Chambers2

Would the non-divisive Arsenal player please stand up?

We often hear about how a certain player is divisive. His relative talents left in the trash heap of history and his relative faults brought out and polished for some blogger to earn a few bucks off clicks. But the truth is that I can’t think of a single player at Arsenal who doesn’t divide opinion right now. Even venerated players like Thierry Henry get put under the microscope and examined by Arsenal fans eager to find fault with the gods of the game.

Why? There’s not really one reason. With 60,000 Arsenal bloggers and twice as many people on twitter who want to make you aware of their opinion there is a rush to be the first with some “insight”. This often leads to hyperbolic criticism of players after one or two poor matches, or even a poor first half. But there are also just some people who are always going to be harshly critical (and harshly optimistic!) of everything and call it “being realistic” or folks who just want Arsenal to buy all the players at every other team. Whatever the reason, we all know that they are there and what they have to say but let’s look a little closer at some recent criticisms.

Alexis Sanchez

Removed at half-time against Everton and already some folks are questioning whether he was worth the money Arsenal paid for him. Wenger linked his current fitness levels to his confidence but I’m not entirely convinced it was a fitness issue. Against Everton, Alexis made runs which had the local commentators gushing but Arsenal struggled to get him the ball: he only received 17 total passes in 45 minutes and only one pass in the 18 yard box, on the edge of the box, hardly a dangerous position.

Meanwhile, Giroud’s first touch was a big diagonal placed a yard away from goal and from there almost all of his passes received were in and around the box. He received just 18 passes himself, hardly setting the world on fire.

I suspect that more than lack of fitness was a lack of understanding. Arsenal and Alexis seem just a step off at the moment. When Ramsey expects Alexis to zig, he zags. While Giroud has two seasons at Arsenal and his movements are now predictable to his teammates. I’m not at all worried about Alexis Sanchez and his ability to fit in at Arsenal. He’s a fantastic footballer, with a great first touch, the ability to take on defenders, and who will shine once he learns his teammates.

Giroud

It doesn’t get much more divisive than opinion on the big Frenchman. He’s wasteful. His first shot against Everton should have been a goal. Sometimes seems more comfortable trying a cutsey little flick pass than a basic 5 yard square ball. Unable to face up to an opponent and take him on.

But he’s also big and strong and willing to put in a shift against meaty defenders as Arsenal’s version of Kevin Cyril Davies and yet still score 16-20 goals in a season. Industrious player who can pluck a ball out of the sky with his foot like it’s cotton candy, who wins headers in the middle of the park, and who holds the ball up so well that he has to be credited at least partially for Ramsey’s scoring renaissance.

Ramsey

Before last season was completely written off by many Arsenal fans. The same fans who are writing off Wilshere now. Some of the criticism was warranted, he had an annoying tendency to hold on to the ball too much and that resulted in numerous turnovers.

But his workrate and the fact that he never shied away from the ball saved him. He’s Arsenal’s leading passer, leading tackler, and now he’s a goal scoring midfielder who wins games with his late runs in the box. Cited by Wenger as the main reason why Arsenal didn’t buy Cesc Fabregas.

Wilshere

This 22 year old central midfielder is Arsenal’s new enfant terrible and judging by the heap of articles in the British press this morning, his young career is over. Has an annoying habit of holding on to the ball too much and trying to dribble too much. Often caught in possession and targeted by opposition midfielders for tackles (leads Arsenal in fouls drawn, and those are just the ones the officials call). He was even tackled (harshly, I thought) by Thierry Henry in the friendly against the Red Bulls. Perhaps Henry was trying to say “son, you dribble too much, pass the ball.”

But he’s only 22 years old and he’s had a career plagued with injuries. Hasn’t started more than 20 League games for Arsenal since his breakout season, 2010/2011 — when he was just 19 years old. He has to learn to pass and move rather than trying to dribble the entire opposition team. And defensively he needs to learn better positioning and tackling. The talent is there, though, and like Ramsey before him I expect Wilshere to shine this season.

Podolski, Özil, Sanogo, Arteta… I could keep going

You already know the criticisms of these players. Podolski is lazy, Özil is nicking a living, Sanogo is not Mario Ballotelli, Arteta isn’t beast, etc. But rather than break down every player let’s end with some positives.

Per Mertesacker: who has anything bad to say about Per? A gentle giant, makes Arsenal’s set play defense better simply with his presence. Organizes the defense and a natural leader on the pitch.

