Arsenal Season Review 2011-12: Tactics

May 31, 2012

There is no need to repeat the details but it seems safe to say most, if not all, Arsenal fans were seething with disappointment, anger, or worse after the way events transpired last summer.  Of the millions of words written on the transfer business and the subsequent season, few have covered the fact that Arsene Wenger had a massive tactical challenge in front of him after the departure of his talisman and captain, the player who could have taken his place in midfield, and that of a very hardworking and reliable defender who – even though popular opinion was to the contrary – remains one of the best at his job in the League.

Granted, Wenger might have contributed to the mess in some way through his indecision. Leaving aside that debate due to the lack of verifiable facts, we must acknowledge that the task in front of the Gunners’ boss was monumental. Judging him in May, as he’d like done, it would seem Le Boss has gotten the exceptional value out of his squad at least as far as the League is concerned. The Cups are a different ball-game so let’s leave them out of this discussion.

Arsene often says that he tries to adapt the tactics to suit the players that he has. But given the fact that Gervinho was signed early in the transfer window along with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, it would not be unwise to think he had some change of tactics in mind irrespective of the events of the transfer window. How the team would have lined up had Fabregas and Nasri stayed is anyone’s guess. It’s also difficult to figure out if Arteta and some of the other players would have been signed. But whatever happened happened. We can’t change it and there doesn’t seem to be any fun in examining the what-ifs in detail.

Many fans voiced an opinion last season that the Gunners lacked pace and needed a more direct approach as the tiki-taka wasn’t working. Maybe Arsene saw a semblance of an argument there, or he just had similar ideas of his own. The Gunners started the season with two quick wingers around and three midfielders behind Van Persie. That’s how they lined up for most, if not all, of the first half of the season.

The wingers were constantly looking to get in behind. Walcott had done it fairly effectively in the previous season and Gervinho brought in the ability to dribble and run with the ball with a change in direction at pace. The transitions were quicker or at least that’s what the attempt was. Many opportunities were created with balls being cut back from the byline, or penetrating runs down the middle through the space vacated by RvP. The players were still getting to know each other so the efficiency wasn’t quite there but they were doing enough to string a number of results together to embark on a positive run.

Interestingly, and in contrast to the perception of a few fans, this so-called direct football wasn’t achieved by playing fewer passes. Yes, there was an attempt to use the pace on the break, and to an extent it worked. But by and large Arsenal’s game was still based on dominating possession and pushing the opponents back. The vertical football, as some describe it, wasn’t here to replace the tiki-taka but to augment it.

As a matter of fact, the Gunners actually made more passes this season from open play and they had a better passing accuracy.

While both these increases were marginal it does validate the point that Arsenal weren’t trying to turn football into basketball, if you will. This seems a simple enough argument but some fans don’t quite understand the importance of the passing game and still want Arsenal to score goals in 3 or 4 passes every time they regain possession.

It is no coincidence that the teams at the top are generally the ones who make the most passes. Through this ball rotation and with the related off-the-ball movement, top teams control the play and impose their tactical will on the game. They push opponents back and constantly drag them out of shape. Such adversaries, when forced to focus their energies on defending, are not able to muster as big a goal threat as they otherwise might if the game were an end-to-end battle rather than one based on midfield dominance. It also explains why smaller teams are able to do better at home where they see a lot more of the ball.

Make no mistake, possession is vital in modern football and, while Cup ties might be won by parking the bus, League titles usually demand greater technical quality.

So when Arsenal lost some technical quality on the wings they compensated for it by creating a different role for Arteta and putting a greater burden on the midfield in general (I’d touched upon this earlier in the season in different ways here, here, and here).

Moreover, it just so happened that the departures of Cesc and Nasri when combined with the injury to Wilshere and Ramsey’s lack of form left Arsenal with fewer creative options down the middle. Consequently, the role of the midfield was modified to a more conservative one. While last year you might have seen Cesc, Nasri, and Wilshere playing tiki-taka around the opposition penalty box, and even Song got into the act at times (see his goal against Chelsea for instance), this season the midfielders stayed relatively deeper. Song and Arteta, in particular, were pulling the strings from a few yards behind the attackers. Even Ramsey, who started many games as the advanced midfielder, played a more disciplined box-to-box role rather than the kind of free role that Cesc had in the preceding couple of years.

The idea probably was to have a couple of midfielders shielding the defence at all times and also looking to ping passes that found the runs of the attackers. After that, if possible they were supposed to join in the attack. Song’s prolific through-ball attempts were part of this tactic. More on that when I look at the midfield in detail.

The thing with such a system was that balance was hard to find. If the midfield took a conservative attitude the front three lacked support and goals dried up. When the men in the middle took a bit more risk the defence was exposed. Even when the Gunners turned things around from early October onwards, they weren’t completely dominating the games or playing the opponents out of the park. As discussed in the previous post, most of the wins were of the ground out variety.

Since there are so many different events that happen in each game and these again vary with each fixture, it’s difficult to generalize, but the tactical changes meant that Arsenal did have a problem with maintaining their shape. The gap between the lines wasn’t always ideal and it allowed the opponents more room to build their attacks. The problems with the shape of the side also meant that the Gunners weren’t always able to transition from defence to attack as quickly as they might have liked to despite having players with blistering pace.

It’s difficult to capture this in stats and the following numbers are not solely down to the problems with the tactical structure of the side but the difference between the number of duels, not their success rate but simply the number of duels engaged in, does hint at positional weaknesses.

Across the board (Ground duels, Aerial duels, Tackles, and Interceptions) there is a clear drop in 2011-12 when compared to the last season. The success rates are marginally better but in general the Gunners were involved in fewer duels. Now the whole of this drop is not related to positional issues but there were many occasions where the positioning of players was questionable. Fans were often left wondering why a midfielder wasn’t around to win the second-ball, for instance.

Given the way the defence was exposed time and again, it’s no surprise that the number of defensive errors increased from 16 to 31, although they didn’t all lead to goals. The defenders also deserve tremendous credit for protecting the goal with last-gasp efforts as Successful Last Man Tackles increased from 3 to 25! Without these Arsenal might have conceded a lot more and even Europa League football might not have been possible. More on this in the article on defence.

After Gervinho went to the ACN, and with all full-backs injured around the same time, Arsenal also started struggling to get any value out of the left side of the attack.

To his credit, Wenger noticed this system wasn’t working quite as well and introduced the changes which played a pivotal part in Arsenal’s seven game winning run and a relatively solid end of the season run-in that helped secure third spot.

Starting with the away game at the San Siro where Rosicky was pushed out to the left, Arsene started reverting to the use of a technical player on the flanks. Benayoun didn’t exactly offer the work rate and technical contribution of a midfielder but he did provide better balance on the left. Initially it was in away games and against big sides but the Israeli soon ended up starting all games as the Gunners fought for every single point.

Looking back at the season with the benefit of hindsight, it would seem Arsene never completely found the right balance. The players still deserve credit for fighting hard. Van Persie provided wonder goals whenever the creative spark threatened to fizzle out. The defenders, Koscielny in particular, kept the Gunners in the race with many vital last-gasp tackles. Again this wasn’t about Arsenal playing like a side that was good enough to challenge for the major titles but one that showed tremendous mental strength and the spirit to defy the odds. Of course, as stated earlier, the events of the summer had made the manager’s job an extremely difficult one and the performances of Dalglish, Redknapp, AVB, and others showed us that Wenger still did a marvellous job even if it wasn’t at the level of title winning sides.

