West Bromwich Albion vs Arsenal Tactical Preview

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Here is my tactical preview of West Bromwich Albion versus Arsenal written for the Arsenal blog 7amkickoff.

http://www.7amkickoff.com/2013/arsenal-letters-west-bromwich-albion-vs-arsenal-tactical-preview/

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Arsenal:4 Reading:1 Match Analysis

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Goals: Gervinho (11), Cazorla (48), Giroud (67), Robson-Kanu (68), Arteta (77, pen)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Fabianski (GK), Sagna (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Ramsey (CM) Arteta (CM), Rosicky (CM), Gervinho (RF), Cazorla (LF), Giroud (CF).

Arsenal battered Reading in a one-sided affair at the Emirates.

Reading Line-Up and Pogrebynak Leading the Line

Let me start with a little bit of gloating. In my weekly tactical preview for the Arsenal blog 7amkickoff, I had argued that one key dilemma for the newly appointed Reading manager Nigel Adkins was the choice between a 5-man midfield to match Arsenal in the center of the pitch or alternatively starting with a 2-striker system which would fit Reading’s wing play better and pose a more serious attacking threat to Arsenal. I had also emphasized that the lumbering Russian striker Pogrebynak would be the wrong choice to play the lone striker role if Reading were to line-up with a 4-5-1, as Arsenal back four would be pushing up, squeezing the space, rendering the extremely slow Russian all but useless in a 4-5-1. Accordingly, I predicted that given his attacking reputation, Adkins would line-up with a more daring 4-4-2.

Adkins, however, did start with a 4-5-1, with Pogrebnyak leading the line as the lone striker. As also mentioned in the preview, he sticked Guthrie as an additional central midfielder (along with Karacan and Leigertwood) to match Arsenal’s dominance in the center of the pitch. Here is Pogrebnyak’s attacking chalkboard which says it all. The big Russian, who possesses a speed of less than 5mph, was substituted in the 60th minute, but the damage was already done.

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Reading Leave Arteta Alone and He Directs from the Deep

A straightforward way to disrupt Arsenal’s fluidity of passing and movement is to press hard their deep source of ball circulation, also known as Arteta.  Despite having three central midfielders, Reading rarely pressed the triangle between the two Arsenal centerbacks and Arteta. In the rare occasions they tried, Ramsey was alert to drop deep to help Arteta in the build-up. As a result, Arteta was able to direct Arsenal’s game given the constant movement in front of him. The chalkboard below illustrates how comfortable he was in orchestrating Arsenal attacks from deeper areas and linking up with Cazorla and Ramsey’s scheming action in front of him. Arteta completed 99 of his attempted 107 passes, with 38 out of 40 in the attacking third. It was a cake walk for him, which illustrated that matching Arsenal with 3 central midfielders is futile unless these central midfielders do press Arteta to disrupt the build-up. Instead, Reading’s central midfield trio dropped too deep and allowed Arsenal to settle down to a passing rhytm. Another problem with sitting too deep was that with an outlet like Pogrenbyak who cannot run behind defenders, Arsenal were able to win the ball back easily in Reading’s half.

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Cazorla Again Wasted (!) on The Left Wing

One “not so uncommon” point of view among some Arsenal fans is that lining up with Cazorla on the wing wastes the talents of the most creative Arsenal player.  “Cazorla is not a winger”, the argument goes and thus “should always start in the central #10 position behind the striker to do what he does.”

The crucial point missing in this argument is that the line-up is not the same thing as the tactic. In particular, lining up with Cazorla on the wide left position does not mean that Cazorla will stay wide on the left all game long to work up and down the wing, and keep away from areas where he is the most dangerous. A quick look at Cazorla’s attacking action in the last two home games against Aston Villa and Reading clearly illustrates this point. In both of those games, Cazorla started at the wide left position, but he played nothing like a wide player. As can be seen in the chalkboards below, Cazorla (just like David Silva does for Manchester City) does drop centrally from the wide left position and roams all around the attacking third to create.

Placing Cazorla on wide left means that he will use that position as a launching pad to move inside to central areas and even onto the opposite right flank. I argued in this piece a long time ago that Cazorla is hardest to contain and mark out of the game when he starts his inside moves from the flanks, just like he did when he played for Villareal and Malaga.  Placing Cazorla wide clearly requires some tactical discipline from the whole team. When he goes inside, Arsenal left back stays wide and high up the pitch, which leaves the team exposed to counterattacks from their left (just like what happened in the Villa home game), unless one of the central midfielders cover that area. Today against Reading, Ramsey did this covering job brilliantly and Arsenal were not caught on the break.

