Tag Archives: Arsenal

Tactics column — Two-Nil over Napoli, close to perfection

From time to time, 7amkickoff likes to add fresh new writers. Sensible writers who can write clearly and have a point they need to express. We had a tactics columnist two years ago but he found that the time required to write the column in the way that he loved was interfering with his real life. So, we waited and along came Naveen. He immediately impressed me with his perspicacity, with his understanding of Arsenal’s tactics. So, I invited him to write us a tactics column about his favorite match from last season. This is that article. Enjoy, and let’s hope Naveen has time in the coming year to provide us with a few more gems like this. – Tim 

Rarely does a team dominate a match for all 90 minutes. Even the weakest side can wrest control of a match for 20 minutes against the best team in the Premier League. That is why certain performances (like 2010-11 Barcelona’s 5-0 victory against Real Madrid) are so special. During the 2013-14 season, Arsenal had a performance that reached such heights, their 2-0 victory over Napoli in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League. While Arsenal’s players executed better than Napoli’s on the night, the game represented a tactical battle that Arsenal dominated as well.

A Lack of Pace Leading to High Lines

Napoli played this match without Gonzalo Higuain and Arsenal played this match without Theo Walcott, both out due to injury. These two losses hurt both sides ability to stretch the pitch vertically, as neither Goran Pandev nor Olivier Giroud are particularly fast center forwards. This incentivized both teams to play with higher lines than they normally would, as their opponents were less able to punish such a tactic. For Napoli, the higher line was an attempt to keep Arsenal away from their goal and to give them a better chance to win back possession closer to Arsenal’s goal. For Arsenal, the higher line allowed them to use both center-backs in the build up without forcing the team to leave advantageous attacking positions and drop deeper, in order to provide options (other than long balls) for the center-back in possession. It also allowed them to press more effectively.

Arsenal’s Pressing

A note to any English side playing an Italian side in a match that matters…press, press, press. Games in Serie A are played at a snail’s pace compared to the Premier League. Italian teams have a greater preference to slow the game down, pack the center of the pitch, and kill the space available in their final third. Rarely do teams look to aggressively press in the midfield third or the opponent’s final third. This leads to many Italian sides struggling against sides that employ aggressive pressing strategies in those two areas of the pitch.

With the high lines from both sides, the amount of pitch where the play occurs shrinks; that plays right into the hands of a pressing side. Regardless of the type of the pressing, it is more effective if the players have to travel a smaller distance. The shorter the distance players have to cover, the more quickly they can apply pressure. The closer the 22 players are to one another, the easier it is to deny passing lanes. Therefore, when Arsenal lost possession, they could win the ball back quickly. At the very least, they could slow Napoli’s counter attacks, allowing them to get back in defensive positions (especially important for the attacking full back on the weak side) and/or force a long ball from the Italians.

The most obvious example of Arsenal’s pressing potency came in the build-up for the second goal. Arsenal had just lost possession deep in Napoli territory due to a poor cross field pass by Aaron Ramsey. Carlos Zuniga takes the throw-in on Arsenal’s right side about 15 meters from the byline. The ball goes to Napoli center-back Miguel Britos, who is put under pressure by Giroud. With Ozil in position to intercept a pass back to Zuniga, Britos volleys the ball forward. Marek Hamsik, Napoli’s central attacking midfielder, tries to control Britos’ volley, but the pressure from Mathieu Flamini prevents the Slovakian from controlling the ball. Instead it bounces off him, into the path of Giroud. With one touch, he moves the ball to Mesut Ozil. At this point, both Gokhan Inler and Zuniga find themselves completely out of position as Ozil goes forward (with Zuniga acting as if he could not be bothered). Once Ozil gets behind the back line, Napoli lose all positional discipline. Raul Albiol, the weak-side (opposite of the ball side) center-back, races over to cut Ozil off at the pass (I hate that cliché), while Britos finds himself in no-man’s land. By getting behind the back line, Ozil forces Britos to defend 360 degrees of space instead of 180 (this is why cut backs are so effective at creating quality shots on goal). Britos, mentally preoccupied by Ozil, fails to track Giroud’s run into the giant hole left by Albiol (I have no idea what Giandomenico Mesto is thinking as he fails to position himself to defend against the cut back or Giroud’s run). Ozil executes the right pass perfectly (shocker) and Giroud puts it home.

