Category Archives: Arsenal

Szczesny

Red Dulls a Boring Wood: Tales Still Echoing in Jon Champion’s Nasal Chambers

I’ve enjoyed hearing the stories from those who travelled to New York this past weekend. It sounds like the game was but one event during a much longer, and much more wonderful party for Gooners gathered from across the US and the world. Tim even touched the fringe of Arseblogger’s robe, and was healed!

For those of us who watched the game sans party on ESPN2, match entertainment was provided by the sonorous duet of Alexi Lalas’s partially opened mouth and Jon Champion’s partially closed nasal passage. To be fair, the game itself provided little to rouse the spirits. At one point, I fully expected Champion to explain an unusually long pause in the commentary by referring to the fact he had been busy tasting a bit of Alexi’s egg, and my, it really was something special, and Alexi, do you usually enjoy your eggs over-easy, as in fact the egg has been cooked on the plate currently in front of you? No doubt Lalas’s reply would have found a way to express his characteristic hyper-vigilance for any perceived slight on the quality of MLS. “What do you mean by over-easy, Jon?” he’d ask, voice quavering.

Some folks are indifferent to pre-season games, but I’ve never understood that. In all my time following Arsenal, I’ve missed only a few pre-season games, and then only because of circumstances beyond my control. These games are a chance to see players both central and peripheral after a club football drought, and, because there are none of the usual nerves, the club becomes the primary object of focus. Rivals are relegated to the shadows. Hope builds.

Perhaps, paradoxically, this goes some way in accounting for the mild irritation I felt at the loss to New York, despite knowing I shouldn’t care about the score line, and despite the many mitigating factors related to squad and preparation. Suddenly, there was Jon Champion at the end of the game honking smugly about how it was the first time a Premier League team had lost to an MLS team (he really said this). About Tottenham’s defeat of Toronto, and draw with Seattle. Suddenly, the rivals emerged from the shadows. They were there all along. Suddenly, I cared. I cared all along.

Fans should understand there is no correlation between pre-season and in-season results, but we follow our clubs with our hearts as well as our minds, and you never like seeing your club lose, no matter the circumstances. (Nonetheless, to those whose Twitter reactions after the match resembled a brain aneurysm, it would be better to remind them that we follow our club with our minds as well as our hearts.)

Though we can (and should) put the result in perspective, I imagine much of the disappointment of those who were stuck with Jon Champion instead of a street party with Thierry Henry was less as a result of that particular score line than it was the bigger picture regarding our pre-season. No one can deny that the World Cup has hit our squad badly, and it’s showed in our first two pre-season performances, first with a lackluster game against Skrill South’s Boreham Wood, followed by an equally uninventive game against the Red Bulls.

The worry is not that things won’t get better, but rather whether they’ll do so in time for the season openers. Our first Premier League match is less than three weeks away (on August 16th), and only three days after that game, we must begin the first leg of a tricky and immensely important Champions League qualifier (on either August 19th or 20th, with the second leg on the 26th or 27th).

That’s precious little time to prepare our returning players for games against a rival Champions League hopeful whose squad isn’t likely to have been decimated as ours is by World Cup exertions. In a sense, our defense and attack started training today, and we’re relying on the only currently intact area of the team (the midfield) to be completely ready for the new season. Even Wenger has spoken publicly about the challenges we’re facing just to get ready for the season. He knows what’s at stake, and what it will take to succeed.

On the other hand, from a fan’s point of view, the consequences of failing to qualify for the Champions League don’t seem nearly as horrendous as they did in years past. Clearly, we’re no longer in a financial position that makes the competition’s revenue a must. Furthermore, as other clubs have demonstrated in the past, a lack of Champions League football does not automatically eliminate the possibility of attracting top players (for example, our ability to get nearly all of our transfer business concluded before 2014-15 Champions League football has been assured). One might also be inclined to feel that this season might be a good one to rest a squad, coming as it is after an especially long international tournament. Liverpool almost pulled off the surprise of the 2013-14 season, in no small measure because it alone of the top four or five clubs wasn’t playing a game every three days.

