Tag Archives: Premier league

Arsenal v. WBA: Perfidy on a Thursday Night

All right you negative nancies, there are just five games left of this abominable season and then we can all go hiking*. That means just five games left for us to say things like “we have to put this right” and “Man City handed Arsenal a real opportunity there by dropping points.” And only five games left for Wenger to say things like,

“Our job is to give absolutely the maximum until the last day of the season. You expect that from ambitious, professional football players.

We have values at this club that we respect and that we have to respect until the last minute of the season.”

He is right, we have values at this club and have to give maximum effort in every game as the season winds down. Anything less would be, well, it would be sort of like what happened against Crystal Palace the other day.

I watched Adrian Clarke’s breakdown and he made some interesting points (which we will get to in a second) but the biggest one for me was that Arsenal looked a bit lethargic. Welbeck in particular didn’t get service, when he did get service “the ball didn’t stick”, add to that the fact that he didn’t make his usual runs. This allowed Palace to park the bus, forcing Ozil to collect in deep areas where he was less effective.

Clarke ended the piece by suggesting that Arsenal will regret not creating more after Palace scored — they took just 1 shot (Gabriel header) in the last 12 minutes of the game. In essence, Arsenal looked like a team already on vacation.

Wenger’s quote above was made in his pre-match presser and sounded like a speech to the players. Like “yes, you are disappointed, we all are, but we have to finish the season strong.” And he’s right, Arsenal could easily drop into the Europa League places if they aren’t careful here. So, as I said at the outset, it’s a good thing Man City dropped two points because it gives Arsenal a little chance to get back ahead of them in the race for the top four. However, that’s going to be a tough call because if the players are on vacation, the fans seem to be ready to join them and Arsenal need all the support they can get right now.

There are a number of supporters who are planning on staying home Thursday and there is a sense that despite the announced “sellout” of the game the stands will look like a Serie A match. This is being billed as a “protest” but it’s not. There are a few angry voices glomming on to a weird series of events and pretending that they are doing something meaningful.

There are going to be a lot of empty seats because: there is a planned train strike, the game is on a Thursday night, the game will be on telly, the season feels like it is over, fans are burned out on this team, and some people will be protesting.

Don’t get me wrong, I support people protesting the team. If they are that angry, they should get together, form a platform, and make some demands. If the demands aren’t met, then start a series of direct actions – walking out of games, not going to games, not watching games on TV, not buying shirts, not clicking on the dot com, not renewing your season ticket, unfollowing the official news feed on Twitter, and so on. That’s how protests work.

The few people who will be protesting with their undefined platform of zero demands will naturally try to make this into a bigger event than it is. Arsenal will not be impressed. Like I said, you have to have some organization to these things if you want to make real change. Undefined rage almost never gets answered.

I’m not saying that the game won’t be weird. I do think that there will be a lot of empty seats and for the few who do attend the fan atmosphere at the Arsenal right now is downright toxic. There you have it, Arsenal’s players look like they have one foot in Ibiza and they are about to play a tough game in front of a hostile home crowd. Should be fun.

And let’s not underestimate what Tony Pulis’ West Brom will look to do. If Crystal Palace parked the bus (and they did), Pulis will park the bus and have his players “put themselves about a bit” (meaning foul foul foul). As Wenger put it,

“They are a team who are very physical, very committed and are very well organised. They don’t concede many goals so it is a difficult proposal for us.”

Pulis’ WBA have kept 21 clean sheets in his first 51 games in charge. That is how he coaches his teams to play football. That is what Arsenal face.

Clarke pointed to a number of problems in the Crystal Palace game which Arsenal will have to overcome again in this one. One of the big ones that he spoke of right off the bat is that Arsenal lacked midfield runners: players making a late run into the box. I think this was aimed at Ozil because later in the broadcast he pointed out that Ozil played too deep and that he would like to see Ozil closer to Welbeck to support the striker.

