Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Crystal Palace

August 16, 2014

I want to start by saying many thanks to everyone who took the time to share their feedback, and such an overwhelmingly positive one at that, on my article about defending being significantly easier than attacking. Such articles get notably fewer visitors but as long as I know so many people find it useful, I remain motivated to develop the series. Since we’re all back in the mood for Arsenal and the football we love, I’ll hold off on the other articles in that series till the next international break. For now it’s Crystal Palace at Emirates and the buzz is palpable.

The visitors are coming into this game on the back of some turmoil with the departure of their manager Tony Pulis. Their concentration levels during the game could be affected if the players are distracted but we won’t know for sure till we see the performance.

Talking of performance, I won’t be surprised if we again see a very basic system with two banks of four. Keith Millen might even go with 5 across the midfield as he did last October in a similar instance when he was the caretaker.

The idea is pretty simple. Protect the areas most threatening to the goal, i.e. the penalty box and the central areas in front of it. This is done by letting the opponents have the ball in their own half or around the centre line but passes into centre of the pitch are contested and/or discouraged by the presence of the defensive players. Marking in these areas is tight and can get physical. Spaces in wider areas are more readily available for a pass. It’s pretty standard and we see a lot of sideways and backward passing from the side in possession, which is not a bad thing in itself.

One team will defend with the ball while trying to open up spaces through their pass-and-move combinations. The other will defend without the ball but look to rapidly break forward using quick and tricky wingers and/or a strong central striker who can hold up and link play.

The decisive moments for the possession side usually come when the combinations force a mistake or a defensive player switches off. Things are easier if the opponents are a little disjointed and leave more spaces between the lines while being a tad tardy with their tracking. They’ll always have multiple layers of security in front of their goal so breaking through could require patience.

It is vital for the attacking side to make as many runs behind the defence as possible. This can be done in many ways. A through-ball from the central areas, combination play in the wide areas with a delicate ball slid in-behind, and late runs into the box with chipped passes can all lead to promising attacking situations. One-twos are always handy but move involving three or more players are better.

Arsenal don’t always have players who make such runs and that can slow things down. In the pre-season, Alexis Sanchez came central and to the ball more often than he made darts in behind. Hopefully, this will change in this game, although his movement to the centre can open up space for Debuchy who times such runs well.

Wenger’s choice of centre forward could also make a difference. Sanogo will look to go in-behind a lot more than Giroud does.

The team defending without the ball has limited attacking options unless they are extremely proactive and energetic in pressing around the centre line. For the most part, they have to hope for transition opportunities where the side in possession has made some poor tactical choices (and technical mistakes) leaving the defence exposed to runners. Other than that it’s just about gaining territory through long balls and hoping for set-piece chances.

It is quite possible that Wenger will go with Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield with both having the license to go forward at times (in their so-called box-to-box roles) while Arteta offers some protection to the defence. In Millen’s position, I’d be tempted to have two very quick players on the flanks as well as a sharp centre forward instead of Chamakh. Gayle, Bolasie, and Frazier Campbell could be interesting choices that can test Arsenal’s tactical solidity, particularly with a rookie in the centre of defence and a relatively slow defensive midfielder. If they can occasionally leave Bolasie up the pitch, to take one example, when Debuchy takes up an advanced position, the visitors will give themselves a genuine chance to trouble Szczesny. Of course, in order to execute this while protecting their goal, they’ll need impeccable organization and decision making from the two defensive lines. Frustrating the Gunners through resolute defending and forcing ambitious attacking choices is also a way to gain counter-attacking opportunities.

Given their current situation, I feel the visitors will be happy with a point and anything more will be a bonus. Arsenal have not done well in opening fixtures over the last few years. Part of this could be linked to a lot of overseas tours and disrupted pre-season training. This season that training has been affected by the World Cup and it’s understandable that Wenger’s side are not quite at their best yet. Palace have a chance to cause an upset if they play with genuine desire and resolve. Aston Villa’s opening day upset last season offers them an excellent blueprint to copy.

The Gunners are the better side and even without the first choice starting line-up Wenger has enough talent at his disposal to get the three points. With Arsenal, in the recent years, there have always been two questions – Can they win? And will they win? The answer to the first is almost always in the affirmative but the second one has proved to be a stumbling block, often of their own making.

