Footballistically Speaking: volume 1, Everton v. Arsenal

We have to face the inevitable. One day we are going to be sitting in our living room watching some corporate Arsenal manager give an anodyne press conference and suddenly a wave of homesickness will wash over us and we will realize that we deeply miss the old man, Arsene Wenger.

In nearly two decades at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has given over 1000 pre-match press conferences and countless other interviews where he has been variously frank, hilarious, confrontational, controversial, slippery, and (most importantly) deeply introspective about football and even about the meaning of life itself.

In this modern age I’m convinced that attention is our most valuable remaining commodity. To give your attention is to give a part of yourself. And in his time at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has given so much of himself.

I don’t mean that he has given just on the training pitch, nor just in the matches, but in every one of his countless interviews, Arsene Wenger has given us a piece of himself. He has exposed his philosophy about football and about what it means to work and live in the modern era. In a time drenched in cliches, and handlers pushing celebrities on the public with the same screen tested stories, redolent with mendacity, Arsene Wenger has remained a beacon of authenticity.

Because he has given us so much of himself I felt it my duty to give him something back. A weekly column where I give you a Wenger quote, and not just the typical stuff, is my way of giving back to Arsene.

This week’s quote is also the title of the column¹ and contains one of Arsene’s most famous words, footballistically. 



First, a note about the photo used to deliver the quote. That comes from my first trip to Arsenal, back in 2006. This photo has always held a special place for me because the graffiti marries the Frenchness of Arsene with the Englishness of the old Chapman crest. Here we have the new and the old, scratched into some fresh cement, indelibly written in the concrete just yards from Highbury.

As for the quote, we see people mocking Wenger for using “footballistically” all the time but few remember where the word actually came from.

April 2004, Newcastle v. Arsenal. Arsenal are held to a scoreless draw on a Newcastle pitch more suited to cattle grazing than football. It was an important match for a number of reasons: Arsenal are in the midst of a tight title race (which they would win) and in the midst of a what would be Arsene Wenger’s most famous season as manager, the Invincibles.

The word itself takes “football” turns it into an adjective “footballistic” and then into an adverb, “footballistically” meaning “with regard to football”. This may seem like a new word but as a letter writer² pointed out to the Guardian two days after Wenger loosed the phrase upon us, it has a Spanish equivalent “futbolisticamente”. So, perhaps our polyglot manager was simply translating a word he’d heard used in another language?

The word “Footballistically” is the main point most people focus on when reading that quote but read it again: he’s lauding his team’s mental strength. Their ability to stay focused despite the obstacles like the pitch or the referees and to try to claw something out of the game.

It’s an attribute Wenger holds in high regard in his players. Men who crumble easily have little place in the Wenger system. He gives his men the freedom to play the way that they want but simultaneously calls on his players to stand up and take account of themselves.

No Arsene team has done that as well as the Invincibles. However, today’s result (2-2 draw away to Everton), showed that this current incarnation of Arsenal share at least some of that willingness to fight and scrap for points: overcoming a terrible referee decision and a horrible first half of football to scratch out a 2-2 draw.

Footballistically it was a terrible match but despite their technical failings the boys showed some great mental strength to stay in the game and nearly pip all three points at the end.

Wenger, no doubt, approves.


¹Thanks to my friend Brian who runs 11 Cannons for the suggestion.
²Little known fact, people used to have to write letters to newspapers in order to have their opinions heard. In those days, only the best comments were published. It was a glorious era for the exchange of ideas, much unlike now.


Tactical preview: Everton v. Arsenal

What will Roberto Martinez Do?

EPL Game 1: A Solid Base and a Fluid Approach

Roberto Martinez showed quite a bit of flexibility in his approach against Arsenal last season. In their first Premier League encounter, at the Emirates, Martinez played something similar to how Arsenal played against Napoli. Martinez’s 4-2-3-1 had a defensive box of two center backs and two central midfielders. By allocating four players in a 2-2 manner, with one of the midfielders dropping a bit deeper in possession to allow Everton to play out easier from the back, Everton allocated enough resources properly to the defensive side of the game to combat with Giroud, Ozil, and the forward runs of Aaron Ramsey.

