Thoughts On The Napoli, Man City, Tactics, and Mentality

Arsenal had a tough time in Naples but they hung on to the second spot. I thought both managers, Benitez particularly, lacked a bit of courage. Had the hosts gone for three goals after scoring the first instead of playing it safe the result could very well have been different.

Wenger’s choices – for instance, the inclusion or Rosicky over Walcott presumably to provide better cover for Jenkinson – were not very bold either. You could argue that both were being pragmatic and showed respect for the opposition’s quality but looking back I’d say it was a missed opportunity for both. Napoli missed out on qualification altogether while the Gunners lost first place and took a dent in their confidence.

I’m not sure there is much to gain from dissecting the performance in great detail but it certainly seemed a game where the players were lost from a tactical point of view. As Wenger said after the game, “We prepared well and were concentrated but we were a bit in between ‘do we attack or do we defend’. It is difficult to cope with that problem.”

Wenger wants his team to play with the ball. He talks about it all the time. I don’t know how many people noticed this but there was a moment, late in the game, when the ball came to Szczesny and he waited, with it at his feet, till someone came to contest before picking it up. Then as the players pushed up and the hosts withdrew deeper, the Pole again put the ball down and took his time with the kick. During these few seconds Wenger was briefly visible on the TV urging his goalkeeper to kick the ball with his lip movement saying something like, “play, play, play…”

It seemed to me he did not want his team to stop playing – remember this is one observation I’ve often made when Arsenal struggle; the off-the-ball movement stops and the Gunners just stop playing their game – and understandably so. But in that moment one could also sense that the individuals on the pitch can’t always execute the manager’s plan.

I think a big part in that is down to Arsenal’s tendency of defending so deep. It’s worked well for the most part – more on that in just a bit – but it does pull the players far away from the opposition goal. It seems to me the Gunners have lost the ability to press higher up the pitch or defend the central third against high quality opponents. This will become more and more obvious before the season ends and we’ll have to see whether the squad and coaching staff can bring out the required changes.

I was looking at the results since the start of the season and the following table captures the performance of the top clubs in the Premier League starting January 1, 2013 and up till fixtures played last weekend.

Premier League 2013 Table

(ignore the lighter shade for United)

A full discussion based on that table alone could run into thousands of words so I’ll just make a few relevant observations here.

Firstly, Arsenal have clearly had the best results. The nearest club, in terms of points, is eight points behind. It’d be a hard lead to lose in the next four games and Arsenal could win the title for the calendar year.

Even from a points per game perspective the Gunners are better by almost a quarter point, which equates to a lead of over 9 points after 38 games. Significant indeed.

The congestion below the top mirrors the compactness of the current League table. In terms of form and consistency there’s very little to choose between most of these teams.

Of course, the title is not awarded based on the performance in a calendar year and right so, but this does provide a decent tool to gauge the quality of a team. Some might argue this is not proof that Arsenal have been outstanding but most will be hard pressed to argue that others are head and shoulders above the Gunners.

There is though, a twist in the tale. It comes when we consider Arsenal’s performances against  these other 6 teams in this calendar year. This is how it looks,

Arsenal vs top 7 in 2013

Not very impressive, is it. Interestingly, three of these defeats and a draw came before the win in Munich in March. Since then the Gunners’ only loss against these sides has come at Old Trafford this season. The two wins have also come this season. Counting only games played since that inspiring win over Bayern, the PPG would rise to 1.5. That’s not very special either but is somewhat respectable. In any case, this table does explain why so many people still say something like, “let them play Chelsea and Man City, then we’ll see what Arsenal are made of.”

Subtract this data from Arsenal’s overall performance and you’ll find the Gunners have won 21 of their remaining 24 fixtures against the rest of the pack picking up 65 points at a whopping 2.71 PPG in the process. That is truly extraordinary.

How can a team be so good against the bottom 13 and struggle to this extent against the top 7? Don’t forget, the League is very close and we’ve constantly seen the relatively smaller sides take points off other big teams. If everyone pummelled the so-called minnows it would have been a different story.

I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to this question. Much of it is linked to the confidence of the players – the handbrake, the inhibited offensive movement (few players in the opposition box for instance), and nervy moments leading to individual errors in defence are all linked to mentality and confidence.

