Drop our Coq and we drop our pants

By Tim Todd

Arsenal are three games in to the season: the Gunners lost on opening day to West Ham due to two individual errors combined with poor attacking play; then they beat Crystal Palace with yet another disjointed performance which allowed Palace back into the game; and earned a draw against Liverpool in a “tale of two halves” match which saw a good Arsenal goal disallowed but could have gone either way before and after that. So, a loss because of two errors, a win, and a draw that might not have been a draw if the referee had gotten the call right and people are running around in a Kermit-armed panic trying to figure out how to fix Arsenal’s woes.

And how do they propose to fix Arsenal’s woes? So far, the two dominant theories are: drop Ramsey or drop Coquelin. Both are potential powder keg arguments and both are wrong.

The drop Coquelin idea comes from a Grantland article by Mike Goodman. It is the more explosive of the two ideas so let’s deal with that one alone. His main arguments are that Coquelin can’t play with the ball at feet as well as a world class midfielder can, that he’s a specialist defensive midfielder who operates best in a compact formation, and that Coquelin can’t play in an expansive midfield which grants space to the opposition. So, he surmises, Arsenal need to drop Coquelin and buy a world class center mid.

To the first, I have made the same argument. As it stood last season, Coquelin’s passing range looked fairly average. His long ball percentages were low, he was content to pass the ball sideways to Cazorla, instead of looking for the killer pass, and I worried if teams would simply allow Coquelin to have possession during Arsenal’s attack phase.

But I also argued then and still believe now that Arsene Wenger can get Coquelin up to speed in terms of passing. And so far¹ that has proven to be true. Coquelin, has gone from an 85% passer to 90%, has gone from 60% long ball accuracy on just 2.5 long passes per game to 70% long ball accuracy on 5.7 long passes a game and has one accurate cross (of one attempted) this season, where he only attempted three and failed in all three all last season.

If that Grantland article had been written this summer, when I wrote mine saying virtually the same thing about Coquelin’s lack of attacking threat, I might agree. But the signs are encouraging that Coquelin has worked on this part of his game. He did struggle offensively during the Liverpool match, but Arsenal’s entire starting XI struggled offensively and defensively in that first 45 minutes.

The other arguments are basically two parts of the same coin. Let’s just put this plainly: there is no defensive midfielder in the world who doesn’t prefer a compact system. A compact system plays to the strengths of a defensive midfielder and allows him an almost free role to roam a small space in midfield wreaking havoc on opposition attackers. Like a destructive #10.

The problem is that the compact system is difficult to pull off and win consistently. Atletico Madrid does it with the fastest counter attacks I’ve ever seen which get the ball into crazy good positions for a predatory forward. They are a specialist team, however, and their manager’s philosophy will one day be found out, probably when a team like Chelsea comes to town and gives Atletico possession.

Arsenal’s system is the most common system, then, for teams who want to win consistently. Bayern play an attacking system, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, all the best teams in the world play an attacking system. Even Chelsea play open, attacking football against teams that they aren’t afraid of. And Mike Goodman is right, these systems grant space to the opposition which is difficult for any defensive midfielder to cover.

Matic struggles mightily to cover both those spaces and for his teammate, Cesc Fabregas. They are the two most dribbled players in the Premier League at the moment. So, I agree, covering space, when you have a poor defender next to you, like Fabregas, is difficult for a defensive midfielder.

But you counter that with pressing and Goodman mentions that at the end of the article but fails to mention that Arsenal played a pressing team defense last season and that they are not doing that as well this.

This is the main difference between last year and this year. Arsenal’s pressing last year was fantastic, think back to the destruction of Liverpool. Arsenal pressed high up the pitch forcing Kolo Toure and the entire Liverpool back line into countless mistakes. Here’s a screen grab which illustrates exactly what I’m talking about:


That’s Coquelin all alone in midfield, there are four Arsenal players pressing two defenders and Toure has just one outlet pass he can make to break pressure. He tries to make the pass but Giroud wins the ball from him.

