Ramsey-winner

Arsenal 2-1 Crystal Palace: fear of leg cramps

When was the last time you woke up in the middle of the night with a cramp? You know what I’m talking about, you’re lying there dreaming of Arsenal winning the League at Old Trafford, the players dancing in wild abandon, the ticker tape falling all around, and maybe in sympathetic rhythm your muscles start twitching as you dream that you’re dancing with Koscielny. Then before you know what hits you your calf is harder than knotted pine and you’re wide awake, screaming and stretching, praying that’s the only muscle that will cramp.

If you’ve ever had a night cramp, the second night cramp is always worse than the first because somewhere between the actual knot and the pain there’s a moment of sheer panic, you know what’s coming and you’re helpless to stop it. And even worse is that for weeks after your last cramp, you wake up periodically from your slumber, scared you’ll get another cramp.

I get the sense that for some folks, watching Arsenal is like those few weeks after your last leg cramp. You sit there, watching the game with a feeling of doom “they are playing well,” you’ll say “but I know Arsenal are going to concede now, probably off a set play.” Or “well, there went the chance, this game is lost, the season is lost, Wilshere is lost, Sanogo is lost, it’s all over, leg cramps take me away!”

I know because I was like that. I was conditioned by the Cesc era Arsenal and that feeling of inevitability that whenever Arsenal were playing a team that we were “supposed” to beat something would happen, Denilson would switch off, and some player who hasn’t scored a goal since St. Swithins day would kick in a wonder goal and we’d be crushed. Chiek Tiote, all those players from Spurs, they were all garbage on legs and yet they all scored on us in some unimaginable fashion. And it seemed to happen so often that the unimaginable became real.

So, it makes sense to carry that sense of doom for a while when watching Arsenal. Just like when you had a cramp and for the next week you live in fear of that cramp coming back. But I wonder how long we have to live in fear of the next Arsenal collapse?

For me, I stopped worrying about Arsenal cramps a while ago. I tried to pinpoint when it happened and I think it was the Bayern Munich away match, where Arsenal scrapped their way to a 2-0 win and came within a goal post of their own unthinkable result: beating Bayern 3-0 in Munich and advancing in the Champions League.

I say all that knowing that Arsenal can still collapse in spectacular fashion. As much as I wish I could blot out those losses to Chelsea, Man U, City, and Liverpool they are always going to be with me. But as I sat there watching Arsenal on Saturday I knew the whole time that they were going to win.

I knew they would win partly out of that sense of calm that they have given me but also because my rational mind told me that this team is chock full of talent. Arsenal started with Yaya Sanogo, a hard worker but hardly a polished center forward. In midfield, there was the trio of Arteta, Wilshere, and Ramsey all of whom seemed to lack a little bit of sharpness. On the wings there was Alexis and Cazorla, with the former looking like he wanted to do too much and the latter looking well off the boil, spraying passes all over the park to no one. And at the back, Arsenal are bedding in two new defenders, which is usually a recipe for disaster because defense is a team within a team and disrupting half that team almost always has dire consequences.

I’ve just given you every reason to think that team shouldn’t win, and yet, I saw that collection of talent and thought that of course they were going to win. Alexis is going to take time to get used to the speed and power of the English Premier League but you can already see that he’s one of the most talented players on the pitch. He’s going to pull off something brilliant at least once a game. Which is what he did, sailing in a cross that dipped perfectly for Koscielny to score the equalizer.

And in Aaron Ramsey Arsenal have a budding superstar. I lost count of how many times the pundits have said that Arsenal need a midfield powerhouse, someone who can dominate the game in the middle of the park. And I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said that they have that guy already and his name is Aaron Ramsey. He’s a tireless worker: tackling, positioning himself to take an errant pass, running without the ball, demanding the ball, looking to move the ball up the pitch, and since last year he has decided to add “scoring the game winning goal” to his overflowing tool kit. That’s what he did on Saturday, he scored the winner. Like he did in the FA Cup Final. And like he seems to be doing with some regularity now.