That allowed Everton to allocate the rest of their players towards attack. Not only did they allocate more resources for the attack, but the certainty in the positioning of the defensive box allowed them to have uncertainty in the allocation of those resources. This fluidity in attack helps to create information asymmetries, where players, familiar with one another, know where their teammates are, while the opponent struggles to properly allocate defensive resources to counter the attacking threat. Essentially, fluidity makes the dynamic resource allocation problem for the defense much more difficult. The defensive box allowed them to mitigate the costs of fluidity, in particular the cost of being out of position when possession is lost, by having players in position to defend Arsenal’s counterattacks.

Two stand-out performers for Everton were Steven Pienaar and Brian Oviedo, who filled in for Leighton Baines at left-back. With Jack Wilshere operating as the right-sided midfielder, or Cazorla for stretches, Arsenal lacked a counterattacking threat on that side¹. This gave Oviedo license to get forward, as the marginal cost of his forays was relatively small. Clearly, they did not perceive Carl Jenkinson as much of an attacking threat. This allowed Everton to move the ball down Arsenal’s right side easily and create 2-on-1s against Jenkinson. While this occurred late in the game with Everton searching for an equalizer, making a more attacking approach more valuable, one can see how Oviedo’s willingness to go forward creates a 2-on-1 against Jenkinson, giving Pienaar time and space to deliver a cross into the box.

With Pienaar free to cut inside from Everton’s left and Ramsey taking up quite advanced positions, Mikel Arteta had to worry about the threat of both Pienaar and Ross Barkley without much help (if help came it would have to come from Mertesacker and Koscielny, but that would leave Lukaku 1-on-1) . Barkley freely roamed the area, looking for space, and driving forward with the ball. Despite not registering a goal or assist in the match, Ross Barkley was the outstanding player for Everton in possession.

EPL Game 2: A False Nine and Wide-Forwards

I view football matches as dynamic resource allocation problems. You want to optimally allocate your resources and you want to prevent your opponent from optimally allocating their resources. To that end, one of my favorite tactical approaches is the use of two wide forwards with a deep-lying central player (I’d be all for Arsenal trotting out Walcott and Sanchez up top with Ozil behind them). Chile operated in this fashion under Jorge Sampaoli at the World Cup. The value of this approach is the ability to pin back four defenders with two attackers.

First attacking the CB/FB gap can often be more valuable that attacking the CB/CB gap. Center-backs generally stay put and have a good understanding with one another. The cohesion between the two and the certainty of position allows them to better allocate themselves to kill a threat to that gap. Fullbacks, who operate as attackers and defenders, often have less of a relationship with the center-back on their side and have much more uncertainty in their positioning. When a wide forward attacks that gap, there seems to be an increased probability for some confusion between the fullback and the center-back on that side, as to how they will deal with the threat.

One of the best outcomes from this confusion can be the ability to pin both fullbacks into defensive roles. In modern football, with fullbacks playing such a crucial role in attack, often solely responsible for providing width, the ability to pin the fullbacks deals a serious blow to the opponent. Not only does it prevent the opponent from allocating their attacking resources the way they desire, but it also can simplify the dynamic resource allocation problem for the defenders. If the only threats out wide are pinned back in their own half, a defense can narrow their shape, allocating more resources to limit the success of the central attackers.

The wide forward can also exploit the space in behind an attacking fullback (or a fullback positioned too far up the pitch), and can force a center-back into a wide area. For many center-backs, being pulled into a wide area represents a pretty terrible scenario. A lack of experience in those situations can lead to a lack of knowledge about how to use one’s attributes to defend the situation (or the center-back simply lacks the necessary attributes to defend that situation) and can lead to panicky and ineffective defending. Also, by dragging one of the center-backs out wide, the wide forward may have also forced the other center-back, and the fullback on the opposite side (if he is even in position) towards him. This can create quite a bit of space for the other wide forward to make a free inside run toward the back post.

In this game, Martinez used his wide forwards to great effect, particularly on the counterattack. He played a 4-3-3, with Steven Naismith as a false 9, Romelu Lukaku as a right wide forward, and Kevin Mirallas as a left wide forward. Naismith dropped into midfield, effectively forming a diamond, giving McCarthy and Barkley a player to pass the ball to, who could link-up with the wide forwards. Naismith also did well to attract Thomas Vermaelen onto him.

