Naveen’s tactical preview: exploit the gaps to get inside the Palace keep

By Naveen Maliakkal

While Tony Pulis no longer manages Crystal Palace, Alan Pardew will probably have his side play a reactive style against Arsenal, this Saturday. However, it may not prove wise for them to go with the 4-4-2 set-up that led to so many problems against Liverpool.

In that FA Cup match, Crystal Palace set up in a 4-4-2, with the front two, particularly Marouane Chamakh, keen to drop into midfield, in an effort to better cope with Liverpool’s 3-4-2-1. However, with Chamakh trying to stay tight to Joe Allen, who Palace probably identified as a player they needed to mark to disrupt Liverpool’s possession, and Frazier Campbell trying to position himself as high up the pitch as he could, to maximize his effectiveness on counters, there existed an asymmetry in Palace’s shape. Their lack of defensive resources on the right-side of the pitch allowed the likes of Emre Can and Jordan Henderson plenty of freedom to move forward¹. With Liverpool pushing their wingbacks high up, Palace’s wide players, Yannick Bolasie and Dwight Gayle, were level with the back line more than Pardew probably wanted. With sometimes six at the back and Chamakh attached to Joe Allen, Palace called for Joel Ward and Joe Ledley to cover a large amount of space.

Liverpool had an easy time keeping possession, due to Palace’s inability to cover the spaces occupied by their opponent’s midfielders. With Emre Can, Adam Lallana, Joe Allen, and Jordan Henderson, Liverpool could outnumber Palace in various zones, with ease. It also meant that Jordan Henderson could play a more vertical, which better suited his attributes. And if Chamakh did not stay with Joe Allen, Allen could receive the ball and look to play in one of Liverpool’s deeper-lying runners or play an uncontested pass through Palace’s lines. While Palace did have two center-backs keeping an eye on Sturridge, the introduction of Mario Balotelli allowed the English striker more freedom from his markers, which played a key role in the goal he scored.

But what may have proved most shocking, when watching that match, was Crystal Palace’s passivity, out of possession. When defending deep, the team looks to limit the amount of offside space they need to control. At the same time, they concede quite a bit of on-side space. This means that the team must have a stranglehold on the space the actual team shape occupies, particularly central areas. Failure to control these areas represents a huge problem. Since the team is defending so close to their own goal, such failure leads to the opponent gaining control of a rather dangerous area of the pitch. Therefore, passivity represents a perilous path for Palace.

Stretch Out the Build-Up

While Francis Coquelin has provided a substantial upgrade over Mathieu Flamini, he has shown a lack of ability to provide what Arsenal need, when the team has possession. That is not to say that Coquelin plays like Denilson. Coquelin’s issues do not stem from a lack of verticality in his passing game, but a poor understanding of passing lanes and space, so to make himself available to the man on the ball or create space for his teammates. As Sergio Busquets has shown for Barcelona (note the critique of Song), having a player that understands what to do when his team has the ball, regardless of whether he has the ball, is essential for a side who want to control the ball and space, simultaneously.

Without this player, in matches where Arsenal wish to/end up controlling possession, successful build-up will probably require a less vertical midfield arrangement. Instead of having the holder draw defenders to open up passing lanes to the more advanced central midfielders, Arsenal will probably have to rely on the likes of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil dropping deeper to provide passing options for Arsenal’s center backs. A way of doing this could involve both Ozil and Cazorla dropping into the space between Palace’s front two and the midfield line. In the wide areas, Arsenal could use the fullbacks or a fullback and Coquelin to stretch the pitch horizontally. This method of horizontal expansiveness, in the build-up, could aid in Arsenal’s ability to retain possession, as well as increasing the points of entry into the space behind the front two. This could be particularly beneficial, if Crystal Palace attempt to defend in a mid-block, as opposed to a low block.

Keep It Compact in the Final Third

Against a deep defending side that plays in a compact shape, it is important to move the opposition from side-to-side. Obviously, forcing the opponent to work harder out of possession has the benefit of tiring the opposition. In addition to that, the team should take advantage of their technical ability by making the ball move faster than their opposition.