Finally, apart from the overall tactical discussion based on Wenger’s favoured system, it’s important to note that this season many fans again sensed a lack of flexibility. Why wasn’t Chamakh used more often when things weren’t working out in attack? Why didn’t the defence and midfield drop back to hold on to vital leads (Norwich for instance)? Why did the players run out of ideas after going ahead and why did they start so many games with the handbrake on? And so on.

My theory is that the tactical structure of the team introduced a degree of fear into the players’ psyche as they were being exposed far too often. What might seem like a complacent start was often a more conservative start with the players unsure of the degree of attacking intent that they could exhibit without completely opening the route to their own goal. This induced safe passing and off-the-ball movement which in turn created the impression that they weren’t trying hard enough to win. After going behind they didn’t have anything else to lose and could play with greater freedom.

If you flip the argument around, the Gunners faced a similar dilemma after taking the lead and often seemed bereft of a clear tactical approach. For instance, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was having a good game against Norwich but completely stopped playing after the Gunners scored the third goal. It was as if he didn’t know whether to take players on and continue attacking or to sit back in a defensive position. Same happened to many players and it affected the quality of football they could produce in attack as well as defence.

Before next season Arsene will have to find a system, develop a tactical identity for the side, that encourages his players to express themselves without providing the opponents with easy opportunities to threaten the Arsenal goal. That will be the first and most important step in creating a side that can challenge for the major trophies.

Stats from EplIndex.com

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On an unrelated note, through emails, comments, and some stats available on the dashboard, I have noticed that a number of people visit this blog regularly via google search or book marks to check if a new post has been published. While there is nothing wrong with that, and I do apologize for the tardiness in posting, you could try different approaches if that seems like an inefficient way to follow the blog. One option is to subscribe to the blog by email. A follow button should appear at the bottom right. Adding your email will ensure you get new posts as soon as they are published. You could also follow me on twitter – . Finally, you could ‘like’ the DesiGunner Facebook page (link will be remain available in the sidebar on the right). In all these cases you will get links to new posts as soon as they are published and won’t have to waste time due to my current inconsistency in posting.


Arsenal Season Review 2011-12 : The Broad Picture

May 26, 2012

Hello all. I am back from the wilderness and from a very pleasant and memorable trip. Yellowstone is just a breathtaking place in so many ways and we were very lucky with the weather as well. Mendocino too was great fun as we went there with a close friend and his family. Don’t know how but I managed to pick up a flu bug soon after returning and that’s kept me down for the last couple of days. Seems to be getting better now so it’s time to focus on the season review series. But first a Thank You goes out to Martin Fulop and a belated happy St. Totteringham’s day to all readers. And just in case you haven’t seen it, ArsenalVision’s photo special on the subject and the related media coverage throughout the season is an absolute must see.

Moving forward, I guess few will forget 2011-12 in a hurry. Yes, there were some forgettable moments but those scars run so deep they’ll take a while to heal completely. Then there were some absolutely amazing games that spread waves of delirium across the Arsenalsphere. It was a roller-coaster all right and it’s come to a stop on a relative high with qualification to the Champions League secured without the hassles of the play-offs or reliance on Bayern, which would have been fatal as some team found out.

Broadly speaking this was one of the most entertaining Premiership seasons in recent memory with many surprising results and extraordinary performances. Technically and/or tactically many teams were arguably weaker but from the point of view of competitiveness and drama it was just sensational till the thrilling climax in injury time on the final day.

The following discussion has a somewhat arbitrary division of the season into three parts but it provides some talking points. To begin with, Arsenal were abysmal in the first few games. Questions about a relegation battle were ill-advised and premature but the possibility of a title challenge in the League was defenestrated very early on. After the first 7 games i.e. after Arsenal’s loss at White Hart Lane early in October, the Gunners were 15th in the table and 12 points behind the leaders.

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At that stage the voices of doom and gloom were out in full force. The late signings were being dismissed by many as panic buys. Only the truly faithful believed in the Gunners.

Of course, the previous summer had been a disaster as far as transfers were concerned. Cesc, Nasri, and Clichy were big departures. The replacements were late and not necessarily in the same class although the newcomers did bring their own valuable qualities to the squad, not least of which was experience.

A couple of new signings took a month or so to gel with the starting eleven but once they clicked Arsenal’s commendable turnaround began in earnest.

The following table is from the 3rd of October to the 10th of April. It includes 25 or so games played by all teams during that period, which is roughly the same as two-thirds of the season. And so as not to limit this to only the successful periods for the Gunners, it also includes the horrific time they had in January when all the full-backs were injured and all three League ties were lost.

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Take a moment to reflect if you haven’t seen this or a similar table before. Arsenal actually collected more points than the Premiership champions City and scored more goals than Mancini’s side in this period. Even defensively Arsenal were not that far behind the eventual top two. Only United bettered the Gunners. Spurs, Chelsea, and Newcastle were a fair way behind.

Such an effort does lead many to question the timing of the signings. Why couldn’t Arteta and Mertesacker, for instance, have been signed earlier? Was it simply a matter of a few million pounds or were other factors involved? Since the real facts behind these transfers are not available it would be unfair to ascribe any blame to individuals but the questions remain pertinent.

However, while valid, any inquest should not take anything away from the manager or the players who produced this remarkable fightback. Depending on one’s mindset this can be seen as a lost opportunity, an inspiring revival that fuels hope for the future, or just a balance of positives and negatives that are bound to exist in every season.

Finally, in money time as Arsene might say, the Gunners once again saw a slump in form. In the final 6 games they only managed 9 points and will remain thankful of the slender buffer they’d built up over so-called title-challengers Tottenham.

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Arsenal, United, Spurs, and Newcastle will all think they could have done better during that period. Chelsea were distracted by crucial Cup ties so their performances are probably excusable. Only City ended the season strongly but they too needed a last-gasp push.

Arsenal lost 12 points more than champions City at the start and 9 more at the end. The two gained in the middle still left a hefty 19 point differential. United too had a blip at the end but they’d gained 6 more over the Gunners in the central period to go with the dozen at the start.

All teams saw a dip in form at one point or the other. For City those blips were tiny ones while for United there was just one costly drop towards the end and a very small one in between. Arsenal had a very difficult start and a poor end. Similarly, the other teams in the top six also had relatively large periods of struggles. Once again it highlights the difficulties in finding consistency at this level. Sir Alex knows how to get points in the Premiership, Chelsea and now City have reached there after spending nearly half a billion pounds. Few others have found the consistency needed to challenge for the title every year since the arrival of Abramovich.

It’s also worth looking at the League table between the top 6.

There is no denying the fact that the league is contested by 20 teams and 3 points against a big side are the same as 3 against a relegation candidate. But looking at the table above one can get some indication of how the teams stacked up against each other.

City were clearly the outstanding side as they did the double over United, Tottenham, and Newcastle while sharing points with home wins and away defeats against Arsenal and Chelsea. The negative goal difference of so many sides was down to the number of uncharacteristically high-scoring tussles that we saw this year and the fact that the bottom 3 in that list only managed 2 wins each in 10 games.

That table could be the basis for a long and interesting debate but I don’t want to dwell on it too much at this moment . Of the four games that Arsenal lost, 2 came in the opening period of 7 games when the side was really suffering. The loss away to City was hard fought and compensated by a similar win at home. The only other defeat came against United at home during that torrid run in January.

