Tag Archives: possession

Dinamo offer Arsenal a template for blitzing opponents…

On the back of a 3-0 win we sorely needed, if only to resurrect some confidence, it’s well worth noticing some take-aways that should prove useful going forward. We have on paper a softer string of fixtures coming—at Norwich, Sunderland, at Olympiacos, and at Aston Villa—and this should offer us a chance to rest a few key players here and there while practicing an approach that delivered such dynamic results against Dinamo Zagreb, namely counter-attacking football and high pressing. Over the years, we’ve grown accustomed to Arsenal dominating possession but to little effect, nibbling around the edges of an opponent’s area. Against Dinamo on Tuesday, as against other, “superior” opponents, we saw a cagier, more-lethal Arsenal attack.

For the first goal, we absorbed a bit of pressure from a Dinamo team that needed to find an early
opener. However, a series of tackles opened up a chance to hit them on the counter, and Giroud and Özil, who had each kept possession with little taps, surged forward while Flamini thrust the ball forward to Alexis on the left wing. Dinamo’s defenders did their best to get back, but Giroud’s dragging run pulled one if not two defenders out of position, creating space for Özil to run in behind to head home Alexis’s cross. A moment of panic as one wondered whether Özil would get clattered by Eduardo was assuaged as Özil avoided injury and put Arsenal ahead 1-0.

Just a few minutes later, an aggressive high press earned us the second Cazorla collected one clearance and then Monreal intercepted a second one just outside of Dinamo’s area and charged right back through the heart of that self-same area to find Alexis, who made no mistake in one-touching it home. Up 2-0, there was little chance if any that Dinamo could reel us in. In fact, their attempts at doing so opened the game up for us to carve out even more chances.

It would be Özil who would benefit from Dinamo’s more-desperate forward forays, as he found two if three chances at scoring again before halftime only to be denied by Eduardo.

As enjoyable as all of this was in the moment, it does prompt certain key-questions: why don’t we absorb pressure and hit harder on counters more often? After all, it arguably plays to our strengths (pace on the wings from Alexis and Theo, vision from Özil…) and minimizes our weaknesses (getting hit on counters and set-pieces…). While we shouldn’t mistake Dinamo Zagreb for Manchester City, there are lessons to be drawn all the same.

What point is there to dominating possession, after all, if that statistic only opens us up to getting hit hard, once, on a counter? How often have we dominated possession to no purpose and the suffered the embarrassment of seeing an opponent lash out once, scoring on a counter or from an ensuing set-piece? It would make far-more sense for us to sit back just a little, luring opponents forward, and then hitting them as we hit Dinamo.

While we can’t quite count on Man City or Man U to show the same naïveté as Dinamo, there’s something in this result that we should build on. Hitting hard on the counter, as we did against Dinamo, opens up the game. Without bragging, it’s safe to admit that we’re superior to most of our opponents, at least on paper. Where we frequently suffer is on the pitch, largely because we seek to dominate possession. The Stokes and West Broms of the Prem can simply pack the box, hoof it forward, and hope for the best.

If we sit back rather than pinning back our opponents, we can create one or two gilt-edged chances, much as we did on Tuesday, Score once in the first half, and even the most-stubborn of squads will be drawn out in search of an equalizer. It’s then that we can unleash a typical Arsenal goal, with Campbell sending a sharply angled pass into the area for Alexis to run onto and beat the keeper on a tight one-touch, cutting his shot against the grain of his run (with Monreal waiting to clean up, just in case…).

Fault Arsène for any number of other failings, most of them financial, but fault him foremost for our lack of tactical nous. The playbook against Arsenal has become the stuff of stereotype: sit back and defend in numbers, play physically, and hit on counters. All too often, we play into our opponents’ hands, dominating possession (incurring all sorts of ticky-tacky fouls in the process, many of them uncalled) to little avail, and exposing ourselves to counters because our wide defenders have committed too far forward to get back into position.

Against our next two opponents, we should seize a chance at putting the Dinamo dynamic into practice. Against Olympiacos, who are likely to park the bus in manner likely to bring a tear to Mourinho’s eye, we may have to explore other approaches. Still, there’s enough in this suggestion to be worth a meditation…

Who are you and what have you done with Arsène?

Seriously. What is going on here? For the fourth straight Prem match, we’ve failed to dominate possession to the extent we’re used to. We’ve scored the first goal and kept a clean sheet each time on our way to winning three in a row. What’s more, we seem to have abandoned an approach that had become just as much a calling card as it was a curse. On this recent run (which also includes FA Cup wins over Hull and Brighton), we’ve set that card aside and seem to be playing with an entirely new deck. Arsenal, previously and justifiably derided for trying to pass the ball into the net, have been conceding possession to opponents and hitting on quicksilver counterattacks, and to devastating effect, especially in the second half against Villa. It’s enough to make one wonder just where it all comes from.