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Against Reading, Cazorla was again at his creative best. He effortlessly combined with Rosicky to poke holes in Reading’s midfield cover. It should also be noted that Arsenal’s pressing high up the pitch is most effective when Rosicky is in the central advanced midfield role, and Cazorla starts on the wide left. Arsenal’s pressing caused Reading centerbacks and the deepest central midfielder Leigertwood misplace pass after pass especially in the first half. Arsenal did not make Reading pay a higher price in the first half, which is another matter, but the early urgency and seriousness of attitude displayed here was encouraging.

The Predictable Unpredictability of Gervinho 

After his encouraging substitute displays against Swansea and Bayern Munich, and with Walcott sidelined with a minor injury, it was no surprise that Gervinho started on the right wing today. The Ivorian is indeed a weird footballer whose most frequent action is to put himself in a promising attacking position through a brilliant run or dribble only to deliver a remarkably frustrating end product. Yet, today against Reading, he had one of his most effective displays. He did frustrate frequently especially with his attempts to head two brilliant Sagna crosses in the second half, but he finished the game with two assists and a goal.

Gervinho opened the scoring early in the game after a move he started on wide right found Cazorla on the left edge of the box. The Spaniard master fired a low diagonal shot/cross across the face of goal for Gervinho to tap in.  Arsenal should have put the game in bed in the first half yet their incessant pressure only produced a second goal early in the second half when Cazorla sweetly curled Gervinho’s cutback to the bottom corner. The Ivorian was in action again after a Reading attack broke down on Arsenal’s right following a corner and the counterattack quickly released Gervinho on the right. Instead of driving to the byline to produce nothing, the winger brilliantly waited for Giroud’s run and played the ball to the French striker for the ex-Montpeliere hitman to fire low and hard to the bottom corner. Reading did reduce the deficit a minute later when left winger McAnuff’s delightful cross to the far post was turned in by Robson-Kanu with Monreal getting injured by crashing to the post while trying to stop the finish.

In the last 15 minutes, Wenger took off Monreal and Gibbs replaced the injured left back. Podolski was introduced in the central striker role with Giroud off, and Gervinho taken off with a standing ovation for Oxlade-Chamberlain. The youngster made an immediate impact after intercepting a misplaced Mariappa pass, bursting into the area only to be brought down by Mariappa. Arteta did not make a mistake from the penalty spot. In the last 10 minutes with the game effectively won, Arsenal looked for a 5th, but given their tendency to score the perfect goal, they failed to add to the scoreline.  A mesmerizing move on Arsenal’s right saw Cazorla chipping the ball to Rosicky, but the Czech tried to lay it off for Podolski instead of finishing the move himself.

In the end, it was all to easy for Arsenal thanks to their earlier ultra-serious attitude. For me, tactically the real man of the match was Ramsey. He dropped back to help Arteta when needed and covered for Santi cutting inside left, two key functions allowing Arsenal to operate like a well oiled machine.

Swansea: 0 Arsenal: 2 Match Report

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Goals: Monreal (74), Gervinho (90)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Fabianski (GK), Jenkinson (RB), Koscielny (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Diaby (CM) Arteta (CM), Cazorla (CM), Walcott (RF), Oxlade-Chamberlain (LF), Giroud (CF).

Late goals from Monreal and Gervinho gave a gritty Arsenal golden three points in Wales.

Wenger made 3 changes from the starting line-up that beat Bayern Munich in midweek. Diaby replaced Ramsey in midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the left wing with Cazorla shifted to the advanced central role instead of Rosicky. Monreal replaced Gibbs at the left back position.

Unlike my prediction in my match preview, Wenger preferred to play with two direct wingers, which indicated that his plan was to leave the ball to Swansea, keep a compact shape defensively, and attack in a more direct manner just like he did against Bayern. Swansea looked on top in the first 20 minutes, creating chances through Rangel and Michu. In those opening 20 minutes, Arsenal dropped a little too deep with Oxlade and Wilshere tracking the mobile Swansea fullbacks, which meant that when Arsenal gained possession, Diaby and Arteta found it difficult to find the forward outlet ball.

Arsenal shuffled their shape a bit after the first 20 minutes and started pressing higher up the pitch, an effort led by the excellent Cazorla. Diaby and the two Arsenal fullbacks also pushed a bit further up and Swansea suddenly lost their passing lanes in a cagey midfield battle. The home side missing their main ball playing center-back Flores, who is crucial in their build-up from the back, also helped Arsenal disrupt Swansea’s fluid passing.

