Category Archives: Arsenal

Over-proofed bread

Arsène bakes up another crust-fallen failure loaf

Every few days I go into my kitchen and pull out a little decomposition notebook, open the book to the same page, and read my notes. Then I grab some bread flour, whole wheat flour, wheat germ, honey, butter, yeast, and salt and place them next to my scale and my bowl on my baking table.

This morning I carefully measured 250g of bread flour, 240g of whole wheat, 10g of wheat germ, and 8g of Kosher salt into my bowl. Then I melted a stick of butter, put 50g of honey into the pot and poured that into a bowl. I filled the bowl with water until the total came to 450g. I poured the liquid into the flour, added a teaspoon of yeast (5g or so) and mixed with my hands.

The dough is warm and sticky at first but as you mix, you stretch the gluten strands and it starts to become more cohesive. I splat the ball of dough on the counter, slide my fingers gently under one side, lift, turn, and flick the dough onto the counter, holding one end and letting the other end go oblong — like Gene Simmons flicking out his tongue. I then stretch the dough in my hands over the top of the part on the counter and wrap it neatly, like swaddling a baby. Repeat this until the dough starts to firm up and become elastic. It will still be oddly wet, but not sticky. Then you know the gluten has worked hard enough and needs a rest.

Home bread baking is often mistaken for a science but it is actually more art than science. Don’t get me wrong, there is a science to it and at the highest level, such as in a professional baker’s kitchen where every aspect like temperature and humidity is rigidly controlled, bread baking is almost pure science. But for us amateurs, we have a set list of ingredients and after that we have to be able to adapt to the conditions. Not all flour is exactly the same, for example. Even two bags labeled “bread flour” might contain different levels of protein (gluten) and require different levels of hydration to open the gluten up.   

Kneading the dough as well is not something I can tell you to do a certain number of times or for some definite period of time. You knead the dough until the gluten tells you it’s ready.

And for me there’s an art to making your own signature loaf. That is what I’m doing with this loaf of bread above. I am perfecting the ingredients, the taste, the texture, the baking time, and all of the aspects of the bread to make my daily bread.

Football is a lot like bread baking. As a manager, you’re trying to make your version of the perfect loaf of bread, except you have a lot of factors that are out of your control. To make a basic football team you have to take 500g of fowards, 700g worth of midfielders, and 1000g of defenders and mix them all up. Sprinkle in a few of your own touches like a dash of Sanchez or a slice of Welbeck and as long as you bought top quality ingredients throughout you have the recipe for a pretty delicious bread.

But whatever you do, don’t forget to add an ingredient or use an ingredient that has gone stale. For example, the one guy on a football team who is crucial to the success of that team is probably your defensive midfielder. He’s the guy who starts your attacks, he takes care of the ball, he wins the ball back, and he covers for the other defenders when they go forward looking for a goal. People used to see this position as the water, pretty much any water will do. But it’s not like that any more. Now days this central midfielder is one of the most important players on the field.

If football is like making yeast bread, I think the defensive midfielder is the yeast. He eats all your sugars, creates the gases that in turn give your bread lightness and texture. Your loaf rises and falls on the strength of that yeast.

And if you go into the season stating that you want to make a recipe for yeast bread then you better damn well have some yeast. Fresh yeast. Good yeast. Yeast that’s ready to take on the challenge of a rather tough loaf. What you don’t do is try to make a loaf of bread with some tired old yeast. You throw that out and get some new yeast.

Right now we all know that Flamini’s old yeast makes for a rather dense, flat, and tasteless loaf. The bottle of Arteta yeast is better but it’s also old and there isn’t much left. You need enough yeast to make 60 loaves. Arteta isn’t going to make more than 25 and probably only 20 good ones.

