Gunning for the Top

Gibbs Arsenal

A sense of optimism abounded as hoards of fans filtered into the Emirates on the 5th of May 2009. Truth be told, this optimism was principally engineered by the very concept of fandom rather than, say, a fair chunk of logic, but it was extremely tangible regardless of its foundation. The plastic flags on each seat, previously, or rather still mocked by the swelling majority entering the ground, were waved fervently while the customary chants were belted out by all in red and white; crashing waves of noise reverberating as each stand started anew. This was an atmosphere befitting the occasion.

Manchester United were the visitors on this occasion – the 2nd leg of the Champions League semi-final – and Kieran Gibbs was, just like in the 1-0 1st leg defeat, detailed to mark the phenomenon of the moment: Cristiano Ronaldo, whose insatiable appetite for self-improvement would lead to him racking up some quite astonishing numbers in the years to come. This would be an onerous task for the most experienced of full-backs, those who had been immersed in the dark arts of defending their sentinel posts on the flanks from day one, let alone a youngster not only fresh to the team but to the position as well.

Admittedly, Gibbs’ lack of experience hadn’t been evident in the first leg. In fact, his performance was predominantly the antithesis of what was expected. While his more versed teammates were failing to reach the desired level required to overcome their Red Devil counterparts, Kieran’s performance encouraged fans with composure and enthusiasm alike. He had manned his duties admirably and must have had a reasonable spring in his step heading into this next duel with United’s No.7.

But then it happened.

Just an innocent slip; the type seen in every match nowadays as the unrelenting rise of over-watered pitches and plastic blades creates arenas resembling those more typically frequented with triple salchows than effective defensive clearances. Yet, after a mere 8 minutes, this slip virtually killed Arsenal’s chances of progressing in an instant. The flags waved no more, tossed to the ground with an all-too-common air of despair. The chants transformed to familiar curses and moans. The wonderfully naïve optimism that reigned supreme pre-match replaced with a shocking realism.

Gibbs wouldn’t emerge on the pitch for the second half, instead taking his place on the bench, substituted. There he sat for the remainder of the match – motionless, head bowed, shoulders slumped. His dream now a nightmare.

"Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up."

“Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Weaker minds might have crumbled following such an ordeal and indeed, in the immediate aftermath, Gibbs recalls how he “really suffered, thinking I’d let the team down.” But he adds that “after a while you do start thinking about it differently – it wasn’t a technical mistake, a bad back pass or anything like that, it was something that could just have happened to anyone. In the end I had a choice: let it affect me, or get on with it.”

As Kieran himself puts it “there was only one option.” This attitude is intrinsic to his character; his rather shy demeanour even during in-house interviews belying a steely determination, a continued drive to better himself in the face of the adverse sequence of events that seek to deliver yet another hammer blow to both mind and body. But, as we’ve already seen, Gibbs knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity. Be it disproving the youth coaches who had doubts about his size or recovering from a seemingly endless series of debilitating injuries that threatened to ravage his career, he has met each and every mental test head on and emerged a stronger, more resolute individual.

When free of the shackles of injury Gibbs possesses all the qualities of the modern full-back. A midfielder in his youth, playing on his natural left side but also driving his club and country forward from the centre of the park, Kieran has never been fearful of venturing into advanced positions on the field. While others noted his valuable ability to repeat sprints up and down the pitch Arsène Wenger was the one man who really pushed for Gibbs’ “tremendous engine” and terrific recovery pace to be utilised from left-back. It’s a decision that is paying off rather nicely thus far.

Arsenal’s interplay on the left flank was much documented this past season with Gibbs’ pairing, first with Lukas Podolski, and then Santi Cazorla to a lesser extent in the latter half of the season, one of the most – if not the most – naturally cohesive going forward throughout the team. “Wengerball” is seen with decreasing frequency these days but these combinations are often the catalyst provoking its fleeting re-emergence.

"To Wengerball, and beyond!"

“To Wengerball, and beyond!”

Both of his regular partners-in-crime on the flank have a proclivity for cutting inside, looking for openings infield, and seeking goalscoring opportunities after one-twos with our central midfield trio. Gibbs’ continuous thrusts complement those traits perfectly, providing a constant option in the final third. Earlier in the season Gibbs spoke of Le Professeur’s instructions to him, laying out the importance of his selfless runs to the team:

“The boss is always telling me, ever since pre-season, to play high and wide and stretch the team, to let the midfielders have more room.”

His positioning, in part, also reduced the onus on Theo Walcott to replicate similar width on the opposite wing. This allowed the forward to become more of a goal threat, making a greater number of runs into central areas that though somewhat disruptive in an attacking sense during slower, more deliberate build-up play – and adding to the defensive burden a labouring Bacary Sagna had to bear this season – provided a refreshingly direct alternative on the rare occasions these penetrating dashes were spotted earlier on in moves.

Gibbs’ movement resulted in a number of goals from his own flank, too; the own goals chalked up by Southampton during their early trip to N5 a direct consequence of his dynamic surges up-field. His emphatic volley at the Liberty Stadium, at a time when the team was in dire need of a cutting edge, is another involvement that sticks in the mind and harks back to the occasional ferocious strike seen at Underhill in his Reserve team days.

Such events, however, are regrettably a break from the norm – up till now at least. One would certainly expect more productivity and expertise in the final third from a player that ventures into opposition territory so readily. Gibbs’ attempted crosses and cutbacks deliver a constant reminder that despite the abundant promise there is still ample work to do to become England’s finest. Injury once again deprived him of the chance to impress Roy Hodgson at close quarters earlier this year whilst in Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines there are sizeable obstacles (in terms of quality if not physical stature) to surmount.

Arsenal’s match against Everton at the Emirates nicely encapsulated the typical play of Gibbs and Baines. Though both full-backs enjoy attacking and therefore often receive the ball in advanced positions the former varies his movement more; not exclusively stationing himself on the touchline but also dashing into the box on occasion. Baines arguably plays a more orthodox role, getting plenty of chalk on his boots and delivering crosses for the Toffees’ lofty forwards.

Gibbs vs Baines - Received Passes

This height factor is certainly an important caveat to consider when contrasting the pair’s deliveries. With Marouane Fellaini often deployed in an advanced position and one or both of Nikica Jelavić and Victor Anichebe deployed on the  pitch at any given time, Baines has prominent targets at which to aim his delicious crosses. His accuracy of 33% in this game (marginally up from his season average of 30% and significantly greater than the league average that generally hovers just above 20%) is testament not only to Everton’s aerial strength but also his tireless practice which is evident every time a dead ball situation arises.

Gibbs, meanwhile, completed none of his attempted crosses that day despite manoeuvring himself into dangerous positions and his season average crossing accuracy of 17.7% pales in comparison. Though Arsenal have become increasingly at ease with using Giroud’s heading ability it’s still rather uncommon to see crosses from wide reach the bonce of the demonstrative Frenchman. This is borne out in the stats with Gibbs’ 0.6 accurate crosses per game just below Sagna’s 0.7. Both are left trailing in the wake of Baines (2.8 – the highest in the league) in this regard.

Gibbs vs Baines - Crosses

Closer to home, too, in Arsenal colours, a new challenger for the left-back berth emerged. Typical of Gibbs’ fortune – or lack thereof – the very same injury that denied him his England chance would add an extra layer of complexity to proceedings. Indeed, without it one could argue with some confidence that he wouldn’t have had another squad member to contend with, at least till next season. Wenger even admitted as much upon signing Nacho Monreal from Málaga on deadline day:

“We expected [Gibbs to be out for] two to three weeks, but it will be four to six, so we were in a position where we had to make a quick decision. That explains our buy.”

Monreal’s a technically-sound, dependable performer who despite early teething problems – certainly exacerbated by a limited grasp of English, adapting to a new culture, and some, quite frankly, baffling decisions from the club captain immediately to his right – has given the boss a genuinely difficult choice to make in the lead-up to each matchday. But Gibbs is no stranger to competition, having to bide his time playing second fiddle to Gaël Clichy upon his arrival to the first team setup.

