Newcastle vs Arsenal Tactical Preview


*Here is my tactical preview of the Newcastle vs Arsenal game that has also appeared at the Arsenal blog 7amkickoff

It has again come to the very last game of the season to decide whether Arsenal will claim a CL spot ahead of Spurs. The Gunners pay a visit to Newcastle on Sunday in a game they must win; as it is extremely unlikely that Sunderland will cause Spurs much trouble at White Hart Lane.

Words cannot describe how little I am looking forward to those 90 minutes at St. James Park on Sunday. When I close my eyes at night, I keep seeing images of Pardew and AVB, the two managers I dislike the most in the PL, jumping around with joy after a late Newcastle equalizer. I see Pardew punching the air, and I see myself punching Stefan Freund. Worse still, I see myself throwing the TV to the front lawn and vandalizing our garage.

One argument of so-called “neutrals” who want Arsenal to fail to secure a CL spot drives me particularly crazy. It is suggested that “Arsenal try to reach CL just to deny other ‘more ambitious clubs’ a place in CL, not that they are interested in achieving anything in that competition.” The more ambitious club in this argument is, of course, Spurs, a club that was recently eliminated from the inferior Europa League competition by FC Basel. The mighty Swiss side Basel were knocked out of CL themselves this season in the qualifying stage. The only time Spurs were in the CL, they were eliminated by Real Madrid after a 5-0 aggregate scoreline. Inspirational indeed!

Before starting with the tactical preview of the game, here are the probable line-ups. For Arsenal, the embodiment of calmness, aka Arteta, is almost certain to miss the game with a calf injury that he sustained late in the Wigan game. In his absence, Wenger is likely to start with Wilshere and switch Ramsey to the holding role in central midfield. For Newcastle, the first choice goalkeeper Tom Krul is injured and the second choice goalkeeper Elliot is suspended after his hilarious red card against QPR. The veteran keeper Harper will then have a chance to start and say farewell to the Newcastle fans. In central midfield, Tiote is a doubt for Newcastle due to a hamstring injury. Sissoko and Santon are almost certainly unavailable. If Tiote is not fit, Pardew is likely to start with Perch in central midfield.

• Newcastle (4-2-3-1) Harper (GK), Debuchy (RB), Coloccini (CB), Taylor (CB), Yanga-Mbiwa (LB), Cabaye (CM), Tiote (CM), Gutierrez (CM), Ben Arfa (RF), Gouffran (RF), Cisse (CF).

• Arsenal (4-3-3) Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Gibbs (LB), Wilshere (CM), Ramsey (CM), Rosicky (CM), Cazorla (LF), Walcott (RF), Giroud (CF).


Gouffran’s Free Role and Ramsey-Wilshere Pivot

After tinkering quite a bit between 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, Alan Pardew seems to have finally settled to a 4-2-3-1 system which shares more similarities with a 4-4-2 than a 4-3-3. If you are confused with this statement, it might be a consolation to know that so is Pardew. All joking aside, an interesting aspect of Pardew’s most recent 4-2-3-1 against QPR  was the role Gouffran played. Rather than the creative advanced central midfielder of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 system, the January acquisition from Bordeaux played like the support striker of a 4-4-2. His movement complemented Ben Arfa’s in the sense that when Ben Arfa cut inside from the right on his favorite left foot, Gouffran made the cross diagonal run to the right, or when Debuchy pushed forward to create a crossing opportunity, Gouffran made a run into the box to pair with Cisse as a second striker. The image below captured from QPR vs Newcastle game illustrates this point. Debuchy has pushed forward as Ben Arfa has moved inside and is about to send a cross into the box. Gouffran and Cisse are both in the box to attack the cross. Ben Arfa is lurking in front of the box. Cisse will score from this cross but it will be ruled offside (which is quite marginal as one can see).


