Tag Archives: Tony Pulis


Arsenal 2-1 Crystal Palace: fear of leg cramps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


He's going down to chew his old lady, you know he caught her messin' round with another manager.

Tactical Preview: Arsenal v. Crystal Palace

Note: Naveen and I are aware that Tony Pulis has chickened out, I mean stepped down, ahead of the match. That said, he did prepare this team over the summer and they only have one day to change things so it is highly unlikely that the new manager will be able to radically alter Pulis’ summer long game plan. Moreover, this is an excellent piece on the tactics required to overcome a well drilled team who sit deep, something Arsenal see a lot of. -7am

Opening day of the 2014-15 season and Arsenal get Crystal Palace. At the beginning of last season, a match against Crystal Palace would serve as a chance for Lukas Podolski to feast on another side that lacked any defensive organization, leading to Arsenal fans praising his finishing and asking why he does not play more, even though he’s a one-trick pony and that one trick requires a relative large amount space and time to work (he is like a very powerful but very immobile and difficult to load cannon). With Tony Pulis at the helm, the Crystal Palace of Ian Holloway has long since died. While Pulis has changed the way Palace play, Pulis has also adapted the approach he used at Stoke to better extract value from the resources available to him. With Arsenal lacking a couple of Germans, particularly Mesut Ozil, they could find it difficult to break down the Eagles. Therefore, this match will serve as a test for Arsenal to create and exploit information asymmetries, in order to break down a resolute defense.

Crystal Palace’s 4-4-2

One of the biggest myths in football is that a team cannot play 4-4-2 in the modern game. Now, a side probably cannot get away with the 4-4-2 Tim Sherwood had Spurs playing¹ however, teams like Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid have found quite a bit of success at the highest level playing a 4-4-2. In fact, Palace’s 4-4-2 looks a bit like the 4-4-2 Atletico Madrid used to win La Liga and come within a minute of winning the Champions League.

Palace’s four in midfield operate as a tight unit, sliding as the ball moves from side to side. Therefore, when the opponent has the ball in a central area, Palace can congest the center of the pitch and prevent passing into the space right in front of the back line. With Marouane Chamakh dropping into midfield, a player like Mile Jedinak will look to close down the man with the ball and win possession, believing Palace have plenty of bodies in the center of the pitch to cover him. When the ball moves to a wide area, the four man midfield shifts to the ball-side with the midfielder closest to the ball looking to challenge the player on the ball. With the number of bodies in the way of a potential dribble or a potential pass forward, into the center of the pitch, dribbling out wide represents the path of least resistance. And this is exactly what Pulis wants. With two of 6’3” Damien Delaney, 6’ 2” Scott Dann, and now 6’ 6” Brede Hangeland, at center back, Palace have more than enough aerial ability to comfortably deal with crosses from wide areas. Throw in a 6’ 2” Joel Ward, who can play as an inverted left-back, or right-back, and crosses from wide areas serve as a rather inefficient way to score goals.

When Palace win possession, they become a three true outcomes side (they are the Jack Cust of the Premier League). If they come under any pressure in their own third, then Palace will look to launch the ball forward, hoping the man up top, a quick player like Frazier Campbell, can latch onto it. If they do not come under pressure, then Palace will look to get the ball to their pacey wingers, often Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie, or they will look to get the ball to Marouane Chamakh, who will look to play the center forward in behind or find a winger in space (Chamakh as a No. 10…who would have thought?).

Unlike his Stoke City sides, Pulis’ Palace focus more on short and quick passes as the foundation of their counter-attacking play, not aimless long balls up to two target men. Also, in the final third, Palace do not have the single-minded approach of Pulis’ Stoke, who looked to cross the ball to their center forwards as early in the move as possible. Palace have a greater willingness to patiently play the ball in the final third, looking for an opening by making short passes or looking for one of the wingers to beat their marker. This makes Crystal Palace much more inventive and fun to watch than any Stoke side under Pulis.

