Category Archives: Arsenal

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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

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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.

Arsene knows

Arsenal top the table once again but could have Achilles snipped this weekend

Every season since I started blogging about Arsenal, which coincides with Arsenal moving to the new stadium*, the Gunners have topped a different table. In the eight years I’ve been doing this Arsenal have won the Fair Play table, the Injury Table, the money table, the “over-achieved for total spend” table, the “Referees have done one on us Table” from Debatable Decisions (defunct), and the Total Shots Ratio table. Sometimes Arsenal have been so good that that have done the double or triple and topped multiple tables in a single season!  But all those tables pale in comparison to the new table Arsenal top. I am proud to announce that thanks to the international week Arsenal are still top of the table, baby. The “Expected Goals Table” that is.

I’m being cheeky but the Expected Goals table is actually not a bad table to top. The “xG Table” as it is known is the logical outgrowth of the Total Shots Ratio table and xG is a damn fine tool for predicting how many goals we would expect a team to score and concede over a given number of shots.

If you’ve been around my blog for any amount of time you know that I am a fan of total shots ratio. It’s not a perfect analytic tool but it makes a lot of sense, has a high rate of correlation, and it’s really simple. Basically, the best  teams shoot more and simultaneously limit the opposition’s shots and the result is that they tend to win more. This, however, isn’t always true.

The Invincibles had the lowest Total Shots Ratio (0.63) of any Arsenal side from 2000-2013. The only Arsenal side that had a lower TSR was last season’s Arsenal side, which had a TSR of just 0.60. Meanwhile, the Arsenal side of 09/10 had the best Total Shots Ratio I’ve seen in a long time at .69. If you remember, that was the season Arsenal leapfrogged into… third place. Arsenal probably could have finished better than third except that Arsenal allowed the opposition 13% conversion rate and as a result, shipped 41 goals that season. Up until that season, Arsene’s Arsenal had only allowed 40+ goals twice. After that season, 40+ is the new normal.

So, how did TSR not predict that Arsenal would finish 3rd? 2009/2010 was the first season, if you remember, that the opposition started to figure out how to play against Arsenal’s high defensive line and take advantage of Arsenal’s lapses in concentration at the back. Conceding against corners, set plays, headers, in addition to the route one counter attacks were all hallmarks of that team and remain the main method teams employ to beat Arsenal now. So, while we know that Total Shots Ratio is a good measure, it’s also flawed. Some shots are simply better than others!

This is a drum I have been beating for years. Shots in the box are converted at a higher rate than shots outside the box and shots in the “prime areas” are converted at an even higher rate. Moreover, headers, even in prime areas, are converted at a lower rate and, unless you’re Luis Suarez**, headers from outside the prime areas are almost never converted. We also know that crossing the ball is not as effective as playing a through-ball for an assist, that corners are a low percentage shot, and that one-on-one’s with the keeper are terrific chances. This is something you’ve probably heard me say here and on Arseblog News: all key passes are equal, but some key passes are more equal than others.

This is where the newest metric, Expected Goals, comes in to play. What folks like Michael Caley, have done is taken the idea that some shots are better than others and created a much more detailed version of the Total Shots Ratio. By analyzing where the shots are taken, not just how many, and where the teams are allowing the opposition to get shots and using them in a ratio, Caley is able to come up with a much more accurate predictor of League Performance.

And if you even take a cursory look at Caley’s tables, Arsenal are tops: they top Total Shots Ratio, they top Danger Zone Ratio (DZR), DZR minus crosses, Expected Goals, Expected Goals Against, Expected Goals Ratio, Strength of Schedule (actually they are third), and Adjusted Expected Goals Ratio. So, why are Arsenal in 6th place? Well, several reasons.

First, I have no criticism of the work that Caley has done. This is a tremendous boon to the stats community and something I have wanted to do for years but haven’t been able to put together the time. His model isn’t wrong, his model shows that Arsenal are generating great shots in great areas while limiting the opposition to fewer of those same shots. On average, we expect that Arsenal would score more goals and concede less goals than other teams who are taking fewer and allowing more of those same shots. The problem is that Arsenal often buck stats trends.