A never-say-die spirit seemed to typify Arsenal’s season although a pattern of one defensive gaffe after another ran it a close second. The Gunners recovered an astounding 24 points from losing positions but that also indicates that they routinely found themselves behind in games. Arsenal also lost 13 points from winning positions which was worse than all bar Chelsea in that table. As an aside, United, Newcastle, and Tottenham were the three teams at the bottom of the Points Gained When Losing table with 3, 4, and 6 respectively. Ferguson’s side probably didn’t get into too many losing positions but the other two could surely have done with some of Arsenal’s spirit and mental strength.

On a related note, it is worth noting that even in the middle of strong runs the results were more of the ground out variety than a consequence of outstanding dominating football. For instance, even in the 7-game winning streak, the result at Anfield was a smash & grab while the team needed late winners against Sunderland and Newcastle and had to battle for a win over Everton. In all, there were few games that Arsenal completely controlled from start to finish and that meant the opponents almost always had a hope. This was not the case with the top two and that is a gap the Gunners have to make up.

A good indication of this comes from the fact that Arsenal only managed to win 9 games out of 38 by 2 goals or more. Spurs had 15 such wins, United 18, and City 19. Interestingly, in contrast, the Gunners only lost 2 games with a margin of two or more goals. Both of these were in August, one against Liverpool at home and that game at Old Trafford. The other 8 losses were by a single goal. In total, 27 or Arsenal’s 38 games were either drawn or decided by a single goal. For City, United, and Spurs this number was 19,18, and 19 respectively. The Champions didn’t lose any game by a margin of two or more goals. 2 of United’s 5 defeats came from a margin greater than two goals. Spurs had 4 such defeats.

Considering this was another season of recovery after losing big players Arsenal’s results were laudable, but for the side to be considered genuine contenders they’ll have to impose their quality on matches a lot more often. That will of course demand much better defending as a unit as well as a more potent attack that has multiple threats. Improvements will have to be made on the training pitch and possibly in terms of squad strength as well.

More detailed analysis of defending, attack, tactics, Cup performances, and some players’ efforts will be covered in forthcoming articles under this season review series.

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Rice Retires, Bould Promoted + Early West Brom Thoughts

May 12, 2012

Pat Rice wanted to call it a day at the end of last season. Arsene, perhaps with a premonition of the tumultuous summer, persuaded him to stay one more year. With all the changes in the squad, another vital one in the backroom staff might have been too difficult to manage. This summer will hopefully be a more stable one as far as departures are concerned and that should give the new man some breathing space as he learns the ropes and establishes his own identity. That new man, as you most probably know by now, is Steve Bould, another Arsenal man through and through.

This blog has consistently voiced concerns over Arsenal’s defending while questioning the training regimen and the thought going into the defensive aspects of the game. However, the idea has never been to single Pat Rice out as the culprit. Yogi’s Warrior is spot on in calling the mindless criticism shameful. That article also has excellent pictures that take one back to era when Rice was a consistent performer on the pitch for the Gunners. And if you are looking for details on his legendary career look no further than this outstanding tribute on the Vital Arsenal blog that paints the perfect portrait. His colleagues, former and present, have many nice words to say and most of them seem to come from the heart rather than the pen of a PR agent.

It’s virtually impossible to add to the pictures and words of those articles. So I will simply say “Thank you Mr. Rice and wish a you long, healthy, and joyous life as a Gooner”.

Arsenal have promoted from within. Steve Bould moves from coaching the U-18s to the Number 2 position. The official website provides his biography and a very interesting interview. Two aspects stand out immediately.

Firstly, and it’s impossible to overstate the importance of this, he loves his job and the club.

I honestly feel I have the best job in the world. Doing what I love, with the facilities and footballing philosophy we have at this club, I have a fantastic job.

Working so closely with a man like Arsene Wenger cannot be easy. The job will demand long hours and most likely many personal sacrifices. But thankfully, Bould seems like a person who will not hesitate when asked to go above and beyond the call of duty.

The second important point is that he knows how the game continuously evolves and that he has to constantly adapt himself if he has to help the players on the training ground.

I believe that for every sport every seven or so years they become almost revolutionised in that they become, faster, more powerful, more technical than before and football is even more different. In our game, we also have the rule changes…

… while there are some principles that persist, passing on what I used to do as a player has to be adapted to the modern game.

Some people make the mistake of assuming Arsenal’s defensive problems will go away simply because Bould had an admirable career as a top-class defender. Not only do these people fail to notice that Rice too had a more than respectable career of his own, they seem to completely miss the point that the game is very different these days and experiences of the past can only be a limited aid.

As an extension of that logic, and by adding the fact that Pat Rice was never the problem, it would seem unwise to assume that Arsenal’s defensive woes will simply vanish after the appointment of Steve Bould. He’ll have a big jump to make from youth coaching to the professional level. It’ll, at least in some ways, be similar to the transition he’s already made once in his career from youth level to a first-team football player. Bould has done it before and has all the ingredients to do it again but he will need time.

Moving on, I also want to note my thoughts on the West Brom game as I’m heading on a vacation to Yellowstone and then to a, hopefully, quiet beach in Mendocino. I will miss what looks like an enthralling final day of the Premiership season and the Champions League final. But these plans were made long ago and cannot be changed. It also means there will be no posts on the blog for the next ten days or so. Apologies to those who are disappointed by this but also a promise to return with typically detailed analysis of the season once I’m back.

There were some very interesting tweets in the last couple of days that seem strangely pertinent to the West Brom game,

That is eerily comforting.  But the following isn’t,

Arsenal are currently on a four game winless streak and in 08-09 the fifth game of the run was a 0-0 draw against a Fulham side managed by Roy Hodgson. I don’t really know how to interpret the ‘Signs’ but they do add to the excitement.

Talking about the game itself, it’s hard to see Arsenal winning. That’s not to say they can’t do it. When on top of their game, the Gunners can rub shoulders with the best of teams around Europe. But on current form and given the injury concerns, the side lacks the right balance to be completely confident of a win.

West Brom didn’t pose a serious challenge at the Emirates earlier in the season but Hodgson knows how to organize a team and his sides have troubled Arsenal in the past, especially at home. Interestingly, the Baggies have lost half their home games this season and that does bode well for the Gunners. But most of the games are tight as they hosts have scored and conceded 19 goals in 18 home fixtures.

This could be another cagey affair with one goal separating the teams at the end of ninety minutes. Irrespective of the result a nervy time is guaranteed.

Arsene does not have many options as far as team selection goes but he does have a couple of choices to make.

Many fans, including some who support him as a player in general, would like to see Ramsey kept out of the starting line-up. A popular idea is to have Coquelin in the middle with Jenkinson filling in for Sagna.

There are two concerns with such a selection. Firstly, Jenkinson has hardly had any match practice and could be exposed if he is asked to offer the same work rate and attacking contribution that is usually demanded of Sagna. Secondly, Coquelin is not completely ready for the challenges at this level. He would be more tenacious defensively and will probably chase the ball a lot better but Arsenal need to find a way to control the game rather than reactive defending. Of course, Ramsey hasn’t been on top form so there is already a weakness in the centre but with Jenkinson on the flank there’d be two areas where the Gunners could struggle.

Wenger could also put Benyoun in midfield with Rosicky dropping deeper but the Israeli seems more comfortable on the flanks where his role is less constricted. And there really is no guarantee that Rosicky will offer better defensive cover for Song.

