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Naveen’s tactical column: How Arsenal can win both the Premier and Champions Leagues

by Naveen Maliakkal

After looking at the nature of controlling football matches in Part 1, and a possible narrative of Fabregas era being, in part, an effort to maximize European success, that came at the cost of domestic success, in Part 2, this piece looks at what Arsenal may need to do if they wish to evolve into a side that can simultaneously compete at the highest level, in Europe and England.

Arsenal in Progress: The Long Road to Controlling Space and the Ball

Despite all the tinkering he has done with his teams over the years, Wenger has yet to find the right style of play to give him the success he wants in England and in Europe. Looking at this season’s changes, it seems he is trying to push further in the direction he went towards during the Fabregas era. It seems he wants to build an Arsenal side that control matches in possession and out of possession.

This season Arsenal have shown some signs of high pressing and occasionally counter-pressed, although both have looked rather sloppy and uncoordinated. They have defended higher up the pitch and have shown more of a willingness to dominate possession, curbing their tendency to push the ball forward, compared to last season, which has helped them outshoot their opponents by margins not seen probably since the Fabregas years.

However, the evolution of Arsenal still has a long way to go, both in defense and in attack. They still play in and out of possession with a lack of compactness. The lack of compactness in possession has problems associated with it: it lowers the ability for players to interact, and makes counter-pressing too difficult to potently execute. The lack of compactness out of possession, combined with a lack of ball-orientation of the defensive shape, hinders Arsenal’s ability to control space out of possession.

They also need to commit themselves to pressing, both high up the pitch, and immediately when possession is lost. Essentially, Arsenal have to morph into a side that they have never been under Wenger—an efficient pressing machine. And pressing has as much to do with coordinating actions, intelligence, and decision-making as it does with effort, tenacity, physical presence, etc. if not more. They also need to determine how they want to press as a team and when to stop pressing to retreat to a deeper defensive position. This transition to becoming a pressing side also puts a different onus on specific positions.

For example, take the holding midfielder. The number of options this player can chose from is much larger for a team like this than it is for a simple destroyer playing in a deep-defending side. He needs to understand how to keep the play flowing and draw out the defense to create space for others to receive the ball, while balancing that with his ability to control space if the ball is lost. He has to understand how to position himself when his team has the ball, to both give his teammates a passing option and simultaneously increase his ability to win possession as high up the pitch as possible, if his team losses the ball. He also has to have the quickness in thought to rapidly identify situations where he needs to retreat rather than make a vain attempt at winning the ball. Finally, he must have the ability to execute the plan of action he chooses, but that is the final step in the process of effectively playing the position.

When defending in a deeper position, Arsenal must understand how to move in all four directions, based on the nature of the play. The team moves with the ball, not only horizontally, but vertically as well. The unit must orient itself to the ball. If the opponent makes a backwards pass, then Arsenal need to push their defensive lines higher up the pitch, pushing their opponent’s possession away from their goal, and improving their ability to win the ball closer to the opponent’s goal1. This includes the back line, which means that Arsenal need to have players comfortable with playing a high defensive line. Therefore, a side that wishes to defend higher up the pitch must know how and when to press, how to defend high up the pitch, how to defend in deeper areas when they must, and how and when take the initiative to move their defensive lines up the pitch.

In possession, again, Arsenal need players with excellent decision-making, intelligence, technique, and familiarity with both the set-up of the unit and the individual players. The familiarity comes with time and engaging in more trial-error-feedback loops; however, players with the combination of the first three seem quite rare at Arsenal. With this style of play, requiring players to constantly interact with one another one the pitch, allowing them to dynamically specialize over the course of the match, Arsenal need players who better understand the game situation, their location, the location and roles of their teammates, the location of the ball at any particular moment in the match, etc.; they need players who, can effectively extract information from their environment. Then, given that information, choose the appropriate role for that moment, in time and space, to maximize the team’s ability to control space and the ball. Finally, they need to have the technical ability and the physical ability to properly execute the appropriate role they have determined.

For example, going back to the position of holding midfielder, this player needs to identify how he needs to operate in possession to maximize the team’s ability to control space and possession, at any moment during the match. For example, he needs to understand how his actions to help his team control possession and control space in possession, at the moment in time and space, balance with the goals of maximizing the team’s ability to control space and win control of the ball, in the event of a turnover. He needs to know what action he needs to take: if he should pass or dribble, the type of pass he should play, how quickly to release the ball, how to move with the ball, how to move once he has passed it, etc. He must then have the ability to execute the pass, dribble, movement, etc. needed in that moment in space. When considering the massive amount of game understanding, reading, and thinking, it is not a surprise that the holding midfielders for these kinds of sides are often the most intelligent players on the pitch, along with having immense ability on the ball.

Now, if Arsenal make this transition to this kind of playing style, then this guides how they fill out the rest of the roster. As I specified above, the type of holding midfielder required in this system greatly differs from the type of holding midfielder Arsenal could sign if they wanted to play as a deeper defending side. For example, Lars Bender’s more destructive box-to-box style may not fit with a position based more on being an intellectual and technical leader rather than a physically-imposing player. A player like Lars Bender seems like a good fit for last year’s Arsenal, playing in a role beside Aaron Ramsey, in a deeper defending double pivot. In that system, Bender has someone at his vertical level to control space out of possession, can rely on the other pivot to perform the various aspects of his job, and does not face as complex a decision-making process when it comes to his positioning and actions. However, in a side employing a single pivot, that player must have the ability to perform the tasks of the double pivot. More is asked of this kind of player. Therefore, before Arsenal can decide on who will they want to sign as a holding midfielder, they probably need to determine their playing style first, as it will dictate who is a viable candidate.

