Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Man City

September 13, 2014

It’s not often that we see a big game where neither side is really on top of their game. Arsenal have started the season grinding out a few results on the basis of hard work, mentality, and the likes, qualities that should never be the primary strengths of a team. Wenger doesn’t know his best starting eleven at the moment as he tries to find a place for Jack. The Gunners have been ponderous in possession, ineffective in front of goal, and error prone at the back.

The win against City in the Charity Shield game has been the high point of the new season. Pellegrini’s side never came close to their best in that game and have gone through the opening fixtures without quite finding their top gear. The win against Liverpool in the title race six-pointer was useful in terms of points and showcased glimpses of their quality. There were enough moments though, when you could see their defence barely hanging on. And the most prolific attack from last season doesn’t look quite as menacing at the moment.

Pellegrini hasn’t tweaked the system around in any noteworthy manner. Their current problems are mainly down to individual form, injuries, and player availability. Yaya Toure, irrespective of the reason one may want to ascribe, just doesn’t seem like the beast that he was last season. Aguero is just coming back to full fitness and was rendered ineffective by a deep-lying Stoke defence. With Jovetic and Fernando injured, Negredo sold, and three big games within a week, the Chilean will have a tough task rotating his squad while maintaining the balance between attack and defence.

Both teams would be justified in thinking this game is there for the taking. On the other hand, neither would want to lose and thus could focus on keeping things tight. The games between these sides at the Emirates in the last few years have tended to be of the latter type. Only 5 goals have been scored in the last five meetings between the clubs at Arsenal’s new stadium. Three of those battles ended in a stalemate.

Since both sides are primarily attack minded and possess excellent offensive potential, the battle for midfield control will be very important. It’ll be vital to minimize the number of times the attacking players can run at the defensive line or play in the spaces between the lines. Slowing down transitions by applying pressure at the point of loss of possession, low-risk passing in the centre of the pitch, and carefully controlled spacing between the players will help protect the goal, and help the high defensive lines get back into more secure deeper positions before they are called into action.

Debuchy’s aggressive positioning and Mertesacker’s lack of speed will give the visitors some opportunities to build attacks down Arsenal’s right. It’s hard to imagine space won’t exist so the next best option is to limit passing into and from that space. If Kolarov and Demichelis start, Arsenal should also have some interesting attacking opportunities on that flank. Silva won’t track Debuchy consistently either. City usually make up for that by limiting quick passing options. I recommend keeping an eye on how often spaces appear on that flank and the frequency with which either team is able to exploit them purposefully.

Welbeck’s pace and movement should also pose a tough challenge to the City defence if they try to stay high up the pitch.

It’ll be interesting to see if Pellegrini sticks to his two-striker approach. City are visiting Bayern in midweek and have another Premier League six-pointer against Chelsea next weekend. Will he risk both Aguero and Dzeko given the paucity (!) of alternatives. It’d be a bold move, and would also show great trust in his midfield and system of play as they’ll be a man short. Does the Chilean trust his tactics and the players’ ability to sustain a tempo to such a degree that he’d risk exposing his defence. It’s a gamble worth taking based on Arsenal’s current form in my opinion.

Wenger has some decisions of his own to make. I would really like to see Özil moved back to the centre. This line-up seems the most natural one at the moment –

Szczesny – Debuchy, Mertsacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Alexis, Welbeck, Cazorla

Moving Sanchez to the left and bringing Wilshere in on the right is an interesting option as discussed before the previous game. I’m not sure Wenger is even considering that at the moment.

There are a few other tweaks to the starting eleven available and the manager’s current favourite – Wilshere and Ramsey in the centre – add to the possibilities.

Both teams have an opportunity to kick start their season, albeit belatedly. I find it hard to assess how teams will come out and perform this early in a new campaign, particularly after an international break. The one that can raise it’s level by a couple of notches should end the day on a happier note.

Thoughts On Welbeck And The Transfer Window

September 6, 2014

When I was watching the England team at the World Cup, the biggest question in my mind was, “Why is Welbeck starting for this team?”

Sure, he’s a quick player, and Hodgson was clearly quite gung-ho about pace, but the then United man has hardly offered anything beyond work rate on the flank throughout his career. There were better players for the central striker role and it was hard to see him fit in anywhere other than the bench. The youngster might have had more of an impact as a late sub if he’d played around the goal and the penalty box.

That is not the same thing as saying Welbeck is not good enough or an outright bad player. He is very talented, just also somewhat limited. Just like Giroud, or Sanogo, or Chicharito, or Remy, or Bony, or most of the other forwards currently playing in the top leagues. I think he’s good enough to play in the Premier League but not sure if he’s good enough to lead the line for a team that wants to win it. At least not yet.

The hard fact is that there are very few complete players, and the proportion is even smaller when it comes to strikers because it’s a very tough job demanding exceptional technique and timing along with other qualities.

