep and narrow, and they only went wide when Arsenal managed to get the ball to their wingers or full-backs in advanced areas.

Milan’s movement, composure on the ball in tight spaces, combination play, and finishing was all top class. Arsenal were structurally poor at the back, there were too many individual mistakes, the side looked nervous from the early moments, and couldn’t generate any kind of speed with their passing which allowed Milan sufficient time to drop back into a solid shape. Individually, the hosts were very strong on the ball when put under pressure whereas the Gunners were often rushed into hoofs or hopeful long passes. Their pressing was a lot more cohesive and the decision making of when to press and when to drop deep was flawless. Arsenal were patchy at best with their pressing and even the usually reliable players struggled with their decision making.

It’s interesting to note that Arsenal had more pace but it was Milan who were able to create more and dangerous counter-attacks. This was an issue with the shape of the team apart from the above mentioned ones like composure, combination play, and movement.

In short, Milan mastered the spaces on the pitch and made the best use of them. Their defending was compact and assured. Their attacks were quick and lethal. Arsenal couldn’t come to terms with the spaces on the pitch. Their attacks were slow and rudderless as they couldn’t use the wide areas and just didn’t have enough quality down the middle. The defending was disorganized, clumsy, and bordering on desperate.

The best way to understand this is by noting that Milan almost always had players in free spaces when they broke forward while they always had sufficient bodies back when defending. Arsenal rarely found spaces in attack, except in areas Milan were happy to concede, and were often stretched at the back when chasing the ball and opposition players.

The first goal was simple enough. Szczesny’s kick was poor as usual. There was no pressure on the ball and no one within yards of the Boateng’s run. His control and strike were superb. In contrast, Arsenal players never got that kind of space in the Milan box. It’s a structural problem that has troubled the Gunners for years now. Wenger has tried different approaches but he hasn’t got the answer to it.

The second goal looked off-side but it was disappointing to see the players switch off. They should have played to the whistle. Ibra or Robinho didn’t even have to try hard. That was a real shame.

The third again came with simple movement and passing on the edge of the box. A slip by Vermaelen opening space for Robinho but he should never have been that free in such a position. The Brazilian’s finish was very well placed and deserves credit.

For the final one Djourou is the obvious culprit for the penalty but again Arsenal had no answer to the movement of the Milan players as they were caught ball watching. Djourou was in a difficult position against Ibra who almost coaxed the foul from the defender.

For the neutrals and those who like to study the game there was a lot to learn from the way Milan played this game. It really did look like Men against Boys for a long while and I don’t say stuff like that lightly or after every defeat.

On a positive note, it was good to see Gibbs coming back and looking fit. He was playing well but I thought it was a good choice to take him off as he hasn’t had many games. Going out early in the Champions League could also work well for Arsenal in the League.

It was sad to see Koscielny hobbling off. Hope his injury isn’t too serious. Arsenal started with Vermaelen and Koscielny in the centre of defence but ended with Song and Djourou. None of the pairings looked solid so it really wasn’t about individuals but the availability of personnel will make a difference against smaller teams in domestic competitions.

I still think Arsenal can win the home game on a better pitch but there is no way they can match or better the goal difference.

Individual Performances:

When a team is outplayed and outthought to such an extent, it’s hard to judge the individual efforts because they’ve come in an inherently deficient system that forces a number of mistakes. It wasn’t a matter of chance that so many of the usually reliable players looked so poor in this game.

Szczesny: Had a poor game. Didn’t come for a number of balls that he should have come for. Looked very nervous on the ball and that seemed to spread to other players. Couldn’t have done much about most of the goals but can be questioned for the first one.

Sagna: Very disappointing. He didn’t have a clear man to mark but struggled against the movement and positioning of their strikers. His decision making and positioning was suspect. Wasn’t able to contribute much in attack, crosses were poor.

Koscielny: Struggled against the physical Ibrahimovic. Another one who couldn’t really deal with the movement of the Milan attackers. Should have been tighter on Boateng for the first goal as Arsenal clearly weren’t looking to put a midfielder to do the tracking.

Vermaelen: Lost a number of individual duels. Also struggled with his positioning as he couldn’t read the movement well. Wasn’t very comfortable on the ball and didn’t always make the right choices in terms of passing.

Gibbs: He was probably the only defender who wasn’t very bad. Was also looking to get forward but Arsenal rarely moved the ball at speed to find him in space.