Laurent Koscielny: (to the tune of Crazy by Willie Nelson) I’m crazy… I’m crazy for Laurent Koscielny… I’m crazy for Laurent’s kung fu. I knew, Koscielny won’t leave me like van Persie. Or Cashley, who left me for somebody blue. Worry? Why do I let myself worry? Wondering, what we would do without you? I’m crazy… for thinking that red card could hold you. I’m crazy… for crying. I’m crazy for buying. I’m crazy for loving you. (special thanks to Brian from 11 Cannons for collaborating on this).

Calum Chambers: I feel sad for Chambers. Koscielny and Mertesacker are both going to be healthy soon and he’s going to be put back on the bench and left to fight his way back into first team contention either as a center back, a right back, or in his eventual position as defensive midfielder. He’s made a few mistakes but the fact that he’s been universally praised by all across England, with many hoping for an England call-up, is as positive a review as possible for a 19 year old. Really, just perfect. The same way that everyone praised Jack Wilshere when he was 19 and begged him to be selected for the national team. Oh wait…

Have your say below. Are there players beyond reproach for you? Ones you feel you need to defend?

Qq

Wenger-microphones

Footballistically Speaking: volume 1, Everton v. Arsenal

We have to face the inevitable. One day we are going to be sitting in our living room watching some corporate Arsenal manager give an anodyne press conference and suddenly a wave of homesickness will wash over us and we will realize that we deeply miss the old man, Arsene Wenger.

In nearly two decades at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has given over 1000 pre-match press conferences and countless other interviews where he has been variously frank, hilarious, confrontational, controversial, slippery, and (most importantly) deeply introspective about football and even about the meaning of life itself.

In this modern age I’m convinced that attention is our most valuable remaining commodity. To give your attention is to give a part of yourself. And in his time at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has given so much of himself.

I don’t mean that he has given just on the training pitch, nor just in the matches, but in every one of his countless interviews, Arsene Wenger has given us a piece of himself. He has exposed his philosophy about football and about what it means to work and live in the modern era. In a time drenched in cliches, and handlers pushing celebrities on the public with the same screen tested stories, redolent with mendacity, Arsene Wenger has remained a beacon of authenticity.

Because he has given us so much of himself I felt it my duty to give him something back. A weekly column where I give you a Wenger quote, and not just the typical stuff, is my way of giving back to Arsene.

This week’s quote is also the title of the column¹ and contains one of Arsene’s most famous words, footballistically. 

Allez-Arsenal

 

First, a note about the photo used to deliver the quote. That comes from my first trip to Arsenal, back in 2006. This photo has always held a special place for me because the graffiti marries the Frenchness of Arsene with the Englishness of the old Chapman crest. Here we have the new and the old, scratched into some fresh cement, indelibly written in the concrete just yards from Highbury.

As for the quote, we see people mocking Wenger for using “footballistically” all the time but few remember where the word actually came from.

April 2004, Newcastle v. Arsenal. Arsenal are held to a scoreless draw on a Newcastle pitch more suited to cattle grazing than football. It was an important match for a number of reasons: Arsenal are in the midst of a tight title race (which they would win) and in the midst of a what would be Arsene Wenger’s most famous season as manager, the Invincibles.

The word itself takes “football” turns it into an adjective “footballistic” and then into an adverb, “footballistically” meaning “with regard to football”. This may seem like a new word but as a letter writer² pointed out to the Guardian two days after Wenger loosed the phrase upon us, it has a Spanish equivalent “futbolisticamente”. So, perhaps our polyglot manager was simply translating a word he’d heard used in another language?

The word “Footballistically” is the main point most people focus on when reading that quote but read it again: he’s lauding his team’s mental strength. Their ability to stay focused despite the obstacles like the pitch or the referees and to try to claw something out of the game.

It’s an attribute Wenger holds in high regard in his players. Men who crumble easily have little place in the Wenger system. He gives his men the freedom to play the way that they want but simultaneously calls on his players to stand up and take account of themselves.

No Arsene team has done that as well as the Invincibles. However, today’s result (2-2 draw away to Everton), showed that this current incarnation of Arsenal share at least some of that willingness to fight and scrap for points: overcoming a terrible referee decision and a horrible first half of football to scratch out a 2-2 draw.

Footballistically it was a terrible match but despite their technical failings the boys showed some great mental strength to stay in the game and nearly pip all three points at the end.