Most players have a unique mix of traits that makes them very useful in certain situations, while their weaknesses can make them look like absolute chumps in other instances. A lot of transfers fail because people are not able to assess how an individual’s qualities will improve or worsen once the context in which he is playing is changed.

Welbeck has obviously not been a success at United despite being one of the hot prospects in his younger days. 2011-12 was a good season for him in terms of playing time and goals but Ferguson went ahead and bought Van Persie instead of relying on the home grown talent to develop and deliver. The difference was clear and decisive. The Dutchman won them the league. The Englishman would not have.

I have some sympathy with Welbeck because his path has always been blocked by some genuinely top class players. And he didn’t get to play in his favoured position. I like the fact that he’s willing to move from his boyhood club in search of regular playing time. At Arsenal, particularly with Giroud injured, Danny should not face either of these problems.

Welbeck does not have the decisive level needed to star in a central striking role for a team that wants to win the major trophies. Nevertheless, he has age on his side and the raw material is there. Some of his physical attributes like pace, height, and power are very useful. These are, however, secondary qualities. You will, for example, be able to find a lot of people who are as tall, and strong, and fast as Thierry Henry. Even when given the exact same training, most of those people will not become lethal strikers like the Frenchman.

In that sense, this is a good test for both the player and his new manager. Can Wenger guide him to that elusive decisive level? Can the player build on his traits and use his hunger to hit heights he’s not even come close to before?

Technique is harder to develop after a certain age. But he’s already way ahead of Sanogo on that front and should be able to do better by playing centrally on a consistent basis. It remains an area of improvement but there is hope. The biggest question is whether he can develop the game intelligence and instinct that the top strikers have. This is harder to learn and can be a very innate thing. He needs to go up a couple of notches to really get close to the best strikers around the world.

Space is at a premium in and around the opposition goal. The best players have to be aware of where it exists at a given moment (changes all the time), need the ability to manoeuvre space (simple example is going to back post and then darting forward), must know where the goalposts are even when playing with back to goal or making horizontal/diagonal runs, should possess the ability to read the defender’s qualities and identify his weaknesses that they can exploit, and must make the right decisions on a consistent basis.

Any guy scoring goals in the Premier League has these qualities to some degree. You can see Welbeck’s instincts from the runs he makes, the way he adapts his body shape to get shots off, the little dinks over the keeper, and so on. The very best have an extraordinary level of consistency and they can repeat the output against different types of teams and in varying conditions. These are players who can produce a decisive moment out of nothing. Can Wenger take Welbeck to a level where he is ready for all challenges? We’ll have to watch and find out.

I understand if this article leaves you a little confused about my opinion of this deal. I don’t see this a great acquisition or as a panic buy. It seems like an opportunity arose and Wenger has taken it. There is no guarantee of success but the probability of meaningful short term impact and long term development into a top class player is high enough to take the associated risk. Wenger would most probably have preferred someone like Falcao or Reus, as would we. It’s natural to feel a little underwhelmed because of that. Just don’t get bogged down.

There are very real and exciting possibilities based on how things work out. I think Welbeck will be a threat from a lot of those runs behind the defence, which Giroud rarely makes and Sanogo doesn’t capitalize on. He will also gel well with other speed merchants in the side.

It’s not hard to imagine Walcott or Chamberlain bursting past the defence on the right with Danny taking up intelligent positions in front of goal. It could be a very fruitful attacking avenue for the Gunners if he can work on clever movement and develop on the odd unorthodox but instinctive finish that he’s shown to go with simpler conversions.

It may take a while to click but he also possesses the ability to play delectable combinations in and around the penalty box. Sanchez thrived on those at Barca and with Chile. Watch out for the one-twos between these two. I can also visualize him dropping into a hole just in front of the defence before sliding a ball through with one touch for a player like Oxlade-Chamberlain, or Walcott, or even Debuchy to run onto. The speed at which such understanding develops will determine how effective the youngster is. Giroud can be a good role model for this, at least as far as picking up ideas is concerned.

Finishing off gilt-edged opportunities has been a problem for the Gunners in the last two seasons. The England international should do better than the two Frenchmen in converting those chances even though it isn’t one of his big strengths. It could lift the whole team and give the midfielders greater creative desire. There should be 15 League goals for him at the end of the year if he can just take some of the chances that others keep missing far too often. That would be enough for a strong run at 4th place. Arsenal will need 25 or more decisive moments (goals plus assists) from the main striker for having a decent tilt at the title. At the moment I don’t see Welbeck performing at that level but he has the potential to develop into such a productive attacker.

Arsenal’s Transfer Window

The Gunners have added five players to the squad. I think all are quality additions in their own way. Sanchez is absolutely world class. Ospina should, hopefully, take over from Szczesny and give Arsenal a more secure presence in goal. Debuchy is a reasonably good replacement for Sagna. Chambers is an outstanding young talent. And Welbeck has the potential to be a very good striker.