Sure, it was only Crystal Palace and sure they were missing their manager who left the club on the eve of the kickoff to their season. But Arsenal, for their part, were missing their record signing, the creative force in midfield, their starting center half and defensive rock, their starting center forward, and many of the players who were on the pitch looked sorely out of shape and clearly lacking that telepathic communication necessary for a team like Arsenal, a team dependent on slick passing and fluid movement, to break down a team like Palace who sit back and have little interest in actually playing a game of football.

But that’s what made me so calm. They were missing all those players and yet, they still had a team full of talent in almost every position and a team with a self belief generated by winning tough games like the 2-0 over Bayern and the FA Cup Final. So, of course they won.

Qq

Man at the match; Chary: Just deserts to time-wasting Palace served up by Arsenal

A long three months have passed since your humble scribe last made his way to Ashburton Grove and how the mood around the club and its supporters has changed. News of ManUre’s home defeat to Swansea brought a spring to my step as the much lauded, by the British media at least, Loius Van Butt Head (any fans of MTV of the 80′s and 90′s will know) started off his reign in calamitous fashion.

Walking up Gillespie Road

Walking up Gillespie Road

This is in no small measure due to this very significant addition to the in-stadium signeage.

Shove your nine years up ...

Shove your nine years up …

Of course this has been up for a while yet for those of us travelling to the Grove for the first time this season it’s worth highlighting.

I took my seat in the North Bank lower and guess who was a few rows in front ?

Bully

Bully

As the teams trundled out the only minor surprise was the selection of Sanogo ahead of Olly and as we attacked the Clock End goal away from me I saw very little of Sanogo’s efforts but he did appear to be a touch ineffectual.

Callum Chambers, however, confirmed his composed performances in the Emirates Cup were no fluke; whether he should be third or fourth choice centre back is the question for the rest of the season.

Very quickly it became apparent in the stands that the Palace manager’s hastily devised team tactic was ‘everyone behind the ball and defend in two banks of five.’ The Pulis stand-in’s dishevelled appearance on the touchline wreaked of a man who’s barely started the job and is in a bit of a muddle.

Smart manager, scruffy manager

Smart manager, scruffy manager

While Wenger was in a smart suit his counter part decided to try the “Brit on a beach holiday abroad” combo of t-shirt and shorts, nice.

As the Arsenal started to make inroads into the massed ranks of the opposition defence Alexis’ was the major threat with his quick starting, darting runs from deep. Granted, he sometimes overshot the final cross/pass but I could almost see the brown trails showing on the shorts of the opposing defenders. That’s what having pace in your attack does – it stops opposition defences sitting back as we no longer have to endlessly dilly dally laterally on the pitch.

Barely twenty five minutes into the game and Speroni, the Palace keeper, decided he would take his goal kicks with all the urgency of a baboon with hemorrhoids. This, allied to the 8-1-1 formation told you all you needed to know about the attitude of Pullis’ successor.

As expected with virtually their first upfield excursion, towards me in the North bank, a misplaced pass amongst our left flank defenders resulted in a corner which Palace duly scored from.

There was some talk around of me of why was Alexis marking the leviathan that is Hangaland however the team and supporters dusted themselves down and got on with the business of getting back into the game.

Arsenal pressed forward, predominantly on the right hand side where Debuchy and Alexis were combining together in the manner of team mates who had playing together for a season and not just a few weeks. it reminded me of our previous right sided partnership of Walcott and that French bloke we signed from Auxerre; what was his name again ?

On the stroke of half time a well deserved equaliser was headed in by Kozzer (from an Alexis free kick), who is popping up with important goals time and time again so the tone of the half time break would then take on a different flavour. I’ve always found the North Bank lower to have more than it’s fair share of pessimistic Gooners so it was good to hear that most felt confident of a winning goal coming up in the second half.

Soon after the second half kicked off Gibbs was subbed and Nacho came on; those saying he should be shipped out should take note of just how often Gibbs is injured and therefore why we need him as experienced back up. To my eyes he went on to have a good game and in fact our attacks on the left started to get better from his introduction onwards.