Arsenal did create two chances in the first half, both through individual skills by Oxlade-Chamberlain with the youngster hitting the crossbar twice. Walcott, on the right wing, was quite ineffective offensively, but the exhaustion from midweek must be considered as a possible reason. The necessity of tracking back the Swansea left back Davies was another.

The visitors looked solid, patient and disciplined defensively just like they did against Bayern. The good shape, however, almost always comes at the cost of less fluidity. But as mentioned, I believe that was Wenger’s plan from the start. Keep the good fight and shape, do not concede a cheap goal, and make use of a few of your chances to win. With the back four receiving good protection from the midfield cover, just it was the case in the Bayern game Koscielny and Mertesacker had the time and ability to read the game in front of them and looked assured, a much welcome change from what we saw most of this season. As mentioned in Michael Cox’s excellent analysis Swansea didn’t manage to record a single shot on target, despite their 619 passes. Indeed, Opta have been unable to find a more extreme example of possession without penetration, going back through seven years of Premier League matches.

Swansea City v Arsenal - Premier League

This was a game that fit Arsenal’s right back Jenkinson perfectly. His hunger, energy and devotion to the fighting cause makes me think that Arsenal have an athletic would-be-season-ticket-holder fan as their right back. He raced up and down the wing tirelessly and was more of a wide offensive threat than Walcott, who often preferred to drift inside to connect with a Giroud flick. Giroud, though, was not having a great game himself either. He was not able to dominate Swansea’s third choice centerback Monk, again unlike what I predicted in the preview.

With 20 minutes left on the clock, and Arsenal looking somewhat toothless in attack, Wenger took of the mediocre Diaby (who could not penetrate from deeper areas or messed it up when he did) and replaced him with Ramsey, which brought immediate “vertical” energy to Arsenal’s midfield. Oxlade, who faded away after a good first half, was also replaced by Gervinho. The Ivorian looked much more effective than his usual frustrating self, but still the end product seemed missing. Arsenal, though, had Cazorla to win the game.

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With a little more than 15 minutes to go, when an Arsenal corner was cleared, Arteta and Monreal pressed Dyer quicky and regained possession. Mertesacker left the ball to Cazorla, and the Spaniard master, whose tireless positive energy makes me want to hug the screen, started a diagonal dribble along the left edge of the box (remember the dribble in Arsenal’s third goal by Giroud during the 5-2 defeat of Spurs in the NLD), and fired a low cross to the 6 yard box. Giroud took a terrible first touch and almost cleared the danger, but he managed to poke the ball to Monreal for the new left back to drill home his first goal for Arsenal.

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The last 15 minutes was my favorite part of the game simply because, unlike what you would expect from this season’s Arsenal, the visitors looked very assured and comfortable defensively, and did not allow Swansea to create any chances. In fact, after falling behind the home side registered only one attempt on goal, and they completed the game with zero shots on target. In the extra time, Arsenal broke forward from a Swansea corner, and Ramsey found the unmarked Gervinho for the Ivorian to secure the all three points.

Tottenham:2 Arsenal:1 Match Report

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Goals: Bale (37), Lennon (39), Mertesacker (51)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Jenkinson (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Ramsey (CM), Walcott (RF), Cazorla(LF), Giroud (CF).

In a game of two high defensive lines, Arsenal stopped pressing the man on the ball for 5 minutes, ushered in Spurs’ midfield runners like a drunken receptionist ushers guests at a fundraiser, conceded two identical goals in 3 minutes and managed to lose the game.

First 30 minutes

The biggest question before the game was how Arsenal would go on about stopping Gareth Bale, with Arsene Wenger being mocked after saying he would not take any special precautions against the in-form Welshman. The always moronic Piers Morgan went as far as suggesting that Wilshere should man-mark Bale. Yet, Arsenal’s formation and game plan in the first 30 minutes indicated that the visitors would rely on keeping possession and holding a high defensive line to deny Bale any ball supply. With Ramsey paired with Arteta as a double pivot, Wilshere in the advanced central midfield role and Cazorla coming narrow from wide left, Arsenal did manage to press Spurs quite effectively, and controlled both possession and territory in the first 30 minutes.

This is not to say that the visitors carved Spurs open when they went forward in those first 30 minutes. Except a wonderful Cazorla ball that released Giroud behind (the French striker was slow to pull the trigger and Vertonghen’s block took the sting of his shot), Arsenal did not create much themselves. However, they almost completely neutralized the Spurs attacking threat in the opening half an hour as indicated by the charts below. The left panel of the first chart illustrates that Bale was not in the game at all in the first 32 minutes. The right panel of the same chart displays Bales’s attacking action in the remaining hour of the game.

