Wilshere-Cazorla

Tactics Preview – Sunderland v. Arsenal: defend as a unit

By Naveen Maliakkal

Sunderland’s 4-1-4-1

While Sunderland have attempted to exert greater control on their matches through possession earlier this season their loss to Southampton may help to push them towards a much less ambitious approach in their match against Arsenal. They may play in their same 4-1-4-1 formation, but the system will probably be one more similar to those used by quite a few of Arsenal’s opponents.

Instead of looking to control the game with the ball, Sunderland will look to control the 30 meters in front of their goal. This deep-defending approach will probably involve a physical trio of midfielders. This means that more technically-gifted players like Sebastian Larsson and Jordi Gomez will probably not play in central midfield. Instead, it seems more likely that Lee Clattermole will play the deepest midfield position with Jack Rodwell and Liam Birdcutt not too far ahead of him. The trio in midfield will probably stay tight and rough up Arsenal’s midfielders, hoping to win the ball and setting their side on the counter-attack.

With Steven Fletcher at center forward, Sunderland have a player who has won 5.4 aerial duels per 90 minutes, according to Whoscored.com, with a success rate of about 43%. With their willingness to use Fletcher as an aerial threat, Sunderland have some choices to make out wide. On the right, they could choose to play Sebastian Larsson. While he may not provide the speed of Adam Johnson or the volume of dribbling of William Buckley, he can create chances with his technical ability, both on set-pieces and in open play. Given Arsenal’s propensity to push both fullbacks up to create width in attack¹ Larsson could find himself in plenty of space on Sunderland’s counter-attacks, free to play long diagonal passes to Fletcher or Johnson on the left. In this sense, Sunderland could use Larsson much the way Netherlands used Danny Blind at left-back during the 2014 World Cup, particularly in their demolition of Spain, as a kind of wide playmaker. Combine this potential for devastation in open-play and his ability on set-pieces, and he represents the greatest danger to Arsenal with the ball.

Arsenal Need to Defend Better as a Unit

Some may focus on Arsenal’s defensive issues as problems at the position of holding midfielder and the nature of fullback usage in attack; however, I would like to highlight some of the problems Arsenal have defensively further up the pitch.

Focusing on last week’s debacle against Hull City, we will join the game at around the 15:24 mark, as Hull’s goalkeeper throws the ball out to a teammate. Jack Wilshere pushes up, forcing a pass and then chases after the pass. While ball-chasing is a terrible way to defend² Wilshere does force a pass towards the sideline and then the ball moves to Elmohamady.

Elmohamady moves the ball back to the right center back. From this point on, Arsenal make what seems like quite a few errors. Pausing the play at the 15:34 mark, we see that Arsenal have the makings of a pressing trap with Alexis Sanchez (up top), Jack Wilshere, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in position to collapse on the ball while keeping the players unavailable to the man on the ball, by running at the ball in such a fashion that the passing lane remains closed/rather small (keeping their opponents in their shadows). With the sideline providing another defender, Arsenal should look to pounce on this opportunity to force a turnover.

press damn you

At the 15:37 mark, Sanchez finds himself behind the Hull’s deepest midfielder. If a pass is made into the midfielder, Sanchez can quickly attack the man on the ball. Since Sanchez has that player covered, Wilshere should attack the ball, with Oxlade-Chamberlain joining him, bending his run to keep Elmohamady in his shadow, so to deny the pass to the wingback. Now the man on the ball could play the ball across the field, but Welbeck, playing a free safety role, appears in position to challenge a pass to the far-side center back or the far-side wingback. Such a press, if executed properly, at worst, leads to a back pass to the keeper.

WILSHERE

Not all of the positioning is proper, though. Santi Cazorla has made an odd choice during this passage of play. With Arsenal playing a 4-1-4-1 defensively, Cazorla plays far too deep, looking to stay between Diame and the Arsenal goal. This caution seems like something some want to see from Arsenal. The problem with this particular kind of caution is that it leads to Arsenal having fewer resources to attack the ball. If Cazorla was further up the pitch, as he should be in a 4-1-4-1, Oxlade-Chamberlain and he could go press the ball, leaving Elmohamady and Diame in their shadows. Wilshere could mark Hull’s deepest midfielder, and Sanchez could put himself in position to intercept a pass to the central center back or to the goalkeeper. Unless the center back can dink a ball over Cazorla or Oxlade-Chamberlain without it going out of play or too far, allowing the holding midfielder to make a play on the ball, the center back’s safest play seems to be a pass back to his keeper, allowing Arsenal to push their defensive shape deeper into Hull territory, or to kick it out of play.