By Kieran’s own admission, Clichy never really gave him a chance early on, the youngster left with little choice but to “watch him closely and learn the role through him.” That period of observation is apparent every time Gibbs robs an opponent with one of his perfectly-timed interceptions and having seen off the short-lived challenge of André Santos, he’d be wise to add some of the diligent marking and positional awareness that Monreal exhibits to his own ever-improving defensive skill set.

If he’s able to do so, along with refining his attacking nature, the 23-year-old will be some prospect for opposition teams to deal with. Winning his place back on a permanent basis will be his first priority, a regular run in the side the necessary tonic any player needs to reach the next level. He’ll be enthused by his late involvement during the run-in, being chosen for key crunch fixtures near the season’s end. After alternating the pair, using Monreal on travels away from North London and Gibbs on more familiar ground, Wenger selected the latter for 3 of the last 4 games, including the season-defining trip to St. James’ Park. Whether this carries on into the next campaign is, of course, an unknown for now, but it’s a decent indication of the current pecking order in Arsène’s mind.

Injuries and competition are part and parcel of being a footballer but Gibbs has had to deal with more of these inconveniences than most. Yet deal with them he has. The slip on that fateful spring night is a distant memory now; in its place that heroic last-ditch tackle at the Hawthorns – his worth to the team magnificently encapsulated in that moment. Few would be surprised to see that worth grow further in the years to come.


Crossing stats calculated from

If more Gibbs is what you want, you’re in luck. @CulannDavies has produced yet another magnificent compilation for your viewing pleasure, so dim the lights, grab the popcorn, and enjoy!



Ander takes the reins

Ander main image

In the centre he stands, arms outstretched beckoning the ball from teammates, head swivelling on its axis as he surveys his opposition, eyes scanning the field as he plots his next move. Give and go, collect and dictate; that’s Ander Herrera’s game. It’s a game based on immaculate technique, sprinkled with cheeky nutmegs and sharp, darting runs. Crowds marvel at his dainty flicks and pirouettes but these are not rolled out simply to entertain. Each deft touch has purpose; to evade yet another cynical lunge, to alter the game’s tempo, to direct play into a new promising avenue. Whether he’s orchestrating the next wave of attack or cajoling an extra ounce of effort from his fellow lions it’s abundantly clear that Ander runs the show.

When a match threatens to start a hurtling descent into chaos – and that’s an increasingly frequent occurrence when Athletic Club are concerned, with a confused game plan replacing the pre-existing frameworks that allowed a wonderful impulsivity – it’s invariably Ander that tries to quell the storm, taking little touches to prompt one-twos here or a rondo there that at least attempt to arrest the rapid turnover of possession. The Basque club are having to face up to life without El Rey León (Fernando Llorente, their Lion King) but Ander has shown he’s more than ready to take on the talismanic mantle.

He displayed some of this authority during the first season back in his hometown, though it sadly ended in frustrating circumstances – a persistent pubic bone injury hampering his movement through games near the season’s end, to such an extent that he was regularly hauled off before the hour mark once he had been wrung dry of what little creative juices he still possessed in that state. Then, he’d simply return to the medical room and start preparing to do it all again next Jornada, clearly in pain but determined to give everything he could muster for the cause.

Predictably, the absence of any real sufficient break from the weekly grind eventually wore Herrera down, with the injury keeping him out of the starting line-up for Athletic’s Copa del Rey final loss to Barcelona. Coming a fortnight after a hugely underwhelming performance in the Europa League final this was a tough pill for both Ander and the squad to swallow. A season in which they had made all of Europe sit up and take notice of their enterprising brand of slick interchanges had fizzled out at the most inopportune moment; their invigorating flame extinguished in an instant by the magnificence of Radamel Falcao.

So close, yet so far

So close, yet so far

Perhaps this trying period helped in hardening Ander’s will – perhaps not – but what is clear to regular onlookers is that behind the slight exterior lies a burning desire to win which fuelled immense leadership this campaign. Admittedly, this desire spilled over and clouded judgement at times leading to a couple of early baths that certainly did his side no favours, but these moments were the exception rather than rule. It’s commonly said that one discovers more about an individual in times of strife and that’s certainly been the case with Athletic’s No.21. In a poor season, one where Los Leones fell woefully short of the bar set in the last – certainly in the cups, while the turgid league displays seen last term became even more regular – Ander has been a constant point of reference to which others should aspire.

The Bilbao-born centrocampista is, quite literally, central to Athletic’s game; a fundamental cog without which life would be a lot harder still for the Basques. Infrequent viewers may look at the statistics columns, see his season total of 1 goal and 2 assists in La Liga and wonder what all the fuss is about. But delve deeper and one begins to contemplate why there isn’t more clamour for the artisan crafting inventive strokes on San Mamés’ fine canvas.

Ander completed the season in the league’s top ten for average number of passes per game with his tally of 66 (according to bettered only by a sextet of Barça tiki-takaholics and Rayo Vallecano’s Roberto Trashorras, predictably a product of La Masia. The top ten is his home when accurate through balls are concerned, too; his weight of pass reflecting the rest of his game – finely calibrated and majestic in form but with that intrinsic intention to drive the team forward forever apparent. And to top it all off his trickery and sheer willingness to assume responsibility made him the most fouled player in the league bar none.

Ander’s performance when Deportivo La Coruña came to town was typical of his role at the hub of this Athletic side, receiving the ball from all parts of the field before distributing with purpose, preferentially to the adventurous Andoni Iraola and Markel Susaeta on the right flank. He also attempts several through balls into the final third that, though mostly inaccurate on this occasion, show his intent in linking midfield and attack.

Ander - Passes received & attempted (all) vs Depor

His combative side is apparent in his work out of possession; constantly hounding the opposition to rack up the most tackles per game of any Athletic player, with many of them necessary, tactical fouls that aim to halt the progression of yet another fatal counter. In the same match Ander could be seen hurtling around, putting out fires all over the pitch, while his battling qualities and boundless desire saw him bound quite well here with the odds regularly overturned in the aerial duels stakes.

Ander - Tackles & Aerial Duels vs Depor

He aptly shares an apellido paterno (paternal surname) with Helenio Herrera, the inventor of catenaccio and revolutionary manager of la grande Inter of the 60s, who would pin motivational notes on the walls of his teams’ dressing rooms bearing such phrases as “He who plays for himself plays for the opposition. He who plays for the team, plays for himself.” You’d be hard pushed to find a more ardent proponent of this dictum than Ander. This is a player who leaves it all out on the pitch. It’s just a shame when the other lions of the pride consistently fail to roar with the same conviction.

That said, there were a few teammates who, at times, helped drag Athletic back away from the relegation mire. Fernando Llorente’s unwillingness to sign a new contract with the Zurigorri further sought to fracture his already tenuous relationship with manager Marcelo Bielsa and the latter clearly saw this as an opportunity to go down a different path, ostracising Fer to such an extent that he did not start in La Liga until the aforementioned Depor game in late November. Nevertheless, Aritz Aduriz, who returned to the club from Valencia in the summer, took full advantage, registering 14 goals in the league while displaying intelligent movement, link-up play and a terrifically potent heading ability.

Praise must also go to the 19 year old Aymeric Laporte who started the season playing in Segunda B for Bilbao Athletic (the Reserve team) as well as the NextGen Series but quickly became a part of El Loco’s plans, taking the No.4 shirt shortly after his debut. The tall Agen youngster, who moved to Athletic’s cantera in Lezama at 16, was able to pounce when a string of errors, contractual disputes and the inevitable suspension hit the impetuous Fernando Amorebieta. It’s a testament to the imposing teenager that the Venezuelan’s ball-playing ability wasn’t missed as Laporte’s ease on the ball and growing confidence translated to more adventurous driven diagonals out to the flanks as each game passed.