It’s inconceivable that a baker of Wenger’s stature, a guy who worked with Parlor and Vieira, would think “I guess I’ll just make do with Flamini.” And don’t give me this line about how you can’t just buy yeast. Yes you can. You can buy anything. Arsenal have money in the bank and a surplus of attacking players. If you want yeast, you can buy some yeast. If you have to sell one of the dozen attacking midfielders who are making up squad numbers then do it. Also, sell Podolski, or let him go on a free, he makes £90k a week, money that could be used for a cake of fresh live yeast. Or maybe Stan Kroenke doesn’t need a £3m dividend?

No, this club has the money. They have more money than they have ever had in the history of the club. If they can’t find players who are better than Flamini it’s not because they don’t have the money. Instead what Arsenal have is a baker who wants to gamble with the old yeast. And so far the product is coming out flat.

The other thing you cannot do with bread is make a number of changes to the wheat and expect the same results. If your recipe calls for an 80kg sack of Per and a 70kg sack of Laurent along side a 50kg sack of Gibbs and a 50kg sack of Chambers you cannot just sub in a handful of Nachos, some Bellerin, and sell it to your customers as if it’s the same loaf as before. Yet, that’s exactly what Wenger said after the game, this is the same flour he was using last year:

Last year we had 17 clean sheets with the same defenders but we have not started to do that yet. Our defensive efficiency is not there and we cannot survive at the top level by always conceding two goals.

This response was really worrying. Does Wenger not notice that he has used eight different types of flour to make his first 12 loaves of bread? I don’t even know if Wenger is using flour in his loaves any more. Nacho and Gibbs have been so hit and miss all season that I’m thinking they might be some of that gluten free crap.

For example, in the Hull game Nacho was filling in for Koscielny as Arsenal’s bread flour. On the first Hull goal he is facing up with Diame and makes what could be generously described as a limp challenge. He dangles a leg out, then decides better of it and winces away as Diame strides past him. Bread flour’s gluten provides the structure to your loaf. Limp and lifeless, Nacho isn’t bread flour, he’s gluten free almond flour and you cannot make bread without bread flour, folks. I don’t care what those Glutenfreegan charlatans say, that’s not bread.

And finally, yet another mistake that amateur bread bakers make is that they think they can “switch off” during the rise, the proof, and the baking. Nothing could be worse. It may take time to rise your dough but you cannot simply let a dough rise on the counter and go shopping. If you switch off at this final stage before baking and let the loaf over-proof you get a crust-fallen loaf of bread. I see a loaf like this and I hear the Price is Right loser’s horn. The same horn I hear when an Arsenal midfielder holds his hands up and says “who was supposed to cover that guy? ME? No, I’m an attacking player.”

Over-proofed bread

Unfortunately, Arsenal seem to be switching off so much that I’m not even sure they know where the on button is any more. As I detailed in my post about Arsenal’s set play woes, time and again Arsenal simply relax on set plays. But really, it’s not just set plays, this happens all the time at Arsenal.

Against Hull it happened again, Wilshere was supposed to cover for Gibbs on Hull’s second goal. Tom Hundredstone isn’t the lightest bun in the basket and I doubt he is capable of speeding past anyone down the sideline. Wilshere’s job, as a midfielder, is to cover his midfield runners. He should have been there to challenge Huddlestone on the cross. He wasn’t, they scored.

I could go on with this analogy for another 1000 words, that’s how many problems there are. But what I find most disturbing is that playing football “like Arsenal” used to be something teams aspired to. After today’s 2-2 draw against West Brom, Robbie Earle said that Manchester United are playing football “a little bit like Arsenal.” It was a harsh burn on our loaves.

But it’s no less than Arsenal deserve. Arsenal have been the whipping boys of the top clubs for years and now even the little clubs have figured out how to play against Arsenal. It’s so obvious now how to beat Arsenal that Pep Guardiola authorized the Telegraph to publish an exclusive breakdown on how he prepared his team to beat Arsenal.

Arsenal look like a team which has run out of ideas, lack discipline, are broken with injury, have a crazily cobbled together recipe for making a team, and ultimately already look like we are running out of steam. And it’s only October.