Up front, Arsene will probably wait on a fitness test for Theo. Don’t be surprised if he’s in the line-up even if half-fit. Walcott has a good understanding with RvP and with the midfield. That makes Arsenal’s attacking fluidity work.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is a quality talent and he can be enthralling to watch when there is space on the field, like the second half against Norwich, but he doesn’t quite know how to help his teammates when the game is tight. If one flank is taken out of the equation it becomes much easier for opponents to defend against the Gunners.

In fairness, Gervinho has looked sharp in the last couple of games and can probably be trusted as the man who’ll provide the incision in this game.

I’ll be very surprised if there are major changes to the starting line-up. You might see,

Szczesny – Coquelin, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Ramsey – Benayoun, RvP, Gervinho.

If Arsene does pick this starting eleven, Gervinho might be more effective on the left.

Even Szczesny is a doubt. It could be a real injury or simply some sort of reprimand for his recent mistakes including the howler for Norwich’s first goal. Fabianski in goal will make many fans nervous and while last season he showed his competence after a prolonged run in the side, the Pole usually does struggle when he’s not been playing. Is giving Szczesny a lesson worth risking Champions League qualification? Given Wenger isn’t an impetuous decision maker, Fabianski in the line-up will probably indicate a genuine injury.

The Ox can make an impact from the bench and, if the last game is anything to go by, so can Chamakh. But Wenger will hope it doesn’t come to that and his team can settle the tie without the need for reinforcements.

With West Brom comfortable in the middle of the table, and their manager set to take up the England job after this game, one might hope for some complacency on their part. Then again you could say the team will be motivated to give Hodgson a good send off and the manager will want to show he is the right choice for the national role so they might be extra motivated. Point is such issues can be spun any which way. One will just have to see how they play to find out.

With Chris Brunt ruled out and doubts over the fitness of Jerome Thomas and Peter Odemwinge, West Brom might be without some influential attacking players. The latter two would be a big miss as they provide pace, trickery, and finishing in the final third and would have been a handful on the counter-attacks.

Then there is that jinx of Arsenal not winning without Arteta in the side. Some would say it’s not a jinx and there is good reason behind the results. It’s hard to argue against that given the performances in the last few games.

I don’t think I will find an internet connection at Yellowstone and even the phone signal might be patchy at best. Somehow I find that comforting as I am not convinced this would be a good trip if I knew the results. That also means I have to stay away from twitter.

Here’s to a fun-filled week. Hope it’s the same for those who do or don’t watch the games.


Discussion on Vermaelen’s Forward Runs And Arsenal’s Susceptibility To Counter-Attacks

May 9, 2012

Last Saturday, in the game against Norwich, Vermaelen won possession around the halfway line in the 26th minute and proceeded on a run towards the opposition box. Arsenal did manage to get enough bodies forward but Sagna’s cross was easily cleared leading to a counter-attack that resulted in the visitors’ second goal.

Many prominent bloggers, fans, and media personalities have cited Vermaelen’s run as a mistake that was, at least partly in their opinion, responsible for the goal. However, it’s worth studying whether this was a coincidence or if a causal relationship between the run and the goal does indeed exist. In other words, would the situation have been different if Vermaelen had stayed back or was his choice to venture forward excusable? And by taking the discussion forward we can also see if there are certain patterns that make Arsenal vulnerable against counter-attacks.

In order to analyze the situation let’s take a look at some snapshots of the build-up and note the events of the game as they happened. Based on that we will then venture into an analysis of individual choices/mistakes.

When the ball comes out to Sagna, we see Norwich roughly have two banks of four. They’re not in perfect straight lines but it’s clear the visitors are leaving two men forward while others are getting into defensive positions.

Vermaelen is circled in purple and Benayoun in blue. Rosicky is at the far end, barely visible so underlined by a blue line. Interestingly, the assist-provider for the goal – Hoolahan – is just in front of Rosicky and he’s underlined in red.

It’s important to note that Sagna has a lot of space down the right but very little support as Gervinho has moved into a central position taking the full-back with him while Rosicky is at the far side. Song and Ramsey are too deep to be of any help as an immediate attacking threat.

Due to the lack of support, Sagna had to create space for the cross through his own efforts. He did this by cutting inside and subsequently by going out wide with a change of pace. When the full-back puts his cross in, there are four Arsenal players in there – RvP, Benayoun, Vermaelen, and Gervinho. Seven Norwich players are also visible. In fact, there was an eighth player in there as well. Hoolahan was present on the edge of the box as can be seen in the next snapshot.

The assist-provider has moved from his position around the centre of the half (as seen in the first image) to a defensive area. He’s circled in red. Ramsey has moved up to cover the area just outside the Norwich box. At the time this frame was frozen, the ball had already been cleared. Norwich players were on their way out and Ramsey was turning around along with some of his teammates.

It’s worth mentioning that at this point the visitors have 8 players in their own box while Arsenal have 5 (Sagna is not in the box technically but can be considered so for practical purposes). That means the Gunners have a 5 v 2 in the area between the edge of the Norwich penalty box and the Arsenal goal. Goalkeepers are excluded.

When Song goes in for the aerial challenge from the first clearance, Arsenal still have numerical advantage in defence. The red line shows the run that Hoolahan is about to make. Ramsey, on the near side, and Rosicky, on the far side, are watching the ball without reading the threat from the run or the gap in the middle.

Holt, Koscielny, and Gibbs are out of the picture towards the left side i.e. on the centre line or just either side of it.

Song isn’t able to control his header and the ball falls to a Norwich player who immediately heads it back towards Holt. Ramsey has turned around and is again watching the ball. Rosicky is still unaware of the threat posed by Hoolahan.

When Grant Holt receives the ball and lays it off, Koscielny is not tight on him. Jackson has turned and is sprinting past Song. Hoolahan has taken up a good position in a central area.

With a couple of simple passes Norwich have turned this into a 3-v-2. Ramsey, Song, and Rosicky are trying to chase back but they are too far behind the play.

After that it was clever movement from Norwich leading to a slightly fortuitous but well-deserved goal.

With these observations in front of us, let’s ask the question again, albeit with slightly different words. Was this goal conceded primarily due to Vermaelen’s forward foray or is there a bigger problem with Arsenal’s shape outside the box, and the decision making, awareness, and execution of some players?

One might ascribe some of the blame to the centre-backs run if indeed Vermaelen had been a monster of a defender who’d have done much better than Gibbs in a 3-v-2. But as we saw in the first goal by Tottenham at the Emirates, and in quite a few others, Arsenal have conceded such goals even when the Belgian has stayed back.

If Vermaelen had stayed back it’s quite possible that Gibbs would have ventured forward as he normally does. So instead of Vermaelen in the box we might have seen Rosicky in the box and Gibbs patrolling the far post outside the box. Arsenal’s shape would have been very similar and the odds of conceding this goal would not have been that different, would they?

It’s also essential to recall that Arsenal often concede gilt-edged chances, and occasionally goals, from counter-attacks that originate from a set-piece/corner for Arsenal. In such cases one would naturally expect the centre-backs to go forward and for the covering players outside the box to do their job in preventing the break. If they can’t do it consistently, wouldn’t it be safe to say Arsenal have bigger problems than centre-backs venturing forward?

Based on this discussion it would seem really harsh to associate any sort of blame to the Belgian’s run in this particular instance. However, that does also raise the pivotal question of what actually goes wrong in such situations?

