Category Archives: Arsenal

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Anatomy of the Arsenal: Manchester United 6 Arsenal 1. Wenger’s defensive meltdown…A recurring theme?

They are all good players, but we had no leaders. At times, we were very naive and gave too much freedom to United. No one communicated. The first and second goals were jokes, like watching a youth team. Arsene Wenger after the 6-1 defeat to Manchester United

How relevant is the above statement after our recent draw with Anderlecht, defeat to Swansea, and loss to United, thirteen years on? It seems Arsenal fans seem to think heavy defeats are a new thing, but even two and half years before the 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford in 2001, we had lost 5-0 in the League Cup, at home to Chelsea.

Many had said that it was a weak team, but check below:-

Arsenal: Manninger; Grondin, Vivas, Grimandi, Upson; Garde, Hughes,
Ljungberg, Boa Morte; Bergkamp, Wreh
Subs: Mendez (Garde h-t), Caballero (Bergkamp 60),
Cole, Vernazza, Lukic

That is eight internationals or future internationals. Hardly a weak team.

After winning the double in 1997-8, Arsenal had seen Manchester United win the league the following two season (it would be three by season 2000-1). In 1998-9, Arsenal were on the verge of an unprecedented back to back double, narrowly losing by 1 point to Manchester United after losing to Leeds United in the penultimate game of the season.

We also lost the semi-final to Manchester United at Villa Park:-

Obviously, United went on to win the treble that season. It was said (but I can’t remember by whom) that Arsenal had the best team but United the best squad). To me, this is something that has rarely changed 15 years on except perhaps between 2002-5 period. But more of that later.

Unfortunately, by season 1999-2000 Arsenal again came second to Manchester United. This time by 18 points. The season of 2000-1 saw us lose Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit to Barcelona for £30,000.000 combined fee, plus Davor Suker and Nigel Winterburn to West Ham on free transfers. We had replaced Overmars with Robert Pires whilst Edu and Grimandi were seen as adequate replacements for the departing Emmanuel Petit. Again, a repeated feature of Arsene Wengers tenure is he is too slow replace areas everyone else seems to see, like a defensive midfielder.

Also, Arsenal had been suffering at the back as usual. Wenger had been fortunate to inherit the famous back four. By 2001, Winterburn and Steve Bould had left, with Lee Dixon regularly on the bench as Silvinho and then Ashley Cole took his place. In central defence, Tony Adams from 1999-2002, out of a possible 114 games  played 57 (exactly half). The fulcrum at centre of the defence was Martin Keown, who was already in his mid 30’s. Here again is the problem. Wenger spending money on defenders. The defenders he had bought up to Old Trafford in 2001? Nelson Vivas? An Argentine full-back remembered for losing us the title at Leeds in 1999, when he lost Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at the back post:-

Centre of defence? Oleg Luzhny was bought from Dynamo Kiev and known as ‘the horse’. A trier, but more a Boxer from Animal Farm rather than a Red Rum. Our other centre half was Igor Stepanovs, a £1,300,000 signing from Latvia. Tall and gangly, my first game I saw of Arsenal was his debut against Ipswich Town (which I only  just realised was a couple days after Geordie Armstrong passed away at London Colney). On his debut in the League Cup match against Ipswich in November 2000, Stepanov scored with a thumping header. We still lost 2-1 and you could see he was not fast of feet or mind. But with Keown and Adams, when would we ever need these two in the defence? All too soon, unfortunately.

As ever, since Arsenal had last won the League in 1998, Wenger seems to like spending his money on on attacking players most of all. Although we had lost Nicolas Anelka, Davor Suker and Marc Overmars. But look who he had signed? Fredrik Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, Nwankwo Kanu, Sylvain Wiltord and a young Jermaine Pennant. We had also retained the services of Dennis Bergkamp. A superb attacking outfit.

It almost felt that Wenger just wanted to sign attacking players. Well. Nothing unusual there then.

The season had some real highlights, no more so than Thierry Henry’s most famous goal which came in our 1-0 win over United at Highbury:-

Layth Yousif said of the game:-

The North Londoners owed their triumph to the traditionally labelled virtues of snatching a goal against the run of play and defending stoutly for the remainder of the game. It was the ethos that brought silverware under George Graham, yet 1-0 to Arsenal seems like a galaxy away when contrasted with the sublime football they invariably play under their French alchemist Wenger.

There was also the 5-0 win over Newcastle that season, in which Ray Parlour scored a hat trick:-

Unfortunately, by the time we played Manchester United, Arsenal were 13 points behind them. The team had also suffered a major defeat at Anfield prior to Christmas. We did not look good.