As Arsenal fans we’ve blamed the players (Denilson, Podolski, Arshavin, etc), we’ve blamed the board (no money), we’ve blamed the physios (how did they miss that injury?), we even blame each other (no wonder Gervinho has no confidence what with you slagging him off on that forum). But we change those parts and yet the same problems remain.

Could the problem be with the guy writing the recipe? The guy buying the ingredients? The guy baking the bread?

Could the problem be Arsène Wenger?

Qq

P.S. I baked a nice loaf of bread today. No, I don’t want to be Arsenal’s baker.

bread

P1030963

Seager and Spurling, two book signings with the Gooner Family

By Les Crang

Having meet Dave Seager previously at the Piebury Corner : Art Event in June this year, I had talked to him about his book he was releasing, Geordie Armstrong on the Wing. He had told me he was releasing the book in conjunction with the the Hull City game at The Tollington from 11am to 2pm. Dave would also be there with George Armstrong’s daughter Jill Armstrong and Geordie’s double-winning team mates John Radford, Frank McLintock and Eddie Kelly. All would be there to sign the book.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town (well, Holloway Road) at the Piebury Corner, Jon Spurling was signing copies of his new Arsenal book Red Letter Days: Fourteen Dramatic Events That Shook Arsenal Football Club (reviewed here), between 12 and 2pm. I wanted to get to both events and meet as many people I knew on twitter as possible with a photo diary of the event. Plus meet and talk to the authors (if they had time). Then I had the game to go to afterwards.

Dave Seager signing copies of his Geordie Armstrong book.

Armed with a Digital camera, a kindle to tweet on and pen and paper I made my way from Bow down to Highbury Corner via the 277 bus, leaving at 9am. I had spoken to Dave Seager previously and said it was ok to come around 10am to get some photo’s and have a chat with him if he had time. If not Dave, at least speak to Jill. Getting there by 10.15, I’d half expected just locked doors and a frantic Dave and Jill setting up. Half was true on that front. Already a dozen people had arrived for the book signing.

Jill Armstrong signing more copies

Dave and Jill were signing some copies of the book and I got to quickly have a chat with Jill. She told me it was her first game at the Emirates, though Peter Hill-Wood had offered her the opportunity previously to come. She said it would be weird going there, because Highbury was were she would watch her dad, but also a little easier. She also spoke about as a kid having Liam Brady and Wilf Rostron as her babysitters for her and brother. A word and that often arose at the event was ‘the family’ both of her father and within the Arsenal team. But more of that later.

I waited around, drinking soft drinks as I had gone sober in October. Anyhow with any of these events its about meeting real people as well and getting a face to people you talk to on the web. It was good to meet people I follow on blogs, podcasts or tweeting, so speaking (however briefly) to Peter Nelson (who interestingly told me The Tollington was an old boxing club pub), Darren Berry, Amanda (from the gooner girl podcast), Andy Kelly, Herbert Chapman’s bust, Sean Attwood and Lorraine amongst others (and plenty others I would miss out on unfortunately). This is always a great part of the events in a way, meeting people and discussing Arsenal.

As the event started Frank McLintock came first, then John Radford and finally Eddie Kelly. I was a bit overawed and even when I wanted to go to the loo I waited until Frank McLintock had come out as he had just gone in (yes, stupid on my part).

They then obviously sat there for two hours and had photographs taken and signed copies of the book (including mine) and answered questions and had photos taken. Whatever anyone wanted. But more than that, what was nice was as I watched all three went up and saw how Jill, her mum and brother were had a few words. I felt you could see they wanted to do this book opening for Geordie Armstrong and family. That was really the most touching part of a great event.

Frank McLintock, Eddie Kelly & John Radford signing the book.

Not just the ex players were like that though, It was also Dave Seager as well. He kept a totally professional head (refusing a drink before the event, not stopping from signing copies of the book, answering queries anyone asked, sorting coffee for the players). Many might say, well he is the author? Thats his job? But it wasn’t about Dave, it was that Jill and her family saw that Geordie was still fondly remembered. To Dave, as most likely with the players, it was also that the ‘Gooner family’ enjoyed the event, which I think everyone did.