Instead, the center back takes a few touches, lets Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain take a bad angle at him, and passes the ball to Elmohamady. Elmohamady evades a Cazorla tackle and plays the ball to Diame. Fortunately for Arsenal, Diame does not realize that Wilshere is behind him, allowing him to make the tackle from behind. Now I may be too harsh on Cazorla for his caution. Given that Mathieu Flamini is playing at holding midfielder, and would rather sit deep than push up, Cazorla may be justified in taking the approach he did, even if it potentially cost Arsenal a good opportunity to win the ball high up the pitch. Maybe if Arsenal had a better holding midfielder, one who would and could effectively push up to make interceptions, like Arteta from the 2012-13 season, Cazorla would have more confidence in defending high up the pitch. However, this reluctance to push forward proved rather costly for Arsenal about one minute later.

Cazorla

Starting at the 16:30 mark, Elmohamady has the ball with quite a bit of space. Cazorla sees this and follows Diame’s run to prevent a pass to Diame. Elmohamady passes it back to the right center back, who has plenty of time and space because Hull went with a back three and Arsenal have only Welbeck up top. Once Elmohamady makes that pass to his center back, Cazorla needs to immediately move back up the pitch into his proper defensive position. In fact, Hull do Cazorla a favor by playing the ball from the RCB, to the deepest midfielder to the central CB, and then back to the RCB. And yet, in all that time, Cazorla has still not made his way back into position, leaving a significant hole in Arsenal’s defense. In fact, you can observe that Jack Wilshere sees the hole in the defense, turns to Cazorla, and wonders what the heck is doing all the way back there.

Wilshere-Cazorla

Cazorla belatedly moves up the pitch, as the ball gets played to a wide open Jake Livermore. That belated action only exacerbates Arsenal’s problems as Livermore’s pass takes Cazorla out of the play, leading to a 2-on-1 between Hatem Ben Arfa + Diame and Flamini.

Diame

Ben Arfa spends way too much time dribbling rather than making the pass to Diame first-time, giving Arsenal a chance to stop this Hull attack, but they cannot; Hull equalize³.

So while Arsenal have yet to develop the relationships in attack to get the most out of this new system4, players seem unable, at this point to get the most out of this system defensively as well. Whether this comes down to coaching, a lack of time given the nature of a pre-season during a World Cup summer, or a lack of intelligence/drive from the players, it certainly frustrates me.

This becomes especially frustrating when you think about the work rate and the proficiency in pressing of both Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck. One of the most depressing sights during an Arsenal match is seeing one of them or both push up the pitch, looking to win the ball, only to see the rest of the team not push up with them, leading to wasted energy. Hopefully, Arsenal can move their style to fit their signings, rather than their signings become jaded about working defensively due to a lack of support.

Arsenal certainly need to eliminate the switching off that has plagued them defensively this season5. And sure, Arsenal could use a technical leader — someone who leads through technique; someone who can control the tempo and flow of a match. Someone who will slow it down when the team gets panicky, speed it up when they become lethargic, play it long when Arsenal need to be more direct, play it short when Arsenal need to show more patience. They need a technical leader rather than lump-kicker because Arsenal have struggled to consistently control matches with their possession for some time.

And ideally, that technical leader would also be the super-intelligent holding midfielder this team needs rather than some physical and powerful athlete who lacks a high-level of intelligence and technique to actually perform the role Arsenal need. However, even the perfect holding midfielder would not be enough if Arsenal do not learn how to defend, and particularly press, as a team.

With matches against Sunderland, Burnley, Anderlecht at home, Arsenal have an opportunity to develop some defensive cohesion against sides that should not cause them too many problems. If they make progress in defending as an XI, then the will set themselves up to cement their place as the third best team in England for this season and build that foundation for competing for major honors in subsequent years. However, if they fail to learn this essential aspect of football, they will likely not have a chance to reach the upper echelon of European football again next year.