The team for the Manchester United game for Arsenal was :-

Arsenal: Seaman, Luzhny, Cole, Grimandi, Stepanovs, Pires, Vieira, Parlour, Silvinho, Wiltord, Henry. Subs: Ljungberg, Bergkamp, Manninger, Vivas, Kanu.

Therefore, the team back four was lacking Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Lee Dixon. Ashley Cole and Oleg Luzhny played full-back, with Gilles Grimandi and Igor Stepanovs in the middle of the defence. Therefore, Arsenal were playing an international defender out of position. Bit like Nacho Monreal then?

As for the midfield? Well, Patrick Vieira and Ray Parlour played in the middle with Silvinho (a full-back) on the wing. It was a team that had never played together. Edu had problems with his passport and was unavailable to play. It was a team that looked ready for a thrashing. If you have defenders in the wrong position, either centre halves as full-backs and fullbacks as wingers you are looking for trouble.

I watched the first half of the game, I couldn’t watch the second half. In the first two minutes Arsenal were one down and Stepanovs didn’t follow or watch his man, with Dwight Yorke ghosting in at the back post.

Henry quickly equalised but by 17 minutes Yorke has run on to a thirty yard ball. He was played onside by a slow Grimandi. On the 26 minute a long 40 yard ball was picked up by Yorke, as Stepanovs gazed upwards  as the ball sailed over her head. Yorke had a hat-trick in 24 minutes. Then Arsenal went on the attack, it was broken down outside the box, A break to the wing and Yorke goes up the wing. Roy Keane bursts in the middle between Luzhny and Grimandi and rammed the ball in. 4-1. Just before half time Giggs down the wing, with an ever ineffectual Grimandi falling over Giggs feet. Giggs pulls it back for Ole Gunnar Solskjær to make it 5-1.

In the second half Arsenal kept it down to one. With a long ball again over the top, again. The man on the end of the ball was Teddy Sheringham, who turned Grimandi inside out. 6-1. It just had to be Teddy.

Of the display, what can be said? Well, only Ashley Cole was any good there. The other three were too slow and never worked as a unit. At least 3 of the goals were balls pinged over the top, to take advantage of Stepanovs and Luzhny’s slowness. Totally basic errors that Sir Alex Ferguson used to his advantage.

Also, the cover from the midfield was poor. Vieira, without Petit, was ineffectual. In the double season of 1997, after a 3-1 home defeat to Blackburn, the back four had said they needed more cover from Vieira and Petit. After this, both played more defensive (especially Petit) and went on a 12 match unbeaten run. This was certainly lacking in this game. Vieira is too often called a defensive midfielder and regarded as the pinnacle of it. To me that is untrue. Petit was the the defensive midfielder (of which I have never seen bettered at Arsenal). His loss in 2000 was perhaps one of the worst players we would lose to a competitor.

Arsenal gave up the ghost on the league by February (better than November then?). So what did Wenger do after the game? He redoubled his efforts to win the F.A Cup and looked to the next season to sort out his problems. Arsenal made it to the final against Liverpool, where after leading the game Michael Owen scored two late goals. Defeated again. But Arsenal were also robbed early on, when Thierry Henry goal bound effort was stopped by Stephane Henchoz hand on the line. Red card and penalty. But the referee missed it.

Martin Keown said of the game afterwards:-

I remember standing on that pitch in 2001 and saying this ain’t gonna happen again, because Ltiverpool were so lucky that day.

Wenger, after such a heavy defeat, losing the title by 10 points and F.A Cup Final did what he should have done previously. He spent in the areas he needed cover. He famously bought in Sol Campbell from Spurs for an aging Tony Adams (who would play a mere 10 league games in 2001-2 season). He bought in a defensive midfielder in Gio Van Bronckhorst from Rangers, as well as utilising the often under rated Edu. He also brought in cover for an aging David Seaman in goal, by signing Richard Wright from Ipswich Town. Wenger had gone out and bought in areas we needed improving and not on the cheap.

So, to me, my point is that often Wenger is a reactive manager, rather than a pro-active manager. At present he has bought players that can attack but not a defensive midfielder or centre half. Just like in season 2000-1. Could he change? Well, he did in the pre season of 2001-2 by signing big. He could do it in January or the close season by signing Mats Hummel and/or William Carvalho. But, as ever with Wenger, it seems a season too late. Also, who is to guarantee he will even go for these players?

