Category Archives: Arsenal

Image from Arsenal.com used for editorial purposes only

Dear Arsene: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Look at what you have unleashed, Arsene: in buying Mesut Özil last summer on deadline day you have given all of us hope that you’ll have another “surprise” waiting for us; by spending more money than we took in for the first time in a decade you have broken the dam of excuses that people used to justify our austerity; and by buying ready made superstars in Özil and Sanchez you have put paid to the notion that Arsenal are a club that “doesn’t buy superstars, we make them.” You have done all that, given us so much of what we begged you to give, and now we want more.

I’m not teaching you anything about British football culture when I say that the “buy buy buy” mentality comes from this patriarchal notion of the landed gentry generously pumping money into the working man’s game. You know that what many fans want is an obscene relationship with a sugar daddy. They want a rich man to come in and sweep them off their feet, to lavish gifts of million-dollar players, to build them new stadiums and playgrounds, and to keep ticket prices artificially low. They want an indecent proposal because you and I both know that wealthy men want something in exchange, you even once said about Monaco “people who are well-off are demanding!”

For decades you have steadfastly refused to play that game. You used mind and not hind to tease us. Selling Anelka and Overmars over the odds and then using the money to rebuild the team in the image of Henry and Pires — selling two good players for more than they were worth and then buying two legendary players for far less than what they were worth. This was the Wenger way.

And that worked back then. But the League changed and so did you. You changed to meet the new challenge half way. I know you’re still in love with the old philosophy and I know your dream is to win the League with a team of Wilsheres plus maybe a few solid buys thrown in – after all Wilshere would make a terrible keeper.

But those days are gone or at least on life support. Even the most steadfast English football fans, the ones who yearn for the days when you could stand at a football ground and sip bovril whilst watching local boys play their hearts out for the shirt — players who would ride the train home with you and have a few pints at the local, even those people have been caught up in the blood lust for expensively priced players shipped in from far off lands. You heard them chant in the stands “spend some mucking funny!” And while I know you don’t subscribe to Twitter or Facebook, you have to be well aware that the pressure from fans to sign marquee names and even really any name, is massive these days.

It was antithetical to your whole philosophy, or at least it seemed antithetical, but you went ahead and spent money last year and I wonder if Cesc and Robin leaving Arsenal the way that they both did was the reason you changed. They were the core of your dream team: two young men raised up through the Arsenal system and perfectly suited to play together in the same team. That’s why Moyes was so single-minded about getting Cesc at Man U. Moyes hasn’t had an original idea in his entire career, most managers haven’t, they just copy you or try to buy your work. That’s why so many of your former players are playing for other Premier League teams now: Adebayor, Sagna, Clichy, Nasri, Cesc, van Persie. They couldn’t make those players but they could come in with bags of money and with offers that the players and you couldn’t refuse.

But Arsene, you changed and you changed us. Özil was a thunderbolt. Spending £40m on one player, when you hadn’t spent a ruddy cent on a player in 10 years broken open the dam. We all knew you had the money, for years we’ve known you had the money, but you were able to keep us guessing. Was it the board who didn’t want to spend? Was it you? Did Arsenal not really have the money? And like little investigative journalists us bloggers and other fans tried to uncover “what was really happening” at Arsenal.

Now all that’s gone. The transfer austerity crowd is down to just a handful of people. If you had bought an Alexis Sanchez type player in 2007-2008 we would have been over the moon — a striker who can play three positions in the Arsenal attack and backup our main striker at the time, Robin van Persie? That would have been met with huge satisfaction. But now, you buy Sanchez, for £30m+, and he’s still the same guy who can do all those things that we all want and yet, we Arsenal fans, we want more. We want another striker and Sanogo, no matter how much you and I see his potential, must be sacrificed to the loan gods. Get us someone, anyone, someone better than Sanogo, is the rallying cry.

It’s hard to argue against the logic because the times have changed and even you have changed. As English football has exploded on to the global market and money has flooded into the coffers of every team, the competition for names is so far beyond what any of us envisioned it would be when we started on the stadium project 10 years ago. Last season the Premier League spent £600m on transfers, this season it’s already topped £800m.

We live in a world where Everton football club, the club which most closely aligned with your previous philosophy of austerity, has spent a record amount of money buying Romelu Lukaku and are paying a huge salary to Samuel Eto’o. We live in a world where even you have spent £100m over the last two seasons. You’ve joined them. You helped break the dam with your own hands.

You’ve changed our expectations and now it’s not enough. We want more. If you buy us another striker and a defensive midfielder and a center back we will want even more. In January someone will be injured and we will demand you buy a cover for him. It’s never going to end and now you’re a part it. So get out there and sign us a Bony, a Welbeck, an unknown brilliant center half content to be backup, and while you’re at it, bang a gong for Gonalons, and sound the trumpets for Carvahlo. 