@njm1211

¹Maybe Arsenal will finally look to create width with their forward line with the potential return of Theo Walcott in this game or the match against Burnley. I know Barcelona under Guardiola may not look like the best example to follow, given the incredible amount talent and cohesion, but that side tended to play their best when they created width due to the starting positions of the wide players in their front line. Dani Alves would bomb forward from deeper positions and that seemed more effective than parking him high up the pitch. By having him arrive from a deeper position, you increase the uncertainty that defenders on that side of the ball face. By having a player enter into an opponent’s defensive zone from outside of it, he forces the players to reassess the environment around him to make a decision (or you could simply catch him unaware). If the player parks himself high up the pitch, then he becomes a certain threat rather than an uncertain threat. A defender or a group of defenders can better plan and coordinate their actions to account for a certain threat than an uncertain one, making it less effective.
²Steven Gerrard, who may be the epitome of an all-action footballer with little intelligence or awareness of the game around them, showed this to be true on Wednesday. Watch Ronaldo’s first goal against Liverpool, and you will see him chase the ball like a dog playing fetch.
³And yes, Diame did foul Flamini. But how about playing until you hear the whistle rather than anticipating one/complaining? Watching Arsenal switch off when they think they deserve a foul is as terrifying as it is maddening.
4Injuries certainly hurt the ability for Arsenal to form the relationships needed to create an intuitive, reacting-rather-than-thinking style of flowing football that Arsenal have not consistently maintained for a season since…09/10?
5The second goal Arsenal conceded against Hull sees Tom Huddlestone find a pocket a space behind Jack Wilshere, receive the ball, and play it to Elmohamady. Huddlestone makes a run from the half-space up the field, into a wider area. Wilshere oddly decides to tell Nacho Monreal to pick up the run of Huddlestone. Maybe Wilshere thought Monreal was the left-back on the day and not the center back. Calling for Monreal to pick up Huddlestone’s run seems to have posed a dilemma for Monreal. He does not go to pick up Huddlstone nor does he put himself in position to double up on Abel Hernandez. By the time Wilshere realizes that Huddlestone is still his defensive responsibility, it is too late. Huddlestone has space to deliver the cross, and Hernandez heads it home.

boring

Anderlecht 1-2 Arsenal: Cheetos and Tequila

I had a girl
She loved what she saw
She loved me so good
She made her daddy mad
My woman cried
She’s dead to me now
My woman ran off
And I can’t deny it

My life
Jesus (Cheetos) and tequila
I’m satisfied
And I can’t deny it

Arsenal left Belgium with a sack full of goodies and all three points as the London team pipped Anderlecht at the death in a surprisingly equal match between two teams with vastly different resources and pedigrees.

Anderlecht came in to the match with nothing to lose. Widely seen as one of the minnows of Champions League play, the Belgians would need to put in a hard fought 90 minutes if they were going to get anything from an Arsenal team who spent as much money acquiring players this summer as the entire Anderlecht club is worth. To their great credit, Anderlecht not only gave Arsenal a fair but physical match, they also matched Arsenal skill for skill for the majority.

Anderlecht could easily feel hard done by considering the fact that Arsenal’s winning goal came moments after a deliberate handball by late sub and game winner, Lukas Podolski. I can tell you that had Arsenal conceded that goal under those exact circumstances with that exact handball preceding it, there would be smartly written letters of complaint filling UEFA’s mail slot tomorrow morning.

As it stands, these self-same arbiters of fairness will likely dismiss the handball as incidental, inconsequential, or (worse) something Arsenal “deserve” because it rights the ills they perceive Arsenal to have suffered. As if a handball allowed against a team like Anderlecht, who have done nothing wrong against Arsenal, somehow makes up for Everton’s lucky offside call in the Premier League.

In the end though Arsenal’s quality in depth, in depth against a tiny team like Anderlecht, won the day as Lukas Podolski found the ball near him and in an #aha moment, scored.

Gibbs had a fantastic match. Not only did he score the equalizer off a difficult volley from Chambers’ cross but he also made nine of twelve tackles for Arsenal defensively. Highlighting Gibbs’ astounding work rate both in going forward and in sprinting back. With Gibbs forward so often and yet still able to sprint back for a tackle deep in the Arsenal defense, I wondered what part sprints (sprints which Arsenal players do more than other teams by my perception) by Arsenal players play in Arsenal’s history of muscle injuries? Could it be that Arsenal’s system, playing so many forward at all times, constantly pressing for the win and being forced to sprint back on defense as they wildly try to catch up to the opposition’s counters, could that be the reason for so many of these stress injuries?

I don’t have an answer to that. I do know that those twelve Gibbs tackles show how concerted the Anderlecht effort was in targeting Nacho and Gibbs. Anderlecht attempted 36 dribbles and 10 of them were concentrated in Gibbs’ corner compared to just 6 in Chambers’ corner.

Anderlecht found a goal out of that effort when Dennis Praet dribbled around the Arsenal defense, pulled both Arsenal center backs out and then put in a cross right to the penalty spot. Calumn Chambers was caught between Najar and the ball for a second and that was all the Anderlecht man needed to score.