Arsenal conceded space in midfield in that game, Arsenal played high up the pitch, Coquelin was forced to cover vast amounts of space, but Arsenal pressed Liverpool and the Gunners won that match 4-1.

This season, Arsenal’s press has gone off the boil. Here’s another screen grab which illustrates how Arsenal are slow to the press:

Ramsey beaten


Puncheon receives the ball in acres of space (top of the screen) and Ramsey rushes out to close him down. Puncheon easily dribbles past Ramsey and plays the ball in to Bolasie (bottom right). Meanwhile Ward, the Palace right back, notices that everyone is ball watching and traipses up the pitch into the space left behind Ozil (bottom left) and scores from an open shot.

If Ramsey had been in a better position, closer to his man, they don’t get the cross off, if Ozil is switched on to the threat from right back, they don’t get the shot off, and if Alexis (not pictured) follows Ward up the pitch, they probably don’t get the shot off.

And note that this is Arsenal playing compact: the system which is supposed to best suit Coquelin. But Palace bypassed Coquelin in this possession, something they did time and again in that match, by playing long diagonals into spaces which weren’t being properly controlled by Coquelin’s teammates.

Against Liverpool, it was a different story. Both teams played an amazing open match and ran at each other for 45 minutes. Offensively, Arsenal looked great at times but when they lost the ball in the Liverpool half, they didn’t work hard to try to win the ball back and left the Liverpool back four to themselves, granting them time to pick out a man with a long ball.

Despite Arsenal granting Liverpool time on the ball and huge swathes of space behind Arsenal’s attacking line, Coquelin was absolutely masterful cleaning up the Arsenal messes in that match and finished the game leading all players in ball recoveries, tackles, and interceptions. Coquelin did struggle at times in attack, but so did the whole Arsenal team, especially in the first 45 minutes when Liverpool put them under tremendous pressure: pressing as a unit, like Arsenal did last season!

It’s strange to me that people look for one player who is to blame for all of the ills on a team. Whether that player is Ramsey on the right or Coquelin in the middle, critics tend to point the blame at one guy. There are times when one guy’s mistake can make the difference in a game and if he does that consistently, you do have to eventually drop that guy. But football is a team sport. If the eleven players on the pitch aren’t controlling spaces effectively in either the offensive or defensive phase, the team is going to struggle.

But I’m not even sure how much Arsenal are really struggling! Two individual errors against West Ham granted them the win and a blown offside call grated Liverpool a draw. Meanwhile, if Coquelin is holding back Arsenal’s attack, you wouldn’t know it: the Gunners have created more shots than any team in the League and are getting those shots in dangerous areas but are just failing to convert.

Perhaps we should all just calm down a bit and let the team have some more room to breathe. And stop pointing fingers at individuals when it’s the team which is struggling to find its form.



Giroud looks releived, like a man who had been waiting for an hour to take a piss at an open air festival

Arsenal have taken the most shots of any team in top five leagues but just keep missing the target

Fact: with 61 shots, Arsenal have more shots, total, than any other team in the top five leagues. And the Gunners aren’t banging them in from distance either. They lead the top five leagues in shots inside the penalty area with 36. The problem is that despite getting 61 shots already this season, Arsenal have only scored 1 goal.

This is the point where you scream “sample size sample size sample size” like a kid trying to get his mom to buy him candy and there is a truth to that: 61 events is a pretty small sample of the entire season, especially since Arsenal will probably take over 600 shots (last season they took 611, in fact).

It’s also true that Arsenal have only played three games and that, because football is a low scoring sport, three game streaks with only one goal scored are not uncommon. So, what I’m not going to say is “Arsenal could only score 10 goals this season at the rate we are converting.”

But Arsenal have taken 61 shots and only 18 of them have been on target. That’s 30% on target which is pretty poor. Last season Arsenal were shooting at a 37% clip, which if they were doing this season would mean 4-5 more shots on goal than last season.