By spending so much on Chambers, Sanchez, Özil, and Debuchy, you’ve already joined them, Arsene. Your hands were there tearing down the facade of the Premier League. Now finish the job.

Qq

Surprise

Footballistically Speaking #2: Wenger’s Surprise

One of the hallmarks of Arsene Wenger’s long career at Arsenal is that he is munificent with his press conferences. Wenger seldom skips out on his duty to answer tedious questions from the press. It’s extraordinary when you think about it in the context of his nearly 18 year career at Arsenal. Imagine how many times he has had to answer the same stupid questions about transfers from every single reporter in England. Every interview, every season, whenever the transfer window is open, he is asked the same two questions: “is Arsenal after (insert player)?” and “is Arsenal close to signing anyone?”

He almost always gives the same answers: “I won’t speak about certain players” and “if we sign anyone you will be the first to know.” Sometimes he varies these answers a bit (“are you after Zigic?” a smile and “No.”) and sometimes he’s coy about whether Arsenal lodged a bid for a player (as he recently was about Balotelli) but usually he has a stock answer for their stock questions. For both press and Wenger this dance must be getting old but reporters keep asking because, like a slot machine, once in a while it pays off with a hint that Arsenal might do something and once in 18 years they hit the proverbial jackpot.

The last jackpot was struck on 1 September 2013. That was the day that Arsene Wenger beat Tottenham both on and off¹ the pitch. Following a hard-fought 1-0 win over Spurs, Arsene met with the Sky Sports reporter and, clearly excited, gave his account of the match. “Their keeper was their best player” is my favorite summation of the game. And then came the inevitable question about the transfer market and Wenger said “Maybe we will have a good surprise for you?” and let loose his trademark wry smile.

funny-surprise

From there, he moved on to the BBC reporter who asked similar questions, which he answered in the same way, except this time when it came to the transfer question he answered ”We work very hard (on transfers) that’s why I will plead that you don’t keep me too long for this interview” and again the smile. This prompted the reporter to say “bye bye!” After all, no reporter wants to delay a transfer, transfers are British sports reporters raison d’être.

Incredibly, Wenger then went into the Arsenal media room and answered essentially the same questions again and gave essentially the same answers. The whole incident reminds me of a scene from Red Dwarf where there is a talking toaster who asks the same questions over and over again, subbing in different types of breakfast breads. “Would you like some toast? How about a bagel? A crumpet? Ah, so you’re a waffle man!” And Wenger has done that for 18 years. He’s endured this ritual for 18 years. That’s proof for me of Wenger’s passion for managing Arsenal.

During the presser Arsene got a chance to expound on his previous brief statements to Sky and BBC. He praised his team’s heart and took another swipe at Spurs:

There were aspects to our game that people are not used to seeing from us – that means commitment, desire, defending. Overall, their keeper was their best player, and that shows we had the chances to win comfortably today. This team has lost one game since March in all competitions and you don’t do that with an average spirit.

And then the inevitable question about transfers, this time carrying the accusation heard for years that Wenger is allergic to spending money. He gives his now stock answer about whether he likes to spend (we buy quality), takes another swipe at Spurs who spent £100m, and then reiterates that he may have a surprise for us:

I am not against spending money, but I want to add super quality to our squad. Tottenham got a lot of money for Bale, they have to invest it – I understand that. The need is different for us, we need one or two super players and we will try to add that. We have 24 more hours, so maybe we can surprise you. Maybe not – but I am confident.

The next day, Arsene didn’t just surprise a few reporters, he surprised the world when Arsenal signed Super Quality Mesut Özil from Real Madrid for a club record £42.5m.

Maybe Arsene has a surprise in store for us this week?

Qq

¹Selling Bale to Real Madrid greased the skids that brought Özil to Arsenal. Thanks Spurs!

Kasper

Tactical Preview: Leicester City v. Arsenal

Another Small Side Playing a 4-4-2

Leicester City, like many teams of their ability in the Premier League, look to allocate plenty of their resources towards defending and look to maximize the value they can get from their limited attacking resources by hitting teams on the counter. As with any 4-4-2, a decision has to be made as to how one will deal with an opponent like Arsenal having a spare man in midfield. Crystal Palace opted for a similar approach, with Marouane Chamakh abandoning his usual support striker role to become a central midfielder. Fortunately for Arsenal, this team does not defend as tightly as Crystal Palace nor do they have the same emphasis on congesting the center of the pitch. So while they seem to do fine when a team knocks the ball in front of defense without any purpose or tempo, complicating the dynamic resource allocation problem leads to significant problems for the newly-promoted side.