Like I showed above with the Invincibles and with the 09/10 Arsenal side the peculiarity of Arsenal is that while the boss plays the averages and uses them in his analysis of the game, the particulars, the Achilles heel, of Arsenal continue to be exploited.

crosses It’s not always the same heel that teams nip at. As you can see from the 7amkickoff Index, this season, the thing that teams are picking on is crosses. In the 11 matches Arsenal have played in the Premier League, Arsenal have conceded 6 goals off crosses and a further 5 of those crosses have been headed. Arsenal have conceded 13 goals in 11 games when the xG numbers say we should have conceded about 8. I mark that increase down almost entirely to headed goals conceded off crosses: a low percentage shot that Arsenal seem vulnerable to this season.

That brings me neatly to the weekend’s match against Man U. Arsenal are the most prolific crossing team in the League and Man U are just 1 cross per game average less that Arsenal. Man U get almost all of that crossing from just one player: Angel Di Maria. ADM is 1st in the League in crosses attempted, he’s 3rd in accurate crosses, he’s 2nd in accurate corners, he’s 3rd in the League in generating shots off crosses, and tied with Fabregas for 1st in the League with throughball key passes. If there was any player Arsenal don’t want to face on Saturday, it’s him.

Those who see the cup as half full will see that statistically Arsenal are doing the right things to prevent goals and to score goals. As Wenger would probably point out, the Premier League race is a marathon and this one statistical aberration of headed goals conceded off crosses should revert to mean. Thus, if Arsenal just keep doing what they are doing they should be a shoo-in for the top four.

Those who are cup half empty, spilling out into the streets which run red with Achilles’ blood, will probably point to Arsenal’s vulnerability to the same old faults and say “statistics don’t tell the whole story.”


*Kick 7amkickoff out of football!
**Scoring headers from this distance is almost unheard of. I would bet that there hasn’t been a header scored from the top of the box in 10 years. I know that Wilshere’s goal was beautiful to watch but given the rarity and skill on display here how this goal wasn’t even nominated for goal of the season is beyond me.

dirty luiz

Ramsey, Wilshere, and Sanchez could all heed Wenger’s advice: simplify and conquer

Shall I compare thee to Ramsey of yore?
Thou art more likely to misplace a simple pass
or attempt a dribble between two defenders.
Thou eschewer of shots within the box
Thou splitting pass not maker any morer!

As you can see, I watched Aaron Ramsey play for Wales against Belgium this weekend. Ramsey had what looked to me like a shocker. Maybe he’s unfit, as he himself suggested, but yet he was asked to run the offense from his perch at the #10 position. Up front for a Welsh side that had Gareth Bale’s Alice Band in the forward-ish role, Ramsey looked a shadow of his former self: he couldn’t dribble, couldn’t pass, and ran with all the pace of a man stuck in treacle.

Of course, that kind of performance always gets me wondering what, exactly, has gone wrong in Aaron’s game this year. We all know that he’s come in for a lot of criticism, most notably from Arsene Wenger himself, and he responded the other day making claims that he isn’t 100% fit. So, I looked at his numbers and you know what? I agree with him, it looks like he’s playing at about 90%.

Ramsey (per 90) 2012 2013 2014
Shots 6 yard 0.2 0.2 0.3
Shots inside 0.7 1.2 0.6
Shots outside 1.1 1.2 2.5
Tackles 3.1 3.9 2.8
Dribbled past 1.4 1.9 1.6
Errant Short Passes 7.7 10.4 9.7
Good SP 57.3 61.1 69.8
Errant SP Percent 11.85% 14.55% 12.20%
Interceptions 1.9 1.2 1.2
Good dribbles 1.5 1.5 0.6
Failed Dribbles 1.6 2.1 2.3
Through ball KP 0.1 0.4 0

You only need to look at two numbers to see what effect the injuries have had on Ramsey: dribbles and tackles. Both dribbling and tackling require confidence, quick bursts of speed, good touch (especially for dribbling) and good timing.

If you’re carrying an injury, or even harboring worries about getting re-injured, you’re far less confident in your ability. This will often lead to the kind of weak dribbling attempts I’ve noticed from Ramsey lately. The same for confidence in the tackle. You’re hardly going to go flying about the pitch looking to mix it up with the opposition midfielder if you’re worried about pulling a groin muscle. Football is a game of millimeters and any hesitation in almost any skill is going to be exposed.

The same with timing, touch, and speed. If you’re not playing every day then your timing and touch goes sour. And if you’re carrying an injury, you certainly aren’t going to have those bursts of speed needed to get by a defender with a dribble.

