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.


Reading The Game Part I: Defending Is Significantly Easier Than Attacking

August 13, 2014

Imagine how your reaction would be if a cricket match ended with one team scoring 6 runs against the other’s total of 8. How about a basketball game with a 3-1 final score? 150-148 runs over nine innings in baseball?

We expect certain types of scores in various sports. Results like those mentioned above would cause serious seismic activity in the world of professional sports. In fact, it seems safe to say it just won’t happen because these are completely against the nature of each sport.

In the same way, we have come to accept football as a low scoring game. An average of around 3 goals a game through a league season or any major tournament would be considered pretty good. 10-8 is the kind of scoreline one would see in friendly games where no one really cares about the results and anything in the high two digits is practically unthinkable.

Being low scoring is the inherent nature of the game and most of it comes from the rules. Now, I like it this way and I’m not saying it needs to change. But as fans and people who have a lot vested in the game (in an emotional and financial sense) we need to really understand this so that it is deeply imbued in any analysis we make of players, game situations, tactics, results, etc.
At this point, if you fully understand just how much easier defending is compared to attacking, skip straight down to the section titled “Why this matters”. If not, ponder on the reasoning presented next.

Let’s start with a very simple but extremely important question – How often does a team try to attack and how often does it succeed?

Before going forward we need to be completely clear about a couple of points –
1) I’m talking about defending being much, much easier than attacking but not saying that defending is easy in itself. You and I could form a team and keep clean sheets on the way to major trophies if defending were easy, per se. Ensuring the ball stays out of the net is very hard work and demands qualities like discipline, concentration, determination, physical strength, and intelligence to name a few. This is strictly a comparative discussion and at no point should we lose sight of that.
2) There are certain specific moments in the game when defending is indeed harder than attacking. For instance, a penalty results in a goal more often than it is saved. But these are isolated and comparatively rare cases, and are often a result of one or more avoidable mistakes so we can ignore them from this discussion.

With that in mind, let’s come back to the question at hand. Obviously, every time someone takes a shot at goal they are trying to attack.

Last season Manchester City scored 102 League goals from 673 shots for a conversion rate of just over 15 percent. Liverpool got 101 from 651 at a marginally better success rate. I don’t want to spend time compiling data for all the clubs but my past experience crunching such data suggests that between 15-20 percent is about the average range for a team’s chance conversion rate. Sometimes it’s a little higher but very rarely does it cross 25 percent.

One of the excellent graphs in this phenomenal article on Messi tells us that of the 866 players who’ve played over 50 games in the last few years, only two have a conversion rate greater than 25 percent. And these are players with a low volume of shots taken. Messi is around 22 and Ronaldo is below 15 percent. It seems the numbers are relatively consistent whether we are looking at individual players or teams in general.

Let’s say on an average 20 percent of the shots go in across the board (Various leagues, international competitions, etc.). It’s hard to be exact about this number but a little variance won’t matter too much as you’ll soon see.

If 1 in 5 attempts to attack are successful, we can also say 4 in 5 attempts to defend are successful. That’s a huge difference right there. A crude but not entirely incorrect way to look at this would be that defending is four times as successful as attacking, ergo that much more easier.

Someone might argue, at this juncture, that a lot of those shots don’t even hit the target. Could this be a case of bad attacking rather than defending being easier?

Imagine for a moment that an average Premier League player is alone on the pitch with no constraints of time and space. Would he miss an unobstructed, ‘Keeper-less net from the kind of locations most of the shots are actually taken? The biggest factor in shooting inefficiency is not the player’s own quality but the fact that he is being closed down by the opponents, has very little time in which to react, and has to find a way to beat a goalkeeper in the net.

Even the absolute best players around the world only complete around 1 in 2 of the so-called gilt-edged chances and less than 1 out of 4 regular chances. This has less to do with them being rubbish and more to do with the difficult nature of scoring. Commentary like, “He’d have scored that 9 times out of 10”, does not help because it’s hardly ever backed up by facts.

This is also linked to the aforementioned case of penalties being harder to defend. Many of the variables affecting the striker adversely are taken out of the equation when a penalty is taken.

Once you move beyond the highlights and start observing the details that are edited out to pack in all the excitement in a short period of time, it’ll become clear that missed shots are not as much a case of bad attacking (although in some individual instances they are and can be very frustrating) as they are an indication of defence having a negative influence on the efficiency of attack in one way or another. It is important to remember that I’m not saying there isn’t a difference between quality of individual attackers or the offensive potential of various teams. The point is that even the absolute best have fairly modest conversion rates and the others are only worse.

Moving on, let’s consider other indicators of a team trying to attack. Do you think a player crosses the ball to admire the flight of the ball across the face of goal? There are 20-25 crosses per game on average in the Premier League. Usually, less than 5 are successful. That’s another 15-20 attempts to attack that are unsuccessful. They don’t even lead to a shot.

How about through-balls that are intercepted or run out of play? What about unsuccessful dribbles?

If we pause and think about it, almost every clearance, tackle, interception, foul, or the ball going out of play, result in an attack being thwarted. Sometimes we tend to think of attacks only when the ball is in the final third. That’s not completely correct.

A team could be consolidating its position at the back so that it’s players can get into a position to attack after they’ve retreated deep to defend. Or they could be in the build-up phase in the midfield and trying to unlock the oppositions organization. These are not obvious moments of attack but they are part of the attacking process. Any event that breaks this process means the defence has won a minor battle and one attack is blunted.

Let’s say a team takes 15 shots and scores 3 goals for a 20 percent success rate. Now we add in say 10 fouls, 12 interceptions, 18 tackles, and 35 clearances by the opposition (again I’m relying on past experience to think the numbers should be close to the averages). We’d have 3 goals in 90 attempts for a success rate of about 3.33 percent. And we haven’t even counted the ball going out of play.

I believe it’s safe to say that most teams are successful with 1-5 percent of their attacks. Some might have even less success but very few will be higher.

As far as I’m concerned, this should no longer be a topic of debate but really the first rule of football – Defending is much, much, much easier than attacking.

Why This Matters

Managers and analysts at the top of the game understand this unwritten law instinctively. It’s one of the fundamental reasons defensive players cost so much less than attackers. This will never change. To me, 30 million spent on a pure defender is about as sensible at 100 million spent on a striker. It also makes the fee paid for David Luiz the most senseless transfer amount ever, but I should control my tendency to digress.