When they are in possession, Leicester tend to play long balls to get it into the attacking third, or they move the ball into a wide area. Since Leicester’s defensive system relies much more on getting numbers behind the ball, rather than a sophisticated system of pressing or the quality of their individual defenders, this approach in possession helps them minimize the probability that they turn the ball over in areas that could leave them exposed. You will rarely see their goalkeeper, Kasper Schmeichel, play the ball into his center backs or look to dink the ball over to a full back or central midfield (we probably won’t see any attacks launched off a long throw either). Most of the time, he will launch the ball as far forward as possible¹. Leicester will hope that any long balls find the head of Ulloa, who is their best bet to win an aerial duel. Ulloa will probably look to flick the ball forward to David Nugent, who generally takes up more advanced positions than his strike partner, or will knock it down and look to play it wide.

On both wings, Leicester field wingers who can dribble, are quick, and can get crosses into the box. In their first two games of the season, Leicester have shown some willingness to let their full-backs get forward and makes crosses. It seems that the left-back, Paul Konchesky, tends to receive more defensive protection from the wide man on his side, when he goes forward, than his counterpart on the right, Ritchie De Laet.

If there is one player that Leicester City run their possession play through, it is Andy King. As Paul Riley showed in his passing network figures for Leicester-Everton, King is the only Leicester player with more than two lines coming from his circle. However, he is not exactly Xabi Alonso. Much of his passing serves to shunt the ball into wide areas. If Arsenal look to mark or press any player out of the game, Andy King seems like the best option. Given that they will probably play a 4-1-4-1, it would appear that Arsenal will have a spare man in the center to execute such a tactic.

His midfield partner, Dean Hammond, acts more as a ball-winner and performs a similar role in moving the ball into wide areas. However, Leicester did not seem as focused on getting Hammond on the ball as they were on getting King the ball, against both Everton and Chelsea.

Also, I have not idea if Cambiasso is fit to play, but he would give them a midfielder who is quite an upgrade, particularly on the ball, compared to Hammond. Has there been a bigger name to play for such a small club in the EPL? Maybe Weah at City.

Attack the Half-Spaces

Divide the pitch into six zones, with each zone stretching from endline to endline. You can see that the two zones closest to the touch line offer little in the way of playing freedom. You can play the ball forward, backward, and toward the center; the touchline serves as an extra defender². The zones adjacent to the zone on the extreme left and on the extreme right are far enough from the touch line to allow a player 360 degrees of playing freedom, making him a much more dangerous player in possession, as he becomes less predictable.

So what makes this area special? Why is the half-space (halbraum in German) so important? In a central zone a player also has 360 degrees of playing freedom, is in a better location to shoot, and can more easily play the ball to players on the right side or the left side of the pitch. The advantage of attacking the half space has to do with attacking a space where the opponent has less resources devoted to defending it.

The opponent knows that the center of the pitch is prime real estate on the pitch. A side like Leicester will look to place two midfielders and two central defenders in that area. They will probably drop a third man into the area to help better defend a possession-based side like Arsenal.

The half space is generally defended by the two wide players, who are often poorer defenders than their teammates in the center of the pitch. Therefore, although the attacking team does sacrifice the opportunity to potentially conduct play in the center of the pitch, allocating attacking resources to an area where the opponents have fewer/lower quality defensive resources allows the side in possession to often extract greater value from those resources, making them a more potent offensive force.

Now against a solid defensive unit, a team usually needs to consistently switch play from side-to-side in their opponent’s half, moving their opponent from side-to-side, looking for an opening, and sending a runner to attack that space. However, Chelsea found it quite easy to attack the half-space in the second half of their match against Leicester. The play starts on the left (far-side on the TV…go to 61:41 match time http://www.matchhighlight.com/full-matches-review/premier-league-full-matches-review/chelsea-vs-leicester-city-full-matches/ ) with a throw-in to Nemanja Matic. Matic quickly moves the ball to Branislav Ivanovic, who is right of center. Jeff Schlupp attempts to put pressure on Ivanovic, but Oscar is making an unmarked center-to-right run, giving Ivanovic a passing option. Oscar receives the ball. Leicester’s left back, Paul Konchesky, ill-advisedly advances only to realize he has no chance to make a play on the ball, curbs his enthusiasm, and starts side-stepping back. However, the damage has been done, as the back four has become a back three with almost the entire right side of the pitch manned by one center back.