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The first half an hour looked encouraging for Arsenal not only because they were able to take Bale out of the game, but also because Cazorla and Wilshere got into good attacking positions. The second chart below compares the attacking performances of Arsenal and Spurs in this first half an hour. What seemed to be missing for Arsenal was a good run combined with a well timed through ball to breach the high Spurs line and take the lead. But it was the home side who did exactly that during a 5-minute period in which Arsenal stopped doing what they were doing to great effect.

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Conceding the same goal twice in 3 minutes 

With Bale switched to a central attacking position, Villas-Boas had placed Sigurdson on the wide left role. Sigurdson had almost released Bale behind in the 21st minute, but his pass was slightly overhit. That was the only instance in the first 37 minutes where Arsenal lost their concentration and allowed the man on the ball to pick a pass behind their own high line. But, given that this is the most frustrating Arsenal side in recent memory, the same switch-off happened again in the 37th minute. When the Icelander got the ball on the wide left channel, Jenkinson stood off him. With Arteta and Ramsey switching off, he looked up and threaded a ball behind the retreating Mertesacker to find the onrushing Bale who easily beat Szczesny one on one.

Before Arsenal could get their act together, they conceded the exact same goal again after 3 minutes. This time Scott Parker of all people was allowed to run unopposed through the same inside left channel. When the untalented English midfielder (whose only consistent ability with the ball is to run in circles) looked up, he saw Lennon’s run inside Monreal from the opposite flank. The Spanish left back tracked the winger, but just when Parker played his ball, he stopped and decided to execute an offside trap. Mertesacker, however, was not on the same page as he had not pushed up, and Lennon was onside. Vermaalen, who I would not even trust organizing the plates in my dishwasher let alone a high defensive line, had no idea what was happening on his left, probably because Monreal did not want to wake him up by alerting him to Lennon’s run. Lennon rounded Szczesny to score into an empty net. It was really schoolboy defending once again from Arsenal. Just like against Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester City, Arsenal had constructed themselves another hill to climb, going 2-0 down again.

Second Half

Arsenal quickly found a lifeline when Mertesacker headed in Walcott’s ball from a set piece at the near post barely five minutes into the second half. There was a lot of time to find an equalizer or even win the game, but I am sure many Arsenal fans did not hold their collective breath.

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Arsene Wenger made an attacking switch to pile the pressure on Spurs as he replaced Jenkinson with Rosicky with Ramsey dropping back to the right back position on paper, but staying high up most of the time. With Rosicky moving to the hole, Wilshere dropped back a little. This attacking switch transformed Arsenal’s shape to a 3-4-3 and exposed Arsenal’s right flank to Spurs counterattacks which duly arrived. First, a well worked Spurs move released Assou-Ekoto on the left, but Bale missed the sitter at the back post. Villas-Boas replaced the injured Adebayor with Defoe, a change which also fit well with the home side’s game plan for the second half. When Defoe found the ball with a clever run to the right channel, he released Sigurdson behind on Arsenal’s right, but the Icelander hesitated and wasted the opportunity with a cutback.

Despite Wenger taking all the gambles he could take (Arteta was also replaced by Podolski, with the German moving to wide left and Cazorla going central), Arsenal looked somewhat toothless in attack and were easily repelled by Dawson’s aggressive defending on Giroud and Vertonghen’s good reading of the game as he intercepted a number of through balls to Walcott. Arsenal’s best opportunity to equalize fell to Ramsey after Rosicky released the Welshman on the right edge of the box, yet his shot got a deflection off Ekoto and missed the far post by a small margin.

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Perhaps equally disappointing for Arsenal, as the two comical twin goals they conceded, was the lack of scoring opportunities they were able to create despite taking all the risks. Wilshere, Cazorla and Rosicky, the three most advanced midfielders finished the game with zero attempts on goal in between the three of them. Giroud was not able to impose himself and could not create much space for the midfield runners.  Theo Walcott never got the throughball he waited all game long. With the lead Arsenal gifted them,  Spurs dropped their high line deeper in the second half and repelled the Arsenal pressure without being really suffocated.

Arsenal are now 7 points behind Spurs with 10 games to go. Spurs have a more difficult run of games on paper, but this Arsenal side does not inject much confidence to go on a winning run, even in the mind of the most optimistic Gooner.

Arsenal:2 Aston Villa:1 Match Report

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Goals: Cazorla (5), Weimann (68), Cazorla (85)

Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Jenkinson (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Mertesacker (CB), Monreal (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Diaby (CM), Walcott (RF), Cazorla(LF), Giroud (CF).