If you’re an Arsene Wenger fan, think of the effort he put in to keep Fabregas or even RvP at the club, and contrast that with the ease with which he sold someone like Song even though the Cameroonian came up with some assists in the season before he was let go. Players who can consistently make decisive contributions in the attacking third are very hard to find. Defensive players can be replaced by others more easily or by tweaks to the system of play.

Defending is about redundancy over and above anything else. There are at least three lines of defence in any team. And if they do their job well , often players from one line get a time to join the others and redouble the redundancy. That means you can make mistakes and get away with it. It happens all the time.

Attack, on the other hand, is all about precision. Everything must fall into place for the ball to go into the net. And each attack has multiple points of failure. That’s why it can be broken up in different areas of the pitch.

Usually, there are multiple defensive mistakes when a goal is scored. Some of those are forced by the quality of the attack while others are entirely avoidable.

Granted, there are times when a goal seems to materialize completely out of luck. But once you develop the habit of looking past individual instances onto the broader patterns, the battle between defence and attack becomes apparent and you start to see probabilities instead of luck.

There was a phase in the recent past when it seemed that Arsenal played really well in game but the opponents had one or two good moments and scored a freakish goal which cost the Gunners valuable points. In the early days, I used to think it was just dumb luck. But as it happened over and over, a closer analysis revealed deeper issues in the Arsenal defence. It had to do with shape, choices, concentration, and other important details. Having worked on that over the last couple of seasons, Arsenal have been able to cut down on many of those freakish goals that they conceded.

The second vital reason to understand this unstated law is that it helps one assess the quality of defending and attacking much better. If we know that the game is stacked in favour of the defence, a clean sheet can then be seen in a different light. In other words, a clean sheet, in itself, should never be seen as a sign of great defending.

In my opinion, there are two fundamental ways to defend-
1) Control the ball
2) Control the space

The great Barcelona side of recent years did both and exceptionally. They didn’t have particularly great defensive players but by reducing the number of times the ball got to their defensive third and the number of opponents who could get there in a staggering manner, they created a very strong defensive system. This, of course, is the best form of play and, quite naturally, the hardest to execute.

The second way is to control the ball but a little bit inside your own half. A little compromise is made in terms of control of space. Even then, pick and choose the moments to attack carefully and your defence will be fairly safe. Most of the top teams do this. You’ll notice in such performances that the goalkeeper is almost a spectator.

The third way is to let the opposition have more of the ball, if necessary, but to defend with great energy and cohesion around the centre line. A compromise is made on possession but greater counter-attacking threat is available, which can, in turn, deter the opponent from pushing numbers forward.

Then the team could drop deeper, midway through their own half or on the edge of their box. This is the approach most of the smaller teams use.

The worst case scenario is a parked bus with almost all the players in and around one’s own penalty box.

In a given game, any of these methods could be successful. That is why I said a clean sheet, or even a result, should not be used to judge the quality of defending.

Short term success is achievable through various means. A relegation candidate could beat one of the other top sides with a parked bus and a smash-and-grab at the other end. But in the long run they won’t win much that way.

Similarly, teams like Inter Milan could even park the bus all the way to the Champions League trophy. What happens after that? They’re now playing play-offs for the Europa League. Chelsea were in the Europa League soon after their Champions League triumph. These teams cannot build a legacy like Barcelona did or find the kind of consistency we’ve seen from Bayern.

Don’t get me wrong, the point is not to say that every team should try and play like Barcelona or Bayern. That’d be incredibly daft. Each team has different types of players, different circumstances, varying managerial capabilities, and so on. And each has to find its own unique solutions.

The understanding of the ease of defence and related issues discussed above is more for analytical purposes. Various questions need to be answered when we watch a team like Inter Milan win the Champions League or a relegation candidate scalp a title contender in the league. For instance, how repeatable is that performance?

A lot of people get so caught up in the result that many superlative narratives of heroism are built around the result. These are useless. They take focus away from the specifics, which can help us understand the game better as well as hinder any preparation one could make for future games.

The best managers know how to step away from the result and look at the game but very few people who write or talk about the game get this.

The problem is not limited to developing an understanding of any team’s qualities. Narratives develop around individual players too and many myths are created.

Sticking with the Inter Milan example for continuity, do you recall Julio Cesar being hailed as the world’s best goalkeeper and Maicon as the best right back? What happened to them when Mourinho and that solid defensive system went away?

The general narrative shifts to form. “He’s lost form”, they say. That’s total nonsense. The reality is that the guy had very specific skills that shone in a given approach and it led to excellent results. The moment that approach was gone the players lost their magic and became ordinary.

This happens in the case of many defenders and goalkeepers who look good in a tight, deep-lying, defence. But they don’t quite succeed when the organization of the team changes or they transfer to a different club where the requirements are not suited to their qualities. The reverse can also happen. Pique, for instance, is a much better defender in the central third of the pitch than he is in his own box.

Remember the big, strong defender Arsenal desperately needed? Chris Samba was the answer at one time. What happened to him after he moved away from the parked bus of Blackburn Rovers?

The performance of Chelsea’s defenders has been fascinating to watch as their managers and tactics have changed. Did you see how many of them struggled when playing a high line? John Terry became a joke for a while. Now he’s supposedly regained form. Not a coincidence that Mourinho is back at the club.

We must also understand that defence is always the work of the collective. Organization, coordination, communication, tactical intelligence, and practice are the key to building that redundancy so vital to a consistently strong defence.

Unfortunately, the limited nature of stats available and the general idea that defenders and goalkeepers are responsible for defending has led to common acceptance of a fallacy, but it’s crucial that we realize-
Goalkeepers do not keep clean sheets. Back Fours do no keep clean sheets. Only the whole team can keep a clean sheet.

Look at the number of defenders Liverpool has bought in recent years. Has it really made their defence better? In contrast, Arsenal’s defensive improvement over the last couple of years has mostly been related to structural solidity and the work done on the training ground.

Of course, quality of players matters to an extent. But it’s imperative that people don’t get caught up in that alone. In order to break out of that habit we need to start seeing defence for what it is and focus on the specifics.

One example of looking at relevant details is the role of the so-called DM. Most of the top teams have strong defences because they minimize the action in front of their goals. This is done by controlling the ball and for that they need a deep-lying midfielder who is extremely intelligent at recycling possession. A lot of the passes that seem meaningless and frustrating to the casual observer are actually very good tactical choices that keep the defence safe.

In many of the games where Arsenal suffered heavy defeats, one of the primary causes could be traced back to Cazorla, or Chambelain, or Özil, or someone else losing the ball cheaply in midfield just in front of the exposed defence. This happens very rarely when Arteta is in those areas but others also need to take up responsibility for shielding the ball because the midfielders have to rotate and interchange positions at times.