Arsenal-v-Manchester-United

Arsenal 1-2 Man U: running over the same old ground

I’ve spent two days thinking about Arsenal’s loss to Man U and frankly, I can’t come up with anything brilliant to say. I can say that while the result was terrible, Arsenal played better than I’ve seen them play against Man U in a decade. I can also say that Arsenal really should outplay this Man U side because this is the worst Man U side I’ve ever seen. But in the end, as good as Arsenal were, the same old problems haunt this team and they couldn’t get over the mental and physical challenge to win against the old enemy.

If Manchester United were bad last year, shorn of their most experienced and best defenders (Evra, Vidic and Ferdinand) and with a midfield which started Marouane Fellaini along side Michael “passmaster” Carrick, this is arguably the worst Manchester United team I have ever seen. Their one saving grace is that they have a wealth of attacking talent in di Maria and Wayne Rooney.

This is a Man United team with no midfield and no defense and Arsenal exploited that beautifully. Carving open two glorious chances that should have won Arsenal the game. The first was a nifty through ball from Ox to Welbeck. Welbeck shot straight at de Gea.

The second was from Welbeck to Wilshere and that one is probably going to go down in the Torres Misses Hall of Shame. Wilshere was one-on-one versus de Gea, with the entire goal open in front of him, and he even had Alexis wide open on his left. Wilshere even got de Gea to commit and go down early. But he shot straight into the keeper. It was a dreadful shot and left Alexis gesticulating furiously.

A few seconds later, Wilshere should have won a penalty. It was a clear foul in the box with referee Mike Dean standing yards away. But the thing is, Mike Dean wouldn’t award a penalty if a Man U player chopped off an Arsenal player’s legs with a katana. He’d just make that silly scrunched up face, waggle his finger, and tell the player to get up.

I joke but it’s actually not funny. He basically did exactly that when McNair tried to take Jack Wilshere’s ankle off. Man U did what Man U does now, they started fouling Arsenal and targeted Jack Wilshere. McNair ended Jack’s night and gave him a few weeks in a boot with a horrible lunging tackle that was lucky it didn’t leave Wilshere’s ankles hanging by a thread.

The sideline official in that video has a perfect view of the tackle, he doesn’t waive the flag and Mike Dean doesn’t blow for a foul. Man U fouled the opposition’s best player out of the game. But they weren’t done there. A few minutes after taking Wilshere out of the game, Foullani shoved Gibbs into Szczesny, injuring both players. Instead of calling the foul or even stopping play because there’s an Arsenal player down on the ground in the penalty area who just got punched in the head, Mike Dean waved play on and Gibbs scored an own goal as he was laying on the pitch.

I don’t know, guys. I don’t want to believe that there is a referee conspiracy against Arsenal because that would mean that the games are not real. That would mean that the sport is not real. But I can’t help but think that there is something seriously wrong when I see how Arsenal are treated by the officials.

And once Arsenal were behind, they did the thing that Arsenal now do: damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Predictably, Man U scored the second (and could have had a third) off a breakaway. Alexis gave the ball away but the giveaway was on the edge of the 18 yard box. From there Fellaini made one pass to di Maria, who passed to Rooney and the hapless Nacho Monreal was left scuttling after the ball with hundreds of yards of space around him.

Where were the Arsenal defenders? Where was the Arsenal midfield? Where is the universe?

And so, an unfamiliar Arsenal performance, one in which Arsenal actually did dominate the game, had a familiar result, a loss coming from the opponent fouling and Arsenal playing recklessly to get back into the game.

What really frustrates me is that Robin van Persie should be suffering the choice he made to go to United but instead, every time we face our old captain, he gets the last laugh. It’s unbearable. It’s like finding out that your last girlfriend had herpes, via a text message that says “you should get checked”, after the breakup.

Van Persie left Arsenal in a huff, saying he didn’t like the direction the club was taking. He then won a League title and that seemed to justify his betrayal. But since that singular season he’s been laboring on two very poor United sides and has lost out on Champions League football. And Arsenal have been spending money, buying Özil and Sanchez from Real Madrid and Barcelona. Arsenal are on the up and Man U are on the down. We should be able to lord this over him but instead he gets to smile and say “we played a good game and got all three points, that’s all that matters”.

It’s all dreadfully familiar. Last season I wrote this:

And I know that we lost to Man U yesterday, in that heartbreaking fashion that we do with them: by being a bit timid in the first half, letting Nevra* and Rooney push us around, getting caught on a corner, and then having to watch as a traitorous backstabber dry-humps Wayne Rooney in front of 70,000 of their tourist fans.