In Everton’s first goal, we can see the potency of this system. Although Flamini could have probably dealt with Baines 1-on-1, Bacary Sagna stays up, but does not close the ball down. Mirallas runs into the space that Sagna has not occupied, dragging Per Mertesacker with him. Naismith’s run draws Thomas Vermaelen.


This leaves Lukaku all alone with Nacho Monreal, against whom the Belgian has a significant physical advantage. Lukaku gets a shot on goal, and it is saved.


However, Vermaelen is caught watching Lukaku and loses Naismith, who has looked to make a run around Lukaku. The ball falls to Naismith, and he buries it.


On the second goal, Naismith starts with the ball after Mikel Arteta blocks an aimless Ross Barkley pass, an opportunity that comes about due to his deep positioning. The ball falls to Mirallas in a central position with Lukaku in acres of space on Everton’s right side. Mirallas plays the ball to Lukaku who faces Monreal in a 1-on-1. Vermaelen does not commit to helping his left-back as he is worried by the run of Naismith (watch him look behind him to check on where Naismith is, as he runs back). Lukas Podolski does not seem to care on this play, jogging back, even though his fullback is in an undesirable situation. Lukaku cuts inside; he shoots and scores.

The third goal starts with Mirallas wins the ball off of Bacary Sagna, which happens when you ask Sagna to advance the ball by dribbling. Now, the break is on. Barkley, who is already ahead of the play on Everton’s left, makes a run down the sideline. While he does not keep Mertesacker on him, his run prevents Mertesacker from ever committing to stopping Mirallas. Arteta cannot dream of catching up to Mirallas, meaning the Belgian has plenty of space and time to dribble, shoot, or make a pass. Vermaelen decides to focus on the man with the ball more than 25 meters from goal, and he is caught flat-footed as Naismith runs behind him. Mirallas plays the ball to Naismith, and Wojciech Szczesny comes off his line, successfully getting the ball away from Naismith. However, the ball falls in an ideal place for Mirallas to run onto the ball and score. Mertesacker and Arteta cannot accelerate quickly enough from their slow jogs to clear the danger. And Monreal, throughout all of this, is worried about his positioning relative to Lukaku, given the threat of the Belgian making a back post run. This prevents him from helping out his teammates on the play.

Two games, two completely different game plans, and both were effective. Whatever Roberto Martinez attempts to pull off on Saturday, there is a good chance it will be well thought out and effective.

What Arsenal May Want to Do

With Nacho Monreal starting at left-back, and Martinez aware that the Spaniard will start at left-back, he may look to isolate Lukaku on Monreal as much as possible. This may call for Lukaku taking up the wide forward role again and to make diagonal runs from a central position into the LCB/CB gap. If Everton do employ this tactic, Arsenal may wish to allocate another man to that territory, to help Monreal deal with the Belgian. Had Arteta not picked up an injury in Turkey, Arsene Wenger may have opted for a defensive box of Mertesacker-Koscielny; Flamini-Arteta. By having two deep-lying midfielders, one can help defend a wide area without leaving the area in front of the center backs unoccupied. Obviously this tactic has its downside, as having two players with a tendency to sit deep, can give the opponent’s deeper midfielders (probably McCarthy and a lucky-to-not-have-received-a-red-card-and-been-suspended-for-this-match Gareth Barry), though the absence of Ross Barkley would make this tactic less costly.

When it comes to defending wide forwards, Mathieu Debuchy’s ability and willingness to sweep behind his center backs may play a key role in this match. This is an advantage of having Debuchy at right-back over Sagna; however, Wenger may need to allocate even more resources to defend Everton, in these wide areas.

Wenger may choose to start Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out wide. Not only do both have the athleticism to recover from advanced positions and help out their fullbacks, they have also shown a willingness to do so. In particular, Sanchez is quite adept at defending his position, especially when it comes to pressing while simultaneously keeping a passing angle closed. Not only could fielding these two help the fullbacks combat the potential threat of wide forwards, but it could also help defend against attacking intentions of Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines. While this tactic would put them farther away from goal when Arsenal win possession, they do have the athleticism and the dribbling ability to still be threats on the counter. In fact, given Leighton Baines lack of recovery pace, Arsenal could look to draw the left-back forward, so to run into the space behind him on the counter.