But Tim Stillman wondered (on Twitter) whether Wenger might start Ramsey along with Elneny to give Arsenal that extra runner that Clarke wanted. It’s a good shout. Wenger brought Ramsey on in the last 10 minutes of the Palace game probably because he saw exactly that problem. It didn’t really work but it could presage Arsene doing the same again.

The only problem with playing Ramsey and Elneny is that it leaves Arsenal vulnerable to counter attacks. Clarke also pointed out that Gabriel probably should have fouled Adebayor early in the build-up to the Palace goal, rather than letting him run 60 yards into the heart of the Arsenal final third. If Arsenal play without Coquelin, they will need to be more cynical in those counters. They can’t give Berahino time and space to run with the ball.

To end on a high note, there were two things that I liked from that Palace game. The first was Alexis Sanchez finally getting behind the opposition’s defense. He’s been forced to drop deep and create for others for most of the season and I love seeing him playing as a striker more. Let’s hope this wasn’t like that one time Santi Cazola got a hat trick from doing the same thing and then next game went back to playing deeper.

The other was that cute little training ground corner that Arsenal did. It was a neat little short corner, where Coquelin makes a late run and then scoops a ball over to Iwobi. I love to see more of that kind of stuff. That’s the kind of thing your team does when they are having fun playing football.

How was that for a match preview? Did I cover all the bases? I didn’t talk about Wilshere because I don’t care if he’s healthy for the last few games. That’s just practice for his national team, kinda like what he did last year. I am excited to get Cazorla back — his injury is almost certainly why Arsenal didn’t win the League this season. But Cazorla’s probably not going to be fully ready for a few more weeks.


*Until the forests catch on fire because of all the global warming and lack of rainfall in the PNW

Leicester serve up a season worth savoring

Leicester City are going to win the League and are going to break the triopoly of Man U, Man City, and Chelsea. It’s going to be a dream come true to see Cesc Fabregas giving Claudio Ranieri a guard of honor. Especially since Ranieri was fired by Chelsea in order to bring in the Mourinho era.

Since I have been writing this blog only three teams have won the League. Those three teams have spent the most money on transfers and wages and essentially built the model of spend, spend, spend.

Before the arrival of Chelsea and Man City, Arsenal were the team that broke the mould. We were the team that didn’t spend, that sold our players for enormous prices to Spain*, that bought cheap and sold high, and who had a large salary but certainly nothing like what Ferguson had at Man U. That’s not to say that Arsenal weren’t a big team, we were the famous Arsenal, but rather that in those days a team could challenge for the League without spending obscene amounts of money.

And I mean obscene. For example, in the 2003/04 Invincibles season, Arsenal had the third highest wage at £70m and the second highest transfer spend with £16m.  In the previous title winning season 2001/02 Arsenal had the second highest wage bill at £61m and the 8th highest transfer spend with £11m. There were plenty of teams spending money in those years — Man U, Chelsea, Leeds, and Liverpool were up there with Arsenal in total spend — but no one was doing what Chelsea would do starting in the Abramovich era; spend 10x the transfer money of any other team and double the wages.

Manchester United quickly followed suit and 5 years later Manchester City added their oily money to the pot and for the last 11 seasons the three biggest spending teams have won the League.

Until this season.

Leicester have a team that are well organized, they play as a team, their players are ambitious, and they play to their strengths. Leicester have also largely escaped injury, they are finishing at above normal rates, and they have gotten the benefit (early in the season) of referees calls, especially penalties, but none of those facts are abnormal for a title winning team.

Leicester have followed a simple formula for success. They don’t over complicate their system and they don’t ask players to play in ways that they can’t. For example, Robert Huth is not a ball playing center back so Leicester don’t try to build from the center back position. Their center backs are also not fast, so they don’t try to play high up the pitch where they would be exposed. They also have some of the fastest players in the League in Vardy and Mahrez so they play compact, simple football which plays exactly into the strengths of their star players, Mahrez, Vardy, Kante, Drinkwater, and Huth. This is basic stuff, I know, but there are a lot of teams who try to complicate football unnecessarily.