The whole idea that a mythical, superman of a DM would somehow jump in a break play up after a terrible loss of possession is ludicrous. Just look at the big defeats suffered by Spurs last season and the physical qualities of their midfielders. Capoue, Paulinho, Dembele, and Sandro all fit the profile of the kind of player some Arsenal fan’s have been demanding. Indeed, Capoue and Paulinho were both quite in demand as far as certain Gooner circles were concerned. It didn’t work for them at Spurs and there is no reason to believe they’d have done much better at Arsenal. That’s because the problem is not one that can be solved primarily by physical qualities but is more tactical in nature.

The Purpose Of This Reading The Game Series

This is not an article on Arsenal’s defence or defensive midfield issues so I’m going to stop now and let you ponder on the points made above. It is very important that you don’t get caught up in examples but just use them to understand the broader points made for that is the purpose of this article.

For a long time now I’ve been meaning to write a series of articles on various aspects of the game to describe how I see football. It’s not complete, it’s not perfect, but I’m hopeful it’ll help some readers observe more from the same 90 minutes of action that they see.

My hope is to create a thread that connects the philosophy of managers, general principles and tactics in football, and the impact of qualities of individual players, so that we can better understand what we see on the pitch.

In the future I want to write about the importance of off-the-ball movement, the physics and maths of football (space, time, angles), impact of our own limitations, and other such topics. In a way, this series is anti-reductionism. The articles will be long and detailed as this one is (although this is much shorter than it would have been if I’d gone into compiling data and dug up more examples for each point), but the points are fairly straightforward once you see them.

It is crucial that you don’t reflexively respond with dismissive oversimplifications. For example, someone might say, “Yeah, that’s all well and good but in the end it’s all about balance.” Such a sentence would be completely accurate and utterly useless because it doesn’t help us understand the specifics of the game that matter.

Also remember that in football everything is interconnected. Some of the examples above are very selectively presented to illustrate a point. For instance, teams often use more than one way of defending from the classification given above. I did not go into that because this isn’t an article on how a team should or can defend. It can come later once the basic building blocks are in place and beyond dispute.

Please let me know if such a series is of interest to you. Since the readers of the blog have varying levels of knowledge and interests, such articles take up a lot of my time because it’s hard to figure out the level of detail I need to go into. I have to decide whether it’s worth putting in that time to develop this series. All thoughtful comments, critical or encouraging, are most welcome.


Thoughts On Community Shield, Vermaelen, and Captaincy

August 10, 2014

Earlier today I wanted to make sure my memory wasn’t playing games and the match tomorrow was indeed designated as a friendly. So I googled “Charity Shield designated friendly”. There wasn’t a really funny result or suggestion that I’ve to share here but I was surprised when many results came up for Community Shield instead. It just reminded me that almost a decade has passed since I took any serious interest in this game. So much so that the name change hadn’t even registered mentally.

And then it felt good. For though it is probably nothing more than a very serious friendly game, the fact that Arsenal are involved means something good happened last season. It also took me back to the early part of the Millennium when a casual foreign fan might’ve been forgiven for believing this was the customary Arsenal-V-United game played to mark the start of a new season.

How things have changed. And keep changing…

I’m really looking forward to this game, not as another “trophy” to be won, but as a barometer for the preparedness of Wenger’s side. This upcoming season promises to be one of the most competitive in recent memory and the Gunners will need a fast start.

Arsenal’s World Cup winners are not back in training yet and it’s reasonable to expect them to miss the opening weeks of the season. I truly do hope Wenger doesn’t rush any of them no matter what happens in this period.

This is important because it means the players we shall see on Sunday will bear the responsibility to perform and deliver for the club till after the first international break.

Unless a centre back, who’s had a great preseason elsewhere, comes in ready to play, young Calum Chambers could have a big role to play at the heart of the Arsenal defence alongside Koscielny with very little in the form of back up options available.

In the rest of the positions Wenger seems to have plenty of choices even if there appears to be room to better the centre of midfield. I would love to talk about Diaby as one of the great options but it just feels better to leave him be for at least six months or so just to see how everything goes. No hopes, no pressure, no judgments…

Wenger is almost spoilt for choice (although you might say cosistency and quality remains to be proven in some cases) up front. Any of Sanchez, Campbell, Sanogo, or Giroud (if he’s improved his fitness) can play at the head of the attack. The first two, Chamberlain, Cazorla, and even Rosicky can play in the wider areas. Spain, the Czech Republic, or Britain could provide the main attacking midfielder while the German enjoys a well deserved holiday. The manager also has players to allow for variation in formation and approach.

I have a feeling one of Joel Campbell or Podolski will leave the club before the transfer window closes and thus this is a crucial period for the Costa Rican lad to build on his preseason promise. I know Wenger has said he wants to keep Campbell at the club but it won’t be a surprise if he’s let go. He has to force himself into the starting line up during this month and then produce the quality that proves he belongs at this level. Hopefully, he’ll get a fair few minutes against City, preferably a start.

Here’s the team I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Debuchy, Chambers, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – Campbell, Sanchez, Chamberlain.

It’ll be great if the front three can interchange positions and combine in the final third with Santi (hasn’t quite looked in form thus far in preseason) pulling the strings. Such a team would also give us an indication of the quality and quantity of defensive work we can expect from the explosive attackers.

I’m also keen to see if Ramsey can control his instincts and show greater game intelligence by carefully picking the moments to charge forward. Against some of the smaller teams in preseason he’s spent a lot of time in and around the opposition box. That won’t work in the big games and the Gunners have to avoid a repeat of last season’s soul-crushers at all cost. In my opinion, even though last season was a breakthrough year for him, 2014-15 will represent a bigger period in the Welshman’s career. He made phenomenal decisive contribution last season but now he has to show he can also control the games, particularly the big ones. That’s the next step. If he takes that, Rambo will be very close to the top five midfielders in the world, and Arsenal will move towards being very serious contenders for the major trophies. It’d be understandable if Ramsey doesn’t have the same decisive impact as he did in 13-14 and that makes the need to evolve as a player even greater. He could end up frustrated at a lack of impact and get caught in the vicious cycle of trying to do too much leading to greater inefficiency, or he could channel his desire into areas that will help the team synergy and let others flourish while he controls the game. It’s a tricky balance to achieve and he’s probably still a bit young to master this but I definitely want to see some effort in that direction.