Arsenal may also have to curb the advanced positioning of Aaron Ramsey. With Mesut Ozil possibly coming back into the side (who, by the way, was Arsenal’s best player by a considerable distance in the 1-1 draw at the Emirates) Ramsey probably does not need to play so close to goal for Arsenal to have the same level of attacking production. However, with Flamini probably playing as the holding midfielder, Arsenal need to allocate more resources defensively into the central midfield zone, compared to when Arteta plays. This also means that Ramsey must find his passing touch, which evaded him against Crystal Palace and Besiktas. Turnovers in central midfield could very easily turn into goal-scoring opportunities for Everton.

For those keeping score, it appears my preferred XI is Szczesny; Debuchy, Mertesacker (if match fit), Koscielny, Gibbs; Flamini, Ramsey; Sanchez, Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, X. When it comes to the center-forward position, the choice comes down to Wenger’s opinion on Giroud’s match fitness. The Frenchman has not played well to start the season. If he continues to play poorly, he can turn into a real liability, as his poor play would give Everton an incentive to push their back line further up the pitch. This would help them pin Arsenal into their own half.

Sure, Arsenal would have counter-attacking threats in Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain in my XI, but they may have quite a bit of defending to do, taking them further away from goal. Arsenal could position either further up the pitch, but then we run into another issue of trade-offs.

While there is a marginal benefit in attacking by having Sanchez or Oxlade-Chamberlain higher up the pitch (possibly in defending too, but defending high up the pitch has the potential to be high-variance which can make it undesirable depending on one’s preference and the incentives with respect to risk), the marginal cost (or at least of them) is the increased likelihood of 2-v-1 situations for Everton on the flanks.

Therefore, if Wenger does not feel that Giroud can provide a good performance against Everton, then Yaya Sanogo is the obvious choice, unless Wenger wants to start using Sanchez up top. Even if Sanogo does not perform well, he can provide a vertical threat that can allow Arsenal to keep Everton’s back line deeper, without having to risk pushing one of the wide men forward and playing a high risk game on the flanks.


In Chapter VI² of the Art of War Sun Tzu writes about how an army should operate in battle:

Thus I say that victory can be created. For even if the enemy is numerous, I can prevent him from engaging. Therefore, determine the enemy’s plans and you will know which strategy will be successful and which will not; agitate him and ascertain the pattern of his movement. Determine his dispositions and so ascertain the field of battle. Probe him and learn where his strength is abundant and where deficient. The ultimate in disposing one’s troops is to be without ascertainable shape. Then the most penetrating spies cannot pry in nor can the wide lay plans against you.

With Roberto Martinez’s flexibility in approach and with Arsenal going away to quality opponent, Arsenal may want to spend the first 10-15 minutes figuring out what the Toffees game plan is and play a more reactive game. If an opportunity to get forward on the counter presents itself it may be taken, but Arsenal must focus on not conceding and learning as much as they can about their opponent. They may also wish to not give anything away as they discover how to best attack Everton. It is fine to not win the game in the first 10-20 minutes. Football is a game of 90 minutes; you need to be able to solve the dynamic resource allocation problem as well as you can for the whole game.

Naveen — @njm1211

¹it was also their 2nd match in a 3 matches in a 7-day span that ended with a match against Napoli…they probably did not want to burn themselves out before a crucial match to help decide which team progressed out of the group.
²I have seen the chapter titled “Weaknesses and Strengths”, “Weak Points and Strong”, “Illusion and Reality” or “Vacuity and Substance” depending on the translation.


Let them eat Caviar

 I’ve never seen a player like Dennis Bergkamp. I moved right, a caviar; I moved left, a caviar. I was squeezed by two defenders, another caviar. Moving deep – another one…

Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top

As Philippe Auclair says in his biography on Thierry Henry, “caviar” is the French footballer’s word for a pass so sumptuous, so opulent, that it would be a shame to waste it. You already know what a caviar pass is, you’ve seen them hundreds of times, it’s the pass so perfect that a player can shoot without breaking his stride, a pass that might not look right at first but slips into the perfect space (probably the only space) and gifts the player a chance, or a pass that is just so magical that wasting the chance on the other end is tantamount to being offered a bite of caviar and throwing it away saying ‘too salty’ or ‘bring me the tin of Gervinho sardines instead!’

