Category Archives: Arsenal


Naveen’s tactical preview: Liverpool v. Arsenal

By Naveen Maliakkal

Last season, Liverpool rode a particular approach to a second place finish in the English Premier League. With the individual talents of Daniel Sturridge, Luis Suarez, and Raheem Sterling, Liverpool played a style that maximized the amount of opportunities their star players could play with the ball in space, with the 4-diamond-2 keeping those talents close enough for them to interact. To create this space for their attackers, they operated as a counter-attacking side. They wanted to control the space around the ball as quickly and as high up the pitch as possible. This would increase their ability to win the ball high up the pitch, shortening the distance they had to travel to reach the opponent’s goal. Also, by trying to control the space that the ball occupied further away from their own goal, they looked to minimize their reliance on controlling spaces occupied Steven Gerrard, the back line, and Simon Mignolet. This led to a title run that came crashing down at the end of the season, as Liverpool’s flaw were revealed.

Against Chelsea, Liverpool faced a team that was more than willing to sit deep and avoid Liverpool’s best individual talents and eat up the large amount of space that other teams, including Arsenal, had afforded them. Unlikely other English Premier League teams, who often lack the proper compactness and coordination as a unit to prevent Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling to shine, Chelsea had the ability to effectively control space as a unit. What also helped Chelsea was Liverpool’s inability to control space when they had control of possession. While Liverpool had players suited to exploiting space that their opponent did not control well due to their attacking shape, they did not function well as a unit to create and exploit openings against an organized deep-lying defense.

An obvious issue in Liverpool’s shape was that they were often too spread out. While a team wants to “make the pitch big”, a lack of compactness in possession poses some significant issues. Obviously, the larger the distance between players, the farther the ball has to travel. This means that ball has less of an ability to change direction. With a possession-based side’s need to move their opponent’s shape quicker than their opponent can react, in order to create openings, Liverpool’s lack of compactness hurt their ability to do that.

Their poor positional play also led to a lack of options available to individuals. Not only does a lack of compactness force the ball to travel farther, but passing lanes can become easier to defend because the ball has to travel a longer distance. Since options can be taken away from the player on the ball with such ease, ball movement suffers, as players wait for an option to appear. Again, this hurts a team’s ability to move their opponent’s defensive shape, and against Chelsea, this inability to penetrate led to them resorting to long-ranged potshots, particularly when they fell behind 1-0.

Against Crystal Palace, Liverpool’s inability to kill the game with their possession or hold a team off by defending in a compact organized manner showed.  With a 3-0 lead, the game remained open. So while Liverpool had the lead, they lacked control over the match (much like Arsenal against Anderlecht after Mikel Arteta went off injured).This lack of control meant that they could not reduce the variance of the potential set of outcomes—they played right into the hands of David vs. Goliath. Ultimately, their inability to create options in possession to help them control the ball and their lack of quality defensively as an entire unit cost them a title.

Going into this season, they lost one of their great individual talents to the transfer market. Maybe the loss of Luis Suarez forced a rethink by the rest of the league, along with the Chelsea match and the Crystal Palace match. This season, teams seem to have a better understanding of why Liverpool had such success, and have taken it away. With teams willing to give Liverpool control of the ball, they have given themselves a greater ability to exploit Liverpool’s ineptitude when it comes to controlling space with the ball and limit the amount of times that Liverpool’s individual talents find themselves with plenty of space¹.

While Liverpool could rely on their star players to bail them out against such sides, the loss of Suarez to Barcelona, the loss of Sturridge to injury, and the large workload placed on Sterling has eroded the chances that a moment of brilliance bails them out of a poor performance. Combine this with teams not giving Steven Gerrard the time and space he needed to provide whatever value he can to his club, at this point in this career, along with the ineptitude of Liverpool’s center backs on the ball, and defending Liverpool has become a rather simple task this season.

Defensively, they still have the same problems they had last season. They remain a rather open side when they do not have the ball. Their increased time on the ball against an organized defense exacerbates this issue. While their poor positional play hurts their ability to move the ball, control space, and their ability to control the ball, it also decreases their ability to control space once the ball is lost. Liverpool’s players often have to travel too far of a distance to eliminate passing lanes, put pressure on the ball, and win the ball, in order to avoid exposure of their lack of quality at the back of the team.

