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.Follow @goonerdesi