Who is the famous Writer? Dave Seager. No idea who the other guy is?

Prior to leaving I asked Dave Seager and Jill Armstrong how they felt the event had gone. Jill said ‘I’m overwhelmed with the response. Its left me speechless.’ Dave said ‘despite the pre-match nerves it went swimmingly.’

Look who I meet on the way to the Piebury?

I then proceeded to Piebury Corner on the Holloway Road at about 12.45. I had spoken to the owner Paul in The Tollington and he had offered to give me a lift, but I was still taking some photos. If you ever get chance, go to the Piebury on matchday to listen to him on the decks as well as getting a pie and mash. Lovely guy as well.  On arriving Jon Spurling was signing his new book Red Letter Days: Fourteen Dramatic Events That Shook Arsenal Football Club (review here).

Paul, Owner of the Piebury corner on the decks

A very different event for a very different book, but a very good book none the less. I got there with a brief moment of respite for Jon from selling copies of the book. He said he had opened up on time and sold 10 straight off the bat. He had a steady stream of customers coming through and asked about Dave’s event, as he was hoping (but doubting) he would get down to get a copy. As is ever the case, we discussed where it was going wrong at Arsenal. The usual complaints was our answer. The defender and defensive midfielder everyone is asking for. We also discussed a few other subjects from the book, but Jon had more people lining up for the book so I asked how sales had been going, which Jon said:-

I think it’s good. I have Three positive reviews on Amazon after just two weeks. With more word of mouth and some future podcasts [Footballistically Arsenal this week] I think it will help sales.

Jon Spurling signing copies of his new book

I had also forgot to say thanks to Jon on departing, as I only started writing about Arsenal after I’d read his stuff on Paul Vaessen in one of his books. On that note, I made my way to the match. Perhaps it wasn’t smart to give up drinking then after that match?

Twiglets not included

Cazorla-Hull-Final

Arsenal v. Hull City: Tactical Preview

Hull City tended to opt for a back 3 during most of last season, and to start this season, they went with a 3-4-2-1 in their opener, versus QPR. Robert Snodgrass’ knee injury forced Hull to change their system quite a bit during this season (and maybe this would have happened regardless of that). This season, they have gone with a 3-4-1-2, a 3-5-2, a 4-4-2, and a 4-diamond-2. Along with the lack of predictability with the system they will use, Hull’s performances have also displayed a significant level of inconsistency, both between matches and within matches. Therefore, predicting how Hull will play in any match seems like a lot like throwing darts blindfolded.

Maybe we can gain the most insight into how Hull City will play against Arsenal by taking a look at how they set up for the 2014 FA Cup Final. In that match, Hull went with a rather defensive 3-5-1-1. In front of the midfield, Stephen Quinn had the task of getting the ball up to the center forward and doing as much as he could to harass Mikel Arteta. In midfield, they had three central midfielders playing combative defensive roles. Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone, and David Meyler formed quite an effective screen in front of the back three. Looking at the back three, Curtis Davies looked to man-mark Olivier Giroud when he could. This left the two other central defenders free to take proactive roles in defense. If Arsenal looked to make a pass into the space in front of the back three, one of the two central defenders had the freedom to step up to make an interception, a tackle, or apply pressure on the receiver. This greater ability to cover space vertically means that Hull’s midfielders did not have to be as static with their positioning. With greater confidence (less uncertainty) that the team had enough resources to defend the space behind them, midfielders could take more risks to pressure the ball or make interceptions, even if that caused them to concede more space behind them.¹

For the first 60 minutes of the match, Hull did well to defend the center of the pitch, and while Arsenal did have a potential advantage in wide areas, Hull did well to funnel the play into the center of the pitch. This helped to cut Giroud off from the rest of the Arsenal team, preventing Arsenal from playing their normal game involving Giroud’s hold-up and link-up play.

Let us pick up the game right after Hull City scored their second goal.