I’m hopeful there will only be a handful of idiots left who would still argue this side lacks winning mentality and all that jazz because that does not explain the form against the other sides. Big players always improve squads – for instance, I’d absolutely love to see Suarez at Arsenal – but this really can’t be down to individual quality as the primary factor. For one thing, Arsenal’s points total for this year is enough to dispute any claims about the squad lacking quality. If other teams were that superior in terms of squad strength it should show in  that first table. There are other ways to analyze this as well but I don’t want to dwell upon it as the point seems sound enough.

Is the problem tactical? Even if it is, we still have to explain how Arsenal have 75 points from 34 games.

I am inclined to believe it’s a combination of tactical issues that in turn affect mentality and confidence which then lead to subpar individual performances. Going into all the details of my thoughts on this matter will take me over ten thousand words so I’ll again limit myself to a few observations that are relevant in the current context.

A lot of this good form is linked with defensive improvement. Most of that has come from very deep defending, almost akin to parking the bus. Look back at the games and see how often the opponents had Arsenal pinned back in their own defensive third. Points for resolve, concentration, and discipline must be given – and are in fact visible on that table – but it does limit Arsenal’s offensive potential. I’ve talked about this lack of balance quite often.

Against the smaller teams Arsenal have invariably found ways to score on the break. Strong defence and an ability to score can consistently equate to three points. This is easier against the relatively smaller teams who

a)      don’t have the quality in the final third to trouble a determined, well-organized, deep-lying defence.

b)      Can’t break up counter-attacks as efficiently and consistently, and are vulnerable when not defending in numbers themselves

On the other hand, the big teams are used to defending against counter-attacks and have greater offensive quality in the final third. That means it’s harder for the Gunners to break forward in a decisive manner and there’s a greater probability of conceding goals or making mistakes at the back. The players seem to know this subconsciously and it affects their confidence, which in turn helps propagate this cycle further.

In my opinion, at the moment this is the simplest way of explaining Arsenal’s strengths and weaknesses and their impact on the results. Someday with more time and significantly greater liberty in terms of word count, I’ll try to discuss more details with examples and explore ideas for change.

For now, this is what it is and the intricacies of the game against Man City have to been understood in light of that discussion.

Pellegrini is building a very exciting team at the Etihad. If I am honest, I’ve enjoyed watching City more than I’ve enjoyed Arsenal’s football because with them I can even have fun watching all the bloopers at the back. They’ve a big advantage in terms of financial muscle that translates into individual quality, particularly in attack, and it shows.

This game should bring the toughest test of Arsenal’s defence so far this season and a comparably challenging one for the team as a whole.

City have been imperious at home. A lot of that comes from their ruthlessness in attack and the ability to score the first goal relatively early. The smaller teams have been dealt with easily but they’ve also played excellent counter-attacking football against the likes of Manchester United, Tottenham, and Swansea who all dominated the ball at the Etihad.

It’ll be nigh on impossible for the Gunners to come back into this game if the hosts score first. That could lead to the side playing with the handbrake on, which will be counter-productive. Arsenal have to play their football, only with greater caution and defensive awareness.

Arteta has to be closer to the defence – in general the gap between the lines must be limited – and very alert to one of the two forwards dropping deeper. Ramsey must also pick and choose his moments to join the attack. Toure and the Welshman have vastly different physical qualities but play very similar roles for their teams. The decisive performance could come from the player who expresses himself better.

Hopefully, Walcott will be fit to start and Wenger will take a chance on playing him. It is understandable that the Theo-Jenkinson combination isn’t ideal for defending the right side in a big game. So much so that I suspect Wenger might even play Sagna if the Frenchman is half fit. Even if that is not the case, this is a gamble the manager has to take with strict instructions to Jenkinson to stay deeper and focus on defending.

On the other flank, we’ll have to see if the Chilean manager goes with Navas or a midfielder. He’ll have an offensive advantage if he picks two strikers and a traditional winger but that would come at the cost of some technical quality, which could become very relevant if the offensive advantage doesn’t translate into an early goal.

Interestingly, both teams are  5-0 when it comes to goals scored and conceded in the first 15 minutes of games. City are 19-4 in the first half (14-1 at home) while the Gunners are 12-4 (8-2). You might be reminded of Arsenal’s inability to convert their chances into healthier first-half leads in some games.

City have conceded more goals than Arsenal, and are 6-6 in the final 15 minutes of games as against 8-4 for the Gunners, but many of those have  been freakish goals and have come away from home.

