A NLD Arsenal scouting report: Sp*rs

Right then. Derby time. Spurs travel to the Emirates for a ridiculously early high noon Sunday kickoff. The sides come into this game in different form. Tottenham remain unbeaten in the league but 5 draws from 10 matches have them in 6th place. They’ve not won since their impressive 2-0 defeat of Manchester City, a run of six matches that includes three consecutive league draws to West Brom, Bournemouth and Leicester. By contrast, Arsenal have won the last two and are on a 15 match unbeaten run that stretches back to the opening day of the Premier League season August 14.

But for all of the good performances Arsenal have put in lately, form and league position tend to matter less in these fiercely contested derbies. What will be of considerably more importance is which players with injury doubts will be available for both sides.  

In his press conference following their Wednesday evening defeat to Bayer Leverkusen, Mauricio Pochetinno said it would be difficult for Harry Kane to play from the start. The Tottenham striker suffered ankle ligament damage against Sunderland in mid September and hasn’t played since. Spurs initially appeared to be coping fine with Kane’s injury. They won 4 straight in the games immediately following the injury, including the 2-0 defeat of Man City, and scored 10 goals. However they’ve not won since and have scored just 3 goals in the 6 match winless run.  Based on comments Pochetinno made Friday Kane has recovered well and will definitely at least be in the squad. He said there is a 50-50 chance he’ll start.  

However, crucially for Spurs they’ll be without Toby Alderweireld in the center of defense. Despite hopes he could be back for the derby, Pochetinno said Friday the Belgian center back will be out until after the international break. He’s been out with a knee injury suffered in Spurs 1-1 draw with West Brom last month. Alderweird’s partnership with Jan Vertonghen was a huge reason Spurs had the joint best defense in the Premier League last season having conceded just 35 goals against and boast the best defense so far this season, having conceded just 5 in 10 matches. Both players are capable of playing the high line Spurs will employ when they press high up the pitch but Alderweireld is the pacier of the two and is therefore more capable of making recovery runs when the opposition get in behind. Alderweireld also rarely makes mistakes, a key attribute in these tense derbies. He’ll likely be replaced by Eric Dier. Dier is a very good player but is still quite young and has a tendency to switch off and be a bit rash in the tackle. Arsenal would do well to get him on a booking early.

Mousa Dembele is in contention to return from injury while it looks like Erik Lamela is certain to miss. Moussa Sissoko is serving the final match of a ban for his elbow to the face of Harry Arter.

As for Arsenal I’ve yet to find a reliable source that’s been able to definitively say whether or not Cazorla, Walcott, Monreal, Gibbs and Bellerin will be available. Whoscored.com has listed all five as doubts. From what I can gather it seems highly unlikely Santi will play but the other four have a decent chance of featuring.

Spurs boast best defensive record

Pochetinno side’s have become synonymous with pressing and tremendous energy off the ball. They completed the third most tackles per game last season (21.1) behind only Liverpool (22.9), another side known for its all-action pressing under Klopp, and Leicester (22.9), the league champions, en route to their joint league-best 35 goals conceded.

It’s interesting then that Spurs’ tackles per game total is down to 17.1, just 14th in the league and less than Arsenal’s 17.1 tackles per game, despite them still having the best defensive record in the league. They also have the fewest interceptions per game in the league at just 9.7, behind Liverpool’s 10. It would make sense that pressing sides get fewer interceptions because the opposition likely has less controlled possession in their attacking half where they’re more likely to take chances playing passes that have a higher risk of being intercepted. When you’re being pressed in your own half you’re more likely to launch the ball long out of immediate danger than to try a risky pass that could be intercepted and spring a counter deep in your own half.

Still, I was surprised Tottenham aren’t completing more tackles. I took a look at Tottenham and Arsenal’s tackles and interceptions against opposition they’ve had in common this season- Leicester, Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Liverpool. In those four games Arsenal and Tottenham have completed a similar number of total tackles, 69 for Arsenal to 64 for Spurs. The number of tackles in the opposition half is also similar, 22 for Arsenal to 21 for Spurs. There’s a major difference in interception stats. Arsenal have 68 total interceptions over the four games to 32 for Spurs. Arsenal have 18 interceptions in the opposition half, double Spurs 9 in the opposition half. I’ve done a game-by-game comparison you can view by clicking here. More importantly however Spurs conceded just 3 goals from the 4 matches and collected 8 points while Arsenal conceded 5 goals and collected just 5 points (the data is certainly skewed by the 4 goals we conceded against Liverpool when we were forced to start Rob Holden and Calum Chambers at center back).

This is all a roundabout way of highlighting my surprise Spurs have such an impressive defensive record seemingly without completing many defensive actions. I put it to fellow Soccermetrica contributor Dan Moskowitz where Spurs defensive dominance might show in the data. He pointed out that Spurs play more long balls (75) in the league than anyone but Burnley, Crystal Palace, Everton and Middlesbrough (Arsenal play the fewest in the league with 48). Their 30.7 clearances per game is the second most in the league (Arsenal have the fewest with 19.2). This was fairly surprising and Moskowitz pointed out it may highlight that Spurs take fewer risks playing out of the back that may lead to chances for the opposition to win the ball back high up the pitch and counter. Instead they’re looking to get it away from their goal into the opposition half quickly.

Their propensity to play it long might also go some way to explaining why Spurs have scored far fewer goals (14) than fellow rivals for the title Man City (24), Liverpool (24), Arsenal (23) and Chelsea (21). Everton have also scored more with 15. Perhaps the more long balls are indicating less controlled build up and fewer clear-cut chances. Spurs take the fifth highest percentage of shots outside of the box in the league (46%) behind Hull (51%), Leicester (49%), Watford (47%) and Burnley (47%). What do those four other sides have in common? They all rank in the bottom six in average possession. Spurs take an awful lot of shots outside the box for a team with the third highest possession total in the league (56.3%). Spurs are currently the only team in the top six of the league table that are also in the top 10 in terms of shots outside the box per game. This indicates those other sides (Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton) are creating shooting opportunities from a closer range with a higher chance of scoring or creating a chance off a rebound. Arsenal and Chelsea shoot the lowest percentage of shots outside the box with 36%.

Last weekend against Leicester many of Spurs' long balls were big diagonals from the center backs to the opposite-side fullback as opposed to just hopeful hoofs forward. Vertonghen and Dier looked to get it wide to the advanced fullbacks Walker and Rose with Leicester defending with a narrow midfield four. Rose and Walker are fine attacking center backs but Tottenham's midfield five created very little. They had little by way of meaningful goal scoring chances. Their goal came from a penalty but their only other chance coming to mind was Vertonghen’s late thumping header off the crossbar from a cross from Georges-Kevin Nkuodou.

Moskowitz also pointed out Spurs commit the third most fouls in the league with 13.3 (Arsenal commit the fewest with 9.5). Pochetinno’s side will commit lots of niggling tactical fouls to break up play and prevent counter attacks. Referees tend to be lenient in these sorts of high-tension derby fixtures but hopefully cynical tactical fouls aimed at breaking up our rhythm will be punished with early yellows so Spurs can’t continually foul to stop countering opportunities. I believe it was one of the Chelsea fixtures last season when Jose Mourinho’s side were quite clearly strategically fouling us high up the pitch to break up the game and they were never punished.

Final thoughts

Like every NLD this will be a highly-charged battle where it will be vital we stay switched on and also keep our heads during frantic passages of play. It will be sloppy at times but we’re the better footballing side so if we match Spurs’ intensity and minimize mistakes our quality should eventually show through.

Arsenal 4-1 Sunderland: Giroud, Alexis deliver from crosses

Three second half goals in the span of seven minutes gave Arsenal a comfortable 4-1 win after Jermain Defoe had equalized from the penalty spot. Arsenal looked to be cruising after Alexis did brilliantly to beat out Lamine Kone and head home Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's cross in the 19th minute. Sunderland had done nothing to trouble our defense until Didier Ndong's long ball towards Duncan Watmore hit off Mustafi's back and into the path of Watmore to break through on goal. Cech clipped the legs of the Sunderland winger and Defoe dispatched the resulting penalty coolly.

It briefly felt like it was going to be one of those maddening Arsenal games we seem so prone to produce where we fail to convert dominance into actual goals and get undone by the only chance the opposition creates all game. That feeling didn't last long however thanks to Olivier Giroud. The French striker scored a prototypical Giroud goal just two minutes after coming on when he swung a foot at Kieran Gibbs's low cross into the back. Five minutes later he added a second when he looped a header from Ozil's corner over Jordan Pickford after making a run to the front post.

It was great seeing the oft-derided Giroud produce in such a big way in his first meaningful league minutes of the season. After an unconvincing start to the season the Alexis as #9 transition has worked really well and it's difficult to envision a scenario where Giroud becomes the regular starter at striker again. But he displayed what he brings to the side when he's at his best. His physical presence allows us to vary our attack and give opposition defenses something different to think about.

While Alexis drops deep to get on the ball and combines excellently with short passing combinations around the penalty area, Giroud gives us a target to aim at when we get the ball in wide positions. His hold up play can also be an important asset when we're looking to see out wins. As brilliant as Alexis is, he can give the ball away cheaply at times. Having a striker that can win a lot of hopeful, longer balls against big center backs and draw fouls could help us prevent opposition transitions from defense to offense where our defense can be left vulnerable.

The finishing from both strikers was different class and was the key difference between the 0-0 against Middlesbrough and the Sunderland win. None of our first three goals came from guilt-edged chances. They were half or even quarter chances that Giroud and Alexis just did excellently to convert. On the road in the Premier League you'll need that type of ruthless finishing. It was something we were lacking for parts of last season with Alexis and Giroud in poor form. The run of three consecutive games without scoring from mid January to early February stands out as a defining stretch when our chances at the title slipped away. Avoiding another similar scoring slump will be key this season and having Giroud, Alexis and Walcott all in goal scoring form at the moment bodes well.

Lineups

Moyes predictably set his side out in a 4-5-1 with Jack Rodwell shielding in front of the center backs with Ndong to his right and Steven Pienaar to his left. Duncan Watmore was on the left wing, Wahbi Khazri was on the right. Defoe started as the lone striker. John O'Shea and Kone partnered at center back. Billy Jones replaced Javier Manquillo at right back, Patrick van Aanholt was at left back.

Arsene Wenger was without Theo Walcott, Nacho Monreal and Santi Cazorla through injury though all three should be ready to return in time for the North London Derby. Granit Xhaka was serving the final game of his three match suspension for the red card he picked up against Swansea. Lucas Perez is out longer term with ankle ligament damage suffered in the midweek win over Reading in the EFL Cup. Gibbs replaced Monreal at left back. Coquelin and Elneny once again partnered at the base of midfield. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Walcott on the right.