There are six substitutes available to each manager in this game as it’s officially a friendly. Wilshere should get some time on the pitch. Wenger might even start him in central midfield and push Cazorla to the left. I’m not a fan of Jack in central midfield but his manager has a lot of faith in the veteran youngster. The Englishman probably has more to prove than any of his teammates this season and for that alone I’d understand if Wenger gave him a lot of game time, at least till Özil gets back.

Rosicky, Sanogo, Giroud, Diaby and Monreal should also see some action.

Vermaelen

Moving on, I’d like to say goodbye and good luck to Vermaelen. He started with a bang and became a star after his first season. The impact of his goals meant few noticed the defensive mistakes at the time. They only came to the fore after the goals dried up and the team went through a lean patch. Nevertheless, I thought he was a good enough player and could have done more with regular game time. Part of his struggles coincided with the period when Arsenal had structural weaknesses in their collective defence, which were only really sorted last year and that too in a limited way. Barcelona should be a good place for him and unlike some of the other Arsenal players who’ve gone there, the Belgian could have an excellent career as long as he gets a stable start and doesn’t make any errors in the opening games. It could boil down to the quality of Luis Enrique’s management and the work rate of the squad.

This transfer also reminds me of an email I got a few days back from a friend(modified the last line)…

2005: Juventus sign ARSENAL CAPTAIN Patrick Vieira.

2006: Juventus MANAGER Fabio Capello RESIGNS.

2007: Barcelona sign ARSENAL CAPTAIN Thierry Henry.

2008: Barcelona MANAGER Frank Rijkaard SACKED.

2011: Barcelona sign ARSENAL CAPTAIN Cesc Fabregas.

2012: Barcelona MANAGER Pep Guardiola RESIGNS.

2012: Man Utd sign ARSENAL CAPTAIN Van Persie.

2013: Man Utd MANAGER Ferguson retires.

2014: Barcelona sign TV5 Arsenal captian

Omens not good for Luis Enrique.

On the subject of Captaincy, Wenger has a few interesting possibilities.

Promoting Arteta, who did the job most of last year anyway, is the simplest option but the Spaniard may not be a regular this year and might even leave in a year. Those are not the kind of things that have prevented Wenger in the past so I won’t be surprised if the Spaniard does get the armband.

Mertesacker is another interesting candidate because he is likely to be a regular starter when fit and will be coming back with a World Cup winners medal. While I don’t have any connection with the inner workings of the dressing room, it’ll be a surprise if the German is not a popular member. He certainly comes across as a team player. Remember what Loew said after the win over France,

“When I told him last night (that he won’t be starting), he said ‘Alles klar’ coach, I’m here to help the team any way I can’. It was incredibly professional. He’s extremely important to the team.”

Or this on the subject of leadership and relationship with fans

That said, he did lose his place in the German starting line-up as he struggled when playing in a high line. The same might happen at Arsenal and could depend on what Wenger can do before the transfer window shuts.

Rosicky is another very good candidate but also one who is likely to be on the bench more often than the pitch. I wouldn’t want to see Wilshere or Ramsey given such a responsibility right now when they still have a lot to learn and prove. Özil is different. He should just be left to do his thing on the pitch without extraneous burdens. Giroud, Koscielny, Santi and some of the other players don’t quite feel the right choice for different reasons.

I think Arteta as Captain and Per his deputy would make sense. The reverse also works just as well but since Mertesacker won’t be starting the initial games, the Spaniard is probably the simpler choice.

Before ending, I want to mention these Classified ads in Nigeria that might be of use to Gooners in the region.


Thoughts On Debuchy, Ospina, Chambers, Jenkinson, And Emirates Cup

August 1, 2014

The last couple of weeks have been good for Arsenal as some of the obvious holes in the squad have been plugged with quality players who are, for the most part, comparable to the ones they are replacing or even somewhat better.

This being a late article, here are some quick observations that stand out about each of transfers including comparisons with departing players.

Debuchy

Even though the new Arsenal right back started over his predecessor for France at the World Cup, I’ve a feeling he will have to prove himself all over again at Arsenal. It’s not because his quality is questionable, but more due to the important role that Sagna played for the Gunners.

Wenger’s team uses the flanks as an outlet almost all the time when they are trying to build from the back and the opponent is working hard to close the options down in the centre of the field. Sagna’s technical ability, the willingness to receive the ball under pressure, composure in holding and passing it, and other skills like concentration, physicality, and tenacity made him a vital cog in this process. Debuchy is coming from a team that didn’t pass the ball as much as Arsenal. According to stats on Squawka, there is a clear difference in their passes per 90 (Sagna – 53; Debuchy – 36) and pass accuracy (S- 85%; D- 73%).

It won’t be a surprise if Debuchy improved his numbers just by virtue of being in a technically stronger side this season but this is an aspect I’ll be watching closely in the first few competitive games. His passing accuracy for France at the World Cup was just below 78% but total number of passes was still close to his Newcastle number. Any breakdown in the buildup play can lead to defensive problems as well as that situation of the attack being separated from the defence without a link in between. The adjustment here has to be very quick.

It’s interesting that the two are very close to each other in terms of aerial duels contested and won because that’s another outlet for Arsenal when the opponent is somewhat successful with their pressing.

Debuchy seems busier of the two when comparing some of the defensive metrics. He wins more tackles, loses more tackles, makes more interceptions and blocks, and commits more fouls. Again, it’s hard to pinpoint just how much of this is down to the playing styles of the two teams rather than individual qualities. That said, I do get the feeling that Debuchy is slightly more aggressive as a defender and is looking to break forward and get into attacking areas compared to Sagna who was more about providing width and options on the flank even when he got into advanced areas.

Despite his relatively reserved style, fighting spirit, tendency to chase back at full tilt, and endless stamina, there were enough instances in the last couple of years when we all have thought the full-back was not where he should have been. Part of this is down to the manager’s instructions and this is another area where I want to see how Debuchy performs. I’m not convinced he has some of Sagna’s aforementioned qualities and there could be trouble if he keeps getting caught higher up the pitch.

On the positive side, there is a greater chance of getting decisive attacking contribution from the man who’s come to London than the man who’s gone to Manchester. A clever and quick interception just inside the Arsenal half, for instance, could provide a great launch pad for the pace that Wenger could have at his disposal if key players remain fit. I’m also hoping for slightly better crossing, timing of overlapping runs, and attacking contribution on set-pieces from the former Newcastle man.

All-in-all, Debuchy seems like a reasonable replacement for an important player with some risks that will have to be identified and mitigated, and the potential to be a little more exciting and decisive.