The Belgian side were right back at the Arsenal gates a few seconds later and they should have equalized when Anthony Vanden Borre struck the post from a dangerous position. Once again Najar was free down Gibbs’ side (he started the attack that he finished for their first goal) and once again played in Praet.

With Monreal playing left back again (there are no defensive midfielders covering the fullbacks on this Arsenal team) Najar was able to cross to Praet who literally caught Per flat footed. The young Praet heard die Fledermaus playing in his ear, waltzed past Per, and slid a ball to Vanden Borre who was wide open just outside the 6 yard box. Instead of coolly side footing into the goal, Vanden Borre opened up his sand wedge and hit a lob which struck the upright.

If the Belgians had scored the second, it could have been a body blow to the this Arsenal side. Both Anderlecht goals came after Arsenal left their foot off the gas as you can see from my twitter timeline which captured the sense of both boredom and shock:

boring

 

There is a connection between this “boring Arsenal” and the “ohshit Arsenal”. This Arsenal team still think they are the possession-based team who used to be able to kill off games with a string of 100 “ole” passes, but when the central midfielders are pressed by the opposition forwards they cough the ball up too easily in dangerous areas and are often caught with their defenders in advance of the forwards. Many times in this game both of Arsenal’s wide defenders, Calumn Chambers and Keiran Gibbs, were in front of their forwards at the same time.

It’s a huge gamble to constantly send your fullbacks forward, and an even bigger gamble to send them both forward at the same time when your only cover is Mathieu Flamini pacing around the midfield. But however you look at it, the bet paid off.

Like a slot machine, if you feed enough quarters into its voracious maw it will eventually get too full and spit something back out. So too Gibbs’ station as the most forward player on the left. It should be noted that the gamble was “all in” as well, down to their last quarter, Arsenal’s right back, Calumn Chambers, put in the cross which Gibbs volleyed home.

My first trip to London I went to one of those casino/clubs. It was late. I was drunk. And naturally, I started losing heavily. I was down to my last few pounds and I wandered away from the Blackjack table and put the rest of my money on a single number in Roulette. The number came up and from that point on my night was all trumps. I went back over to the Blackjack table and proceeded to win back all my money plus enough money to pay for all my food for the week.

I left the casino with a fat wallet and full of cheer having gone from thinking I’ll be eating Cheetos the rest of the week to planning a steak dinner. That’s how gambling works: a little luck and you feel like you’re on top of the world.

Arsenal won the game at Anderlecht with some similar gambles. All in with Calumn Chambers and Gibbs and then a little lucky double down when Wenger subbed in Podolski who got away with some slight of hand to score the winner. To get all three points Arsenal needed professional and hard-working players on the pitch, and Alexis Sanchez continues to impress in that regard. A team high 4 key passes, all of them in dangerous areas and any one of which probably should have scored, finally got rewarded when Podolski scored.

Sanchez-Praet

 

In the end, Anderlecht matched Arsenal for ninety minutes. They didn’t play using negative tactics or ugly timewasting. They didn’t rely on the referee to bail them out and didn’t run around booting Arsenal players into Row Z. They don’t have an Oligarch spending more money than god on star players from abroad and instead they are a small team with a humble stadium filled to the rafters with exuberant fans singing “Come on Sporting Boys!” to the tune of Cum on Feel the Noize.

Yet Arsène’s roll of the dice paid off and after the match Arsenal fans pocketed their winnings and gleefully went off into the night in search of Cheetos and Tequila. They even had a little money left over to get Arsène a birthday cake.

So satisfied.

Qq

Gibbs-crying

Anderlecht v. Arsenal: switch on the lights, it’s Wenger’s birthday

Good morning Gunners, today we have a Champions League match against Anderlect and hopefully afterwards Arsene Wenger can celebrate a win and his 65th birthday.

Here’s a weird fact: did you know that you, me, Arseblog, and Sam Allardyce are all Libras? It’s true. That means we are all the same. That’s just a scientific fact, like the fact that eating gluten causes men to grow breasts.

We Libras are the most balanced of all the signs because we are lovers of beauty and art. Again, I think this description fits me, Arseblog, Allardyce, Arsene to a T.

I do often wonder if each of the teams in the League could be described by their zodiac signs if Arsenal would be the Libra team? We are known for beautiful football which transcends art and are all about balancing the books! HA HA guffaw. I don’t know enough about astromythology to write such  post though. Is there an asshole sign? That’s definitely Chelscea! Is there a sign that is a bit like Eeyore? That’s gotta be Liverpool. Maybe I’ll spend some time reading about each of the zodiac signs and then I’ll add 8 new signs and do a “Premier League Zodiac” post?¹

Anyway, seriously, I wish Arsene Wenger the happiest of birthdays. I know that, like me, he won’t really celebrate getting older but I still wish him all the best.