Sunderland press, play high line

At times Sunderland pressed higher up the pitch than I was expecting and played a relatively high line. That was particularly surprising given the presence of the aging and never particularly quick John O'Shea at center back and the strategy played into our hands early. In the 14th minute Coquelin made a run past the back four from deep in midfield and was played through by Sanchez. Coq's first touch let him down but Sunderland should have viewed that as a warning. Just a minute later Iwobi nearly got in behind then we made the breakthrough in the 19th when Ox got the ball in loads of space on the right and was able to drive forward and pick out Alexis.

By now teams should recognize that we are at our most dangerous offensively when the game is open and we have space in behind the defense to run into. Boro prevented both of those things from happening last weekend and Moyes probably should have done a better job of getting some ideas from Aitor Karanka's approach.

I mentioned in the preview to this match how important getting an early goal would be to force Sunderland to open up a bit and leave holes in their defense for us to break into. I was expecting them to defend deep with Rodwell sitting just in between a midfield and defensive bank of four. They probably did us a favor by attempting to selectively press. Coquelin and Elneny tend to struggle to unlock sides defending in deeper blocks. Both are tidy in possession but finding penetrating forward passes against compact defenses isn't the strongest part of their respective games.

Ozil should have made it 2-0 towards the end of the second when Sunderland's high line was once again undone by a fairly straightforward ball over the top from Ox. As gifted technically as Ozil is he should have been able to lift the ball over Pickford but his chipped effort fell harmlessly into the hands of the grateful Sunderland keeper.

Predictably we were made to pay for missed chances. Mustafi had been good prior to the mistake that led to the penalty but the Sunderland goal should come as a warning in future matches of what can happen when you let inferior opposition stay in the game. One mistake and a game that Sunderland hadn't been in at all was level. Eventually we would show the required ruthlessness to put the game beyond reach and I'm nitpicking here but you'd like that to happen before the opposition gets a second half equalizer.

Wenger's subs prove vital

Both managers made attacking substitutions after Defoe's leveler that would have a massive impact on the outcome. With his side desperate for their first win Moyes sensed an opportunity to go for all three points with the crowd spurring the home side on. He brought on Adnan Januzaj for Pienaar. Januzaj moved to the right wing and Khazri came inside to replace Pienaar at the left of the midfield three.

Wenger replaced Iwobi with Giroud and moved Alexis into the left channel. Just two minutes after the change Sanchez tucked inside from the left and found space between the Sunderland lines. His movement inside opened up space for Gibbs to overlap on the touchline. Januzaj failed to track Gibbs's run and the left back picked out an inch perfect low driven cross for Giroud to tuck home.

I've criticized Wenger for his reluctance to make anything but like-for-like substitutions when we're chasing a result and waiting too long to make changes. However he deserves massive credit for his moves this weekend. Shuffling Alexis to the left where he'd be up against a very average right back in Billy Jones was a shrewd move and Giroud's introduction gave us a physical presence in the box at just the right time.

Final thoughts

It's easy to imagine previous iterations of Arsenal folding after conceding an undeserved second half leveler on the road. It was encouraging to see the team not panic and really up the pressure to put the game beyond reach. The month of November will be a massive one for us and will give us insight into how good we actually are. We have the North London Derby then two weeks later head to Old Trafford after an international break. From there we host PSG in the Champions League in a game that could go a long way in determining who wins the group. We're all too aware of what the knockout draw can produce when we finish second. Last season we went winless in our three November matches, drawing with Spurs and Norwich and losing at West Brom. If we can pick up four points from the NLD and trip to Man United and beat PSG that'll be a massive set of results for us.

Finally I want to mention Kieran Gibbs's performance. He filled in excellently in the absence of Monreal. He led the team in chances created (3, tied with Ozil), headed clearances (5), defensive aerial duels won (5), and blocked crosses (1). He was second in attacking third passes (18), successful take ons (2), tackles (2, tied with four other Arsenal players) and clearances (7). He was third in total passes (50) and interceptions (2, tied with Mustafi and Elneny).

Monreal earned the starting left back spot by being the model of consistency. We've grown accustomed to him making so few mistakes that he often flies under the radar and his performances aren't often singled out for praise. But there have been a few times this season when he's struggled against pacey opposition wingers. This is largely attributable to the less defensive-minded Iwobi playing in front of him in left midfield. Gibbs is a bit pacier and with performances like this weekend it'll be tough for Wenger to consistently leave him out. It's a great problem to have and one that I think has created a beneficial atmosphere of friendly competition all over the pitch. Our players know that our squad is deep enough they have to perform to stay in the squad. Everyone is hungry to prove themselves when they get the opportunity to play. Some injuries are inevitable but I think we finally have enough quality all over the squad we'll be equipped to deal with absences.

Arsenal's matchweek 10 scouting report: Sunderland

Arsenal travel to the Stadium of Light Saturday to take on Sunderland in the early lunchtime kickoff. David Moyes’s side are firmly rooted to the bottom of the table with just two points from their opening nine fixtures. They’ve become the first top flight club since Bury in 1906 to fail to win any of their opening nine league fixtures in consecutive seasons.

It’s been a disastrous start for the Black Cats in every phase of the game. They’ve conceded the third most goals in the league, scored the fewest and have the second worst goal difference behind only Hull City (who have conceded a whopping 15 in their last five league matches).

Having said all that, last week was one of the rare occasions I was fully confident of an Arsenal win and I honestly believe my overconfidence was the sole reason for the defeat. This is a match we should of course win but the home crowd will be loud and Sunderland will likely defend deep, just as Boro did last weekend.

Moyes will have noted how much we struggled against a Boro side defending deep with a flat midfield bank of five and will likely replicate that formation. Against West Ham last weekend Wahbi Khazri started on the right wing in attack but would press higher up the pitch when West Ham were in possession. Behind him Sunderland defended in roughly two banks of four. Who defended where in midfield seemed to change throughout the 90 minutes and it was difficult to determine exactly what Moyes’s instructions were.

Jack Rodwell played mostly as the deepest of a midfield three with Didier Ndong to his right and Steven Pienaar to his left but would often man mark Manuel Lanzini wherever he went, something we don’t often see in modern football. My guess is this time Moyes will go with a much more rigid 4-5-1 with the right winger dropping in to defend Monreal, the left midfielder dropping in to defend Bellerin and a compact central midfield three. Rodwell will likely sit in the space between his two center backs and Ndong and Pienaar to deny Ozil space between the lines.

I said in my preview to the Middlesbrough match the only way I saw them troubling us was if they started Adama Traore and looked to counter into him in the space behind our fullbacks. Their central midfielders I thought were functional and too uncreative to cause us any real problems when they tried to build up play with possession from back to front. Traore did end up causing us issues on the break for which Boro manager Aitor Karanka deserves credit. He also deserved credit for adding an additional center midfielder in Adam Forshaw and moving Gaston Ramirez from his usual #10 role to wide on the left, in effect switching from 4-4-1-1 to 4-5-1. That move made them more solid in the middle and meant they had two talented attackers in the channels to counter through.

Similarly to Boro, Sunderland have a very functional set of central midfielders. Against West Ham they used Pienaar, who is now 34, Rodwell, once a promising prospect but now mostly known for Sunderland having never won a game he’s started in, and Ndong, Sunderland’s only center midfielder that seems to be able to consistently complete a pass. Against West Ham Rodwell completed just 68.6% of his passes (24 of 35), a shocking total for a deep lying center midfielder. Pienaar was only slightly better completing just 72% of his passes (26 of 36). Rodwell has completed just 77.9% of his total pass attempts this season, Pienaar just 79.5%. Both of those are lower than Jermain Defoe’s 79.8%. Strikers tend to have the lowest pass completion rates other than keepers because they’re making pass attempts less likely to come off in areas high up the pitch.  By contrast, our two deep llying midfielders likely to start, Coquelin and Elneny, have completed 89.3% and 92% of their passes respectively.

Ndong is unlikely to unlock a defense with a brilliant forward pass but he does complete 90% of his attempts, by far the highest of any player on the team. In other words Sunderland aren’t going to pose much of a threat building play patiently from the back and moving the ball up the pitch with nice combination play. They simply don’t have the midfield personnel for that style of play.

Unlike Boro however, Sunderland also don’t have a really pacey option who can run past defenders in the channels and make that transition from defense to attack all on his own in the way Traore did against us. Their wide options are Duncan Watmore, Wahbi Khazri and possibly Pienaar if he doesn’t play through the middle. Fabio Borini has been out since the end of August with a groin injury. Moyes suggested last week Adnan Januzaj was ahead of schedule recovering from an ankle injury but didn’t offer up a time frame of when he would return and it doesn’t appear he’ll be available this weekend.

Those players are decent enough but aren’t going to torment our defense the way Traore did bursting forward with the ball. Watmore is quick enough, works really hard and can combine well with Defoe around the box but won’t take on our fullbacks off the dribble. Januzaj clearly has talent but has sputtered since his excellent 2013-2014 campaign with Manchester United. Khazri is a decent crosser and can be a threat from set pieces but is unlikely to have the beating of Monreal or Bellerin either. His crossing ability in open play shouldn’t be much of a factor if we defend well given the 5’7” Defoe will likely be the lone striker.

I think Sunderland’s best chances are going to come from set pieces, where Lamine Kone is a threat in the air, and the individual ability of Defoe to create chances for himself. Even at 34 there are few players that can get a shot off quicker than Defoe. If he gets even half a step on a defender he’ll take the shot on and is often deadly accurate. Only Burnley average fewer shots on target per game than Sunderland’s 2.6.

Arsenal Attack

This game will hinge on our ability to create meaningful scoring chances against a packed defense. Last weekend we struggled to combine in the penalty area and find space inside the box to take on shots that had relatively high probabilities of testing the keeper. I think a significant part of that was the absence of Cazorla. His ability to offer a passing option, take a touch and play a quick pass into gaps in the opposition defense forces the defense to alter their positioning constantly and maintain high concentration levels. With Coquelin and Elneny in midfield we circulate the ball just a little bit slower. This allows the defense enough time to effectively rotate their positioning and eliminate the pockets of space where our attackers can be dangerous. It’s looking like Santi is likely to miss out again with the Achilles injury so Coquelin and Elneny will need to speed things up a bit in possession.