Ospina

Fabianski’s Arsenal career has been crazy. From some unbelievable howlers to keeping goal in the title-drought-ending FA Cup win, he’s evoked all kinds of extreme emotions. I thought it was nice that he left with a trophy, but it also felt like something that was good for all concerned. There was something about Fabianski, maybe just the multitude of mistakes from the past, that made it very hard for me to trust him as main goalkeeper at the club.

Given that I’m not a big Szczesny fan either, it seemed essential that the club brings in someone who can do better. Wenger’s answer is Colombian international David Ospina.

In case you haven’t read/seen these already, here are a couple of interesting articles on the Nice guy

And here are a couple of videos…

I haven’t seen much of him outside of the World Cup and some video YouTube, but even in this limited watching experience a few qualities are immediately obvious.

He seems like a goalkeeper with great reflexes and one who keeps his eye on the ball till the very end. That latter part is a big improvement on Szczesny who has this tendency of committing far too early. Training with the Colombian can help the Pole improve. Arsenal’s latest Ligue 1 import is also better than the current goalie when it comes to recovering after making the first save. It’s another crucial detail because both have the tendency to put the ball back into the danger area from the initial save.

None of the Arsenal goalkeepers in recent years have been particularly good in the air and Wenger has finally found some degree of control at the back in such situations by getting his outfield players, mainly centre backs, to take more responsibility. The Colombian does seem the aggressive type but I’m not convinced he will be any better than Szczesny at commanding the air in the penalty box. In that sense, this will still be a work in progress for the coaching staff as they have to ensure the ‘Keepers don’t drop the ball, so to speak, on set-pieces and crosses.

The Colombian’s aggression will also be worth watching when it comes to one-v-ones. Szczesny is adept at giving away penalties and been lucky to get away without a red card on more than one occasion. Fabianski’s wanderlust has given many a gooner a nervous breakdown. Can Ospina do better? I don’t know the answer to that but I’m very eager to find out. He can offer a marked improvement to the Gunners if he combines his concentration and ability to watch the ball till the very end with intelligent decision making, something which might take a bit of time to develop in a new, faster, and more physical league.

While I don’t encourage drawing direct conclusions from it, the following stats comparison using the Squawka tool is quite interesting.

Ospina Stats Comparison

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All things considered, it’s hard to make a case for Szczesny being the first choice. I hope Wenger is ruthless and decisive here.

Chambers and Jenkinson

There has been a need for a versatile defensive player at Arsenal for at least a couple of years now. Wenger has tried to sign a few such players during this period including the likes of Smalling and Jones, who are, in part, comparable to the latest young gun that Wenger has signed.

Calum Chambers seems like a talented prospect with potential to be a very good multifaceted defensive player. He seems to have composure, technique, and game intelligence, which should provide a solid foundation. He lacks experience, obviously, and his mental attributes haven’t really been tested yet to the fullest extent. This will happen over the next season or two as he takes the field in high pressure games. I’m hoping to see a steep learning curve along with the burning desire to get better with every game.

In recent years I’ve felt that a lot of young players have hit their performance ceiling just after or shortly before starting their top flight Arsenal careers. Afobe, Aneke, JET, Miquel, Frimpong, Coquelin, Eastmond, Eisfeld, and others have been on the fringes without quite making the cut in a convincing manner. At this moment, it’s hard to say even the likes of Szczesny, Wilshere, and Chamberlain deserve to be first choice for Arsenal even though they came in with much higher talent than their aforementioned young teammates. The likes of Djourou and Senderos didn’t fulfill the promise shown in their younger years either. Exploring this in depth calls for a separate article so I won’t get into the merits and demerits of the observation.

Nonetheless, Jenkinson is another example. I can’t say he’s improved a lot during his stay at the Emirates. There is a common misconception – Even leading to amusing suggestions that he should start ahead of Sagna after the Frenchman returned to fitness – that he did very well in a phase when Sagna was injured but the reality was that he was used in a more conservative role to hide his weaknesses. His performances were effective but hardly excellent. This was covered in various articles on this blog during that period and was pretty evident once the Frenchman got back to fitness and showed everyone what Arsenal had been missing.

Chambers is undoubtedly an improvement on the West Ham bound Arsenal fan in almost every aspect, except maybe pace and stamina but we’ll have to watch and see on that. That said, I hope Jenkinson has a good time at West Ham leading to a respectable top flight career and potentially bringing a substantially higher chunk of change to the Arsenal coffers than the 3 Million reportedly offered by Hull recently.

I’m also hopeful that Chambers will have a better time at Arsenal than many of the young players listed above mainly because of his better game intelligence. It should allow him to absorb more from his teammates and coaches, which in turn should result in a higher yield from the same hard work.

Emirates Cup

To say that the World Cup has been disruptive to Arsenal’s preparations for the upcoming season would be a massive understatement.

From the first choice eleven that I’d pick, Koscielny, Giroud, Debuchy, Sanchez, and Ospina have only come back to training in the last week or so. Mertesacker and Özil are still on vacation while Walcott is injured. Even if Szczesny starts in the first few games, that’s seven first choice players with little or no preseason training.

Furthermore, those who have been training didn’t quite look up to speed in the last game against the New York Red Bulls. Even with the caveat that it’s relatively early days in preseason, there is some cause for concern in my opinion because Arsenal have a tricky start to the season.

With those thoughts in mind, the importance of the Emirates Cup cannot be overstated. I don’t mean that they have to win the trophy. That’s pointless. But the players have to click together and find their sharpness/rhythm back. Wenger’s teams are generally extremely dependent on flow/momentum because so much of the play is instinctive and interlinked. Mertesacker and Özil might not be physically ready for those games and the lack of a centre back signing along with the uncertainty around Vermaelen only makes things more complicated. Arsene Wenger has to figure out his starting line-up for the first couple of games, at least, and he doesn’t have too many friendly games to suss his options out.

The training camp in Austria was a permanent fixture not too long ago and I believe bringing it back on the itinerary instead of a prolonged overseas visit was a good idea for this season. The performance of the team in the Emirates Cup will tell us if I’m right in thinking that. And more importantly, it’ll give us a good idea about the team’s readiness for a serious challenge.


Welcome Alexis Sanchez And A New Age For Arsenal

July 12, 2014

The Özil transfer took a long time before it felt real. And now this. Sanchez Signs. One big transfer can be – not that it should – dismissed as a freakish happenstance. More so because some of the other reported big deals (strikers) never came to fruition. With Alexis arriving though, I’m convinced Arsenal have taken a big step up towards the elite (in the financial sense) clubs.

