From time to time, 7amkickoff likes to add fresh new writers. Sensible writers who can write clearly and have a point they need to express. We had a tactics columnist two years ago but he found that the time required to write the column in the way that he loved was interfering with his real life. So, we waited and along came Naveen. He immediately impressed me with his perspicacity, with his understanding of Arsenal’s tactics. So, I invited him to write us a tactics column about his favorite match from last season. This is that article. Enjoy, and let’s hope Naveen has time in the coming year to provide us with a few more gems like this. – Tim
Rarely does a team dominate a match for all 90 minutes. Even the weakest side can wrest control of a match for 20 minutes against the best team in the Premier League. That is why certain performances (like 2010-11 Barcelona’s 5-0 victory against Real Madrid) are so special. During the 2013-14 season, Arsenal had a performance that reached such heights, their 2-0 victory over Napoli in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League. While Arsenal’s players executed better than Napoli’s on the night, the game represented a tactical battle that Arsenal dominated as well.
A Lack of Pace Leading to High Lines
Napoli played this match without Gonzalo Higuain and Arsenal played this match without Theo Walcott, both out due to injury. These two losses hurt both sides ability to stretch the pitch vertically, as neither Goran Pandev nor Olivier Giroud are particularly fast center forwards. This incentivized both teams to play with higher lines than they normally would, as their opponents were less able to punish such a tactic. For Napoli, the higher line was an attempt to keep Arsenal away from their goal and to give them a better chance to win back possession closer to Arsenal’s goal. For Arsenal, the higher line allowed them to use both center-backs in the build up without forcing the team to leave advantageous attacking positions and drop deeper, in order to provide options (other than long balls) for the center-back in possession. It also allowed them to press more effectively.
A note to any English side playing an Italian side in a match that matters…press, press, press. Games in Serie A are played at a snail’s pace compared to the Premier League. Italian teams have a greater preference to slow the game down, pack the center of the pitch, and kill the space available in their final third. Rarely do teams look to aggressively press in the midfield third or the opponent’s final third. This leads to many Italian sides struggling against sides that employ aggressive pressing strategies in those two areas of the pitch.
With the high lines from both sides, the amount of pitch where the play occurs shrinks; that plays right into the hands of a pressing side. Regardless of the type of the pressing, it is more effective if the players have to travel a smaller distance. The shorter the distance players have to cover, the more quickly they can apply pressure. The closer the 22 players are to one another, the easier it is to deny passing lanes. Therefore, when Arsenal lost possession, they could win the ball back quickly. At the very least, they could slow Napoli’s counter attacks, allowing them to get back in defensive positions (especially important for the attacking full back on the weak side) and/or force a long ball from the Italians.
The most obvious example of Arsenal’s pressing potency came in the build-up for the second goal. Arsenal had just lost possession deep in Napoli territory due to a poor cross field pass by Aaron Ramsey. Carlos Zuniga takes the throw-in on Arsenal’s right side about 15 meters from the byline. The ball goes to Napoli center-back Miguel Britos, who is put under pressure by Giroud. With Ozil in position to intercept a pass back to Zuniga, Britos volleys the ball forward. Marek Hamsik, Napoli’s central attacking midfielder, tries to control Britos’ volley, but the pressure from Mathieu Flamini prevents the Slovakian from controlling the ball. Instead it bounces off him, into the path of Giroud. With one touch, he moves the ball to Mesut Ozil. At this point, both Gokhan Inler and Zuniga find themselves completely out of position as Ozil goes forward (with Zuniga acting as if he could not be bothered). Once Ozil gets behind the back line, Napoli lose all positional discipline. Raul Albiol, the weak-side (opposite of the ball side) center-back, races over to cut Ozil off at the pass (I hate that cliché), while Britos finds himself in no-man’s land. By getting behind the back line, Ozil forces Britos to defend 360 degrees of space instead of 180 (this is why cut backs are so effective at creating quality shots on goal). Britos, mentally preoccupied by Ozil, fails to track Giroud’s run into the giant hole left by Albiol (I have no idea what Giandomenico Mesto is thinking as he fails to position himself to defend against the cut back or Giroud’s run). Ozil executes the right pass perfectly (shocker) and Giroud puts it home.
For the first 20 minutes of the match, Arsenal’s pressing pinned Napoli inside their own half, suffocating the Italians, who seemed incapable of stringing three passes together. In fact, the entire first half was dominated by the success of Arsenal’s pressing, and another aspect of Arsenal’s game Benitez and Napoli did not expect—their fluidity.
Arsenal in Possession
Arsenal’s pressing was not the only aspect of their play than surprised Napoli. Their fluidity up front seemed to catch the Italian’s off guard as well. Maybe Napoli did not do their due diligence scouting Arsenal and/or assumed a side playing five midfielders who tend to play centrally would try to force the play down the center. That would explain why Benitez opted to have his players defend rather narrowly and kept his attacking quartet higher up the pitch, particularly Lorenzo Insigne. Against an Arsenal side with Cesc Fabregas, this tactic made more than enough sense. Those Arsenal sides did get bogged down in the center of the pitch, making them predictable.