Arsène, infamous for his tactical stubbornness, seems to have turned over a new leaf—or have the players figured things out for themselves? In either case, the results are hard to ignore, with the second half against Villa as latest evidence submitted. Despite managing only 47% possession, we generated five goals, just the third time since 2003-04 that we’ve combined the two stats. How many times have we dominated possession to the tune of 60% or more only to come away empty-handed? How much time have we wasted seeking that Norwichian pornogol di Wilshere, trying to thread a seemingly infinite series of ever-more intricate passes through a thicket of arms and legs and torsos?

Against Villa, it’s true that we tried a few such series—Özil had a goal disallowed after a nifty sequence because Cazorla was ruled offside, for one—but, the story of the day has to have been how hard we hit Villa on counters, some of them borrowing elements from [gasp] the old-fashioned, English hoof-and-hope variety. The first goal came when Mertesacker cleared to midfield. The innocent clearance found Özil at midfield, and he flicked it forward to Giroud, who was the only Gunner across midfield (okay, so Walcott and Cazorla had feet in Villa’s half, but bear with me…). Even for as slow as Giroud as, and for as much as he stumbled towards goal, he was still the only Gunner in the box when he scored, with Ramsey and Cazorla trailing the play a good 20 yards behind.

The second goal came when Walcott—yes, Theo Walcott—made an interception deep in our third and drove forward. You know we’re sitting back and inviting an opponent forward when it’s Walcott who digs the ball out. He was essentially our right-back at the moment, with Bellerin about 10 yards further upfield. The break was on, with a few dribbles and a pass ahead to Giroud. Pouring forward, Özil ran onto Giroud’s through-ball, beating two defenders and curling his shot just out of Guzan’s reach. This was a more-classic counter, with the ball stolen deep in our third and a series of quick passes into the opponent’s third. Every defender in the frame is running towards his own goal, desperately chasing the play, rather than back-pedaling calmly.

The third goal came despite Villa having a chance to get back and set up. Again, it was Walcott collecting the ball, this time on the left, and driving forward. When he made his pass to Cazorla in the middle of the pitch, Arsenal were actually outnumbered with four attackers—Giroud, Walcott, Cazorla, and Ramsey—against six Villa defenders. However, so quick was the attack that those defenders never got a chance to set up, and Cazorla’s through-ball, probably intended for Giroud but scooped up by Walcott as he sliced across the top of the box, caught those defenders flat-footed or turned the wrong way, and it was 3-0. It would be Theo’s 50th Prem goal.

From there, the badly fading Villans could do little to slow the onslaught. Chuba Akpom had come on, and he ran in behind the defense to collect a lofted pass. This might not have been true counter-attacking, but it’s well worth noting that Akpom was alone against two defenders as Villa were pressing forward in search of at least one goal and were caught out. Akpom’s touch was a bit Sanogo-esque, but Taylor pointed to the spot after Guzan brought Akpom down. Guzan very nearly saved Cazorla’s spot-kick, but it squirmed in to make the score 4-0.

Last but not least, in injury-time, Bellerin scored a goal much closer to those we’ve grown accustomed to: six defenders in the box, a few lateral passes, and the young Spaniard had his first Arsenal goal after slotting it through the thicket and beyond Guzan’s reach. 5-0.

Aside from the scoreline, we have to ask ourselves, just what is Arsène up to? Has he instructed the players to set up more defensively, abandoning the possession-based approach we’ve come to expect (and regret) in recent seasons? We’ve spent so much time, so many seasons, pressing and possessing but without winning that it seems strange to see us do anything else. Then again, in those glorious early years of Arsène’s reign, that’s precisely what we used to do. Find an early goal, tempt the opponent forward, and hit hard in some of the most exquisite counter-attacks ever. No one could cover ground like Henry; few could find the perfect pass like Bergkamp. I’m not equating Walcott or Alexis to the former, nor am I equating Özil or Cazorla to the latter, but there is something breath-taking in seeing the current lot show that they just might have the skill and mentality to remind us if not replicate those days.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether this is a temporary blip or whether it heralds a deeper adjustment. It’s one thing to sit back and almost park the bus against Man City, or to score early against Villa and dare them to find and equaliser. Can this current approach work when we play a squad that can deny the early goal and is content to come away with a draw, or will we revert to that other, possession-for-possession’s-sake mindset? The current squad seems set up to hit on counters, what with Alexis and Walcott running off of Giroud as he redirects the ball from Cazorla or Özil.

Whatever the tactics, the result is good enough to draw us level with Southampton on points, with goal-difference giving them the edge. However, we’ve scored 12 goals in three Prem matches while conceding none. Southampton have scored three and conceded two in the same stretch. If this new, old Arsène is serious about this new, old approach, we may soon overtake Southampton and Man U on points and goal-difference as we march towards making this a three-way race for the Prem title.

Mikel Arteta vs Reading

Thanks to @XavierGooner14, we have an excellent break-down of Mikel Arteta’s performance against Reading, punctuated by his spot-kick that nailed the coffin shut once and for all. The goal will garner most of the headlines, but in a quintessentially Arteta-ian (Arteta-esque?) game, he controlled the midfield, orchestrated attack after attack, and disrupted what few counters Reading could muster.  Were it not for  a hard but uncalled foul on Stuart Taylor, we might have seen Arteta notch an assist to Giroudif not setting up for a “real” penalty kick because, let’s face it, Taylor’s foul should have been called for a spot-kick while the foul on Oxlade-Chamberlain happened outside the box. Maybe it was a make-up for the missed call on Taylor. At any rate, we’re really here to sit back and enjoy Arteta’s excellence.

