Tactical Observations From Podolski’s Goal Against Liverpool

The sequence of events in the build-up to and culminating in Lukas Podolski’s first Arsenal goal provides some interesting talking points.

It starts with a Pepe Reina goal-kick.

This frame has been frozen just after Sahin kicked the ball back to Reina following a quick short goal-kick from the Spaniard that found the German on the edge of the box.

Let’s look at the positioning of the players closely. Skrtel (top left) and Agger (not visible, outside the right edge of the image) have moved wide and Sahin has dropped deep. Giroud (bottom right) and Podolski (not visible, out on the left of the image) are in good positions to block passes to the Liverpool centre-backs. Cazorla is getting close to Sahin. Joe Allen can be seen in the bottom left part of the image.

Rodgers wants his team to focus on retaining possession and Liverpool are in a classic shape for a team that wants to play the ball out from the back. They’ve spread out and are trying to make the pitch as big as possible. We’ll talk more about this as we move into other snapshots that highlight the positions of other players. In this context, it’s worth noting that Reina completed 21 of his 24 passes in this game as against 7/16 for Mannone.

Somewhat surprisingly, Arsenal can be seen pressing really high up the pitch. This was atypical of their approach during this game where they sat back for large parts as Zonal Marking astutely noted. As has been typical in recent months though, the Gunners were, and this was crucial to the goal, not cohesive with their pressing. In other words, there was no one following up on the high press of the three attackers.

In the snapshot above we see Joe Allen receiving the ball somewhere in the centre of the picture, i.e. just outside his penalty box.

Podolski can be seen towards the top in a position where he could close Skrtel down. Cazorla had moved forward as he followed the ball from Sahin to Reina, which is a natural run when pressing, and can now be seen around the penalty spot in the Liverpool box.

The problem for Arsenal was that they did not have anyone pressing Allen. Arteta is seen on the left of the image as he was rushing forward at speed to close the Welshman down but that was merely a reactive measure. The Gunners didn’t apply a full-court press, so to speak, and this negated any advantage that could have been gained from having three players pressurizing defenders on the edge of the opposition penalty box.

The team that does not have the ball should ideally be trying to make the pitch as small as possible but, through their incoherent pressing, Wenger’s team actually offered the hosts an opening that they could have exploited by clever use of the space behind the players pressing. As the Gunners had three players deep inside Liverpool territory, the back four should have pushed up to the centre line and squeezed play in the opposition half with the help of the midfielders. But Vermaelen and Co. stayed deeper with Diaby and Arteta stranded.

Allen had enough time to control Reina’s pass, turn, and then find Johnson who was stretching the playing area of the pitch by hugging the touchline. Huge space opens up in front of Arsenal’s back four as the first line of defence is easily bypassed.

At this point, Diaby can be seen wide on the left trying to close Johnson down. Arteta and Podolski are sprinting back to help the vulnerable defence. Gerrard sees the space and darts forward. Oxlade-Chamberlain is also inside the Liverpool half virtually parallel to Gerrard but further towards the right of the pitch (his head can be seen towards the bottom of the image).

In short Arsenal had five players in Liverpool’s half. The gaps between the lines were huge. It could have developed into a 5-v-5 in the Arsenal half. With intelligent movement and passing the hosts really could have made the Gunners pay.

But things start going wrong for the Reds.

As Johnson moves forward with the ball, Gerrard and Suarez get into the same space. Suarez has vacated the space in front of Arsenal’s central defenders. If he’d stayed there, the Uruguayan international would have had a great chance of running in behind or linking with his captain. Gerrard would also have had more space to manoeuvre the ball. Vermaelen and Mertesacker might have had a real problem here but the Liverpool duo compressed space for them through their inefficient movement.

Gerrard then tries a first time pass but his touch is poor. This technical mistake presents Vermaelen the opportunity to nick the ball and prevent a dangerous situation from becoming worse.

If we pause for a moment and give it a second thought we see that events thus far have been a collection of mistakes and poor choices by both sides rather than great football, although Liverpool’s tactical approach worked early on in the move. The Premier League generally has faster and more end-to-end style of play but some people feel the Italian and Spanish league’s have better technical and tactical qualities. The above seems a good example of the same.

In a recent interview with El Pais (in Spanish) Cazorla said,

Arteta has advised me a lot, he told me football is much faster and less tactical than Spain. It’s more give-and-go.

Backwards Gooner penned (typed?!) a couple of excellent pieces analyzing Barcelona’s brilliance. One of his observations was that the Catalans (also applicable to the Spanish national team) rarely rushed forward in attack. Barcelona always, virtually instinctively, try to ensure they don’t lose their shape and are thus able to compress or expand the pitch at will. Of course, they’ve mastered the possession based game and their players show a high level of tactical maturity as they adhere to the system even at the risk of missing some opportunities. This does make them look slow, dare I say boring, at times and allows the opponents to get men behind the ball, but it also helps them keep their goal well protected.