Gibbs

We see Kieran Gibbs with the ball on the left, having just received the ball from Aaron Ramsey. Mesut Ozil is ahead of him in the space between the two lines, but Gibbs would have to have great confidence with his right foot to play a pass into Ozil, as Livermore is in a good position, even though he slipped, to prevent a pass (particularly a left-footed one) from getting to Ozil. Ahmed Elmohamady blocks the passing lane to Lukas Podolski. If there is space to move the ball into, it is on Arsenal’s right side, as David Meyler has followed Santi Cazorla into a central position. Had Kieran Gibbs’ first instinct been to make a pass to the center rather than look up-field, he may have seen a potential passing lane, between Stephen Quinn and Matty Fryatt, to Ramsey. A successful pass could allow Ramsey to potentially move the ball to Bacary Sagna, who has plenty of space between him and Rosenior.

However, Gibbs does not seem to see Ramsey as a passing option before Quinn gets in position to eliminate that passing lane. Gibbs then clips a pass to Per Mertesacker, who chests it to Ramsey.

Ramsey

Ramsey does not cleanly take the ball. When he finally gets it under control and faces Hull’s goal, he finds Fryatt in front of him. He has Sagna as a passing option, sideways to the right, and Arteta, sideways to the left. While there exists a large amount of space behind Fryatt, Arsenal do not have a player in that space. As I stated in the Chelsea-Arsenal preview, Arsenal tend to have a desire for verticality in midfield. That way, when the ball moves from midfielder to midfielder, the play moves up the pitch with greater speed. However, even if Cazorla came deep sooner than he does, Livermore has no problem following Cazorla. So, instead of waiting to see if Cazorla will drop into that space and get free from Livermore, Ramsey plays the ball to Arteta, who quickly shifts the play back to Gibbs.

With Gibbs receiving the ball with his back to goal, Elmohamady advances to close him down. Gibbs does not strike anyone as a player who would receive the ball with his back to goal, make the proper turn, and go past zealous defender. Therefore, putting pressure on him forces him to move back to his goal and increases the probability of a backwards pass, this time to Koscielny.

Koscielny plays it to Mertesacker, who then plays it to Podolski in a central midfield position. Livermore follows him and Podolski looks to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible, making a pass to Ramsey. Ramsey receives the ball with his back to goal, and Huddlestone looks to close him down. This forces him to move back to his own goal and then play a pass back to Arteta, who touches it on to Koscielny. Even though there existed a large amount of space behind Huddlestone, and even if an Arsenal player moved into that space, Ramsey has little chance of finding him in that advantageous position, unless he tried a risky backheel pass.

back

Again, Arsenal attack down the left, starting with a Koscielny pass to Mesut Ozil. Ozil finds himself with plenty of space because he drops in from the James Chester’s (the right-sided center back) zone. While Chester wants to close down an Arsenal player between the lines, he refrains from going beyond the midfield. He leaves Ozil to Jake Livermore, to whom Ozil represents a “new” piece of information, which he must integrate with the rest of his knowledge about the current situation, to come up with a decision on how to defend his zone at that moment.

Gibbs does not present much of an option for Ozil, given the proximity of Elmohamady to the Arsenal left-back. A pass into Giroud would call for the Frenchman to potentially face a 1-on-3. Therefore, Ozil opts for a pass into the interior to Podolski. If Podolski receives the ball smoothly, he has the chance to drive at Hull’s back line. This threat to the back line may give Giroud a chance to make a run on goal, breaking away from Hull defenders, who may be focusing too much on the ball. Instead, Podolski takes a poor first touch, and Livermore puts hoofs the loose ball towards Arsenal’s goal.

I will not continue to describe the play after this, but from the moment Livermore hoofs the ball, Arsenal spend about 1:10 with all of the possession and attempt only one pass through midfield line. The pass goes to Giroud, who does not successfully receive the ball due to the pressure applied by Davies. Hull regain possession; Ozil commits a foul; the referee awards a free kick to Hull, thus ending that flow of play.