Santi Cazorla’s winner 5 minutes from time gave Arsenal much needed 3 points against Aston Villa after two consecutive cup defeats in the past week.

Arsenal started the game with good movement and found an early goal for a change. A tidy move started by Diaby and Wilshere found Cazorla on the left edge of the box. The Spaniard attempted to thread a ball towards the 6 yard box which was blocked. He chested down the rebound,  set himself up with good work with his left foot and fired with his right to the far corner to beat Guzan.

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The early goal brought Villa into the game with the visitors looking quite dangerous on the break. They chose Arsenal’s left flank as a point of weakness and attempted to break primarily through that area. As Cazorla was drifting narrow to combine with Wilshere in Arsenal’s build-up and Monreal pushing up, Arsenal’s left did indeed look exposed, and the visitors exploited this especially with Weimann and N’Zogbia.  When Wilshere lost possession in Villa’s half,  Villa quickly released N’Zogbia in acres of space on Arsenal’s left. The Frenchman cut inside Vermaalen and set Agbonlahor for a shot which was parried away by Szczesny with some difficulty.  Minutes later, Agbonlahor’s wonderful diagonal ball found Weimann in the same area, and his dangerous ball across the 6-yard box could not find a finish.

In a recent article on Wesley Sneijder, Jonathan Wilson refers to the Dutch playmaker as a player now belonging to a different time and place, which, he says, is 25 years ago in Argentina. The first half of this game also belonged to that same pre-Makelele era when teams played without any concern to protect the area in front of their back four. Whenever Villa or Arsenal lost the ball in the opposition half, they both were able to reach each other’s penalty box without facing any resistance on their way. It was end to end stuff which was surely enjoyable for the neutrals, but the openness of the game was personally a little uncomfortable viewing for me, given Arsenal’s ability to gift goals out of nowhere.  For a team that has taken an early lead, it was curious that Arsenal did not control the game by keeping a good shape, leaving themselves open to Villa counterattacks.

tackles

The diagram above gives an idea about the lack of protection in front of Arsenal’s back four in the first half when they lost the ball in Villa’s half. Arsenal had 8 (out of 10) succesful tackles in the first half, but the location of the tackles (the left panel in the diagram) indicates that almost all tackles took place after Villa broke and reached to the final third. In contrast, Arsenal had 9 (out of 9) succesful tackles in the second half and 5 of those took place deep in Villa half indicating Villa’s relative difficulty to break easily in the second half. Overall, especially in the first half, the Arteta-Diaby double anchor was not able to display the defensive mobility and share of responsibility to stop the counterattacks before they reached the final third. This point seems to be the main area of weakness that the team should improve before the next week’s North London Derby as Spurs have the players in Bale and Lennon to exploit this lack of protection on Arsenal’s flanks when the team pushes forward.

Arsenal kept looking for the second goal in the second half, but they were denied mostly due to their failure in the final ball with Walcott, Giroud and Wilshere failing to deliver the killer pass or the final touch. Cazorla was working like a wizard, dropping inside from his wide left position to pop up everywhere, continuously trying to make things happen, showing some true hunger and desire. His attacking dashboard below tells the story of how busy and effective the Spaniard was throughout the game.

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The counterattack equalizer that Villa signaled all throughout the first half, though, came in the 68th minute before Arsenal could find their second goal. Weimann cleared the loose ball inside Villa box after another fruitless Arsenal corner, and started running towards Arsenal’s half like a possessed man. Jenkinson’s headed clearance fell short and Benteke headed the ball towards Weimann who had reached to the halfway line by that time. The Austrian raced forward with Arsenal defenders caught 3 on 3 and retreating, and fired a decent shot from 25 yards. Szczesny should have saved it simply because he saw it all the way and there was no swirl on the shot, but the ball went past his reach into the net.

At that point in the game, Wenger had already replaced the injured Diaby with Ramsey. He sent in Podolski taking off Jenkinson and moved Ramsey to the right back position. Wilshere dropped deeper to pair with Arteta, Cazorla moved to advanced CM and Podolski went left wide. With Ramsey pushing up from the right back position and helping the build-up, Arsenal poured down on Villa in what looked like a 3-3-1-3 formation.  Lambert made also some changes but he replaced like for like, showing his intention to look for a winner. Yet, Villa had to retreat back with Arsenal increasing the tempo, pressing hard and creating a flurry of chances. Twice, Podolski should have been more alert when Walcott played good cutbacks into the 6 yard box. Giroud’s header hit the bar after a Cazorla corner. Arsenal finally found the winner when a glorious ball from Wilshere released Monreal behind the Villa defense and Cazorla expertly finished his compatriot’s cutback.

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