How Arsenal Could Play Against Them

The obvious way to take advantage of an aggressive team is to move the ball quickly. If a team can pass the ball accurately and quickly, they can exploit those momentary windows in time and space, allowing the ball to move into more valuable positions. Based on this logic, a more fluid approach could prove useful against a structured team. Given the importance of cohesion and organization in Palace’s defending, the information asymmetries and the ability for the ball and players to more freely flow to their highest valued uses, due to a more fluid approach, could help Arsenal create more openings and better exploit those openings. When everything clicks, this approach can devastate an opponent. However, as matches away to Liverpool and Chelsea showed, this reliance on technique and fluidity can backfire terribly if the pass-and-move game is not on point.

So what are some specific ways Arsenal could attack Crystal Palace? Given the narrow defensive structure Crystal Palace employ and the aggressiveness in closing down the man on the ball, Arsenal may look to play the ball in a deeper area on one side of the pitch, looking to drag the Palace defense to the ball-side, and have a player on the opposite side make a forward run, making him a target for a diagonal. That tactic got Arsenal their first goal in their only game against Pulis’ Palace last season.

Looking at Arsenal’s second goal in that match, playing a deep-lying center forward could also help break down Palace’s defense. In the build-up to that goal, Rosicky plays the ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain, who then plays the ball into Giroud, who has moved into a withdrawn position for a center forward, left of center. Both Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rosicky continue their runs beyond Giroud. With Bolasie just arriving on the scene from an advanced position, Oxlade-Chamberlain runs past Joel Ward and Tomas Rosicky runs at the back line unmarked. With Danny Gabiddon looking to close down Olivier Giroud, forcing him to break from the back line, all Giroud needs to do is play the ball back to Oxlade-Chamberlain to create a 2-v-1, with Delaney trying to defend Oxlade-Chamberlain and the unmarked run of Tomas Rosicky. Giroud does this and Oxlade-Chamberlain scores his second goal of the match.

Given this way of attacking Palace’s defense, Olivier Giroud’s performance could go a long way in determining how successful Arsenal’s attack is (though as I wrote before, Alexis Sanchez could play this role of deep-lying center forward, especially if Arsenal play a 4-1-4-1). Maybe more importantly, if Giroud starts (or if Sanogo starts), Arsenal need to avoid the temptation of playing long balls or crosses to the center forward. That would play right into Palace’s hands and such inefficient attacking methods could give Palace more opportunities to launch their potent counter-attacks.

That is not to say that Arsenal should not attempt a single cross in the entire game (if the marginal benefit of a cross>marginal cost, go for it). What it means is that the expected value of crossing against Crystal Palace in general is less than it is against other clubs and given their counter-attacking ability and the profitability of other methods of attack (opportunity cost), the quantity of crosses that makes sense, in general, is lower than normal².

Finally, and this has become a much more viable option with the arrival of Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal could look to unleash a dribbler out wide, with the goal of beating the initial marker and then cutting infield. While Palace are willing to let a dribbler go around the midfield and attempt to whip a cross, the quick feet of Sanchez could allow him to beat his marker and then cut infield (or look to get further up the pitch before cutting infield to create more of a cutback opportunity). Now, instead of a speculative cross into a forest of defenders, Sanchez can look to shoot, if Palace gives him space, or look to pick out a teammate running into the box.

Fullbacks Beware

While I like Debuchy more than Sagna, in part because he has a better ability to recover from advanced positions, and Gibbs is quite an athlete at left-back, Arsenal may want to refrain from simultaneously pushing both fullbacks high up the pitch. With the speed of Crystal’s Palace wingers allowing them to effectively break from deep positions, having two fullbacks high up the pitch could leave Arsenal defending a 4-v-2, 4-v-3, or 3-v-2 situation with Calum Chambers and Laurent Koscielny at center back (this becomes much more of an issue if Monreal has to play center back). Given the pair’s lack of familiarity with one another, an odd man rush could lead to a severe misallocation of defensive resources, as the two center backs do not intimately know how their partner will react in this situation. The security of a fullback staying deep should help prevent those situations.