Given the success that they have had with these particular tactics against Arsenal, Hull may attempt to clog the center of the pitch, have plenty of resources allocated to the back line to incentivize the aggression of their midfielders in closing down spaces and winning the ball, who have cover for the times such their aggressive approach fails. Therefore, Arsenal may want to create more space for their midfielders and some confusion in Hull’ back line through the use of their attacking front.

Depth from the Forward Line

The way Arsenal solved the problem of Hull’s defensive set-up primarily came down to the addition of Yaya Sanogo. Sanogo gave Arsenal another player who worked hard off the ball, especially compared to Podolski, and his positioning high up the pitch helped to better occupy the Hull City center backs. This reduced Hull City’s center backs’ ability to aggressively close down the space in front of them and forced them to take up deeper, more variable positions, as the combined work of Giroud and Sanogo pulled apart and caused confusion in the Hull back line.

Going back to analogy that the excess center backs served a loss-covering function (note 1), the introduction of Sanogo limited Hull’s ability to cover the losses of unsuccessful risks taken by Hull’s more advanced defenders. This may have helped to reduce the aggressiveness of Hull City’s defending, along with general fatigue, as they knew they did not have someone behind them, free to bail them out. Combine this with better movement², and the move to a kind of a 4-2-2-2, and Arsenal took control of the match.

While Arsenal will not have the duo of Giroud and Sanogo to push back Hull City’s back line, they can use a trio of Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Arsenal could look to push this trio high up the pitch, especially if Hull City opt for a back three (probably comprised of Davies, Chester, and Michael Dawson). Against a back three, playing three players in the highest line of attack could force Hull’s wingbacks to drop into deeper positions, lowering their threat on the counter and creating open space to the sides of the midfield line. Playing this high attacking front could help with some of the spacing issues Arsenal seem to have, which may worse without Mesut Ozil.

Without the selflessness of Ozil, Arsenal do run the risk of Wilshere, Cazorla, Sanchez, and Welbeck congregating in the left half-space, in front of the opponent’s back line (this happened anyway against Chelsea. Look at the Player Positions figure at the bottom of the Whoscored match report). The proximity of Arsenal attackers in this cluster does allow for quicker interplay and a better ability to win the ball if possession is lost. Also, with a player on the right-side playing in an advanced position, looking to make diagonal runs in behind, these relatively deep clusters of Arsenal attackers on the left could work to suck the opponent’s defenders ball-side. This would increase the effectiveness of a diagonal ball from left-to-right, looking to pick out the diagonal run of an Oxlade-Chamberlain or a Theo Walcott. However, the trade-off of this clustering is pretty clear. By shrinking the attacking space, they make themselves easier to defend. Therefore, they make it easier for the opponent to win the ball.

The depth created by Arsenal’s attacking front could prove essential in helping them maintain possession and giving their midfielders more space to operate. And it is not like the attacking front has to chain themselves to their advanced positions. By having three players in Sanchez, Welbeck, and Oxlade-Chamberlain who can also drop into midfield, Arsenal can also create quite a bit of uncertainty for defenders.

Think of uncertainty as an implicit tax placed on individuals. Say I want to make an investment, but I perceive that there will be a significant amount of variability in the interest rate, regulations, taxes, etc. over the timeframe of the investment. More importantly, I do not have a feel for the pattern of the variability over that time. So, I know there may be changes in these factors, but I do not have a clue about the number of changes, the time any particular change would occur, each one’s magnitude and direction, etc. That excessive uncertainty makes the difficult task of making a good investment harder. Maybe one kind of investment looks good now, but in a few years, changes in those factors could turn my investment into a poor one. Maybe investments that appear as poor options, under current conditions, wind up being very good investments down the line, due to changes in these factors. This excessive uncertainty not only makes it hard to make good investments, but it also makes it harder to plan, increasing the difficulty of coordinating with the investments of others (or even my own investments over time).