This change in system also impacts how they would go about finding a left center back for the future. While plenty of defenders look good in deep defending sides, where they can rely more on size, strength, aerial ability, and focusing on the space in front of them, moving them into higher defending sides puts a premium on decision-making, understanding how to defend 360 degrees of space, quickness in thought, and quickness in action, in addition to a need for the player to cover larger distances. A player like John Terry is quite good when playing in a deep-defending side. However, play him in a team that uses a high offside line, and he provides much less value to his side. The center back also has to be skilled with the ball at his feet and have comfort playing in wide areas, allowing his side to split the center backs quite wide, increasing the size of the pitch horizontally, in which possession occurs, making it easier to control possession and space at the back. This helps to facilitate the interaction present in the side in possession. It also plays a key role in drawing out opposition defenders, aiding the side in possession to control more valuable spaces, higher up the pitch. Ideally, they would find one with a genuine left-foot as well, allowing for the center back to move the ball more rapidly after winning it. That wide positioning calls upon the center back to defend in wide areas, as well as central ones.

With English sides lacking center backs who operate high up the pitch and play a key role in helping the team control space and possession with the ball, Arsenal would probably have to look abroad for a left center back. So while the rumor seems odd, given that Athletic Bilbao only sell at the value of the buy-out clause (€36m) and given the presence of the value-added tax on such transfers, Aymeric Laporte seemingly represents an ideal long-term solution for Arsenal. To fill the role more cheaply, Wenger could look to purchase a left-back that he believes could make the transition to center-back. Like the position of holding midfielder, the needs of Arsenal, at center back, and therefore the viable candidates, change dramatically based on the playing style Arsenal choose.

Also, some important decisions need to be made about quite a few of the players currently on the squad. Three players stand out as ones who could provide significantly less value to an Arsenal side trying to adopt this new playing style.

The first is Per Mertesacker. While a fine defender, he seems like a player who has much more comfort defending in sides that concede relatively less “offside space”, as his lack of speed prevents him from covering the distance required of him. Also, this system tends to place a premium on center backs who can play and defend in wide areas. While it seems unwise to place Mertesacker in that kind of role, Calum Chambers seems to have the attributes to play the role of right center back in this system. He has the technical ability, athleticism, intelligence, and composure to play the position, and his time at right-back for Southampton means that he is not unfamiliar with operating in wide areas. So while Per Metresacker may no longer fit the club, if Arsenal move in this direction, it seems like Chambers would be an ideal long-term replacement for Mertesacker.

The second is Jack Wilshere. While he has shown an ability to put together some good performances, when the ball is constantly at his feet, he seems like a player that focuses too much on playing an “English” game. He always wants to be on the ball, fling himself into tackles, and run around the pitch. Too much of his game involves doing what can be easily observed. Too little of his game focuses on the 95% or so he spends without the ball at his feet. Not enough of his game revolves around intelligence, decision-making, and understanding the whole game, understanding the bigger picture of his role in conjunction with 10 other players at any particular moment in time. So for all of his talent on the ball, if he does not become more intelligent, and improve immensely off the ball, both when his team has the ball and when they do not, his time at Arsenal will consist of him holding the team back or riding the bench.

The final player I will consider is Wojciech Szczesny. In a deep-defending side shot-stopping, aerial ability, and other traits that a goalkeeper needs to operate as a successful penalty box keeper take priority over other traits. Move the offside line higher up the pitch, and the need for other skills emerge to both better cover the “offside space” and deal with the instances where the opponent breaks the offside line. That is not to say that shot-stopping, aerial ability, etc. skills that can be cast aside. It is just that more is being asked of the player’s all-around game. Again, we can think of the change to this system causing more of an emphasis to be placed on extracting information from the environment, understanding what to do with that information, and then executing the plan. The goalkeeper now must be able to read the state of play, even from a great distance, to determine how he should cover the 25-35 meters in front of his goal. He must quickly identify whether he should come out and sweep, or sit deep. If he does sweep, he needs to know how to best clear the ball, with a pass to a teammate, driving it up the field, booting it out of play, etc. If he does sit deep, then he must understand how to defend a potential 1-on-1 situation. In possession, he must provide sure feet to allow his teammates to play the ball back to him, allowing him to contribute to the team’s ability to control the ball. Ideally, his ability on the ball can help to draw the opposition’s defenders toward him, opening up space elsewhere. He must also have the vision to pick the right pass and the technical ability to execute the right pass, so to contribute to his team’s ability to control space and the ball. Therefore, in this playing style, even the goalkeeper has to operate less as a specialist, but one who can dynamically specialize. Fortunately, Szczesny is only 24 years old, which means the potential still exists for him to improve, especially with his decision-making.

Now if it looks like Arsenal have quite a ways to go to reach the highest level of football, it is because that is probably the case. And given the difficulty of acquiring and integrating a bunch of high level transfer signings to try to accelerate the process, it may take some time before Arsenal can reach the top tier of European football. However, given the importance of familiarity among the individuals and with the playing style, a major change that needs to occur is an overhauling of Arsenal’s youth system.