However, there is a cost to keeping a fullback stuck in a deep position (resources are scarce, so there is always a cost for any action), even if the fullback is on the opposite side of the ball. For example, having the fullback on the opposite side burst forward can make a drag-and-diagonal strategy more potent, as whoever defends the weak side has a choice to make about whom to track. This gives the man on the ball options. At best, forcing the defender to make a decision between two options could slow down the decision making process, leading to two unmarked attackers on the weak side. Again this is another dynamic resource allocation problem that Arsenal probably need to get right³ in order to start the season with three points.


Proper resource allocation with respect to time and space is the key to successful football. Initially, Crystal Palace allocate their defensive resources to make their opponent predictable, allowing them to simplify the dynamic resource allocation problem to be solved throughout the match. Arsenal should look to complicate that resource allocation problem for Palace and can do so through fluidity, switching play, and/or a dynamic presence that forces Palace out of their comfort zone. Palace’s initial defensive allocation of defensive resources also serves to maximize their efficiency in attack, as they look to maximize the value of the limited resources they allocate to attack. In possession, Arsenal need to avoid behaviors that increase the opportunities for Palace to efficiently use their attacking resources (less crosses), and should look to avoid situations where they have too few resources to defend Palace’s counters (keep a fullback deep more often).

In the end, the key to the match may turn out to be the first goal. If Arsenal score first, they can force Palace out of their game, out of their comfort zone. If Palace score first, they can allocate more resources defensive, take less risks defensively, while not suffering as much of a cost as they would have if the game was 0-0 (the marginal value of the goal that gives the team the lead is much greater than the marginal value of the goal that gives a team a two-goal lead). Therefore, more than 1800 words could all be wasted by a random high-leverage moment.

Such is football.

Naveen – @njm1211

¹a comical combination of a high line, plenty of space between midfield and the back line, and a wide playmaker who often did not give Spurs a numerical advantage in central midfield when he moved inside as Spurs only had two central midfielders to start, meaning they could not control games, and made them susceptible to counter-attacks down the wide playmaker’s flank.
²granted, Arsenal could look to press immediately when they lose possession to force turnovers or force Palace to punt the ball out of danger, lowering the marginal cost of crosses in general.
³though they do not have to be Pareto optimal…the margin for victory is not that slim.

Tony Pulis pontificates on the meaning of referees in the Premier League

Tony Pulis’ campaign to discredit the officials paying dividends?

Tony Pulis continued his assault on common sense and decency with a meandering criticism of referee Chris Foy for his part in Arsenal’s winning goal when Stoke visited the Emirates on Saturday. It’s widely being reported that Pulis criticized the Arsenal players for surrounding the referee but he actually took exception to Chris Foy overturning his linesman’s decision and intimated that Foy may have had ulterior motives in awarding Arsenal the winning goal. It looks, however, to be part of a broader campaign by the Stoke manager to earn his club favorable treatment by match officials. And it looks like it’s working.

The main controversy yesterday occurred in the 78th minute. Arsenal’s Theo Walcott earned a free kick for a foul just outside the box and German international Lukas Podolski lined up for a powerful left-footed blast. The shot was deflected off a Stoke player in the wall and easily beat keeper Asmir Begovic.

Linesman Dave Bryan raised his flag for an offside and several Arsenal players reacted by pleading their case with the official. The lead official, Chris Foy, who had already signaled a good goal, went over to confirm that no Arsenal players were in an active offside position and after a very brief conversation again signaled that Arsenal had scored a very good goal.

Television replays confirmed that Theo Walcott was in an offside position but was not active in the play as the ball took a deflection away from Walcott. Interestingly, linesman Dave Bryan is no stranger to offside controversy. Bryan was punished back in April 2012 for failure to flag two very clear offside goals that helped Chelsea to a win over Wigan.

Bryan had a poor game from an Arsenal perspective. Bryan missed Wilkinson slapping Theo Walcott in the face and several tackles from behind which prompted the Arsenal man to remonstrate with him well before the controversial offside call. Bryan was also seen shucking and jiving with Stoke’s Wilkinson during throw-ins, the two of them looking like fast friends.

