Tag Archives: Premier league


Naveen’s highly leveraged one sentence tactical preview: Arsenal v. Southampton

By Naveen Maliakkal

With Morgan Schneiderlin fit, Southampton would probably play their 4-3-3, which turns into a 4-5-1 when they do not have the ball. However, against Manchester City, they tended to look more like a 4-1-4-1 defensive side. This may have had to do with City’s ability and willingness to exploit the space in front of the back four. In response to this threat, Southampton’s two midfielders have license to press City’s two midfielders, which worked quite well since City had gone with their half-space seeking 4-4-2, albeit without their best half-space exploiter. Schneiderlin played a key role as a presser, helping to shut down City’s midfield. With him in the lineup, Southampton do and can rely on the pressure their midfield can put on the opposition.

Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mane would track the fullbacks, which meant that Zabaleta tended to occupy Tadic, while Mane had some more freedom to press City’s midfield from a wide area. His time at Red Bull Salzburg shows. Playing under the current Bayer Leverkusen manager, Roger Schmidt, Mane seems to understand how to press to provide value for Southampton. While they did concede a penalty that did not get called, they seemed to have the better of the first half with this approach.

Without Schneiderlin, Southampton lost control of the match against City. Clearly, Southampton rely on the Frenchman more than any other player as he provides defensive balance and has a keen ability to both occupy space and deal with the dynamic nature of a football match.

A loss of such magnitude has the potential to force a rethink by any club. Also, Southampton have only played one top English side under Ronald Koeman. Therefore, it will be difficult to predict how Southampton will go about this fixture.

In this respect, Southampton’s shape without the ball could reveal something about how they wish to control space against Arsenal. While they did go with a one down-two up in their last match, with Victor Wanyama in the “down” role, City only had two central midfielders. Therefore, Schneiderlin and Stephen Davis could press the two midfielders, helping to cut City in two, aiding in isolating City’s half-space attackers from the ball. This presented itself as a kind of 4-1-4-1; Mane and Tadic often found themselves level with the higher midfield line.

If Koeman has a real concern about Arsenal’s ability to exploit the space in front of the back line and does not respect the ability of Arsenal’s deeper-positioned players on the ball, then Southampton could present as a kind of tight 4-5-1, with Pelle up top, freed from defensive responsibility, acting as a target man. Again, they will look to apply pressure once the ball enters midfield, but from a deeper defensive position.

With Arsenal probably looking to play a trio in midfield in a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 formation, Southampton could opt for an aggressive, higher-pressing 4-2-3-1, with Wanyama and Jack Cork operating as two sixes and Steven Davis operating ahead of them. Tadic and Mane would look to press the fullbacks, while Pelle and Davis would work to prevent the ball from moving from wide areas, back to the center, in an effort to control that space.

When they defend deeper, they do shift their team ball side quite a bit. Against City, this led to the right side becoming congested. Had City circulated possession better and had a half-space attacking left-back, they could have caused major problems for Southampton. Therefore, the ideal way of possession play against Southampton seems to involve moving the ball to one side, remaining compact in possession to circulate possession, in addition to improving a potential counter/gegen-press¹, creating that space on the weak side, moving the ball to the weak side before the defense can flow to that side, allowing the side to control a more advantageous attacking space.

This could lead to Arsenal clustering on the left, with Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, Danny Welbeck, and Aaron Ramsey/Alexis Sanchez interacting on that side. This could give Ramsey/Sanchez, whoever occupies the right/right-center space and Calum Chambers plenty of space to exploit.

Now such a manner of playing would have a greater chance of success if either Kieran Gibbs or Nacho Monreal play. If either is fit, then Arsenal’s ability to move Southampton around immensely improves. However, if Mathieu Flamini has to play at left-back, Arsenal lack the quality on the ball or the advanced positioning necessary to exploit the space, as Flamini probably opts to stay with his back line.

