Another Small Side Playing a 4-4-2
Leicester City, like many teams of their ability in the Premier League, look to allocate plenty of their resources towards defending and look to maximize the value they can get from their limited attacking resources by hitting teams on the counter. As with any 4-4-2, a decision has to be made as to how one will deal with an opponent like Arsenal having a spare man in midfield. Crystal Palace opted for a similar approach, with Marouane Chamakh abandoning his usual support striker role to become a central midfielder. Fortunately for Arsenal, this team does not defend as tightly as Crystal Palace nor do they have the same emphasis on congesting the center of the pitch. So while they seem to do fine when a team knocks the ball in front of defense without any purpose or tempo, complicating the dynamic resource allocation problem leads to significant problems for the newly-promoted side.
When they are in possession, Leicester tend to play long balls to get it into the attacking third, or they move the ball into a wide area. Since Leicester’s defensive system relies much more on getting numbers behind the ball, rather than a sophisticated system of pressing or the quality of their individual defenders, this approach in possession helps them minimize the probability that they turn the ball over in areas that could leave them exposed. You will rarely see their goalkeeper, Kasper Schmeichel, play the ball into his center backs or look to dink the ball over to a full back or central midfield (we probably won’t see any attacks launched off a long throw either). Most of the time, he will launch the ball as far forward as possible¹. Leicester will hope that any long balls find the head of Ulloa, who is their best bet to win an aerial duel. Ulloa will probably look to flick the ball forward to David Nugent, who generally takes up more advanced positions than his strike partner, or will knock it down and look to play it wide.
On both wings, Leicester field wingers who can dribble, are quick, and can get crosses into the box. In their first two games of the season, Leicester have shown some willingness to let their full-backs get forward and makes crosses. It seems that the left-back, Paul Konchesky, tends to receive more defensive protection from the wide man on his side, when he goes forward, than his counterpart on the right, Ritchie De Laet.
If there is one player that Leicester City run their possession play through, it is Andy King. As Paul Riley showed in his passing network figures for Leicester-Everton, King is the only Leicester player with more than two lines coming from his circle. However, he is not exactly Xabi Alonso. Much of his passing serves to shunt the ball into wide areas. If Arsenal look to mark or press any player out of the game, Andy King seems like the best option. Given that they will probably play a 4-1-4-1, it would appear that Arsenal will have a spare man in the center to execute such a tactic.
His midfield partner, Dean Hammond, acts more as a ball-winner and performs a similar role in moving the ball into wide areas. However, Leicester did not seem as focused on getting Hammond on the ball as they were on getting King the ball, against both Everton and Chelsea.
Also, I have not idea if Cambiasso is fit to play, but he would give them a midfielder who is quite an upgrade, particularly on the ball, compared to Hammond. Has there been a bigger name to play for such a small club in the EPL? Maybe Weah at City.
Attack the Half-Spaces
Divide the pitch into six zones, with each zone stretching from endline to endline. You can see that the two zones closest to the touch line offer little in the way of playing freedom. You can play the ball forward, backward, and toward the center; the touchline serves as an extra defender². The zones adjacent to the zone on the extreme left and on the extreme right are far enough from the touch line to allow a player 360 degrees of playing freedom, making him a much more dangerous player in possession, as he becomes less predictable.
So what makes this area special? Why is the half-space (halbraum in German) so important? In a central zone a player also has 360 degrees of playing freedom, is in a better location to shoot, and can more easily play the ball to players on the right side or the left side of the pitch. The advantage of attacking the half space has to do with attacking a space where the opponent has less resources devoted to defending it.
The opponent knows that the center of the pitch is prime real estate on the pitch. A side like Leicester will look to place two midfielders and two central defenders in that area. They will probably drop a third man into the area to help better defend a possession-based side like Arsenal.
The half space is generally defended by the two wide players, who are often poorer defenders than their teammates in the center of the pitch. Therefore, although the attacking team does sacrifice the opportunity to potentially conduct play in the center of the pitch, allocating attacking resources to an area where the opponents have fewer/lower quality defensive resources allows the side in possession to often extract greater value from those resources, making them a more potent offensive force.
Now against a solid defensive unit, a team usually needs to consistently switch play from side-to-side in their opponent’s half, moving their opponent from side-to-side, looking for an opening, and sending a runner to attack that space. However, Chelsea found it quite easy to attack the half-space in the second half of their match against Leicester. The play starts on the left (far-side on the TV…go to 61:41 match time http://www.matchhighlight.com/full-matches-review/premier-league-full-matches-review/chelsea-vs-leicester-city-full-matches/ ) with a throw-in to Nemanja Matic. Matic quickly moves the ball to Branislav Ivanovic, who is right of center. Jeff Schlupp attempts to put pressure on Ivanovic, but Oscar is making an unmarked center-to-right run, giving Ivanovic a passing option. Oscar receives the ball. Leicester’s left back, Paul Konchesky, ill-advisedly advances only to realize he has no chance to make a play on the ball, curbs his enthusiasm, and starts side-stepping back. However, the damage has been done, as the back four has become a back three with almost the entire right side of the pitch manned by one center back.