Brendan Rodgers has yet to figure out how to best play with this team (the number of signings Liverpool made over the summer does not help that issue either). He has played around with formations; he has gone through various starting XIs; he has vacillated between placing an emphasis on pressing to not placing an emphasis on pressing. With this lack of certainty in approach, it becomes difficult to predict how Liverpool will set up for the match on Sunday².

They could go back to the 4-diamond-2, with an emphasis on fullbacks playing high up the pitch to help press Arsenal. This would look something like their approach at Anfield last season. If they do go with this approach, it seems that Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo would represent the best options to play at FB given their athleticism and potential effectiveness in attacking transitions. In midfield, Steven Gerrard could return to his deeper role with two more energetic players in front of him, in Emre Can and Jordan Henderson. Occupying the positions at the diamond and the front two would probably be some iteration of Philippe Coutino, Adam Lallana, and Raheem Sterling. They will look to concede possession to Arsenal. Instead of pressing high, they may look to press once the ball gets past the half-way line and into Arsenal’s midfield. With the 4-diamond-2, they could look to clog the center of the pitch, with their pressing fullbacks looking to eliminate options and/or close down players on the wings.

With the likes of Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez playing at the front, such an approach would be riskier than it was last season, as Arsenal have a greater ability to exploit the offside space that Liverpool concede if they try to remain compact in their shape. If Liverpool look to eliminate the amount of offside space by having deeper-lying backline, then Arsenal have two quality outlets in Danny Welbeck and a fresher/fitter Olivier Giroud, who can drop into the space between the back line and midfield. This can give Arsenal an onside space “out” ball in the face of pressure, allowing them to better control the space that Liverpool would concede with this particular approach.

Another possible set-up for Liverpool could be the kind of 3-4-3 that they used against Manchester United and Bournemouth. This formation seems to be Rodgers most recent effort to play matches the way they did last season. While the pressing looks disorganized, it is energetic. The effectiveness of this pressing depends quite a bit on the lack of technical ability, ball movement, and positional play of the opposition – the opponent’s inability to control possession. They want their energy to create errant passes and poor touches. The turnovers they create will allow them to better get Raheem Sterling in space. Their playing style in possession still relies heavily on quickly getting their individual stars the ball, to let them exploit space as an individual.

Against Bournemouth and Manchester United, they did do well to disrupt their opposition. However, outside of Michael Carrick, neither team had players who one would look to if one desired control of possession. Against a team that could play through or beyond their pressure, they risk conceding control of important spaces to their opponent. Just as with the 4-diamond-2, Arsenal have an ability to exploit a lack of compactness, either exploiting the offside space or the onside space that Liverpool concede.

Another aspect of Arsenal’s play that could punish Liverpool’s 3-4-3 is the positioning of their fullbacks. Instead of playing with a narrow diamond in midfield, if Liverpool look to play two wing-backs and the wing-backs must track the fullbacks, then Liverpool have gifted Arsenal the ability to easily gain control of the midfield zone.

Arsenal could look to push both fullbacks high up the pitch, forcing Liverpool into a back 5, with 2 players in midfield to control the midfield zone. With Liverpool’s three center backs all lacking the ability to defend in wide areas/turn themselves into half-backs. Arsenal could push their fullbacks up the pitch, drop one or two of the front 3 into the midfield zone, along with Cazorla playing a deeper controlling midfield role. This could give Arsenal a 4-on-2 or a 5-on-2 in midfield, allowing them to dominate the midfield zone. In particular, they could look to exploit the spaces to the side of Liverpool’s central midfield duo—the half-spaces. Either Liverpool’s midifielders do not respond, allowing Arsenal to control a dangerous space close to Liverpool’s goal, or Liverpool’s midfielders respond, conceding space either in the center of the pitch or in the other half-space. As long as Arsenal position themselves in such a manner that they can move the ball quickly enough to exploit this space, then they should find success against Liverpool.

Lallana and/or Coutinho could look to drop into the wide midfield roles, helping the probable duo of Lucas Leiva and Gerrard to try to control space in the midfield zone. However, this would give Arsenal a 2-on-1 or a 3-on-1 at the back, depending on the positioning of the holding midfield. Unlike Liverpool, whose center backs have little ability on the ball, in Chambers and an unpressured Mertesacker, Arsenal have a greater ability to do damage with the ball at the feet of their center backs. If Liverpool look to drop Raheem Sterling into a deeper position, then Arsenal also benefit, as an overworked Sterling will have to make longer sprints to pose a threat on the counter. If Sterling runs out of gas during this match, Liverpool would take a significant hit with respect to their ability to create goals.

