Surprise

Footballistically Speaking #2: Wenger’s Surprise

One of the hallmarks of Arsene Wenger’s long career at Arsenal is that he is munificent with his press conferences. Wenger seldom skips out on his duty to answer tedious questions from the press. It’s extraordinary when you think about it in the context of his nearly 18 year career at Arsenal. Imagine how many times he has had to answer the same stupid questions about transfers from every single reporter in England. Every interview, every season, whenever the transfer window is open, he is asked the same two questions: “is Arsenal after (insert player)?” and “is Arsenal close to signing anyone?”

He almost always gives the same answers: “I won’t speak about certain players” and “if we sign anyone you will be the first to know.” Sometimes he varies these answers a bit (“are you after Zigic?” a smile and “No.”) and sometimes he’s coy about whether Arsenal lodged a bid for a player (as he recently was about Balotelli) but usually he has a stock answer for their stock questions. For both press and Wenger this dance must be getting old but reporters keep asking because, like a slot machine, once in a while it pays off with a hint that Arsenal might do something and once in 18 years they hit the proverbial jackpot.

The last jackpot was struck on 1 September 2013. That was the day that Arsene Wenger beat Tottenham both on and off¹ the pitch. Following a hard-fought 1-0 win over Spurs, Arsene met with the Sky Sports reporter and, clearly excited, gave his account of the match. “Their keeper was their best player” is my favorite summation of the game. And then came the inevitable question about the transfer market and Wenger said “Maybe we will have a good surprise for you?” and let loose his trademark wry smile.

funny-surprise

From there, he moved on to the BBC reporter who asked similar questions, which he answered in the same way, except this time when it came to the transfer question he answered ”We work very hard (on transfers) that’s why I will plead that you don’t keep me too long for this interview” and again the smile. This prompted the reporter to say “bye bye!” After all, no reporter wants to delay a transfer, transfers are British sports reporters raison d’être.

Incredibly, Wenger then went into the Arsenal media room and answered essentially the same questions again and gave essentially the same answers. The whole incident reminds me of a scene from Red Dwarf where there is a talking toaster who asks the same questions over and over again, subbing in different types of breakfast breads. “Would you like some toast? How about a bagel? A crumpet? Ah, so you’re a waffle man!” And Wenger has done that for 18 years. He’s endured this ritual for 18 years. That’s proof for me of Wenger’s passion for managing Arsenal.

During the presser Arsene got a chance to expound on his previous brief statements to Sky and BBC. He praised his team’s heart and took another swipe at Spurs:

There were aspects to our game that people are not used to seeing from us – that means commitment, desire, defending. Overall, their keeper was their best player, and that shows we had the chances to win comfortably today. This team has lost one game since March in all competitions and you don’t do that with an average spirit.

And then the inevitable question about transfers, this time carrying the accusation heard for years that Wenger is allergic to spending money. He gives his now stock answer about whether he likes to spend (we buy quality), takes another swipe at Spurs who spent £100m, and then reiterates that he may have a surprise for us:

I am not against spending money, but I want to add super quality to our squad. Tottenham got a lot of money for Bale, they have to invest it – I understand that. The need is different for us, we need one or two super players and we will try to add that. We have 24 more hours, so maybe we can surprise you. Maybe not – but I am confident.

The next day, Arsene didn’t just surprise a few reporters, he surprised the world when Arsenal signed Super Quality Mesut Özil from Real Madrid for a club record £42.5m.

Maybe Arsene has a surprise in store for us this week?

Qq

¹Selling Bale to Real Madrid greased the skids that brought Özil to Arsenal. Thanks Spurs!

Kasper

Tactical Preview: Leicester City v. Arsenal

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.

Cutbacks

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.

Alexis drives Arsenal to £40m Champions League windfall and shift in team tactics

Arsenal’s £35m summer signing, Alexis Sanchez, snatched the ball away from Jack Wilshere and in the decisive moment of the 180 minute qualifier between Arsenal and Besiktas fired in his first goal for Arsenal. It was a goal worth £40m or more, meaning that Alexis just paid for himself with one good goal.

I’m being cheeky here in awarding the entire bumper windfall to one man, obviously it was a team performance and Wenger even said as much “I feel my team was Man of the Match because we fought from the first to the last minute and everybody worked very hard.” But the fact remains that Sanchez was the star man of the match — he was an almost ceaseless bundle of energy, running into dangerous positions, terrifying the Besiktas back line with his lightning speed, and eventually scoring the winning goal.

I’m not saying that he’s the finished product. There is still some work to do here with Alexis. He and his teammates need to forge a better understanding. Specifically, the team needs to learn how to play with him rather than the other way around. I say that because Alexis is the only player on this Arsenal team who is making runs into the right spaces, dangerous spaces, and his teammates need to adapt to get him the ball rather than him adapt his playing style to the old Arsenal way.

As I pointed out on the ArseAmerica Podcast (available later today), Arsenal’s forwards have an annoying tendency to get to the opposition 18 yard box and then drop back to receive possession in order to create opportunities for others. The only problem with that is that sometimes no one is making a run and Arsenal get that “halo” of useless passes around the opposition box.