Final Thoughts

Getting all three points going into next weekend’s clash with Spurs is crucial. The Sunderland crowd will give the home side a boost. If we can quiet them with an early goal and force Sunderland to chase the game, more space should open up for us to exploit in the attacking third. The longer it remains 0-0, or if Sunderland go ahead, they’ll be able to maintain a deep shape and make life difficult for us.

Our squad could be a bit thin for this one. Lucas Perez is out 6 to 8 weeks with the injury he suffered midweek in the EFL Cup win over Reading. Theo, Monreal and Santi are all doubts and will undergo fitness tests today. Encouragingly Wenger announced today Aaron Ramsey will return to the squad for tomorrow and Giroud will be available as well.

Arsenal 0-0 Middlesbrough: Boro defend deep, counter through Traore

Arsenal disappointingly drew 0-0 to Middlesbrough. Tactically this was as straightforward a match as you can get but Aitor Karanka deserves credit for how he set his side out. In their 2-1 defeat earlier this season to Spurs he played a 4-4-1-1 with Gaston Ramirez just off of Alvaro Negredo and defended in blocks of four. They were overwhelmed in midfield on that day. Yesterday he played with three central midfielders in a 4-5-1 with Ramirez and the ultra-pacey Adama Traore on the wings. They defended with a deep midfield five in front of the back four. The three central midfielders- Adam Forshaw, Adam Clayton and Marten de Roon, crowded the center of the pitch and made it extremely difficult for us to do our quick passing combinations that have successfully unlocked defenses during our run of nine consecutive wins. Ramirez and Traore would break beyond our advanced fullbacks when Boro won the ball back and posed a serious threat on the break. Boro had the better chances and it was only fine goalkeeping from Cech that kept Boro from picking up all three points.

Wenger never deviates from a back four but this may have been the perfect game to play a back three. We often have issues breaking down teams defending deep. We’ll dominate possession high up the pitch in the opposition half and look to unlock them with quick combinations. We’ll play with all but our two center backs within 35 yards of the opposition goal. This leaves us vulnerable on the counter when the opposition wins the ball back. Our two center backs are left with a lot of 1 v. 1 defending to do slow up counters.

Middlesbrough’s approach from the outset was obvious. They defended with a midfield bank of five in front of the back four then looked to break quickly into the space behind our advanced fullbacks through Ramirez and especially Traore. This forced Koscielny and Mustafi to defend the channels when Boro won possession back and looked to break quickly by hitting it over the top to the channels. Even Koscielny, one of the quickest center backs in the game, was no match for Traore’s speed. The ex Barca winger burst past Koscielny after nicking possession from him in the 20th minute and was clean through on goal but Cech closed down the angle and saved his shot. It was an early warning sign that we didn’t heed. Boro continued to pose a threat through Traore. In the 58th minute Ozil gave away possession cheaply allowing Traore to break forward again. On this occasion he blew past both Coquelin and Koscielny but his effort was again saved by Cech.

Had we gone to a back three by keeping Monreal deeper as the left sided center back alongside Koscielny and Mustafi (I’d probably play Kos as the right-sided center back since his pace makes him slightly more suited to defend the channels than Mustafi with Mustafi as the center of the three) the two outside center backs would have had the channels covered so that Boro wouldn’t be able to hit early long balls into empty space down the wings for Traore . We could have played Bellerin as a right wing back and introduced Ox for Iwobi and played him as a left wing back. This would have provided attacking width high up the pitch. Figure 1 shows the danger area in the channels that was coming from us playing a back four. Figure 2 shows a back three with Koscielny and Monreal in positions to cut out any long passes to the channels Boro would attempt to play.

  Figure 1 : Arsenal concede space in channels defending with back four

Figure 1: Arsenal concede space in channels defending with back four

  Figure 2 : With back three outside center backs are closer to touchlines, making it easier to cut out the darting runs of Boro wingers in the channels.

Figure 2: With back three outside center backs are closer to touchlines, making it easier to cut out the darting runs of Boro wingers in the channels.

Admittedly we should have had enough to beat a team with one point from its last five matches at home without needing to change the defensive structure. Higher up the pitch we just couldn’t find a way to unlock a very crowded, deep defense. The two screen shots below show Boro’s block of five in front of a block of four and very little space between the lines for the likes of Sanchez and Ozil to get into.  

This may have been a game where Giroud could have done some good. Without an aerial threat to attack crosses in the box, Middlesbrough knew that when we got the ball wide we would ultimately circulate possession back to the middle. We continued to play square passes just outside the penalty box looking for an opportunity to play a more penetrating series of combination passes. That opportunity never really came. It looked like a training session of defense versus attack. There’s certainly nothing wrong with patiently keeping possession and waiting for the defense to slip up and lose their positioning and I’m not suggesting we should just be lumping balls into the box from the wings. But occasionally it would be nice to be able to have the option of crossing to give the defense something else to think about.

Final Thoughts

This was an opportunity missed to take sole possession of first place after Spurs and Manchester City could also only manage draws. The most frustrating bit for a fan is having to read the endless stories about “familiar failings” and whether we’re missing something mentally from our game that causes us to falter when opportunities come our way. I don’t buy that- I think it’s football related. We have difficulties breaking down deep, compact defenses and typically those sides cause us real problems on the break because we’re playing so high up the pitch.

I also think Cazorla proved to be a massive miss. Both Coquelin and Elneny are fine players but their biggest attributes are their energy and defensive contribution. Neither have Santi’s excellent feet in tight areas and ability to pick out a forward pass to break down the opposition lines. Without him we looked slower in possession than we have in recent weeks.

Finally it’s worth mentioning how big Cech came up for us. After Ospina’s excellent first half performance against Ludogorets in the Champions League Wednesday I wondered if maybe he wasn’t the better option. He’s quicker off his line and Cech is pretty terrible with his feet. But Cech showed what an immense shot stopper he is. His saves from Traore’s breakaway and Ramirez’s header at the back post certainly saved us a point.  

Arsenal's matchweek 9 scouting report: Middlesbrough

Arsenal will take on newly-promoted Middlesbrough at the Emirates Saturday. Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka's side started the season well collecting a respectable 5 points from their first three matches but have collected just a point from their last five. That's left them in 17th place and outside the relegation zone on goal difference only.

Last season Boro boasted the Championship's best defensive record on their way to the second automatic promotion spot with just 31 conceded. However seven teams scored more than their 63 goals including 20th place Fulham. They were well organized and effective but at times the performances were stodgy and the side more functional than creative. That trend has continued in the Premier League- they've scored just 7 goals so far- only Sunderland and Burnley have netted fewer with 6 each.

Lineups

So far Karanka has mainly opted for for a 4-4-1-1 shape with Antonio Barragan at right back, George friend at left back and Calum Chambers and Ben Gibson partnering in the center of defense. Chambers is ineligible to play against his parent club and will likely be replaced by Daniel Ayala. Ayala was named to the Championship's PFA team of the year last season.

In midfield Cristhian Stuani will operate on the right wing and Stewart Dowing will play on the left wing. Two of Adam Clayton, Adam Forshaw and Marten de Roon will play in the center midfield role. Gaston Ramirez plays slightly higher up the pitch in a free role behind Alvaro Negredo at striker.

Boro set up

For these scouting reports I try to watch games where our upcoming opponent plays against opposition that is most similar to us in terms of playing style and talent. For this report I focused my attention on Middlesbrough's 2-1 home defeat to Tottenham. Spurs certainly don't play an identical brand of football to Arsenal. They play much more of a consistent pressing game and have more energy defensively but can't match our attacking fluidity and creativity. I would have liked to have also watched Boro's 3-1 away defeat at Everton but couldn't find the time. Still, I think the Tottenham match should provide some decent insight into what we can expect from Boro tactically and some clues of what we can do to cause them problems.

I think the most striking feature of that match was Boro's total inability to cope with Tottenham's high press. Perhaps this had to do with the players not possessing the technical quality to connect play through midfield but more importantly than that I think it had to do with their system. Clayton and de Roon started in the two central midfield positions in that match. They, along with fellow center midfielder Forshaw, haven't played in the Premier League before this season so that inexperience no doubt played a role in them being a bit nervy with Tottenham allowing them very little time in possession.

De Roon completed just 73.3% of his passes (33 of 45) an awful percentage for a deep lying midfielder. Clayton was more assured completing 30 of 36 passes. However, combined they completed just 6 of 16 passes in the attacking third.

The easy conclusion to draw from these stats is that Clayton and particularly de Roon were poor in possession. While that's true to an extent, it doesn't tell the whole story. There are always two players involved in a successful pass- the passer and the player receiving the pass. Too often when sides struggle to keep possession and move the ball up the pitch on the ground we focus on their lack of technical quality passing the ball rather than the tactical system. These are professional players capable of consistently making accurate 10 to 30 yard passes to open teammates who are capable of making a controlled first touch so they can pass the ball on again. The issue against Spurs wasn't that their players are incapable of stringing multiple passes together but that their system wasn't creating situations where players off the ball were getting into space to create passing options.

Spurs tactical approach had a lot to do with this. Defensively Boro dropped off and defended in banks of four. Spurs were able to use their fluid midfield five to advance the ball into Boro's defensive half. Clayton and de Roon matched up against Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen respectively in midfield. Ramirez dropped in to pick up Victor Wanyama who would play a bit in front of the center backs Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in possession while Eriksen and particularly Alli pushed high up the pitch.

When Boro conceded possession Spurs pressed immediately and their two center backs pushed up towards the halfway line making the pitch very small. Wanyama did well to get tight to the back of Ramirez as soon as Boro won the ball back, preventing Karanka's side from using him as an initial outlet pass to spring counters.

The space for Boro to exploit when they regained possession was in the channels behind the Tottenham fullbacks who would be pushed up to offer width in attacking areas. However they weren't set up to quickly counter down the wings. In Downing and Stuani, neither of Boro's two wide midfielders were the explosive type that are going to spring past the opposition fullback on the break, collect the ball in space and then run at the center backs. And at striker Negredo is more of a hold up player and penalty box poacher than a Vardy-type that's going to burst wide into the channels to provide a direct, vertical passing option on the counter.

As a result, Boro's only option to get out of their own half was to launch hopeful long balls towards Negredo. He received only 20 passes, 5 of which were directly from goal kicks. At his best Negredo can be a deadly goal scorer in the box but as a poacher he needs player's around him to create chances for him. He's not an Alexis Sanchez type that can create a goal on his own from nothing. With Spurs playing a high line he was forced away from the box where he's at his most effective towards the halfway line. Any balls in behind the Spurs center backs weren't an issue because Negredo wasn't going to beat Alderweireld or Vertonghen in a foot race. Likewise, if we play a higher line Negredo is unlikely to outrun Koscielny and Mustafi.