This approach does potentially leave Arsenal vulnerable to a run in behind their back line by Raheem Sterling. For this reason, Arsenal need to remain compact in their shape when they have the ball. With the fullbacks high up the pitch to push the wingbacks into the back line, Liverpool have a decreased ability to push the ball to the flanks for the purposes of advancement. Therefore, Liverpool will have to resort to long balls or throughballs to quickly transition. If Arsenal remain compact in their attacking shape, when they lose the ball, they have plenty of bodies to shut down passing lanes and effectively apply pressure to the man on the ball. For all the speed of Raheem Sterling, Arsenal’s control of the space around the ball, both in possession and out of possession, can render that moot.

And that is probably the theme of this match. Liverpool still seem to want to rely on the ability of individual players—a rather English characteristic. Arsenal, as they did once before with Wenger, seem to want to get away from the English culture of football. They seem to want to emphasize the ability of the unit to control a match. A club with an English mentality sees the potential of Sterling going up against Mertesacker or even Calum Chambers and licks their lips. They may even build their team shape and playing style around their individual player exploiting that matchup. A team with a greater emphasis on the unit looks to control the match, such that the instances of a disadvantageous 1-on-1 matchup are limited or does not occur.

And yet, while I praise approaches focusing on the unit’s ability to control a match, even the best plan can go to waste without proper execution. This makes prediction difficult, as even having the correct set-up can lead to a loss. Arsenal could completely dominate the match, only to go behind on a deflected own goal. Liverpool could create one chance and score, while Arsenal create chance after chance only to see a zero on the scoreboard. As Friedrich Hayek said in his Nobel Prize lecture, “The Pretense of Knowledge”, specifically referencing ball games, “…our capacity to predict will be confined to such general characteristics of the events to be expected and not include the capacity of predicting particular individual events.” Therefore, as with the match against Manchester United, the execution of the players in particular unpredictable events may prove more important than the advantages/disadvantages created by the plans of either manager.

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¹Why it took so long for managers to realize this may speak to something like a general strategical ineptitude on the part of English Premier League managers, particularly ones with poorer squads as the opportunity cost of such a strategy is relatively smaller, or something like the overemphasis on the importance of the individual, in this case, an overestimation of the effectiveness of Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling against an organized and compact side.

²In fact, it is quite difficult to determine what Brendan Rodgers philosophy of football is. I do not know how his Watford or Reading sides played. However, at the English Premier League level, his Swansea sides seemed to me a good example of a side that could control possession, but struggled to control space. His Liverpool sides have gone from a version of Swansea’s sterile possession, though without the talents of Leon Britton, to the counter-attacking side that relied on not controlling possession, to a side that seems incapable of controlling space in either phase of the game. To me, Rodgers represents the need to pump the brakes on judging a manager after a season of unexpected success when their method of success is unsustainable.


Where are they now: Arsenal’s summer transfer targets

With Arsenal boasting millions of pounds in reserve and losing several key players to the transfer market it was clear that Arsenal needed to buy this summer. The normally irrational Arsenal transfer rumor mill kicked into overdrive and Arsenal were linked with literally dozens of players this summer.

In truth this kind of thing happens every summer. Arsenal seem constantly on the verge of signing almost every player on the planet who shows any promise. So much so that people have made twitter careers carving transfer rumors out of nothing more than a player signing an Arsenal fan’s autograph.

As soon as a player is linked, thousands of Arsenal bloggers log on to YouTube, Whoscored, and Squawka looking for shreds of “evidence” to support the link. “Huh, Falcao runs in behind defenders. He could be the fox in the box Arsenal have been missing since…” report the bloggers. Or, my favorite, “[insert name of large, BLACK, bald midfielder] looks like he could be the defensive midfielder Arsenal fans have desperately cried out for since Patrick Vieira left!”

But while everyone gets excited about these players and argues endlessly about how they will/won’t help Arsenal, no one seems to ever go back and look at how those players got on the next season. That’s what I’m going to do now.