The most pleasing aspect of Aymeric’s introduction, however, was in his dedication to his primary duty: defending. He brings a more composed and reserved style to Athletic’s backline, playing at centre-half in both a back four and a defensive triumvirate in addition to showing his versatility with a couple of stints at left-back. His ability on the turn is improving and though his inexperience brought a couple of dismissals before his season was abruptly cut short by a torn meniscus, fans can be genuinely excited at the prospect of his further growth at the heart of the defence.

Laporte: A rare glint of hope amid defensive disarray

Laporte: A rare glint of hope amid defensive disarray (graphic courtesy of @Experimental361)

Ibai Gómez, too, should be commended for outshining the more vaunted Iker Muniain. Ibai’s mix of alacrity, threatening set-piece delivery and smattering of spectacular goals, including a terrific volley against the enemy from San Sebastián, provided rare elation for the San Mamés faithful who largely endured rather than enjoyed their last season at their beloved Catedral. Bart will be back though – his talent is surely too abundant for him not to return next time with the familiar vigour of old – but this campaign should serve as a warning to not solely rely on innate ability.

Both the physical and, more significantly perhaps, mental hangover acquired from last year’s marathon rollercoaster were too often visible throughout the squad, but in none more so than the precocious Muniain. Legs that previously whirred into a blur were slowed; an increasingly heavy weight of expectation, in addition to the sheer volume of miles clocked, hindering the asphyxiating pressing that was the hallmark of his and Athletic’s rise to the brink of success last term. The enterprising movement synonymous with a Bielsa side became stale while intelligent interplay was replaced by crude and lazy tactics. Passes that were once short, crisp and accurate became progressively longer, delayed and misplaced.

Bielsa is a famously stubborn coach; unmoved from his purist ideology no matter what. His stance is admirable, but the argument proffered throughout his career – that such an inherently inflexible mindset is flawed – is valid once again. Let’s be clear, “inflexible” here certainly doesn’t refer to his attitude regarding team shape. He’s quick to maintain the numerical advantage his centre-backs possess over the strikers they come up against, regularly employing a “number of strikers + 1” rule and in his time at the club he used a variety of formations: initially flirting with the idea of utilising his exhilarating 3-3-1-3 before settling predominantly on a fluid 4-2-3-1 but also reverting to 4-3-3 and even 3-4-3 on the odd occasion.

Rather, it is specifically his defensive philosophy, the work of his team when out of possession, that never alters. He’s a fierce advocate of fervent pressing but the synchronised waves now resemble a disjointed rabble. There comes a point when not only results, but performances too, merit at least a slight venture from such quixotic thinking.

Crouching Bielsa, Hidden Points

Crouching Bielsa, Hidden Points

It might be wise, for example, to join the rest of Europe in looking in on Germany for inspiration; at Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund to be specific. This is another side with pressing at its core leaving numerous opponents dizzied by the black and yellow swarms that buzz around them. Yet tweaks to their Gegenpressing – the concept of recovering possession as soon and as high up the pitch as possible – have enhanced the sting of the beast, at least in Europe’s premier competition. Following BVB’s exit from the Champions League at the group stage last year Klopp came to an interesting conclusion that changed his own previously unwavering judgement:

“I have learned a statistic. Teams that run too much lose, and teams that press reduce their chances of winning the game. Now I know why [the exit] happened. We ran more than our opponents and we pressed them all over, as high as possible.”

It should be noted that the amicable German manager didn’t ditch his beloved pressing altogether; instead employing a half-press with the emphasis now on putting the opposition under sufficient duress as one compact unit, thus conserving energy and minimising the emergence of exploitable holes within the team structure. Now, there’s no guarantee that such a shift in work off-the-ball would do the same trick for Athletic, but there can surely be more method to the madness of El Loco’s current standpoint.

Not that he’ll be around to make those changes. Only this past weekend Josu Urrutia, the Athletic President, announced that the board have decided against renewing the studious tactician’s contract after a turbulent season in which Bielsa fought with them regarding the redevelopment of Lezama, fell out with high-profile figures within the squad and was unable to discover the elusive quality that is consistency. Given these factors the decision was a rather predictable one, so much so that the departing Argentine has championed the case of Bilbao Athletic’s current coach José Ángel Ziganda in recent weeks, detailing how Cuco’s team play “attacking football with good treatment of the ball and dynamism,” while both he and Ander have praised the work of another former player – Ernesto Valverde who so ably reinvigorated Valencia this past season.

Whoever is in charge come Athletic’s first league game in their new home has a huge task on their hands to help the club rediscover the zestful exuberance seen in Bielsa’s first season at the helm. Replacing Llorente’s goals is surely high on the list of priorities; the hope, at least in part, being that Susaeta, Muniain, Ibai and even Óscar De Marcos – whose perpetual verticality constantly gets him into fantastic positions only for composure to escape him at the critical moment – can step up and make a definitive impression on the scoring charts.

This group have already shown that they have the ability to accomplish great things but for too long now the basics have been strewn on the wayside and a consistently high standard of play eluded their grasp. Only the three relegated teams ended up with a goal difference worse than Athletic’s which says it all really – There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in Bilbao and, as manfully as he tries, Ander can’t do it all. It’s time for Los Leones to roar as one again.


Return of the Jack

The moment Jack Wilshere first received the ball against Queens Park Rangers was one many fans had been yearning for an age. The ripple of applause that greeted his first touch conveyed an immense sense of relief. Relief that such a promising youngster, one trained at our very own Hale End Academy, was again dictating play on the carpet-like turf at the Emirates. The sprightly runs were back; hips swaying as he waltzed through the opposition ranks. The characteristic poised tongue was back; moving this way and that, almost transfixing his opponent before the telling blow was delivered. The angelic left foot was back; capable of inflicting a rival’s demise with the most ethereal pass. Jack was back.

After the outpouring of relief came hope. In fact, hope was the foundation, the cornerstone, of the cheers that met his arrival back on the scene. Before the season began in earnest, before a ball was kicked in competitive anger, Wilshere was handed the No. 10 shirt. “So what?” you may ask. “Abou Diaby wears the No. 2. Bacary Sagna, a right back, wears No. 3. Heck, William Gallas used to hold the coveted No. 10 that Jack now proudly sports on his back.” True enough, but this shirt number selection was patently different. Arsène Wenger is clear in his vision that Jack is fundamental to his latest iteration. After the dark days of injury, his seemingly endless time on the sidelines, Wenger’s decision would be a huge boost and sign of the continued faith he the manager, as well as the fans, had in our homegrown maestro:

“I feel Jack will be one of the leaders of this club and by giving him the No 10 shirt I want to show I am confident he will be the one who will lead the team one day.”

That day, at least in terms of style, may come sooner than we all think. Already, a difference can be seen in his presence both on and off the pitch. Most obvious is the extra muscle his long days in the gym have generated. His “core and body-strength have probably improved more than 100 per cent” helping him to cope with the extreme rigours that the Premier League regularly deals out. Mentally, too, there’s a change. Parenthood seems to have had a profound effect on the kid we last saw on the pitch in ’11. In recent interviews there’s a definite calm, a sureness of mind, that wasn’t always the case before his 524 days away from competitive first team action. Archie, his son, has quelled the beast somewhat but importantly his company, removing other distractions, has made Jack even more focused than before.

Renewed focus for the task ahead.

That focus will be needed more than ever as Arsenal strive to swim against the tide and meet targets on all fronts this season. It’s hardly fair to expect so much from a man of only 20 years coming off an extended injury layoff and expectations should be tempered for this very reason. However, it’s hard not to be enticed by previous memories. The mind goes back to the duels with Barcelona; Jack going toe to toe with some of the greatest talents to ever grace the game, and doing so brilliantly. With added maturity it’s only natural for fans to hope (yes, there’s that word again) for a better future with Wilshere at the vanguard.