Djourou: Poor tackle for the penalty but the position Arsenal got into was a right mess. Wasn’t very comfortable in that role but then who was.

Sagna, Szczesny, Vermaelen were all hugely disappointing. Koscielny wasn’t very good either. The defenders were exposed time and again, and the tactical approach left them in a difficult situations, but there were just too many individual mistakes all through the game.

Song: Offered little in terms of protection to the defence. Wasn’t very useful on the ball either.

Ramsey: Had a terrible game. Many of his passes didn’t come off. Didn’t get into good positions from an attacking or defensive point of view.

Arteta: Did ok with his safe passes but couldn’t offer anything more.

Rosicky: He had one or two good moments on the ball but his final pass was almost always over hit. Shooting was woeful. Still probably much better than the others.

Arsenal’s midfield was the biggest problem area. They left the defence exposed and the attack isolated as they ended up in a no man’s land far too often. Off the ball movement was terrible. Passing speed was pedestrian. Creativity non-existent. They didn’t read the game defensively and couldn’t effectively put pressure on the opponents when out of possession. As a result the Gunners were neither good at pressing cohesively, nor did they get into a solid defensive shape. Transitions were too easy for Milan and painstakingly tough for Arsenal.

Walcott: It was as if he wasn’t even on the pitch. Spent a lot of time deep in the Arsenal half when he should have been on the shoulder of the last defender when Milan pushed up. It’s another age old tactical issue that Arsene hasn’t been able to address.

RvP: Probably the only one who can walk away with his head held high. Work rate was excellent. Produced three shots on target of which two drew good saves and one was quite easy. Was never given any space in or around the box.

Henry: Had one flick that led to a chance for RvP and a couple of runs in the wide areas but a very limited effort from the departing legend.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Came on late in the game when Milan were content with sitting back so he got a lot of time on the ball. But the hosts doubled up on him when he got into dangerous areas and he couldn’t really do much with the ball except one cross to the back post that led to a Van Persie header.

The attacking players were always tightly marked when they got near the Milan box. The hosts gave no space to them and the slow tempo meant the defence was rarely, if ever, stretched. Personally, I don’t blame the attacking players too much as they just didn’t have enough time or space.

Wenger: While some of the individual efforts were awful, Arsene deserves most of the blame as the issues seen here were not new ones. Just a lot of them coming together once the state of the pitch made effective wing play virtually impossible. The Gunners just don’t know how to sit back and absorb pressure. They also don’t know how to use the pace at their disposal in a manner that can consistently cause problems. He deserves credit for trying different combinations and tactical variations but it just wasn’t good enough. I don’t think starting with Oxlade-Chamberlain would have made any difference but a stronger emphasis on keeping the ball and playing a more cohesive defensive system would probably have.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Milan

February 15, 2012

The Champions League is back and it’s returned with a special fixture. Milan V Arsenal is arguably the cream of the second round ties. Aging giants in the process of transforming themselves to prove they aren’t just heroes from the past meet a resurgent, fairly youthful side that is still looking to make its mark at the highest level.

In theory, this should be a straightforward win for Arsenal. Milan have only won 4 of their last 19 games in the Champions League. A couple of those victories came in the group phase at home this season against BATE Borisov and ViKtoria Plzen. The other two came in the group phase last season at home and away to AJ Auxerre. Nothing really special there. The hosts have also been knocked out at this stage by English sides on the past three occasions they’ve played in the competition. That includes the 07/08 loss against Arsenal, who also happen to have a 100 percent record at the San Siro.

In contrast, Arsenal came very close to knocking Barcelona out last season and topped their group with a game to spare this time around. They also beat Udinese, who aren’t that far away from Milan in the Serie A table, home and away in the qualifying phase earlier in the season.

Massimiliano Allegri’s side are also coming into this fixture on the back of just one win in four, and that too a rather unconvincing one over Udinese that came on the back of a couple of late counter-attacks with the League leaders failing to create much of note otherwise.

Arsenal, on the other hand, seem to have turned the poor start to the year around with two different but massive wins.

In real life though, such details don’t always matter. The Italian giants have a wealth of experience at their disposal with many players well-qualified to write textbooks on various tactical and technical aspects of the game. They have strikers capable of pouncing on any mistakes from the opposition and scoring in the blink of an eye. Defensively, they remain as resilient as ever.