Worse, pegging the ball in the opposition half with little to no end product and a myriad of sideways passes around the box opens Arsenal to one good tackle and a swift kick up field. That causes panic in the defense and opens Arsenal to problems with cards and errors. Both of which have been the hallmark of Arsenal for years.

But Alexis breaks this “sterile possession” paradigm. He makes runs into dangerous spaces and demands that Arsenal’s technical players get him the ball rather than dropping back to get possession and create for others. Two moments in the game illustrate this concept perfectly.

The first was when Cazorla hit an amazing cross field pass to Özil. The German World Cup winner then took on a man down the sideline, deftly dribbling past his rash tackle, and drove into the heart of the Besiktas defense. Sanchez, seeing space on the far post where he would be able to lash home an easy goal, made a feint and then sprint to the far post. But Özil had already made his mind up to drop the ball off for Sanchez and instead of flipping a neat little pass over the top, played a drop pass that would have put Sanchez on the end line with little to no chance of scoring.

The second moment showed a bit of a burgeoning understanding between Alexis and Wilshere which I can only hope continues. Wilshere picks up possession on the edge of the box and starts to drive in. Alexis sees what’s happening and looks for aa space to run into, then makes that run. Jack gives him a little caviar pass and Alexis takes a quick shot which I thought hit the far post before glancing out. Here’s the Vine I made of the play:

Those are the kinds of plays that Arsenal have needed for some time. It was such a welcome relief from the old way of playing that even Wenger seemed to be floating in heaven when he said

(Alexis) had a good game, not only on the technical side but on the fighting side. He was mobile, dangerous and has shown as well he has great fighting spirit, qualities that will be very important in the Premier League.

And when asked if he planned to buy a center forward, what with Giroud expected to be out for four months, Arsene gushed:

For three or four months? He can play there his whole life. I bought him to play as a striker, not to play only on the flanks.

As I detailed in my rather undetailed By the Numbers piece, Arsenal conceded possession over the two legs against Besiktas. This is a deliberate tactic on Wenger’s part. It’s his new plan B. The plan being to play Alexis up top as lone striker in a team setup to counter attack. And before you say that its limited to two legs against a team where Arsenal earned two red cards, Wenger set up to be a counter attacking team against Man City and Everton conceding possession in both of those matches as well. Against Everton, Arsenal did have to revert to the old plan A and deliberately slow the game down using Giroud as the “focal point” of the Arsenal battering ram. It worked well,, I might add, the team fell into that old way of playing like an old pair of slippers.

Now before you get all hopping mad and think I’m accusing Arsene of going to the dark side. This isn’t Chelsea in the Champions League final, or Inter Milan in the Champions League final, or Jose Mourinho in any big game. Arsenal still seem a bit uneasy about being a counter attacking team and there are times (like against Everton) Arsenal are still pressing high up the pitch and playing frantic rather than letting the game come to them but I suspect those moments will be ironed out over time.

One thing I will add is that in order to really go for this style of play with gusto, Wenger needs a legitimate defensive midfielder. A real shield between the back four and the more creative midfielders. I don’t think it’s just paper-talk that Arsenal have been linked with players like Rabiot, Schneiderlin, Bender, Gustavo, and Carvalho¹. All of these players have the tactical discipline and technique to sit deep and spray long passes all over the park. Think of an Arteta with legs.

And with this windfall of money from Champions League qualification I expect Wenger to finally break down and buy that player. It’s pretty clear that Wenger is not interested in a striker and finding a center back who is good enough to be a backup for Koscielny is difficult because all these teams playing their foolish 3-5-2 are hogging the best center backs² and top quality central defenders aren’t available for a reasonable price.

That’s why I see Wenger going for a CDM. Someone who can play both positions. Someone like Calum Chambers except in reverse — happier in the midfield than in the defense. I’m not saying Arsene Wenger won’t buy a striker, he’s a salty old dog and if someone like Chicharito comes up we could see him take a chance (if they’ll sell to us), but rather I think his priority is going to be to get that DM that his new system needs. Either way, I do expect one more big money purchase before the window closes.

Qq

¹No, I cannot compare Rabiot and Carvalho because I do not have access to Carvalho’s stats and Rabiot has played just a few times for PSG.
²You ever wonder why PSG paid a mountain of money for David Luiz? How about why Arsenal got so much money for Vermaelen? It’s because physically imposing center backs are rarer than common sense among politicians at the moment.

P.S. Next week is internationals week and I plan on spending some time not blogging. In the interim Les Crang has several articles I will publish and Jonathan Blaustein will be producing our Match Photo of the Month piece. If you have forgotten or hadn’t heard what we are doing with that piece is asking for photo submissions from the games. Jonathan is an accomplished photographer and writer, he will select the best photo from all submissions and write a piece about it. So, if you went to any of the games this month, or even if you just gathered in some dusty hole in Wyoming, and you have a photo you’d like to submit please send them over to matchdayphotoofthemonth@gmail.com.