When fully fit, there’s so much Jack can add to Arsenal’s game. His quick, precise forward passes are vital in his position. He adds an extra link between defence and attack, constantly looking forward for new openings in enemy lines. Wilshere has a special ability to turn, go past a man with ease, and keep the ball circulating at a high tempo. His jinking runs up-field are a fresh break from the mundane ‘pass and not-so-much move’ structure that has contributed to our recent “illusionary domination”. Of course, in the hustle and bustle of centre-field, there’s a time and a place to do so but he generally chooses his moment wisely. In the prolonged and inevitable absence of Diaby and Rosický, two central midfielders fond of a sharp pivot of the feet before embarking on a burst towards the opposition’s goal, Wilshere’s attacking exuberance will be key to adding variety to our game.

Speaking of pivots, Wilshere’s progressive thinking has affected the shape of Arsenal’s midfield. The 2-1 structure we’ve become accustomed to in recent years has been supplanted by a 1-2 to some extent, with Mikel Arteta often providing lone cover in front of the defence. The triangle has been tilted once again.

Diaby (2) and Ramsey (16) both have an average position similar to Arteta (8) in matches away to Liverpool and West Ham respectively. They provide more of a double-pivot in front of the defence which allows Cazorla (19) to take up positions higher up the pitch.

Wilshere (10), however, takes up a noticeably more advanced position when compared to Arteta in matches away to Manchester United and Schalke. In both games he’s closer situated to Cazorla than our deepest lying midfielder. (Images courtesy of WhoScored)

Along with taking a more advanced role in possession, Wilshere’s return also brought about a slight change in Arsenal’s work off-the-ball. Against Q.P.R and Manchester United he would harry his opposite number at every opportunity, forcing errors higher up the pitch than we’d generally managed earlier in the season. Before Jack strode back onto the pitch, Arsenal had been consistent in defending with relatively deep and compact banks of four, especially away from home. His presence altered this approach to a degree and one could argue the change has had both positive and negative effects on the team. The useful aspect has already been mentioned; Wilshere adds another point of attack, one that can add urgency when our play threatens to induce slumber.

The detrimental aspect lies with the knock-on effect on Arteta’s role. The immaculately- coiffured midfield general is vital to initiating Arsenal’s moves. His use of the ball is often swift and accurate, helping to keep play moving at a decent lick to shift the opposition out of position. The change to the midfield shape has slightly hindered play, however, further isolating him in both attacking and defensive phases. Teams are becoming increasingly wise to this with players such as Oscar, Wayne Rooney and Lewis Holtby paying him very close attention in recent meetings. “Shut down Arteta and you shut down Arsenal” is the mantra being recited by rival coaches and it’s certainly one that carries some truth. Passes that once went forward are becoming more lateral; the tempo dropping to soporific levels at times; the joyful spontaneity, once a cardinal feature of our game, being stifled by crises of confidence and opposition plans alike.

Of course, one should not be averse to thinking Arteta could do more to lose his newly-acquired shackles but there’s certainly a school of thought that dictates Wilshere could share the load to a greater degree, dropping deeper to assist those transitions. In the defensive phase, too, work can be done. Jack isn’t the worst in this regard by any means but his occasional impetuous nature, again his downfall at Old Trafford, can land us in trouble. It can be argued that a lack of match practice contributed to his rash tackle on Patrice Evra; his loose touch immediately beforehand was unquestionably uncharacteristic of the man.

It is clear, however, that Wilshere’s left foot has a devilish side, an edge that shouldn’t necessarily be completely eradicated but rather smoothed out as he continues to develop. Whether his advanced positioning, leaving him having to race back, exacerbates these desperate lunges into the tackle is debatable but, on the whole, he’d be better off taking a leaf out of Arteta’s book; jockeying his opponent rather than going to ground and fully committing himself for better or worse, and it’s often the latter.

“You still have much to learn, my young Gunner.”

It must be said that these flaws are to be expected. It’s often forgotten, amongst all the hype, that Wilshere has only played a season and a half of competitive Premier League football. The scope for improvement and the time in which to do so, fitness permitting, is still vast. There are tackles to refine, a knack for goals (plentiful at youth level – 13 in 19 U18 appearances at the age of 15) to rediscover, and the stranger that is his right foot to befriend. The midfield cohesion, or lack thereof up till this point, is also to be expected. Gone are the shirts of Fàbregas, Song and Nasri, no longer hanging in the dressing room waiting to be donned before battle. In their place lie those of Cazorla, Arteta and Podolski; new players with new strengths and weaknesses, new wavelengths to attune.

The amount of effort expended in order to come back to something close to his former self was huge but our latest No.10 acknowledges that “the hard work is not over yet.” The boss purrs at the prospect of his development but adds a significant caveat: “Jack is a great player but he will only be great if the team is great.” For both the team and Wilshere himself, the arduous journey to greatness now truly begins.


Clipped Wings

To many, symmetry is the blissful ideal in football. Be it two direct wingers or two pacy wing-backs the game is often taken to the opposition on the flanks. In an era where the centre of the park is frequently packed with players on opposing teams competing for superiority the expanses out wide are opportune spaces for the flair and skills of wide men in the game to translate into genuinely decisive, match-winning contributions. With teams across the globe implementing different strategies, however, symmetrical simplicity is not always the optimal route to take.

Quick, wide forwards are all well and good when facing a team holding a rather naïve high line yet when faced with one of many parked buses these forwards, sometimes lacking the speed of mind to go with their fleetness of foot, can come unstuck. This scenario is one that Arsenal fans will no doubt be very familiar with. One only has to look at the start to this season to see where the problems lie. Arsène Wenger, who it must be said selected the team himself, was relatively unimpressed after the opener against Sunderland:

The formula didn’t work with three strikers up front and we were not well balanced…we needed maybe one more creative player to be a bit more accurate in the final third. There was not a lot of space left to our strikers; everything had to be created from our midfield.”

Now, I should make it clear that the likes of Walcott and Gervinho certainly have a role to play in the squad. Their pace can be instrumental in matches, pinning back opposition fullbacks and creating more space for others in doing so. Provided the supply from midfield is in tune, their movement off the ball, spinning off their markers and making curved runs beyond defences can provide a very effective outlet. Theo’s technical ability and assurance on the ball, though still needing work, is improving apace helping him to retain the ball more frequently in tight situations and Gervinho’s unpredictable dribbling style can aid his beating of a man when one-on-one. Nonetheless, both would admit that their final balls could still do with some improvement which is why the issue of creativity looms large.

Playmakers are finding themselves on the flanks with increasing regularity in football and with this deployment the accuracy of pass in the final third and thus the quality of chances created is invariably enhanced. A higher proportion of quality chances naturally leads to a greater chance of a goal being scored so simple logic dictates that one should aim to maximise this. This precision of passing was certainly a factor Herbert Chapman, an iconic manager in the history of Arsenal Football Club, considered fundamental to his philosophy:

“Inside passing is more deadly, if less spectacular than the senseless policy of running along the lines and centring to just in front of the goalmouth, where the odds are nine to one on the defenders.”

Ever the innovator, Chapman’s views on wide play were in stark contrast to the rest of English football at the time and played a big part in his success during the 1920’s and 30’s. His use of Cliff Baston especially, though it must be noted he was not a playmaking type, was certainly different to that of other wingers of the age. In Chapman’s W-M (3-2-2-3) formation Bastin would stand in from his wing hoping to profit from the abundance of through-balls Alex James, an inside forward and creator-in-chief of the great Arsenal side of the 30’s, served up. His tremendous goalscoring record owed much to these factors and also to his subsequent cutting in from his already narrow position once the ball was received. On the rare occasions that a shot wasn’t on he could simply play a low pass inside, assisting the centre forward or winger cutting in from the opposite flank.

Chapman: One visionary now watches over another.

Football has changed since those days but, in truth, these rather basic aspects remain the same. A precise cutback or cute pass played on the edge of the box inside an opposition fullback is generally a far more successful tactic than an aimless ball played across the penalty area. Accurate inside passing is a key part of most wide playmakers’ repertoire, and is often lacking when direct options are used on both flanks. Completely replacing the hastily crossed balls oft-associated with the wide speed merchants of this world with more cerebral through-balls can make a team too predictable, though, so a variety of styles is a useful characteristic to possess in a team.