Boro average the third most long balls per game so they'll be direct, particularly away from home. They get the ball into the channels early. Downing won't hesitate to hit early crosses from deep areas into Negredo. Their 21 crosses per game is the sixth most in the Premier League. Only five players average more crosses per game than Downing's 2.1.

Although we don't focus on a high press as much as Spurs, I think their success could convince Wenger to pressure Boro high up the pitch. Our Champions League win on Wednesday means we'll be working on short rest and given that pressing takes great energy we won't want to employ that approach throughout the 90 minutes. But I think we can come in and look to batter them early on, pressing hard in the opening 25 minutes, get a lead then sit in and control the remainder of the match.

The only slight concern I have is if Adama Traore plays wide on the right. Traore came on in the second half and made Ben Davies look about as quick as John Terry. The 20 year old ex-Barca man is as explosive running with the ball as anyone I've seen. Monreal gets little protection from Iwobi on the left side of defense and we saw him struggle last weekend against another ultra-pacey winger in Modou Barrow for Swansea. The plus side is that Adama is outrageously raw and his final ball is pretty terrible. For a player with his fantastic ability to get past the opposition to only have three appearances off the bench signals that there's probably something wrong with his game. Indeed he has completed a pretty appalling 66.7% of his passes this season. Time and again against Spurs he dribbled past defenders only to mishit a simple pass or blast a cross directly out of play. He completed an incredible 8 of 9 take ons in just over half an hour of play but all 3 of his cross attempts failed to find a Boro player and he completed just 7 of 11 passes. I challenge you to find a player that plays over 30 minutes in a game and completes more take ons than passes. But he can certainly create space for himself so if he does get a final ball right look out.

Final thoughts

Middlesbrough are a functional side with very little going forward. We'll need to be cautious of Negredo from set pieces and early crosses in from Downing but otherwise I can't see them causing us many problems. Let's not let them stay in this one for too long- I think with an early goal we should cruise.

Arsenal 3-2 Swansea: Alexis leading lines helps Walcott thrive in hybrid role

Arsenal did enough to hang on for a sixth successive league win after Granit Xhaka’s 70th minute red card made what was already a nervy second half even more tense. This wasn’t a particularly good Arsenal performance but results elsewhere made this a great day for us overall. Man City and Spurs both could only manage 1-1 draws against Everton and West Brom respectively, meaning we leapfrogged Tottenham and now trail City only on goal difference at the top of the table. I’ll quickly touch on some not-so-good aspects of the performance but focus the majority of this on how we’ve become the joint highest scoring team this season with Man City with 19. We’re on pace to score 90 goals, 25 more than last season when Leicester, City and Tottenham, the other three sides that finished in the top four, all scored more.

Negatives 

-Granit Xhaka’s disciplinary record was no secret when we signed him. He’s accumulated 37 yellow cards and 7 red cards in 154 career appearances at both club and international level. While I thought his red today was harsh- that type of tackle is always given a yellow- it was more worrying that he was in a position where he felt he had to make such a wild lunge in the first place. I just don’t think he has the pace to operate as the more defensive of the two holding midfielders. He can’t get across the width of the pitch to break up counters with the pace and tenacity Coquelin or even Elneny do. I realize in the past I have called for more of the Cazorla-Xhaka partnership against weaker teams because Xhaka is a slightly more expansive passer than Coq. But there is no doubt that our protection in front of the back four is much, much weaker with Coquelin out of the lineup. We lose the athleticism and ball-winning ability. I think Cazorla’s composure and contributions to our possession play are invaluable and he needs to be in the lineup. Elneny appears to be taking the blame for the Liverpool loss so for now I think Coq-Santi is the best option at the base of midfield.

-Alex Iwobi has had a really positive start to the season. His quick feet in tight areas have given us a massive boost in possession. However, he doesn’t get through much defensive work and that has left Nacho Monreal isolated at left back on multiple occasions this season. Nordin Amrabat and Robert Snodgrass both gave Monreal a tough time in the Watford and Hull games because too often he was left isolated to defend 1 v. 1 in the channels. Today Modou Barrow caused us issues down their right side. He set up their second goal and nearly created a few others.

We defended with a midfield bank of four of Walcott, Xhaka, Cazorla and Iwobi. While Walcott has improved his defensive play massively this season and Cazorla does more defensively than he’s given credit for, that’s not a midfield of players renowned for their contribution when the opposition has the ball. We shouldn’t be terribly surprised that Saturday was a bit of a shootout.

Wenger’s move to tighten up the midfield defensively has been to bring on Elneny for Iwobi and move to a 4-5-1 with Ozil on the left of midfield. That allows us to defend with a midfield bank of five rather than four which makes it more difficult for the opposition to switch play to the opposite wing in space. Ozil doesn’t offer any more defensive cover for Monreal than Iwobi however so Wenger’s second defensive move tends to be bringing on Kieran Gibbs to the left wing.

Positives

Our first two goals came from a bit of good fortune after bad mistakes from Jordi Amat and Jack Cork but Walcott deserves credit for being alert to both and finishing clinically. I know I wasn’t the only one who wanted him gone this summer but he’s proved his doubters wrong and it’s been great to see a player that is almost universally acknowledged as a good guy playing so well.  

With Alexis consistently playing as the #9, Walcott’s presence on the right has been crucial. Alexis’s role is an extremely fluid one leading the lines. He is first and foremost a creator that likes to be on the ball as often as possible. Therefore he’ll often drop off the opposition center backs and come into deeper positions to get on the ball or drift wide to create overloads in the channels. With Alexis dropping deep, it’s crucial we get someone making vertical runs in behind to stretch the opposition defense. Too often last season, when Alexis was playing on the left and Giroud was up top, we didn’t have anyone making those vertical runs. Alexis always came short to get on the ball and Giroud played with his back to goal looking to provide linking wall passes. All of our movement occurred in front of the opposition back four and that made us easy to defend.

Walcott expressed in the summer that he viewed himself as a right winger once again after spending last season playing at the striker position he always viewed as his best. However with Alexis playing up top it gives Walcott the chance to play a sort of hybrid of the two positions when we are in possession. When Alexis drops off into midfield Walcott tucks inside and plays right on the edge of the offside line looking for opportunities to run in behind the defense.

This coordinated movement leaves opposition defenses with a difficult decision. When Alexis drops in between the opposition defensive and midfield lines it forces one of their defenders to step forward to get tight to him. This leaves a gap in their back four for us to make vertical runs into.

If no one steps out to pressure Alexis he’s more than capable of taking on a shot at the edge of the box or picking his head up and finding a penetrating pass. For our third goal no one from Swansea got tight to him when he collected a pass from Walcott between the lines. He therefore had the time to have a look up and coolly provide a perfectly weighted chip over the top to the back post for Ozil to put away.

I may be misremembering last season but to me it seems Ozil has been making more vertical runs into the box than he did last season. His goal today and the header he smashed in at Watford came from penetrating runs deep into the opposition penalty area. He was brilliant last season but only managed 6 goals. He already has half that and we haven’t even played a quarter of the season.

Again, I think Ozil’s increased willingness to make those sorts of runs is partially a result of Sanchez playing up front. Giroud was very much a focal point at the top of the team. He was almost always in front of whoever had the ball when we were in possession and therefore I think maybe our midfielders felt less responsible for making advanced runs since Giroud was always the forward passing option. Now when Alexis drops into midfield to collect a pass I think our midfielders realize if they don’t move into a position higher up the pitch we won’t have a forward pass on. As a result we’re getting more penetrating runs from deeper areas in midfield that are much more difficult for opposition defenders to track. 

Giroud’s return will offer a nice alternative option up front but after a difficult first couple games with Alexis as the striker the system looks fine-tuned and dynamic. 

Arsenal's matchweek 8 scouting report: Swansea

Arsenal return to action Saturday at home to Swansea. Swansea have picked up just a point from their last 5 league matches. Consecutive league defeats to Southampton, Manchester City and Liverpool have left the Swans outside the relegation zone on goal difference alone and led to the sacking of Francesco Guidolin as manager. He has been replaced by the American Bob Bradley who becomes the first American to manage a Premier League side.

After his firing as manager of the US national team in 2011, Bradley moved to Egypt where he narrowly missed out on qualification for the 2014 World Cup despite contending with the year-long cancellation of domestic league football that resulted from a deadly stadium riot in Port Said in 2012 and the ongoing revolution in the country. From there he moved to the small Norwegian club Stabaek then on to Le Havre in November 2015 in the French second division. At Le Havre he nearly earned the club promotion to Ligue 1 with a miraculous effort in the final match of the 2015-2016 season. They went into the final game 3 points behind third place Metz in the race for the final promotion position and needing a 6 goal swing in goal differential. Metz were beaten 1-0 and Bradley’s Le Havre won 5-0 meaning the two sides finished level on points and goal difference. Metz would go through on goals scored.

I’ve not followed Bradley’s career at all closely since he was sacked from the USMNT position five years ago so I can’t offer any insight into his tactical approach in recent seasons. He used quite an attacking 4-4-2 at the 2010 World Cup with Jozy Altidore and either Herculez Gomez or Robbie Findley up front and Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan in the wide midfield roles. I thought this was brave- we played quickly on the break and scored in every game- but also led to the US being overwhelmed in midfield and exposed defensively which was something I thought at the time suggested some tactical naivety. Now in the era of ponderous and frankly underwhelming displays under Jurgen Klinsmann I miss the excitement Bradley’s sides played with. Swansea have a tradition of playing positive football and Bradley isn’t a manager that’s going to turn them into West Brom. I’m sure better students of world football can offer up some insight into how he’s played in his more recent positions. Overall I think he’s a guy that conducts himself with real dignity and admire the risks he’s taken carving out a career for himself. I hope he does well… Starting next week.

A bit on Swansea’s tactics

I forgot to DVR Swansea’s last match against Liverpool and hadn’t seen a full match of theirs prior to that. The only full match I could find online was the 2-2 draw against Chelsea so, word of warning, my opinions of them are based solely on one full match, snippets of others and some statistics.

While they were outplayed by Chelsea for much of that contest and were slightly fortunate in that Leroy Fer blatantly fouled Gary Cahill before scoring Swansea’s second (a tackle cynical enough that I thought it could have earned him a second yellow had Andre Marriner spotted it), my overall assessment was that they’re too good of a side to be in a relegation scrap come the end of the season.