With the desire to control space and the ball in the dynamic environment that is a football match, a side needs to increase the number of options that a player has available to him. One wants to increase the choices available to players. However, players need to be able to identify the options available to them at any moment in time. Also, when one increases the number of choices available to an individual, it can become more difficult to make a choice quickly and makes it more difficult to pick the best option out of the ones presented. This applies to both the defensive and possession phases of the game.

Therefore, in order to become even more dynamic and more robust to changes in the state of a match, both in possession and out of possession, Arsenal need to produce more players with that ability to think the game through, to better understand all the elements in play throughout the match, to identify the options available to them, and to know which option to choose to best help their team. It does not seem surprising that Arsenal’s current best fits for this new playing style, either offensively, defensively, or both, all come from outside of Arsenal (Mesut Ozil (offensively), Alexis Sanchez (both), Calum Chambers at CB (both), Danny Welbeck (both), Laurent Koscielny (both), and a healthy Mikel Arteta (both). Given that Arsenal have to work with mostly English talent, such a youth system must also overcome the aspects of English football culture, which can serve as obstacles to development of the kind of players Arsenal need. They need to be a cultural oddity in English football.

In that sense Andries Jonker could prove to be the most important signing that Arsenal have made for some time. If he can help to change the football culture at Arsenal and turn Arsenal’s youth system into one of the best in the world, one that consistently produces the scarce qualities that Arsenal need to thrive, to create thinkers who can play football, then his arrival at the club should be looked upon as one of the key turning points in the history of Arsenal.

Is Arsene Wenger the Right Man To Lead The Transition?

A lot of words to describe what Arsene Wenger possibly wants to do/what I think Arsenal need to do to reach the top of the mountain in European football, and that is because it will take something bordering on a football revolution at Arsenal to achieve this change.

Now there is the other question of whether Arsenal should focus on maximizing success in England rather than Europe, due to the relative ease of the task, but I want to focus on the question of whether Wenger is the right man to overhaul the club’s approach to football to allow them to consistently compete for honors in Europe and in England.

To be clear, I do not know the answer.

To me, Wenger seems like a deep-defending 4-4-2 savant, whose sides excel at executing swift attacking transitions. He was, and somewhere inside him still is, a manager well-suited to English football. To turn into Arsenal into some kind of Guardiola-type 4-3-3 side with an emphasis on controlling space defensively through high pressing, counter pressing, situational retreating, and situational pushing up of defensive lines, and have the ability control matches through possession, even if that means sacrificing his desire to always push possession forward, seems like quite the ask.

As much as Arsenal would have to change to successfully make the transition to this playing style, it would call for a remarkable shift in Wenger’s playing philosophy or the emergence of preferences that Wenger has yet to exhibit. Greater emphasis must be placed on playing a compact game, both out of possession and in possession. There must be more of an emphasis on the coordination of all eleven players to control space out of possession. This involves, in part, more of a focus on ball-orientation as a unit and on coordination in pressing to cover space properly when the team looks to gain control of the space the ball occupies/wants to force the ball into a space they control. This calls for Wenger to further sacrifice his desire for verticality in possession. Instead of looking to push the ball forward, more effort must be placed in helping to construct a playing shape that expands the number of options immediately and easily available to the man on the ball, allowing the team to have greater control of the ball and to more slowly, and probably more effectively, control space. The amount of change needed seems like quite a lot to ask of Wenger.

It may be that Arsenal need a new manager for them to accomplish such a transition. But who could that manager be? Do Arsenal have a chance at landing a Pep Guardiola in a couple or a few years’ time? If Guardiola wants to manage in England, why would he not go to someone like Manchester United or Manchester City? If Arsenal want to have a chance to reel in a big fish, like Guardiola, to guide the club during such a transition, then it seems that they would need quite a bit of luck with respect to the timing of them having an opening, someone like Guardiola being available, and other, more attractive competitors not having an opening at the position2

Outside of that, Arsenal may have to take a risk going after someone less proven, but with the potential to guide the club where it needs to go. Someone like Frank De Boer, with his ties to Ajax and their philosophy of play, could prove to be a fantastic choice of manager.3 However, he is not Guardiola. There exists uncertainty as to whether he has the quality to mold Arsenal into the side they probably need to become, especially given the challenges that English football presents. Therefore, hiring a manager of less proven quality poses more of a risk that this crucial transition fails. Also even if the manager would eventually be successful, given enough time, can Arsenal Football Club have the patience to let a smaller name take the time and incur the losses to change the club’s way of playing?

So while I have my doubts about Arsene Wenger’s ability to change the club that he already made into his image, I do not know if Arsenal could find the right man to lead them through this seemingly needed transition. And if they cannot, then the question of whether Arsenal should invest more heavily in domestic success, and shun the Champions League, probably needs to be asked.