Since Chelsea had opted to play Matic quite deep, which gave them a back three in possession, Ivanovic had license to get forward. So right after he played the ball to Oscar, he immediately sprints forward, making an underlapping run. Schlupp struggles to keep up with Ivanovic. Dean Hammond seems much more concerned with getting into his position in Leicester’s set 4-4-2, rather than realizing that he needs to remove the passing lane from Oscar to Ivanovic, and if possible, help Konchesky deal with the Brazilian. Oscar makes the pass to Ivanovic, whose half-space attacking run forces Liam Moore, the center-back, to cover the half-space. This opens up space for Andre Schurrle to make a straight run at goal, which occupies the other center-back, Wes Morgan. Diego Costa gets inside position on the right-back and makes his run towards goal. Ivanovic does brilliantly to leave two Leicester city defenders on the floor, and Diego Costa hits the brakes, and lets De Laet fly right by, creating space for him to receive the ball. Costa does well to chest the ball away from the defender and scores.
Maybe Leicester have learned to defend half-spaces better after their loss to Chelsea, but that goal came off a throw-in, not even a counter attack, where it would be more reasonable to expect the defending team to have a lack of defensive resources allocated to a vast amount of valuable territory. One could see the possibility of Mathieu Debuchy making a passing to set Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on his way, with Debuchy making the underlapping run. Alexis Sanchez making the run Schurrle does, and Aaron Ramsey getting into the position Costa got into to score a goal. Against a side that seems to rely more on effort and numbers to defend rather than intelligence, attacking these kind of spaces helps make the dynamic resource allocation problem even slightly more difficult and could play huge dividends.
In addition to and in conjunction with attacking half-spaces, Arsenal should look to create and exploit opportunities to cut the ball back from deeper wide areas to more central areas, around the top of the box.
Cutbacks are one of the most difficult things to defend in football. Primarily the cutback makes it difficult to see the ball and see your man. With the ball in a deep wide area, often defenders are scrambling to push the defensive line at least level to the ball. If the ball is behind them, then the line they hold is unnecessarily high as their concede valuable space in front of their goal, without any benefit, as they cannot play an offside trap. Even when they find themselves in position, in facing the ball, they either turn their back or their side to the majority attackers, who are free to park themselves in an open space, receive the ball, and shoot.
In Ozil’s first Arsenal match, we see Arsenal effectively use a cutback to score the go-ahead goal. In the middle of this passage of play, Mathieu Flamini receives the ball from Laurent Koscielny, in the half space, and plays it to Jack Wilshere, who is more advanced in that half space. At this point, Sunderland’s 4-4-2 is a mess with one of the central midfielders too far up the pitch after an ill-advised attempt to close down Koscielny. The other central midfielder tries to put pressure on Wilshere, but he plays the ball to an unmarked Carl Jenkinson. Now the central midfielder who tried to pressure Wilshere continue moving into a deeper defensive position, without any idea of the danger behind him. Sunderland’s winger has also found himself in a deep position, not looking to close down Jenkinson or defend the passing lane between Jenkinson and Ozil. Jenkinson cuts the ball back towards the top of the box, and Aaron Ramsey smashes it home (http://www.matchhighlight.com/full-matches-review/premier-league-full-matches-review/sunderland-v-arsenal-8/ starts at 66:30 match time or thereabout).
Now when Ramsey strikes this ball Sunderland’s defensive shape consists of one left-back behind a line of five defenders about 10 meters away from goal, a right winger at the top of the box right from center, a central midfielder more than 20 meters from goal, and the two forwards up top. Arsenal have three men about 15-18 meters from goal completely unmarked. These are the kinds of opportunities that get created when a team gets the ball behind the defense, causing them to scramble and lose their shape.
Against both Everton and Chelsea, Leicester’s central midfielder dropped far too deep when the ball got to the same level as or behind the backline. If they continue with this lack of depth in defending, Arsenal should have plenty of opportunities to make that pass towards the top of the box, where someone like Aaron Ramsey has more than enough ability to make Leicester pay.
Another Chance to Get To Know Each Other
This game should be a pretty easy three points for Arsenal. What would be nice to see is a greater understanding between the Arsenal players and Alexis Sanchez. On the Arsenal America Podcast, Tim said that he hopes the team learns to play with Sanchez, not the other way around. I completely agree with this sentiment. What this team needs are more players with a desire to attack the space and occupy defenders, rather than come short for the ball (I believe the Ozil Sanchez misunderstanding is at 1:10 in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkPFKXT6tiU). We need players who make us more unpredictable, who increase the information asymmetries in our favor. I believe that is exactly why Arsene Wenger brought Alexis Sanchez to this club. Hopefully, Sanchez is more than willing to oblige and play his style of football.
¹Schmeichel is Leicester’s second leading passer, averaging 34 passes per game, 11.5 of which are long balls. – Tim.
²this phrase, with touchline being replaced by term sideline, is a staple of defending in both basketball, especially for trapping teams like the mid-90s Sonics or Pitino’s Kentucky, and American football.