In a football match, where defending essentially comes down to the coordinated actions (investments) of eleven individuals, creating uncertainty helps create goals³. If Arsenal played a static two up top, with another player looking to link-up in midfield, then that predictable set-up makes it easier for a defense to plan. Hull City can determine a way of making investments that will have relatively predictable payoffs. This certainty allows them to plan (both centrally and with respect to the individual decision makers) on what to do as a team, helping them to coordinate the actions of all eleven players, making them more effective as a defensive unit.

If Arsenal have a front three where any one of the three can operate as the linker with the midfield or in the most advanced line, then Arsenal become much more difficult to defend, as the increased uncertainty they impose on the opponent increases the difficulty of making the right investments for each of the defenders. If the individual defenders cannot make the right investments consistently, nor can they predict what their teammates will do around them (how they will invest), the wrong decisions will be made more often and that crucial sense of trust among the defenders might evaporate because they cannot properly predict each other’s actions. If I have no idea as to how my teammate will react, then how can I trust him to do his job? Do I have to do his job for him? Who will take over my responsibilities if I go help him? Ultimately, the ability to coordinate the actions of the defenders, so to work as a unit, becomes more difficult, and the risk of a bunch of individuals defending in an uncoordinated manner significantly increases. This makes it much easier for the attacking team to have their way with their opponents.

Dribble Fiends

I have seen a few tweets and pieces (here is one by Michael Cox) highlighting Arsenal’s propensity for dribbling. Now, the quantity of dribbles may have to do with a lack of cohesion, reducing the value of the pass-and-move game that Arsenal tend to base their game around. However, if Hull employ a similar strategy to the one they used in last season’s FA Cup Final, then the individualistic skill that Arsenal have showcased could prove valuable. In that match, sometimes an Arsenal player received the ball with his back to goal with a Hull City player closing them down. Behind that Hull City player, there existed a large amount of space. If an Arsenal player had made the proper turn and gotten past that initial defender, then the whole pitch would open up for them. They could dribble towards the back line, have plenty of time and space to play the through ball, and could occupy the attention of Hull’s defenders, helping their teammates create separation from their defenders.

Given the potential gains from dribbling in this game (yes, there are downsides, like turnovers that results in counter-attacks that lead to goals.), Jack Wilshere could have himself quite the match. According to Whoscored.com, Wilshere has made 3.9 successful dribbles/90 minutes, completing close to 50% of his dribbles. Along with Cazorla, in Arsenal’s 4-1-4-1, Wilshere could severely punish Hull City’s aggressive style of defending. With a front line creating depth by pushing against Hull City’s back line, Wilshere could find himself dribbling into quite a bit of space, with plenty of freedom to pick whatever option he sees as the best one to open up the Hull defense.

Set-Pieces and Counter-Attacks

One of the reasons that Hull City may look to adopt an aggressive and defensive approach in their own half, but not look to press high up the pitch, so to win the ball back closer to Arsenal’s goal, is because they have a willingness to rely on set-pieces and counter-attacks initiated from deep positions. In the 2014 FA Cup Final, both of their goals came from a passage of play that started with a set-piece, and they would have scored a third off a set-piece had Kieran Gibbs not made a headed clearance to prevent that goal. With the likes of Curtis Davies, Michael Dawson, Abel Hernandez, Nikica Jelavic, and Mohamed Diame all above 6’1”, Hull City have a clear advantage in the air that they may look to exploit as a part of a low-risk attacking strategy. The same goes with counter-attacks. By countering from deep, Hull City would try to exploit the defensive problems of Arsenal’s attacking shape, combined with an inconsistent commitment to counter-pressing,4 by looking to hit them on the counter, particularly with their wingbacks bombing forward to deliver crosses into the box or long balls up to the attacking front.