Conclusion

Arsenal occupy a strange position in the current world of football. Given the state of their resources relative to the elite clubs of Europe and England, and the way the English Premier League rewards a style of play that does not work in Europe, trying to develop a side that consistently competes for the Champions League and for the English Premier League seems like a monumental task. The most efficient way to accumulate points in England comes at the cost of European success, as was described in Part 2. Without a massive resource advantage over their domestic competition for the title, Arsenal cannot focus on building a squad for Europe while not facing much of a threat to their ability to win in England. They would need to become a team that could control space and the ball, something the club has never achieved to the level that the elite clubs of Europe have done over the past five seasons. And yet, despite the long road Arsenal have in front of them, it is a journey they probably need to make. Because if they do not, it is likely that Arsenal’s attempts to achieve simultaneous achieve in Europe and England will lead to a sustained lack of success in both.4

@njm1211


1.Bayern serve as a good example of how a team needs to work defensively in this kind of playing style, in their preseason match against Barcelona, back in 2013. Adin Osmanbasic made a great video explaining what happened in some passages that you can watch here: http://vimeo.com/71062176. Follow this guy on Twitter if you do not already.
2.I understand football through an economics-based perspective. And the more I have applied my normal perspective on the world to the game, the more I come to adore Guardiola as a manager.
3.Unless Dennis Bergkamp overcomes his fear of flying, it seems unlikely that he could ever manage Arsenal, given the need to travel, both in season and pre-season.
4.I admit, maybe this era of super-clubs that operate with this ability to control matches will end, leading to European football returning to the time in between Louis van Gaal’s Ajax and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. This gives Arsenal a smaller mountain to climb for European success, allowing less of a trade-off between English and European success. However, I think that this era has a greater chance of promoting the development of sides, players, and managers who can help their sides exert control matches, which would only put English clubs further behind, if they stick with their more primitive approach.

cesar-champions-league

Naveen’s Tactics Column: Premier v. Champions League why Wenger overhauled Arsenal

After looking at the nature of control in football matches in Part 1, it may be useful to look at why Arsenal have tried adopted a new style of play, how it differs from past Arsenal sides, and the things Arsenal need to do in order to make this new style work. As Jim Valvano would have said, one needs to look at where Arsenal started, where they are, and where they want to be. Here, in Part 2, is a look at Arsenal’s playing style leading up to this season1.

Arsenal 1998-2004: Domestic Success at the Cost of Winning in Europe

Looking back at Arsenal from 1998 to 2004, particularly from 2002-2004, they were arguably the best team in the world. They won the English Premier League twice in that three-year period and won the FA Cup twice. However, their results in Europe did not match the quality of their team or their domestic success. While they were certainly unlucky in 2001-02 to have a second group stage group with Juventus, Deportivo La Coruna, and Bayer Leverkusen, in 2002-03 and 2003-04, it appears that they squandered opportunities to win the greatest prize in club football.

In 2002-03, they only scored six goals in their six second group stage matches, with three of them coming in their first match against Roma. These results included a draw at home to an injury-depleted Ajax and a draw at home to Roma, after they lost Francesco Totti to a red card in the middle of the first half. The Roma match was a particularly damning result. Even with a man advantage, the game remained rather open, particularly in the second half. An a undermanned Roma wound up equalizing with a clipped ball by Emerson over the top of the Arsenal defense that Cassano scored, and nearly scored a winner with Cafu’s cross headed over the bar by Vincenzo Montella2.

In 2003-04, a Champions League where the two finalists from the previous season were knocked out by Deportivo La Coruna, Arsenal squandered their chance to win it, despite playing with arguably the best side in the club’s history. In the second leg of their quarter-final against Chelsea, with an away goal advantage to start the match, and having scored to go up 2-1 on aggregate, the game remained rather open. With only Ashley Cole sitting out the FA Cup tie against Manchester United only a few days earlier, and Thierry Henry partially rested after playing for a little more than a half hour in that match, there existed the risk of Arsenal running out of gas. That seems to be what happened. Arsenal fatigued as the game went on and had the game completely slip out of their hands.

So what were the possible reasons for Arsenal’s issues in the Champions League during that stretch? When one looks at Wenger’s best teams during that era, they depended on defending deep to create space to exploit on counter attacks, allowing talents like Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, and Thierry Henry to exploit these spaces, combine, and rip apart their opponents. This meant that they built around athleticism, power, and physicality, as any successful deep-defending side must (See Part 1). The big difference between Arsenal and the rest of English football involved the nature of their attacking, particularly their counter attacks. Instead of focusing on excessive width and long balls, Arsenal focused on a more interactive approach. With the likes of Robert Pires and Freddie Ljundberg looking to come infield, instead of staying wide, the ball did not have to travel as far to go from player to player. Therefore, Arsenal’s attackers had a greater ability to move the ball into the spaces the opposition lacked control over, as the ball could move more quickly between players. This approach allowed the team to better take advantage of whatever spaces the opponent had ceded control of due to their attacking shape, which is important since there is a lack of certainty as to what spaces will be open at any particular moment in time during a match. This made Arsenal’s counter-attacks more difficult to defend than the stereotypical kick-and-rush style of English football.

The greater interaction also allowed the attackers to play for one another; they could more profitably specialize at a particular moment in time and space to help their team gain control of an area of the pitch. For example, greater proximity allows dummy runs to more effectively create space for the man on the ball, create a passing lane for the man on the ball, and/or create a profitable run for a teammate. So, while Arsenal had quite astounding quality among their individuals, the emphasis on the interaction of that quality made them truly special.

However, Arsenal never mastered controlling space without the ball in a low defensive block like Atletico Madrid. They never developed a system of counter-pressing to control space once they lost the ball. They also never mastered controlling possession either, which may have come down to a greater preference for gaining control of forward spaces in possession than for maintaining control of the ball. Given these characteristics, Arsenal played a rather English style of football. They wanted to play rather direct football, and they were content with an open game, probably because their superior talent and their ability to combine would allow them to obtain the full-season results they desired, especially in larger samples with more matches played against poor sides. While this more up-and-down style did well in England, due in no small part to English clubs’ inability to defend transitions, this inability to control the overall flow of the game, either in possession or out of possession may have been the deciding factor with respect to their lack of success in Europe.

