Tag Archives: Premier league

Tactical preview: Everton v. Arsenal

What will Roberto Martinez Do?

EPL Game 1: A Solid Base and a Fluid Approach

Roberto Martinez showed quite a bit of flexibility in his approach against Arsenal last season. In their first Premier League encounter, at the Emirates, Martinez played something similar to how Arsenal played against Napoli. Martinez’s 4-2-3-1 had a defensive box of two center backs and two central midfielders. By allocating four players in a 2-2 manner, with one of the midfielders dropping a bit deeper in possession to allow Everton to play out easier from the back, Everton allocated enough resources properly to the defensive side of the game to combat with Giroud, Ozil, and the forward runs of Aaron Ramsey.

That allowed Everton to allocate the rest of their players towards attack. Not only did they allocate more resources for the attack, but the certainty in the positioning of the defensive box allowed them to have uncertainty in the allocation of those resources. This fluidity in attack helps to create information asymmetries, where players, familiar with one another, know where their teammates are, while the opponent struggles to properly allocate defensive resources to counter the attacking threat. Essentially, fluidity makes the dynamic resource allocation problem for the defense much more difficult. The defensive box allowed them to mitigate the costs of fluidity, in particular the cost of being out of position when possession is lost, by having players in position to defend Arsenal’s counterattacks.

Two stand-out performers for Everton were Steven Pienaar and Brian Oviedo, who filled in for Leighton Baines at left-back. With Jack Wilshere operating as the right-sided midfielder, or Cazorla for stretches, Arsenal lacked a counterattacking threat on that side¹. This gave Oviedo license to get forward, as the marginal cost of his forays was relatively small. Clearly, they did not perceive Carl Jenkinson as much of an attacking threat. This allowed Everton to move the ball down Arsenal’s right side easily and create 2-on-1s against Jenkinson. While this occurred late in the game with Everton searching for an equalizer, making a more attacking approach more valuable, one can see how Oviedo’s willingness to go forward creates a 2-on-1 against Jenkinson, giving Pienaar time and space to deliver a cross into the box.

With Pienaar free to cut inside from Everton’s left and Ramsey taking up quite advanced positions, Mikel Arteta had to worry about the threat of both Pienaar and Ross Barkley without much help (if help came it would have to come from Mertesacker and Koscielny, but that would leave Lukaku 1-on-1) . Barkley freely roamed the area, looking for space, and driving forward with the ball. Despite not registering a goal or assist in the match, Ross Barkley was the outstanding player for Everton in possession.

EPL Game 2: A False Nine and Wide-Forwards

I view football matches as dynamic resource allocation problems. You want to optimally allocate your resources and you want to prevent your opponent from optimally allocating their resources. To that end, one of my favorite tactical approaches is the use of two wide forwards with a deep-lying central player (I’d be all for Arsenal trotting out Walcott and Sanchez up top with Ozil behind them). Chile operated in this fashion under Jorge Sampaoli at the World Cup. The value of this approach is the ability to pin back four defenders with two attackers.

First attacking the CB/FB gap can often be more valuable that attacking the CB/CB gap. Center-backs generally stay put and have a good understanding with one another. The cohesion between the two and the certainty of position allows them to better allocate themselves to kill a threat to that gap. Fullbacks, who operate as attackers and defenders, often have less of a relationship with the center-back on their side and have much more uncertainty in their positioning. When a wide forward attacks that gap, there seems to be an increased probability for some confusion between the fullback and the center-back on that side, as to how they will deal with the threat.

One of the best outcomes from this confusion can be the ability to pin both fullbacks into defensive roles. In modern football, with fullbacks playing such a crucial role in attack, often solely responsible for providing width, the ability to pin the fullbacks deals a serious blow to the opponent. Not only does it prevent the opponent from allocating their attacking resources the way they desire, but it also can simplify the dynamic resource allocation problem for the defenders. If the only threats out wide are pinned back in their own half, a defense can narrow their shape, allocating more resources to limit the success of the central attackers.

The wide forward can also exploit the space in behind an attacking fullback (or a fullback positioned too far up the pitch), and can force a center-back into a wide area. For many center-backs, being pulled into a wide area represents a pretty terrible scenario. A lack of experience in those situations can lead to a lack of knowledge about how to use one’s attributes to defend the situation (or the center-back simply lacks the necessary attributes to defend that situation) and can lead to panicky and ineffective defending. Also, by dragging one of the center-backs out wide, the wide forward may have also forced the other center-back, and the fullback on the opposite side (if he is even in position) towards him. This can create quite a bit of space for the other wide forward to make a free inside run toward the back post.