Soon after the initial flurry of attacks it became apparent that Palace were planning to hang onto the draw by slowing down play by a combination of Speroni’s slow motion goal kicks and assorted defenders collapsing with cramp to eat up more time. Sadly the referee was not keeping a lid on the time wasting and he let it go.

Other things worsened the mood of the home support, for example Arsenal were awarded a free kick they wanted to take quickly but as the referee turned his back a Palace midfielder kicked the ball away – a yellow card all day long, something the lino should have flagged to the referee but didn’t.

Something else that summed up Palace and their approach was when another delicate defender of theirs, Dann I think, was being subbed off, instead of walking straight off the pitch(of course he was proceeding at funereal pace) he not only didn’t take the shortest roue off the pitch, but he arced his walk as he approached the touchline and walked parallel to it so it took even longer for play to restart.

Earlier on just as Arsenal were about to take the corner the Pulis stand in decided to bring on a sub just then ! No waiting for a later break in play as is customary.

As full time approached Puncheon finally got his second yellow after a number of niggling fouls and we got the huge advantage of playing against ten men for a couple of minutes of normal time plus injury time.

Due to the time wasting already seen the five minutes of injury time flagged up was the minimum expected and Arsenal kept on pushing forward, but with renewed urgency.

Another attack resulted in a cross that Olly flicks on and just in front of the North Bank goal, yards from me. I can see someone swivel round to latch onto the flick. Next thing I know Speroni parries and somebody else has tapped in the rebound.

What relief and total justice that Palace concede a goal scored in injury time that their time wasting created.

The winning goal

The winning goal

Through the sea of arms I can just make out Rambo rushing to the corner flag to celebrate, the thing I notice most vividly is his fists pumping in triumph, fist pumps of vitality and strength, not the “couldn’t break a wet paper bag” fist pumps of our dear manager.

By now my row of the North bank lower has taken on the character of a thrash metal mosh pit as the delirious celebrations resulted in yours truly being hurled several seats to the right.

How sweet an injury time winner is and how different the mood at this seasons opening fixture compared to lasts.

UTA !

By ChärybdÏß1966 (on Twitter @charybdis1966)

He's going down to chew his old lady, you know he caught her messin' round with another manager.

Tactical Preview: Arsenal v. Crystal Palace

Note: Naveen and I are aware that Tony Pulis has chickened out, I mean stepped down, ahead of the match. That said, he did prepare this team over the summer and they only have one day to change things so it is highly unlikely that the new manager will be able to radically alter Pulis’ summer long game plan. Moreover, this is an excellent piece on the tactics required to overcome a well drilled team who sit deep, something Arsenal see a lot of. -7am

Opening day of the 2014-15 season and Arsenal get Crystal Palace. At the beginning of last season, a match against Crystal Palace would serve as a chance for Lukas Podolski to feast on another side that lacked any defensive organization, leading to Arsenal fans praising his finishing and asking why he does not play more, even though he’s a one-trick pony and that one trick requires a relative large amount space and time to work (he is like a very powerful but very immobile and difficult to load cannon). With Tony Pulis at the helm, the Crystal Palace of Ian Holloway has long since died. While Pulis has changed the way Palace play, Pulis has also adapted the approach he used at Stoke to better extract value from the resources available to him. With Arsenal lacking a couple of Germans, particularly Mesut Ozil, they could find it difficult to break down the Eagles. Therefore, this match will serve as a test for Arsenal to create and exploit information asymmetries, in order to break down a resolute defense.

Crystal Palace’s 4-4-2

One of the biggest myths in football is that a team cannot play 4-4-2 in the modern game. Now, a side probably cannot get away with the 4-4-2 Tim Sherwood had Spurs playing¹ however, teams like Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid have found quite a bit of success at the highest level playing a 4-4-2. In fact, Palace’s 4-4-2 looks a bit like the 4-4-2 Atletico Madrid used to win La Liga and come within a minute of winning the Champions League.