Without the ability to control space or control space and the ball, even against inferior teams or teams with severe disadvantages, Arsenal could not exert complete control over the proceedings. This prevented them from reducing their exposure to risk. The larger sample of games and the larger number of games against poorer sides, characteristic of a domestic season, may allow a team to better tolerate that risk exposure. However, for the superior side, reducing the exposure to risk is a vital component of success in tournament play, where a smaller sample of games allows random variation to play more of a role in the outcome.

While such variation in the potential outcome can lead to results like a 5-1 victory over Inter Milan, it could also see them go down 2-0 after dominating that same Inter Milan side at home. One could classify the Champions League match against Roma in 2003 and the second leg against Chelsea in 2004 as instances where Arsenal’s lack of control over the match exposed them to too much risk. Their preference for an up-and-down style helped Roma get something out of a match in which they trailed and played the majority of with ten men. Their inability to control possession limited their ability to conserve precious energy against Chelsea. They could not limit their exposure to the risk of physical attrition and that hurt their ability to protect the lead that they had at the start of the second leg.3

In some ways, that team’s success in England and lack of success in Europe mirrors that of Manchester City. In a three-year window, both sides won the league, blew the league, and then won the league again — at the end of this season, it even seems likely that both sides will have lost titles by significant margins to Chelsea sides managed by Jose Mourinho, in the year after the three-year window. Both teams built their sides around athleticism, power, and physicality. Both sides consistently failed to control their European contests, due in part to an inability to control space and possession, particularly their inability to control space out of possession. Going a step further, it may be that both sides built their teams to maximize success in England, but in doing so, sacrificed their ability to compete at the highest level of football.

The Incentives of the English Footballing Environment

For a team with a clear advantage with respect to individualistic talent, the way to most efficiently earn points in the EPL seems to involve playing an up-and-down style. Given how poorly many English sides defend transitions, the way to maximize points in the EPL involves having individual talents who can make the most out of the open spaces that Premier League matches often afford to them. Therefore, there exists an incentive to turn matches into something that looks more like basketball, to increase the number of opportunities for those individual talents to shine.

Even if English sides try to press their opponents, it often involves more hustle-and-bustle than it does intelligence and coordination of the unit. There often exists a lack of compactness in the pressing, possibly due to the desire for an expansive shape with the idea that the ball can move quickly up the pitch, once it is won. Therefore, any success has to do with the intensity of the action rather than the execution of the unit (see Liverpool! – Tim). When a player beats the initial pressure, the entire pitch opens up, with plenty of space to exploit and time to do so. The greater the individualistic talent, the more they benefit from this open style of play. In England, a side with a significant individualistic talent advantage that plays like this will efficiently earn points against bottom fourteen or so teams in the league, depending on the quality of the other teams at the top of the league.

Given the ease at which valuable spaces can be exploited in the English game, there may exist a more severe diminishing of the marginal returns on investments made towards creating a side that has a more advanced ability to control space in possession. The greatest lockpicker in the world is not very valuable in an environment where nobody puts locks on anything. Therefore, investing in such a skill, in this environment of open access, fails to yield marginal returns that exceed the marginal costs—both the resources consumed and the opportunity cost of those resources being employed in a different fashion—at a lower level of investment, compared to an environment in which people use locks. In this kind of an environment, the ability to loot the building, before a reaction can take place, would represent a skill with greater returns on investment.

It may be that the ease of access to space, in the English game, has retarded the development of playing styles that focus on controlling space in possession, particularly of wresting control of spaces that seem controlled by the opposition. Instead, if access to valuable space is easy, then it may behoove a team to set-up so to maximize their opportunities and ability to exploit it, incentivizing a more open playing style. It would also incentivize investment in players who can quickly exploit open spaces, which could lead to investing in attributes like straight-line speed, playing long balls, and crossing4.

A team that looks to control space out of possession and relies on exploiting space their opponent lacks control over when their opponent loses the ball, runs the risk of teams sitting deep and ceding possession. For the opponent, the opportunity cost is low enough to justify such a strategy. This would probably occur most often against inferior sides, which could potentially reduce a team’s ability to efficiently earn points again a majority of the league. The superior side would experience a decreased ease of access to valuable spaces. This would force them to rely more on their ability to control space in possession, rather than rely on their opponent to gift them the space. 2013-14 Chelsea had this problem and it cost them the league. They won 16 points against teams that finished in the top 4 that season. That was more than any EPL champion since arbitrary starting point of the 2001-02 season. They only picked up 66 points against the bottom 14 side. Had they won the title with the same points total, it would be the lowest points haul against the bottom 16 by any champion since 2001-02. Essentially by signing Cesc Fabregas, Chelsea traded-off some of their ability to control space out of possession for the opportunity to better control space in possession. This problem potentially requires a team to have greater control of space out of possession, so the team has less of a likelihood of conceding and can extract more points from the goals they score. It may also necessitates greater control of space in possession.