However, against an Arsenal side with Mesut Ozil, this tactic becomes much less profitable. For all of Ozil’s gifts, his most important is his willingness and ability to drift into pockets of space out wide. This allows him to find space to receive the ball, but it also creates space for his teammates in the center of the pitch. He does this by removing himself from the center of the pitch, with the potential of dragging a central midfielder out of position (see Aaron Ramsey’s volleyed goal vs. Liverpool). So while Mesut Ozil may never become the play who can carry a “meh” side by scoring individualistic goal after individualistic goal (like Gareth Bale in 2012-13), he is the perfect player to pair with other elite attacking talents. He is the ultimate teammate, a player that helps others play their game.
Throughout the first half, Arsenal confused the Napoli defense with their movement. We can take a look at the first goal to see that. First, Giroud moves himself to Arsenal’s right side, occupying the space Zuniga had previously vacated, dragging Britos with him. Sagna plays the ball into Giroud. At this point, Aaron Ramsey is hugging the touchline on Arsenal’s right; Tomas Rosicky is between and just in front of the center back and the left back, who are both in the center of the pitch; Mesut Ozil is left of center at the same level at Mikel Arteta, in a central midfield trio. At this point Napoli’s central midfield pair (Inler-Behrami) have no idea who to mark.
Inler, probably expecting to mark Mesut Ozil or Aaron Ramsey in more central positions, winds up marking no one. When Giroud plays Ramsey in behind Britos (Zuniga leisurely jogs back though he is terribly out of position), Behrami sprints in a futile attempt to get to Ramsey. When Mesto follows Rosicky runs, the entire left side of the box is unmarked space for the forgotten Ozil to run into. Aaron Ramsey cuts it back (remember, 360 degree defending is much harder than 180 degree defending); Ozil scores, 1-nil to the Arsenal.
Ultimately, in this case, the advantage of fluidity is that it creates an information asymmetry. The Arsenal players know where their teammates are, but the Napoli players do not (caveat: a fluid system with players who do not know how to play with one another can lead to confusion on both sides, along with a misallocation of resources). That knowledge advantage can be exploited, leading to unmarked players taking shots from good positions.
The other advantage of fluidity is that it allows a side to better allocate attacking resources to the right places on the pitch at the right. Like the world around us, a football match takes place in a dynamic environment. Openings and vulnerabilities often present themselves for brief periods and disappear. Therefore, it is important for teams to identify these weaknesses (intelligence) and quickly coordinate their actions to exploit this weakness (intelligence and cohesion) Teams that can identify these vulnerabilities, think quickly, move themselves and the ball quickly, and have players who understand each other can consistently beat the strongest defense (in other words, be water my friend).
In this match, Arsenal played with such tempo and fluidity (which, combined with their technical ability allowed them to deftly move the ball in close quarters) that they discovered Napoli’s defensive weakness on their left side in the first seven minutes of the match. Insigne did not look to track back, probably due to Benitez’s desire to keep a potent counter-attacking threat closer to the opponent’s goal. This left Zuniga (not the most defensively-skilled left-back) alone to defend that side, and Arsenal were more than glad to invest their attacking resources there. Bacary Sagna advanced and often two of the attacking trio (often Mesut Ozil + X) created a severe overload. Napoli struggled to defend this overload, as it either exploited or forced them out of their narrow defensive shape. And, as the match went on, Arsenal increased their emphasis on destroying Napoli’s left side.
Napoli’s Sterile Possession (2nd Half)
The second half saw Arsenal dominate in a different manner. Unlike the pressing that dominated the flow of the game in the first half, Arsenal had an increased willingness to defend in their half of the field. One of the reasons Arsenal could do this with such comfort came down to the composition of Napoli’s central midfield. Napoli set up to counter-attack Arsenal, as they are wont to do against any side. This led them to field Inler and Behrami in central midfield. This gave them the ball-winners that Benitez would have wanted to win possession and then get the ball forward to their attacking quartet. Forced into a more passages of slow possession in Arsenal’s half of the pitch, the value of these players decreased immensely. If Napoli had two central midfielders who could make plays from deeper positions and punish Arsenal for fielding Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini (two players who like to drop deep, conceding space to deep-lying midfielders) like Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork did in Southampton’s 2-2 draw against Arsenal, then maybe they could have posed a threat. Instead, Arsenal could defend with no fear and focus their efforts on marking a rather predictable attacking quartet and the occasional fullback overlapping with plenty of defensive resources to spare.
This was Arsenal’s best performance of 2013-14. They dominated this match as much as any side can dominate a match. By exploiting Napoli tactically and by executing the plan to perfection, Arsenal dominated the game with the ball and without ball, by pressing or by defending deep. So while the FA Cup Final represents the best moment of the season, this Champions League match deserves a special place in the memory of Arsenal fans too, as it represents Arsenal coming as close as they could to the perfect match.