They played a midfield diamond that day that was really well balanced and reasonably talented. Jack Cork played at the base of midfield. He’s an unfussy, tidy player that keeps possession moving. Leroy Fer and Ki Sung-yueng played the box-to-box roles. Both are athletic, energetic players capable of pressing defensively in midfield then bursting forward to join in the attack. Ki is a composed figure on the ball and confident passer- his 88% pass success rate is the highest on the team. Fer is an all-action, direct player and, crucially for the Swans, a player that can score from midfield. He already has 4 goals out of Swansea’s 6 total.

Gylfi Sigurdsson played at the tip of the diamond. Sigurdsson is a remarkably dynamic player, capable of creating a goal for himself or providing a final ball. He also possesses a unique work rate on both sides of the ball and commitment to performing the less glamorous aspects of the game. I think it’ll be important we keep him in deeper areas away from the striker (likely Fernando Llorente if he has recovered from a rib injury). The Icelandic international is dangerous on the edges of the penalty spot. If he can collect knock downs from Llorente, his curling efforts from 30 yards and in are excellent.

The Spanish international Llorente has endured a slow start to life in England having netted just once in six league appearances. However that goal did come in his last outing for the club so he’ll hope he’s gathering some momentum. Llorente is certainly a capable striker- he scored 18 goals in 2013-14 at Juventus and scored as many as 29 in a season at Athletic Bilbao- but at 31 he’s getting towards the end of his prime and hasn’t reached double digits in goals in the last two seasons.

Swansea pressed high to mixed effect against Chelsea. There were occasions when their defenders (they started with a back three and moved to a back four just before halftime) stayed too deep when the midfield pressed, leaving plenty of space between the lines for Chelsea to move into and easily play out of the press. However when the press was more orchestrated and compact that caused Chelsea some real problems. Fer’s goal came when he pressed Cahill high but even prior to that they had made Chelsea look really sloppy for portions of the game.

Weak defense

Swansea’s biggest weaknesses are in defense. They’ve kept just one clean sheet in all comps, against Burnley on the opening day of the season. Burnley have score the joint fewest goals this season along with Stoke. The football statistics website whoscored.com lists Swansea’s weaknesses as defending set pieces, avoiding fouling in dangerous areas, stopping opponents from creating chances, defending counter attacks and defending against through ball attacks (their other listed weakness is finishing scoring chances). That type of defensive liability is no recipe for success, particularly when you’re playing on the road.

The two center backs Federico Fernandez and Jordi Amat made a number of individual errors against Chelsea that seemed to largely be down to a lack of concentration. For Chelsea’s opener Fernandez twice failed to execute basic headed clearances away from the danger area and ended up clearing directly to Eden Hazard’s feet to tee up Diego Costa. Time and again Amat was too eager to dive into tackles through the back of opposition players and gave away silly free kicks in dangerous areas. He committed 5 fouls and was lucky not to pick up a second yellow. Costa was fouled an incredible 7 times.

It’ll be interesting to see if Bradley restores Neil Taylor to the side. The Welsh international has been a mainstay at the club but appeared just once this season under Guidolin and was subbed off before halftime, causing a touchline row with the manager. Guidolin had opted for the youngster Stephen Kingsley at left back.

How they’ll play

Seeing as Bradley is a bit of a mystery to me at this stage in his career I have no idea how he’ll set his side out. I do wonder however if he’ll opt for a midfield diamond after Southampton gave us some fairly serious trouble using that formation earlier this season. As I mentioned above, in Cork, Ki, Fer and Sigurdsson he’s got four midfielders well-suited to that shape. Against Southampton we defended in our normal blocks of four. With so many players taking up central areas in the diamond 4-4-2, our two center deeper center midfielders on the day, Cazorla and Coquelin, were often outnumbered in the middle of the pitch and Southampton were able to play through them.

I think the issue with that shape for Swansea however is that it forces the width to come from the fullbacks which leaves space for us to counter into the channels. They’ve had a difficult time stopping the counter. Alternatively he could go for more of a 4-2-3-1 and inject some pace in the channels with either Wayne Routledge or Modou Barrow.

Final thoughts

It’s difficult to know what to expect from this one. Swansea have been something of a bogey-opponent for us in recent seasons. We’ve failed to beat them at the Emirates in their last three visits and they’ve collected all three points in the last two. They’ll be difficult to prepare for in their first game under a new boss with new ideas and the players should be eager to impress the new manager. Based on whoscored.com’s team rankings, Swansea’s predicted number of points is just above 7 based on their performances so far this season. They only have 4 points indicating performances have probably been a touch better than results suggest (I’ll have more on predicted points versus actual points for all 20 Premier League teams next week).

The home crowd sounded incredible the last time out against Chelsea. That match was of course a heated derby with a teatime kickoff. It’ll be interesting to see how loud he Emirates is with Arsenal against a struggling opponent at a traditional kick off time. I expect us to win, but then I always expect us to win at home to Swansea and we never seem to do so. Let’s change that tomorrow.

Tactical Analysis: Arsenal 1-0 Burnley

Laurent Koscielny’s absurd last gasp goal gave Arsenal a fortuitous but vital win over Burnley at Turf Moor. Theo Walcott’s headed flick towards the back post from a short corner deep in stoppage time fell to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at the back post. With the goal at his mercy the out-of-form midfielder appeared to sky his effort from two yards out (a position where it was harder to miss) before it hit Koscielny’s hand and rolled over the line. Koscielny knew nothing about it and his hand wasn’t in an unnatural position so a handball call would have been harsh. However he was clearly in an offside position when Ox blasted it off his hand.

This was a fairly uninspiring performance against a defensively well-organized Burnley side prepared to drop behind the ball and deny us space in the attacking third. Despite monopolizing possession we only managed 3 shots on target over the 93 minutes.

The positive takeaway from this match, aside from getting the three points, is that we continued to pour forward in the closing moments of the match and put them under enough pressure to win the corner that ultimately led to Koscielny’s winner. In our two disappointing league results this season, the opening day defeat against Liverpool and the 0-0 draw at Leicester, we didn’t force the issue enough in the dying moments and didn’t really create meaningful enough chances to score.

Lineups

Arsene Wenger opted for what currently is his preferred lineup. Mustafi and Koscielny partnered at center back with Bellerin and Monreal at right and left back respectively. Xhaka and Cazorla were at the base of midfield with Ozil in the #10 role behind Alexis. Walcott was on the right wing, Iwobi was on the left.

Sean Dyche went with the same 4-5-1 lineup that beat Watford 2-0 in the league last week. Matthew Lowton, Michael Keane, Ben Mee and Stephen Ward lined up from right to left in the back four. Dean Marney played as the deepest of the three central midfielders with Jeff Hendrick to his right and Steven Defour to his left. George Boyd was on the left wing, Johann Berg Gudmundsson was on the right wing. Sam Vokes started as the lone striker.

Burnley defense

Tactically this game offered few surprises. Burnley defended with at least nine men behind the ball with a midfield bank of five in front of the back four as expected. Hendrick would step forward to apply some pressure on Arsenal’s deepest midfielder- typically Xhaka- when he got the ball.

Their fullbacks defended quite narrow. They were usually inside the penalty box and within a few yards of the center backs. The wingers Boyd and Sigmundsson put in loads of defensive work in the channels, at times dropping so deep they formed a back six with the center backs and fullbacks so that Burnley were defending in more of a 6-3-1 shape. The screen shot below shows Burnley’s narrow back four with the wingers dropping back into fullback positions.

Burnley were understandably keen on crowding the center of the pitch and forcing us into the channels. Dyche was well aware that with Giroud still out through injury we weren’t going to have anyone to aim crosses at in the box. Alexis has a tremendous leap but he’s short and therefore not a huge physical presence in the box. Plus he likes to drop off into deeper areas and into the channels so he’s often not poaching in the box.

When we got the ball into the channels to either the fullbacks or wide midfielders or or Ozil drifting wide, the penalty box was crowded with Burnley’s bigger defenders and our only available passing option was to drop it back and try to recirculate possession. As a result we spent a lot of time moving the ball from one side of the pitch to the other without getting any real penetration. We completed 224 passes in the attacking third, our second highest total of the season, but our 3 shots on target was our second lowest this season.

This might have been the ideal game for Giroud had he been available. Alexis ran his socks off and was excellent again but it may have been effective having him starting on the left where he would have had more chances to run at defenders 1 v. 1 on the channels then pick out more of a classic poacher in the box like Giroud. Our attack was fluid but against a team defending as deep and with as many numbers as Burnley, all that fluid movement wasn’t really dragging them out of position.

Burnley attack

Burnley were unsurprisingly direct in attack. Using the ratio of short passes played per long ball played as a measure of how direct a team is (fewer short passes played per long ball means a team is more direct), only West Brom were more direct than Burnley going into last week’s matches. West Brom play 2.99 short passes per long ball, Burnley play 3.62 short passes per long ball. By contrast Arsenal are the least direct team in the league playing 11.08 short passes per long ball. With the strong and powerful Vokes leading the line, Burnley had no qualms about skipping the midfield and hitting longer balls directly into the big man and having him try to hold up play to allow runners from deeper areas to get forward. Vokes used his strength to decent effect. He was fouled three times while holding off Mustafi in the first 21 minutes, winning free kicks inside Arsenal’s half.

Dyche’s side have looked a real threat from set pieces over the last two weeks. They scored two headed goals from corners in their 2-0 win over Watford and were keen to use any set piece opportunity to get men into the box and contest crosses and get on the end of knock downs. They were unlucky not to go ahead in the 75th minute when Michael Keane hit the crossbar from a corner.

The graphic below shows Burnley’s passes into the attacking third. Notice how many of them are long balls from deeper areas. They completed just half of their 100 attacking third pass attempts.

That’s not to disparage their approach at all. Burnley are admirable in their reluctance to break the bank to try to remain in the Premier League and risk the long term financial future of the club. Dyche does well to get the most out of a group of players that not everyone may see as being able to cut it in the Premier League. I certainly don’t begrudge him of adopting a style that gives his side the best chance of getting results against more talented opposition even if it doesn’t always make for the most entertaining spectacle. Prior to our last minute winner they had the better chances- Keane’s header off the crossbar and Vokes bad headed miss when left alone at the penalty spot late in the first half- and should be a really difficult side to beat at home, as Arsenal and Liverpool have both learned already. If they can find a way to score more consistently they’ve got a decent shot of staying up.