For the first 20 minutes of the match, Arsenal’s pressing pinned Napoli inside their own half, suffocating the Italians, who seemed incapable of stringing three passes together. In fact, the entire first half was dominated by the success of Arsenal’s pressing, and another aspect of Arsenal’s game Benitez and Napoli did not expect—their fluidity.

Arsenal in Possession

Arsenal’s pressing was not the only aspect of their play than surprised Napoli. Their fluidity up front seemed to catch the Italian’s off guard as well. Maybe Napoli did not do their due diligence scouting Arsenal and/or assumed a side playing five midfielders who tend to play centrally would try to force the play down the center. That would explain why Benitez opted to have his players defend rather narrowly and kept his attacking quartet higher up the pitch, particularly Lorenzo Insigne. Against an Arsenal side with Cesc Fabregas, this tactic made more than enough sense. Those Arsenal sides did get bogged down in the center of the pitch, making them predictable.

However, against an Arsenal side with Mesut Ozil, this tactic becomes much less profitable. For all of Ozil’s gifts, his most important is his willingness and ability to drift into pockets of space out wide. This allows him to find space to receive the ball, but it also creates space for his teammates in the center of the pitch. He does this by removing himself from the center of the pitch, with the potential of dragging a central midfielder out of position (see Aaron Ramsey’s volleyed goal vs. Liverpool). So while Mesut Ozil may never become the play who can carry a “meh” side by scoring individualistic goal after individualistic goal (like Gareth Bale in 2012-13), he is the perfect player to pair with other elite attacking talents. He is the ultimate teammate, a player that helps others play their game.

Throughout the first half, Arsenal confused the Napoli defense with their movement. We can take a look at the first goal to see that. First, Giroud moves himself to Arsenal’s right side, occupying the space Zuniga had previously vacated, dragging Britos with him. Sagna plays the ball into Giroud. At this point, Aaron Ramsey is hugging the touchline on Arsenal’s right; Tomas Rosicky is between and just in front of the center back and the left back, who are both in the center of the pitch; Mesut Ozil is left of center at the same level at Mikel Arteta, in a central midfield trio. At this point Napoli’s central midfield pair (Inler-Behrami) have no idea who to mark.

Inler, probably expecting to mark Mesut Ozil or Aaron Ramsey in more central positions, winds up marking no one. When Giroud plays Ramsey in behind Britos (Zuniga leisurely jogs back though he is terribly out of position), Behrami sprints in a futile attempt to get to Ramsey. When Mesto follows Rosicky runs, the entire left side of the box is unmarked space for the forgotten Ozil to run into. Aaron Ramsey cuts it back (remember, 360 degree defending is much harder than 180 degree defending); Ozil scores, 1-nil to the Arsenal.

Ultimately, in this case, the advantage of fluidity is that it creates an information asymmetry. The Arsenal players know where their teammates are, but the Napoli players do not (caveat: a fluid system with players who do not know how to play with one another can lead to confusion on both sides, along with a misallocation of resources). That knowledge advantage can be exploited, leading to unmarked players taking shots from good positions.

The other advantage of fluidity is that it allows a side to better allocate attacking resources to the right places on the pitch at the right. Like the world around us, a football match takes place in a dynamic environment. Openings and vulnerabilities often present themselves for brief periods and disappear. Therefore, it is important for teams to identify these weaknesses (intelligence) and quickly coordinate their actions to exploit this weakness (intelligence and cohesion) Teams that can identify these vulnerabilities, think quickly, move themselves and the ball quickly, and have players who understand each other can consistently beat the strongest defense (in other words, be water my friend).

In this match, Arsenal played with such tempo and fluidity (which, combined with their technical ability allowed them to deftly move the ball in close quarters) that they discovered Napoli’s defensive weakness on their left side in the first seven minutes of the match. Insigne did not look to track back, probably due to Benitez’s desire to keep a potent counter-attacking threat closer to the opponent’s goal. This left Zuniga (not the most defensively-skilled left-back) alone to defend that side, and Arsenal were more than glad to invest their attacking resources there. Bacary Sagna advanced and often two of the attacking trio (often Mesut Ozil + X) created a severe overload. Napoli struggled to defend this overload, as it either exploited or forced them out of their narrow defensive shape. And, as the match went on, Arsenal increased their emphasis on destroying Napoli’s left side.