There are ways to combat these things. One could try to counter-press to prevent the opponent from exploiting them on the counter. Along with that pressing, one could also add a win-the-ball-or-take-the-man approach where if the ball is not won, at least a foul gets conceded to stop the play. While Arsenal do not want to concede set-pieces, a set-piece 60 meters away from one’s goal should not pose much of a threat and gives a chance for the defense to get organized. There is always the option of having a fullback sit deeper, potentially sacrificing the team’s effectiveness in attack to reduce their susceptibility to getting ripped apart on the counter. With Nacho Monreal probably playing left center back, Arsenal probably need to put a special emphasis on either mitigating the damage from counters and/or limiting the number of counter-attacking opportunities that make it into their half.

And yet, maybe not switching off represents the solution that provides the most bang-for-the-buck. As Tim points out in his notes on the goals Arsenal have conceded, a lot of the goals Arsenal have conceded are a byproduct of lapses in concentration. A team is made up of eleven individual decision makers, who look to coordinate their actions to achieve the desired result (ideally). Therefore, not only do lapses in concentration increase the probability of conceding goals, they also represent another element of uncertainty, an element that is difficult to plan for, one that can potentially impede the eleven players’ ability to coordinate their actions. So, while it may seem odd to conclude a tactics piece with a call for greater focus, sometimes something as simple as not switching off can go a long way in improving results. And for a side that has only earned 10 points from their first seven matches and is still figuring out how to play with one another, they cannot afford to throw away points due to a lack of focus.

@njm1211

¹If I tell you that you can make an investment (going for a tackle or an interception in this case), and I will cover your losses if the investment goes bad (this is the role the free Hull City central defenders played), it stands to reason (an assumption that people are not risk-seeking or even risk-neutral) that you will be more willing, on average, to make the riskier investment (that tackle or the interception) rather than the perceived “safe” investment (holding your position). This is because the “guarantee” that my losses will be covered increases the expected value of my action (a full guarantee cuts out losses from the distribution of outcomes), but maybe more importantly, lowers the variance (the uncertainty) of the outcome. This idea that reducing the risk associated with an action ends up incentivizing the action is the concept that can be applied to things like driving and implicit guarantees to particular institutions that may have started back in 1984 with Continental Illinois. This can also be observed when losses (or gains that are not sufficiently large) do not matter to the decision-maker. Down 1-0, it makes sense to engage in riskier strategies on average, since losing 2-0 or 3-0 is pretty much the same as losing 1-0, but drawing or winning the match is a significantly better outcome.
²A lack of aggression from Hull City may have facilitated this as well, as Hull City’s lowered willingness to follow Arsenal’s midfielders may have led to Arsenal’s players perceiving that their movement had more value. In the first half, an Arsenal midfielder could work hard, move about the pitch, and have a Hull City player dog him the whole time. He may never break free and may not receive the positive feedback (time, space, and possession of the ball) needed to reinforce that behavior and educate him as to which movements and which spaces are the ones to use and exploit, respectively. After the 60th minute, that hard work and movement leads to more success in escaping Hull City’s defenders and finding + receiving the ball in open spaces. The rather evident success of their actions means that Arsenal players receive better and more feedback concerning their movement and the spaces they exploit. Not only do Arsenal play better as a unit with this increased movement, but that, combined with better feedback, allow Arsenal’s players to reveal more knowledge about how to best rip Hull apart. That is not to say that Arsenal’s players should not have been more active in the first half, but incentives and feedback loops probably matter. Getting rewarded, as long as the reward is rewarding, when doing the right thing, and not getting rewarded when doing the wrong thing probably leads to better patterns of behavior than not being rewarded, regardless of the action.
³You could have an individual matchup that is so much in your favor that you can exploit it over and over again with success unless there is a massive shift in defensive resources allocated to evening up that matchup. However, such advantages rarely exist.
4Against a side with players like Livermore, Diame (coming back from African Cup of Nations qualifying duty with Senegal, who played two matches, including one on Wednesday), and Huddlestone in midfield, along with Dawson, Davies, and Chester at the back, forcing Hull’s midfield + back three to make quick decisions and rely on their ability to control the ball may prove a rather profitable strategy. This game could represent another potential opportunity for Arsenal to employ a high pressing and counter-pressing game to great effect.