Palace’s four in midfield operate as a tight unit, sliding as the ball moves from side to side. Therefore, when the opponent has the ball in a central area, Palace can congest the center of the pitch and prevent passing into the space right in front of the back line. With Marouane Chamakh dropping into midfield, a player like Mile Jedinak will look to close down the man with the ball and win possession, believing Palace have plenty of bodies in the center of the pitch to cover him. When the ball moves to a wide area, the four man midfield shifts to the ball-side with the midfielder closest to the ball looking to challenge the player on the ball. With the number of bodies in the way of a potential dribble or a potential pass forward, into the center of the pitch, dribbling out wide represents the path of least resistance. And this is exactly what Pulis wants. With two of 6’3” Damien Delaney, 6’ 2” Scott Dann, and now 6’ 6” Brede Hangeland, at center back, Palace have more than enough aerial ability to comfortably deal with crosses from wide areas. Throw in a 6’ 2” Joel Ward, who can play as an inverted left-back, or right-back, and crosses from wide areas serve as a rather inefficient way to score goals.

When Palace win possession, they become a three true outcomes side (they are the Jack Cust of the Premier League). If they come under any pressure in their own third, then Palace will look to launch the ball forward, hoping the man up top, a quick player like Frazier Campbell, can latch onto it. If they do not come under pressure, then Palace will look to get the ball to their pacey wingers, often Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie, or they will look to get the ball to Marouane Chamakh, who will look to play the center forward in behind or find a winger in space (Chamakh as a No. 10…who would have thought?).

Unlike his Stoke City sides, Pulis’ Palace focus more on short and quick passes as the foundation of their counter-attacking play, not aimless long balls up to two target men. Also, in the final third, Palace do not have the single-minded approach of Pulis’ Stoke, who looked to cross the ball to their center forwards as early in the move as possible. Palace have a greater willingness to patiently play the ball in the final third, looking for an opening by making short passes or looking for one of the wingers to beat their marker. This makes Crystal Palace much more inventive and fun to watch than any Stoke side under Pulis.

How Arsenal Could Play Against Them

The obvious way to take advantage of an aggressive team is to move the ball quickly. If a team can pass the ball accurately and quickly, they can exploit those momentary windows in time and space, allowing the ball to move into more valuable positions. Based on this logic, a more fluid approach could prove useful against a structured team. Given the importance of cohesion and organization in Palace’s defending, the information asymmetries and the ability for the ball and players to more freely flow to their highest valued uses, due to a more fluid approach, could help Arsenal create more openings and better exploit those openings. When everything clicks, this approach can devastate an opponent. However, as matches away to Liverpool and Chelsea showed, this reliance on technique and fluidity can backfire terribly if the pass-and-move game is not on point.

So what are some specific ways Arsenal could attack Crystal Palace? Given the narrow defensive structure Crystal Palace employ and the aggressiveness in closing down the man on the ball, Arsenal may look to play the ball in a deeper area on one side of the pitch, looking to drag the Palace defense to the ball-side, and have a player on the opposite side make a forward run, making him a target for a diagonal. That tactic got Arsenal their first goal in their only game against Pulis’ Palace last season.

Looking at Arsenal’s second goal in that match, playing a deep-lying center forward could also help break down Palace’s defense. In the build-up to that goal, Rosicky plays the ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain, who then plays the ball into Giroud, who has moved into a withdrawn position for a center forward, left of center. Both Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rosicky continue their runs beyond Giroud. With Bolasie just arriving on the scene from an advanced position, Oxlade-Chamberlain runs past Joel Ward and Tomas Rosicky runs at the back line unmarked. With Danny Gabiddon looking to close down Olivier Giroud, forcing him to break from the back line, all Giroud needs to do is play the ball back to Oxlade-Chamberlain to create a 2-v-1, with Delaney trying to defend Oxlade-Chamberlain and the unmarked run of Tomas Rosicky. Giroud does this and Oxlade-Chamberlain scores his second goal of the match.

Given this way of attacking Palace’s defense, Olivier Giroud’s performance could go a long way in determining how successful Arsenal’s attack is (though as I wrote before, Alexis Sanchez could play this role of deep-lying center forward, especially if Arsenal play a 4-1-4-1). Maybe more importantly, if Giroud starts (or if Sanogo starts), Arsenal need to avoid the temptation of playing long balls or crosses to the center forward. That would play right into Palace’s hands and such inefficient attacking methods could give Palace more opportunities to launch their potent counter-attacks.