In the past the big players moved between the great Italian clubs and those in Spain or Bayern Munich. Oil money has had some influence on that in recent years but very few truly world class players have moved to England in their prime or just as they were entering their prime. The likes of Henry and Bergkamp, of course, were big players and had massive careers but they didn’t really come to Arsenal with impressive numbers/form for their former club.

Obviously, the Gunners aren’t still at a financial level where they can spend absurd amounts we’ve seen lavished on Bale and Suarez, but I, for one, have this belief that Wenger will now be able to compete for many of the top quality players that were outside the club’s reach not too long ago. Given that this growth is organic and seems sustainable, everyone at Arsenal FC deserves commendations for their role.

This might be premature but I also get this feeling that the Financial Fair Play rules are having an effect. I’ve always believed this can only succeed if all the wealthy owners want to bring some order to the chaos of the transfer world. And while they will inevitably find creative ways of getting some things done, we are unlikely to see a few clubs hoarding all the big players even if they don’t truly need them.

Put it all together and it seems we are moving to a new age for Arsenal FC. What happens on the pitch will still be down to the performances of the manager, players and the staff (that’s a big, separate discussion) but we can say they have a fair shot now. In a way, even the detractors should be happy because one of the main excuses should soon be off the table if it isn’t already.

Time will tell us more, as it invariably does, so now let’s shift focus to the reason we’re all so excited.

Alexis Sanchez – How does he improve the Gunners

I enjoyed reading some critics, or haters as they’re amusingly labeled, belittling the significance of the transfer by saying the Chilean wasn’t a starter for Barcelona or that he was a discard/reject. Would you call a player whose 27 League starts were bettered by only 4 members of the squad a fringe player? Is a guy who is fourth in La Liga when counting goals and assists a failure?

At a club with a complex dynamic, the world’s best player, and many other exceptionally talented individuals vying for a handful of attacking spots, it’s understandable that Sanchez didn’t always get to play when or where he wanted. The arrival of Suarez – as Barcelona succumb to the tendency of signing a superstar or the demands of their new manager – would undoubtedly make things even more difficult for Alexis.

I also believe he hasn’t quite hit the heights his potential at Udinese promised. The Chilean is more composed and tactically aware now but he hasn’t hit the ceiling as far as the quality and quantity of his output goes. At least in part, this seems to be down to the fact that he couldn’t complete express his skills when Messi was the main man (understandably).

The fact that he has understood his position and took a swift decision is a big positive in my opinion. As with Özil last season, I think Sanchez comes to Arsenal as a world class player who can still get better.

Alexis already has many attributes that make him standout.

His finishing is exemplary, touch and close control are superb, dribbling is a joy to watch, pace and power can be terrifying for the opponents, tenacity and fighting spirit will be appreciated by fans of English football, and his selfless style will suit Wenger’s plans perfectly.

The fact that he is comfortable with both feet (scores most of his goals with the right foot I believe) and has played various roles at different clubs and the national team already means Wenger will have good tactical flexibility.

I can visualize him starting on the left in some games with Walcott on the right and Giroud (or another striker) in the center. He can go down the line to supply the other two, cut inside to shoot or slide a pass for Walcott, join the striker to offer another attacker in the box for attacks developing down the right, and make runs in behind if the space is available.

Sanchez could also start centrally or move there late in games if Arsenal are playing a more conservative game. The Gunners chose to sit on a lead many times last season and he could thrive on the space available if the opponents have to push forward.

Alternatively, Cazorla on the left and Sanchez on the right could give the Gunners good balance and opportunities for combination play in attacking areas. It’s not hard to imagine them interchanging positions seamlessly with the likes of Özil and Ramsey. On occasion, the Chilean can also play off the lead striker if Wenger wants to leave two up front.

This flexibility means Wenger can also rotate his players more often, assuming most stay fit. It would be great to have one or two players getting a rest in a rotating manner when the team is playing every three days. Last season one could pretty much predict the injuries to Ramsey and Özil from their early workload. Hopefully, this time Wenger will be able to offer most of his players a balanced distribution of work. It could be the single biggest decisive factor in what they can achieve but details of this probably belong in a different article.

Some Caveats

Sanchez has a good disciplinary record but he is an aggressive player and will have to be careful with his reactions to some of the gratuitous fouls and physical challenges he will undoubtedly receive. He’ll also have to quickly adapt to a different approach to refereeing where remonstrations, exaggerated falls (not that he is a serial diver), or waving of imaginary yellow cards could lead to him being vilified very quickly.

I’m not sure he is used to playing with his back to goal, a trait important for any central striker in Wenger’s team, so if (when) he does play down the middle, either he’ll have to show a very steep learning curve or the team will have to adapt. These things don’t always work out as smoothly as some of us imagine.

As a wide attacker, Alexis is more a striker than a midfielder. That means he won’t see as much of the ball as someone like Cazorla does, for instance, in that role on the left. Retaining the ball and circulating it is extremely important to the way Arsenal play. Losing it more frequently (Sanchez also has a relatively high rate of losing possession) can make the game stretched and uncomfortable. Furthermore, the strength of collective defending can be severely tested if Özil, Walcott, Sanchez, and Giroud all start together. In that situation, both wide players would be capable of surrendering possession cheaply (Even Giroud’s touch is not consistent) and neither will consistently track their opposing full back. Sanchez is a fighter and a hard worker (better than Walcott in that regard) but I think he would prefer to do more chasing in the opposition half than his own.

In that sense, Wenger will have a tough job in identifying the right balance for his starting eleven. It is not unthinkable that he might not know what his best eleven is at the start of the season and some trial and error could be needed. Hopefully, that phase will not have enough errors to cost the team vital points.

Bottom Line

I think Alexis Sanchez is a fantastic acquisition for Arsenal that gives further evidence that the work done to build the stadium and with the new deals is beginning to pay off, and promises to fill some of the vital gaps that led to dropped points and disappointments last season. Hopefully, this signing is only the start of good things to come this season as much of work remains to be done on and off the pitch.

P.S Here is a quick stat comparison that I’d done using the Squawka tool. The quality of each players’ teammates, opponents, etc. is different but it still feels like useful data. You can visit the link and compare the players on other stats if interested.

Sanchez Stats Comparison


Thoughts On Liverpool and Manchester United Games

February 12, 2014

That was the perfect storm, if there can be such a thing on a football pitch.

Arsenal’s individual and tactical mistakes all came to the fore in the just right manner to accentuate Liverpool’s corresponding strengths. Throw in a tiny but crucial dollop of luck for the home side and you get the recipe for a disastrous spell of football from Arsenal’s point of view. For Liverpool it must have been a dream come true.

