By Naveen Maliakkal
Aston Villa’s 4-5-1
While Paul Lambert has experimented with various strategies, tactics, and formations during his time as the manager of Aston Villa, I believe that the approach he employed away to Liverpool represents his most probable approach for Saturday’s match.
Against Liverpool, Aston Villa set up in a 4-5-1-0 with the intention of frustrating Liverpool and looking to hit them on the counter-attack. Aston Villa looked to force Liverpool into possession and defended in their own half so to eliminate Liverpool’s greatest assets —their pace on the counter— this allows Villa to quickly allocate attacking resources into advantageous positions, often in situations that lead to 1-on-1 matchups, which simplify the dynamic resource allocation problem. It also forced Liverpool to become a possession-based side. With their poor ball circulation, poor player positioning and movement, and some of their players’ desire to settle for speculative shots from distance (cough *Gerrard* cough), Liverpool struggle to solve even these more complex dynamic resource allocation problems in possession. Without Daniel Sturridge available and with Raheem Sterling on the bench, Liverpool could not rely on the individual brilliance of their superstars to break Aston Villa’s defense.
Liverpool’s ineptitude against deep-defending sides, combined with their willingness to push both of their fullbacks forward, helped Aston Villa maximize the effectiveness of their limited attacking resources, as they could create a 1-on-1 for Gabby Agbonlahor against one of Liverpool’s center backs, with plenty of space into which he could run, often looking to drag his marker into a wide area. This allowed one of his teammates to exploit the space the center back vacated. While they did not score from open play, they scored from a set piece¹, they certainly had the right game plan for this match.
Specifically, what makes Aston Villa interesting is that they completely ignored Liverpool’s center backs when Liverpool had possession. With the likes of Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren at center back, Villa had no reason to fear giving Liverpool time and space at the back. Without a true playmaking center back, all the center backs accomplished in possession was to slow down the tempo and ruin any attacking rhythm Liverpool had. This is why a player like Gerard Pique, Leonardo Bonucci, Mats Hummels, or David Luiz is so valuable for a possession-based side, as it reduces the opponent’s incentive to concentrate its defensive resources in areas closer to their goal, helping to open up space for the rest of the team.
Aston Villa’s lack of fear of Sakho and Lovren allowed them to use Gabby Agbonlahor as a man marker against Steven Gerrard. While no one would confuse Steven Gerrard with Andrea Pirlo, Liverpool do rely on his forward passing, especially if a midfielder like Phillipe Coutinho stays high up the pitch instead of switching positions with Gerrard. Agbonlahor’s tight marking, combined with Gerrard’s lack of mobility and close control, forced the Liverpool captain to make plenty of passes back to his center backs or to Jordan Henderson, slowing Liverpool’s play and allocating the ball to less dangerous players.
Behind Agbonlahor, Tom Cleverly (who seems at his best in a reactive side) and Fabian Delph looked to press Liverpool’s midfielders, turn them over, and often looked to play the ball long, either to a winger running into the space behind one of the fullbacks or to Agbonlahor making a center-to-wide run from his withdrawn position (withdrawn for a center forward). With three Aston Villa players (the two midfielders and Agbonlahor) defending the midfield base pair of Gerrard and Henderson, Villa could cut off the supply into the attacking front. With Villa’s wingers tracking Liverpool’s fullbacks and Aston Villa’s fullbacks playing narrowly to help Ashley Westwood defend the space in between the midfield and the back line, Villa had everything in place to contain Liverpool.
What Liverpool failed to do in that match was rotate in midfield (swap positions and roles among their midfielders) which would have allowed them to punish Gabby Agbonlahor’s man marking of Steven Gerrard. Had Gerrard looked to move up the pitch and Coutinho dropped deep, Gerrard may have dragged Aston Villa’s center forward with him, reducing Villa’s potency on the counter by forcing a misallocation of resources. If Agbonlahor decided to mark the space instead of the man, then Gerrard can potentially find some freedom, with Coutinho occupying Agbonlahor’s zone, allowing him to dictate the play from a different area on the pitch.
While Arsenal do not rely on either Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini as a playmaker, rotation in midfield could at the very least make Agbonlahor’s defensive task much more difficult. As a center forward, he probably does not have the experience or the ability to solve difficult resource allocation problems with respect to the defensive side of the game. By rotating, they can help to reduce the pressure on their midfield, as it may reduce Agbonlahor’s zeal in closing down an Arsenal midfielder as he may have left a space open for another. The best result for Arsenal may be that midfield rotation pulls Agbonlahor further away from goal, especially if they want to push both fullbacks up the pitch.