While Cazorla shined and Gervinho stole the show and rightly earned most of the headlines, it was Arteta’s calm control in the midfield that made the more exciting stuff possible in the first place. A quick look at the numbers:

  • Passing Accuracy: 93%
  • Touches: 117
  • Key Passes: 1
  • Tackles: 2
  • Successful Dribbles: 0
What the numbers fail to acknowledge is the number of key passes Arteta made but that teammates failed to capitalize on, whether due to fouls, poor touches, or making the next, extra pass. Arteta has earned credit for  only two assists on the year, but this masks how often he’s earned the “second” assistthe pass that leads to the assist. If such a statistic existed, Arteta might just lead the league, impressive for a deep-lying midfielder who rarely ventures very far upfield. In the video, what surprised me was the number of long passes that Arteta attempted and completedhe sometimes sent passes 30-40 yards upfield, bypassing teammates and defenders in the process on land or through the air. It would be one thing to achieve 93% accuracy through a bunch of tiki-taka passing, but to mix some long balls as well is impressive. He wasn’t hoofing ’em up there, either; you can see him time and again size up the available space and put the ball right at a teammate’s feet or in stride. His lob over the defense to Giroud was perfectly weighted, and had Giroud given it a softer touch or not been gored by Taylor, Arteta would have that assist to go along with his goal.

As it is, we’ll have to settle for the subtler pleasures that Arteta delivers: pass after pass after pass. Some have called him metronomic, but this feels a little too rigid, as if he settles into a regular, perhaps static, rhythm that feels automatic. I’ll resist the “Spanish Dancer” possibilities, leaving me with jazz musician. He reads the game well, seems to know its rhythm, and identifies who should have the ball next. I can almost picture him with an upright bass, setting a rhythm and nodding to each player for his next solo riff. To extend the metaphor, it’s the trumpet and sax who grab all of the attention, but without the foundation that the bassist provides, their improvisations are little more than slop. Thankfully, with Arteta backing, the likes of Cazorla, Podolski, Gervinho, and Giroud can freelance within the framework that Arteta provides them. Others may be hailed as impact-signings, but it would hard to find someone whose signing has had a broader and deeper impact than Arteta’s.

Others have made their impact with more dramatic flair, but Arteta, quietly and confidently, leaves his signature on just every game he appears in.

57% Possession

For the second game in a row, our opponents have dominated possession. For the second time in as many games, we’ve won 2-0. For a team usually known as pass-happy and possessive, it’s startling to see Arsenal come up short in the possession game yet still come away with a win. Going back a few weeks, we see games that feel a bit more like vintage Arsenal. Against Sunderland and Stoke, we held the ball 61% and 60% of the time, winning each match 1-0. However, we’d be hard-pressed feel a whole lot of pride in these games, as each came against inferior teams that we really should have dominated in both possession and goals. That we did dominate the former but not the latter is not all that reassuring.

By contrast, we now have two matches in which the other team dominated possession to little avail as we came into their stadiums and won 2-0. We’d expect Bayern to keep the ball and they did: 55% possession. Even as Swansea’s style imitates our own, we might expect to dominate due to superior skill and personnel. However, Swansea actually outdid Bayern and held the ball for 57% of the match. Each time, we won and did so comfortably.

In the middle, we have the Spurs game, one in which we dominated possession 60%-40% but lost. Not that this is rocket science, but it does point out how irrelevant possession is in determining the outcome of the game. Does this suggest that we’ve adopted a new style, a less-aesthetic but more successful approach to close out the season, or is it more of a temporary admission that we lack the skilled players needed to successfully pursue the “total football” style we’ve pursued in years past? I doubt that it’s the latter option if only because Swansea itself has shown that they’re capable of it. With the possible exception of Michu, I don’t see anyone over there whom I’m willing to admit is better than any of our boys. I hope it’s not the former. Part of why I do love Arsenal is down to the fluidity, motion, and passing that have come to define the team under Arsène. I’m certainly not saying we should all sit on our hands or scan the table for another team to root for by any means. I’d rather stop following football itself.

At any rate, I hope that all we’re seeing is a newfound dedication to solidity on defense, and a deeper commitment from each player on the field to defending. If this forces us to concede the possession game to our opponents, so be it. For all of the silly goals we’ve conceded, a bit more structure and consistency in front of goal can only be a good thing. If it continues to yield clean sheets, so much the better. Sure, possession is a kind of defense as well as a form of offense. There will be time to recalibrate our approach in order to establish the kind of possession and attack we’re used to and known for. We’ve shown twice now, once against a team that had more than held its own in three matches against us and once against an elite team that manhandled us thoroughly, that we can still score without dominating possession. If we were seeing possession drop along with goals, we could wring our hands a little more nervously. For now, my worry, and that of anyone else inclined to fret over such things, can be put to bed.