The first goal is so important in these games. Conceding in the first minute is essentially the worst start a team can make. Look back at the goal and a number of minor details stand out. It started with a throw-in deep inside Liverpool territory. The ball flew over two visiting players who both misread the power of the throw. What if one of them had just got a glance on it to knock it out for a throw?

Even then, it went straight to Mertesacker who could have easily lumped it forward to eliminate any possibility of immediate danger. What if someone gave him a shout to say Suarez was sneaking in behind just as the big German let the ball run across his body in a way that made face his own goal? On another day the assistant ref might have flagged Skrtel offside. Thinking of other days, we’ve certainly seen Arsenal defend such set-pieces better.

Everything fell in place for Liverpool at the start and it just got worse for the Gunners. I didn’t expect Arsenal to win this game, that much should have been clear from the pre-game write-up that mentioned the likelihood of the Reds scoring two or more among other details, but I didn’t expect such a tame collapse from Wenger’s side either.

There are some interesting aspects to discuss from that 20 minute phase of play,

1) Liverpool’s intensity and efficiency.

Rodgers has most likely realized that he doesn’t have the players to perform in a possession based system. It seems to me he’s changed his philosophy from a Barcelona-esque death by possession routine to Dortmund’s waspish stinging rhythm. And it’s working for them.

Normally, if a team scores 4 goals in the first 20 minutes, one would think they had all the play. For instance, Arsenal’s dominance over Napoli was clearly reflected in the passing stats.

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Almost three times the total passes and an even greater ratio for those in the final third shows Arsenal were completely on top. From this degree of superiority, Arsenal managed three shots, all on target, and two goals (While many couldn’t find enough superlatives to describe the Gunners that day, I think I was one of the few who thought Arsenal were inefficient in that game!)

Guess how the figures look in this game,

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Once the risk-reward equation changed for both sides after the opening goal, Liverpool could play a counter-attacking game that best suits their players. Even then scoring 4 goals from those kind of passing numbers is just mind boggling. Liverpool were ruthlessly clinical.

Arsenal had similar number of passes in the final third and had two or three half-chances of their own. Giroud got into a great position in the second minute itself. Monreal got in behind once that resulted in a corner and on another occasion Mertesacker’s header went wide of the far post. If Skrtel’s header had been a few inches higher and the German’s effort had sneaked in, it would have been 1-1 after 15 minutes. That’s how fine the margins can be.

I’m not saying the Gunners deserved to be level, mind. Far from it. The difference between the sides was just too big. But the hosts scored 4 goals and created another 4 good chances from 10 completed passes in the final third and a handful of well-taken set-pieces. Rodgers could not have scripted this himself.

I thought Liverpool’s main strength, which was augmented nicely by high quality free-kicks and corners, was the deadliness of their transitions. Speed of their attacking players was obviously important and very visible. That, however, was not the primary reason for their effectiveness. Sturridge and Suarez played in the reverse fixture too. Did they break free as often and with such impact?

The way they pressed and won the ball back in the central third of the pitch, along with Arsenal’s stunning tactical immaturity on a collective scale, formed the platform on which their quick and clinical players could perform to their strengths.

The way Henderson pressurized Özil into a mistake, the way Coutinho read an opportunity to intercept a pass, the zip with which Sterling and Suarez chased the ball, and the accuracy of their long passes, were all a key part of the equation. They took a fair amount of risk with such an approach because Arsenal could have found a way through with better play. Refer to the half-chances mentioned above and think what a bit more composure could have done for the Gunners. Nevertheless, it is important to be brave and Liverpool should get credit for their willingness to go for it. Wenger’s side made numerous mistakes but Rodgers can definitely claim that his side’s intensity forced many of those.

2) Arsenal’s tactical immaturity.

Okay, crazy things happen and you concede a goal in the first minute. Can’t change that but key is what do you do next? There’s still 89 minutes to play.

It’s simple. Pick up a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. In other words, Don’t Panic.

When a team is trying to raise the tempo and has a clear advantage in terms of pace and individual skills like dribbling and finishing, the smart choice for an opponent with technical advantage is to avoid a vertical end-to-end battle. Stay compact at the back, control the distance between the lines, but keep passing the ball to tire the opponents out.

Had Arsenal kept this game at 1-0 at the end of 20 minutes, things would begin to change. Liverpool didn’t have a particularly solid back four and their midfield isn’t made up of great defensive midfielders. Even their wide players have more of an attacking mindset. They’d have tired and gaps would have opened up.

One of the keys to success of the short passing game is to have many players around the ball so that you have more options to pass but also to close the ball down if it’s lost. Arsenal moved away from the basics and spread out way too much adding an unnecessary element of risk to their game while sacrificing control. The situation was exacerbated by incorrect choices on and off the ball as well as lapses in concentration.

The players at this level have to know that they must keep their cool at all times. Even at 2-0 down there is a lot to play for and they don’t have to get back into the game immediately. We’ve seen more composed performances from Arsenal against smaller teams this season. It seems they are not doing enough in the first half and then they raise the bar after the break to create the decisive moments. Had they trusted their quality and wrested tactical control from the hosts, they could still have come back into the game or at least gone down in a much more tightly fought contest.

3) Arsenal’s individual mistakes

When things go so horribly wrong, it can never be the fault of one or two players. Almost everyone had a role to play and they didn’t do it well enough. There were numerous errors, mostly minor ones, but the kind that came together to contribute to the perfect storm in conjunction with aspects discussed above.

For instance, Mertesacker could have cleared that ball or simply headed it out for a throw. Koscielny could have done better to mark Skrtel for the second goal. Giroud could have done more with the chance he had early on. And so on…

Having said that, I’d still say two players were chief culprits in this game. That both are exceptionally skillful and were probably trying very hard to help the team cannot be an excuse.

Özil’s mistakes were obvious. He lost the ball for the third and fourth goals as well as a chance for Sturridge. The German magician is a lot of things but he is not a guy who is going to shrug of an physical pressure from an opponent with any amount of ease. The fact that he dropped deep to pick up the ball showed his desire to get involved but it also exposed the team.

There was a time, a few years ago, when Fabregas used to start as the highest midfielder. If the opponents pressed hard, Cesc would drop back and that would be that. It was extremely rare that he’d lose the ball. That was a natural part of his game. It is not the same with Özil.

The point here is not to say one is better than the other but to identify differences in playing style and understand its impact on the patterns of play. The probability of potentially lethal turnovers increases significantly if the German drops deep in midfield against a team that is set up to play on quick transitions.