Discussing the roles of various players can provide some insights.

Song had enough time to read the flight of the ball and position himself in such a manner that he can better control his header. Why does he fail to read the flight of the ball, which then forces him into an awkward aerial duel where he can’t really control where the ball goes. By taking charge of the situation through better aerial play, Song could have cushioned his header towards Ramsey in front of he could have powered it wide to his left for Gibbs to mop up. At that time Hoolahan and others were too deep in the Norwich half and would not have been able to challenge Gibbs. Holt was behind Song and with Koscielny so he too would have been away from such a pass.

The Cameroonian’s inability to completely own the aerial duel, if you will, seems like a very minor point to quibble over. To a large extent that is true. However, as we will see in further analysis, often a number of seemingly trivial mistakes combine to form a catastrophe because of the dynamic nature of the game where everything is linked.

Next we can question the movement of Benayoun. In the first snapshot he can be seen somewhere in the middle of the Norwich half. At that moment the Israeli could see that Arsenal already had three players going into the box including Vermaelen. If Yossi held his run outside the box Ramsey could have stayed deeper in the area that Hoolahan exploited. Furthermore, Norwich would not have pulled as many players back and Sagna would have found greater space to cross into. The full-back might also have linked with the winger to create the crossing opportunity instead of creating space for himself. This might have given him a better shot at crossing the ball effectively or at least beating the first man.

Once again, Benayoun’s movement in itself was not a problem. With a better cross he might have made the difference in the box. But if Vermaelen’s run into the box is perceived as a problem area that exposes the defence, shouldn’t the winger have been more cautious with his movement? The issue here is of finding the right balance and shape so that the ball can be retained and pressure sustained while protecting the Arsenal goal.

Even Rosicky’s movement is questionable. If you look at the way Hoolahan moves from a central position to his own box and then back out in an attacking run, the Norwich player easily covers 70-80 yards in the space of a minute or so. In contrast, Rosicky is ambling around at the far end and does not read the danger.

His position might have been helpful if the cross went deep but once it failed to clear the first man Rosicky really should have started moving across to the middle. Norwich only had a couple of players up front and there was no one in a position to sprint forward on Arsenal’s left. By moving across he’d have been in a position to challenge with Hoolahan or at least force Holt into producing a quality pass rather than a simple sideways tap.

This too is a small detail but the point is, why do Arsenal make it so easy to attack against them, especially on the break.

With that in mind you could also question Koscielny’s decision to stay back instead of challenging Holt when the striker received the aerial ball. Similar analysis can be done about Gibbs’ decision to drop deep earlier than necessary or for the reasons Ramsey got caught in a “no man’s land”.

When we see a number of details going awry in a matter of seconds, it invariably leads to a strong counter-attacking chance. The opponents could still goof it up, indeed many do so, but when they get it right it usually results in a clear-cut chance/a goal.

Such minor errors happen often but usually at least one of the players does his job and the attack is averted. That often means that other mistakes are overlooked because a goal isn’t conceded.

The worst part and the most concerning aspect from Arsenal’s point of view is that these issues are not limited to one or two individuals. Virtually any starting line-up is vulnerable to these counter-attacks. How often have you read, “Gibbs was caught out of position”, “Vermaelen made an ill-advised run”, “the ball in behind the full-back”, “Corner for Arsenal, goal for them”, and such other observations explaining the build-up to goals conceded by the Gunners?

In most of these cases Arsenal have more bodies in defensive areas (relative to the Arsenal attack) to begin with but these are bypassed with ease leaving a couple of defenders to chase back and protect the goal against marauding opponents across vast spaces.

Looking back at the principles of defence, the Gunners lack compactness as the five players are spread out over the pitch, the depth is taken out by a couple of simple passes, and consequently they can’t put sufficient pressure on the opponents to slow them or to break down the attack.

Arteta does bring better defensive balance to the side because he reads the danger in such situations better. But that just highlights the dearth of defensive thinking in many of his teammates. And when you have such widespread issues, especially minor ones, you could ask if the manager and his coaching staff are doing enough to acclimatize players to their defensive duties. No one is born with the ability to read the danger. Instincts develop through training. It’s highly likely that Arteta is better at this because of his work at Everton where defensive solidity was vital to the team’s style of play.

Of course, there isn’t a single solution to such problems and it’s virtually impossible to eliminate them completely, but football is a game of percentages. Limit the number of gilt-edged chances created and you’ll control the goals your opponents can score. This will have a direct bearing on the number of points dropped and consequently the league position.

In fairness, it must be said that the Gunners do have phases during each season where they’re largely in better control of such moments. This usually coincides with a strong run and often with a settled line-up where players understand each other intrinsically. So it’d be a folly to think that Arsene Wenger does not know where the problem lies. But it does leave one wondering as to why he hasn’t been able to find solutions that work consistently and irrespective of the injury problems.

One could jump to a conclusion that Wenger can’t do much better or take it up as a challenge and delve deeper into the details to figure out the answers. One of the options is the easy one and seems like the obvious choice, the other is probably the right one.

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Arsenal 3 – 3 Norwich City: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

May 7, 2012

Norwich came to the Emirates with nothing to lose and expressed themselves with gay abandon. The visitors fought hard, were impressive in their transitions, deservedly scored three goals while exposing Arsenal’s weaknesses, and took back a rightfully earned point.

Arsene Wenger started with the same line-up that fought hard for a draw away to Stoke. His side took an early lead, then conceded two to numerous defensive mistakes before turning it around with a sustained onslaught only to succumb to late pressure from Norwich. Towards the end the Gunners had further chances to win it but couldn’t take them.

It was an entertaining and open game marked by abysmal refereeing – for both sides it must be said.

The visitors signalled their intentions right from the start as they pushed up to six players in the Arsenal half to press the Gunners and prevent them from bringing the ball out. Ironically, it was the Gunners who scored the early goal by capitalizing on the long-ball|second-ball routine.

Koscielny played two successive long-balls in a space of moments. Ryan Bennett wasn’t able to get enough distance on the second and it fell to Rosicky in space. Little Mozart played it out to Benayoun who cut inside and adroitly curled one into the far corner. Since the chance came from a long-ball, Norwich didn’t have enough time to get organized and close Benayoun down. It looks like Arsenal have been trying this approach of Koscielny knocking balls into space or in-behind in the past few games as an option to counter the high pressing. It hasn’t always worked but it did in this case.

The goal though, seemed to work against the Gunners. Many a time this season Arsenal have exhibited a degree of tactical confusion on the pitch after taking a lead. They don’t seem to know whether to drop back and defend or to go forward in search of more goals. Invariably, some players ease of and become more cautious while the others keep going forward. This breaks down the fluidity of the side which relies on players being in sync. Ultimately, we see more gaps on the pitch, more individual errors as players find it hard to make split second choices, and the unit as a whole appears lethargic, disinterested, and disorganized.

Of course, on many occasions the opponents just don’t have the quality to capitalize on this. But Paul Lambert’s men continued to push forward and exploited these gaps. They got the equalizer soon enough with a well-crafted move in the 11th minute. Once again Arsenal’s defensive intelligence and structure were found wanting. Benayoun was completely oblivious to the run of Naughton till it was too late to catch up. Norwich had four players across Arsenal’s defensive line, which was too far from the midfield. Hoolahan cleverly held his run as the defenders dropped deeper to get in line with the ball. The midfielder’s strike should have been innocuous but Szczesny was in a generous mood.