However, the positioning of the team plays an important role. While calls for greater width are common commentary during EPL matches, excessive width, really excessive spacing, can slow down the agility of ball movement. Passes have to travel too far, taking too much time to reach their destination. Not only does this allow the opposition to get into position to deal with the consequences of the pass, but it limits the ability for the team in possession to exploit spaces as they appear, over time. The long pass that gets played, is played due to the nature of the game at time t. The more time the pass takes, the further the game state may have changed from time t, meaning that the team in possession has greater need to reallocate their resources, including the ball, to best exploit space. Therefore, by maintaining a more compact shape in the attacking third, Arsenal can better respond to the dynamic nature of the match.

Specifically, Arsenal may want to focus on playing from half-space to half-space, reducing their investment in the outer sixths of the pitch. If Arsenal can push Palace’s wide players, in the midfield line, in to the back line, then Arsenal can exploit Palace’s reliance on two, or three, players manning the midfield zone. This could involve creating an overload in the half-space on one side, to drag Palace’s midfield to that side, creating space for the midfielder, in the opposite half-space, to receive the ball. For example, in the right half-space, Chambers, Cazorla, Sanchez, and Giroud cluster together, dragging Palace’s midfield over to them. In the left half-space, Mesut Ozil could take up a position, free from the opposition. With Palace’s midfield out of position, and Arsenal compact enough, playing half-space to half-space, the ball can quickly move to Ozil. There he has plenty of time and space, with only the back line in front of him. At that point, Ozil can dribble at the back line, bringing back memories of his days at Werder Bremen. He could play in an overlapping left-back or the most advanced player on the left. Ozil could also play the ball back from whence it came. With all those players on the right side, and Ozil free on the left, the German through-ball master has plenty of candidates to make a run into the box. With the center backs probably concerned more with Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez, midfield runs beyond the back line could help to create quality chances for Arsenal. And if Mesut Ozil is given time and space to pick out such runs, it means that Arsenal stand a good chance of scoring.

Cutbacks over Crosses

With Palace looking to control central areas of the pitch, there is a danger that Arsenal’s possession turns rather U-shaped. Instead of achieving control of central spaces, Arsenal look to move the ball into wide areas, as it is the path of least resistance. Those spaces are under less control by Palace, but also pose less of a goal threat.

And Crystal Palace want this to happen. In a wide area, they have an additional defender who covers quite a bit of space, in the touchline. Also, if Arsenal wish to move the ball from a wide area into the center, via an aerial cross, Palace have plenty of aerial ability to deal with the first ball². With how deep Palace will probably defend, playing a successful cross, behind the back line, could prove difficult, despite Olivier Giroud’s proficiency at the near post.

Instead, Arsenal should probably take advantage of Palace’s desire to defend deep and keep men behind the ball. When the ball is played wide, maybe it could be played into the space behind the back line, allowing someone to run onto the ball. As Palace retreat, space at the top of the 18-yard box might be vacated. If the wide players in Palace’s midfield line find themselves in the back line, when the ball is cut back, then the amount of potential space at the top of the box only increases. Without the depth in defense, due to a line of 6 at the back and a duo ahead of them, a cut back only has to break through one defensive line to find a player with plenty of time and space to shoot, dribble, or pass. And these cutbacks do not have to exclusively come from overlapping runs³.

Alexis Sanchez’s dribbling could allow him to beat a player in a wide area, allowing him to move inside, parallel to the byline. From there, he can cause a similar amount of chaos in Palace’s team shape and play a cutback, to devastating effect.

Sometimes You Have To Zig Before You Can Zag

With this match setting up as Palace trying to concede possession, but control important spaces, Arsenal need to wrest control of the spaces that will help them produce goals, as it seems unlikely that Palace will easily concede such spaces. To gain control of these spaces, they need to draw their opponent away from the spaces their opponents seek to control. To do this, Arsenal need to dangle bait—the ball and players—to convince their opponent to divest from these precious spaces. In the build-up, players may need to come short to help advance play and create space for more advanced players. In the final third, Arsenal may need to allocate resources toward a side of play, with the ultimate goal of creating time and space for a player on the other side. From wide areas, Arsenal may need to move the ball behind Palace’s back line, to create a shot in front of Palace’s back line.

Ideally, a team looking to do this has all XI players playing roles in possession, allowing for greater manipulation of the opposition. It will be interesting to see whether Arsenal’s less than optimal options, particularly at holding midfield, prevent Arsenal from creating the misdirection that seems like the best path to victory. For, if Arsenal want to progress as a side that can truly compete for honors, they need to have the ability to control space with their possession, as well as control space without it.