Despite harboring such misgivings and consolations, I remain reasonably confident we can successfully negotiate our opening games. It may indeed be the case that we’ll be relying primarily on the preparedness of our midfielders to get us through, but they’re a strong group. We should be hopeful that the next time Jon Champion opens his nose at the end of an Arsenal game, it will be to note Wenger’s seventeenth consecutive season in Europe’s elite competition.

- Bunburyist

Sanchez

Playing Alexis: attributes versus positions

Part 1: Ignore Positions, Focus on Attributes

Many people tend to define a player by a position. Often, these definitions paint a limited picture of a player. These definitions can cloud our ability to think about how a side can use a player or cause us to inappropriately group players together (just this Sunday I saw tweets comparing Calum Chambers signing to the United’s Phil Jones, two completely different players, because they played similar positions prior to moving to Arsenal and Manchester United, respectively). If you play Philipp Lahm as a holder, it does not mean that he has a different identity as a footballing talent. His tendencies, skills, and experience remain the same. That bundle of attributes just occupies a different role, a different area of the pitch, and are utilized differently by Lahm compared to when he plays right back. Throw in the fact that football seems to have moved into an era of greater universality, and it seems that we should define players by their attributes, not by their position.

Therefore, when it comes to picking an XI and a system, the question should not be “Is this player a striker?” or “Is this player a center-back?” Instead, a team should look to allocate these bundles of attributes (players) to areas and roles on the pitch so to maximize the value of the team.

For example, look at Sergio Busquets. He has characteristics (positional and tactical intelligence, ability to read the game, immense technical quality, etc.) to play as a holder and to serve as Barcelona’s metronome. However, against some sides (particularly a side that can press holding midfielders well), playing Busquets at center-back (or having him start as a holder and then drop deep) may represent the value-maximizing allocation of that bundle of attributes. In that deeper position, Busquets has more time and space to receive and distribute the ball, arguably his most important and irreplaceable role at Barcelona. So while a marginal loss, with respect to defending out of possession, may exist (marginal loss depends on the quality of the center-back he replaces and how the team has to rejigger the XI), the marginal gain in possession can often outweigh the loss, leading to a net benefit. By defining Busquets by the bundle of attributes he possesses and not by a position, a team can extract see that potential net benefit in particular matches (another example of attributes vs. perceived position is Jack Wilshere).

Defining a player by his attributes, rather than the position(s) he has played most often, also comes into play when discussing the future utilization of Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal. Maybe, instead of saying he cannot play up front because he has not regularly played there, it may prove more beneficial to look at the attributes he possesses and see if that bundle of attributes can produce value for Arsenal in that position.

Alexis Sanchez is not tall (5’9”), is not as strong as most top center forwards, and is not great in the air. Alexis Sanchez is quick, a willing and able dribbler (particularly during his time at Udinese and playing for Chile), never stops running, and makes intelligent runs. He can operate as both a creator and a finisher (goal conversion rate the past 3 seasons: 26.09 (11-12), 25.00 (12-13), and 28.79 (13-14)).

So, on the surface, it appears that Alexis Sanchez could not operate up front in a system that requires him to operate as a relatively static target man, who can hold up the ball like Olivier Giroud. However, as a striker, what Sanchez could provide is a perpetual and unpredictable threat to defenses.

In a more fluid attack, Sanchez’s movement and quickness could cause confusion among the opponent’s defenders. His technical ability allows him to pose a threat left, right, and center, meaning he can make runs at the back line from anywhere, in any direction. Not only could this confusion lead to goals, but it could also help to pin back the opposing fullback. In the modern game, where fullbacks play a critical role in the attack, the ability to pin a fullback deep can significantly improve a team’s ability to defend their goal (I have a deep love for no center forward, two wide forwards formations with the potential to pin four defenders with just two attackers creating an 8 vs. 6 among the rest of the outfield players).

His running, combined with his quickness, could also force defenders to play further back, particularly the center-backs (it also makes him a more potent presser compared to Giroud). This could lead to more space in the center of the pitch between the deepest midfield line and the back line, space that plenty of Arsenal players love to exploit (the opponent could start moving midfield lines back, but that leaves space for other Arsenal players and/or moves the opponent further away from Arsenal’s goal). If they do not push their line back, Sanchez’s quickness and finishing will allow him to punish the opponent in a way Olivier Giroud cannot (except against a disinterested Newcastle (4:20)).