Keep Men Back or Press: Choose at Least One
Arsenal have gotten quite a bit of heat for pushing both of their fullbacks high up the pitch. With Arsenal often looking to keep their attackers somewhat close, to facilitate quicker ball movement in the final third (the farther apart the players are the farther passes have to travel to get to them). This puts an onus on the fullbacks to provide wide outlets, which prevents the opponent from concentrating their defensive resources on defending the center of the pitch by narrowing their back line. So there is value in having one’s fullbacks high up the pitch. The question, as always, is whether that value is worth the cost.
With the likes of Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta comprising a 2+1 defensive unit at the back with Laurent Koscielny, it does not seem ideal to leave either on an island. Neither looks comfortable defending in wide areas nor are they elite 1-on-1 defenders. With all that space to play the ball into, the value of Metresacker’s or Arteta’s ability to read the game, anticipate the pass, and intercept it or make a challenge decreases, as the pass they anticipate can be played far enough away that they cannot cover the space in time. In this case, keeping at least one of the fullbacks deep seems like a sensible way to decrease the amount of space to play the ball into. Even 2010-11 Barcelona, a team with the marauding Dani Alves on the right, often played Eric Abidal on the left, as a sitting fullback, forming a back three behind Sergio Busquets. Against a side like Aston Villa, who lack pinpoint passers, but have plenty of players who can run into space and win speed or strength battles, keeping a fullback deep could go a long way in helping Arsenal win this game, either by limiting the effectiveness of the few resources Aston Villa look to deploy in attack or by forcing them to shift resources from defending toward attacking. One can always look to create width with the forward line instead.
However, what Arsenal should probably implement is some system of counter-pressing, regardless of whether they want to keep a fullback deep. It seems like the most important moments in a football match are the moments once a side loses possession, and Arsenal tend to have this maddening passivity with the way they defend their opponent’s transitions. This passivity, combined with pushing up both fullbacks, leaves Arsenal rather easy to play through, allowing their opponent to create 1-on-1 matchups or run into acres of space behind the fullback. Counter-pressing allows Arsenal to better defend the transition.
Now, to be clear, counter-pressing is a specific type of pressing, used to win possession back after it has been lost. Counter-pressing allows a team like Arsenal to win possession back quickly after it is lost, allows them to win the ball back in advantageous positions (positions closer to goal and/or with an opponent who has broken their defensive structure to counter-attack) making it a potent creator of goal-scoring opportunities, and helps a team maintain control of the match without possession.
There are different flavors of counter-pressing that can involve swarming the ball carrier, like 1970s Ajax or the 1974 Dutch side, though this may be problematic as it can lead to open passing lanes (very good idea if you wish to target someone who is utterly inept on the ball).
If you have a super holding midfielder who is a master of the intercepting foot², then a team may look to extract value from that skill by pressing the ball carrier, closing down some of the passing lanes, and leaving other passing lanes open. These “safe” passing lanes give the ball carrier an “out” but unless the pass is well hit (hard to do under pressure), the holding midfielder can anticipate, intercept, and launch the team forward. This is why the holding midfielder often has to be the player with the most intelligence, technical ability, vision, and understanding of the entire shape of the play. A player who cannot read the game, anticipate the pass, and understand the best path to the ball fails too often at making the interception, making it too easy to play through this kind of counter-pressing. A player without technical ability, vision, and an understanding of team shape cannot make that quick pass to open up the opposition, making the transition too slow, giving the opponent more of a chance to allocate their defensive resources properly.
If you have the athleticism and fitness to pull it off, along with a lack of a super-duper holding midfielder, a team may opt for a swarming counter-press, where multiple players look to converge on the ball carrier. These pressers will take routes to the ball that eliminate many passing lanes, and often look to leave any open spaces or passing lanes in wide areas. If a pass is made into the wide area, the pressers move to swarm the new man on the ball, using the sideline as an extra defender, while the rest of the team shifts ball-side. So even if the team cannot win the ball back initially, they set themselves up to pin their opponent to the sideline and tighten the vice.
If a team lacks the athleticism to commit defensive resources high up the pitch consistently or has a general risk-aversion (failure in the previous three types can lead to a lot of open space to exploit), but has the physicality and tackling ability to make life tough for their opponent, then maybe you opt to send a man at the ball-carrier (or two if there is a decent chance he could beat one marker), and mark all the nearby passing options. This means that the team will have less of a chance to make an interception, lowering their ability to quickly transition from winning to possession to attacking. However, it does allow them to challenge the receivers of the pass, allowing them to utilize their physicality and tackling ability to stifle their opponent and win the ball.