The pairing of Wilshere and Ramsey in central midfield makes me nervous because of their defensive limitations. Hopefully, Arteta will be able to run the game and one of the two will take up good positions to support him at the time of transitions. If they attack well, the need for defending might be eliminated altogether.

The central defence is also an area of concern because Mertesacker is not yet ready and there exists the possibility of Koscielny being played when giving him a rest would be better. I don’t know all the facts of the current situation but the past choices of the manager do justify the worries. Monreal in central defence could lead to problems if Chamakh starts for the visitors, or if any of their quick attackers gets a chance to run at him.

We might see,

Szczesny – Debuchy, Chambers, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Ramsey, Wilshere – Alexis, Sanogo, Cazorla.

It’s the starting line-up that produced an entertaining and decisive first half against City in the Community Shield and seems fairly well-balanced. I hope they start on the front foot with that pesky no-trophy-in-x-years monkey off their backs. The energetic, fast-paced game that we saw against City could be enough to secure an early goal or two, which will really get the crowd going and open the spaces up.

I know a lot of Gooners are extremely gung-ho about this season in general and this game in particular. While I can fully appreciate the reasons for such feelings, at a personal level I am still taking the cautious optimism route. There are some details that I want to see resolved. It could happen very quickly but I’m going to watch the first couple of months to see how things develop before I join the excitement bandwagon.

P.S. After reading the responses here and on twitter, I’m now completely confident that anyone who likes the pre and post match analysis on this blog will really enjoy the article linked to the first paragraph. Do take a few minutes (Pretty long and detailed) to read it if you haven’t done so already.

Crystal Palace 0 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 28, 2013

Wenger went with the expected line-up making just two changes to the side that lost to Dortmund. It was a pretty straightforward game and the only two questions were whether Crystal Palace will change their style and buckle down to make things difficult for the Gunners, and was the law of averages going to favour the hosts in the form of  a big refereeing decision going their way?

It all went to plan in that sense. Keith Millen didn’t follow in Holloway’s footsteps as the Eagles played five across midfield in a very compact system. They cut out the spaces between the lines fairly effectively and defended the central areas pretty resolutely with effective redundancy built in.

The Gunners did enough to grind out a win and on the balance on play they deserved all three points along with their second clean sheet of the season in the League. It wasn’t a great game to watch and there didn’t seem much to analyze in it either so i’ll just touch upon some of the observations that stood out.

This wasn’t the first time Arsenal came up against such a well-organized, deep sitting defence, and it wasn’t the first time Wenger’s side struggled to open such a team up.

There were a few positives in the way they played on the right flank. I liked the way they were trying to find their way behind that defence with quick interchanges. It didn’t work out in this game, at least in the first half, but the attempts were appreciable. Players were getting on the defensive line, Özil was finding little pockets in very tight areas, Sagna was offering good width and tenacity, and there were some attempts to run in behind.

There were some promising moments on the right side which fizzled out as the final ball was lacking, or the angle was too tight, or a defensive player made a crucial intervention in the nick of time, but this is something Arsenal haven’t done often and it was pleasing to see. It’s certainly much better than passing sideways and backwards or sticking hopeful crosses into the box where just one attacker was surrounded by many defenders.

Of course, they did much of that in this game too – it’s not something that will go away overnight – but there seems to be more diversity to their approach now. Urgency and efficiency – both seemingly lacking in this game – should come once they get the confidence to play their game in such tight spaces.

The penalty at the beginning of the second half showed the merits of what they were trying to do even though it was largely down to a terrible challenge. There’s always a chance of defensive players making such mistakes if you get quick-footed attacking players behind their lines because an element of panic can easily set in.

The game turned on its head when a big decision from Chris Foy reduced Arsenal to 10 men. While it’s hard to begrudge Palace getting a bit of luck, the decision itself seemed ridiculous in more ways than one.

I’m not sure it was a foul. Chamakh played the ball, which went straight ahead, but then the striker leaned and stepped towards his left bumping into Arteta. Given Chamakh’s history I’m pretty sure he was looking for that contact.

Even if we assume it was a foul, it’s very hard to say that was a goal scoring opportunity with a guy like Chamakh chasing after it.

Then there is a matter of consistency. I recall David Luiz committing a similar foul against Everton – albeit just inside the opposition half – and getting away with a yellow card. That one was unquestionably a foul and a cynical one at that. It’s just that some referees make these calls and others don’t.

The bigger issue for the Gunners  though was just how easily they got caught up in such a mess despite having a corner at the other end. It happens way too often and Arsenal will find it hard to perform consistently over a season with such weaknesses.