Finally, his ability to create chances for others and drive at the defense with the ball, means that he could give Arsenal an on-the-ball threat they have not had up front for some time (maybe Wenger still thinks Gervinho could have been that man). So while Sanchez’s running and quickness could help create space for others between the back line and deepest midfield line, he also has the ability to exploit that space as well. He could dribble forward with pace; he has the ability to beat his marker off the dribble (something Arsenal seemed desperate for last season). He can play in his teammates, while remaining a threat to score. He has an all-around attacking game that Arsenal certainly lacked last season.

Now, he will probably have his fair share of dispossessions. In La Liga, he was successful on only 36/103 take-ons in 2013-14 and succeed on 26/65 take-ons in 2012-13, which puts him at Luis Suarez level efficiency, without the Suarez level volume (did show Julian Draxler level efficiency + volume for Chile at the World Cup, going 22/34 in four appearances). However, that high up the pitch, the value of successful dribbles is quite high (dribble past the back line and you could find themselves 1-on-1 with the keeper and/or forcing the backline to panic and scramble). When these dribbles do not come off, the team loses possession far away from goal, often with plenty of defenders behind the ball. Therefore, the balance between dribbling volume and dribbling efficiency probably lies closer to dribbling volume in those advanced areas, compared to all other areas on the pitch. It could be that Sanchez’s riskier playing style should be placed as high up the pitch as possible, and could help alleviate Arsenal’s shot volume woes.

After all of this talk of attributes and positions, can we look at any games in which Sanchez showed an ability to play up front? More importantly, can we find a game where Sanchez operated up front and alone? The answer is yes. Let’s go back to December 10th, 2011, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.

Part 2: Alexis Sanchez vs. Real Madrid

This Clasico took place in the middle of the Pep Guardiola-Jose Mourinho era of the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry. After trying to park the bus against Barcelona in previous encounters, Jose Mourinho opted for an intense high pressing game, in an attempt to stop Barcelona from playing out from the back and to create turnovers high up the pitch. All four members of Madrid’s back line looked to aggressively close down any Barcelona player in front of them. And in this match, where Mourinho looked to dominate the game athletically, Alexis Sanchez was more than up for the task.

While Pep Guardiola does quite a bit of tinkering throughout this match (push Alves up high, moves Puyol to RB to better defend Ronaldo (who squandered some fantastic chances), moves Busquets to CB to get him more time and space, allowing Barcelona to more easily build from the back, etc.) and Barcelona exhibit a high degree of fluidity (so many different players are popping up in different locations throughout the match…this team was ridiculous), Sanchez operates as their most advanced attacker, with plenty freedom to move horizontally, in an attempt to get behind Real Madrid’s back line.

Runs

The first thing I noticed about Alexis Sanchez is that he never stops moving. During his 83 minutes on the pitch (in his first La Liga Clasico and about four months into his time at Barcelona), he constantly makes runs beyond the back line, putting immense pressure on Real Madrid’s defense. And these runs come from a variety of locations, covering the whole width of the pitch. His quality on the ball and his athleticism seem to give him the confidence to make straight runs, diagonal runs to the center from the right or left, and runs from more central areas into wide areas. The persistence and the lack of predictability of his running gave Real Madrid problems for the entire match.