Now with all these systems of counter-pressing, there has to be an understanding of how to play with the ball to set-up the counter-press. Essentially, a team that wants to counter-press must build their playing style around it. If the team plays with a very wide shape in attack, it is difficult to counter-press as the players have to travel long distances to either attack the ball-carrier, close down dribbling lanes, close down passing lanes, or mark passing options. Ultimately, the team’s shape in possession must compliment a counter pressing philosophy so that when possession is lost, the players are already in good possession to win it back. This takes a lot of time and training to get right. However, if Arsenal want to get to the next level, especially with this 4-1-4-1 formation, they need to figure out how they will look to attack the opposition immediately after possession is lost. Hopefully, we will see signs of this transformation at Villa Park.
A Ricardian Explanation for Playing Mesut Ozil from Out Wide
To be clear, this is not a statement of agreement with the use of Mesut Ozil from out wide, just an explanation. But first, we have to go back to the work of David Ricardo. As Arsenal Letters pointed out in the comments section of the Manchester City preview, I gave a oversimplified look at David Ricardo’s views on specialization. His greatest insight was not that we should specialize and trade, but how to determine who should specialize. What Ricardo determined, which may seem counter-intuitive, is that the person who should specialize in a task does not necessarily have to be the person who is the best at the task, but it should be the person who can operate in the role at the least cost, particularly the least opportunity cost³.
For example, let’s say it takes Tim 20 hours to make a jar of honey and 8 hours to make a jar of peanut butter, and it takes Naveen 100 hours to make a jar of honey and 10 hours to make a jar of peanut butter. Tim is much better than me making both honey and peanut butter. In fact, looking at all the things produced by the producers, Tim absolutely kills at making peanut butter. Assuming we create the same product and the products are of equal value, how should we specialize to produce the most value? We could have Tim make peanut butter and Naveen make honey. In 100 hours, Tim makes 12.5 jars of peanut butter and Naveen makes 1 jar of honey, for a total of 13.5 units of stuff. However, we can do better. If Tim produces honey instead of peanut butter, the cost is 7.5 jars of stuff/100 hrs (can produce 5 jars of honey at an opportunity cost of 12.5 jars of peanut butter). If Naveen produces honey instead of peanut butter, the cost is 9 jars of stuff/100 hrs (can produce one jar of honey at the cost of 10 jars of peanut butter. Therefore, we should have Naveen produce peanut butter and Tim produce honey, even though Tim’s peanut butter producing ability is better than any producer’s ability to produce any good, in this two-producer/two-good world. In this scenario, Tim produces 5 jars of honey and Naveen produces 10 jars of peanut butter, for a total of 15 jars of stuff, an increase in productivity of 1.5 jars. So by looking to minimize opportunity cost, instead of allocating Tim to do what he is best at, we have produced more with our scarce resources.
If Arsene Wenger has a desire to play Wilshere, Ramsey, and Ozil together in a 4-1-4-1, then one can argue that the decision to play Ozil from out wide speaks more to Wenger’s faith in Ozil out wide or his lack of faith in Wilshere or Ramsey to play from wide. It does not have to do with the absolute ability of Ozil in the center of the pitch, who is the superior option in an advanced central role of the three. It has to do with the drop off between Ozil central/Ozil wide being smaller than the drop off between Wilshere central/Wilshere wide and Ramsey central/Ramsey wide, creating the perception that Ozil should be the one “sacrificed” to get these players on the pitch at the same time. This goes with Ozil’s greatest ability, to operate as an attacking balancer, someone whose movement and positioning helps to create space for other players, a role that no one on this Arsenal team plays well (you will not see him stay wide in a match; he moves into whatever space he can to exploit it or create space elsewhere for others). So, if Wenger is going to play Wilshere and Ramsey, who like to operate in similar spaces, about 20-40 meters from goal, along with Welbeck and Sanchez, who like to drop into similar spaces from time to time, he needs a player like Ozil who can refrain from parking himself in the center of the pitch, and looks to do what is best for the attacking shape4.
Once again, this is not an endorsement of playing Ozil out wide, playing a 4-1-4-1, or trying to squeeze Ramsey, Ozil, and Wilshere onto the same pitch with forwards who come short, in addition to going long. It is not even an endorsement of the idea that the drop-off between Ozil central/Ozil wide being smaller than the drop off between Wilshere central/Wilshere wide and Ramsey central/Ramsey wide. It is just a possible explanation as to why Wenger has opted for this path.
Follow Naveen on twitter @njm1211
¹They scored on a set-piece where Liverpool man-marked about as poorly as one can man mark…more often than not, set-piece defense comes down to execution and not the system.
²like Daniel Baier…a player Arsenal should probably consider as a short-term holding midfielder option
³for a really good explanation of Ricardo’s insights and a look at specialization you can listen to, go here
4a player like Cesc Fabregas in this set-up would add to the issue of too many players looking to play in the same space in an attempt to impose his on-the-ball ability on the match