As for injury, there are some that want to sully Leicester’s injury record with insinuations that they are doping. We don’t have evidence of that but we do know that they have a dedicated team of physios who test pitch conditions and set up practices to maximize success. They also didn’t have to play in Europe which made their season simpler and in this all important post-Christmas period they have only played 16 matches whereas Arsenal have played 20. It’s also not that unheard of for a team to field a small team: Chelsea, for example, only used 20 players last season, just 1 more than Leicester this season. United used 23 players two years ago, Man City 21 players three years ago, United 21 in 2008, and so on.

As for their finishing, I have been looking at scoring percentages for years and I have detailed data back to 2008. I can confidently say that the top teams always finish at above normal rate. Leicester are actually not converting at a historically high rate. Their bulk conversion (minus pens) is just 11%, tied with Arsenal, West Ham, and Everton. Last season’s winners were highly efficient: scoring 13% of their total shots. And for two seasons prior to that we actually saw the winning teams convert 14% of their total shots.

The other accusation I see a lot is that Leicester have been awarded too many penalties. But 10 penalties in a season isn’t at all unusual for a title winning team — Liverpool had 12 in their title challenge season, Chelsea had 11 in 2012/13, Chelsea 12 in 2009/10, etc.

Most fans are suggesting that Leicester got lucky this season and some fans are even saying that this is the worst Premier League season ever. Both of those things ring true. Next season Chelsea will have Conte in charge, Man City will have Pep Guardiola, and Man U will probably have Mourinho. All of those teams are going to spend money to bring in new players that fit the systems that their managers want them to play. All of those teams are going to be supremely organized. And Chelsea will also not have the burden of Champions League football.

In addition, there are several up and coming teams: Liverpool are looking like a team with an interesting new identity, Tottenham play a good brand of football, and even West Ham are starting to look like a team that could challenge for 4th place.

And starting next season teams are going to reap an additional £35-40m a season in television revenue.

The League is changing. Teams are getting wealthier and will be able to attract more players like Mahrez and Kante. We are going to see all the games get more difficult from top to bottom. But the question is “will we ever see another team like Leicester win the League?” Do the fundamental changes to the Premier League mean that every team has a chance to win the League if they do what Leicester has done and play to their strengths?

I doubt it. This looks like a one-off, like Leicester were just in the right place at the right time. And if that’s the case, we as fans of football should savor this moment. Because if I’m right, the Premier League is about to revert back to the triopoly of Man U, Man City, and Chelsea winning the title every season.


*Wenger’s magic in the Spanish market is amazing: the sales of Overmars, Petit, Hleb, Song, and Vermaelen more than make up for the cheap prices we got for Cesc and Henry.


Arsenal’s disorganized mess lose the lead to a corn bun

The Good

Arsenal scored two unanswered goals early in the game as Slaven Bilic got his tactics all wrong and conceded Arsenal tons of space in the middle of the pitch.

You can see how much space Arsenal had for their first goal in this image:

West Ham-space

West Ham had failed to clear after fouling Monreal (you can see Monreal on the ground in the penalty box, still appealing for a penalty). The ball came to Elneny and he headed to Coquelin. Coquelin picks out Iwobi, who makes a move, and releases Özil. Özil still has work to do but finishes nicely to put Arsenal up 1-0.

It was a familiar play for the second Arsenal goal as well. Coquelin was literally in a bubble with no defender around him. He will never get that much space in a game of 11v11 again and when you look at this screen cap, note how much space Elneny and Bellerin are given as well (to Coquelin’s right). I can’t remember a time in an Arsenal match when I’ve seen a team simply let Arsenal’s center mids play without challenging them.


Coquelin actually plays the ball in to the one player who is covered by four defenders, Iwobi. Thankfully Iwobi deals with the pressure and finds Alexis flying in behind the defenders at the top of the screen. Iwobi played a perfect ball over the top and Alexis collected and scored unmarked.

Allexis now has two goals in two games and has 5 assists and 2 goals in the last 7 games, since being rested against Watford in the FA Cup.