Both teams were looking for more goals and there were chances at either end. The Canaries took the lead in the 27th minute. Once again it was a cross from Arsenal, goal for the opponent situation. Many observers have blamed, at least partially, the forward burst by Vermaelen for this goal claiming there was no need for the defender to leave his post.

That seems like incomplete analysis as best. The Gunners had 5-v-2 outside the Norwich box when the cross was made. Their collective defensive ineptitude meant it turned into a 3-v-2 in attack for Norwich in the blink of an eye through a couple of simple passes. Rosicky, Song, and Ramsey were all culpable in their own way, Gibbs and Koscielny hapless, while Szczesny was stranded.

This issue deserves a more detailed discussion but not in the context of this post. I will try to address it in a separate one, hopefully soon enough.

The Gunners deserve credit for their desire and fight after going down. They took more chances, the ball movement was faster, the wingers got move involved, and Norwich began to look stretched at the back. Gervinho in particular got more and more into the game.

Norwich still had easy out-balls to play with Holt doing an excellent job as the outlet. He made clever runs, used his physical qualities to receive and hold the ball, and then linked well with onrushing supporting players. Lambert might argue his side could have had at least one penalty, which might have helped them extend their lead.

In the second half, Arsenal grip tightened. Norwich probably found it hard to sustain their pressing and work rate beyond a point. They were still trying to make something happen from long-balls down the pitch and on the break but the Gunners looked threatening and pinned the visitors back for sustained spells. However, the hosts were either finding the Keeper or a defender in front of goal when they did manage to hit the target.

Just after the hour mark Arsene brought Oxlade-Chamberlain on for Ramsey. Few minutes later he took Benayoun off and introduced Chamakh. Arsenal now had two quick wingers and two strikers on the pitch.

The substitutions paid off as Chamakh’s presence occupied the Norwich defenders in the middle and allowed Van Persie the opportunity to float. The equalizer was another classic chip from Song and another delightful first-time finish from De Kapitein. The visitors were looking to push up after blocking the Moroccan’s shot but didn’t do so as a unit and Van Persie was able to sneak in behind.

Arsenal went ahead a few minutes later as sustained pressure saw them get a bit of luck with a deflection falling into the path of RvP.

Goals change games. It sounds like a cliché, perhaps is one, but the point is valid. During large spells of Arsenal’s attacking dominance, Norwich were reduced to hopeful punts up the field and there were big gaps between their attackers and support players which made them ineffective.

After going down the visitors again pushed bodies forward because they had nothing to lose. A lot of the game is controlled by the positions that players take up off the ball. Now the Canaries were again looking for aggressive options. This put greater pressure on the Arsenal back line which was doing ok against the long-balls because of a numerical advantage against isolated strikers.

Arsenal’s midfield, now a two man unit, would have to drop deeper; the wingers, hitherto free to charge forward, were now required to exhibit greater caution and defensive nous; the strikers had to show they could hold on to the ball and help the side absorb pressure.

Or Arsenal had to push up as a unit and try to pick the visitors off on a break. They used to try this in the recent years but too often got caught out by long balls or counter-attacks and have now resorted to dropping deeper.

In either case the Gunners needed tactical cohesion. It didn’t happen.

This is a difficult situation to analyze in a few words because it involves a lot of small details like Oxlade-Chamberlain suddenly showing a reluctance to take his man on, or Van Persie making casual-looking passes, or Vermaelen being flat-footed, etc.

The simplest way to explain it is that the team, as a unit, is unclear about its purpose and thus does not know how to go about achieving it together. The following tweet and related graphic capture the impact of this problem on Arsenal’s play.

The Gunners misplaced over a third of their passes in this period. Some of the passes were ambitious, others were lazily struck. Few of the players were still bombing forward while the others were slowing things down. This again meant that gaps opened up all over the pitch and it was easier for Norwich to push forward into those holes. Arsenal were neither pressing cohesively nor defending with a shape.

Ultimately, one such part ambitious, part tired pass from Song was intercepted. Morrison was able to run in behind as Vermaelen was caught flat-footed. Rosicky wasn’t able to tackle the assist-provider in time, Koscielny was too far away from Morrison, and Szczesny didn’t know whether to come or stay in goal. Way too many mistakes. Arsenal couldn’t make the game compact. They couldn’t control the key spaces. Norwich didn’t have to produce anything special to get the equalizer.

Once again Arteta was missed. He’s the man who takes control of the crucial areas in the middle of the pitch. He is the one who often reads the danger and eases the burden on Song. The Spaniard is the one who provides the balance that Arsenal have often struggled to find.

The way Man City held their lead against Newcastle and posed a constant threat on the counter-attack is a good example, although by no means the only one, for the Gunners to emulate but the structural weaknesses and lack of sufficient defensive intelligence across the team remain problem areas that make Arsenal vulnerable whether they drop deep or keep pushing for goals.

Newcastle’s loss and Spurs’ draw have given Arsenal another chance of holding on to third. This point could yet be vital in the race for 3rd.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Forgettable game for the youngster. Shocking mistake for the first goal, wasn’t convincing with his body language or decision making.

Sagna: Pushed forward a lot but wasn’t able to make an attacking impact. Can’t be faulted for either of the goals while he was on the pitch but the area he vacated was often exploited by the visitors. Extremely unfortunate to pick up another long term injury.

Coquelin: Saw a lot of the ball – completed the third-highest number of passes despite playing for only an hour or so – and used it well. Was able to link well with his teammates, especially in attacking areas. Made one major error at the back when he gave the ball away inside the box late in the game and was walking a thin line with a last-gasp tackle in the box. Overall it was an impressive effort from the youngster who was not playing in his favoured position and hasn’t had much match practice off late.

Koscielny: Played a part in the opener with his long-balls. Worked very hard at the back with numerous vital interceptions, clearances, and tackles. Can’t blame him for any of the goals.

Vermaelen: Will probably get some blame for the second goal. Definitely questionable effort for the third. Effort and intentions were appreciable but the execution wasn’t always up to the mark.

Gibbs: Made one vital block early on, but could only deflect it into the goal for the second. Work rate remains excellent, got into promising attacking positions, finishing and final ball could be better.

The defenders were under pressure throughout the game and were not helped by its open nature. But there were too many individual errors that proved decisive.

Song: Excellent assist, also played a number of quality passes throughout the game. But he was at least partly to blame for Hoolahan getting time and space for the first. Should also have done better with his aerial duel in the build-up to the second. Gave the ball away for the third. Suffice to say it was not his best effort in an Arsenal shirt.

Rosicky: Looked lively in attack and when he got a chance to turn and run with the ball. Played a number of excellent passes in the final third and was almost always involved in the attacking play. Also did well in the two-man midfield and ended with the most touches and passes. Should have offered more support to the players at the back when Norwich were pressing higher up the pitch. Could have done better for the second and third goals.

Ramsey: Has the work rate, passing accuracy was the best, but struggled in a defensive role and didn’t quite know how to help the back four while linking with the attack on a consistent basis.

The midfielders didn’t have a very good game as a unit. They can be blamed, in part, for all the three goals.

Gervinho: Struggled against the pressure early on but grew into the game as Norwich tired and dropped back. Created team-high five chances, was a constant threat on the flank in the second half, also did enough to chase back when he had to.