Before I get started, it should be noted that personal stats are pretty much… bunk. They don’t say as much about the player as they do about the team around the player. There are tons of great examples of teams which are set up to exploit a player’s talents. So, when you see that a certain player makes more tackles than another player it really doesn’t mean much more than that player is either being targeted by the opposition or that player’s team is set up to tackle a lot.

Forwards are the one exception to that rule. If a player takes 100 shots a season and scores 20 goals and then takes 90 shots the next and scores 10, as long as the shots are relatively the same, we could reasonably say that player had an off season. Or just one great season.  Or maybe the team wasn’t set up for him the way it was before and he just never found a rhythm.

Either way there are no absolutes. Stats are all about the interpretation. But since forwards are the one where stats seem to speak the loudest those are the players I’m going to look at.

Remy – The biggest name Arsenal were supposed to sign this summer. The biggest name on my wordle which was generated by the survey I did of Arsenal fans. Moved to Chelsea where he has made a home on the bench. Scored 2 times in the Premier League and once in the Champions League. Reminded Arsenal fans of Thierry Henry, but never could break into that elite group of strikers who score more than 20 goals a season. Vastly overshadowed by his Chelsea teammates and looks to have found his level.

Sanchez – Alexis. Arsenal’s blockbuster signing this summer. Bought from Barcelona where he scored 19 goals and laid on 10 assists. Already on pace to eclipse that return with 9 goals and 5 assists for Arsenal in the League and 3 goals and 1 assist in Champions League play. All while playing a much more important role for his new team. For example, already taken twice as many shots from outside the 18 yard box in 15 Arsenal apps as he did in 35 appearances for Barcelona. The one category I was worried about was his ability to dribble. Was a 35% (36/103) dribbler at Barca and that has jumped to over 50% (45/87) with Arsenal. He’s also become more important overall to the Arsenal attack than he was at Barcelona, with 42 key passes for the Gunners compared to 47 last season for Barca. He’s done that in about half the playing time.

Vela – Looks to have maintained his decent form from last season where he scored 16 goals and provided 12 assists. Shots are the same, goals ratio about the same, dribbles are the same. The one thing that’s different is his key passes are about half what they were last season and his assists are suffering as a result. I don’t watch Real Sociadad play football so I don’t know why that is unless…

Griezmann – Moved from RS to Atletico Madrid and saw a massive drop in his minutes and subsequent contributions. Went from playing 77 to just 51 minutes per game on average and the result is pretty stark. Just 3 goals this season and averaging 1.7 shots per game compared to the 16 goals off 3.2 shots per game at RS. Not saying he’s a bad player but this is a classic example of how you can’t tell what a player is going to do when you move him from one team to the next.

Mandzukic – One player who many Gooners wanted in to replace Olivier Giroud and another player, like Griezmann, who made the switch to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. Not sure how we can even start to compare his Bayern stats to his Atletico stats since those two teams are like fire and a bucket of ants. But he’s done decent leading the line for Atleti, especially in the Champions League where he’s scored 5 goals in 6 games.

Balotelli – HA AHAHA HA AHAHA HA … that’s me. Laughing. At myself. I think I wanted Balotelli so bad because you just need to watch him for 10 minutes and you can see he’s a true talent. But then you watch for 10 more minutes and see that talent wasted on a man who, like Hatem Ben Arfa, seems hell-bent on blowing those talents. Two goals for Liverpool this season and already a spate of personal problems on and off the field have made Liverpool the laughing stock of the Premier League.

Drmic – Massive drop from last season to this. Went from being a regular starter at Nurnberg to a regular bench warmer at Leverkuzen. The reason? Change of playing style, change of personnel, a player who is in better form in front of him, and the result is a huge drop in form. This article sums it up very nicely.

Lacazette – I don’t remember who told me to watch this kid but man is he having a crazy break out season, so crazy that Liverpool are trying to buy him! Scored 15 goals last season for Lyon and already has another 15 this season. Shooting and dribbling are both up 1 per game and everything else remains as good if not better than last season. Lyon are challenging for the title and have done well so far to keep key components Lacazette and Gonalons in the team. I don’t see him leaving unless a giant money offer comes to Lyon.

Reus – Injured off and off for most of the season. Had his ankle injured again and is out until January. Still a class player.