To summarize, Gouffran either provides width on the left in front of the rather narrow Gutierrez or on the right when Ben Arfa comes inside; or when the full backs push forward, he pairs with Cisse as the second striker.  The chalkboard below illustrates the attacking action of Ben Arfa and Gouffran againt QPR. Note how often Ben Arfa comes inside and how Gouffran has a more free role and drifts to both flanks. A crucial point for Arsenal (especially in the absence of Arteta) is that Ramsey and Wilshere should be alert to Gouffran’s movement as he is the player who has the most freedom to move to create overloads or to exploit an opening. In the likely event that Arsenal monopolize possession in Newcastle’s half and establish a high line, Koscielny and Mertesacker should keep an eye against a ball over the top that Cisse and Gouffran can chase.  If Newcastle are up for the game, it is also likely that Gutierrez, Gouffran and Cabaye press Arsenal’s preferred route of ball circulation through their right flank and in particular cutting the out ball to Sagna. It should be pointed out that this is how they scored their second goal against QPR when Gutierrez closed down on Bosingwa and forced an error that Gouffran capitalized.


On a more general note, with Ramsey assuming Arteta’s more defensive role, and Wilshere taking over Ramsey’s more free role in the double pivot, it is essential that Wilshere does not leave Ramsey too exposed by losing his positional discipline. This point might cost Arsenal the 4th place trophy, as what brought Arsenal to this point after trailing Spurs 7 points in early March has been the defensive shape and positional discipline of the “whole team”. If Wilshere sells Ramsey short defensively, the much praised Koscielny-Mertesacker partnership might not be able to save Arsenal.  Ramsey played the holding role reasonably well in Arteta’s absence in the home games against Liverpool and West Ham United. His distribution was quite good as the chalkboard below illustrates, but it is the street wisdom and calmness of Arteta that Arsenal is more likely to miss.


Arsenal’s Left and Debuchy vs Gibbs

An interesting potential tactical battlefield is Arsenal’s left and Newcastle’s right flank. The reason is the similarity of partnerships and movements in that area for the two respective teams. While on Newcastle’s right Ben Arfa likes to come inside and roam as a playmaker, Cazorla does the same on Arsenal’s left flank. When Ben Arfa comes inside, Debuchy pushes forward. Likewise as Cazorla roams inside, Gibbs attacks the space that Cazorla empties (see the chalkboard above). Here, the discipline and alertness of holding midfielders and wide players to track those fullback movements is crucial. As Gibbs is attracted to Ben Arfa’s movement inside, Cazorla and Wilshere should be disciplined to track Debuchy’s runs (as Wilshere is likely to be the left sided anchor along Ramsey). Similarly, the left footed Giroud should be prepared to exploit the space Debuchy leaves behind by adjusting his lateral movement towards that side.

 Force Newcastle to Long Balls by Pressing High Early

I do not think this requires much of an explanation. The chalkboard below that illustrates the “accuracy” of Newcastle long balls speaks for itself. Giroud should help Cazorla and Rosicky closing down the out ball to Mbiwa and Debuchy.


Walcott vs Yanga-Mbiwa

Theo Walcott has consistently frustrated me this season by stubbornly coming too narrow when placed on the right wing and looking somewhat too predictably for a killer run behind the opposition left back. Against Wigan, however, he displayed his very best game of the season so far by providing width on the wing, wisely choosing when to come inside and overall exhibiting excellent movement. Not only that, he did also show a much better professional attitude, and helped the team defensively by tracking back Wigan’s left wingback Espinoza’s forward bursts.

Against Newcastle, Walcott will be facing Yanga-Mbiwa, who already played against Arsenal twice this season in the CL when he was a Montpellier player (he played centerback in both group stage games). With Santon unavailable due to an injury, Pardew has recently deployed the French defender to left back position. The crucial point for Arsenal is again width on the right flank. Against Newcastle, Walcott’s width is particularly important as Gutierrez on Newcastle’s left tends to tuck in and stay narrow, helping his central midfield. Unless Walcott stays wide often enough on that right flank, two things will happen. First, Gutierrez will more easily support Cabaye and Tiote in putting pressure on Arsenal’s ball circulation through the center and it will be easier for the home side to cut the out ball. Second, Yanga-Mbiwa, a center-back by trade, will come narrow and play as a third auxiliary center-back along Coloccini and Taylor congesting the center.