And on the occasion of his birth Arsenal get to play Anderlecht. I have to admit that whenever I see the name Anderlecht, I immediately think “why don’t you Anderlecht my balls, Capitan?” Followed by “I can Anderlecht my own balls, thank you very much.”

Yes, it’s true, I’m 44 years old and that is all I can think of when I see the word Anderlecht. Since me, Arseblog, Arsene, and Allardyce are all identical because we are Libras I have no doubt they are also thinking the same thing.

If Wenger is thinking of puns or not, he isn’t letting on. Instead he is publicly saying that the match against Anderlecht will be a real battle. They will make it hard for Arsenal and as this is an away game in Europe, I would have to agree with him.

Still, Anderlecht are considered one of the very worst teams in the Champions League and the easiest in our group. They are only averaging a meager 10 shots per game so far this season in Champions League play and they are allowing a whopping 17 shots against them. That’s a -7 shot difference.

They were a bit unlucky in their first game, dropping all three points to Galatasaray in Turkey in stoppage time. And they were beaten early by an Immobile goal in the 3rd minute at home to Borussia Dortmund. In both matches, however, Anderlecht were not pushovers and especially at home, I agree with my fellow Libra, Wenger, that this will be a hard fought game.

Tactically, Arteta returns to the Arsenal starting lineup. That means that Arsene will look to use Arteta to dictate play in midfield, as a decoy, trying to get the ball up to the 6 attacking midfielders³. And Anderlecht will, if they read Pep Guardiola’s “exclusive” published in the Telegraph the other day press Cazorla or whomever is playing in the Özil role. They may also employ a “high press” which is really only a press against Arteta.

This means that Mertesacker’s long vertical passes will become more important as do any turnovers by the Arsenal forwards in those areas. Watching Arsenal’s goals conceded this season I can say for certain that turnovers in those areas by forward players, because Arsenal lack defensive midfield balance, turn into big chances for the opposition.

Arsenal, for their part are still one of the worst teams in the Champions League in terms of shots per game (8.5) and shots allowed (20.5). That’s a -12 shot difference and continues Arsenal’s rather disappointing last four years of Champions League play. Just in case you had forgotten, Arsenal have been last or near last of all 32 Champions League teams in terms of shots per game over each of the last 4 seasons. This season, Arsenal have leapt up to… uhhh… 29th! In terms of shots taken and are only the second worst team in the Champions League, just behind Maribor who were beaten by Chelscea 6-0 yesterday.

Still, Anderlecht is a team that Arsenal can beat. Arsenal can beat them IF they do like Arsene says and correct the problems with concentration that I pointed out here last week²

..we were close to winning and then a lack of concentration… If we can just concentrate a little bit more defensively.

Problematically, Jack Wilshere thinks that Arsenal’s defensive problems aren’t a problem. Or at least he sought to minimize those problems:

Maybe our biggest or strongest point is going forward but we know we can defend. We have players who can put their foot in. We have players who organise things, in Flamini, and good defensive players.

Flamini is actually part of the problem and has been exposed badly several times in the last two years, often caught out while organizing, as he was against Bayern Munich last season when he was pointing and telling Jack where to go and not paying attention to his own marker. And while I agree that Arsenal have good defensive players (especially Koscielny), Arsenal also have Nacho Monreal who is a terrible defensive player. The “challenge” he put in against Diame in the Hull game, where he weakly stuck out a toe to win the ball rather than tackle the ball and the player, is emblematic of his lack of defensive strength.

Even then, I would say it’s still not the players, it’s more that the whole team switches off. On throw ins, free kicks, corners, and in a variety of ways, this Arsenal team seems to love daydreaming about defense rather than actually playing defense. Especially this season. Or maybe it’s not just this season. Remember the fabled “handbrake?”

Hopefully, they can put that right and help Arsene to celebrate his 65th birthday.

Qq

¹Watch this idea show up somewhere miraculously in the next week..
²problems which people have claimed didn’t exist or that I was exaggerating since the sample size was too small.
³Come on, we all know that the Arsenal fullbacks are about as defense minded as a prosecuting attorney — and yes, these two footnotes are out of order, the third footnote is ahead of the second footnote, just like Arsenal’s fullbacks are almost always ahead of the forwards.