Draxler – Out with a torn hamstring but wasn’t playing well before the injury. Let’s see… injured, untested, and not having a great season. Yep, Arsenal are going to buy him in January! He’ll be a new like a new signing.

Falcao – When Arsenal signed Danny Welbeck from Man U so that Man U could afford to take Radmel Falcao on loan it was easily the most contentious deal of the summer. Sparked plenty of “lively debate” on twitter but I boldly predicted that Welbeck would be the better of the two signings. Why? Falcao didn’t offer anything to his teams apart from scoring goals. Just one stat illustrates what I mean: in the last 105 appearances for all his teams he has just 7 assists. Two of those he got playing for United. Not only that but 16 of his last 68 goals have been scored from the penalty spot. AND! He spent almost all of last season and now most of this season injured or out of form. Welbeck isn’t the greatest player in the world but he works hard and is loving life in North London. Welbz already has 6 goals and 2 assists for Arsenal and when you consider the fact that Falcao is getting paid £265,000 a week it looks like Arsenal got a bargain.



Observations on Henry’s first 26 Arsenal goals

As I said in my piece yesterday, I sat down with a video of Thierry Henry’s first 26 Arsenal goals and took some notes. Now, these are just observations and some of you will disagree with them but that’s why I’m posting here: if you want to take 15-20 minutes of your life, watch this video, and give us YOUR observations, then please do. I will gladly amend my database with your notes (or you can do it, see the link below). Maybe if we do this once a week for two months we will have his complete record?

Anyway, here’s a snapshot of the data:



I already want to add venue and opposition! But I’ll leave that to one of my enterprising young readers. Here’s a link to the database, feel free to add what you want on your lunch break.

Here’s my take away from what I observed.

All totaled 18 of Henry’s 26 first season goals were assisted by teammates. That’s my count of assists. Notably, for example, I don’t count Bergkamp’s pass to Henry to score on Desailly in the Chelsea match (goal 25) because Henry still had a ton of work to do on his own before scoring.

There were also two long balls in the match against Sunderland (where Henry beats Bouldy, TWICE!) and I didn’t count them as assists. The first is absolutely not an assist in my book. I won’t even countenance an argument: Henry collects a hopeful punt and dribbles Bould into the corner, then take him inside, and beats him with a long rage shot. The second was Lee Dixon punting the ball up. Henry lets the ball bounce in front of him and instead of collecting the ball off the bounce, uses the bounce to beat Bouldy again. You might disagree with me on those two!

That means, by my tally, Overmars and Kanu had 4 assists each. Parlor had 3 assists. Petit, Silvinho and Vieira both had 2 assists each. And Tony Adams gets one assist, the first assist, for Henry’s first ever Arsenal goal.

Symbolically, I like that Adams was the man passing the ball to Henry for his first goal. One legend to another, passing the ball, passing the armband, passing on the traditions, and passing on the club. It really has to be an Adams assist, doesn’t it?

The other thing that amazes me about Henry’s first season is the number of goals he scored from outside the box, 4. That doesn’t seem like a lot but when you remember that these are very low percentage shots for a normal human (>3% across all shots) then it seems like a lot to me. Henry had 2 pens and 7 goals from Prime positions (inside the 6 yard box or just outside the 6 yard box, extending to the elf meter mark). The remaining goals were all scored from inside the 18 yard box.

I looked at the breakdown of Suarez’ goals for last season with Liverpool: 4 in the 6 yard box, 20 in the 18 yard box, 7 from downtown. Similar to Henry. Maybe that’s the measure of a great striker? How well they score from distance? I don’t know but I do know that it’s something I would love to look at for subsequent Henry seasons.

And finally, I have a “Y” whenever Henry took a pass and dribbled past someone to score. All totaled he had nine of those. He scored twice that season turning a man on his back. A move he would make famous with his goal against Manchester United. The fact that he did it three times in a year seems like evidence that it was something he practiced. Did he do that again after that season? I don’t remember (I should!).

Anyway, there is more there for you to look at, for example, the type of assists and whatnot but I have to run off to work.

Later today I’ll post a second article which is a follow-up on all the players Arsenal fans and the media wanted us to buy this summer. And tomorrow, we will publish Naveen’s Liverpool preview!

Look forward to your comments!