Since Chelsea had opted to play Matic quite deep, which gave them a back three in possession, Ivanovic had license to get forward. So right after he played the ball to Oscar, he immediately sprints forward, making an underlapping run. Schlupp struggles to keep up with Ivanovic. Dean Hammond seems much more concerned with getting into his position in Leicester’s set 4-4-2, rather than realizing that he needs to remove the passing lane from Oscar to Ivanovic, and if possible, help Konchesky deal with the Brazilian. Oscar makes the pass to Ivanovic, whose half-space attacking run forces Liam Moore, the center-back, to cover the half-space. This opens up space for Andre Schurrle to make a straight run at goal, which occupies the other center-back, Wes Morgan. Diego Costa gets inside position on the right-back and makes his run towards goal. Ivanovic does brilliantly to leave two Leicester city defenders on the floor, and Diego Costa hits the brakes, and lets De Laet fly right by, creating space for him to receive the ball. Costa does well to chest the ball away from the defender and scores.

Maybe Leicester have learned to defend half-spaces better after their loss to Chelsea, but that goal came off a throw-in, not even a counter attack, where it would be more reasonable to expect the defending team to have a lack of defensive resources allocated to a vast amount of valuable territory. One could see the possibility of Mathieu Debuchy making a passing to set Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on his way, with Debuchy making the underlapping run. Alexis Sanchez making the run Schurrle does, and Aaron Ramsey getting into the position Costa got into to score a goal. Against a side that seems to rely more on effort and numbers to defend rather than intelligence, attacking these kind of spaces helps make the dynamic resource allocation problem even slightly more difficult and could play huge dividends.

Cutbacks

In addition to and in conjunction with attacking half-spaces, Arsenal should look to create and exploit opportunities to cut the ball back from deeper wide areas to more central areas, around the top of the box.

Cutbacks are one of the most difficult things to defend in football. Primarily the cutback makes it difficult to see the ball and see your man. With the ball in a deep wide area, often defenders are scrambling to push the defensive line at least level to the ball. If the ball is behind them, then the line they hold is unnecessarily high as their concede valuable space in front of their goal, without any benefit, as they cannot play an offside trap. Even when they find themselves in position, in facing the ball, they either turn their back or their side to the majority attackers, who are free to park themselves in an open space, receive the ball, and shoot.

In Ozil’s first Arsenal match, we see Arsenal effectively use a cutback to score the go-ahead goal. In the middle of this passage of play, Mathieu Flamini receives the ball from Laurent Koscielny, in the half space, and plays it to Jack Wilshere, who is more advanced in that half space. At this point, Sunderland’s 4-4-2 is a mess with one of the central midfielders too far up the pitch after an ill-advised attempt to close down Koscielny. The other central midfielder tries to put pressure on Wilshere, but he plays the ball to an unmarked Carl Jenkinson. Now the central midfielder who tried to pressure Wilshere continue moving into a deeper defensive position, without any idea of the danger behind him. Sunderland’s winger has also found himself in a deep position, not looking to close down Jenkinson or defend the passing lane between Jenkinson and Ozil. Jenkinson cuts the ball back towards the top of the box, and Aaron Ramsey smashes it home (http://www.matchhighlight.com/full-matches-review/premier-league-full-matches-review/sunderland-v-arsenal-8/ starts at 66:30 match time or thereabout).

Now when Ramsey strikes this ball Sunderland’s defensive shape consists of one left-back behind a line of five defenders about 10 meters away from goal, a right winger at the top of the box right from center, a central midfielder more than 20 meters from goal, and the two forwards up top. Arsenal have three men about 15-18 meters from goal completely unmarked. These are the kinds of opportunities that get created when a team gets the ball behind the defense, causing them to scramble and lose their shape.

Against both Everton and Chelsea, Leicester’s central midfielder dropped far too deep when the ball got to the same level as or behind the backline. If they continue with this lack of depth in defending, Arsenal should have plenty of opportunities to make that pass towards the top of the box, where someone like Aaron Ramsey has more than enough ability to make Leicester pay.

Another Chance to Get To Know Each Other

This game should be a pretty easy three points for Arsenal. What would be nice to see is a greater understanding between the Arsenal players and Alexis Sanchez. On the Arsenal America Podcast, Tim said that he hopes the team learns to play with Sanchez, not the other way around. I completely agree with this sentiment. What this team needs are more players with a desire to attack the space and occupy defenders, rather than come short for the ball (I believe the Ozil Sanchez misunderstanding is at 1:10 in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkPFKXT6tiU). We need players who make us more unpredictable, who increase the information asymmetries in our favor. I believe that is exactly why Arsene Wenger brought Alexis Sanchez to this club. Hopefully, Sanchez is more than willing to oblige and play his style of football.

¹Schmeichel is Leicester’s second leading passer, averaging 34 passes per game, 11.5 of which are long balls. – Tim.
²this phrase, with touchline being replaced by term sideline, is a staple of defending in both basketball, especially for trapping teams like the mid-90s Sonics or Pitino’s Kentucky, and American football.