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Aston Villa v. Arsenal: tactical preview

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.

Midfield Rotation

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

Man at the pub, Chary: Set piece lapse gifts City draw

Poor marking at a corner in the last ten minutes of the game allowed City to equalise and prevent the Arsenal from grabbing their first league win since the opening day of the season after the home team appeared to have come from behind to defeat the League Champions.

Circumstances prevented me from attending today’s Ashburton Grove lunchtime kick off so I found a pub in my hitherto unnamed London satellite town where the audience gathered around the screens were split 50-50 supporting Arsenal and non football fans having lunch, hence “Man at the pub”.

Lunchtime drinking - a thankless task but someone has to do it

Lunchtime drinking – a thankless task but someone has to do it

Noteworthy points on team selection being Arsenal’s fifth signing, Danny Welbeck, starting in the middle up top, the prospect of Sanogo being there may have sent the goonersphere into a post interlull induced tailspin, and Monreal keeping his place while consigning Gibbs to the bench.
For the visitors the omission of Yaya “Birthday boy” Toure weakened the City midfield with the down grade Fernandinho taking his place, otherwise both teams were at full strength bar a few (Theo/Giroud for arsenal; Toure/Jovetic for City).

Pellegrini – whose appearance and style far from being that of “The Engineer” comes across as being more like a supply teacher – must have felt he had sufficient resources to avenge City’s last league outing, a defeat at the paws of the Orcs of Staffordshire.

Refreshingly Arsenal started the game with little of the usual hesitancy that had become a feature of some of their early kickoffs with the extremely robust front three of Alexis, Welbeck and Rambo leading the high energy pressing against the visitors, suggesting that the Arsenal were not overawed by City.

This urgency led to Welbeck running onto a loose pass from the the City defenders and chipping over the dandruff free Hart, the watching Gooners in the bar expecting the net to ripple. Sadly a Dulux coat of paint was enough to send what would a been a deserved opening goal for Arsenal and Welbeck back off the post into the grateful clutches of a grateful keeper.

Arsenal’s early dominance rattled the visitors and there then emerged a pattern of rotational fouling which broke up our attacking play, Fernandinho and Milner guilty of a couple of potentially yellow card tackles on Jack and Debuchy respectively.

Jack’s upswing in form seemed to continue as he exerted a degree of control on midfield and, to my eyes, was therefore targetted for fouls, however he hadn’t completely shed his habit of hanging onto the ball a little too long before releasing.

Emboldened by City’s lack of control in midfield Arsenal began to commit more men forward with Monreal being a little too eager to stay upfield, and this would lead to the sucker punch. Navas on the City right used all his pace to keep a ball seemingly destined to go into touch in play. The out of position Monreal was unable to defend his rampaging run to the Clock end penalty box where an onrushing Aguero expertly applied the finish.

Undoubtedly a blow but thankfully not one that seemed to knock the Arsenal out of their stride too much and they soon resumed their aggressive attacking approach.

This continued from the start of the second half, which saw Fatty Lampard withdrawn, possibly due to him picking up a yellow as well as looking off the pace, proving that Arsenal’s forward line is one of the better aspects of the squad.
Özil was feeling his way back into match fitness with some, although probably not enough, decisive interventions in our forward play and some smooth, slick passing.

At last Fernandinho joined Fatty and Zabaleta in the book after one lunge too many, even by referee Clattenberg’s somewhat lax standards, although shortly afterwards he just had to “even” things up by booking Flamini.

Eventually a particularly pacey combination of passes in front of the City penalty area, started by Özil winning the ball in the Arsenal half, allowed Jack to run onto Rambo’s pass then chip Hart delightfully for the equaliser.
An exquisite goal that heartened the team and the supporters, who may have started to fear a home league loss for the first time since last season’s opening day debacle made. The celebrations were made funnier by Aguero being booked for dissent in the aftermath of our equaliser and then subbed shortly after.

Continued Arsenal pressure led to the highlight of the game, Jack flicked on a cross to Alexis who lined up a right foot volley that arrowed into the top corner of Hart’s goal with the accuracy of a laser guided exocet – what a world class finish!

As our Chilean wheeled round in celebration I could see him bursting to take his top off, he unpeeled the Puma skinny fit top as I realised ruefully he was going to get a yellow, but to be fair the adrenalin of scoring such a goal would do that to many a player.

Arsenal’s superior attacking play had been rewarded and the game settled into possession football by the home team till the turning point of the game.
An aimless cross field ball in the last ten minutes of the game was chased by Debuchy who got his studs stuck in the turf and ended up turning his ankle – the “oofs” and groans heard around the bar when the slow mo showed the awkward angle the right back’s ankle landed confirmed the severity of the injury.

Now we could be down to five senior defenders covering four spots, only Bellerin looks ready for the first team at a push, so let’s all hope he is not out long term.

Chambers came on and soon after conceded a corner which was to provide the denouement – the inswinging corner saw Chesney flap a little and fail to claim with Demechelis rising to prod the ball goal ward.
Chesney got a hand to the ball but was unable to keep it out, in fact he seemed to divert the ball away from Flamini who was at the back post all set to clear, Mathieu slapping his forehead in frustration knowing that he could have prevented the goal.

The remaining minutes, plus six minutes of injury time, saw a helter skelter finish to the game during which it was Arsenal’s turn to be saved by the post when Dzeko’s effort was kept out by the woodwork.

An amusing moment in the closing minutes was Nasri poking in the net after the off side flag was raised and being given the bird by the Arsenal supporters. You could just see him itching to start his Adebayor-like celebration for the winner he thought he’d scored. Plenty of middle finger salutes from the Arsenal supporters in the pub.

Eventually time was blown and the feeling was predominantly of relief at not losing but slight disappointment that the lead could not be kept.

Negatives – the old failings of the inability to defend from set pieces and being vulnerable on counter attacks, especially on our left side, however today this could be more due to Özil’s lack of protection of the left back when he plays wide left than anything. The injury to Debuchy means we are now using an inexperienced teenager to cover centre back and right back spots which is a worry. Being young and inexperienced means we are going to see a few mistakes from Calum but we can only hope they won’t be regular or costly.

Positives – an encouraging debut for Welbeck which combined with our pace up front means opposition defences won’t be able to expect continued slow sideways passing in front of their penalty area to give them an easy game. We genuinely looked like we could go toe to toe with any other teams forward line and with the return of Walcott next month things look good up top.

UTA !

By ChärybdÏß1966 (on Twitter @charybdis1966)

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.