They also need someone to operate in holding midfield. This could involve playing Aaron Ramsey or Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain in that role, with instructions to play a reserved role, as Chamberlain did in the season finale against Newcastle, two seasons ago. It could also involve playing Calum Chambers as a holding midfielder, with Hector Bellerin at right-back. Either way, it seems that Arsenal will have to hope that someone can adapt to a novel position, if both left backs cannot play.

In possession, Southampton seem set to suffer due to the absence of Schneiderlin. Although he does not operate defensively as the deepest midfielder, he often drops deep to receive the ball and build Southampton’s attacks from the back. Jack Cork would probably function in this capacity, if he plays. While he does not have the dynamism of Schneiderlin, he does offer Southampton a sure presence on the ball.

However, if Toby Alderweireld has to operate in midfield instead, then Southampton will struggle to build from the back. With center backs and deeper midfielders, who lack the quality to successfully build attacks from the back, Arsenal’s high pressing, despite its obvious flaws² could create problems for the Saints. Also, if they stay sufficiently compact in possession, Southampton, with this midfield, could struggle to move the ball against a potential counter-press.

Another thing to observe from the City match is that Southampton do not counter attack as well as one would expect. Even with the likes of Pelle, operating in a similar role to Olivier Giroud, Schneiderlin, Davis, and Tadic, do not seem to make the best decisions as to when to dribble and when to pass. This limits their ability to exploit forward space quickly, allowing a team to transition into their defensive shape or to better counter-press the Saints. While Arsenal will probably not transition into a deeper defensive phase as quickly as City or keep as many men back, and may not look to counter-press like they should, such ineffectiveness on the counter could lead to Southampton failing to exploit spaces that Arsenal concede in possession.

Southampton also have problems in possession, particularly with their desire for width. Despite having two inverted players in Tadic and Mane, Koeman wants his teams to cross the ball quite a bit. They average a league high 29 crosses per game. This desire to work the ball wide, and cross the ball into the box, may explain why they have attempted 8% of their shots in the six-yard box, 55% in the 18 yard box, and only 37% from outside of the box, the third-lowest percentage in the English Premier League.

Such an approach has problems in containing counter-attacks. Emphasizing width and forward movement of possession can lead to too many turnovers with a team shape that is too spread out. Saido Mane’s inconsistent control of the ball can exacerbate the turnovers issue.  With such a wide formation, there exists too much ground to cover in order to put adequate pressure on the ball and shut off passing lanes. By the time they could do either, the opponent has probably already moved the ball into more advantageous spaces, bypassed defenders, and is well on their way to creating a quality shot.

This problem comes to the forefront when Southampton have to chase a result later in the game. Koeman will probably remove a midfielder and bring on someone like Shane Long. This leads to Southampton looking like a 4-2-4 side. Late in the game, it seems unreasonable to expect a team to have the energy to play with the intensity they need to cover space, once the opponent wins the ball. Therefore, such an approach leaves them more susceptible to counter-attacks. For us Arsenal fans, such openness when chasing a match should not be unfamiliar.

Ultimately, Southampton, with Schneiderlin, look like an effective defensive unit³, who do not look particularly special in possession. Give them a lead, and they feel right at home, as the poor positional play of many English Premier League teams, especially when chasing matches, poses little threat to their solid defensive shape. However, even with Schneiderlin, this team appears to have significant issues if they have to recover from a losing position. While they control space well out of possession, their relative inability to control space while in possession, particularly to control space immediately after they lose the ball, makes it difficult for them to rescue the points. This should only worsen without their most important player.