In this game, Martinez used his wide forwards to great effect, particularly on the counterattack. He played a 4-3-3, with Steven Naismith as a false 9, Romelu Lukaku as a right wide forward, and Kevin Mirallas as a left wide forward. Naismith dropped into midfield, effectively forming a diamond, giving McCarthy and Barkley a player to pass the ball to, who could link-up with the wide forwards. Naismith also did well to attract Thomas Vermaelen onto him.

In Everton’s first goal, we can see the potency of this system. Although Flamini could have probably dealt with Baines 1-on-1, Bacary Sagna stays up, but does not close the ball down. Mirallas runs into the space that Sagna has not occupied, dragging Per Mertesacker with him. Naismith’s run draws Thomas Vermaelen.

wide

This leaves Lukaku all alone with Nacho Monreal, against whom the Belgian has a significant physical advantage. Lukaku gets a shot on goal, and it is saved.

shot

However, Vermaelen is caught watching Lukaku and loses Naismith, who has looked to make a run around Lukaku. The ball falls to Naismith, and he buries it.

late

On the second goal, Naismith starts with the ball after Mikel Arteta blocks an aimless Ross Barkley pass, an opportunity that comes about due to his deep positioning. The ball falls to Mirallas in a central position with Lukaku in acres of space on Everton’s right side. Mirallas plays the ball to Lukaku who faces Monreal in a 1-on-1. Vermaelen does not commit to helping his left-back as he is worried by the run of Naismith (watch him look behind him to check on where Naismith is, as he runs back). Lukas Podolski does not seem to care on this play, jogging back, even though his fullback is in an undesirable situation. Lukaku cuts inside; he shoots and scores.

The third goal starts with Mirallas wins the ball off of Bacary Sagna, which happens when you ask Sagna to advance the ball by dribbling. Now, the break is on. Barkley, who is already ahead of the play on Everton’s left, makes a run down the sideline. While he does not keep Mertesacker on him, his run prevents Mertesacker from ever committing to stopping Mirallas. Arteta cannot dream of catching up to Mirallas, meaning the Belgian has plenty of space and time to dribble, shoot, or make a pass. Vermaelen decides to focus on the man with the ball more than 25 meters from goal, and he is caught flat-footed as Naismith runs behind him. Mirallas plays the ball to Naismith, and Wojciech Szczesny comes off his line, successfully getting the ball away from Naismith. However, the ball falls in an ideal place for Mirallas to run onto the ball and score. Mertesacker and Arteta cannot accelerate quickly enough from their slow jogs to clear the danger. And Monreal, throughout all of this, is worried about his positioning relative to Lukaku, given the threat of the Belgian making a back post run. This prevents him from helping out his teammates on the play.

Two games, two completely different game plans, and both were effective. Whatever Roberto Martinez attempts to pull off on Saturday, there is a good chance it will be well thought out and effective.

What Arsenal May Want to Do

With Nacho Monreal starting at left-back, and Martinez aware that the Spaniard will start at left-back, he may look to isolate Lukaku on Monreal as much as possible. This may call for Lukaku taking up the wide forward role again and to make diagonal runs from a central position into the LCB/CB gap. If Everton do employ this tactic, Arsenal may wish to allocate another man to that territory, to help Monreal deal with the Belgian. Had Arteta not picked up an injury in Turkey, Arsene Wenger may have opted for a defensive box of Mertesacker-Koscielny; Flamini-Arteta. By having two deep-lying midfielders, one can help defend a wide area without leaving the area in front of the center backs unoccupied. Obviously this tactic has its downside, as having two players with a tendency to sit deep, can give the opponent’s deeper midfielders (probably McCarthy and a lucky-to-not-have-received-a-red-card-and-been-suspended-for-this-match Gareth Barry), though the absence of Ross Barkley would make this tactic less costly.

When it comes to defending wide forwards, Mathieu Debuchy’s ability and willingness to sweep behind his center backs may play a key role in this match. This is an advantage of having Debuchy at right-back over Sagna; however, Wenger may need to allocate even more resources to defend Everton, in these wide areas.

Wenger may choose to start Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out wide. Not only do both have the athleticism to recover from advanced positions and help out their fullbacks, they have also shown a willingness to do so. In particular, Sanchez is quite adept at defending his position, especially when it comes to pressing while simultaneously keeping a passing angle closed. Not only could fielding these two help the fullbacks combat the potential threat of wide forwards, but it could also help defend against attacking intentions of Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines. While this tactic would put them farther away from goal when Arsenal win possession, they do have the athleticism and the dribbling ability to still be threats on the counter. In fact, given Leighton Baines lack of recovery pace, Arsenal could look to draw the left-back forward, so to run into the space behind him on the counter.