Final Thoughts

Three points are three points. When the final league table is tallied in May this win will count every bit as much as the win over Chelsea. Luck hasn’t always been on Arsenal’s side in recent seasons so when we do catch a bit of it it’s important to take advantage. The fixture list remains kind to us during the month of October with home matches against 17th place Swansea and 16th place Middlesbrough before a trip to last place Sunderland. I don’t want to get ahead of myself but if we can get through those very winnable games unbeaten (we also have two kind Champions League fixtures in October home and away against Ludogorets) we’ll go into the home match with Tottenham November 6th in a position where a win would at worst put us 2 points above them in the table.

Arsenal's matchweek 7 scouting report: Burnley

Arsenal travel to Burnley tomorrow to take on Sean Dyche’s side at Turf Moor. Following our two most impressive performances of the season last weekend against Chelsea and midweek in the Champions League against Basel we should be going into this match with some real confidence. It’ll be important that confidence is channeled properly- Burnley away is the type of fixture bigger teams may underestimate and come into with a lack of focus. If you do that in the Premier League you’re likely to lose. Just ask Liverpool. After ripping us to shreds in the season opener they were beaten 2-0 at Turf Moor the following weekend despite having 80% possession.

James Richardson noted on the Guardian Football Weekly Extra podcast Thursday that the Clarets have conceded just 5 goals in their last 12 league matches at Turf Moor, stretching back to last season in their Championship title campaign. They’ve conceded just twice in four home league matches this season, in a 1-0 opening day defeat to Swansea and a 1-1 draw with Hull City. They’ve collected 7 points from the 12 available at home, with wins against Liverpool and last weekend against Watford where they also picked up clean sheets.

Lineup in last week’s win over Watford

Tactics

Under Dyche Burnley will try to make up for the gap in quality they have with most sides with excellent organization and work rate. In defense they’ll drop off into their own half with a midfield bank of five in front of the back four and look to frustrate the opposition into unlocking them. We’ll need keep up the tremendous pace we’ve moved the ball over the last two matches to pull them out of their defensive shape.

Because they defend with the midfield five, Vokes is left as the highest man up the pitch on his own.  When they win the ball back rather than building play forward through the midfield they’ll often look to go long into Vokes early and rely on him to hold play up long enough to allow time for midfield runners to get forward. The Welsh striker is incredibly strong and capable in the air. Only Christian Benteke is averaging more aerial duel wins per game (8.4) than Vokes (6.8). As a team Burnley have won the most aerial duels in the league.

They are more concerned with controlling space and territory than possession. They’ve been outpossessed in every match this season and have the third lowest average possession in the Premier League (41.3%) behind West Brom (40.8%) and Sunderland (39.7%). It’s worth noting they’ve played Swansea, Leicester, Hull and Watford, four sides in the bottom seven in average possession so you’d expect Burnley’s average possession totals to continue dropping as they play more sides that like to keep the ball.

Remarkably, in their two wins this season Burnley averaged below 50% pass success rate in the final third against Liverpool and just 54% against Watford. Many of those passing attempts in the final third came from long balls towards Vokes from deep in their own half. The right side of the graphic shows their final third passing against Liverpool, the right side shows their final third passing against Watford.

Against Watford they looked to get the ball wide into the channels, get midfield runners into the box to join Vokes and cross early and often. The weak side winger will tuck into the box to join Vokes and usually one of the three center midfielders will also burst forward to attack crosses, most often Hendrick. The screen shot below shows an example. Here, Gudmundsson gets the ball on the right channel. Boyd tucks all the way inside to the front post from his position on the left channel, Hendrick goes back post, Vokes is in the middle to attack the cross.

It’ll be important for us therefore to try to get tight to the wingers and full backs to stop the supply of crosses into the box. Our wide midfielders will need to protect the fullbacks so they don’t get isolated and have to defend the channels 1 v. 2. Mustafi and Koscielny will also need to be up for a physical battle with a lot of high balls coming into the box.

Burnley will also pose a threat from set pieces. Both goals against Watford were headers that came from corners.

Final thoughts

This match could tell us a lot about the focus and consistency of our squad. It’s easy to get up for a home match against a rival like Chelsea. This will be a different type of test. With games against Burnley, Swansea, Middlesbrough and Sunderland in the month of October we have a real opportunity to climb the table and stay on pace with other potential title contenders. Those sides are currently 14th, 17th, 16th and 19th in the league respectively. The danger is we become too confident and complacent and lose matches we should win. If we’re focused and up for this one tomorrow the gap in talent should be too big and we should see a fifth consecutive league win.

Arsenal batter Chelsea in most complete performance in recent memory

Arsenal put in one of their best performances at the Emirates Stadium in an electrifying 3-0 win over Chelsea that ended a run of 9 competitive matches without a win over our West London rivals. This match was similar to the 3-0 home win over Manchester United last season- we destroyed them in the first half then put in a composed, professional second half performance to cruise to the three points.

I was admittedly skeptical of Wenger’s starting 11. In the preview to the match I discussed how I thought Alexis would be best deployed on the left where he’d be matched up against the aging and increasingly slow Branislav Ivanovic. However, the decision proved to be the right one. Alexis’s tireless energy closing the ball down as the highest man up the pitch set the tone for how we defended behind him. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen an Arsenal side close down the ball as quickly as we did Saturday. More than anything tactically I think it was this difference in energy levels between the sides that led to our dominant performance.

It’s a clear sign of a committed performance when Walcott ties for the team leader in tackles (Walcott, Mustafi, Xhaka and Koscielny all had 3). I thought we maybe should have let him go in the summer but he’s proved his doubters wrong, already pitching in with 3 goals and an assist. Equally importantly he’s putting more effort into the defensive side of his game. Over the summer Wenger suggested he’d struggle to play on the right wing because of his defensive weakness and it appears he’s been motivated by the managers comments. He’s averaging 2 tackles per game this season, more than four times as many as last season when he averaged under half. He’s also averaging over a foul a game (1.2 per game). In the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 season he averaged 0.1 tackles per game. You of course don’t want players committing fouls in dangerous areas but those numbers show that he’s added some bite and is willing to get tight to the opposition in defense.

We had 19 total tackles as a team and 24 interceptions, double Chelsea’s total. After getting physically dominated Conte may regret selecting Fabregas in midfield over Oscar. Conte has expressed that he thinks his side is most balanced with the Brazilian in midfield over Fabregas, but after Fabregas scored twice midweek in the EFL Cup he kept his place in the side. Oscar leads Chelsea in tackles per game and has the energy and pace to close down the opposition then make driving runs forward when Chelsea win the ball back.

With Chelsea pinned back defending us with a midfield bank of five, Diego Costa was left isolated up front. He worked hard to provide the visitors with an outlet but had to hold the ball on his own against our two center backs waiting for midfield runners to get forward in support. Neither Matic nor Fabregas, Chelsea’s two midfield shuttlers, are particularly quick and therefore couldn’t get up the pitch quickly enough to provide their striker a passing option. Costa grew increasingly frustrated as Mustafi and Koscielny physically bullied him in a way he’s not used to. Oscar may have provided the legs to apply more pressure on us in midfield then break forward to get close to Costa in possession and provide a pass.

Our individual performances were superlative across the pitch. The center back partnership was particularly promising. After steady but unspectacular performances in his first three appearances, Mustafi was different class. He led all players in both tackles (3) and interceptions (6). Together he and Koscelny led all players in interceptions (6 for Mustafi, 4 for Koscielny), clearances (6 for Koscielny, 4 for Mustafi) and headed clearances (4 for Koscielny and 3 for Mustafi). Koscielny also led all players in blocks (2) and defensive aerial duels won (5). For the one mistake they made, a mixup near midfield that allowed Pedro through on goal, Bellerin made one of those recovery runs only Hector Bellerin is capable of. He made Pedro look like Ivanovic.

The Spaniard was spectacular in his own right. The vision and technique he displayed for the assist to Walcott on our second goal was maybe my favorite bit of play in the entire game.

Ozil’s performance should quiet some of those who have said he’s not a player for the big occasions. The way he spun last season’s best defensive midfielder in the buildup to his goal was excellent and the move itself illustrated the advantages of playing Alexis over Giroud up front. Ozil and Alexis seem to have a telepathic understanding of one another and it’s difficult to imagine Giroud making the same perfectly timed diagonal run between the two Chelsea center backs that Sanchez made. Alexis’s mobility makes us a far more dangerous side on the counter.

Ozil has above a 90% pass success rate at the moment (90.3%), a ridiculous percentage for a #10 who plays high up the pitch and therefore attempts more risky passes that are less likely to come off. By comparison Kevin De Bruyne has an 83.4% pass success rate, David Silva is at 87.8%, Wayne Rooney is at 86.5%, Philippe Coutinho is at 85.5% and Delle Ali is at 83.3%.

I was seriously concerned when we were forced to replace Coquelin early. With Elneny not even making the subs bench it was clear that Xhaka would be the replacement and although I’m really excited about him and want to see him play more than he has, my fear was that a Xhaka-Santi partnership at the base of midfield wouldn’t provide enough defensive cover for the Chelsea onslaught to get back in the game that I figured would come at some point. Our midfield bank of four looked a bit stretched during a couple moments in the second half but overall I thought Xhaka filled in brilliantly, contributing 3 tackles and completing 94% of his passes, higher than any player on the pitch but Monreal. Thankfully Coquelin’s injury sounds like it’s less serious than initially feared but his temporary absence should give Xhaka an opportunity to get a consistent run of games in and gel into the squad.

Final thoughts

Too often when we win I nitpick at the performance and fail to really enjoy it. Saturday’s performance was a welcome reminder of how much fun supporting a football team can occasionally be. Yes this is only one game. No we shouldn’t get carried away with the result. Yes we’ll be judged by our consistency at the end of the season, something we’ve struggled with for years. But you may only get to watch a performance as comprehensively dominant as Saturday was against another top side once a season (if that). If you can’t delight in that then it’s probably not worth tuning in every week.  A memorable performance made better because of who it was against. Four wins on the trot and four very winnable league fixtures against Burnley, Swansea, Middlesborough and Sunderland in the month of October mean we have a real chance to build some momentum ahead of Tottenham’s visit to the Emirates in early November.

Arsenal's matchweek 6 scouting report: Chelsea

This match should provide an indicator of where we’re at as a squad. Despite having not lost since the opening day of the season, the Watford match was the only one where we looked convincing. We struggled to create chances in the 0-0 draw at champions Leicester, won late at home against a struggling Southampton side courtesy of a controversial last minute penalty, were played off the park in Paris and owed our draw to poor finishing from Edinson Cavani and endured a nervy few second half minutes last weekend against Hull when we allowed them back into the game despite being 2-0 up with a man advantage.