Liverpool want to play a possession based style and their effort is clearly visible but the principles aren’t fully engrained in the thought processes of their players. In this case they were too direct and rushed forward. This did not allow their defence enough time to push up and close gaps. A technical mistake, that is often harmless in that part of the pitch, proved fatal.

The Gunners, on the other hand, showed better decision making, awareness, desire, and technical execution. It started with Vermaelen’s quick but precise interception-cum-pass that found Podolski in space.

As the events took place at such speed – roughly seven seconds passed between Allen passing the ball to Johnson and Vermaelen making the interception – the Reds didn’t have any time to close their opponents down.

This was another vital detail as Podolski was able to receive the ball in space. He also had the time to turn and weigh his options.

Giroud and Cazorla didn’t chase back and this left them in a 2-v-2 against the Liverpool centre-backs. In the aforementioned interview, the Spaniard also said Wenger has given his greater freedom on the pitch as a second striker,

Moreover, the boss has put me in a position, second striker, with all the freedom I want to have.

Allen and Sahin had pushed up but they got caught in a no man’s land on this quick transition. Jose Enrique was wide on the left, outside this image, providing width on the other flank. Jenkinson, the other player not visible in this snapshot, was keeping him company.

There are a few points worth noting here. Podolski didn’t have a straight pass towards Cazorla as Allen was blocking it. He couldn’t simply play it down the line either as Skrtel would have mopped up. Cazorla read this situation and moved back and across to create an angle for the German who was on the same page and executed the pass perfectly.

Another crucial detail was the run from Giroud who shaped to get in behind Agger. This pulled the Danish defender back. If the Frenchman had been drawn towards the ball, as Suarez had done moments earlier, he might have gotten in the way of Cazorla thereby allowing Agger the opportunity to get a foot in to disrupt the move.

As things turned out Giroud dragged the defender with him, which allowed Cazorla space and time on the ball.

After that it seemed easy but the assist provider and scorer still had to get the pass and finish right. An over hit ball from the Spaniard or a hasty attempt from the German would have led to a wasted chance. But both these players demonstrated their physical and technical qualities in shrugging off the attentions of the defenders to create the major breakthrough.

Giroud again contributed with another off-the-ball run that is well explained by Arsenal Column in this article.

Often, we tend to think that a team scoring the goal did everything right but in this instance it’s clear the opportunity resulted from Arsenal’s incoherent pressing. On another day the Gunners might have paid the price for the gaps in their defence. Football is a game of percentages and Wenger won’t want his players spread out over the pitch when out of possession as the odds of conceding are higher than those of scoring such goals on the break.

For their part, the hosts started with the right approach. They were looking to stretch the pitch and it appeared to have worked for them when Johnson received the ball. But the Reds reverted to the direct form of football and made a decisive mistake on the ball when the shape was awry. Brendan Rodgers would certainly want a better technical and tactical effort from his players. He probably doesn’t want to (or can’t) emulate Barcelona completely but a better balance between the quick attacking style and the more patient approach is needed.

At the other end, Podolski revelled in a counter-attacking scenario that he’s seen so often with the German national side. Along with Cazorla, the striker made it look easy but their decision making and execution was only possible due to years of training. Both these players, and Giroud, knew how to think and act in this situation. It’s something that cannot be taught easily. And in such moments we can see the kind of value that Arsene Wenger has purchased for a relative pittance.

In the upcoming weeks, don’t be surprised if Liverpool find their defence exposed while the players try to find the balance between the direct style and the possession game. Meanwhile, watch out for more Arsenal crackers on the break.

33 Responses to Tactical Observations From Podolski’s Goal Against Liverpool

  1. Les Norton says:

    Brilliant analysis well done

  2. AA says:

    great one mate

  3. coastal gun says:

    Great analysis Desi. As always. I concur that the technical execution of the counter-attack was brilliant and clearly shows skill, understanding between the three front players and maturity: a lethal mix. I definitely will be expecting more of the same this season! Purple Reign!!

  4. Gerry Lennon says:

    You have surpassed yourself with this one. Brilliant … but worrying?

  5. 'koye says:

    Great piece Desi…

  6. Rocket Diary says:

    Spot on.

  7. Silentstan says:

    God what a long boring article. Its not analysis as it only tells what happened almost it felt nano second by nano second. That is simply slowmo commentary. Luckily we have proper professionals at the club for analysis

    • Since68 says:

      Write something intelligent ur self post soton match to show us all how it can be done better. Or better still just fade away and leave the rest of us who enjoy Desi’s offerings without the annoyance of twerps like you

    • roh top gun says:

      No one forced to you to read it, moron!!! If you don’t like it, show yourself out, and grow a few brain cells while you’re at it!!!