It’s certainly a trait Wenger has valued in his time on these shores, noticeably preferring either a more creative talent or tireless runner on one wing to balance a more attacking, direct option on the other. Think back to potent Wenger midfields past and you’ll see Parlour & Overmars, Pires & Ljungberg, Nasri & Walcott to name a few. More often than not, the balance has been there providing guile and pace in equal measure. Execution of pass is, of course, vital but that execution can be so more effective if the opposition have diverse threats to worry about.

Last season, after the early use of direct options on both wings, Wenger changed tact opting for more subtlety on one flank. The timing of the Africa Cup of Nations and squad options certainly played a part in this decision but one imagines Arsène wasn’t completely enamoured with our play at the time. Having dropped points over the busy Christmas and New Year schedule a different spark, an alternative source of ingenuity, was required. The calls for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to be given a chance were undoubtedly premature last year but had been deafening ever since his early signs of promise in the Carling Cup. Eventually these calls were met with the desired answer and ‘The Ox’ had finally garnered enough trust from Wenger to gain the opportunity to bring his own youthful exuberance to the party.

In addition to the pace that had already been present out wide before his arrival in the first team, Oxlade-Chamberlain brought vision. When deployed on the left he could cut inside onto his favoured right foot and, possessing the mindset of a midfielder, play slide-rule passes behind the opposition defence. In theory at least, his presence would allow for even more possession yet with the option to take on fullbacks on their outside or inside shoulder. A more varied and unpredictable threat was Wenger’s hope and it certainly did have its moments; Alex’s brace in the 7-1 demolition of Blackburn at the Emirates surely springs to the forefront of most fans’ thoughts. As with any youngster, however, his youth led to inconsistent performances and his naïvety lost possession during a period of the season where mistakes simply could not be afforded. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s time will come and interestingly he’s played more centrally this preseason just past. The added maturity in his game since the Euro’s is noticeable and as a result he’s likely to perform more consistently when he’s next given a chance.

The burden of bringing balance to the flanks was then passed onto Yossi Benayoun. Along with his experience he brought work-rate, ball retention and cunning to the left flank. After several games either on the bench or even out of the whole match day squad altogether Yossi was determined to make an impact. On the face of it, the fact that he provided goals at key times was merely a welcome bonus as he brought much more to the team. Whether it was snapping at the heels of the opposition with remarkable regularity, covering his fullback, holding a narrow position to enable midfield compactness when the flow of the game was not in our favour or dropping deeper to allow Walcott more licence to join the central striker, the balance Benayoun brought was instrumental in the overhaul of our North London rivals and securing a Champions League place for the 15th consecutive season.

Yossi’s stay in N5 was only a temporary one, though, so Wenger must now take a different route to provide the creative balance in the final third he values so dearly. The acquisition of Santi Cazorla is a mouth-watering one and given his previous roles for Villarreal and Málaga he’s a tempting wide option, especially in big games where the significance of possession and technical quality is arguably greater than the norm. As has already been mentioned it’s not uncommon to see ‘wide playmakers’ cut in from their designated flank and deliver crucial assists under slightly less attention than they would expect if played in a central role. With the number of alternative, fit central options already present within the squad and the returns of Tomáš Rosický and Jack Wilshere to consider (bringing valuable tenacity in addition to a further point of creativity) the selection of Santi on the wing, even in the ‘lesser games’, may not be so unrealistic.

♫ Santi, Santi Cazorla runs down the wing for me? ♫

Of course, there will be some that won’t want Arsène to remove him from the centre, where he has the whole freedom of the pitch in which to roam, prompting at will. Cazorla’s a player we haven’t really had since Cesc. His appreciation of space is excellent and his delicately-played through-balls will no doubt result in a glut of assists. His success, at least in terms of chances created, in the opening weeks of the season will add further fuel to the thinking that he’s already too crucial to be moved wide. If that is indeed the case then there’s always the possibility Rosický will be moved back to a similar role in which he started his Arsenal career. As previously stated, with his increased maturity, Oxlade-Chamberlain could well make the position his own or Wenger may even repeat last season’s experiment of varying success where he played Ramsey wide. The beauty of these options is that they’re players who are relatively comfortable in either role, wide or central, and would have the potential to interchange freely, disrupting the marking of the opposition as they do so.

In addition to these choices, there’s always the option of using Lukas Podolski wide left as Wenger did at the Britannia. It’s a position he’s very comfortable in having played in that role for the majority of his 101 caps for Germany. The wide left berth may have been Podolski’s starting position but he was far from confined to this location. It was noticeable, in preseason too, how often he drifted centrally, playing one-twos with Cazorla and driving into the box before unleashing a rocket from that cannon of a left foot. This can cause issues with regards to width if the player on the opposite wing is also regularly cutting inside and, again, if that player is a direct type there’s a worry that there will be too big a burden on the central creator. In recent years we have had a tendency to become over-reliant on certain individuals. Regardless of the option Arsène eventually lands on, and there’s still the chance (albeit a very small one) that a last minute move may be made in the transfer window to address this area, it is imperative that doesn’t become the case this season.

Some may prefer the symmetrical, direct twin threat on the flanks but it’s been shown repeatedly in the past, especially at Arsenal, that taking the asymmetrical route can aid one’s search for the perfect balance. The final pass and general creativity in the final third is currently lacking and though the gelling of our new players over time should see an improvement in cohesion going forward, adding an additional creator on one of the wings should enable us to carry a more varied and potent threat. Having similarly direct threats on the flanks is clipping our wings. Hopefully, with an extra dose of artistry, we can find a way to soar again.


Tilting the Triangle

The centre of the park is a fiercely-contested battlefield in any football match. Rival midfielders fight tooth and nail to achieve supremacy in the central third with the victor of this battle, more often than not, going on to claim the overall spoils. The midfield is a vital cog in any team and remains so for Arsenal despite moving towards a more wing-based strategy last term. The ideal midfield should provide a robust stability when out of possession, a wall ready and waiting to shield the defence from the advances of the enemy. When in possession it holds the key to unlocking opposition defences, circulating the ball with unerring precision, and waiting for the exact moment to inflict the killer blow.

Despite Arsenal’s altered tactic last season, the midfield wasn’t suddenly absolved from duty, far from it. When quick, vertical transitions weren’t possible, for whatever reason, central craft was required to provide the breakthrough. Currently talk is rife of how Arsène Wenger may replace Robin van Persie’s impact within the team, should he depart, and of course that will go some way to deciding how competitive Arsenal are this coming season. Arguably, however, he has an even greater task still to perform: filling the giant hole that Cesc Fàbregas used to fit so snugly into. Understandably, given Cesc’s quality and the apparent funds available, this is easier said than done.

Without wishing to go over too much old ground and bring up a plethora of forcibly-erased memories of the majority it can’t be disputed that Cesc was our go-to man on so many occasions. If we needed a goal, simply put, we’d pass to him and hope he’d conjure up either yet another magical assist or net-bulging shot. Wenger’s decision to thrust Fàbregas forward behind the main striker was a defining one; one that was questioned at first by some but a decision that, after a brief adaptation period, simply couldn’t be argued. His burgeoning goals and assists columns the perfect response to the naysayers. He was our talisman, our creator-in-chief now at his devastating best on the fringes of the opposition box. His ability to provide the key pass in the final third of the pitch was unmatched in our squad and even if one were to look worldwide he’s in a select group of very few in this regard.

However, with his quality came a curse of sorts. A pass to Cesc became the easy pass, almost the only pass at times. His presence, through no fault of his own, seemed to inhibit the creative instincts of those around him. Tactically, though, subtle changes were made to the overall shape of the midfield partly perhaps to diminish this phenomenon while still keeping Cesc at the centre, quite literally, of our game plan. Having moved from a 1-2 structure (with a deep-lying holding player behind two more attacking midfielders) to a 2-1 shape with Fàbregas moved into a more advanced role, Wenger has since further tinkered with that shape.