Last season, Arsenal scored 69 goals (minus own goals) on 611 shots. That’s a goal every 8.85 shots. If Arsenal were converting at that same clip, we would be looking at an Arsenal side that scored 7 goals already this season.

Arsenal aren’t the only team struggling with offense. Liverpool and Man U have also only scored two goals this season. And if you look at Liverpool’s goals, the referees have admitted that Benteke’s goal didn’t count. Meanwhile Man U have been the beneficiary of an own goal, like Arsenal, and so it’s fair to say that Man U and Liverpool have scored just one goal, like Arsenal.¹

The problem is that Arsenal’s players are taking shots but none of them are pure finishers. Alexis and Giroud have taken the most shots and of those two players, I’d say Alexis is the better finisher, even though Giroud has the one goal and it was pretty spectacular. But it’s not just Alexis’ missing, all the Arsenal midfielders and attackers are missing the mark:

Player Shots Outside 6 yards 18 yards Goals
Alexis 13 2 1 10 0
Giroud 13 1 2 10 1
Ramsey 9 5 1 3 0
Ox 7 3 - 4 0
Cazorla 6 4 - 2 0
Ozil 4 2 1 1 0
TOTAL 52 17 5 30 1

Those 6 players have taken 52 of Arsenal’s 61 shots this season and scored just the one goal. Some will point to this chart as proof that Arsenal need another forward but remember that this same cadre of players scored 69 goals last season. So, this is just a slump.

And there are encouraging signs in the numbers above. Last season, Sanchez took a lot of shots from distance, almost half of his shots were from outside the 18 yard box. So, to see that change to a player taking the majority of his shots in the box, where he will score more often than outside the box (about 5x more often) is hugely encouraging.

I’m not saying that Arsenal will go the rest of the season like this. In fact, a three goal outburst could happen at almost any minute and that drastically changes our maths above. Rather, the numbers show me an Arsenal team which is lacking sharpness and composure in front of goal. They are getting the shots, they are getting the shots in good areas, but they need to start getting the shots on target and past the keeper. And once they do that, the goals will flow like whine.


¹Replays show that Ramsey was onside for his goal against Liverpool yesterday and if we count that, Arsenal would have scored two goals on 62 shots.


Schneiderlin to United and Pedro to Chelsea: A Woman’s Touch?

One thing I wanted to touch on in yesterday’s article on Arsenal being in the third tier of the transfer market is about transfer stories and how there is an incestuousness about the market that many fans seem to forget.

One of the most pernicious problems with transfer reports is that journalists are often given scoops which further the client’s purposes. Fans take these scoops and run with them as fact that their club was interested and when the player doesn’t sign for their club, fans feel like “their club could have done more” or worse, that management is inept.

But agents will often give journalists information about a club like Arsenal contacting them because they want to use that link to further their bargaining position with the club that their player is currently negotiating with. Arturo Vidal did this with Juventus, a few years back, eventually securing a larger contract with the Old Grey Lady and leaving Arsenal fans feeling like their club didn’t do enough to land the player.

The role that agents play in a player’s career and life is often gravely understated, as is the role that money plays in these transactions. A great example of that is the Morgan Schneiderlin transfer saga from the last two years. This summer Philippe Auclair tweeted:

You can read this tweet two ways: Schneiderlin genuinely wanted to come to Arsenal but his agents hate Arsenal and Schneiderlin listens to his agents or that his agents were feeding this information to reporters so that they could improve their bargaining position with United and get a larger pay packet and media rights deal. In the end, Schneiderlin signed for United, United paid £150k a week for his services, and Morgan Schneiderlin chose the club which will pay him handsomely, and which will increase his global marketability, thus leading to even more money in endorsements.

I admit I read Auclair’s tweet the first way this summer. That stems from the fact that Schneiderlin’s agents are Gervinho’s agents and we know that Gervinho and Arsenal don’t see eye-to-eye over his time at the club. But it also stems from my desire to want Schneiderlin to want us.