For example, in this passage of play, Sanchez makes an initial run from the center to the left, into the space Fabio Coentrao vacated in an effort to close down Andres Iniesta. Pepe follows. Sanchez pulls out of the run, circles back, and runs into the large gap between Pepe and Ramos, a gap created by Pepe following the initial run by Sanchez.

http://i.giflike.com/AdxfTkM.gif

Now, his running did not seem random and thoughtless. He did seem to have a preference for attacking the gap between the fullback and the center-back. As I said in Part 1, attacking that gap has the advantage of exploiting the space vacated by an advancing fullback, and the potential advantage of pinning the fullback in a deeper position that he would prefer. It can help to drag defenders, particularly Real Madrid’s aggressive center-backs, giving his teammates time and space on the ball. This can be seen in the .gif below. Here, Sanchez makes a run from a central position to the right, into the CB/LB gap, and creates space for Xavi to receive the ball at the top of the box left of center).

http://i.giflike.com/NHHRg8L.gif

These runs from Alexis Sanchez, in the center forward position, could help create space for the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, etc. in the final third (these runs, like a lot of Sanchez’s attributes, would also be valuable in a shadow striker role in a 4-4-2, wide forward in a 4-3-3, or one of the attacking trio roles in a 4-2-3-1).

In this match, with Real Madrid so eager to close down any Barcelona player in front of them, Sanchez did well to run into the spaces that Real Madrid defenders concede with that proactive approach. He scored his goal this way. In that move, Sergio Ramos goes forward to close down Messi (who has just beaten three Real Madrid defenders off the dribble). Sanchez runs into the Coentrao/Pepe gap, toward the space Ramos would have occupied, receives the pass from Messi, and scores.

The intelligence and the ability to exploit those gaps, combined with the passers of Arsenal, could lead to plenty of goal-scoring opportunities for or set-up by the Chilean, particularly against teams with center-backs (or fullbacks) who want to close down the space in front of them (Vincent Kompany comes to mind).

Dribbling

Sanchez did not do much dribbling in this match. His job was to give Barcelona a vertical threat and ability to punish Real Madrid’s front-foot defending. Also, with Lionel Messi on the pitch, the role of primary dribbler/risk-taker was occupied. At Arsenal, Sanchez will probably take on the role of primary risk-taker/dribbler. So, if he plays in the center forward position, he may come deep to receive the ball more often than he did in this match, in order to drive at opposing defenders. There was a particularly impressive dribble from Sanchez that not only showed his technical ability, but also his strength and balance.

http://i.giflike.com/0KumjHW.gif

Hold-Up Play/Back-to-Goal Play

For all of the criticism of Olivier Giroud, his strength and ability to hold the ball up did play an important role in Arsenal’s attack. That ability bought time for Arsenal’s midfielders to make runs towards or behind him. So while playing Alexis Sanchez could prove beneficial with respect to fluidity, athleticism, running, technical ability, and finishing, it may be that an inability to play with his back to goal or hold the ball up could prove too great of a cost for Arsenal. In his performance against Real Madrid, he did show some promising signs that he could provide some of the back-to-goal and hold-up play that Arsenal have recently desired from their center forwards.

Most of Sanchez’s back-to-goal play involved receiving the ball with the intention to quickly move it. In this passage of play, Sanchez comes deep to receive a pass from Gerard Pique, and he is immediately pressured by Pepe. With his first touch, he successfully flicks the ball to an open Messi. He runs forward; Ramos gets caught ball-watching and Marcelo can’t get in front of him. He lifts his hand for a ball over the top. Fabregas, instead of hitting the outswinger with his left, cuts inside, tries to play Sanchez in with his right, and the ball goes to Iker Casillas.

http://i.giflike.com/itS7cNs.gif

Another instance of Sanchez looking to move the ball quickly, with his back to goal, came in the 74th minute. Here, Sanchez and his teammates engage in some quick passing about 35 meters from goal. This ability to quickly and accurately pass the ball makes Sanchez quite the upgrade over Olivier Giroud, who can often struggle to play the right ball, unless it comes off his first touch. So, while he may not be able to perform the more traditional back-to-goal role (something that relies more on brute strength and a wide body), Sanchez’s quick passing, with his back to goal, could allow Arsenal to play at a higher tempo. In the final third, this quickness of thought and action could lead to better 1-2s, more openings created in the defense, and more openings exploited by Arsenal.