Wenger, no doubt, approves.

Qq

¹Thanks to my friend Brian who runs 11 Cannons for the suggestion.
²Little known fact, people used to have to write letters to newspapers in order to have their opinions heard. In those days, only the best comments were published. It was a glorious era for the exchange of ideas, much unlike now.

 

Tactical preview: Everton v. Arsenal

What will Roberto Martinez Do?

EPL Game 1: A Solid Base and a Fluid Approach

Roberto Martinez showed quite a bit of flexibility in his approach against Arsenal last season. In their first Premier League encounter, at the Emirates, Martinez played something similar to how Arsenal played against Napoli. Martinez’s 4-2-3-1 had a defensive box of two center backs and two central midfielders. By allocating four players in a 2-2 manner, with one of the midfielders dropping a bit deeper in possession to allow Everton to play out easier from the back, Everton allocated enough resources properly to the defensive side of the game to combat with Giroud, Ozil, and the forward runs of Aaron Ramsey.

That allowed Everton to allocate the rest of their players towards attack. Not only did they allocate more resources for the attack, but the certainty in the positioning of the defensive box allowed them to have uncertainty in the allocation of those resources. This fluidity in attack helps to create information asymmetries, where players, familiar with one another, know where their teammates are, while the opponent struggles to properly allocate defensive resources to counter the attacking threat. Essentially, fluidity makes the dynamic resource allocation problem for the defense much more difficult. The defensive box allowed them to mitigate the costs of fluidity, in particular the cost of being out of position when possession is lost, by having players in position to defend Arsenal’s counterattacks.

Two stand-out performers for Everton were Steven Pienaar and Brian Oviedo, who filled in for Leighton Baines at left-back. With Jack Wilshere operating as the right-sided midfielder, or Cazorla for stretches, Arsenal lacked a counterattacking threat on that side¹. This gave Oviedo license to get forward, as the marginal cost of his forays was relatively small. Clearly, they did not perceive Carl Jenkinson as much of an attacking threat. This allowed Everton to move the ball down Arsenal’s right side easily and create 2-on-1s against Jenkinson. While this occurred late in the game with Everton searching for an equalizer, making a more attacking approach more valuable, one can see how Oviedo’s willingness to go forward creates a 2-on-1 against Jenkinson, giving Pienaar time and space to deliver a cross into the box.

With Pienaar free to cut inside from Everton’s left and Ramsey taking up quite advanced positions, Mikel Arteta had to worry about the threat of both Pienaar and Ross Barkley without much help (if help came it would have to come from Mertesacker and Koscielny, but that would leave Lukaku 1-on-1) . Barkley freely roamed the area, looking for space, and driving forward with the ball. Despite not registering a goal or assist in the match, Ross Barkley was the outstanding player for Everton in possession.

EPL Game 2: A False Nine and Wide-Forwards

I view football matches as dynamic resource allocation problems. You want to optimally allocate your resources and you want to prevent your opponent from optimally allocating their resources. To that end, one of my favorite tactical approaches is the use of two wide forwards with a deep-lying central player (I’d be all for Arsenal trotting out Walcott and Sanchez up top with Ozil behind them). Chile operated in this fashion under Jorge Sampaoli at the World Cup. The value of this approach is the ability to pin back four defenders with two attackers.

First attacking the CB/FB gap can often be more valuable that attacking the CB/CB gap. Center-backs generally stay put and have a good understanding with one another. The cohesion between the two and the certainty of position allows them to better allocate themselves to kill a threat to that gap. Fullbacks, who operate as attackers and defenders, often have less of a relationship with the center-back on their side and have much more uncertainty in their positioning. When a wide forward attacks that gap, there seems to be an increased probability for some confusion between the fullback and the center-back on that side, as to how they will deal with the threat.

One of the best outcomes from this confusion can be the ability to pin both fullbacks into defensive roles. In modern football, with fullbacks playing such a crucial role in attack, often solely responsible for providing width, the ability to pin the fullbacks deals a serious blow to the opponent. Not only does it prevent the opponent from allocating their attacking resources the way they desire, but it also can simplify the dynamic resource allocation problem for the defenders. If the only threats out wide are pinned back in their own half, a defense can narrow their shape, allocating more resources to limit the success of the central attackers.