What caviar isn’t is a simple pass that ends in a shot: a key pass. The key pass as a stat has its merit but like all stats leaves part of the story untold. If Özil leads the League in Key Passes but 95% of them are for shots outside the 18 yard box then he’s not much of a threat in reality because those shots are low percentage (~3%) conversion. Thus, while I like Key Passes and think it’s a useful number, I prefer a stat which quantifies those passes which are of such high quality that both sets of fans involuntarily let out a gasp.

A caviar is also not an assist, it can be an assist, it really should be an assist, but it’s not lways an assist because sometimes a bit of caviar goes to waste. Assists are another stat which can be dubious at times. If a goal is scored it is now customary to award an assist to the player who last passed the ball. Sort of. If the goal scorer still had a lot to do, sometimes they won’t award an assist but I’ve seen assists given to Walcott for dribbling into the box, being tackled, and the ball popping out to another Arsenal player and them scoring. Did Walcott assist the goal in that case? Well, his dribble made it happen even if his final ball wasn’t intentional, so I guess it could be counted as an assist.

But with a caviar, there is never a doubt. It’s a pass of rare quality. There’s a famous Arsenal goal against Juventus which illustrates caviar perfectly.

Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal’s most prolific purveyor of fine caviar, takes a pass from Freddie, stalls, jinks one way, then back, his defender now turned inside out, and then in a moment of brilliance flicks the ball over his marker’s shoulder with the outside of his right boot, into the path of Ljungberg, who chips over the keeper.

It’s an assist, but of course it’s an assist, wasting that shot there would have been wasting a caviar.

One Arsenal player who got short shrift for the caviar he often served up was Alex Song. His ability to lay on a lavish pass from deep was often decried as “Hollywood” from the Arsenal fans who wished that Song was more of a destroyer in the defensive midfield role, but after Cesc Fabregas went on strike to force a move to Barcelona, Song stepped up his game and became Arsenal’s main assist man. What’s incredible is that Song had the ability to create those shots from deep early on in his career but rarely showed it off until Cesc left. One memorable caviar from Song was the Eduardo goal against Burnley. The goal is almost always remembered more for Dudu’s cheeky samba shot but he could have scored simply with his right foot, the pass was so pinpoint perfect.

On Tuesday in the Beşiktaş v. Arsenal match there were only two outright caviar passes: Özyakup’s lob to Ba and Ramsey’s flip to Giroud. There were plenty of fantastic passes, passes which probably should have been better shots or maybe even goals but only those two passes rise to the quality of a caviar.

Özyakup had a great game. His pass to Ba in the opening stages of the match probably would have resulted in a goal had Arsenal not been blessed with a great shot stopper in Szczesny. Özyakup curled in a ball from the angle, over all of the defenders, which Ba took off the volley and forced a brilliant stretched save from Szczesny. Özyakup also created a great chance for Sahan in the second half, which the Beşiktaş man tried to curl home but just missed the post wide. And then, of course, if was Özyakup’s trickery which got Ramsey sent off: first getting a yellow card for a petulant display and then moments later, that brilliant dive to make it look like Ramsey got more than a finger on him in “holding him back”.

It was brilliant because no one else on Arsenal looked likely to score or create a goal except Ramsey and Ramsey had been kicked all over the pitch (including a blow to the family jewels moments before being sent off) clearly indicating that Ramsey was targeted for harsh treatment. Still, Ramsey should have won the game for Arsenal in the opening minute of the second half. Playing deep, he whipped a to Alexis up front, kept running, ran to the top of the box, collected the return pass, and then in a moment of Bergkamp-esque brilliance, flipped the ball up and over the defenders right to Giroud’s feet. Literally all that Giroud had to do was get any touch on the ball and it was a goal. Instead, the Frenchman turned up his honking nose at the caviar and the ball was collected easily by the keeper. It was typical of Giroud’s game that night and if there’s a sniffy lining its that the Frenchman will never have a worse game.

Ramsey-caviarAlexis was the creator of a handful of great passes in that game but no caviar. He had the early ball in to Giroud which nutmegged his marker and which Giroud stumbled over, almost impossibly failing to score from two feet away from goal. And Alexis also had a through ball to Debuchy which I thought the fullback should have shot instead of getting to the end line and trying the drag back. Those passes were fantastic but in the end only illustrate how rare the caviar pass really is.

Watching the games over again I wonder, is caviar a once a game occurrence? Is it something that happens more often than we think? I don’t know, but I’m going to have fun tracking it as a stat this year.

Where are my pearl spoons?