RvP: Added another well-taken brace to his burgeoning tally. Work rate was again unquestionable. Did play a couple of tired passes in that vital 80-85 min period. Had a number of chances, should probably have completed his hat-trick.

Benayoun: Excellent technique for the goal, was influential in and around the box when he drifted inside during Arsenal’s spell of dominance. Partly at fault for the first goal and should have taken more responsibility when Arsenal were under pressure.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Put in a couple of sumptuous crosses, was able to skip past challenges as if the opponents didn’t exist, then all of a sudden he just curbed his attacking instincts and was lost on the pitch.

Chamakh: Was a handful in the final third, almost scored the winner with an impressive aerial challenge after Van Persie had missed a glorious chance. His physical presence and ability to link with others has been missed at times.

The attacking players were linking effectively when Arsenal were strong in attack but they were also found wanting when Norwich pushed forward. They didn’t find the balance between defensive duties, possession play, and creative responsibilities.

Wenger: Starting line-up was probably the best he could have picked, substitutions were effective, just hasn’t been able to find the defensive solutions.

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Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Norwich

May 5, 2012

Two games to go. Two wins needed. Fate in own hands. Pressure on. Will the Gunners fire or implode?

Taking it step by step, all the focus at the moment has to be on Norwich. The canaries might not have much to play for, and perhaps that is affecting their form – they’re coming into this game on the back of three successive defeats in which they’ve conceded 11 and scored 1, but anything less than the best from Arsenal will not do. Just ask Spurs.

The Gunners have some worries of their own. With Arteta missing – Arsenal are yet to win in his absence – the midfield does not have the same fluidity to it. Nor does it have the requisite defensive nous. Up front the winger’s are offering very little in terms of creativity, incision, or finishing. Robin van Persie is the only real source of goals at the moment, so much so that even Wenger was forced to acknowledge that.

He has to push us over the line. There are two games to go. We have been a bit over-reliant on him, I concede that. But it is difficult to change that before the end of the season.

In this game there will hardly be any surprises. It’s just a matter of execution. Arsenal will have to be flawless as a draw might not be enough.

Norwich will be organized. Their Keeper is capable of making top-class saves. They’ll put bodies on the line and make it hard for Arsenal to find the goal. But now we’re at the stage of the season where statements like “their Keeper had a MotM performance”, “we hit the post X times”, “They cleared the ball off the line”, and “We should have had a penalty”, will sound like lame excuses rather than valid arguments.

Similarly, at the other end, it doesn’t matter whether the visitors score from a freakish goal, or a deflection, or a wonder strike, or from a set-piece, or via their only shot on target, etc. If Arsenal concede the price could run into tens of millions of pounds.

Koscielny and Vermaelen have to win the physical battles and aerial battles or at least make enough of an impact to keep the goal guarded. An effort as committed as the one at Stoke, and without the error that led to their goal, should help.

The full-backs will have to handle their tricky and quick wingers. Holt or Morrison can be hard to control if they get quality service in the box.

Song, and more importantly Ramsey, will have to be disciplined in front of them. These are the two who have to find the balance between attack and defence. The attack must not be deprived of bodies as it inhibits quick passing, which makes it easier for the defence to remain organized and behind the ball. But they can’t leave the back four exposed as Arsenal will undoubtedly have to fight for the second ball. The roles of the two midfielders are largely unglamorous (apart from the eye-catching through-balls) but these smaller details are just as vital as the decisive moments at either end. Ultimately, it’s the simple things that indirectly govern the odds. Will Arsenal create more chances, will the concede gilt-edged ones, will the team look lethargic or lethal? A lot will depend on the engine of Ramsey and the drive of Song.

And while we’re talking of engines and drive, who can forget the metaphorical handbrake. Many in the Arsenalsphere regard complacency as the evil that’s plagued the Gunners in their quest for sealing third spot. I’m not completely convinced. I think it’s more about inhibition and uncertainty. It’s very hard to believe a team can fight as hard as they did against Stoke and then play as if they don’t have a care in the world in the next game simply due to complacency.

There is no doubt players sometimes give the impression that they’re too relaxed or lazy. But it’s quite possible they’re just anxious and hence repressed. Since Arsenal’s system tends to expose the defence more often than it should when the players go forward, there is a tendency in them to be over cautious when it isn’t clicking. A good example of this was seen against Chelsea when the visitors got in behind on a number of occasions early in the game. After that the Gunners dropped deeper collectively and played with the so-called handbrake on.

This is relevant because Norwich’s ability to play balls over the top and in-behind can trouble the Gunners and trigger this inhibition. The visitors also have strong physical presence up front and could force mistakes which could again make the players drop deeper.

In order to win, it’d be vital for the Gunners to impose their style of play early on and then control the game till the end. A reactive style does not suit Wenger’s side and they could end up looking indifferent or, worse, clueless on the pitch.

In terms of team selection Arsene will probably go with the same back four that’s started the last game. Santos has looked better as a sub but it still seems difficult to trust his match-fitness and concentration. There aren’t many choices in the middle either.

In attack, Le Boss could pick Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of Gervinho but both have been rather ineffective in their last few outings. He could also pick them both if he thinks the balancing contribution of Benayoun is not needed in this game.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Ramsey – AOC, RvP, Benayoun.

Such a line-up would put extra defensive pressure on Sagna as the youngster Oxlade-Chamberlain isn’t always defensively aware due to his inexperience. It could also limit the full-back’s attacking contribution as the two players on the right haven’t played together often enough and might struggle to link effectively. Given the fact that the left side is relatively weaker in attack, compromising the right does not seem like a clever idea but, at the moment, Arsene needs some inspiration from certain individuals. Gervinho hasn’t been able to provide that even if his effort can’t be faulted.

Winning this game will put pressure on the chasing pack. Losing, or even drawing, will hand them the momentum. The challenge for Arsenal is to overcome the inhibitions and produce the quality we know they have in them.

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Lukas Podolski : Lot to Offer, Much to Prove

May 2, 2012

On Monday, Arsenal announced the deal to sign Lukas Podolski from FC Cologne on a long term contract to bring a long running saga to its official conclusion. Some see this as an early signing and a sign of intent, going so far as to infer that lessons have been learnt. Others might say it’s a late signing and should have been wrapped up in January itself. In any case it’s a transaction that most fans have welcomed.

There seems to be a broad consensus that Prinz Poldi has the makings of a world-class player. Arsenal Vision carried a very interesting and informative interview with an FC Cologne fan. Raphael Honigstein says a more mature Podolski is set to prosper in the Premier League. Arsene Wenger has called him a “top-class player”, “very good finisher”, and “a proven performer at club and international level”.

However, there is a slight but vital difference between a proven world-class player and someone who has the potential to be such a star. Podolski’s spell at Bayern wasn’t a success by any stretch of imagination and while his relative failure is attributed to immaturity and bad timing, there is no doubt the German international has a lot to prove at the highest level.

Some might point to his international record – 43 goals in 95 caps is certainly impressive at first glance –  and suggest that he is the real deal. But in the article linked above, Honigstein reports a counter-argument made in the German press,

After a competent but by comparison with his peers fairly indifferent World Cup in South Africa, Spiegel called him “a specialist for football minnows” while Süddeutsche Zeitung thought he was a “milieu player,” only able to succeed in special environments.

The German football correspondent then provides a thought-provoking break up of most of Podolski’s goals.