Without Schneiderlin, their problems in possession will probably increase. However, while it seems like they should suffer out of possession, they may adjust their team shape to maintain their ability to control space out of possession. Therefore, in what seems a growing theme in the English Premier League, concerning matches between the better clubs, the inability to control space probably with the ball leads to the first goal playing a greater role in determining the final outcome. So for all the musings I have put forth, given the issues of both clubs in possession when chasing a match, it may have been more efficient to simply write, “Whoever scores first will win.”4

¹Anytime someone says gegenpress, think counter-press. Gegenpressing strictly refers to a system of pressing done immediately after possession is lost.
²Lack of coordination, lack of pressing triggers (it is very tiring to press all the time, so you can use pressing triggers to selectively press once the ball moves into a particular area. This not only helps to conserve energy but probably helps in coordinating pressure, as it simplifies the decision-making process for players), lack of pressing traps (dangle the carrot of apparent space to exploit, have a player dribble/pass the ball into the space, spring the trap/collapse on the ball), etc.
³For those wondering, Southampton concede 8.7 shots per game, second to Arsenal at 8.2. Opponent also attempt 49% of their shots from outside of the box, good for 4th in the EPL. All stats for this piece come from Whoscored.com. (Also, Arsenal are susceptible to conceding from crosses, topping the League in goals conceded from crossed balls)
4 Though, like an American bank, post-Continental Illinois bailout, I am highly leveraged with such a proclamation. And unlike a United States bank, I do not have an implicit guarantee from the government to bail me out. Though poor feedback loops, not imposing costs on bad ideas, and failing to reward good ideas, might protect the persistence of rather poor narratives/points-of-view/predictions, which may explain why so many narratives exist concerning sports, making it frustrating, but also allows people to create the story they want to create. So maybe I would not suffer much of a loss if I get it wrong with my highly leveraged one sentence preview.


Arsenal 1-2 Man U: running over the same old ground

I’ve spent two days thinking about Arsenal’s loss to Man U and frankly, I can’t come up with anything brilliant to say. I can say that while the result was terrible, Arsenal played better than I’ve seen them play against Man U in a decade. I can also say that Arsenal really should outplay this Man U side because this is the worst Man U side I’ve ever seen. But in the end, as good as Arsenal were, the same old problems haunt this team and they couldn’t get over the mental and physical challenge to win against the old enemy.

If Manchester United were bad last year, shorn of their most experienced and best defenders (Evra, Vidic and Ferdinand) and with a midfield which started Marouane Fellaini along side Michael “passmaster” Carrick, this is arguably the worst Manchester United team I have ever seen. Their one saving grace is that they have a wealth of attacking talent in di Maria and Wayne Rooney.

This is a Man United team with no midfield and no defense and Arsenal exploited that beautifully. Carving open two glorious chances that should have won Arsenal the game. The first was a nifty through ball from Ox to Welbeck. Welbeck shot straight at de Gea.

The second was from Welbeck to Wilshere and that one is probably going to go down in the Torres Misses Hall of Shame. Wilshere was one-on-one versus de Gea, with the entire goal open in front of him, and he even had Alexis wide open on his left. Wilshere even got de Gea to commit and go down early. But he shot straight into the keeper. It was a dreadful shot and left Alexis gesticulating furiously.

A few seconds later, Wilshere should have won a penalty. It was a clear foul in the box with referee Mike Dean standing yards away. But the thing is, Mike Dean wouldn’t award a penalty if a Man U player chopped off an Arsenal player’s legs with a katana. He’d just make that silly scrunched up face, waggle his finger, and tell the player to get up.

I joke but it’s actually not funny. He basically did exactly that when McNair tried to take Jack Wilshere’s ankle off. Man U did what Man U does now, they started fouling Arsenal and targeted Jack Wilshere. McNair ended Jack’s night and gave him a few weeks in a boot with a horrible lunging tackle that was lucky it didn’t leave Wilshere’s ankles hanging by a thread.

The sideline official in that video has a perfect view of the tackle, he doesn’t waive the flag and Mike Dean doesn’t blow for a foul. Man U fouled the opposition’s best player out of the game. But they weren’t done there. A few minutes after taking Wilshere out of the game, Foullani shoved Gibbs into Szczesny, injuring both players. Instead of calling the foul or even stopping play because there’s an Arsenal player down on the ground in the penalty area who just got punched in the head, Mike Dean waved play on and Gibbs scored an own goal as he was laying on the pitch.