http://i.giflike.com/qS9jkyJ.gif

If we consider the benefit of back-to-goal or hold-up play being the ability to maintain possession so that the team can better allocate the other 10 players and better control the flow of the play, then Alexis Sanchez’s quick feet could offer a different manner for Arsenal to enjoy those benefits. We can see that in the .gif below. Gerard Pique had just intercepted Sami Khedira’s chip, outside of Barcelona’s box. Real Madrid are looking to press high up the pitch, in order to win possession back. Angel Di Maria does succeed in separating Dani Alves from the ball, but the ball finds the feet of Sanchez. Sanchez dodges a charging Di Maria, keeps the ball a safe distance from Xabi Alonso, and plays it back to Iniesta. At this point, Barcelona have successfully kept possession, slowed the pace of play, and now have greater control over the flow of the match, which allows them to better protect their 3-1 advantage.

http://i.giflike.com/LlIvbej.gif

Sanchez also showed a few instances of more traditional hold-up play with Sergio Ramos hounding him. In this .gif, he successfully fends off Ramos, and plays a pass for Xavi. Three years later and a much stronger player, Sanchez may have enough strength, combined with his quick feet and technical ability, to hold up the football well in the Premier League, mitigating the cost of starting him at center forward over Olivier Giroud.

http://i.giflike.com/elHXzUh.gif

Conclusion

While Alexis Sanchez’s positional history does not suggest that he could perform well up front, he has a set of attributes that could prove highly valuable to Arsenal in that role. Even though the Clasico against Real Madrid represents only one data point, it also stands out as a magnificent performance, one that showcased many of the attributes we associated with the Chilean, in a solitary role up front, against one of the best teams in the world. So while I do not know if Arsene Wenger will field Alexis Saanchez up front, I do think he has the potential to succeed in that position.

Ramsicky

NYRB 1-0 Arsenal: vacation

Ok, we lost. We lost because we played against a professional football team in mid-season form and Arsenal were in pre-preseason form. We also lost because we started and finished the game without a recognizable starting center half nor a starting center forward. And not only that but our collection of false nines looked rusty. Like a rusty old knife named Russ who had been left out by the seashore and was now covered in a second layer of rust. But despite the disappointment of losing, and losing in an ignominious fashion, it was still a top day with some great friends.

You already know that I don’t read the press. Well, with all these great people around me for the last two days I have read even less of the press and none of the twitter. So, when I read Arseblog this morning and heard that some people freaked out over the game on twitter the first thought I had was…. HA!

The second thought I had was.. Maybe I should stop reading twitter too. I don’t know what’s going on in any of your lives but I do know that no one in that stadium, no one I know, had a bad day yesterday. There were a few little moans about the starting lineup. A few people wondered why we had no strikers available. Some laughs about Monreal as the starting center back. But not a single melt-down or even really a long conversation about the makeup of the team and whether we were ready for the start of the season.

That’s not to say that we weren’t slightly depressed at the starting lineup or at the way the game played out. Rather, the folks I was with approached this game as a preseason friendly: you want to win, but you’re really here for the party.

And it was a party atmosphere throughout the day despite every possible roadblock. For example, we got to the game almost too late to get a beer, but not too late enough! Then the skies opened up and dumped buckets of rain. Supposedly there was a 30% chance of rain yesterday. What I think they meant was that for part of the day, the sky would be 30% rain. One minute I had a sweaty back, the next minute I was worried about trench foot.

And, of course, it didn’t stop raining until we got inside the stadium.

stadium2

 

Inside the stadium, the first thing I noticed was that there were a lot of empty seats. We were told later that it was a sell out but why, then, were there so many empty seats? In short? StubHub. Take a small arena, take a big team, take lax scalping laws, and add in some opportunistic local fans and you get – people selling seats on StubHub for 20X face value. The good news is that few people bought the $500 tickets and as the event drew nearer there was a fire sale and I even had some touts trying to get me to retweet their “bargain” deals at $200 each.

My ticket was $25 and I think if the clubs had priced that ticket at $75, we would have seen fewer scalpers. At $25 each, a guy can buy 8 tickets, sell one on stubhub for $200 and break even with minimal exposure on his part. The simple math of that encourages otherwise normal people to get into the scalping game. I think something similar already happens with Arsenal matches (I know plenty of season ticket holders who don’t ever attend matches) and the grousing about lowering ticket prices “to fill the stands” would actually only exacerbate the problem at Arsenal.