Simply put, players need to be 100% match fit and confident in their abilities when they step on the pitch. The Premier League is a brutal playground where any weakness is ruthlessly exploited. Ramsey’s drop off in tackles and dribbles is consistent with his story that he’s lacking match fitness.

What isn’t consistent is the shots from distance. I always think of a player taking too many shots from outside the 18 yard box as lacking in confidence, patience, and/or going for glory. Balotelli, for example, is the long-shot king and despite the cool exterior and the swagger I think he’s a player who lacks true confidence in his abilities. He’s also the kind of player who loves the spectacular and seems like he’s the impulsive type.

Ramsey’s shots from distance could be a sign that he is rushing things a little bit and maybe has been sapped of his confidence by the injury. This would explain why Arsene Wenger has urged Ramsey to simplify his game, to return to basics, and do what he does best: pass and move. A little bit more patience (from the player and us*) will pay off in the end for Ramsey. He will get the ball closer to goal and will start scoring again. Trying to force the issue through ill-advised long range bombs, silly dribbles, and back-heel passes is not going to cure anything.

Giving the ball away too much

Here’s the deal, Arsenal have literally never had a player like Sanchez, at least not in the modern stats-era. Even trying to define which position he’s playing in is difficult. Is he a wing player? Is he an attacking mid? Is he a second striker? Is he Arsenal’s main man at the moment? He’s all of those and more, which is why his stats are so weird.

(below the goals and assists lines are per90 stats)

Sanchez 2014 Cesc 2009/2010 Van Persie 2011/2012 Walcott 2012/2013 Ramsey 2013/2014
Goals 8 15 30 14 10
Assists 2 13 10 10 8
Short passes 39.7 53.2 21.1 17 61.4
Errant short passes 11.9 13 5.4 3.3 10.4
Err. Short pass % 23% 20% 20% 16% 14%
Key passes 2.8 3.9 2.5 1.6 1.6
Throughball KP 0.3 0.6 0.3 0 0.4
Dribbles 3.6 2.1 1.1 1.8 1.5
Failed dribbles 3.1 1.3 0.6 2.4 2.1
Shots off 1.5 2.2 2.5 1.9 1.1
Shots on 1.8 1.3 2.2 1.5 1.4
Shots from distance 1.5 1.8 1 1.1 1.2
Shots inside the box 1.8 1.7 3.7 2.3 1.3

As you can see, Sanchez isn’t an outright forward like van Persie and Walcott. He doesn’t just receive the ball the way that they do. He is involved in the build-up phase as well as the final phase. That’s why, on a Per90 basis, Alexis passes the ball about twice as often as Welbeck or Giroud (54 v. 29).

Still, his errant short pass rate is alarmingly high for a midfielder. He leads Arsenal with 103 errant short passes and that’s dragging his pass completion rate down to 77%. If he was a forward, like Giroud, that wouldn’t be too bad. Giroud, last season, averaged 9.8 giveaways per90 from short passes. That was 31% of his attempted short passes which went astray.

Sanchez is not just a pure forward. Instead, he’s a hybrid of forward, wing, and creative midfielder. The result is that he’s leading Arsenal in goals, assists (tied with Welbeck), key passes, dribbles, being dispossessed, turnovers, and errant short passes.

When I watched Sanchez play for Chile in the World Cup this summer, I noticed that he has a tendency to try to do everything on his own. This led to several matches where I thought he dribbled too much, passed poorly, dwelt on the ball too long, or made a silly turnover. For example, in the match against Brazil, Alexis scored the goal, had 2 key passes, dribbled 6 times, was fouled 7 times, turned the ball over 4 times, and was dispossessed 14 times — each of those stats led his team. Great players do this; when they feel the team is lacking a bit they will try to take on everything in order to will the team to win.

I suspect that Sanchez is giving the ball away so much because he’s still trying to get to know his teammates. And while he may be topping Arsenal in that category it’s important to note that on a per90 basis, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey are second and third, averaging 10 errant short passes each and with Wilshere missing about 16% of his short passes while Ramsey is missing about 12% of his. Interestingly, I think Sanchez, Wilshere, and Ramsey could all take on a little of Wenger’s criticism of Ramsey and try to simplify their game.


*Part of Ramsey’s problem is that Arsenal fans are expecting more from him this season. His total drop in numbers isn’t really that bad, but compared to where some folks expect him to be it probably looks horrible.