There are certainly positives to draw from those results. Traditionally we haven’t been great at scraping out results when we’re not at our best and we showed some strong character in each of those matches. However it’s difficult to imagine us getting anything from Chelsea if we don’t improve the level of performance. We haven’t beaten Chelsea in the league since the thrilling 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge when they were coached by Andre Villas-Boas and we haven’t scored in our last six league meetings.

Like Arsenal, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea have only looked really convincing in one match this season, their 3-0 win over Burnley. In their first two matches, 2-1 wins over West Ham and Watford, they required late winners from Diego Costa. The combative striker was extremely fortunate to have escaped a sending off in both matches prior to getting the winners. Their luck with officials seemed to run out in a 2-2 draw against Swansea. Leroy Fer went through the back of Gary Cahill and ended up scoring to put Swansea in the lead. Costa would again provide the heroics with a late equalizer. Last Friday Conte’s side was made to look toothless and rigid against a dynamic Liverpool side in a 2-1 home defeat to Jurgen Klopp’s charges.

The Blues will be desperate to avoid going three league matches without a win and falling further behind pace setters Manchester City. Does the added motivation of getting the season back on track after a mini-run of poor results win out over the dip in confidence brought about by poor form?

Lineup

Antonio Conte has started games with a 4-3-3 formation so far this season. David Luiz started alongside Gary Hill in the center of defense against Liverpool with John Terry sidelined with an ankle injury. The Chelsea captain could regain fitness in time to start this weekend however. Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic will almost certainly take up the fullback positions. N’Golo Kante shields the back four at the base of midfield with Nemanja Matic in a slightly more advanced shuttling role to his left and Oscar to his right. Eden Hazard will be on the left wing, Willian on the right wing. The in-form Costa will be up top.

Ball winning midfielders

With a midfield trio of Kante, Matic and Oscar, Chelsea have three players whose strongest qualities are their tackling ability and willingness to contribute energy defensively. British commentators this season have lazily suggested Oscar has just developed a defensive work rate under Conte, that attitude coming solely on the basis that he’s Brazilian and played in advanced positions throughout his career, mainly as a #10 at Chelsea but also in a wider role at times with Brazil. However, his energy in pressing the opposition and winning the ball back high up the pitch has always been one of his biggest attributes. During the first half of the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons Jose Mourinho heaped praise on the Brazilian for the energy he displayed pressing high up the pitch. He fell off in the second half of those seasons, likely due in large part to the fact he hadn’t had a summer break in years after being involved with the Brazil 2012 Olympic team, the 2013 Confederations Cup team and the 2014 World Cup team, but his playing style has always involved defensive discipline and hard work. He currently leads all Chelsea players with an average of 3.6 tackles per game, a touch more than even Kante at 3.4. 

Chelsea defend with a midfield block of five with Oscar dropping in alongside Matic and Kante rather than defending higher up the pitch with Costa as he tended to do under Mourinho. Against three mobile and physical center midfielders we’ll need to move the ball quickly and find gaps between their back four and midfield bank of five. Liverpool had success when their two wide attackers Coutinho and Sadio Mane tucked inside from the channels in the space between the Chelsea fullbacks and Kante. This movement forced Chelsea into difficult decisions defensively. If the fullbacks drifted inside to pick up Mane and Coutinho it left too much space in the channels for the Liverpool fullbacks to overlap into (image 1).

If Cahill or David Luiz stepped forward to pick them up it left a gap in the Chelsea back four and space for Liverpool to run into behind the Chelsea defense (image 2).

If the center midfielders dropped off to get tight to them Chelsea would have been defending too deep and allowing Liverpool’s three center midfielders Henderson, Lallana and Wijnaldum too much time and space on the ball (image 3).

If they did nothing it allowed opportunities for Mane and Coutinho to receive passes between the lines and run at the back four where both are quite dangerous (image 4).

If we can similarly force Chelsea's fullbacks into deciding whether to drift inside to track our wide attackers towards the center of the pitch and open the channels to overlapping fullbacks or to stay put and leave space between the lines we should enjoy some success.

Chelsea counter

The ball-winning capabilities of Chelsea’s midfield three mean we’ll have to be really diligent in possession in midfield. If we allow them to make interceptions or win tackles off us cheaply it’ll create counter-attacking opportunities for them. In Willian and Hazard the Blues have two players that are excellent in transition. There are few players better at dribbling past opposition defenders in space than Hazard and after enduring a poor campaign last season he is getting back to his best. He has completed more successful dribbles than any player in the Premier League with 4.8 per game and has already found the net twice after scoring just 4 in the league last season. On the opposite channel Willian has completed 4.3 key passes per game, tied with Dimitri Payet for most in the league. I've included Alexis's successful take ons and key pass stats in the graphic below for comparison.

In Diego Costa they have a striker returning to form and capable of putting away chances created by Hazard and Willian. He’s averaging a goal per game and isn’t a player we’ve particularly enjoyed playing in the past(insert Squawka comparison here). Few Arsenal fans will forget our two meetings last season when he got Gabriel sent off in September and forced Mertesacker into a last ditch tackle in January that resulted in a red card. We went on to lose both of those matches. Maintaining our discipline will therefore be key. You can count on Costa to look to wind us up into doing something stupid. Mertesacker and Gabriel are of course out through injury this time around but I worry about Mustafi in what I believe will be his first meeting against Costa (he arrived in Spain at Valencia just as Costa was leaving Atletico Madrid for Chelsea). Mustafi has only been sent off twice in his career and hopefully Wenger will be reminding the players this week of the importance of keeping 11 men on the pitch.

Midfield balance

Following the draw at Swansea and defeat to Liverpool some Chelsea fans are suggesting Conte doesn’t have the midfield balance right. I’ve seen some suggest Matic should be playing at the base of midfield, with Kante in more of the box-to-box role and either Oscar or Cesc Fabregas in the #10 role. Swapping Kante and Matic is an interesting one because when you look at their statistics both have performed quite well in the roles given to them by Conte. Kante has the highest pass success rate of any player in the league at 94.1% and has done fine circulating possession in an Arteta-like role when Chelsea have the ball. Matic already has two assists in the more advanced box-to-box role.

However, I can see where Chelsea fans are coming from. Their midfield did look a bit static and toothless against Liverpool. In Matic, Kante and Oscar they have three active, disciplined players but none offer a consistently expansive range of passing. Fabregas certainly does (and can offer a goal threat as well as he scored two in the League Cup Tuesday) and Conte has options for getting him on the pitch. I think the issue Conte sees with the Spanish midfielder is that his presence in the squad compromises the really strong spine he likes from his sides.

At Juventus he was happy playing Andrea Pirlo in a regista deep lying creator role because he was playing with three brilliant center backs behind him and two extremely physical, athletic ball winners either side of him in Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal. At Chelsea he’s playing with only two center backs so replacing one of the current center midfielders with the much slower, less physical Fabregas means compromising some defensive solidity.

I’m curious if the signing of David Luiz means Conte may at some point in the near future switch to the 3-5-2 he preferred at Juventus. This shape would more easily allow for Fabregas’s inclusion in the starting eleven. He could then operate in his best deep lying creator position with two of Kante, Oscar or Matic in the box-to-box roles. Alternatively if Conte felt he was needed higher up the pitch they could flip the triangle and play two of Kante, Matic or Oscar as a double pivot with Fabregas higher up the pitch in a #10 role.

I don’t envision Conte throwing his side out in a 3-5-2 for the first time in a game of this magnitude but you never know.

Conte not afraid to change approach

Conte is celebrated for his tactical acumen- his performance with an underwhelming group of Italian players in the Euros this summer was as impressive a display as any player- and has shown early this season he isn’t afraid to alter his approach in-game when chasing a result. In both the Watford and West Ham games his side scored game winners after bringing on Michy Batshuayi and switching to a more direct 4-4-2 with crosses coming into the box from the channels.

Batshuayi provided a cushioned headed knock down from a 50 yard Matic long ball for Costa to collect and shoot past Adrian for the winner against West Ham. The following weekend he provided the leveler against Watford before fellow second half substitute Fabregas played a perfectly weighted through ball to Costa for the winner.

Where Wenger is reluctant to make anything but like-for-like substitutions, Conte takes a more proactive approach in looking to influence the game from the technical area. It was strange then that against Liverpool he waited until the 84th minute before making a triple change that included Victor Moses for Willian, who I thought had been Chelsea’s best player up to that point. Wenger will have to be alert to any in-game changes Conte makes over the course of the 90 minutes and react to those changes with moves of our own if necessary.

Slow defense

Chelsea don’t have the quickest defense, especially if they go with a Terry-Cahill combo at center back and leave David Luiz on the bench. If Wenger does anticipate a Terry-Cahill partnership it might be a decent game to give Lucas Perez the nod at striker. He offers more pace and mobility than Giroud and Cahill and Terry are generally pretty comfortable against physical, less pacey strikers like Giroud.

I’d definitely like to see Wenger play Alexis on the left. Ivanovic has struggled mightily defending 1 v. 1 in the channels over the last two seasons against quicker players. There are few players that aren’t quicker than the Serbian right back these days- Alexis should have his way if we get him in space to run at Ivanovic.

(Update: Conte has announced Terry has not regained fitness and will not play tomorrow)

Tactical analysis: Arsenal 4-1 Hull City

An Alexis Sanchez double and goals from Theo Walcott and Granit Xhaka (!!) gave Arsenal a 4-1 win over Hull at the KC Stadium.

Lineups

Mike Phelan used the same lineup he has in all of Hull’s matches so far this season. Curtis Davies and Jake Livermore partnered at center back. Andrew Robertson was at left back and Ahmed Elmohamady was at right back. Sam Clucas played at the base of a center midfield three with Tom Huddlestone to his right and David Meyler to his left. Adama Dimonade played on the left wing, Robert Snodgrass was on the right wing. Abel Hernandez was the lone striker.

Arsene Wenger surprisingly went with an almost identical starting lineup to the side that was fortunate to get a draw at PSG in the Champions League Tuesday. The only change was that Walcott replaced Ox and Iwobi switched to the left flank.

Arsenal exploit right channel

At the outset I was concerned we’d have a lot of possession but would be unable to break down Hull’s defense. Phelan’s side defends in a 4-1-4-1 shape with Sam Clucas sitting just in front of the back four in the gap between the defensive and midfield banks of four. We’ll often play extremely narrow against teams defending deep and crowding the center of the pitch and at times will struggle to find a way to unlock them.