Napoli’s Sterile Possession (2nd Half)

The second half saw Arsenal dominate in a different manner. Unlike the pressing that dominated the flow of the game in the first half, Arsenal had an increased willingness to defend in their half of the field. One of the reasons Arsenal could do this with such comfort came down to the composition of Napoli’s central midfield. Napoli set up to counter-attack Arsenal, as they are wont to do against any side. This led them to field Inler and Behrami in central midfield. This gave them the ball-winners that Benitez would have wanted to win possession and then get the ball forward to their attacking quartet. Forced into a more passages of slow possession in Arsenal’s half of the pitch, the value of these players decreased immensely. If Napoli had two central midfielders who could make plays from deeper positions and punish Arsenal for fielding Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini (two players who like to drop deep, conceding space to deep-lying midfielders) like Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork did in Southampton’s 2-2 draw against Arsenal, then maybe they could have posed a threat. Instead, Arsenal could defend with no fear and focus their efforts on marking a rather predictable attacking quartet and the occasional fullback overlapping with plenty of defensive resources to spare.

Conclusion

This was Arsenal’s best performance of 2013-14. They dominated this match as much as any side can dominate a match. By exploiting Napoli tactically and by executing the plan to perfection, Arsenal dominated the game with the ball and without ball, by pressing or by defending deep. So while the FA Cup Final represents the best moment of the season, this Champions League match deserves a special place in the memory of Arsenal fans too, as it represents Arsenal coming as close as they could to the perfect match.

I'm thinking of a mineral.

Arsene shuffles off the shackles of his critics and looks set to spend £60m+ in one summer

‘I am not expecting any marquee signings at Arsenal. There is a lot of talk about it, but I don’t know if I would trust Arsene Wenger with that money.

‘Over the last few years some of the players that he has said were going to be world class haven’t ended up like that – people like Philippe Senderos, Denilson, Marouane Chamakh, Armand Traore, Sebastien Squillaci, Nicklas Bendtner, Carlos Vela, Emmanuel Eboue, Park Chu-young, Lukasz Fabianski, Gervinho and Andre Santos.

‘Over the last two seasons they have spent some money on Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski, Mikel Arteta, Nacho Monreal, Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos. They haven’t been top-class players. 

Arsene Wenger doesn’t appear to want to sign the top-class players, or what other people would describe as top-class players.

‘He goes out and says: ‘I can buy you cheaper players for a better price who are going to be world-class players in the future’, but that hasn’t been the case in the last few years.

_Stewart Robson on TalkSport, 7 June 2013

If you’ve been following Arsenal for any length of time then Stewart Robson’s rant to TalkSport, reprinted in the Daily Mail linked above, covers a lot of familiar ground. Fans and critics (one and the same sometimes) alike would often say things like “Arsene Wenger is afraid to spend money”, ”Arsene Wenger is afraid to buy top talent because he can’t control them”, and ”Arsene Wenger won’t sign marquee players”. It was always an uneasy critique for me, I have shown time and again that Wenger, historically, spent big so I knew that he could but there was always a ring of truth to the criticisms because we all knew that Arsenal had the cash in the bank to spend however they wanted and they weren’t spending the money.

Arsene’s parsimonious reputation used to be something that Arsenal fans and the fleet street lickspittles cheered. We were the club who took Anelka for cheap and sold him on to Real Madrid for a huge profit. We got Sol Campbell on a free (though we shattered the wage record in the process). Vieira, Overmars, Petit, on and on, Arsene was hailed as a genius with an eye for finding world class talent on the cheap.

And Wenger didn’t “make” this talent, he bought ready-made talent. Almost all of the players you think of from the Invincibles era, except Ashley Cole, were well established world class international talent. Even Henry, who many point to as the huge diamond in the rough polished by Arsene, was a well known player outside of England before he signed for Arsenal. Two years prior to joining Arsenal, he was offered a deal to go to Real Madrid worth £150k/wk. That would be an astonishing contract to offer a 20 year old player even now, much less in 1997¹ and further proof to me that Henry was a well known talent before he came to Arsenal.