That is not to say that Arsenal should not attempt a single cross in the entire game (if the marginal benefit of a cross>marginal cost, go for it). What it means is that the expected value of crossing against Crystal Palace in general is less than it is against other clubs and given their counter-attacking ability and the profitability of other methods of attack (opportunity cost), the quantity of crosses that makes sense, in general, is lower than normal².

Finally, and this has become a much more viable option with the arrival of Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal could look to unleash a dribbler out wide, with the goal of beating the initial marker and then cutting infield. While Palace are willing to let a dribbler go around the midfield and attempt to whip a cross, the quick feet of Sanchez could allow him to beat his marker and then cut infield (or look to get further up the pitch before cutting infield to create more of a cutback opportunity). Now, instead of a speculative cross into a forest of defenders, Sanchez can look to shoot, if Palace gives him space, or look to pick out a teammate running into the box.

Fullbacks Beware

While I like Debuchy more than Sagna, in part because he has a better ability to recover from advanced positions, and Gibbs is quite an athlete at left-back, Arsenal may want to refrain from simultaneously pushing both fullbacks high up the pitch. With the speed of Crystal’s Palace wingers allowing them to effectively break from deep positions, having two fullbacks high up the pitch could leave Arsenal defending a 4-v-2, 4-v-3, or 3-v-2 situation with Calum Chambers and Laurent Koscielny at center back (this becomes much more of an issue if Monreal has to play center back). Given the pair’s lack of familiarity with one another, an odd man rush could lead to a severe misallocation of defensive resources, as the two center backs do not intimately know how their partner will react in this situation. The security of a fullback staying deep should help prevent those situations.

However, there is a cost to keeping a fullback stuck in a deep position (resources are scarce, so there is always a cost for any action), even if the fullback is on the opposite side of the ball. For example, having the fullback on the opposite side burst forward can make a drag-and-diagonal strategy more potent, as whoever defends the weak side has a choice to make about whom to track. This gives the man on the ball options. At best, forcing the defender to make a decision between two options could slow down the decision making process, leading to two unmarked attackers on the weak side. Again this is another dynamic resource allocation problem that Arsenal probably need to get right³ in order to start the season with three points.

Conclusion

Proper resource allocation with respect to time and space is the key to successful football. Initially, Crystal Palace allocate their defensive resources to make their opponent predictable, allowing them to simplify the dynamic resource allocation problem to be solved throughout the match. Arsenal should look to complicate that resource allocation problem for Palace and can do so through fluidity, switching play, and/or a dynamic presence that forces Palace out of their comfort zone. Palace’s initial defensive allocation of defensive resources also serves to maximize their efficiency in attack, as they look to maximize the value of the limited resources they allocate to attack. In possession, Arsenal need to avoid behaviors that increase the opportunities for Palace to efficiently use their attacking resources (less crosses), and should look to avoid situations where they have too few resources to defend Palace’s counters (keep a fullback deep more often).

In the end, the key to the match may turn out to be the first goal. If Arsenal score first, they can force Palace out of their game, out of their comfort zone. If Palace score first, they can allocate more resources defensive, take less risks defensively, while not suffering as much of a cost as they would have if the game was 0-0 (the marginal value of the goal that gives the team the lead is much greater than the marginal value of the goal that gives a team a two-goal lead). Therefore, more than 1800 words could all be wasted by a random high-leverage moment.

Such is football.

Naveen – @njm1211

¹a comical combination of a high line, plenty of space between midfield and the back line, and a wide playmaker who often did not give Spurs a numerical advantage in central midfield when he moved inside as Spurs only had two central midfielders to start, meaning they could not control games, and made them susceptible to counter-attacks down the wide playmaker’s flank.
²granted, Arsenal could look to press immediately when they lose possession to force turnovers or force Palace to punt the ball out of danger, lowering the marginal cost of crosses in general.
³though they do not have to be Pareto optimal…the margin for victory is not that slim.