In keeping with the calmer and more mature tactical approach to the game discussed above, Arsenal should have ensured that Özil plays higher up the pitch. On his part, the star signing should have showed greater awareness to danger which would be visible in safer choices on the ball and greater concentration. For instance, he could have played the ball back and wide towards Koscielny when Henderson was pressing him instead of trying to hold on to it and beat his man when the defence was exposed. Similarly, the two misplaced passes that led to a goal and a big chance were both with his right foot. I’d love to know how often he uses that appendage and whether his success with that varies significantly when compared to his natural foot. He has to weigh up the options in a highly risk averse manner if he wants to pass with his weaker foot in those areas.

Then there’s Jack Wilshere. Regular readers know I don’t see the youngster as a finished article many claim he is. And I don’t see him as a great option deeper in midfield, particularly in tough games. This article brilliantly articulates many of my common gripes against England’s next great hope in a manner I cannot. I strongly recommend reading it if you haven’t already done so.

The boy is undoubtedly talented. He produces many positive moments for the team. I don’t doubt his commitment or desire even for a moment. But he doesn’t seem to fully understand the impact of his movement and choices on the balance of the team.

Özil dropping deep was inextricably linked to Wilshere moving up. In games against smaller teams that can work well as we saw against Villa when the German put Monreal in behind and Wilshere was able to advance forward to finish the chance. Against a team better prepared to defend the centre line and one with the ability to punish mistakes, this is a recipe for disaster.

Part of it is of course down to the manager’s choices as I’ve no doubt Wenger encourages Wilshere to get forward and express his attacking qualities. However, knowing when to move forward and where to go is just as important as the skills he has on the ball. Right now Wilshere gets into areas that would be better left for his more creative and effective teammates far too often. The tendency to dwell on the ball or try too much when quicker, better options are available doesn’t help either.

Couple this with his inability to read the defensive aspects of the game consistently and you’ve a player who compromises the output of the team at both ends. Look at the fourth goal. After Özil plays the pass, Wilshere takes a step and half while Coutinho takes four steps to nick it. The Brazilian is anticipating that pass and is on the move. Wilshere is looking around and doesn’t realize he is best placed to receive that ball. Nor is he aware that the central defenders are about 20 yards behind him and have another 40-50 unprotected yards behind them. Had he done so, Wilshere would have gone for that ball and not backed out of the challenge. He had to hold possession or break that play up. There was no other choice.

For the sake of his development and long term future at Arsenal, I hope Wilshere learns the little tactical details that separate a great potential from a great player.

There are many more details that can be discussed but I think these three points cover the bulk. The rest of the game was incidental. Arsenal will get a chance to set things right in the FA Cup tie. Hopefully, the Gunners will have learned their lesson but I’ll only believe it when I see it.

Manchester United – Something’s Gotta Give

Arsenal have only 1 win from their last 10 games against United. Granted, the Ferguson era seems so far away based on United’s current form that such stats can be rendered meaningless. But the reverse fixture showed us that something akin to tactical memory can be enough to force an adverse result. The Red Devils know how to play against Arsenal and there aren’t many teams in the Premier League who remain so steadfastly loyal to their style as the Gunners are under Wenger. Consequently, there is always a chance that United will grind out a result.

On the other hand, Moyes has not won an away game against the erstwhile big four in 48 attempts. It’s hard to imagine he’ll break that record given their recent struggles.

Will Arsenal break United’s stranglehold over them or will Moyes break his duck?

Just as I’ve said about some Arsenal players in the past and even in this article, there is a feeling in my mind that Moyes is trying too hard. He needs to go back to the basics and make his team hard to beat. For large periods, the ability to negate the opposition in order to keep clean sheets was one of Ferguson’s biggest weapons. Moyes has done that with Everton often enough for us to know he can do it. If you can’t win, don’t lose. And if you don’t lose, you give yourself a good chance of winning.

United have to follow Liverpool’s template with a few adjustments. They don’t have the same pace on the break but the technical quality of their attackers, particularly Van Persie, Mata, and Rooney, is exceptional. They can score from half chances and create something out of nothing.

A lot of teams, including Ferguson’s United and Moyes’ Everton, have had success against Arsenal (in relative terms) by controlling the central portion of the pitch in their half. They don’t let the Gunners come into those vital creative zones but instead force them wide. Do it consistently and it severely limits the quality and quantity of chances Arsenal can create which can lead to frustration and riskier moves. It’s a lot of hard work but is not exactly rocket science, which is a way to say it can be done with discipline and determination.

For Arsenal, the key will be in finding the right balance in midfield. It’s very likely that Wilshere will again start in a deeper role in midfield. If so, the points discussed above could again come to the fore. The Gunners have to keep things tight and ensure they don’t concede the first goal. Patience and belief in their own ability to break through later in the game can make the decisive difference.

It could be useful if Sagna stayed a bit deeper and narrow instead of camping on the flank 10 yards inside the opposition half when the ball is on the other side.

I feel De Gea is not very comfortable with low shots very close to his body. Getting his hands down hasn’t worked well so he’s started kicking those balls away. It remains a suboptimal solution and I hope the Gunners test him on that.

In the other penalty box, Wenger’s side will have to be wary of United’s deep crosses. My dislike for crossing as a tactic is well documented on this blog but the response to Moyes’ tactics and United’s current plight has brought this issue into the spotlight now. That said, Arsenal are not particularly good at winning the second or third ball in the box from open play. Few teams get enough players forward to test Arsenal on this but don’t be surprised if back post crosses or even deeper ones trouble the Gunners in this game.

Wenger talked about not making too many changes and trusting the players he has. It’s usually good to have a couple of changes at least, just to have some fresh legs if nothing else, but it’s hard to see where the changes can be made.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Wilshere – AOC, Giroud, Cazorla.

Rosicky can be a big player but where does he fit in? In place of Wilshere or Chamberlain? I’m not entirely sure why Wenger doesn’t play Rosicky deep in central midfield anymore these days because he does a decent job when he drifts into those areas.

Arsenal’s record in big games is not very good and it’s understandable why many fans will be apprehensive about a collapse from the Gunners. Then again, Wenger’s side have recovered from disappointing defeats on more than one occasion this season and that certainly gives hope to those that believe the team can win the title.

I’m not completely sure how this season will end. Can Arsenal win the title and will Arsenal win the title are two separate questions. The answer to the first one is obviously yes. The team has the capability to win it. That isn’t always enough because others are capable too. Answering the second question is much harder. The same questions can be raised about this game and the response won’t be any different.


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

December 14, 2013

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.