Tony Pulis pontificates on the meaning of referees in the Premier League

As is often the case when Stoke and Arsenal play, the game saw its fair share of controversy from start to finish. Foy didn’t endear himself to the home crowd when he blew Arteta for a foul and the Arsenal man clearly hadn’t come anywhere near the Stoke player. “Intent” to foul we were told was the reason for the call. But where Foy called Arsenal for “intent” he failed repeatedly to call Stoke for “actual” fouls.

Foy also got Ryan Shawcross’ red card tackle on Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny wrong. The Stoke player had no hope of ever winning the ball and as he saw that the Arsenal man was going to clear easily, instead of pulling out he when in, studs up, wildly lunging, and stamped the Arsenal man’s groin. Foy awarded a yellow when red was the correct call.

And then after that poor call, Foy somehow managed to miss Stoke’s Michael Owen throw a sneaky elbow to the head of Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta which nearly sparked a brawl. The FA may still take action against Owen for that, depending on the referee’s report, which could also explain the Stoke manager’s comments post match.

After the game, Pulis seemingly looked to deflect from his team’s dreadful performance and place the blame on referee Chris Foy.

“I haven’t got a clue what offside is,” admitted Pulis speaking to the BBC after the game. “What’s disappointing is when the official, the linesman, gives it (the offside) the Arsenal players surround the linesman and then the referee reacts after that. I thought that if you surrounded referees more than three was it? Five people? Umm… err… You’re not supposed to do that. Their players were over there and the referee’s reacted off of that.”

“Now whether they are going to say it’s (the ball) has come off one of our players and it’s a good goal, well that’s fine.” Pulis continued, “but the reaction of their players, surrounding the referee or the linesman, effects Chris Foy.”

“If he (the linesman) has a clear view, then what’s Chris (Foy), why’s Chris questioning it?”

It’s a stunning accusation and it remains to be seen if the FA will investigate the comments. Pulis has previous questioning Chris Foy’s decisions and in fact this season has spent nearly every post-match interview moaning like a drain about the referees.

In August 2010, Pulis had a crack at Foy on the BBC and again it was in regards to Foy and the linesman. This time, Foy failed to give a goal that looked like it went over the line and Chris went to the linesman to see if he had a better view. With no conclusive evidence, Foy had no choice but to not award the goal.

It’s also interesting to note that Stoke’s players surrounded Foy in that game when they felt like they weren’t getting the call they deserved:



Pulis has spent a lot of post-match time talking to and about the referees this season. So much so that Pulis had a meeting with Mike Riley, the head of match officials in December over perceived bias against his team.

That meeting was prompted by a dire draw against Aston Villa which saw Ryan Shotton get a red card and where Pulis felt that Glenn Whelan was unfairly targeted.

Look at the incidents where our players are being booked or sent off, then compare them with similar incidents involving others that are going unpunished. There was the Clark one on Glenn at Villa. All we have ever asked is to be treated the same as everyone else, but there are preconceptions about us that are unfair.

Interestingly, Glenn Whelan was at the center of controversy just last week when his ugly two-footed lunge on Man City’s Javi Garcia went unpunished both during the match and after. During the match, Howard Webb failed to even call a foul, prompting the head of the Professional Footballer’s Association to say that he was certain Whelan would be pulled up on charges.

However, the FA did not charge Whelan because their own rules do not allow them to charge a player when the official saw the challenge. That means Howard Webb saw the two-footed lunge and chose not to call a foul. This is the same Howard Webb who gave Nigel de Jong a yellow card for a king-fu kick in the World Cup final and who allowed Fabricio Coloccini to kick Demba Ba in the face (breaking his nose) yesterday.

Given that Whelan, Owen, and Shawcross have not been punished for their transgressions it does look like Pulis’ concerted campaign to discredit the officials is working in his favor. In one week, three of his players have escaped deserved red cards.