But the stands were largely filled and the fans at the game were in good voice. I could give you a play by play but there is already a video up on Arsenal.com. So instead, here are some impressions.

I love watching Henry play, he is like a lion: languidly patrolling his territory, seemingly disinterested in the game, king of the pitch. Until the moment presents itself and then he pounces, shreds a defender, eats his guts, and then has a nap in the mid day sun.

Henry set up a couple of great chances and him an Bradley Wright-Phillps made a neat little team together. BWP slotted Henry in and the old Cat produced a trademark shot, left channel, open your body, curl it around the keeper. Szczesny was equal to the shot and got down quickly to parry away. It was a world class save.

For Arsenal, Cazorla was on the end of everything good and we sang his name after each of his brilliant moments.He responded to Henry’s shot with one of his own trademark shots from distance which whistled just past the post.

The goal happened in my end of the stadium and it was a disappointing goal. Barely believable except that on the first corner no one seemed to know who to mark. That’s exactly what happens when a team plays without their first, second, or third choice center backs. I think Ramsey was telling people who to mark at one point. With little organization from the defenders, it’s not really a surprise that Arsenal were beaten by an unmarked player at the far post.

Monreal

Chris Toronyi and I sat together and he asked if I thought this was a test of Monreal as backup center back and I have to say that I hope not. Maybe if Mertesacker is there to organize, he would work in a pinch. I don’t know, I’ve never seen them play together.

Playing without a recognizable center forward Arsenal’s offensive frailties were exposed. Rosicky is a great player but he’s not a forward and you could tell he simply didn’t know where to run or even where to stand to give the defenders anything to think about. Without a forward I was hoping that Cazorla would step up and make some runs in behind like he did for his hat-trick against Reading. But for whatever reason, Cazorla just won’t make moves behind the defenders. Instead, he drops to receive the pass, like, every single time.

But like I said, that’s crying over spilled milk. Obviously, Arsenal are going to be better when we have Giroud, Sanchez, Walcott, Podolski, and the hopefuls (Sanogo and Campbell) back from their post match World Cup vacation.

There were a couple of bright moments from our murder of false nines. Wilshere and Zelalem tried to team up for a repeat of last year’s goal of the season but Red Bulls keeper Robles snuffed it out. I went back and watched the highlights on Arsenal.com and it looks like Jack simply fluffed the shot. Signs that the midfielder needs to shake off the rust.

As the second half kicked off Arsene put on a semi-recognizable forward type player in Chuba Akpom and almost immediately it paid benefits. Along with energy in midfield with Coquelin and Flamini running about, Arsenal effectively snuffed out the Red Bulls attack.

Akpom set up Diaby for what looked to me like the tying goal but it was hauled back for offside. It was such a well taken goal that I barely recognized it was Diaby who took it.

Diaby had the kind of game which you would expect from a player who has had his career stolen from him through injury. One moment you could see the flashes of brilliance, the next moment he looked like someone who couldn’t make a simple pass. I don’t know what the future holds for Diaby but watching him play yesterday was painful.

As the game wore down we all knew that there was no way back for the Arsenal. The players did a lap of appreciation after the final whistle and just like every moment in the game, the largest cheers were for Henry who made a point of walking over and clapping every fan in the stadium. I’ve heard nothing but good reports about Henry during this trip. He stayed extra to sign things for the fans at the fan event on Thursday and he did the same here again. It’s obvious that he loves Arsenal and the Arsenal fans.

henryAfter the game, we walked to a Portuguese restaurant and had a massive meal. There was paella, endless sangria, meats, and every possible side dish with shrimp and garlic. I think we even ate some salad. But the best part was that the dinner took all night. We were there exchanging stories about the Arsenal, planning trips to see them in Europe, and asking each other for advice about how to get to games in the future. We laughed at each other, drank wine, and ate until we couldn’t eat any more.

I have not felt more welcomed by any group than I have by my friends here in New York. Last night, just every moment, I felt like I was actually on vacation for the first time in a long time. I never even once got down about the final score. There will be plenty of time for that when the season really starts.

Qq