¹Having a center-back who can step into midfield is an important part of a team that wants to play a possession-based game. It gives the side more of an ability to exploit space when it appears, increases interaction among all the players in possession, and helps to draw defenders out, allowing teammates to find pockets of space in more advanced areas to receive the ball.
²Prioritizing winning the second ball is a potentially effective way to go for the side in possession, if playing balls like that, into the box, is something the men with the ball are willing to do.
³At the same time, the more central the location the cutback occurs, the more effective it is. Therefore cutbacks from the half-space, particularly from inside the 18-yard box would be particularly potent.


Chelsea and PSG commit 20 fouls each — Mourinho demands ironic justice

“Eden Hazard was fouled NINE times in Chelsea draw at PSG… Laurent Blanc’s men should be ashamed of themselves” screamed the Daily Mail
“Mourinho calls for cards to halt Hazard fouls” blasts
“Yes but both Chelsea and PSG committed 20 fouls each and Mourinho has some gall demanding cards for fouls on creative players.” pined 7amkickoff

It was a welcome relief for Chelsea fans this morning as they woke up to the news that their player, Eden Hazard, has been fouled a record number of times both in the Premier League and in the Champions League. And that he was fouled nine times in their match against PSG on Tuesday. Most of the major shock-top newspapers have run with the story and are supporting Chelsea and their manager, Jose Mourinho’s, campaign “Justice for the 9 fouls”.

Chelsea fans have been under pressure since Tuesday when their supporters were filmed shouting racist abuse at a black man in Paris prior to their match against PSG. After they shoved the black man and refused his entry onto the train, they then started singing that they are Chelsea, they are racist, and they are proud of it. The man who was abused is pressing charges and police in the UK and France are actively pursuing a case against the fans in that railway car.

Also swept under the rug is the fact that Chelsea were abject in the match against PSG, managing just one shot on goal in 90 minutes as they elected to park the bus rather than try to attack PSG and win the match outright.Chelsea were so poor in this match that their goal was scored when a center back crossed the ball to another center back who flicked on for the fullback to score. After they scored the go-ahead goal, Chelsea sat back and defended. When they did try to get the ball forward, it was Hazard who was the main outlet.

PSG spent the entire match attacking Chelsea and when they did lose the ball often tackled the one Chelsea outlet, Hazard, to win the ball back. It is no surprise that Hazard was the most fouled player on either team, he was Chelsea’s lone outlet. I’m sure if Chelsea had taken a more balanced approach to counter attacking Hazard might have had a teammate to pass the ball to, instead he was often left to go it alone and the result was that he was involved in a lot of duels.

In fact, the stats show that both teams committed the exact same number of fouls, 20, and Chelsea’s two main central midfielders, Matic and Fabregas, combined to commit 9 fouls of their own. PSG’s Verratti has been singled out by Mourinho because he committed 5 fouls and most of them were against Hazard, but Chelsea’s opposite central midfielder, Nemaja Matic, also committed 5 fouls.

The stats show that yes Hazard was fouled 9 times but that both Chelsea and PSG fought equally hard and fouled each other an equal amount. As a Liverpool fan who was watching the game with me put it, “both teams were fouling too much.”

The biggest irony, however, is that Chelsea under Jose Mourinho have serially targeted opposition players who, like Hazard, play with the ball at their feet. These players who like to dribble, players like Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal’s Abou Diaby, and Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, are routinely targeted by Chelsea midfielders not only for the same rotational fouling that Hazard suffered against PSG, but for absurd and over the top lunges.

cahillHere is Gary Cahill attempting to break Alexis Sanchez’ leg with a lunge that should have been a red card but instead was only called a foul.


And here is Chelsea’s Michael Essien destroying Abou Diaby’s ankle. Another foul that didn’t receive a red card or command a peep out of the Chelsea manager.

What’s most incredible, however, is how quickly the British press lapped up Mourinho’s milk and uncritically published his remarks about the PSG match. Every single one of Jose Mourinho’s teams have been criticized for their brutality and ugliness. He was essentially fired from Real Madrid, he last job prior to returning to Chelsea, because he had turned them into the most expensively assembled Crazy Gang in the history of the sport and the players revolted against him. It was clear that the players were right, since they went on to win the Champions League playing a much more aesthetically pleasing brand of football.

