I guess we can always count on a rampaging ox to destroy a crystal palace, however nicely structured it may be.
The tie was about as predictable as football games get. Pulis again showed no desire or spirit as his team parked the bus. It worked for a while as the Gunners created very little in the first half. Then they switched to a higher gear and scored immediately. Granted, the visitors had a chance soon after conceding and a spell where they were actually competing on the pitch, but it was simply not enough to merit them any points. Their manager’s negative approach to the game meant their best hopes were limited to frustrating the Gunners.
This game can be a good case study of the impact of the risk-reward equation on the patterns of play.
For bulk of the first half the Gunners played it safe. They were trying to score but didn’t really throw everything at the opponents. Most of their play was in front of the two Palace lines.
That image is indicative of the Gunners’ positioning during the first half. They did try to get through but didn’t commit too many players into advanced areas. So when the ball did get played forward, it was either cleared or played back because the man on the ball just didn’t have enough options.
This is can be frustrating from a fans perspective and even for the players but it’s really ok as long as the team in possession does not concede soft goals on the break. Pushing fewer players forward means more are available to quickly attack a clearance and win the ball back. It leads to greater possession, which is a very good way to keep a clean sheet even when it appears to be a tedious attacking approach.
I don’t know how much of it was a conscious pre-game choice and to what extent the manager’s half-time talk made a difference, but Arsenal’s approach was a lot more aggressive (and risky) straight from the start of the second half.
In the build-up to the goal you can see four Arsenal players positioned between the Palace lines.
Pulis can argue that his players made mistakes with their defensive body shapes and such but they were, at least in part, forced by Arsenal’s aggression and desire.
Many of us wonder why Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t make more such runs in the first half. It’s a fair question. But the fact of the matter is that the defenders would have read those runs and dealt with such passes because they were not engaged with other attacking players as they were in this case. It’s related to the point discussed in the previous article where I talked about off-the-ball positions affecting the momentum of play and it’s resultant impact on the events.
The next logical question might be to ask why more players didn’t get between the lines in the first half. That’s where the risk-reward equation comes into play. Just before this goal was scored, a few seconds after the second half kicked off, Arsenal had a similar moment with four players pushing up.
In that instance, Giroud came short to receive the ball from Mertesacker and lost it with a poor touch. Had Chamakh played a better pass, or if Arteta let Jerome get away, the striker would have been one-v-one against Koscielny with vast open spaces to attack.
You can see eight Arsenal players in that frame and Monreal is somewhere on the left side in no position to stop Jerome. The reward with committing players forward was obvious in the goal but this incident highlights the risk. No team wants to play a high risk game for 90 minutes. The key is in picking the right moments and making it count.
At the start of the season the Gunners used to take more risks in the first half and often scored early. But then they also had to face extended periods of pressure from the opponents. These days they are more conservative in the first half and I have a feeling it’s linked to the increased number of clean sheets because the opponents don’t come at the Arsenal goal for as long a period.
Again the risk-reward equation is at play. Most visitors know that going at Arsenal can leave them vulnerable at the back. Chamberlain’s second goal was a good example of that as Palace pushed up and left space for him to exploit which wasn’t available in the first half.
As a result, teams tend to play deep and safe against the Gunners. A point is a good result for many visiting sides and some would think they can get something late in the game. But once they concede, their risk when attacking goes down as they have very little to lose. They’re already a goal down and will return with nothing so they might as well give it a go. When this happens early they have a longer period to attack. By controlling the first half and increasing the tempo in the second, Arsenal are able to contain this threat while maintaining their own offensive potential.
I don’t know how much of this is down to deliberate and considered tactics. Sometimes these things just happen because certain patterns develop and the players get a feel for the game. There is also a risk that no goals will come in the second half and points will be dropped. But thus far the Gunners have executed this fairly well.
The only source of concern from this game was the couple of occasions when Koscielny and Mertesacker were separated by five yards or so vertically. It can play opponents onside and can lead to a genuine chance. They will have to be on the same latitude in the big games that are coming up.
Time to prove themselves all over again
A lot of people still doubt whether the Gunners can go all the way. To be completely honest, I too am not entirely convinced they can. I think the position at the end of March will be telling.