I don’t know, guys. I don’t want to believe that there is a referee conspiracy against Arsenal because that would mean that the games are not real. That would mean that the sport is not real. But I can’t help but think that there is something seriously wrong when I see how Arsenal are treated by the officials.

And once Arsenal were behind, they did the thing that Arsenal now do: damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Predictably, Man U scored the second (and could have had a third) off a breakaway. Alexis gave the ball away but the giveaway was on the edge of the 18 yard box. From there Fellaini made one pass to di Maria, who passed to Rooney and the hapless Nacho Monreal was left scuttling after the ball with hundreds of yards of space around him.

Where were the Arsenal defenders? Where was the Arsenal midfield? Where is the universe?

And so, an unfamiliar Arsenal performance, one in which Arsenal actually did dominate the game, had a familiar result, a loss coming from the opponent fouling and Arsenal playing recklessly to get back into the game.

What really frustrates me is that Robin van Persie should be suffering the choice he made to go to United but instead, every time we face our old captain, he gets the last laugh. It’s unbearable. It’s like finding out that your last girlfriend had herpes, via a text message that says “you should get checked”, after the breakup.

Van Persie left Arsenal in a huff, saying he didn’t like the direction the club was taking. He then won a League title and that seemed to justify his betrayal. But since that singular season he’s been laboring on two very poor United sides and has lost out on Champions League football. And Arsenal have been spending money, buying Özil and Sanchez from Real Madrid and Barcelona. Arsenal are on the up and Man U are on the down. We should be able to lord this over him but instead he gets to smile and say “we played a good game and got all three points, that’s all that matters”.

It’s all dreadfully familiar. Last season I wrote this:

And I know that we lost to Man U yesterday, in that heartbreaking fashion that we do with them: by being a bit timid in the first half, letting Nevra* and Rooney push us around, getting caught on a corner, and then having to watch as a traitorous backstabber dry-humps Wayne Rooney in front of 70,000 of their tourist fans.

They push us around, the refs let them get away with it, we squander several good chances, the ref doesn’t call a penalty, they injure two Arsenal players with fouls, they score on an error, we commit too many players forward, they score the winner on a breakaway.

Too familiar.



Arsenal punished as midfield abandons Wenger again

After Arsenal’s bitter loss to Swansea, Arsène Wenger stood in front of a reporter and berated his team’s midfielders for conceding possession too easily and for lack of defensive awareness. It was the third time this week that Wenger spoke about the defensive duties of his midfielders going so far as to name Aaron Ramsey before and after the Anderlecht debacle. You would think that Wenger’s public proclamations and change in game plan would shore up the Arsenal defense. It didn’t.

“I thought we lost some decisive challenges in the middle of the park in the last 20 minutes and we paid for that costly and that’s where we lost the battle.”

Arsenal’s midfielders followed the new plan in the first half against Swansea. It was a bit of a dire affair, but Arsenal looked good value not to concede a goal with Ramsey and Flamini patrolling midfield, making tackles and interceptions, and with Ox helping out Calum Chambers down the right.

But in the second half — after Arsenal took the lead 1-0 off some wonderful interplay between Ox, Welbeck, and Alexis — Ramsey and Flamini both abandoned post and Arsenal were almost immediately punished. A few minutes after the first goal Arsenal were struck again, this time from a great assist by a player who had been torching Arsenal’s right back all night — a right back who deserved help. Help which never came.

Wenger criticized the first goal saying that Arsenal probably should have done better to keep the ball and could have (fouled or) won it back earlier, thus preventing the goal all together. I watched the highlights and sure enough, the old man is exactly right.

Here’s the setup image: top of the screen, Calum Chambers standing in advance of the Arsenal forwards, forming a line across the top of the screen with him are Ox, Alexis, and Welbeck – in acres of empty space. In the little triangle is Cazorla (back to goal), Ramsey, and Flamini. Score is 1-0 to the Arsenal and there are seven Arsenal players forward, and the balance of the team with Barrow in tons of space is all wrong.