Tactically, this is likely to be an intense midfield battle. Both sides have players who can keep the ball and move it around. Both will also be vary of the other’s attacking threats. We might see a cat-and-mouse game where the midfields stick close to the defence and bide their time.

It will be interesting to see the personnel Allegri picks in his starting eleven. Their midfield diamond could crowd out the Arsenal trio if they get it right, and this could lead to chances for their strikers, probably Ibrahimovic and Robinho.

But that narrow-ish midfield could also leave room for Arsenal’s pacy wide players who can make life hard for any full-back who doesn’t get enough support from his teammates. I expect Milan to start cautiously and play a conservative game in the opening  45. After they suss Arsenal out, and if the scores are level, the hosts could look at introducing an additional attacker or two. The most favourable result for the home side is a 1-0 (or 2-0) win and I’ll be surprised if they go for anything else.

That doesn’t mean they can’t score more, or less for that matter. A lot will also depend on the way Arsenal approach this game. I would like to see the pragmatic and dogged style that worked for the Gunners in the group phase against the likes of Dortmund and Marseille. Wenger’s men can keep a clean sheet if they don’t make very basic errors or get caught in panic mode when put under pressure, especially late in the game.

Essentially, the midfield must not be too ambitious and the players should be comfortable in making numerous safe passes in the central third with the hope of creating some space for the wingers. Full-backs could overlap but it would be unwise to leave the central defenders alone against the two strikers. Song will have to remain deeper and curb the Songinho instincts. Arteta too will have to put in his usual, solid defensive shift. This might be the most high profile game of his career thus far and the Spaniard’s performance can be the clincher for Arsenal, not in terms of breathtaking flair but from a control and composure point of view.

I don’t expect too many surprises in the starting line-up. Wenger has already said that he will put Vermaelen back in the middle, a role the Belgian prefers. Sagna is a guaranteed starter, unless there’s a mishap right before the kick-off. So Wenger just has to pick the right permutation at full-back. He could start Gibbs at left-back but the youngster hasn’t had any match practice for a long time so that would be a huge risk in my opinion. Wenger could also pick Coquelin at left-back. The French lad has impressed in the limited time he’s got but that position is really unknown to him and he will make mistakes there, no doubt.

The other options are to pick either Coquelin or Djourou at right-back and move Sagna to the left. But that option weakens both flanks to an extent.

I’d go with Coquelin at left-back. Milan’s tricky and quick players – Robinho, El Shaarawy, and Pato – are all right-footed so they probably won’t trouble Le Coq as much while cutting in from the Right flank.

Preferred line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Coquelin – Song, Rosicky, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Some would suggest picking a more experienced and creative player like Arshavin for this game. Wenger might also go with Ramsey if he thinks the youngster’s had a good, refreshing break and is closer to his best. The Welshman will definitely offer a greater work rate than Little Mozart who will provide better technical and incisive qualities.

Arsenal central defenders will have to be extremely vigilant against Milan’s strikers. Both Koscielny and Vermaelen are aggressive defenders and could be in trouble against the movement and strength of Ibra or the runs of Robinho.

Wenger’s choice of positional play will also have an impact on this game. If the Gunners push high up the pitch and press the opponents in their half, it could leave vast spaces for them to exploit on the break. But dropping deep and inviting a dominant, lethal striker like Ibrahimovic into one’s penalty box isn’t a clever approach by any means.

Arsene and his players will have to find a balance. Arsenal would do well to play a compact game just inside their own half. Milan don’t really have the pace to get in behind with ease. But they do have players capable of finding exceptional balls in behind. The Gunners will have to track the runs diligently or they could end up chasing the game against a side that is well and truly capable of holding on to a lead, or even increasing it from a counter-attack.

The visitors’ biggest threat will come from the pace out wide and the form of Van Persie. Oxlade-Chamberlain hasn’t always shown he knows what the right positions to take or the correct decisions to make are. This will be the youngster’s biggest tactical test to date, if he is picked in the starting line-up.

Walcott has the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong once again. But don’t expect too much from him. If the midfield does indeed adopt a cautious style, Theo will get little support and will be fighting an uphill battle against a well-drilled defence.

Ultimately, such games, when both sides play well, aren’t about too many chances or thrilling end-to-end football. They’re about holding fort till you find the opportunity to deliver a knockout blow. Arsenal can do it if they produce the perfect game. Will they? Well, you tell me!