I did like the way they dropped back and held a decent shape. Wenger’s substitutions were effective.

The hosts only managed a couple of long range shots even with their man advantage. Szczesny made very good saves but it was the team work in defence that ensured the clean sheet. Palace didn’t have a single shot on target from inside the box.

There was a small phase of 5-10 minutes when Arsenal weren’t able to string together many passes but after that they also did a very good job of building attacks. I thought Arsenal created more promising moments than the hosts despite being a man down.

The second goal was particularly enjoyable because it stood for desire and determination.

Given the hard-fought nature of the encounter, an argument can be made that Wenger was right in selecting such a strong line-up. Perhaps he was. I do feel Arsenal have to learn to get results in such games while playing a few more of the second choice players if they wish to see success in the long term.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made two very good saves, particularly the first one (if he did actually get a touch). Was extremely shaky against balls in the air. Distribution was good.

Sagna: As discussed above, he offered good width and tenacity in the attacking areas although at times it did feel like he got too close to the winger. A couple of crosses were very good but he also lacked a bit of composure when he got into dangerous spaces in or on the edge of the box. Was largely solid defensively.

Mertesacker: First half was mostly a comfortable period but he was busy once Arsenal went down to ten. Excellent with his positioning and made more tackles than he usually has to. Made some vital interventions in the box, including the occasion when he just got his head to a ball that seemed destined for Chamakh’s forehead. Passing was simple and effective.

Koscielny: I enjoyed a couple of his long diagonals. That’s something in his repertoire that can come in very handy and should be developed. Steady game defensively. Might possibly have been more alert to prevent the lay-off that led to the first Szczesny save.

Gibbs: Very busy game defensively and saw a fair amount of the ball even though Arsenal built most of their attacks down the right. Didn’t seem to know what to do on more than one occasions when he had the ball in space in the attacking areas. Should have stayed deeper and then tracked Chamakh’s run instead of bombing forward when Arsenal already had eight outfield players in and around the box.

Monreal: Looked like he was enjoying his time in the attacking areas. Played a good long pass in the build up to the second goal, created a very good chance for Özil, and almost danced his way through to the goal. Defensive work could have been better.

The defenders have been doing well and have limited shots on target from truly dangerous areas. It was again the case in this game. But looking at the quality Palace had there were a few disappointing instances too. Gibbs as discussed above should have been alongside Arteta and chasing back. There was also that moment when Chamakh was completely free in the box and the ball just sailed over him by an inch or two. That should not happen but in that instance Gibbs had to defend against two players and he went to cover the one behind him.

Arteta: Took his penalty well. Was having a typically controlling game before he was harshly sent off.

Özil: Was excellent at getting into space and linked a lot of the play on the right side. He did drift towards the left as well but Arsenal weren’t able to work much on that side. Good work rate after the team went down to ten but there were moments when he seemed tired or just annoyed at all the kicks he’d received. Could probably have done better with the late chance that came his way.

Ramsey: Composure when scoring goals is easy to see but the ability to hold off till the right moment before playing the final ball is just as important. I enjoyed the delicacy and timing of his assist. Work rate was excellent and he was one of the players contributing to the combinations down the right side.

Cazorla: Had one or two moments on the right side where he looked threatening but it was a more subdued performance from him in general. Not sure he enjoyed the game.

Gnabry: Almost won a penalty in the first half, did win one in the second. Made very good vertical runs when he had the chance, also created that chance for Ramsey, and didn’t shy away from responsibility even in very tight spaces. It’s very easy to forget his age when watching such efforts. Decent defensive work.

Flamini: Unfortunate to pick up a groin injury, and that too so early in the game.

Wilshere: Very disciplined defensive work and played a couple of delightful passes, one of which almost put Monreal through.

The midfielders had a good game and were again the decisive factor in Arsenal’s dominance. They might have been guilty of a slow-ish tempo at times or of making a few too many safe choices but the combinations and penetration on the right bode well for the future.

Giroud: Took his goal well and played a big part in the build up but he also missed some very good chances. For instance, the second cross from Sagna was simply sensational. Even Özil’s cross that he chested should have been put away. Work rate was good but his touches and flicks didn’t quite work in very tight spaces.

Wenger: The result is good for the short term and his team are showing more variations when up against a very tight defence, but they remain vulnerable on the break and the lack of rotations is worrying