However, even though creating a side that can control space in and out of possession has greater benefit, that benefit comes at a higher cost. It is important to remember that the costs of creating a side that focuses more on control goes beyond monetary costs. A team’s ability to control is not solely a function of individualistic quality. Though it may be said that a player controls a game, this probably is not the case. Without proper coordination with the other ten players on the pitch, even the greatest footballer cannot control a match. In reality, it is the quality of the coordination of the eleven men on the pitch that likely plays a greater role in the team’s ability to control a match, which may give the impression that a single player is controlling the match. And this coordination takes intelligence, instruction, teaching, development, cohesion, and familiarity that take time and effort, at multiple levels of the club, in addition to dollars, to accomplish. Given the increased cost associated with trying to create a team that can control space, or control space and the ball, it seems more profitable, looking only at maximizing the efficiency of accumulating points in England, to create a side that just rips teams apart in an open game.

One may also consider English football culture as another factor that incentivizes the lack of emphasis on control by the unit. From the outside, the English football culture seems to value the athleticism, physicality, making plays that are obvious to observe, running, “bravery”, “courage”, etc. rather than intelligence, decision-making, understanding how to operate in a unit, seeing the whole game, technique, etc. It seems to value the impact of the individual, rather than that of the unit, which seems to go as far back as the beginning of football5.

At the most micro-level, this culture may be hurting the English game in the sense that English players, who still make up a large proportion of the league, focus more on becoming individualistic players than those that understand how to function in a unit. Too many wish to play like Steven Gerrard than they wish to play like Xavi Hernandez. The fans might also hurt the game. For example, a team that looked to control possession and control space might be classified as boring compared to a side that effectively plays basketball on a football pitch. This may manifest itself as negative feedback from the crowd for not being direct enough in possession. It may lead to less support for a manager or a greater willingness to turn on a manager, whose team is not “exciting”. This criticism does extend beyond English footballing culture. One of the greatest players in the history of the game did not appreciate Guardiola’s attempt to turn Bayern into a side that had better control over their opponents. The lack of appreciation for a more advanced form of football, and the greater appreciation for a more primitive style, at various levels of the English footballing community, likely helps to reinforce the up-and-down style of football that defines English football, from the lowest level, all the way to the English Premier League.

Other factors may exist to promote the “English” style of football. Maybe the revenue generated by and the marketability of the English style helps reinforce aspects like the openness of the game. Maybe a greater willingness for referees to not call fouls/not brandish cards for physical play lowers the benefits of creating a side that looks to control possession, as teams in England have a greater ability to rough up such sides, compared to other leagues. The lack of a winter break may make methods controlling space out of possession, like those of Diego Simeone’s Atleti or Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, too physically demanding to pull off over a season, let alone multiple seasons. With all of these factors reinforcing this style of play, it makes sense that English clubs, as marketable as ever, have recently performed so poorly in the Champions League.

It probably is not a coincidence that England’s best run of Champions League performance came from 2004-05 to the 2008-09 Champions League Final, as Italy began to wane, before Pep Guardiola took over Barcelona, while Real Madrid continually got things wrong, and Bayern Munich were not the footballing power they are now. At the same time, during that period, Chelsea, in Jose Mourinho, and Liverpool, in Rafa Benitez, had an emphasis on controlling space when out of possession..

Manchester United, during the peak years of the Ronaldo era, had enough options in the squad, along with a transcendent individual talent in Cristiano Ronaldo, to operate as an up-and-down style in the English Premier League, while focusing more on controlling games in Europe (In that 08/09 season, Manchester United went an astounding 27-4-1 against the bottom 16, accounting for 85 of their 90 points that season, which included going 23-1-0 against the bottom 12). Arsenal transitioned into side that could exert greater control over matches. However, none of those sides reached the heights on the elite sides of the past five seasons.

Starting with the rise of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, it seems that the Champions League has turned into a competition with greater emphasis on controlling matches than it has in the past. This seems particularly true at the highest level of the competition. Unlike a domestic league competition, where sides have the ability to fatten their points total against inferior opponents, the Champions League places more of a premium on controlling matches against the very best sides, given its knockout nature and the caliber of competition a side probably has to defeat to win.

This makes the up-and-down style of play, which English football seems to reward, quite problematic in Europe. With greater difficultly to access valuable spaces, the emphasis on exploiting weakly protected spaces becomes less valuable, as less exist. Going back to the lockpicking analogy, if English teams are great looters, but poor at getting past/around the increased security in the environment of European football, then their investment in their looting ability, while highly profitable in England, does not serve them as well in Europe. What good is the ability to exploit space once you have control of it, if you cannot gain control of it in the first place? At the same time, English sides are like homeowners who move into an environment full of highly skilled lock-pickers and looters, and do not take any measures to secure their homes and belongings. Their insufficient ability to control space out of possession, which may impose a lower cost on them in England, makes life too easy for the best clubs in Europe.

These elite European sides over the past five seasons have reached footballing heights that no Premier League side has. They have raised the bar to a height that no English side, at least in the Premier League era, has yet to reach6. Therefore, if an English club wants to succeed in Europe, they need to get away from the style of play the English game incentivizes. And it seems Wenger was, and still is, aware of the need for Arsenal to change their style of play, from the style that brought such domestic success from 1998-2004, to one that could maximize their ability to compete in Europe, while also allowing them to compete in England.

The Fabregas Years: Possibly an Attempt at European Glory, Shunning What Brought Them Success in England

As with the sides of his great rival, Sir Alex Ferguson, a desire for greater control, in an effort to do better in Europe, may have played a role in the shift in playing style for Wenger’s Emirates Era sides. This desire for control probably helped to promote the transition to the Fabregas-style Arsenal sides. Those Fabregas-led sides had the ability to control possession better than any of Wenger’s Arsenal sides. These sides also experienced the most Champions League success of any of the Arsene Wenger’s sides, when looking over a span of Champions Leagues appearances.

