By Naveen Maliakkal
This FA Cup Quarter-Final match features two teams who struggle to simultaneously control space and possession. When it comes to Manchester United, this seems particularly odd, given the principles of Louis van Gaal’s playing philosophy. It seems odd that people wonder what Louis van Gaal’s ideal playing strategy is. While a brief description of Van Gaal’s playing philosophy can be found in the first part of Arsenal-United preview from earlier this season, this piece by @TikiTactic gives a more complete look at what Van Gaal wants from his teams. While his time at AZ Alkamaar and his second stint as the manager of the Netherlands showed his willingness to abandon some of his principles in the search for short-term results, his time at Ajax probably represented the purest manifestation of his footballing philosophy. Watching this compilation of his Ajax side, in 1995, arguably the last truly special side before Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, what stands out is the quickness of the passes, the movement, and the desire to provoke defenders to create openings. This team wants to push the ball into more advanced spaces, but they do not force the play into those spaces without taking control of them first.
This is the purpose of ball circulation. By patiently, but quickly, probing the opponent’s shape, they look to draw their opponent to the ball, only to move it into the space they have vacated. Now, if the opponent has a static defensive shape, then creating superior control comes down to overloading the spaces around the ball, to give the opponent too many options to defend. However, against a more dynamic defense, one that better allocates its resources with respect to time, space, the ball, and the opponent, then such probing serves to gain control of space away from the current position of the ball. Play moves to the left to control a desired space on the right. The ball moves into a deeper area, to draw the defense out, so to gain control of a more advanced area. The side in possession has to use their opponent’s desire to control space against them.
United have gone with a kind of 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 against Newcastle and Sunderland. However, United have had issues controlling space with their possession, due in part to a problem of personnel. At the back, playing Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans is not ideal for a team looking to circulate the ball and bypass the opponent’s first and second lines of defense. The lack of a left-footed center back, at left-center back, limits the amount of passing angles that United can create from the back. Neither center back is particularly comfortable in wide areas, which, like the lack of a left-footer, limits the range of passing angles United can create from the back. Finally, neither center back is adept technically, or mentally, to effectively carry out the duties United need from their center backs. The center backs need to know when and how to advance the ball with the dribble, make the line-breaking pass, move play along to continue horizontal probing, and when to make off-ball runs into advanced or wide areas to create a numerical superiority/exploit an opening. In this sense, even though Emre Can has plenty of developing to do, a player like that, at the back for United, would provide significant value.¹ This helps to explain why Van Gaal has a strong preference for Marcos Rojo at left-center back, and if Luke Shaw is fit for this match, it would make sense to see Rojo start at left-center back.
The limitations at the back reduce the value of the fullbacks and the deepest midfielder working to create spatial advantages higher up the pitch, as the center backs cannot sufficiently take advantage of it. This leads to a predictable pattern of build-up with Daley Blind dropping deep to pick up the ball from the center backs. Ander Herrera has the task of linking the back of United with the front. However, with the inability of the center backs to contribute to potent possession, Herrera often has to come deep with Blind. While either midfielder is fine drifting into wide areas, which would make man-marking in midfield an unwise strategy for Arsenal, their options to advance the ball are limited. Marouane Fellaini has seen some time at his best position, an unorthodox No. 10 (the idea that Fellaini could operate successfully as a holding midfield remains rather comical). While Van Gaal has shown a willingness to use the Belgian the way Moyes did at Everton, it does limit United’s ability to move the ball into the space between the lines. Fellaini is not exactly Jari Litmenan. Fellaini’s skill set allows him to do some hold-up play, win aerial duels, and attempt to be physical with defenders. His ability to open up passing lanes for Herrera and Blind leaves much to be desired.
This can lead to United having to force play down wide areas. Down the right, the pair of Valencia and Di Maria does not seem effective on paper or in reality. What Valencia provides United at right-back, outside of the physical act of running, has yet to be determined. With Di Maria looking to come inside from the right, it becomes too easy for the back line to stay narrow. In a way, the lack of proper ball and man orientation by Newcastle, leading to an insufficient amount of flooding the ball side, meant that someone willing to stay wide and take advantage of an individual matchup could provide some value, as long as a speculative cross was not end-product of such play. On the other side, Ashley Young seems wedded to the idea of playing as a more traditional winger, which allowed more chances to engage in one-on-one duels, although there were in less potent areas. Young’s behavior means that the left-back can operate more as a wide midfielder than an overlapping fullback. Finally, as a center forward, Wayne Rooney appears to have horizontal freedom at the highest level of United’s shape, looking to make runs in behind the defense. Ultimately, this set-up makes United dependent on advancing the ball by using wide areas, playing balls to the head of Fellaini, or trying to play Rooney in behind.
Concede Possession, Do Not Concede Space
Given Arsenal’s own problems in possession, it seems that conceding possession to United represents the best way for them to go about this match. Although asking Arsenal to maintain their shape out of possession, move together as a unit to orient themselves to the threat of the ball and United’s players, and refrain from/limit individual duels in central areas, so to not provide easy openings for United to exploit, without Mikel Arteta as their holding midfielder, the opportunity cost for Arsenal does not seem substantial.