Arsenal vs Wigan Tactical Preview


**A slightly different version of this preview will also appear at the Arsenal blog

After the incredibly annoying AVB’s little Spurs won at Stoke following another crappy display, now it is official that Arsenal have no room left for the slightest slip-up. The Gunners must win both of their two remaining games. Somewhat ironically, on Tuesday they are facing Wigan, aka the Kings of FA Cup, who will be relegated themselves unless they win at Arsenal. It is a massive game for both sides. It is more massive than AVB’s insecurity and lack of logic.

You might be interested in knowing that I have not cut my fingernails since the QPR game 10 days ago. As I type, my nails are getting stuck in the keyboard. I have also done a lot of Ashtanga Yoga (I have not done no such thing; I do not even know what that is). Just like every Arsenal fan, I am getting ready for the nail-biting wretched 90 minutes on Tuesday.

Before I start with a bit of tactical analysis of Wigan, here are the likely starting 11s. For Arsenal, Giroud is still suspended, but there are no fresh injuries. For Wigan, no injuries can stop them, because they are just awesome!

• Arsenal (4-3-3) Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Gibbs (LB), Arteta (CM), Ramsey (CM), Rosicky (CM), Cazorla (LF), Walcott (RF), Podolski (CF).

• Wigan (3-4-1-2) Robles (GK), Alcaraz (CB), Scharner (CB), Boyce (CB), McArthur (RWB), Espinoza (LWB), Jordi Gomez (CM), McCarthy (CM), Maloney (AM), Kone (F), McManaman (F).

How Do Wigan Play?wiganRoberto Martinez has adopted a hybrid (or should I say unorthodox?) system at Wigan whose objective is to preserve width while keeping the center of the pitch congested. Their game plan tries to achieve those conflicting objectives in three ways.

First, Wigan employ three center-backs (against City in the FA Cup final they had Boyce, Alcaraz and Scharner as CBs) and defend their flanks with two wingbacks. Their first choice wingbacks (Stam on the right and Beausejour on the left) are both injured. Therefore, against City they used Espinoza on the left and McArthur on the right. When the opposition have the ball, their two central midfielders, McCarthy and Jordi Gomez, drop deep in front of the Wigan box. Depending on the direction of the attack, one of the two center-backs sweeps behind the full back (more on this later). For example, if McArthur is caught high up the pitch on the right, Boyce pushes towards the right back position. Scharner does the same to cover for Espinoza on the left.

Second, when the opposition have the ball, Shaun Maloney, Wigan’s most advanced central midfielder, stays slightly higher up the pitch than McCarthy and Gomez and presses the opposition build-up. Kone drops to the wide left position and McManaman stays wide right. When Wigan gain possession, Kone and McManaman provide quick outlets for transition through wide areas and Maloney provides the link up. In other words, the first ball in transition is usually played towards one of the flanks, instead of a central striker who is being marked by opposition center-backs.

Third, both of the two wingbacks play quite high up the pitch and motor forward to create an overlap when Kone and McManaman run inside to central areas. For example, against City Espinoza could be seen as a covering left back inside Wigan box in one instance, and then appearing as a left winger shortly after (see image below). The Kone-Espinoza combination gave the typically excellent Zabaleta such a hard time in the FA cup final, simply because David Silva was not tracking back Espinoza’s forward runs. Same can happen against Arsenal if Walcott again decides to play like a central striker and evacuates the flank!

Below, I will try to illustrate those 3 points through the help of some images taken from the FA Cup final against Manchester City on Saturday.

Kone on the left and Mc Manaman on the right stay wide, Maloney works between the lines like a traditional #10.