Schneiderlin is one of the cool kids. He’s a terrific player and he would help our club. I want the cool kids to want to be in my club. And here is the cool kid saying “I’d join your club, but my agent advises me against it.” It’s the perfect scenario: I still get to pine for Schneiderlin, because he didn’t do anything wrong, and I get to blame either his agents (which is where I would go) or the Arsenal management (“for not trying hard enough” which is where others go). But what if Arsenal were never really a consideration?

Remember when Robin van Persie left Arsenal because he “didn’t agree with the direction of the club”? And when he went to United, he won the League, and many people said he fulfilled his dream. But there was another side to that transfer that people just don’t want to hear: by his third year at United, Robin van Persie was making $75m a season – making him one of the highest paid footballers in the world. Not just in salary, but in Salary, endorsements, and all the other perks that come with being a star player on a club like Man U.

When I say that Arsenal are a third tier transfer team, that’s what I’m talking about. Did Schneiderlin go to United because he longed to play for the notoriously grumpy van Gaal on a team that was struggling in the Champions League? Or was it because his agents and Arsenal didn’t get along? Or was it because including pay packet and endorsements, Arsenal couldn’t really compete financially with what Man U offer? And do I change my story now, because he’s a United player?

Other times journalists are given inside information in order to further the agenda of a club. Oliver Kay’s article on how Chelsea stole Pedro is one of those times.

First Kay accuses United of having a problem with “Hispanic” players in a few uncomfortable paragraphs:

it is fair to say that Hispanic footballers are not exactly thriving in Manchester under Van Gaal. Valdés joined United in January as a potential successor to David De Gea but is now surplus to requirements after falling out with Van Gaal over his refusal to play in an under-21 match; Rafael da Silva and Nani were sold, along with Ángelo Henríquez and Bebé; Ángel Di María quickly fell out of favour after a British record £59.7 million move from Real Madrid; Radamel Falcao’s loan move from Monaco did not work out.

De Gea wants to join Real, as almost every Hispanic player does, and has left Van Gaal convinced that he is not in the right frame of mind to play unless he is still at United when the transfer window closes; Sergio Romero, Marcos Rojo, Antonio Valencia, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Andreas Pereira remain, but there is a certain disenchantment among some of the Spanish and South American contingent at Old Trafford.

That’s an incredible bit of journalism right there. I’m not one to take van Gaal’s side but citing Bebe, Henriquez, Nani, and da Silva as evidence that there’s a problem with “Hispanic” players and van Gaal, which then casts an almost racist tone over the whole dealings, is disingenuous at best. As for Falcao and Valdes, the evidence had long been clear before they signed that they were washed up. Di Maria is the only player who washed out at United under van Gaal, de Gea would be a starter if he hadn’t had his head turned by Real Madrid.

Kay’s lede, though, is the claim that Chelsea have a female “middle-man” (and Cesc’s girlfriend) who brokers these deals:

…a £21.1 million deal presented by Marina Granovskaia, the director, with a little help from Cesc Fàbregas and his girlfriend, Daniella Semaan.

For all the focus on José Mourinho and Roman Abramovich, it is Granovskaia, operating on the level between manager and owner, who has turned Chelsea from a club heavily reliant on agents to one who get their transfer business done quickly and, in many cases, far more privately and decisively than their rivals…

For Chelsea’s success in landing the player for what looks a reasonable fee, Granovskaia deserves much of the credit. The estrangement of Eva Carneiro, previously the first-team doctor, might have led some to accuse Chelsea of sexual discrimination, but this is a rare football club where, increasingly, a woman calls the shots.

It couldn’t be any clearer that this article was fed to Kay by Chelsea’s PR department. The story here is that United are “anti-Hispanic” and that Chelsea are “pro-woman.”

Chelsea have suffered the slings and arrows of their outrageous manager in the wake of his benching Eva Carneiro, who was promoted at the behest of Granovskaia, and along comes this story about the massive gazumping of their title rivals, which was conveniently brokered by Cesc’s girlfriend and a female executive.

Oliver Kay is the Chief Football Correspondent for the Times, a paper of record, and this article was his scoop. This is transfer journalism, folks.