It’s strange that so much good work in the transfer market still left me feeling dissatisfied, to put it mildly. And remember, this is from a guy who normally doesn’t grumble about transfers.

The general complaint, as far as I understand it, is linked to the lack of a “DM” and central defender. Given that I don’t really think any of the commonly linked players (Carvalho, Khedira, Schneiderlin, et. al.) would have improved Arsenal’s first team, my disappointment is not linked to a failure to sign these players.

A central defender was needed. Ideally, I’d have preferred someone who could start ahead of Mertesacker. Most fans would have been glad with a third choice player. It seems, based on various news reports, that Arsenal tried to get someone in but finally chose not to take the decisive step for one reason or another.

Depth is a major concern. I’ve always felt Wenger has gone with one or two players less than needed but there is also the issue that Arsenal perform the best when the first eleven is settled and playing together for a long period of time.

Some graphs/charts by Behnisch on twitter (highly recommend following him if you’re an Arsenal fan on twitter) are very interesting and informative.

Surprisingly, no one really uses all 25 players. It seems 20 very good players should be enough. I’ve read the line, “Only 6 players across 4 defensive positions” quite often. Most other teams have greater depth in these areas but title favourites Chelsea don’t seem to have too many options.

Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic, and Azpilicueta are their regular starters. Felipe Luiz is a big money signing but he could turn out to be the next Asier Del Horno. Kurt Zouma is a highly rated young player who has yet to prove himself at this level. And they have a few other youngsters. Can’t say they are too better off in terms of numbers/depth.

Manchester United, on the other hand, have quite a few players for defensive positions. But how many of those would you want at Arsenal? Can’t say they are comparable in terms of quality.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see more depth. Based on injuries, we might see a backline of Debuchy-Chambers-Monreal-Flamini in some game. Not a heart healthy recipe at all.

But I also understand why Arsenal haven’t done any business. There aren’t too many quality players who’d be happy to come to a club as depth boosters. This makes the transfer decision quite complicated. Do you burn a small but not insignificant chunk of your transfer money on an average player to fill one of the squad spots between 15-20 that is likely to see 30-40 percent utilization. Or do you trust the players you have and wait for quality to become available.

I don’t think Chambers will have too much trouble covering the minutes of Vermaelen and Jenkinson from last season.

Injuries are a valid concern. Then again, the new player could get injured too. Or completely fail to adapt. Here is an exercise you can do – make a list of all central defenders signed by the top 10 Premier League clubs in the last five years. See what percentage of those transfers has worked out.

As we’ve discussed repeatedly, defending is a team activity. Individuals matter and having quality players is important, but you can find short term solutions by adapting the way you play. Don’t lose the ball cheaply or give it away when the team shape is compromised and vast majority of difficult defensive actions won’t even be needed.

To me, that’s the area Arsenal have failed to address. There are far too many individuals who are losing the ball in the central third. Getting a player who could control the midfield and dictate play was vital. It’s understandable that guys like Kroos or Alonso were never realistic possibilities but there was one ex-player who could have made a big difference. Wenger has made a statement of sorts in choosing to let his son go to crosstown rivals. He is counting on his younger prospects to come good. Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain will really have to step up and deliver big performances in midfield to justify that decision.

The other problem areas are more related to coaching/training. Among the top 10/15 clubs across Europe, Arsenal are probably the weakest at pressing the opponents in their half on a consistent basis. Most other teams, even those who normally play defensive, counter-attacking football, have developed the ability to push up and create a period of intense pressure in the opposition half when the need arises. The Gunners couldn’t even keep Leicester pinned deep in their half when pushing for a win late in the game. It’s also the reason a lot of big teams have so much joy against Wenger’s side once they take the lead. The team simply isn’t able to raise the tempo and kick on to overdrive. Signing players is not going to change this.

A similar problem is with Arsenal’s inability to form a high-ish defensive block with the first line of defence around the centre of the pitch. Too many teams can bypass this line and get closer to Szczesny’s penalty box. As an extension, the number of transition opportunities that the Gunners can create from such areas is also very limited. Two of Liverpool’s three goals against Spurs came from transitions from the middle third. Most of the goals Arsenal conceded in big defeats last season also came about from such changes in possession. This is another issue that cannot be solved by transfers.

These issues are related from a training point of view. The players will continue to lose the ball cheaply in dangerous areas unless they train to keep it against intense, intelligent, and integrated pressing. I’ll try to cover more of this in the Reading the Game series.

Speaking of that series, we’re going to India for three weeks and that will probably affect the frequency of articles on the blog. It’s been over five years since we’ve gone back and this will be a very hectic trip. I’m not sure how much time I’ll get to write and publish. If everything goes to plan we should be back by the end of the month. You can keep track of the updates by subscribing through email or through twitter and facebook. All these options are available in the sidebar on the right.