The wide forward can also exploit the space in behind an attacking fullback (or a fullback positioned too far up the pitch), and can force a center-back into a wide area. For many center-backs, being pulled into a wide area represents a pretty terrible scenario. A lack of experience in those situations can lead to a lack of knowledge about how to use one’s attributes to defend the situation (or the center-back simply lacks the necessary attributes to defend that situation) and can lead to panicky and ineffective defending. Also, by dragging one of the center-backs out wide, the wide forward may have also forced the other center-back, and the fullback on the opposite side (if he is even in position) towards him. This can create quite a bit of space for the other wide forward to make a free inside run toward the back post.

In this game, Martinez used his wide forwards to great effect, particularly on the counterattack. He played a 4-3-3, with Steven Naismith as a false 9, Romelu Lukaku as a right wide forward, and Kevin Mirallas as a left wide forward. Naismith dropped into midfield, effectively forming a diamond, giving McCarthy and Barkley a player to pass the ball to, who could link-up with the wide forwards. Naismith also did well to attract Thomas Vermaelen onto him.

In Everton’s first goal, we can see the potency of this system. Although Flamini could have probably dealt with Baines 1-on-1, Bacary Sagna stays up, but does not close the ball down. Mirallas runs into the space that Sagna has not occupied, dragging Per Mertesacker with him. Naismith’s run draws Thomas Vermaelen.

wide

This leaves Lukaku all alone with Nacho Monreal, against whom the Belgian has a significant physical advantage. Lukaku gets a shot on goal, and it is saved.

shot

However, Vermaelen is caught watching Lukaku and loses Naismith, who has looked to make a run around Lukaku. The ball falls to Naismith, and he buries it.

late

On the second goal, Naismith starts with the ball after Mikel Arteta blocks an aimless Ross Barkley pass, an opportunity that comes about due to his deep positioning. The ball falls to Mirallas in a central position with Lukaku in acres of space on Everton’s right side. Mirallas plays the ball to Lukaku who faces Monreal in a 1-on-1. Vermaelen does not commit to helping his left-back as he is worried by the run of Naismith (watch him look behind him to check on where Naismith is, as he runs back). Lukas Podolski does not seem to care on this play, jogging back, even though his fullback is in an undesirable situation. Lukaku cuts inside; he shoots and scores.

The third goal starts with Mirallas wins the ball off of Bacary Sagna, which happens when you ask Sagna to advance the ball by dribbling. Now, the break is on. Barkley, who is already ahead of the play on Everton’s left, makes a run down the sideline. While he does not keep Mertesacker on him, his run prevents Mertesacker from ever committing to stopping Mirallas. Arteta cannot dream of catching up to Mirallas, meaning the Belgian has plenty of space and time to dribble, shoot, or make a pass. Vermaelen decides to focus on the man with the ball more than 25 meters from goal, and he is caught flat-footed as Naismith runs behind him. Mirallas plays the ball to Naismith, and Wojciech Szczesny comes off his line, successfully getting the ball away from Naismith. However, the ball falls in an ideal place for Mirallas to run onto the ball and score. Mertesacker and Arteta cannot accelerate quickly enough from their slow jogs to clear the danger. And Monreal, throughout all of this, is worried about his positioning relative to Lukaku, given the threat of the Belgian making a back post run. This prevents him from helping out his teammates on the play.

Two games, two completely different game plans, and both were effective. Whatever Roberto Martinez attempts to pull off on Saturday, there is a good chance it will be well thought out and effective.

What Arsenal May Want to Do

With Nacho Monreal starting at left-back, and Martinez aware that the Spaniard will start at left-back, he may look to isolate Lukaku on Monreal as much as possible. This may call for Lukaku taking up the wide forward role again and to make diagonal runs from a central position into the LCB/CB gap. If Everton do employ this tactic, Arsenal may wish to allocate another man to that territory, to help Monreal deal with the Belgian. Had Arteta not picked up an injury in Turkey, Arsene Wenger may have opted for a defensive box of Mertesacker-Koscielny; Flamini-Arteta. By having two deep-lying midfielders, one can help defend a wide area without leaving the area in front of the center backs unoccupied. Obviously this tactic has its downside, as having two players with a tendency to sit deep, can give the opponent’s deeper midfielders (probably McCarthy and a lucky-to-not-have-received-a-red-card-and-been-suspended-for-this-match Gareth Barry), though the absence of Ross Barkley would make this tactic less costly.