A closer look at his Germany record shows that some of the cynicism was justified. Podolski has scored a goal each in games against Brazil, England and Russia and netted eight times in three major tournaments but the bulk of his strikes has come against much more modest opposition like San Marino (4), South Africa (3), Liechtenstein (3), Azerbaijan (2), Luxembourg (2), Thailand (2), Slovakia (2), Ecuador (1), Austria (1), Cyprus (1), Slovenia (1), Northern Ireland (1), China (1), Finland (1), Kazakhstan (1) or Hungary (1).

Clearly, there is some merit to the criticism, but simply labeling the latest Arsenal signing a small-team bully would be extremely unfair. Arsenal fans could, of course, draw attention to the points dropped by the Gunners against some of the lesser lights of the Premier League and rejoice in the acquisition of a player who could make the difference in such encounters.

Naturally, there is also some debate on the roles that he can play at Arsenal. With Robin van Persie on fire as the leading marksman, and hopefully staying beyond the duration of his current contract in a fully fit state, Prinz Poldi might have to play second fiddle to the undisputed king.

Arsene said the new signing will “provide us with good attacking options”. Versatility is a valuable trait at this level, especially if the player is more than competent in different roles. With Germany, particularly under Joachim Low, Podolski has excelled as a left-sided attack-minded winger/striker. At Cologne he’s either played as the central striker or in a two man attack. This means at Arsenal he could play multiple roles.

Many observers have noticed Arsenal’s limited attacking threat down the left flank this season. Being a naturally left-sided player, and thanks to his tactical development with the national team, Poldi could immediately make an impact on that wing. He could also take up the central role when RvP needs a break or is unavailable. The two could also combine in the middle if Arsene wishes to try some tactical variations but that seems less likely given the manager’s reluctance to deviate from his system in recent years.

Without taking the numbers too seriously, comparing some of Prinz Poldi’s stats with those of his new teammates acts as a guide to shape further discussion.

The German international’s shots/goal ratio stands out. There is no doubt he knows where the goalposts are and has the technique to put the ball between them. Corroborative evidence for this is seen from his appreciable goals/game ratio for the national team. Even against minnows a striker has to know how to find the net in order to score his goals. Gervinho and Walcott will tell you it’s not easy.

It’s interesting to note that Podolski has also got a high frequency of successful dribbles. Only Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain have a higher rate, which is understandable given their natural tendencies and strengths. It should come in handy in wide role even if his dribbling mainly involved dropping a shoulder, kicking the ball past the defender, and beating him in a foot-race with a quick change of pace.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that Podolski has the lowest frequency of getting dispossessed (except Benayoun) or turnovers which implies he doesn’t lose the ball as often. This must have been a valuable quality for his Bundesliga side Cologne which has the second lowest possession stats. Physical strength and strong technical skills are needed to hold the ball under pressure. This surely must be an area where Arsene will want to use and further develop the German’s skills. It can help the Gunners bring the ball out when they’re being pinned back and also when they’re attacking against a packed defence and have to play in tight spaces.

Let’s now look at some other passing related variables,

To go with his 18 goals, Podolski has managed a respectable 6 assists this season, which is all the more commendable given the quality of the team he has been playing in. His chance creation rate (min/kp) is comparable to Walcott and Benayoun but is lower than that of Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Van Persie.

The KP/A (key passes/assist) stat is an interesting one. Essentially, it measures the number of chances a player has to create for his team to score a goal. Superficially speaking, this could be a benchmark for the quality of chances created. That would mean Walcott and Gervinho are creating very high quality chances whereas the ones by Van Persie are the weakest. To an extent this is true as the wingers tend to get in behind and provide gilt-edged opportunities in front of goal. Many of RvP’s key passes, on the other hand, have come from set-pieces and had a lower probability of success.

However, there is also the case that Van Persie has been on the end of many of the chances created by his teammates and has made them look easier whereas the chances he’s conjured have not been finished as well by others.

As a side note, it seems better to leave out Benayoun and AOC from this particular discussion given that their numbers under consideration are too small (1 assist, 11 chances created). In other words, if the next chance they create turns into a goal their ratio will drop from 11 to 6, which is too big a change from a single event. Drawing any sort of inferences from such numbers would be counter-productive at best.

With this in mind, Podolski’s KP/A ratio is encouraging as his teammates certainly do not have the class that, say, Van Persie does. This means the German could potentially amass a higher number of assists at Arsenal and better the ratios of other wingers if he can combine effectively with De Kapitein.

Moreover, given that his shots/goal ratio is excellent, Prinz Poldi could convert more of the chances that Van Persie is creating. This would bring RvP’s KP/A ratio to a healthier level and add to the overall goals scored by the team. Again this would depend on the understanding between the two.

Poldi’s Min/Pass ratio is high which means he doesn’t make as many passes, nevertheless it is somewhat better than that of Van Persie. For a striker 3 minutes per pass is not bad. But he’ll have to be more involved if he has to play on the flank. Arsenal have failed to replace the technical qualities of Nasri, which made the job of others easier, so it will be interesting to see if Lukas is the man to bridge the gap and ease the burden on the midfield.

For Germany, he stays relatively higher up the pitch while someone like Muller provides the defensive balance and work rate on the right. At Arsenal, Ramsey could take up that mantle in the big games but that would mean leaving Walcott out. If Theo has to play on the right, Podolski will have to double up as the working-winger, if you will, in order for Arsenal to find the balance the system of play demands.

He’ll also have to improve his passing success, which is the lowest in that table and probably the only area where he lags behind every Arsenal player compared. Then again, it takes two to make a pass and the quality of his teammates would certainly be a factor in that. Similarly, Podolski has not made a high number of through-balls  (succeeded with 4 out of 10 attempted) but could potentially do better if he had runners like Van Persie and Walcott alongside.

The future Arsenal player also has a better crossing success rate than Walcott or Gervinho (20 successful out of 106). The Gunners could undoubtedly benefit from better crossing, especially from the left.

All-in-all, with the arrival of the German, one can certainly hope for greater attacking impetus, multiple offensive permutations, and shared responsibility  culminating into more goals. And isn’t that the main reason for signing a striker/winger?

The optimism surrounding the signing must also be tempered with a dose of caution. As with any transfer, there are many reasons it could fail. For instance, the up and down nature of the league which produces end-to-end football could be too much for the Cologne No. 10 who has been known to shy away from consistent physical efforts in the past. Or he could react to the grappling and kicking that is common in the Premiership and have disciplinary problems. Let’s not forget Van Persie’s had his issues in the past and just earlier this year Gervinho picked up a three game ban when he succumbed to a clever player’s antics. The Ivorian has since learned his lesson but the German comes with a bigger reputation of being a hothead – he once slapped national captain Ballack on the field of play.

The Prince of Cologne must also prove he can adapt to life outside his comfort zone in a different city, and with big players alongside him, in order to produce consistently outstanding performances in a demanding environment. Some fans might recall a certain Jose Antonio Reyes and wonder if Podolski will have similar struggles.

Football transfers don’t have warranty periods and returns are rarely accepted, certainly not at the same price. These are gambles that clubs have to take. Given the price reportedly paid for Podolski and the qualities he has, this seems like an astute signing by Arsenal. He won’t, on his own, win the major titles for the Gunners and he could struggle to fill in the boots of Van Persie if the Dutchman were to leave or get injured for a long period, but Podolski will make the squad significantly stronger and, crucially, give the manager some options that he’s lacked this season.

Lukas Podolski, welcome to The Arsenal.

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