However, these sides experienced problems when it came to controlling space out of possession. By opting for technical ability over physicality, as the financial realities imposed by the stadium move, along with the rest of the footballing world getting smarter in terms of player acquisition, forced a more severe trade-off between the two characteristics, they could not effectively defend in the same manner as those previous Arsenal sides did. Those previous Wenger sides had the physicality and size to defend deep, cover aerial threats, and more successfully break up play close to their goal, allowing them to better mitigate the risk associated with deep defending. The Emirates-era teams lacked that size, strength, athleticism, etc. to successfully operate in that fashion.

That is probably why there existed periods, during the Emirates-era, where Arsenal attempted to play with a higher defensive line. They wanted to move the danger away from their goal, lessening the importance of having power, physicality, and size. Having a higher line in possession would also allow them to have greater interaction among the outfield players in possession, giving them potentially greater control over the ball and space. However, they lacked the other necessary elements to play a high line.

Arsenal were, and still remain, a rather poor pressing and counter-pressing team. Without effective pressing, it became too easy for opponents to exploit the increased “offside space” that Arsenal gave their opponents. They also lacked the sweeper keeper that high-line teams often rely on to help cover that “offside space”. Finally, Wenger’s desire to avoid possession without the intent of driving forward to score goals, probably led to Arsenal forcing too much play, leading to too many turnovers and having too expansive a shape in possession, particularly vertically. With the lack of pressing, the lack of compactness in possession and out of possession, lack of pressing, and the high line, those turnovers too easily became profitable counter-attacking opportunities for the opponent.

This incentivized Arsenal’s opponents to choose one of two approaches to use against the Gunners. Some teams would drop as many men into a low defensive block, looking to control the ideal goal-scoring areas, of which Arsenal’s possession play looked to wrest control. This stifling approach still relied more on Arsenal making mistakes in possession rather than looking to gain control of space the ball occupies to win possession, in order to expose Arsenal’s problems defending counter attacks. With the talent of players like Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal could break these teams down, but they did face a greater probability of earning a draw or a loss, particularly against sides that could operate as exploiters of conceded space, rather than controllers of space. However, the more effective approach against these Arsenal sides, especially given their open attacking shape, poor pressing, and desire for verticality in their ball movement, involved pressing Arsenal in midfield to create those counter attacking opportunities. The desire for verticality and having too expansive an attacking shape made it too easy for these sides to eliminate options for the man on the ball, and then look to gain control of the space the ball occupied. Once possession was won (English football’s propensity for physical play seems to have helped to incentivize this approach as well), opponents would exploit Arsenal’s issues defending counter-attacks.   

Clearly, Wenger took a step in the right direction, if a search for European glory was the goal; however, he needed to go further in that direction. While they achieved greater control of the ball and showed greater ability to control space with the ball, they did not go far enough in that direction to achieve enough dominance with the ball to consistently punish deep defending sides and to deal with pressing sides. They also did not evolve enough as to how they controlled space out of possession to reduce their exposure to the risks of this different style of play. Unfortunately, by not going far enough in that direction, their insufficient efforts towards maximizing European success, which came at the expense of success in England, seem to have helped contribute to Arsenal winning nothing during the Fabregas era.

Back to Basics: The Getting Through It Era

The immediate period after the Fabregas-era saw Arsenal, for a brief time, attempt to play in the same manner as the Fabregas-era sides. However, those sides lacked the ability to control space with their possession. This led to a plummeting of Arsenal’s ability to create quality chances. These sides could not even control the ball to the degree that those Arsenal sides did, making Arsenal’s vulnerability to counter attacks more pronounced.

Eventually, Arsenal went back to playing a more reactive game, focused more on counter-attacking and defending from deeper positions. While this led to some domestic success, specifically in the second half of the 2012-13 season and the 2013-14 season, it came with plenty of problems.

Without an Atletico Madrid ability to control space out of possession, they had a significant vulnerability to a side that could control space with the ball. This problem was rather evident in Champions League matches against the better sides in Europe. Clearly, without a massive overhaul of the side, this playing style would not allow Arsenal to compete at the highest level in Europe.

In the English Premier League, Arsenal seemed to have their issues against sides that forced them to control space in possession, rather than break into open space, gifted to them by their opponent’s mistake in possession, their attacking shape, and their inability to defend transitions. Their continued lack of compactness in possession, along with their desire to advance the ball into forward spaces, made it too easy for sides to hit them on the counter, in these types of matches, as typified by last season’s loss to Chelsea.

So while last season’s Arsenal side came as close to winning a title as any since the 2007-08 season, their playing style involved taking steps backward, with respect to simultaneous success in England and Europe. And maybe for that reason, Arsene Wenger looked to change that seemingly successful formula at the start of the 2014-15 season, a topic we will cover in Part Three.

@njm1211


1.This is an extension of my comment on the Sunderland preview I wrote. Therefore, I must put in the disclaimer that my theory on why Wenger has decided to go in this direction involves a lot of conjecture, especially when it comes to how Arsenal’s underperformance in Europe, from 2002-2004, influenced his thinking.

2. Juxtapose this match to how Bayern controlled nearly everything about their match against Arsenal last season, once Wojciech Szczesny was sent off or with Bayern’s performance this season, down a man, against Manchester City, controlling so much of that match as well.