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic looked at the start of that match and realized that his 3-4-2-1 formation was allowing too much space in midfield and at half time, switched to a more conventional 4-4-2.

The Bad

But Bilic never did ask his team to pressure Arsenal in the middle. Here is the heat map for the game and you can see, just like in the images captured from the game, that West Ham didn’t contest the middle of the pitch:

West Ham-heat

From the very start you could see that West Ham’s game plan was to play crosses in from wide positions and use Carroll’s size advantage over Arsenal’s fullbacks.

Wets ham first

West Ham scored their first goal on a counter attack. With Carroll and Payet clear in space (bottom, left), a poor cross is played to Payet, allowing Bellerin (who is playing high up on right) to recover and stop Payet playing directly to Carroll.

But what Bilic wanted to do with the 3-5-2 formation is exactly what happened: Arsenal’s forwards failed to track Cresswell’s run (bottom, right of the screen) and Cresswell puts in a cross with almost no pressure.

West hams second

Given hundreds of yards of space, Cresswell has options: he could dribble into the box, he could play Payet in, or he could pick out a cross. He sees two West Ham players attacking the penalty spot and chooses the cross. Expected Goals tells us that this is a low percentage pass/shot but what happens here is that Kouyate (above Carroll) makes a run to take away Koscielny. Carroll then makes an end run around and gets in front of Monreal, who will be kicking himself for letting the striker get ball side, and Carroll scores a good header.

West Ham’s second goal was probably a bit lucky/unlucky: Arsenal fail to clear a corner, West Ham collect, put in a hopeful cross, Carroll manages to stay on side, chests the ball down, has his first shot blocked, and hits the second in off the volley.

For West Ham’s third, Arsenal actually seemed to learn the lesson of the first. Monreal is tight with Antonio and Arsenal have a good line and balance across the back. There is an overload behind Bellerin with Payet but that won’t come into play. Antonio just beats Monreal in the 1-on-1 and stand up the cross. Bellerin stays in front of Carroll, like he should, but Carroll has 6″ advantage over Bellerin and simply beats him to the cross.

It still takes a bit of luck to go in, it looks like Arsenal’s goalkeeper, Ospina, has the header covered, but Arsenal Center Back, Gabriel, steps in front of Ospina and heads the ball into the top of the net.

Fans have asked what Per Mertesacker could have added to the game, but unless Arsene was going to play Per in the fullback position, that answer is “not much”.

Another feature of this match was West Ham pressuring Arsenal. Arsenal had 32 turnovers on 744 touches in this game. In contrast, Arsenal only forced West Ham into 13 turnovers on 524 touches. Arsenal had a turnover per 23 touches and West Ham had one every 40 touches. I went back and looked at all the Arsenal matches this season and I can’t see any pattern to the number of turnovers by Arsenal making a difference in the game but this match was one of the worst of the season in terms of the turnover ratio, -17. The other matches with a similar turnover ratio were Chelsea -16 (1-0), Liverpool -19 (3-3), Newcastle -18 (1-0 win by Arsenal which many said was lucky), and Man City -15 (2-1 win which again many said was lucky).

The Ugly


There is the hat trick hero: cornrows and a man bun, a corn bun. I can’t think of much uglier than that.

On the Arsenal side, I am growing worried about the visual displays by Özil. He is now throwing his hands up on a lot of offensive possessions and looks frustrated with his teammates.

Tottenham won today, Leicester won this morning, and the title race is officially over now, folks. In truth it was over months ago. Watch any of the teams above us and you can see teams that are organized and able to hold onto leads. Leicester have now won four in a row 1-0. They were supposed to fall apart but instead they have actually solidified and played better than earlier in the season. Meanwhile Tottenham have solidified a position above Arsenal with a 3-0 win over Man U today in another great late season performance. And Arsenal have now climbed into 2nd place in terms of teams who have dropped points from a winning position (behind Liverpool).

These aren’t things to be ashamed of. These are targets for Arsenal.