When it comes to defending wide forwards, Mathieu Debuchy’s ability and willingness to sweep behind his center backs may play a key role in this match. This is an advantage of having Debuchy at right-back over Sagna; however, Wenger may need to allocate even more resources to defend Everton, in these wide areas.

Wenger may choose to start Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out wide. Not only do both have the athleticism to recover from advanced positions and help out their fullbacks, they have also shown a willingness to do so. In particular, Sanchez is quite adept at defending his position, especially when it comes to pressing while simultaneously keeping a passing angle closed. Not only could fielding these two help the fullbacks combat the potential threat of wide forwards, but it could also help defend against attacking intentions of Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines. While this tactic would put them farther away from goal when Arsenal win possession, they do have the athleticism and the dribbling ability to still be threats on the counter. In fact, given Leighton Baines lack of recovery pace, Arsenal could look to draw the left-back forward, so to run into the space behind him on the counter.

Arsenal may also have to curb the advanced positioning of Aaron Ramsey. With Mesut Ozil possibly coming back into the side (who, by the way, was Arsenal’s best player by a considerable distance in the 1-1 draw at the Emirates) Ramsey probably does not need to play so close to goal for Arsenal to have the same level of attacking production. However, with Flamini probably playing as the holding midfielder, Arsenal need to allocate more resources defensively into the central midfield zone, compared to when Arteta plays. This also means that Ramsey must find his passing touch, which evaded him against Crystal Palace and Besiktas. Turnovers in central midfield could very easily turn into goal-scoring opportunities for Everton.

For those keeping score, it appears my preferred XI is Szczesny; Debuchy, Mertesacker (if match fit), Koscielny, Gibbs; Flamini, Ramsey; Sanchez, Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, X. When it comes to the center-forward position, the choice comes down to Wenger’s opinion on Giroud’s match fitness. The Frenchman has not played well to start the season. If he continues to play poorly, he can turn into a real liability, as his poor play would give Everton an incentive to push their back line further up the pitch. This would help them pin Arsenal into their own half.

Sure, Arsenal would have counter-attacking threats in Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain in my XI, but they may have quite a bit of defending to do, taking them further away from goal. Arsenal could position either further up the pitch, but then we run into another issue of trade-offs.

While there is a marginal benefit in attacking by having Sanchez or Oxlade-Chamberlain higher up the pitch (possibly in defending too, but defending high up the pitch has the potential to be high-variance which can make it undesirable depending on one’s preference and the incentives with respect to risk), the marginal cost (or at least of them) is the increased likelihood of 2-v-1 situations for Everton on the flanks.

Therefore, if Wenger does not feel that Giroud can provide a good performance against Everton, then Yaya Sanogo is the obvious choice, unless Wenger wants to start using Sanchez up top. Even if Sanogo does not perform well, he can provide a vertical threat that can allow Arsenal to keep Everton’s back line deeper, without having to risk pushing one of the wide men forward and playing a high risk game on the flanks.

Conclusion

In Chapter VI² of the Art of War Sun Tzu writes about how an army should operate in battle:

Thus I say that victory can be created. For even if the enemy is numerous, I can prevent him from engaging. Therefore, determine the enemy’s plans and you will know which strategy will be successful and which will not; agitate him and ascertain the pattern of his movement. Determine his dispositions and so ascertain the field of battle. Probe him and learn where his strength is abundant and where deficient. The ultimate in disposing one’s troops is to be without ascertainable shape. Then the most penetrating spies cannot pry in nor can the wide lay plans against you.

With Roberto Martinez’s flexibility in approach and with Arsenal going away to quality opponent, Arsenal may want to spend the first 10-15 minutes figuring out what the Toffees game plan is and play a more reactive game. If an opportunity to get forward on the counter presents itself it may be taken, but Arsenal must focus on not conceding and learning as much as they can about their opponent. They may also wish to not give anything away as they discover how to best attack Everton. It is fine to not win the game in the first 10-20 minutes. Football is a game of 90 minutes; you need to be able to solve the dynamic resource allocation problem as well as you can for the whole game.

Naveen — @njm1211

¹it was also their 2nd match in a 3 matches in a 7-day span that ended with a match against Napoli…they probably did not want to burn themselves out before a crucial match to help decide which team progressed out of the group.
²I have seen the chapter titled “Weaknesses and Strengths”, “Weak Points and Strong”, “Illusion and Reality” or “Vacuity and Substance” depending on the translation.