Arsenal’s best hope would be to retain possession, even if it’s in their own half, and bide their time. Do not commit too many bodies forward, sustain concentration and discipline, track the runs of the attacking players, and don’t rely on the offside line. Despite their exceptional home record, there are defensive mistakes in this City side and patience is the best way to expose them.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

It might be interesting to have Monreal against Navas, not only because of fresher legs but their familiarity from their time in La Liga.

A more radical option would be to play Walcott centrally with Rosicky or Wilshere on the right.

Mertesacker and Koscielny have done well against some big names in recent times. But in this game they’ll be up against a very well-oiled attacking machine that poses multiple threats. I don’t think they can protect the goal without consistent support. The full-backs will have to be much more conservative than they normally are.

This is arguably the toughest game Arsenal are going to play this year and I think a draw will be a very good result. The Gunners are capable of sneaking a victory like they did at Dortmund but I’d not recommend putting any money on it. City are justifiably the favourites and it’s up to Arsenal to prove what they can do.


10 Responses to Thoughts On The Napoli, Man City, Tactics, and Mentality

  1. Right Cross says:

    Thanks Desi,

    Comprehensive analysis.

    Mentality and tactics and quality of opposition all have there effects on results.

    The return of Ramsey to midfield will help our fluency today. Arteta was often pressured hard against Napoli and didn’t get as much help from Flamini in
    playing us out from the back and linking with the attack.

    Looking forward to an excellent game and hoping for a great performance and result.

  2. galteegunner says:

    Interesting article. I also agree Theo is important especially as he offers an outlet ball for times we are pegged back in our own half. Definitely our biggest test of the season.

  3. Antique Gunmen says:

    Knife surgery analysis as ever Desi,
    We have to be 110% dispite our lack of recovery time after CL. The strongest defense againts the meanest offense. I hope our back four specially both wing back will have their extra awareness tonight. In the meantime our midfielders should have full initiate and extra caution to punish every opponent bloopers, which is strangely rare pop up in their home fixtures.
    An old words said : Great strikers win your games, but defenders will give you title. I hope this is what goin’ to happen to us (once again) tonite, and particularly this whole season. I think that’s the main reason you have optimistically launch that table prediction. Not the first time I’ve seen, because our doctor football Dave66 (1 ND 2 U)had convinced me before with his academic football stats experties, that our biggest rival is gonna be ManShit and guess who crown champion? Our famous red and white, finger cross.

  4. Ayokunle says:

    Nice post as always Desi. Really enjoyed reading your post and i particularly liked the tables you used. Ǻ♍ really surprised with Arsenal’s form as at the start of this year…its really impressive. Back to today’s match,i hope Wenger starts with Walcott coz his pace is really needed in the match and d defense has to play to their best,its gonna be interesting seeing how ‘koss’ will deal with Aguero. Itz gonna be a great match…best home team vs the best away team. COYG,victory all d way!!!

  5. Chris says:

    If fit Flamini has to start. And Walcott …. we must have some pace in the team, sorely lacking in recent weeks. We need to force the big teams into a deeper back line and we also need someone with that pace for Ozil to set up !

  6. Chris says:

    The key factor in the performances before and since March 2013 has been Steve Bould being given more coaching responsibility – as he had been pre and early that season. Not only for the defence but the shape of the team generally. We have ceased to be so easy to play against.

  7. Chris says:

    We have been using several play makers at the same time. Excellent for dominating possession and I agree your analysis of Arsenal against the weaker teams. But against the top teams our problem is those play makers are not ball winners and none (except Rosicky) are good out wide when trying to defend. Top opponents are exploiting this. Plus the fact that we have had no pace in the team. Top opponents benefit from this too.

  8. Dareflo says:

    Very good review cum analysis as usual. I’d like to know if dis piece gets to d AFC Mgt. Mnwile, its gonna be a dificult game and we av bin written off by so many pple. We will not lose d game. I am very confident. How its gonna go, I can’t say buh we will not lose. However, AS shd get his tactics right. There shd be no change to d back five of chesney, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscieny and Gibbs. Dey av not lost any game played together in d last 2yrs. Pls verify. All d best The Arsenal. Up Gonners. COYG.

  9. ola says:

    I tink wenger should rest ozil as he often dissapears in d big games.he should start from the bench

  10. […] of the League for the calendar year and if we consider the last 38 League games played. However, as discussed before the Man City game, the Gunners have also been consistently underwhelming in the big games. […]

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