The beauty of the double-pivot is it allows for rotation in the middle third, a blurring of roles that can pose the opposition multiple questions. Depending on circumstance any member of the midfield trio can feature at the point, allowing for untracked runs and more havoc in enemy ranks. Sure, Cesc was still very much the fulcrum of the team, but with that came increased attention, so if space was at a premium further up the pitch the structure gave him the option to drop deeper, dictating with enhanced freedom while allowing a teammate to take up his original position. The midfield triangle can be tilted at will with the opposition being pulled this way and that. At its best it can be extremely effective as illustrated in @BackwardsGooner’s masterfully crafted video detailing Arsenal’s midfield shape throughout a match at home to West Ham United in October of 2010:

In addition to the fluid element the double-pivot brings it can allow for creativity from other sources, depending on the personnel within said pivot of course. One player who has benefitted from this freedom is Alex Song. As the video above shows, when the triangle tilts Song can often become the most advanced midfielder allowing him to prompt with increased regularity. Arsène himself alluded to this growing attacking influence after Song’s goal in that game with a classic ‘Wengerism’: “He has got the taste to go forward, even if I think [it’s] a little too much sometimes for a holding midfielder! But that is part of our game as well.”

This “taste” of the attacking side of the game has resulted in greater assists for Song, especially last season. There’s certainly an argument for stating that he’s venturing forward more due to the inadequate creativity levels of others further forward but what is surely indisputable is that of our current midfielders he has relished the shared creative burden the most since Cesc’s return to Cataluña. His delicately weighted passes and somewhat surprisingly proficient dribbling ability (see a fan’s excellent capture of Robin van Persie’s 1st goal at home to Dortmund) are arguably becoming too predictable at times but they were undoubtedly welcome contributions during key periods of last year’s campaign.

As Wenger mentioned, this attacking instinct is part of our game and is no doubt encouraged throughout the squad. He wants his midfield to be the complete midfield: Capable going forward and going the other way; possessing ability on the ball and intelligence off it. It’s a desirable quality he has described on many occasions including last season where he lauded Arteta’s goal and controlling performance at the heart of midfield against Manchester City:

“He first won the ball back through complete focus on what the opponent will do and where he could lose the ball. He then finished the action and scored the goal. That is what I call a real midfielder, a guy who is always in the game.”

The goal typified Wenger’s definition of a complete midfielder; that means he can defend, give the final ball and score”. This often results in him either playing midfielders out of position in the first team on occasion or suggesting that should be the case for those in the Reserves. There’s a constant desire to improve the defective aspects of their game. Even regarding the early development of the aforementioned Fàbregas there was an ongoing aspiration to create an all-round midfield maestro. He demanded that Cesc should “improve on his defensive side because he is naturally an offensive player.” Playing on the right in his nascent career in the red and white, moving to a central role as Vieira departed, and then being thrust forward to take further control of our attacking potency all helped in creating the versatile, well-rounded talent he is today. Sadly, for Gooners, Barcelona are now the club profiting from such versatility and quality.

Anyway, I digress slightly. As with any system, there are drawbacks if the cogs aren’t completely aligned. As Wenger hinted at in his earlier quote of Song he perhaps ventures forward more frequently than is ideal, leaving the defence exposed as a result. Of course, he’s not the only member of the team that is at fault for the record-high tally of goals conceded under Arsène Wenger in the Premier League last season but, as part of the double-pivot, he must share some of that responsibility. Perhaps the system is partly to blame, though, allowing too much freedom so that specialization of roles is almost thrown out of the window at times. The ‘tilting triangle’ requires more intelligence and awareness of both the positions of your own teammates and the opposition than most midfield shapes.

André Villas-Boas, for one, believes such rotational freedom isn’t possible within the familiar high-octane tempo we enjoy so much on these shores leading to these words earlier this summer:

“We decided [rotational freedom] doesn’t work here, so that’s one of the things I have adapted. You lose a little bit of balance in the Premier League if you play that way. Transitions here are much more direct, making the importance of the number six [the holder] to stay in position more decisive.”

With that in mind, is it an option worth considering for Arsenal as well? Of course, Wenger has used a 1-2 shape in midfield before and it certainly has its merits. The most obvious aspect to note, as Villas-Boas mentions, is the presence of an outright defensive midfielder. Immediately, in theory at least, this gives more protection to the defence; previously unclear distinctions between roles instantly given clarity. More important, though, is the effect this has on the overall team shape and strategy.

A 2-1 midfield naturally leads to a 4-4-1-1 formation without the ball, with the no.10 assisting in the first wave of pressing. The midfield will subsequently follow and to remain compact, therefore neutralising space between stratas, the defence should also follow suit. This can result in a relatively high line which naturally leaves gaps in behind but the fact that the team is applying pressure on the ball should negate the ability of the opposition to exploit that space somewhat. Of course, teams can also practice a more reactive strategy with the defence and midfield dropping deeper without the ball, forming two banks of four. This is an attempt to reduce the space the trequartistas of this world thrive in but the best can still find room to operate effectively in this system.

A 4-2-3-1 with its double-pivot moving to more of a 4-4-1-1 shape without the ball.

Arguably, this isn’t so much the case with a 1-2 midfield. The no.6, operating deeper, can block some of the holes that emerge between the lines and keep a closer eye on wandering opposition 10’s. Furthermore, his presence can allow for further pressing higher up the pitch with greater numbers while still providing security on the counter. In extreme cases a 3-4-3 shape can be formed, with the holding midfielder dropping into defence, allowing the full backs to press on as the wide men have done ahead of them.

The altered positioning of the full backs within the 4-3-3/4-1-2-3 can take some time to adjust to, as Gael Clichy especially noted while we implemented that system, but in the long run it’s a shape that can pay off with the right personnel. It has its advantages when in possession as well as off-the-ball. Again depending on personnel, creative responsibility can be apportioned with the 2 more attacking midfielders sharing the load of a traditional no.10. Admittedly, that’s one less individual than in our current interpretation of the midfield shape (as at times all seem to wander forward!) but it still allows for a degree of freedom while keeping a firm eye on the defensive aspect of the game. Balance, as ever, is key to our fortunes.

A 4-1-2-3 with its designated holding player forming a 3-4-3.

We saw a brief look into the possible future of the Arsenal midfield at the back-end of the 10/11 season with Manchester United’s visit to the Emirates. Ramsey, Wilshere and Song formed the central trio that day and the presence of the former meant a change in our usual midfield shape. Whereas Fàbregas played as the clear no.10, Ramsey played a deeper role, taking it in turns with Wilshere to support the central striker, Robin van Persie. Alex Song’s role was more defined, and as our no.17 performed the role of a traditional no.6 in the system, he gave the stability and balance that Jack and Aaron required to exert their own creative influence on the game. It was fitting that Ramsey should score the winner; a triumph not only for his attacking thrusts but for the midfield shape.

Ramsey (red dot) and Wilshere (blue dot) have both ventured forward into the box with the former applying the killer touch to a flowing move which he started himself. His deployment deeper than a traditional no.10 allowed patient possession to develop, subsequently offering himself and Wilshere more time to advance into dangerous positions such as these.

The view from behind the goal shows Song (yellow dot) in the holding role just in front of the central defenders. His positioning gives Ramsey and Wilshere the confidence to advance in the same move while offering an additional body to ward off any potential counter-attacks.

We saw the Ramsey-Wilshere axis grow as a unit in the preseason of 11/12 but, unfortunately, that partnership would then be broken once again due to Wilshere’s injury, the ongoing nature of which is certainly a worry. Nevertheless, all being well, it’s clearly an option that Arsène sees prospering in the future. Of course, circumstances can change; the call of fans for signings to add that extra creative guile in the heart of midfield will seemingly never abate. One could certainly provide a strong case for such an investment but that argument will be left for another day, as will suggesting specific members of the current squad for certain roles any further than has been done already. The crux of this piece is shape and any alteration, albeit even a small one, could change things for the better.