  8. i want a curry with my macdonalds

  9. roh top gun says:

    Great piece, Desi!!! But now it’s got me thinking. Since i haven’t got that keen eye for these tactical stuff as you do, i was wondering, have we made these pressing inefficiencies often enough in the last 3 games for it to be a worry when we play teams with better attacking efficiency??? Is this going to be something that may bite us in the arse in more challenging matches to come???

    • DenysB says:

      This is the negative point with Arsenal midfielders. Definitely I think it’s the coach’s tactic. Remember the 3-0 against Man U with Ronaldo counterattack.

      • roh top gun says:

        Interesting point. Back then we had a 4-4-2, and now we have a 4-4-1-1 when we don’t have possession with poldi and ox dropping back to assist midfield and santi pushing up to accompany giroud… So, the similarities are there…

  10. Very detailed analysis as always DG.

    Podolski’s goal reminded me of Norwich’s second against us in April. Then, the Canaries left two men up even when they didn’t have the ball and when an Arsenal attack broke down, the visitors attacked quickly and Holt capitalised. (http://arsenaldepot.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/arsenal-v-norwich-a-tactical-review/)

    Your points about Arsenal’s defensive shape and pressing are spot on but while that may have presented an opportunity to Liverpool, the fact that the defense did not push up like last season allowed Vermaelen to keep the ball in front of him and Gerrard’s loose touch enabled the Belgian to nick the ball away.

    If they’d held a high line, both Vermaelen and Mertesacker would have been more worried about keeping track of Suarez than keeping their eye on the ball. In that respect, do you think Arsenal’s willingness to sit deeper without the ball is one of the reasons for the comparatively strong defensive showing until now?

    • DenysB says:

      More presence in the midifield is needed when off the ball.

    • roh top gun says:

      It’ll be interesting to see if Arsene maintains the same tactics against the likes of Chelsea and City. Our previous tactics of a high-line and intense pressing up front tend to work well with those kind of teams, who like to come forward and attack.

      Maybe what we have seen so far is a sort of Plan B for the more defensive or goal-shy teams…

  11. Dre says:

    This is my first time on this site. Great post Desi, Its nice to know that there ARE intelligent Arsenal blogs on the internet. Keep up the great work!

  12. MwaKenya says:

    Brilliant analysis. Always a pleasure to read your insightful articles.

  13. Exceptional comments and observations. Perswonally, i thought Giroud’s movement was critical to the outcome.

  14. nii kotey says:

    Giroud was right….Arsenal fans are so knowledgeable about the game…Desi, you are a genius!

  15. WafflingWenger says:

    Whilst the critique is interesting, I think it alludes to a far more interesting trend in Arsenal’s defensive shape, which is (ironically) a far more compact, deeper, less ambitious defense than in recent years. I think this is partially due to personnel (Koscielny’s injury, The Ox over Theo & Podolski on the other wing), but we certainly seem to be setting up much more conservatively in defence this year.

    We seem to have ditched the idealist’s high intensity, high line, high pressing strategy ala Barce, which has been periodically ripped apart by counter attacking teams (Man U & Boas-less Chelsea) over the years and drawn much criticism.

    Theoretically It should result in fewer goals at either end of the pitch.

    • santori says:

      To me it all depends on who we have in midfield.

      With Arteta covering as the recycler, we tend to sit sligthly deeper and hit on the counter a bit more. NOt necessarily a bad thing as it will draw out the teams that tend to forgo midfield and sit deep against us.

      We also have at current disposal (not available last season) one of 2 players we have that can carry the ball through midfield (Diaby and then there’s Jack)

      Without either, we will have to make adjustments again.

      Eg. Rosicky is a different sort of player who tends toward the pass more than the take on albeit he also moves the play along quicker (like Diaby)

      Had Wenger brought in Sahin, we would likely have had players in pairs who had more similar capabilities.

      As it stands, we will have varied skill sets and it will be challenging but interesting to see how we can adapt them to use in concert with our current line up up front.

  16. nikk says:

    Brilliant analysis once again desiboy….just hope Arsene is a regular avid reader of your blog like rest of us!

  17. s.H.a.S.h.I says:

    Wow really indepth analysis. i feel our defense. has been strong enough to actually aid arteta n diaby to move forward to assist cazorla and poldi.

  18. Muleli atse-arsene modgel says:

    Its always ,always apleasure to read your article Desi.Great indepth analysis,with love from nairobi kenya.