Cazorla then loses possession* but Ramsey picks the ball up between Ki and Sigurdsson.

Cazorla (640x363)

Ramsey is in jail here. He probably could have made a pass to Alexis or Ox (the two players on his right) but the position of Barrow prevents him from exploiting the space Welbeck is in. Flamini senses that he is out of position, way too far forward and takes a step back.

Ramsey (640x361)

Sigurdsson makes a tackle and dispossesses Ramsey. Note the position of Flamini. He is going back and forth toward the ball like an accordion. At this moment, the wrong moment, he decides to attack the ball.

Sigggurd (640x362)

Sigurdsson passes over to Barrow and now both of Arsenal’s “defensive midfielders” are so far out of position that they look like a book on the wrong shelf, of the wrong library.

If you look at what Barrow sees, he’s got a sea of green in front of him, Gibbs is ball watching, Bony is straight ahead of him and Montero is already streaking down the space which should have been occupied by Calum Chambers. Note all the players who are standing and watching. This is a still but the video is even more damning. Four players want to be spoon-fed the ball.

But the naivete here is that Arsenal are 1-0 up and they have conceded the entire pitch to Swansea’s two fastest players. What are Ramsey and Flamini doing all the way up here with the score the way it is?

Walking (640x358)

Meanwhile, Gibbs has a moment to think, starts to advance toward the ball, and changes his mind.

fast break (640x358)

Now, Barrow is off like a greyhound. Leaving both defensive midfielders in the dust and forcing Gibbs to cover from left back. Note the position of Montero at the top right of the screen. Barrow could have passed the ball to him and he would have had an easy 1v1 with Per Mertesacker. I venture to say that Montero would have eaten Per Mertesacker alive.

Gibbs (640x362)

Gibbs was in position to make the tackle but his hesitation allows Barrow to run past him. Now Gibbs is playing catch-up. Again, Barrow could have played in Bony or Montero at this point. Look at the space that Monreal and Mertesacker have to cover. Where is the defensive midfielder? Monreal is fucked here too, he’s got Bony on him and can’t attack the ball, though I do wonder if he should have.Monreal (640x361)

Note the distance Barrow covered from that last photo to here. It took Gibbs 20+ yards to foul Barrow. foul (640x361)

Sigurdsson gets the benefit of another 2-3 yards on the ball placement. But he does strike it wonderfully for the goal.
Sczcesny-middle (640x361)

This entire sequence illustrates what’s wrong with the Arsenal system. People are complaining that Arsenal keep turning the ball over as if that’s what’s hurting Arsenal. But turning the ball over in their final third shouldn’t lead to a goal scoring opportunity because normally a team wouldn’t have both of their holding midfielders and one of their fullbacks in such an advanced position. I have to think that if Flamini held, you know… like a holding midfielder, that counter attack is broken up. Or if the turnover happened between Cazorla and Ox with Ramsey and Flamini back providing some cover, that goal never happens. But as it turns out, Arsenal’s two defensive mids were too far up the pitch, searching for the second goal when they should have been playing more simply.

I don’t know what’s going on at Arsenal. I have no inside information. I do know that Flamini and Ramsey were way too far up the pitch. I know that Wenger told Ramsey to play the defensive role more prior to the Anderlecht debacle, after the Anderlecht debacle, and now has said something similar after losing 2-1 to Swansea.

The weird thing is that Ramsey and Flamini did play more defensively in the first half, meaning that they listened at least a little. But in the second half, after Arsenal were up 1-0, they went rogue and Arsenal were punished.

As much as I want to blame Wenger for this loss I have to wonder if the real problem is that certain players just aren’t listening to him any more. After the match, while decrying the midfielders Wenger looked a harrowed man. He looked like a man who had once again put his faith in a player, like he had done with Cesc and van Persie before, and had that player abuse that faith.


*Incidentally, this counted as one of his “successful passes”