In the end, this is just Mourinho doing what Mourinho does: redirecting the press away from a poor team performance, moaning ironically about how his team are cheated, and adding to the fan’s feelings that Chelsea are persecuted. The only wonder is why the British press publish this stuff uncritically.


Questions to ponder: dribblers like Hazard, Wilshere, Diaby, and Sanchez are often fouled because they tend to have the ball at feet more than any other player. Is this fouling “just part of the game”? Is this something that “needs to be stamped out” of the game? Consider the NBA and their movement in the early 90s toward a more dribble-happy sport. They changed the rules so that players could no longer put hands on the opponent when playing face to face. This encouraged dribblers and turned the NBA into a sport where one player would often be seen standing at the top of the key dribbling and trying to break down the opposition defense. Do we want football to go more in that direction? More leeway for dribblers? Or do we want to encourage teams to play a more team oriented sport, with passing rather than one-v-one dribble duels all the time. My feeling is that encouraging more dribbling will make the Mourinho tactic of parking the bus pay significantly higher dividends because you can sit back and hit the opposition with a dribbler, who is systematically protected by the referees.

Be a Gunner Be a Runner, in Tacoma?

Here’s a sad fact: I have been a smoker all my life. All of it. My mother smoked when I was in the womb. My father smoked several packs a day in the house and in the car, with the windows rolled up. And I started officially smoking when I was 14. Because, you know, why not?

One time when the family drove from Kansas to Alaska, my father smoked the whole way, two packs a day, with the windows rolled up, in a Honda CIVIC CVCC station wagon. People still smoke around their kids, sometimes, but this was a different time. That same trip from Kansas to Alaska featured four children and two adults in a car that would now days be considered a “mini”. Mom and dad up front, three kids in the back seat, baby on mom’s lap in the front seat. Oh, and most of the Alaskan highway was just a pile of pebbles — you drove on the flattened portion.

It’s no coincidence that I started smoking after that trip to Alaska. It was probably a reaction to the nicotine withdrawal and the stress of that absurd trip.

When I was in high school, there was even an official smoker’s section. You were supposed to be 18 but no one checked ID. I think they just wanted to keep us smokers on campus. If they had banned smoking, many of us would never have finished High School. Like I said, different times.

When I was 18, I joined the Army. I smoked Camel Non-Filtered cigarettes for my time in the Army. I smoked them mostly because no one would try to bum one off me. Despite the rather heavy tar and chemical intake, I was still a decent runner. I finished in the top 5 of my company’s 2-mile times for every run. Though I hacked up a lung after every run.

Since then I have been an on and off smoker. I quit for 5 years once (I’m old). That’s the most I have ever gone without a smoke. And now, I’m only an occasional smoker. I don’t smoke around my daughter and she doesn’t even know that I smoke. When I have her, which is half of the week, I don’t smoke a single cigarette. I also don’t smoke during the day, when at work, when I don’t have my daughter. I basically only smoke 3 times a week.

That’s a funny thing that only smokers say “I only smoke X”. If I said “hey, it’s not that big of a deal, I only smoke crack three times a week. You know, 10 rocks a week or so.” People would be worried. But cigs are different because they are still somewhat socially acceptable. Let’s not forget that it has only been a few years since smoking was banned in bars and parks here in Washington.

I’m going to quit. It’s going to happen. I have had loads of advice from very nice and well meaning people but part of my “suchness” is that I am a smoker and always have been. I have to break myself in order to change this pattern. And I figure I just have to get to the point where my benefit (the high) isn’t as good as the drawbacks (hacking, money, standing in the rain, etc.). The good news is that I at that tipping point.

I’m hoping to push myself over the edge by training for the Be a Gunner, Be a Runner event. It’s not that long of a run, just 4 miles (6.4k), and I can walk that far easily. In fact, when I play football on Sunday I run/walk/sprint over 4 miles.

But my goal is to run the entire way and to average around a 10 minute mile. That’s not the best time in the world, but I am 44 years old, I’m overweight, I have no history of running (since 1991), and I have been a smoker since I was a zygote. So, that’s my goal.

If you’d like to sponsor me, you can do so by simply pledging money to the Arsenal Foundation. If you want to join me on my practice days, you can send me an email at And if you want to be part of the event (Arsenal will send us numbers and I will take photos and post them here) you can also email me. On April 11th we will be running 4 miles in Point Defiance park. It will be a wonderful little stroll in the woods.