They push us around, the refs let them get away with it, we squander several good chances, the ref doesn’t call a penalty, they injure two Arsenal players with fouls, they score on an error, we commit too many players forward, they score the winner on a breakaway.

Too familiar.

Qq

Bird chest

Naveen’s Tactical Preview: Arsenal v. Man U

By Naveen Maliakkal

Like Arsenal, Manchester United have been a work in progress the entire season, and like Arsenal, injuries have played a significant role in United’s inability to function as a connected unit. These injuries make it difficult to predict how Manchester United will play or who will make it on the pitch, come Saturday.

Van Gaal does have clear principles for how he wants his team to set-up. In attack, Van Gaal wants to build from the back, moving the ball into the opponent’s half efficiently. From there, he wants the ball to move—to circulate the ball—in an effort to move the opposition around to create openings and to probe the defense for openings to exploit. For this reason, Van Gaal emphasizes player positioning and movement to ensure that players have options, allowing the team to better move the ball. At that point, Van Gaal wants his team to adopt a rather direct approach to exploit the openings they create and/or find. While control of the ball is essential for Van Gaal, he has little desire to have possession for possession’s sake.

Defensively, he has shown some flexibility with his approach. At clubs like Ajax, Barcelona, or Bayern, his sides looked rather “Dutch” defensively, look to push high up the pitch, in an attempt to pin their opponent in their own half and win the ball. At AZ Alkamaar and during his second stint as Netherlands manager, his teams played with much more caution and closer to their goal. During his second stint as the Netherlands manager, Van Gaal also showed a willingness to employ quite a bit of man marking, which pushed him towards playing three at the back.

Finally, when it comes to transitions, Van Gaal puts great emphasis on his team working as a unit and working quickly, either to hit a disorganized opponent on the counter or to halt an opponent’s counter/snap into their defensive shape.

With Luke Shaw (hamstring), Angel Di Maria (ankle), David De Gea (thumb), Michael Carrick (groin), Rafael (muscular injury), Phil Jones (shin), and Johnny Evans (ankle) all having the potential to be fit or not for the match, and with Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo certainly out, Manchester United could struggle mightily to perform in the way their boss wants.

While not having Di Maria would rob United of their best player, someone who can ensure that United transition quickly and effectively, and someone who can open up a defense with his dribbling, passing, and movement, the injuries to the back line and goalkeeper may play a bigger role on Saturday.

No De Gea would mean that United would suffer in their ability to build from the ball, in addition to taking a hit with respect to their ability to prevent goals. Not having a left-footed center back hurts Manchester United’s ability to build from the back, especially if they wish to split their center backs and drop the deepest midfielder, likely Carrick if fit. That desire to build from the back is why Manchester United paid so much for a player like Rojo, a left-footed player who can play center back. Playing a center back who is uncomfortable with his left foot and does not understand how to play in wide areas, could hinder United’s ability to build from the back and penetrate Arsenal’s first defensive line. Throw in a center back like Chris Smalling, and United may depend heavily on Michael Carrick dictating things from the center of a three-man back line, when United have possession.

Taking Advantage of United’s Backline: It’s All about Controlling Space

This means that Arsenal could find some success pressing United’s backline. With the potential lack of technical ability, composure, and vision, at the back, Arsenal have a significant ability to force mistakes close to Manchester United’s goal. With Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, Arsenal have two players who could initiate a pressing phase, funneling the ball wide. Then a wide player would press the ball, once the ball moved to one of the center backs out-wide, especially if the center back faces his own goal. Either Welbeck or Sanchez would position himself to deny passing lanes into the interior, depending on which one found himself on the ball-side, and then look to close the vice. However, as we have seen so many times this season, as a unit, Arsenal lack an understanding of when to press and when to drop deeper. Given that many of these players played on the team last season, a team whose defended deeper and did so more often that this year’s team, Arsenal have severe coordination issues with respect to allocating their on-pitch resources properly, given the circumstances of the particular moment of the game. So while United seem like a team who Arsenal should press, their continued inability to solve more complex problems as a unit¹ makes such proactive defending dangerous.

Arsenal do have another option.  Instead of trying to press United’s back line, they could adopt an approach that has benefitted Liverpool’s opponents this season—ignoring the back line. While having center backs who cannot do much with the ball can incentivize putting them under pressure, it can also incentivize teams not defending them. This allows them to allocate their defensive resources elsewhere on the pitch. Teams have adopted this strategy against Liverpool, feeling no threat when either Martin Skrtel or Mamadou Sakho have the ball at their feet, allowing them to defend eight outfield players with their entire XI. In this match, especially if Michael Carrick does not play, Arsenal could simply ignore United’s back line, focusing on controlling the space in front of United’s back line. Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck would defend the half-spaces. The wide men would look to press the full backs, if the ball was played wide. In doing this, Arsenal could cut the supply of the ball to the rest of the team, forcing United players to drop deep to receive the ball or elicit an attempt by a United center back to advance the ball, either with a long pass or a dribble, either being a positive for Arsenal.

