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.Follow @goonerdesi
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.