Arsenal may also have to curb the advanced positioning of Aaron Ramsey. With Mesut Ozil possibly coming back into the side (who, by the way, was Arsenal’s best player by a considerable distance in the 1-1 draw at the Emirates) Ramsey probably does not need to play so close to goal for Arsenal to have the same level of attacking production. However, with Flamini probably playing as the holding midfielder, Arsenal need to allocate more resources defensively into the central midfield zone, compared to when Arteta plays. This also means that Ramsey must find his passing touch, which evaded him against Crystal Palace and Besiktas. Turnovers in central midfield could very easily turn into goal-scoring opportunities for Everton.

For those keeping score, it appears my preferred XI is Szczesny; Debuchy, Mertesacker (if match fit), Koscielny, Gibbs; Flamini, Ramsey; Sanchez, Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, X. When it comes to the center-forward position, the choice comes down to Wenger’s opinion on Giroud’s match fitness. The Frenchman has not played well to start the season. If he continues to play poorly, he can turn into a real liability, as his poor play would give Everton an incentive to push their back line further up the pitch. This would help them pin Arsenal into their own half.

Sure, Arsenal would have counter-attacking threats in Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain in my XI, but they may have quite a bit of defending to do, taking them further away from goal. Arsenal could position either further up the pitch, but then we run into another issue of trade-offs.

While there is a marginal benefit in attacking by having Sanchez or Oxlade-Chamberlain higher up the pitch (possibly in defending too, but defending high up the pitch has the potential to be high-variance which can make it undesirable depending on one’s preference and the incentives with respect to risk), the marginal cost (or at least of them) is the increased likelihood of 2-v-1 situations for Everton on the flanks.

Therefore, if Wenger does not feel that Giroud can provide a good performance against Everton, then Yaya Sanogo is the obvious choice, unless Wenger wants to start using Sanchez up top. Even if Sanogo does not perform well, he can provide a vertical threat that can allow Arsenal to keep Everton’s back line deeper, without having to risk pushing one of the wide men forward and playing a high risk game on the flanks.

Conclusion

In Chapter VI² of the Art of War Sun Tzu writes about how an army should operate in battle:

Thus I say that victory can be created. For even if the enemy is numerous, I can prevent him from engaging. Therefore, determine the enemy’s plans and you will know which strategy will be successful and which will not; agitate him and ascertain the pattern of his movement. Determine his dispositions and so ascertain the field of battle. Probe him and learn where his strength is abundant and where deficient. The ultimate in disposing one’s troops is to be without ascertainable shape. Then the most penetrating spies cannot pry in nor can the wide lay plans against you.

With Roberto Martinez’s flexibility in approach and with Arsenal going away to quality opponent, Arsenal may want to spend the first 10-15 minutes figuring out what the Toffees game plan is and play a more reactive game. If an opportunity to get forward on the counter presents itself it may be taken, but Arsenal must focus on not conceding and learning as much as they can about their opponent. They may also wish to not give anything away as they discover how to best attack Everton. It is fine to not win the game in the first 10-20 minutes. Football is a game of 90 minutes; you need to be able to solve the dynamic resource allocation problem as well as you can for the whole game.

Naveen — @njm1211

¹it was also their 2nd match in a 3 matches in a 7-day span that ended with a match against Napoli…they probably did not want to burn themselves out before a crucial match to help decide which team progressed out of the group.
²I have seen the chapter titled “Weaknesses and Strengths”, “Weak Points and Strong”, “Illusion and Reality” or “Vacuity and Substance” depending on the translation.

Ramsey-winner

Arsenal 2-1 Crystal Palace: fear of leg cramps

When was the last time you woke up in the middle of the night with a cramp? You know what I’m talking about, you’re lying there dreaming of Arsenal winning the League at Old Trafford, the players dancing in wild abandon, the ticker tape falling all around, and maybe in sympathetic rhythm your muscles start twitching as you dream that you’re dancing with Koscielny. Then before you know what hits you your calf is harder than knotted pine and you’re wide awake, screaming and stretching, praying that’s the only muscle that will cramp.

If you’ve ever had a night cramp, the second night cramp is always worse than the first because somewhere between the actual knot and the pain there’s a moment of sheer panic, you know what’s coming and you’re helpless to stop it. And even worse is that for weeks after your last cramp, you wake up periodically from your slumber, scared you’ll get another cramp.