  19. delvadoms says:

    I once asked you if γφυ have a certificate in coaching and γφυ said no but i am yet to totally believe that. Your game reading is awesome. Keep it up bro.

  20. Tee Song says:

    It just goes to illustrate that it’s the team that makes fewer mistakes and perhaps more importantly, capitalizes on the opposition’s mistakes that wins. You rightly point out that Liverpool had a good attacking opportunity due to our own inefficient pressing but failed to take advantage of it. Conversely, we counterattacked well following Liverpool’s giveaway. The differing outcomes could be largely attributed to the movements of Suarez vs Giroud. Suarez made our defenders jobs easier by dropping deep towards the ball rather than staying higher and looking to run behind them, thus keeping the game in front of our defense. Giroud, on the other hand, stayed high and moved to the right, setting himself up for a diagonal run. Agger had to respect this and moved to his left in response, opening up the the left channel for Podolski. There was a moment at around the 20′ mark where Liverpool could have cut us open with better execution. We lost possession just outside Liverpool’s penalty area at a moment when both TV5 and Gibbs were attacking. Suarez had acres of space with only Mertesacker to beat who was over towards the right. But Gerrard didn’t see the pass early enough, took a couple of touches and by the time he did pass it, Per had slid over into a better covering position. It was still a one v one in our penalty box but Mert handled the danger with aplomb and the move ended with a poor cross which Mannone collected easily.

    A quick comment on the fullback positioning. Glen Johnson pushed very high up the pitch on numerous occasions, including this one. When TV5 intercepted Gerrard’s pass, he is actually the Liverpool player who was furthest forward. It’s obviously very early in the season, but I, like several previous posters, have noticed that our fullbacks are definitely not bombing forward at every opportunity. We also don’t seem to be aggressively pressing or trying to win the ball back immediately. Instead, it appears we’re focused on falling back and organizing when we lose possession, pressing the ball once it reaches the halfway line. I wonder if more aggressive pressing will be added later once the team defensive structure becomes more ingrained.

    • santori says:

      Liverpool strikes me as square pegs in round holes, which I think is at the very heart of their main issue- what style suits them best?

      Rodgers wants to implement his passing style (hence Allen coming in) but the team is still very much built around the directness and industry of an aging Gerrard. This is a contradiction they are not likely to solve this season.

  21. santori says:

    We’ll be seeing some likely changes in midfield come Southampton.

    Would think Diaby will be rested and Le Coq will come in.

    The young Frenchman has everything to become another complete midfielder for us. Decision making will be key for him as he already has the technical ability/defensive gumption/distribution skills.

    Just to play devil’s advocate, if Arteta recieves a knock, who do you think will likely cover (if Diaby and Jack are not fit yet)?

    I would think we will be left with Coquelin- Rosicky- Santi

    (if Rosicky is mended fully)

    The dynamics in midfield will be very interesting to watch as the various players have slightly differing skill sets. How they combine may dictate the way we have to approach a game.

  22. ZGunner says:

    I’m glad other people have recognized Giroud’s input for that goal.

  23. Valentin says:

    I disagree with your assessment that the goal came from an badly implemented pressing by Arsenal.
    Under Brendan Rogers Liverpool try to build from the back. Both centre halves are supposed to distribute the ball. To negate that system, opposing team try to press the centre halves quite high. With neither of Liverpool centre halves really adept at crafty passes, quite often they end up under pressure and make mistakes. On the first game of the season against West Bromwich Albion Liverpool conceded one goal, a sending-off and two penalties because of such mistake. In their second game of the season against Manchester City they conceded the Tevez goal. Last season Swansea used the same approach and suffered from the same problem. Against Arsenal Michel Vorm made a pass to the centre half. That pass was intercepted by Arshavin who calmly scored.
    It is likely that Arsenal players were under instruction to put pressure on the centre halves.
    Quite often, Liverpool only outlet is Joe Allen, but Joe Allen does not have any pace nor is he very good at long dissecting passes. That means that even when the ball eventually reached him opposing teams have the time to come back in place. In contrast look at how Arteta was always in the vicinity of Steven Gerard who has those qualities. Arsenal did not cared if Joe Allen had 200 passes in the game, as long as none of these passes were really going to hurt them.
    That was compounded by the fact that that Liverpool team had very few pacy players who could isolate a players on a 1-v-1 situation: Rahim Sterling on the left wing and Glen Johnson on the right.
    All of that changed when Downing was introduced. He was much more direct. In response to that change, Arsenal dropped deeper.
    Liverpool were then able to get more of the ball and more in Arsenal half.

  24. […] up the pitch as a cohesive unit has not worked for Wenger’s side. I first noticed this in the away win at Liverpool and have subsequently observed and discussed it in many games. This time it was a little better but […]

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