3.Given this perspective, it makes sense that Arsenal’s best Champions League run, in 2005-06, came on the back of focusing their efforts heavily on controlling space from a deep position and scraping whatever they could offensively. While they did have the risk associated with a high leverage goal conceded, given their lack of offensive production, their focus on controlling space out of possession did significantly reduce their exposure to risk compared to their past approach.

4. Speed allows a player quickly move into the ceded space and long balls have the potential to move the ball into that ceded space. The value of crossing may come from the fact the English game developed on rather poor pitches, due to a bunch of factor, meaning that the wide areas had better quality grass to actually play the ball. This would incentivize a style of play where central players focus on funneling the ball wide to athletic dribblers on the wing, who would then play the ball in the air to have in enter central areas, which represent better goal-scoring areas.
5. Back then, English sides’ possession play amounted to a single player dribbling at the opposition’s defense, without any support of his teammates. Therefore, withstanding challenges, athletic ability, individual skill, etc. represent more important skills rather than intelligence, understanding of how to interact with others, coordination of the individual players, etc. Continuing with information found in Jonathon Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, the development of the passing game and concept of team play came from Scotland, and may represent the first great advancement in the way football was played. Thank you, Scotland. Also thank you for Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and David Hume.
6. Chelsea’s run to win the 2012-13 Champions League is probably the worst performance by a Champions League winner in the history of the competition. Watching the matches against Napoli, Barcelona, and Bayern, it is amazing that they ended up winning the competition. They conceded way too many good chances in the box over the course of those matches to call it effective defending or even adequate defending. It seems like there is much more evidence that they rode positive random variation, in a small enough sample of games, all the way to the title.

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Surreal scenes in Istanbul: Arsenal Atomicus

Arsenal beat Galatasaray 4-1 in Istanbul in a match so surreal that it was the Dali Atomicus of football matches. In 1948, Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman collaborated to create a photograph of a flying Dali — eyes wide and grinning madly –, three flying cats, a bucket of water curving improbably, and other floating props. It is an image meant to unsettle the viewer. And so are Arsenal at the moment.

Arsenal started the season with a defensive deficiency in having only six defenders and with another season of failed attempts to bring in a ball-winning midfielder the club so badly need. This was Arsene Wenger metaphorically juggling cats. And then along come the fans who have abandoned all notions of respect and decency and lay in wait at the train station to ambush the manager with verbal abuse. A bucket of cold water dumped over Wenger’s head.

I’m not telling you any secrets when I say that football is all about highs and lows. If you’ve been around any sport you already know. Even Manchester United, who improbably won everything during Fergie’s tenure, bumped back down to reality last season and have struggled mightily to start this. Chelsea have spent over a billion pounds in the last 10 years and they had their ups and downs as well: winning the Champions League with the ugliest team in the history of the sport and finishing 6th in the League to prove it.

But while all the other teams went through rough patches, Arsenal have remained remarkably consistent, finishing between first and fourth in the Premier League for 18 years. Moreover, why would Wenger radically change his team and his philosophy this season? Remember that Arsenal were top of the table for the vast majority of last season and won the FA Cup. Wenger’s philosophy has always been to keep going and build slowly. So, if Arsenal picked up just a few points here and there and changed their tactic against the top four rivals it would be reasonable for Wenger to expect that his team would improve.

But instead of building on the successes of last year, this Arsene Wenger side is less consistent than I’ve ever seen them and the results show it: three clean sheets against Dortmund, West Brom, and Southampton, followed by a fearful performance against Stoke, followed by a rampaging performance against Galatasaray. And it’s starting to look like the normal highs and lows of football are catching up with Arsenal.

Ramsey probably epitomizes that inconsistency more than any other player this season. Ramsey has dropped in all major stats categories except shots, and especially shots from distance. Ramsey has been adjusting to his new teammates and as a result looks like he lacks a little bit of confidence. His shots are rushed and it shows, he’s already taken as many shots outside the box this season as he did all of last season.

Naturally, that means Ramsey should shoot more from distance, should shoot from further out, should shoot from further out, off the volley, and score.

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Wenger echoed my sentiments about Ramsey’s goal when he stated flatly

When he took the shot, I thought that is maybe not the best of ideas but the way it went in was absolutely unbelievable. His confidence is linked with results and goals scored and that helps.

It wasn’t the best of ideas. It was a gambler’s goal and he hit the jackpot. But it went in and everyone loves to see a goal like that. Wondergoals are part of the highs and lows of football and I think it’s about time Arsenal scored a wondergoal rather than concede one.

Perhaps that goal will boost his confidence. I would think the earlier goal he scored, where he had the audacity to attempt a fake shot before coolly slotting home under the keeper’s arms would boost confidence more but perhaps the once in a lifetime nature of his wondergoal is the elixir he really needs.

It wasn’t just that Ramsey strike which made the game surreal. I had to watch the vine of the goal several times before I noticed that Joel Campbell took the corner. Or how about the fact that Debuchy started his first game since the knee injury. Or that Bellerin started at left back. Or that Podolski scored a brace and even made a ‘tackle’ which started the counter which led to Ramsey’s first goal.

All surreal scenes. All cats flying in the air. All Wenger grinning madly. All fans throwing cold water on each other and the manager. All Dali Atomicus. All Arsenal Atomicus.

And this weekend, Arsenal have to face a resurgent Newcastle team. More ups and downs. But hopefully, we stick to surrealist art and this weekend’s match doesn’t turn into Edvard Munch’s Scream.

Qq