I get the sense that for some folks, watching Arsenal is like those few weeks after your last leg cramp. You sit there, watching the game with a feeling of doom “they are playing well,” you’ll say “but I know Arsenal are going to concede now, probably off a set play.” Or “well, there went the chance, this game is lost, the season is lost, Wilshere is lost, Sanogo is lost, it’s all over, leg cramps take me away!”

I know because I was like that. I was conditioned by the Cesc era Arsenal and that feeling of inevitability that whenever Arsenal were playing a team that we were “supposed” to beat something would happen, Denilson would switch off, and some player who hasn’t scored a goal since St. Swithins day would kick in a wonder goal and we’d be crushed. Chiek Tiote, all those players from Spurs, they were all garbage on legs and yet they all scored on us in some unimaginable fashion. And it seemed to happen so often that the unimaginable became real.

So, it makes sense to carry that sense of doom for a while when watching Arsenal. Just like when you had a cramp and for the next week you live in fear of that cramp coming back. But I wonder how long we have to live in fear of the next Arsenal collapse?

For me, I stopped worrying about Arsenal cramps a while ago. I tried to pinpoint when it happened and I think it was the Bayern Munich away match, where Arsenal scrapped their way to a 2-0 win and came within a goal post of their own unthinkable result: beating Bayern 3-0 in Munich and advancing in the Champions League.

I say all that knowing that Arsenal can still collapse in spectacular fashion. As much as I wish I could blot out those losses to Chelsea, Man U, City, and Liverpool they are always going to be with me. But as I sat there watching Arsenal on Saturday I knew the whole time that they were going to win.

I knew they would win partly out of that sense of calm that they have given me but also because my rational mind told me that this team is chock full of talent. Arsenal started with Yaya Sanogo, a hard worker but hardly a polished center forward. In midfield, there was the trio of Arteta, Wilshere, and Ramsey all of whom seemed to lack a little bit of sharpness. On the wings there was Alexis and Cazorla, with the former looking like he wanted to do too much and the latter looking well off the boil, spraying passes all over the park to no one. And at the back, Arsenal are bedding in two new defenders, which is usually a recipe for disaster because defense is a team within a team and disrupting half that team almost always has dire consequences.

I’ve just given you every reason to think that team shouldn’t win, and yet, I saw that collection of talent and thought that of course they were going to win. Alexis is going to take time to get used to the speed and power of the English Premier League but you can already see that he’s one of the most talented players on the pitch. He’s going to pull off something brilliant at least once a game. Which is what he did, sailing in a cross that dipped perfectly for Koscielny to score the equalizer.

And in Aaron Ramsey Arsenal have a budding superstar. I lost count of how many times the pundits have said that Arsenal need a midfield powerhouse, someone who can dominate the game in the middle of the park. And I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said that they have that guy already and his name is Aaron Ramsey. He’s a tireless worker: tackling, positioning himself to take an errant pass, running without the ball, demanding the ball, looking to move the ball up the pitch, and since last year he has decided to add “scoring the game winning goal” to his overflowing tool kit. That’s what he did on Saturday, he scored the winner. Like he did in the FA Cup Final. And like he seems to be doing with some regularity now.

Sure, it was only Crystal Palace and sure they were missing their manager who left the club on the eve of the kickoff to their season. But Arsenal, for their part, were missing their record signing, the creative force in midfield, their starting center half and defensive rock, their starting center forward, and many of the players who were on the pitch looked sorely out of shape and clearly lacking that telepathic communication necessary for a team like Arsenal, a team dependent on slick passing and fluid movement, to break down a team like Palace who sit back and have little interest in actually playing a game of football.

But that’s what made me so calm. They were missing all those players and yet, they still had a team full of talent in almost every position and a team with a self belief generated by winning tough games like the 2-0 over Bayern and the FA Cup Final. So, of course they won.

Qq

Man at the match; Chary: Just deserts to time-wasting Palace served up by Arsenal

A long three months have passed since your humble scribe last made his way to Ashburton Grove and how the mood around the club and its supporters has changed. News of ManUre’s home defeat to Swansea brought a spring to my step as the much lauded, by the British media at least, Loius Van Butt Head (any fans of MTV of the 80′s and 90′s will know) started off his reign in calamitous fashion.

Walking up Gillespie Road

Walking up Gillespie Road

This is in no small measure due to this very significant addition to the in-stadium signeage.

Shove your nine years up ...

Shove your nine years up …

Of course this has been up for a while yet for those of us travelling to the Grove for the first time this season it’s worth highlighting.

I took my seat in the North Bank lower and guess who was a few rows in front ?

Bully

Bully

As the teams trundled out the only minor surprise was the selection of Sanogo ahead of Olly and as we attacked the Clock End goal away from me I saw very little of Sanogo’s efforts but he did appear to be a touch ineffectual.