However, what Arsenal must avoid is ceding too much territory. They should not rely on defending around their penalty box. With Manchester United’s problems advancing the ball into the final third, ceding all that space up until the final third allows United to avoid one of their biggest problems in possession.
West Ham United made that mistake after scoring first, in their 1-1 draw against United at Upton Park. The Hammers concede all of four shots to United in the first 49 minutes of the match, as they focused on keeping United’s play stuck in the midfield third. However, after scoring they seemed to retreat back to their own box, particularly during the last 15-20 minutes of the match. After scoring, West Ham conceded 14 shots. Nine of those shots came from the penalty area, with six of the nine coming after the 77th minute.
If Arsenal can stifle United in the center of the pitch, then United will likely force their play into wide areas. There, Arsenal have the potential to flood the ball side, with the ball-side wide midfielder and the fullback, using the touchline as a third defender, engaging in pressing traps, as the rest of the team zonally marks the interior, looking to cut off easy switches of play, and/or pounce on attempt to play the ball into the center of the pitch. With United looking to push their fullbacks up the pitch to support the build-up play from the back, such pressing traps could lead to counter-attacking opportunities that force United’s center backs to defend as individuals and in wide areas.
So while it seems unlikely that Arsenal will have the confidence, coordination, and execution to pull off the proper game plan², it would be poetic for a major breakthrough against United to come via a plan Sir Alex Ferguson’s United worked so well during the Emirates era.
Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls
Arsenal have yet to demonstrate an ability to chase matches, while still maintaining control over the flow of the game. Like most English clubs, Arsenal often resort to pushing men forward, remaining too spaced out horizontally, and losing the occupation of vertical levels. In the Stoke debacle, there exists evidence that Arsenal lost their patience in the 37th minute.
In this passage, Aaron Ramsey is on the ball with very few options to pass to, in a vertical sense. He has the option of passing to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to move the play into the wide right space. Arsenal’s lack of overloading the ball side inhibits their ability to drag Stoke to the ball, to create space on the left side. This makes Kieran Gibbs’ advance on the far left side rather ineffective. Therefore, crosses, diagonals, and interior passes all represent low success options for the man on the ball. This would be fine if Arsenal better occupied vertical levels. Unfortunately, Arsenal’s six forward players occupy similar vertical levels, decreasing the passing angles and options available to the man on the ball. Also, there exists a large distance between Ramsey and the two center backs + holding midfielder. So Arsenal have occupied a large space with their team shape, but have improperly populated the space (what we’ve got here is… failure to allocate). Specifically, that suboptimal population of space prevents Arsenal from passing the ball back, so to draw Stoke’s defense out, probe and provoke, and then exploit an opening they find, or restart the process if an opening does not become apparent.
This leads to Ramsey attempting a low percentage cross, which gets blocked. Now Arsenal have big problems, as the improper population of the vertical levels around the ball mean that they are incapable of winning the blocked ball, applying pressure to Stoke players, or make a challenge to win the ball from a Stoke player. There is also a large amount of space between Arsenal’s “front 7” and their “back 3”, allowing Stoke to safely play the ball into that area and run an effective counter-attack. Luckily for Arsenal, Bojan makes the wrong decision, allowing for a rather English counter press—a one-man press with little to no coordination in the unit—to succeed. This is a clear example of why a team’s shape in possession must be informed by the consequences of a loss in possession, as the team’s shape in possession becomes the team’s shape out of possession when the ball is lost.
When discussing some of the many problems with English football, the inane chasing of matches does not come up as often as it should. Instead of looking to pin the opposition in their half, with their control, English clubs chase games by simply increasing the variance of the expected outcome, hoping to catch the right side of the tail of the distribution of potential outcomes. Now if the opponent decides to play in a deep shell, showing no desire to move the ball out of their half, then this strategy comes with less risk. However, against better competition, particularly against competition that rely more on technique, coordinated movement, quick thinking, and quick ball movement, than the long-ball to the speedy front man/target man, or the solo effort of a ball-carrier, this high variance approach leads to significant problems. If the opposition still maintains control of the important spaces, then this high variance approach simply gifts the opposition valuable spaces to exploit, once they win the ball.
Arsenal were already punished severely for their reckless chasing of games, against Monaco. Their lack of composure and understanding that the knockout phase of the Champions League is two-legged helped make the second leg an almost certain dead rubber. And even though this is a winner-take-all match, Arsenal must not lose their heads if they trail during this match. Otherwise, their risk-seeking behavior, their push for a high variance outcome, while conceding their control of space, promises more ruin than reward.
¹Without Emre Can, the usefulness of Liverpool’s recent style of play under Rodgers falls apart. His ability to carry out the role of a wide center back, with his more dynamic game, allows Liverpool to better allocate resources in possession, so to better gain control and exploit space in possession.
²Manchester City match aside, it is not like they have been very convincing with this approach this season, and even in that there was a good 15 minutes at the beginning of the second half where they lost control over the match