You might recall a table I’d made before the Southampton game that showed the results and points from last season’s fixtures corresponding to those that remain this season. This is the updated version,
The results against Southampton and Palace went as expected. The Gunners are still only one point ahead of last season when comparing corresponding fixtures. In order to hit 87 points – the average of last 10 winners, although there is a possibility that this season the eventual winner might get less – Arsenal need to gain 13 points over and above the 19 they got last season from these 14 games. That’s almost one point per game more and assumes a win at Anfield. Any points dropped against Liverpool will only make it that much harder in the remaining games.
You can argue 10 points can be gained from fixtures against Sunderland, Stoke, Swansea, and Norwich. Even then the team will need to win all the games it won last season and get more points from other big games, which have been a relative weakness throughout the otherwise impressive 2013 calendar year.
Consistency is the key word. And a truly remarkable level will be demanded of the winner.
Liverpool – A must win game and the first question mark?!
Arsenal have not done the double on Liverpool since 2009-10. And before that it was the invincibles season. That should give you an idea of how tough this game is going to be for the Gunners.
Don’t let Arsenal’s dominance in the reverse fixture mislead you. Rodgers made a tactical mistake in the previous fixture and the Reds have not done particularly well in away games this season, but their home form is impressive. In fact, their current home form is the best in the League and includes a commendable 4-0 win in the Merseyside derby.
In terms of the very basics, I expect the hosts will have one less defender in lieu of an extra midfielder. This should give them a greater chance to compete technically, a battle they lost comprehensively in the reverse fixture.
In Rodgers’ boots, I’d set the team up to press Arsenal collectively and energetically in the central third of the pitch as the Gunners try to play the ball out from the back. Forcing quick transitions would be the best way to utilize the qualities of Suarez and Sturridge. Getting the first goal will also set the team up to play a very effective and efficient counter-attacking game with accurate long passes to meet clever runs that exploit the space that will present itself once Arsenal’s risk-reward equation changes.
Wenger’s side dominated the previous fixture because they brought the ball forward at will and exploited spaces in the wide areas. They won’t get as many openings in this game so they will have to play the possession game as a form of defence for long periods of the game. Or they can drop deeper and invite Liverpool forward. Arsenal have done that with appreciable results quite often this season but I’m pretty certain it’s not an approach Wenger would deliberately choose. It’ll be a sign of players being cautious and playing with a handbrake.
Arsenal are one of the few teams – maybe the only team? – that have kept a clean sheet against the SaS attack. It was a commendable display but, as discussed in the analysis after the game, it wasn’t without an element of luck. I think Szczesny will be busy in this game and will pick up the ball from his net on more than one occasion. That said, the Arsenal defence has pleasantly surprised me before this season and I can understand why others would place greater faith in them.
Defending, as events throughout the season have reaffirmed, is a team act. It’ll be interesting to see how the Arteta-Wilshere pair provides cover to the central defenders. You don’t want to see defenders isolated in a n-v-n situation against this attack.
The space behind the full-backs will also be an area to watch out for because Mertesacker doesn’t like to get pulled wide while the Gunners have a tendency to concede more chances from wide on their left. I’ve read that Rodgers could start with Sturridge on their left flank and Sterling on the right. I’d put Sturridge on the right and give him the freedom to cut inside. Putting Coutinho on the left is also something I’d consider as it could give the team greater balance to counter Arsenal’s strengths.
Wenger won’t tinker much. And he has few choices in terms of personnel.
We might see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Wilshere – AOC, Giroud, Cazorla.
Podolski didn’t give the manager enough reason to keep him in the starting line up. You can argue that he needs a run of games but I’m not sure this is a fixture where you want to fiddle with Santi’s role.
That said, Podolski did have a decisive impact in this game last season. It’s a tough call that Wenger has to make and will probably get criticized for it either way if the result doesn’t work out.
Monreal has struggled in one-v-one situations as he gets into incorrect body positions and is slow to turn/recover. Hopefully, Gibbs will be fit and raring to go. In either case, Arsenal could need greater cover on the left flank, particularly if Sturridge starts there.
That brings me to Rosicky who did exactly that against Palace. And his contribution is not limited to defensive positioning and work rate . Little Mozart can work either flank if Wenger wants greater technical quality on the pitch to resist Liverpool’s pressing. Chamberlain has greater pace and more pronounced dribbling skills but Rosicky is more experienced and will improve the team’s technical game. Another difficult decision that.
I feel both teams have the potential to concede and score goals. The one that can minimize the mistakes and shape the patterns of play to suit it’s tactical strengths will have a greater probability of winning. But this game can easily boil down to moments – freakish, magical, or those full of madness.