Callum Chambers, however, confirmed his composed performances in the Emirates Cup were no fluke; whether he should be third or fourth choice centre back is the question for the rest of the season.

Very quickly it became apparent in the stands that the Palace manager’s hastily devised team tactic was ‘everyone behind the ball and defend in two banks of five.’ The Pulis stand-in’s dishevelled appearance on the touchline wreaked of a man who’s barely started the job and is in a bit of a muddle.

Smart manager, scruffy manager

Smart manager, scruffy manager

While Wenger was in a smart suit his counter part decided to try the “Brit on a beach holiday abroad” combo of t-shirt and shorts, nice.

As the Arsenal started to make inroads into the massed ranks of the opposition defence Alexis’ was the major threat with his quick starting, darting runs from deep. Granted, he sometimes overshot the final cross/pass but I could almost see the brown trails showing on the shorts of the opposing defenders. That’s what having pace in your attack does – it stops opposition defences sitting back as we no longer have to endlessly dilly dally laterally on the pitch.

Barely twenty five minutes into the game and Speroni, the Palace keeper, decided he would take his goal kicks with all the urgency of a baboon with hemorrhoids. This, allied to the 8-1-1 formation told you all you needed to know about the attitude of Pullis’ successor.

As expected with virtually their first upfield excursion, towards me in the North bank, a misplaced pass amongst our left flank defenders resulted in a corner which Palace duly scored from.

There was some talk around of me of why was Alexis marking the leviathan that is Hangaland however the team and supporters dusted themselves down and got on with the business of getting back into the game.

Arsenal pressed forward, predominantly on the right hand side where Debuchy and Alexis were combining together in the manner of team mates who had playing together for a season and not just a few weeks. it reminded me of our previous right sided partnership of Walcott and that French bloke we signed from Auxerre; what was his name again ?

On the stroke of half time a well deserved equaliser was headed in by Kozzer (from an Alexis free kick), who is popping up with important goals time and time again so the tone of the half time break would then take on a different flavour. I’ve always found the North Bank lower to have more than it’s fair share of pessimistic Gooners so it was good to hear that most felt confident of a winning goal coming up in the second half.

Soon after the second half kicked off Gibbs was subbed and Nacho came on; those saying he should be shipped out should take note of just how often Gibbs is injured and therefore why we need him as experienced back up. To my eyes he went on to have a good game and in fact our attacks on the left started to get better from his introduction onwards.

Soon after the initial flurry of attacks it became apparent that Palace were planning to hang onto the draw by slowing down play by a combination of Speroni’s slow motion goal kicks and assorted defenders collapsing with cramp to eat up more time. Sadly the referee was not keeping a lid on the time wasting and he let it go.

Other things worsened the mood of the home support, for example Arsenal were awarded a free kick they wanted to take quickly but as the referee turned his back a Palace midfielder kicked the ball away – a yellow card all day long, something the lino should have flagged to the referee but didn’t.

Something else that summed up Palace and their approach was when another delicate defender of theirs, Dann I think, was being subbed off, instead of walking straight off the pitch(of course he was proceeding at funereal pace) he not only didn’t take the shortest roue off the pitch, but he arced his walk as he approached the touchline and walked parallel to it so it took even longer for play to restart.

Earlier on just as Arsenal were about to take the corner the Pulis stand in decided to bring on a sub just then ! No waiting for a later break in play as is customary.

As full time approached Puncheon finally got his second yellow after a number of niggling fouls and we got the huge advantage of playing against ten men for a couple of minutes of normal time plus injury time.

Due to the time wasting already seen the five minutes of injury time flagged up was the minimum expected and Arsenal kept on pushing forward, but with renewed urgency.

Another attack resulted in a cross that Olly flicks on and just in front of the North Bank goal, yards from me. I can see someone swivel round to latch onto the flick. Next thing I know Speroni parries and somebody else has tapped in the rebound.

What relief and total justice that Palace concede a goal scored in injury time that their time wasting created.

The winning goal

The winning goal

Through the sea of arms I can just make out Rambo rushing to the corner flag to celebrate, the thing I notice most vividly is his fists pumping in triumph, fist pumps of vitality and strength, not the “couldn’t break a wet paper bag” fist pumps of our dear manager.

By now my row of the North bank lower has taken on the character of a thrash metal mosh pit as the delirious celebrations resulted in yours truly being hurled several seats to the right.

How sweet an injury time winner is and how different the mood at this seasons opening fixture compared to lasts.

UTA !

By ChärybdÏß1966 (on Twitter @charybdis1966)