Whether change is actually enacted is another matter. Realistically, the likelihood is that Arsène will stick with the rotational freedom that the double-pivot provides. That’s perfectly understandable and arguably the best option moving forward given its fundamental flexibility allowing for both defensive and offensive pivots. The question shouldn’t necessarily be “1-2 or 2-1?” but how best to marry the two. The missing ingredient at the moment is a complete understanding between teammates of their individual responsibilities as the shape continually shifts.  If such understanding can be found it’ll be a joy to watch the triangle tilt in seasons to come.


Attack, Defence and the Quest for Balance

The 2011/12 Premier League season:  A season voted the best ever in the league’s 20 year history (in its current guise). While one may argue that the outright level of quality wasn’t at its highest this season, no-one can deny the sheer amount of excitement generated throughout culminating in an exhilarating end at the Etihad stadium. The moment the ball left Kun Agüero’s right foot and hit the back of the net encapsulated this in an instant. Mass euphoria for the blue half of Manchester. Heart-wrenching despair for the red half. Football at its dramatic best.

Some are fascinated by the minutiae of tactical changes over the course of a game while the heartbeats of others are raised by a good, old-fashioned crunching tackle. The staple diet of the majority, however, is goals and there were plenty this season. In fact, Agüero’s late effort was the 1065th goal of this remarkable campaign, a record for a 20-team Premier League season. As you’d expect on the back of that an exceptionally high 2.81 goals per game were scored, the highest ratio in the English top-flight since magic picture boxes were still showing black and white images (3.03 in 1967/68). Which begs the question, what were the defenders doing?

There’s no doubt, in my mind at least, that there are still players highly skilled in the art of defending playing in the Premier League. Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott formed an impressive pairing at the back for Manchester City and along with Joe Hart were a key reason for their title success this season. Other players once derided even by portions of their own fans, Jonny Evans and Laurent Koscielny, have shown fantastic improvement this season and become vital components in their respective teams’ defensive phase. In contrast to Liverpool’s woes in front of goal, Martin Skrtel has proved to be a rock in a defence that allowed the opposition the fewest shots on target of any Premier League club this season (132).

Fabricio Coloccini’s fine season was acknowledged with a place on the PFA Players’ Player Team of the Year, Pablo Zabaleta was his usual reliable self whenever called upon by Roberto Mancini while Younes Kaboul’s performances have resulted in him being Harry Redknapp’s first choice pick at the heart of his defence and being awarded a provisional place in the France squad for Euro 2012. I could go on listing skilled Premier League defenders as there are many more but, in short, my point is that the individual quality is certainly there.

What isn’t there, at least on a regular basis, is efficient collective organisation. Consider the following results: Manchester City (final position 1st) 6 Manchester United (2nd) 1, Manchester United 8 Arsenal (3rd) 2, Arsenal 5 Tottenham Hotspur (4th) 2, Tottenham Hotspur 5 Newcastle United (5th) 0. These are remarkable results between teams who weren’t separated by that much in the final reckoning (gap between 2nd and 3rd apart). Granted, there were mitigating circumstances for some of these scorelines but on the whole they show a rather naïve tactical approach either in the initial setup of the respective losing teams or during the carnage.

These examples don’t even include Chelsea who themselves have been on different ends of cricket scores (albeit very low ones) in some of the ‘big’ games. Their 3-5 loss to Arsenal at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season was a prime example of excitement induced by kamikaze defending. Both sides gave master classes in how not to play a high defensive line. A lack of pressure higher up the field meant both defences were extremely vulnerable to even the most rudimentary long ball. The difference between the sides on that day, and where Arsenal won the match, was seeing this and making a change to rectify the initial error. The team in red dropped slightly deeper in the second half and weren’t as immediately susceptible to the long ball unlike their London rivals who were steadfast in their approach. André Villas-Boas was subjected to a lot of flak that day but his philosophy wasn’t the issue, it was more its implementation. Gradually, as he saw his squad weren’t willing to accept his methods, he adopted a more conservative approach but sadly for him the die had already been cast.

That away victory was one of many in the Premier League this season. 30.5% of games have ended in this fashion, higher than in any other Premier League season. It’s clear that managers have had a more offensive mindset when setting their team up which is another reason for the glut of goals this campaign. The rationale for this change in mentality is somewhat less clear-cut. It could be that the top teams seem, and in fact are, more vulnerable than they once were resulting in the ‘smaller’ clubs taking the handbrake off rather than travelling to the big grounds, parking the bus and waiting for the inevitable breakthrough.

Courtesy of The Independent

Premier League managers are also currently more progressive in their philosophy. The ambition of the ‘lesser’ clubs has meant an increase in attacking play throughout the league. There seems to be a greater number of teams adopting a certain ethos of playing, namely with the ball on the deck, and not altering that approach when they come up against sides they might traditionally expect to be battered by. Roberto Martinez’s Wigan, with their 3-4-3 and Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea with their 4-3-3 have both surprised opposition at times with their attacking transitions and technical quality on the ball. We’ve also seen this with other promoted teams in recent years.

Ian Holloway’s Blackpool devoted almost no time in their game to defending and though they paid for it in the end their attacking play brought them many plaudits and large scalps along the way. Paul Lambert’s Norwich are possibly an exception to this rule of sticking to one particular style. He’s a manager that often changes the shape of his team dependent on the opposition but the attacking intent generally remains. Despite only keeping 3 clean sheets all season, goals from all over the team helped them to reach the safe haven that is mid-table. The more success these types of teams have with this approach the more expansive styles will be integrated into the English game.

So, is Premier League defending dead? All the signs certainly point to it being in a lull at the moment. Gone are ‘the Mourinho years’ in which Chelsea’s defence was at its resolute best. Looking back it’s quite remarkable they only conceded 15 goals in the 2004/05 season. Mourinho’s success at Chelsea brought in a wave of cautious tactics across the league and a drop in the number of goals as a result. Managers adopted the thinking that it’s easier to destroy a masterpiece than create one and with José showing results could be gained with a controlled style why should they bother implementing a more open system? Of course, this generalises a bit. Mourinho’s Chelsea was hardly lacklustre. They were a well-drilled machine well capable of exploiting weaknesses in the opposition but what can’t be disputed is the fact that defence always came first.

This was something that Roberto Di Matteo grasped immediately when taking over the reins from Villas-Boas. Given the personnel at his disposal he decided the most logical approach, especially in high-profile games, was to instruct his team to sit deep and compact before springing to life on the counter-attack. Though this tactic didn’t help Chelsea climb the table in the league it did aid them in knockout competition where purity, and to some extents naivety, is often trumped by pragmatism. Of course, Bayern still had ample opportunities to triumph in Munich but Chelsea’s defensive display in the Camp Nou especially (where similarities with Mourinho’s Inter success were very apparent) was in stark contrast to those of most English teams throughout the season both in European competition and on their own shores.

Manchester City have this year won the league conceding 29 goals, almost double Chelsea’s record, and a tally higher than the average over the last 10 years (25.7) . Perhaps fittingly the newly-crowned Champions also scored the most goals yet the word ‘United’ rather than ‘City’ could well have been inscribed on the Premier League trophy had the red half of Manchester defended with a collective cohesion in the dying minutes at home to Everton. Nevertheless, in the end the trophy was won (or lost) on goal difference and for this reason it’s impossible to forget the 6-1 between the two sides earlier in the season. Had Manchester United not been so cavalier against City that day perhaps the ending of this tumultuous season might have been different.

Open, expansive football may conjure excitement but it doesn’t necessarily get results. As ever, a balance is needed. An ability to attack and defend as one. For most teams the elusive search for balance continues.

Many thanks to Opta (@OptaJoe) for their continued provision of stats galore.