The image sequence below is useful to illustrate how none of the three attacking players for Wigan (Kone, McManaman and Maloney) occupy the traditional central striker role when Wigan gain possession and break forward.  In the first image, timed at 8:19, Maloney (on the far right side of the image) has started the break by finding McManaman who is controlling the ball under pressure. Notice how wide of the pitch the first ball is received as  Wigan break. Also observe Kone at the other side of the pitch as he will be involved in the next image.


After controlling the ball, McManaman turns inside and passes the ball to Kone, who is on the other side of the pitch. The point is how wide the two forwards are stationed when the move starts. Kone has now received the ball in the next image (timed at 8:43) and is attacking Zabaleta. On the far right, McManaman is now looking to pick his time for a run behind Nastasic. There is no Wigan central striker that City centerbacks can mark easily.


The final image from this move captures 2 seconds later, timed at 8:45. Kone has brought the ball inside Zabaleta, and is feeding McManaman’s run past Nastasic. The young forward will waste a good opportunity after receiving the ball. This is how Wigan make the transition from 5-3-2 off the ball to 3-4-1-2 when they gain possession with Maloney linking up play behind Kone and McManaman. The crucial point is how Kone and McManaman leave the centerbacks alone, stay wide to stretch play.


Arteta and Ramsey should be alert to close down the passing angles to Kone and McManaman when Wigan break from their own half. Rosicky and Cazorla should again start pressing high up the pitch to allow Arsenal to get into shape. The template here should be the Swansea away game when Wigan gain possession in their half. Press quickly and then retreat into shape!

An important duel in the game will be between McManaman and Gibbs on Arsenal’s left flank. McManaman simply tortured Clichy all game long, but this was also because Clichy received absolutely no help from Nasri in front of him. McManaman threat on Wigan’s right might also pin Gibbs back and deny him the opportunity to overlap on the left which is vital for Cazorla to roam inside.

Wigan Crowd Out the Center with Three Centerbacks and Two Midfield Anchors

The  image above illustrates how Wigan defend with 5 men at the back and how their two central midfielders congest the area in front of their box. Here, Mc Carthy is trying to close down the ball. Behind him, Jordi Gomez is screening in front of the box packed with three centerbacks. The right wingback McArthur has retreated very deep amd level with his three centerbacks. The closest CB to the right wingback is Boyce. More central are the other two CBs Scharner and Alcaraz  On Wigan’s left, Espinoza has retreated deep and has come narrow. Look how narrow City are and how Wigan have congested in front of their box.

Arsenal will have trouble breaking this packed center if their build-up is slow and predictable. I believe the key point here is a direct winger running at this narrow and congested defence through the flanks. Wenger might call for Oxlade Chamberlain on the right flank and ask him to utilize the space behind Espinoza. Theo Walcott can also threaten with direct runs but he needs to stay wide and try to exploit the area between Espinoza and the left sided centerback Scharner. Walcott’s usual trick of making an off the ball killer run behind the left back will probably not work here because there is an extra CB covering the left side. The good thing is that Wigan also do need a win. Unlike the FA Cup final where they had no pressure, they have to open up a bit rather than keeping a tight game and going for extra time. Arsenal should look to stretch the three centerbacks laterally with Podolski drifting to the left and overloading Wigan’s right by combining with Gibbs and Cazorla.

Espinoza Caught High Up the Pitch


The image above captures an instance where the left wing back Espinoza is caught somewhat high up the pitch and running back. David Silva has received the ball on the right wing, and the center-back Scharner has pushed up towards the left back position to cover for Espinoza. This is a key point for Arsenal. The Wigan wingbacks, especially Espinoza, push forward and play quite high up the pitch, leaving the area behind them often exposed. Arsenal should look to find the wide man (hopefully Walcott stays wide if he is given the role) in this area quickly and create a one-on-one with the covering center-back. In short, the area behind Espinoza is a key weakness of Wigan! This is where they conceded on the counterattack against West Bromwich as well.

This is a game where Arsenal need to follow the template of the Swansea away game, press early, retreat into shape, do not give the opposition any chances and be clinical themselves The first goal is very important. Wigan need a win as well, so they will be more open compared to the FA Cup final, and this openness might be what relegates them!