The problem for this defensive set-up, as with any defensive set-up Arsenal employ without their backs against their own goal, is that the space between the defensive lines should not be more than 10 meters. Closer to goal, the ability to keep the defensive lines close together is easier, as the amount of “offside” space a team concedes is quite low. Further from goal, such a tight structure does lead to more “offside” space conceded. If a team has three defensive lines, starting at half-way line, then they should cover the 20 meters behind the half-way line and leave the space behind them unoccupied, outside of the keeper. This way, Arsenal limit the ability for the center back to hit speculative balls into space in front of Arsenal’s last defender—into the “onside” space. However, especially with Per Mertesacker in the side, and the lack of a bonafide sweeper keeper, Arsenal have shown too much of a willingness to having their highest defensive line in a high position with the back line too close to their own goal. This leads to far too much unoccupied “onside” space, making it too easy for the opposition to move the ball from the back, through the first two or three defensive lines.

Image from player.arsenal.com

Image from player.arsenal.com

If Arsenal adopt either of these approaches and execute well, then they will have gone a long way in figuring out how to stop Angel Di Maria. If fit, he represents a player who Arsenal have little ability to stop. Therefore, the best way to nullify the attacking talents of Di Maria is to prevent the ball from reaching them in dangerous areas. By either pressing or ignoring the back line, Arsenal would have the ability to control the space the ball occupies, without having control of the ball. If Angel Di Maria has to drop deep to collect the ball, then Arsenal have forced United’s best attacking threat further away from their goal. Not only does this reduce Di Maria’s ability to make high leverage plays, but it also decreases the risk and increases the reward of harassing and harrying the Argentinean. Conceding a foul 50-60 meters away from goal is a rather benign outcome. If Di Maria gets past a player, as long as Arsenal have compact defensive lines, another man can step in to stop him. When Arsenal do succeed in winning the ball, they have done so with little distance or defenders standing between them and the goal. Ultimately, if Arsenal want to reach the next level, they need to learn how to control space without the ball

Possession for Possession’s Sake

At the same time, Arsenal have not shown that they can control the ball. Losses to Anderlecht and Swansea both involved Arsenal having an inability to control possession to see out the game. For a team that wants to defend higher up the pitch, which necessarily calls for more pressing, in an effort to better control matches, then Arsenal much learn how to control the ball. They must be able and willing to have possession for the sake of possession.

This flies in the face of Arsene Wenger’s football philosophy. Wenger wants the ball to move forward. He wants Arsenal to attack teams while they are disorganized and give them as little time as possible to organize. However, such a philosophy has the potential to turn a football match into something like basketball, leading to a loss of control on the proceedings.

This kind of 4-4-2 structure, which Arsenal have employed in the last two matches, seems to have hurt their ability to retain possession when they need to do so. Along with the obvious problems of a 4-4-2, especially when one of the central midfielders might as well not be on the pitch, it represents another new system, in which the players have to understand their roles and relationships. The ability to anticipate the actions of teammates suffers from such tinkering. This means that the ability to coordinate resources on the pitch becomes more difficult. This can lead to more turnovers through misplaced passes and poor touches. It can also lead to indecision, making Arsenal’s attack less potent and making it more advantageous for the opposition to attempt to win the ball, leading to more turnovers.

Hopefully, a healthy Mikel Arteta can help Arsenal fix some of their problems with ball retention. However, as with their figuring out of how to control space without the ball, looking to control the ball for the sake of controlling the ball is another developmental hurdle that Arsenal will need to overcome to progress as a side.

Follow Naveen on Twitter @njm1211

¹One reason why defending higher up the pitch is much more difficult is that it increases the amount of options that players have to choose. Now this means that players have greater potential to solve the dynamic resource allocation problem in more effective ways. However, greater potential is only as good as a player’s ability to extract information from the environment, to understand what to do given the information they have extracted, and to execute that plan. Sides that simply defend close to their goal sometimes do so to limit the number of decisions available to their players. This way they hide the intellectual deficits of their players and increase the ability for players to coordinate their actions. This means that the team can effectively defend in a certain manner, given a lack of resources, but will lack robustness and struggle against an intelligent attacking side.