If you enjoyed this piece you can follow me on twitter ~> @hazzaboy21

The 3 P’s – Part 3 (Possession)

Part 1 (Pressing)

Part 2 (Penetration)

Arsenal under Arsène Wenger are known worldwide for their exciting brand of free-flowing passing football. It has seen them acquire multiple admirers over the years and this has meant a constant flow of fans through the gates at both Highbury and more recently the Emirates. Fans who, on the whole, have witnessed the boys in Red and White follow their manager’s philosophy by dominating games keeping the ball on the floor. Maximise possession and the rest will follow is the mantra.

Possession can be such a powerful tool and has been treated accordingly for many years. Before England played Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, Sir Alf Ramsey told his team to “treat the ball like it is made of gold and never let it go.”  He realised the very simple fact that the less the opposition have of the ball the less chance they’ll have of scoring. This is central to the defensive element of possession.

Spain and Barcelona are more recent examples of teams with possession at the heart of their ethos and have taken the ‘keep-ball’ style of play or ‘tiki-taka’ to a level not seen before by many. When games are won they are the experts at taking the sting out of a game, closing out games with ease by doing what they love – keeping the ball.

Maintain control of the ball and you can also ‘pass teams to death’ – keep them chasing until they tire and be ready to capitalise later on in games. This is the attacking element of possession. We’ve seen this quite a lot in recent years with Wenger keen for his teams to be ultra-fit so as to take advantage in the dying moments. Something that often gets overlooked in teams who aim to monopolise possession is the amount of running they do off-the-ball simply to find pockets of space to give their teammates more passing options and thus create a higher chance of keeping hold of the ball.

Nigel Winterburn described how “Arsène Wenger’s training is all about possession of the football, movement of the football and support of one another.” This will be nothing new to you and is illustrated by the fact we were the side with the highest average percentage possession last season (61%) and the side with the best passing accuracy with 84%*. However over the last few years our performances on occasion have made me wonder – should we be better on the ball than we are?

Many teams use the same tactic when they come up against us. Concede possession of the ball without a fight, park the bus and ask us to break them down. So many teams have implemented this over the years that I’ve wondered whether it might be an idea if the groundsman might paint double yellow lines on the opposition’s goal line each half.

However, on the odd occasion that a team does ‘have a go’ at us and press higher up the pitch we often seem ponderous and sloppy in possession. It may be because we’re not used to facing this tactic that often but forgive me for hoping a team known worldwide for their passing football might do better. Take last year’s visit of Barcelona for instance – A brilliant win and arguably the greatest night at the Emirates. Despite this the majority of our play that night was very inaccurate. Barça are arguably the best pressing team in the world but I would still have expected us to keep the ball better. We ended the game with 39%** possession so there’s certainly room for improvement.

Possession isn’t everything of course. Football is a results business and nobody will preach that more than José Mourinho. His Inter Milan side famously only had a remarkable 16%** of the ball when they faced Barcelona in the second leg of their Champions League Semi Final in the 09/10 season. Inter may have lost that leg 1-0 and were lucky on a few occasions not to concede a second which would have meant elimination from the competition but ultimately they stood firm to reach the final and eventually win the trophy.

So how can we, a team that aims to possess the majority of the ball, beat these teams that set out with a defensive mentality? I addressed this to a degree in Part 2 of the 3 P’s (Penetration) but would further like to add to that the speed of ball circulation. Former Racing Santander coach and Real Madrid sporting director Miguel-Ángel Portugal hits the nail on the head when speaking on the matter:

“The faster you move the ball, the harder it is for the opposition to cover all the gaps because they get pulled from side to side.”

Possession, in an attacking sense at least, is nothing without pace or a sudden change of it. Reserve team coach Neil Banfield mentioned in preseason that this was one of the things the coaches were encouraging the youngsters to improve on and this is being continued in the first team set-up. After Sunderland’s visit to the Emirates earlier this season, midfielder Jack Colback explained that the expanse and speed of our play was a real eye-opener:

“Obviously we played Chelsea at home but I don’t think they move it around as quick as Arsenal. They make the pitch really big and they’re constantly rotating so you don’t really get a chance to have a breather.”

These are encouraging words and while we’re seeing a return to the more direct Arsenal of the early Wenger years it’s good to see opposition players are still suffering physically with our lateral play. One man who has been instrumental in this is Mikel Arteta. When he arrived on the last day of the summer transfer window he was regarded by many as a replacement for Cesc Fàbregas but his performances have been more akin to a Denilson upgrade. Robust in the tackle and positionally aware it is his intelligent passing that have really stood out. He is currently the only Premier League player in the top 10 for average passes per game from the top 5 European leagues (77.9) and has an impressive pass accuracy percentage of 90.4% (Incidentally Aaron Ramsey is 12th on the list with an average of 71.6 passes a game)***.

Arteta keeps possession, often with one or two touches, thus linking play and keeping the speed of ball circulation high. This role should not be underestimated in our system and it is also extremely useful when considering the defensive element of our possession. So far this season we have been able to close out games with more ease than in recent years and much of this may be down to the added experience in the squad. However, on a few occasions (namely Marseille away and West Brom at home) we have seen what I like to call the ‘narrow-asymmetrical-possession-domination tactic.’ Catchy name, eh?

Here we have the positions of the Arsenal players in the 2nd half of the match vs Marseille at the Stade Vélodrome.

1. We can see the players set in a 4-3-3 formation with Tomáš Rosický (7) as the most attacking midfielder. 2. Gervinho (27) has been subbed on for Theo Walcott (14). 3. This is where we adopt the possession-domination formation I mentioned earlier. Aaron Ramsey (16), brought on for Andrei Arshavin in the 78thminute, replaces Rosický in the middle, Tomáš moves a little to the left and Gervinho moves more central, closer to Robin van Persie (10) forming a compact 4-2-3-1. In practice both Ramsey and Rosický were rotating between central and left-ish roles and it was this fluidity of movement that allowed an increase in possession in the last few minutes of the game.

In the above picture we see Rosický (red dot) wide on the left with Ramsey (yellow dot) central. Gervinho (blue dot) has moved into a more central position to support van Persie.

However, in this picture we see Rosický more central with Ramsey in the left wing position making a run to get onto the end of Djourou’s cross. He receives the ball and keeps his composure to finish low past Mandanda.

In the West Brom game both our ‘runners’ (Walcott and Gervinho) were replaced by ‘ball players’ (Benayoun and Arshavin) while Rosický replaced Ramsey. These changes had the similar effect of helping us keep possession in the latter stages of the game. This is something we haven’t seen that often this season but it could become more of a regular occurrence when Jack Wilshere returns to full fitness. Walcott and Gervinho have contributed greatly to our improved penetration but the likes of Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosický, Benayoun and Arshavin could be used for occasions where more possession may be necessary.

Finally but by no means least, as Michael Cox of Zonal Marking explains, the passing ability of a team’s goalkeeper can be crucial to their overall possession. For a while now I’ve been a little riled at Wojciech Szczęsny’s distribution. While he has worked on this there have still been numerous occasions this season where our periods of pressure through possession have been lost through a Wojciech punt forward. This might be a valid tactic if we were an aerially dominant team and for all his critics the presence of Marouane Chamakh actually helps us in this regard. However, without him in the team long kicks upfield are often lost. To illustrate this below are two chalkboards from Round 10 of this season’s Premier League season where we defeated a certain team at the Bridge.

Vorm: 45/47 successful passes (96%); Szczęsny: 21/34 successful passes (62%)

The chalkboard on the left shows Swansea’s Michael Vorm choosing to play short passes which are successful (denoted by the blue arrows) thus maintaining possession for his team. Szczęsny however opts to play several longer balls which in the main turn out to be unsuccessful (red arrows). Incidentally Swansea are the shortest team in the Premier League and so Vorm’s distribution is even more logical. Wojciech can clearly improve more in this regard.


Arsène Wenger’s philosophy in emphasis on possession is much admired and with good reason. Look all around Europe and the sides at the top of the tables will invariably have the highest average possession stats. Our new-found direct style is addressing our penetration issues but ultimately we need possession to achieve success. After all, how can you score without the ball?

* Opta Stats (@OptaJoe)



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