After the breakup of the Invincibles, Wenger knew that he would have to go through a period of penury as the club struggled to sell off the Highbury condos and other real estate holdings around the old stadium and new. He also knew that the club had structured certain deals, such as the shirt sponsors and naming rights to the stadium to expire around now, meaning that he knew he had a finite time to manage the team on a strict budget.

So, he hatched a plan to buy young, actually untested and actually unknown, players and build them into a team that would at least keep Arsenal in the lucrative Champions League places, if not challenge for League titles. It nearly worked. In 2007/08 Arsenal challenged for the title up to the day that Martin Taylor broke Eduardo’s leg. After William Gallas’ spat and Clichy’s error, the team quickly fell apart. Arsenal still managed to finish just 4 points off the winners in third place.

I will always be convinced that had van Persie stayed healthy, Arsenal would have won at least a trophy in those barren years. As it stood, he would end up playing more for Holland² than he would for Arsenal for much of that time. And Arsenal didn’t win anything and the young bucks grew restless.

Then Cesc went on strike, forcing a trade for far less than he was actually worth. And suddenly, the heart of Arsene’s plan was ripped out and sent packing to Barcelona.³ It was exactly the wrong time for Cesc to leave. Robin van Persie was finally ready to play a full season, he would and he would score 30 goals. Imagine what that team could have done if Cesc had stayed. Imagine where we would be right now with Cesc and Ramsey in midfield, van Persie up front, and with the financial firepower to land players of the caliber of Özil. That was Wenger’s vision.

Arsenal still had two years to go before we could buy players like Özil and in the interim what we got were people saying things like “Arsene can’t spend money, he’s allergic” and other such gems culminating in Stewart Robson’s pre-Özil screed above.

But Arsenal and Arsene are in a post-Özil reality. We have spent £42.5m on Mesut Özil, we have won the FA Cup, we have Ramsey coming on as a superstar and Arsenal are now being seriously linked to players like Bender, Sanchez, and Debuchy. With the latter two almost certain signings.

We are no longer scraping the bottom of the transfer barrel. Arsenal are no longer the team that is being “snubbed” and instead are the team that Sanchez is snubbing Liverpool to come to. (Times, fee required.) Arsenal are no longer being swooped, we are “in a £60m swoop for Bender, Sanchez, and Debuchy“.

Arsenal are the swoopers not the swooped. Arsenal are the snubbers, not the snubbed. And Arsene Wenger has shuffled off the shackles of his critics that he is afraid to spend some money.

We may not sign any of those players but the fact that we are being linked to them and being linked seriously, with what looks like an excellent chance of landing all three is a massive change from the time of the infamous post-Cesc trolley dash to now. And I have to say that I much prefer the now. It’s a great time to be an Arsenal fan.

Qq

¹The whole saga is recounted in Philippe Auclair’s extraordinary book Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top (Available for just $4 for Kindle, $9 in paperback, and $18 in hardcover).
²I’m aware that there is no such country as “Holland”. I find it funny, however, that both the Guardian and the Times podcast journalists almost always call the Netherlands “Holland” so, I’m making fun of them here.
³Cesc going on strike to force a move to Barcelona must have been like a death to Arsene Wenger. He had spent all this time and energy trying to build a team around this young man, his entire plan was built around Cesc. I find it extraordinary that Wenger persisted after that and not only persisted but rebuilt the core of the team on the fly and kept the club in the top 4. Name me another manager in the world who could have done that on a shoestring budget.

Cesc

How doth the little Fabregas

How doth the little Fabregas
Improve his storied tale,
And flit from hive to hive alas
To find his golden grail.

How skilfully he built the gun!
How neat he carved its bore!
And kissed the crest upon his chest
Sweet nothings that he swore.

For Queen Catalan bade him return
And he cast aside his guns
He played the idler for all to see
And sat upon his thumbs

Now Catalan wants him no more
And Gunner’s bridge was burned
Into the arms of Special One
Flies Cesc forever spurned.

Qq

Following the form of Against Idleness and Mischief, via Lewis Carroll discovered in The Annotated Alice, edited by Martin Gardner.