I initially thought Wenger’s lineup was a little puzzling. The Alexis at lone striker experiment hasn’t been all that effective and against a deeper defense I thought Giroud’s physicality in the box would be a better fit since there wasn’t going to be any space behind Hull’s back four for Alexis to run into. However Alexis ended up allowing us to completely control the middle of the pitch. He operated as more of a false 9, dropping off into midfield and giving us a numerical advantage in that part of the pitch. With the extra man we were able to circulate possession in dangerous areas in the attacking third and force Hull’s midfield three into an awful lot of defensive running.

With Alexis dropping off into midfield the key was always going to be whether we could get anyone making runs behind the Hull back four to stretch their defense. Our outlet ended up being down the right channel where Walcott and Bellerin were able to collect the ball in space and use their pace to drive towards the endline and cut back for midfield runners in the box. Hull’s fullbacks Robertson and Elmohamady played quite narrow to provide support for the two center backs which left space at the edges of the penalty box for Walcott and Bellerin to drive into. We’d ping the ball around the middle of the pitch, forcing Robertson and Elmohamdy to pinch in then pop it wide where there was space. Bellerin and Theo were able to use their substantial pace advantage over Robertson to drive past him and get the ball into the box.

Although Walcott’s final ball let him down a couple of times I thought he was really good overall and was way more involved than we typically see him. He completed 37 of 41 passes, 13 more than his previous high this season.

Our opener came when the ball was popped wide to him in space at the right edge of the box. He mishit a cross but it forced Jakupovic into parrying it into the path of Iwobi. Iwobi’s strike deflected off Sanchez and in.

The key moment of the game, Livermore’s red card, also came as a result of Walcott getting the ball in space outside of Robertson. Iwobi collected possession in between the lines and forced Robertson to tuck in. Iwobi slipped Walcott in and he cut back for Coquelin at the penalty spot. Livermore stuck a hand out to block Coquelin’s shot. The screen shot below shows the build up to the goal with Iwobi in possession and Walcott slotting just to the outside of Robertson.

Although Cazorla missed the resulting penalty the game was effectively over. With ten men Hull were forced to defend with two banks of four rather than the midfield bank of five they started the game with. Harry Maguire replaced Diomande and slid in alongside Davies at center back. They couldn’t compete in the middle of the pitch with just two midfielders patrolling that space. Their midfield four of Snodgrass, Clucas, Meyler and Huddlestone had to expend a tremendous amount of energy defensively so when they did win possession back they struggled to get forward to support Hernandez. With no other outlet forward they were forced to knock it long to an isolated Hernandez to try to hold up long enough to get runners forward.

Iwobi poor defending leads to Hull chances down right

Iwobi was a bit of a nightmare positionally in defense down the left. Before the red card Elmohamady was pushing high up the pitch to overlap Snodgrass in the channel. Iwobi switched off on three separate occasions and didn’t track the Egyptian right back. In the 25th Elmohamady played Snodgrass on the right touch line then made a bursting run forward. Iwobi started tracking his run then inexplicably left him and pulled wide to try to help Monreal double team Snodgrass. Snodgrass easily slipped a forward pass to Elmohamady all alone on the right channel. His driven ball across the face of goal was fortunately close enough to Cech that he could snuff it out.

In the 34th Iwobi lazily closed down Elmohamady in Hull’s own defensive third when we had a good opportunity to press and win the ball back. He allowed the fullback to easily ghost past him and forced Santi into a yellow card tackle. That could have come back to haunt us as Cazorla was close to picking up a second yellow on two occasions.

In the 36th Monreal was forced to tuck inside to pick up Hernandez after Diomande drew Koscielny in with a driving run towards the middle of the box. Iwobi wasn’t alert to the fact Monreal had to leave Snodgrass alone at the edge of the penalty area and he jogged back rather than sprinting towards the path of Snodgrass. Hernandez easily slipped Snodgrass through. Fortunately Monreal did well to close down the Hull winger and his effort at Cech was tame.

These events highlighted what we’re missing when Alexis isn’t playing wide on the left. Along with the fact he’s more threatening offensively in the channel than as a lone striker, he’s also a tireless runner and willing to put in a shift tracking the opposition fullback.

It was bizarre that with the only threat Hull were posing coming down their right Wenger opted to replace Iwobi with Elneny and move Ozil into the left channel. Ozil is another player who isn’t going to offer much defensive cover for the fullbacks when he’s playing wide. At times last season Wenger would sub Gibbs in for the left winger late in games to offer cover for Monreal. That would have been a more negative move than Wenger was ever likely to consider with a 2-0 lead and a man advantage. But Elneny replacing Iwobi was also a defensive change designed to solidify the middle of the pitch. The strange thing was Hull weren’t posing any threat through the middle. The wings were more in need of being solidified than the center of the park. It wasn’t Ozil’s fault but Hull’s penalty came almost immediately after the substitution and came from a move down their right channel. I’m sure I’m being overly harsh on Wenger here but it seemed obvious that if they were going to get back into the game it was going to come through a set piece or a move down the right.   

Final thoughts

An overall solid performance and Chelsea and Manchester United defeats make this a really positive weekend. The gap in talent meant we were always expected to win this but Hull beat champions Leicester at home and were seconds from getting a point from Manchester United so this could have been a tricky fixture. I’m sure we’ll rest plenty of players in the league cup midweek then it’s a massive on against Chelsea at the Emirates Saturday.

Arsenal's matchweek 5 scouting report: Hull City

Hull City have been the surprise outfit in the Premier League thus far. After a disastrous summer that saw Steve Bruce leave the club over a lack of transfer activity, Hull were almost universally pegged by pundits and journalists to get relegated. Mike Phelan took over a squad with only 14 fit senior players on an interim basis and summarily knocked off league champions Leicester in the season opener then beat Swansea away. Only a 92nd Marcus Rashford winner kept Hull from nicking a point from Manchester United and they drew their last match away to Burnley.  That’s 7 points, equal with Arsenal and level on goal difference.

 Lineup

Phelan has opted for a 4-1-4-1. With both Michael Dawson and Alex Bruce out long term with injuries, Jake Livermore has filled in admirably as a makeshift center back alongside Curtis Davies. Davies has been heroic. He has the highest player rating in the Premier League at whoscored.com. He leads Europe’s top five leagues in interceptions, blocks and clearances and has a pass success rate of 87.9%. Ahmed Elmohamady plays right back and will look to push forward. Andrew Robertson plays left back. Sam Clucas shields the back four at the base of midfield. The 25 year-old has played in the Conference, League Two, League One, the Championship and the Premier League in five successive seasons. David Meyler and Tom Huddlestone operate in slightly more advanced central midfield positions either side of Clucas. New club record signing Ryan Mason made his Hull debut as a substitute against Burnley and may slot into one of the three central midfield positions. Robert Snodgrass plays wide on the right. The Scottish international has been excellent, netting the winner against Leicester and scoring a brilliant equalizer from a free kick last week at Burnley. Adama Diomande plays wide on the left and offers some pace going forward, Abel Hernandez plays striker.

Hull defense

I focused the bulk of my attention on how Hull set up in their home defeat to Manchester United as that match will likely offer a better clue of their approach than the Leicester, Swansea and Burnley matches. You’d expect Arsenal to have more of the ball, just as Manchester United did in their visit to the KC Stadium when they had 62% possession. Against Leicester Hull had 50% possession and against Burnley they had 61%. I don’t foresee them reaching totals that high.

Defensively Hull set out in a deep 4-1-4-1 against Jose Mourinho’s side. There was a midfield block of four in front of a defensive block of four. Sam Clucas sat in the space between the two banks to deny space between the lines. The deep, compact defensive shape succeeded in frustrating United. With Clucas denying space between the lines, Wayne Rooney had to come deeper and wider from his #10 position to get on the ball than perhaps he would have liked (graphic of his received passes versus Hull below). He ended up providing the vital assist for Marcus Rashford’s winner but wasn’t particularly effective during the majority of the 90 minutes.

 Hull defend deep against Manchester United

Hull defend deep against Manchester United

It’ll therefore be interesting to see how Ozil performs with limited space between the lines where he tends to thrive. Ozil is a positionally more intelligent player than Rooney and a better passer but he wasn’t at his best last weekend against Southampton, who were also defending with a compact midfield block of five.

As I mentioned above Curtis Davies has been excellent at center back. However I did see some areas of his game I think we can exploit. There’s a reason he leads Europe in interceptions. When the opposition striker drops in deeper areas to receive a wall pass he loves to be ultra aggressive and try to step in front of the intended recipient to intercept. He did this multiple times when Ibrahimovic tried to drop in to receive passes from midfielders and his timing was immaculate. However, every time he is aggressive in stepping out of the back four line he’s leaving space in behind him that we can exploit if we have players intelligent enough to make diagonal runs into that space.

In Caulker Davies has an inexperienced center back partner who may not be as alert to the danger that occurs to his left when Davies leaves his position and steps forward to try to intercept. If Caulker doesn’t tuck inside a bit when Davies pushes out, it’ll leave a big gap between him and left back Robertson where our midfield runners can push on into if they’re alert. The graphic below shows an example of movement Arsenal can do to exploit this aggression from Davies. Here Ozil is in possession in midfield with Giroud in a central striker position. Giroud makes a run back towards Ozil to give him a passing option. Davies steps forward anticipating the pass into Giroud and looking to intercept. This opens up space behind Davies that he’s just vacated. Sanchez makes a diagonal run from his position on the inside left into that vacated space to receive a pass from Ozil.

Those vertical runs in behind the opposition back four are ones that our midfielders are too often reluctant to make. Alexis loves to come deep to get on the ball when he plays on the left but at times we need those vertical runs to stretch the opposition defense.

The wide midfielders Diomande and Snodgrass work hard to provide cover for their two fullbacks Robertson and Elmohamady. This is important as neither fullback is particularly good at defending 1 v. 1. Elmohamady was easily beaten by Rooney for United’s winner and Robertson was beaten to the endline down the right side on more than one occasion. When we do get in positions to run at the fullbacks in 1 v. 1 situations we should certainly take advantage.

Hull attack

When Hull get on the ball they’re tidier in possession than I maybe would have expected. Huddlestone has an excellent range of passes and brings a calm assuredness to their possession.

They aren’t an especially pacey side so they need to be competent moving the ball in midfield. Without a ton of speed they can’t hit you with the direct vertical counter attacking play we saw from Leicester last season. Along with a lack of pace, their defensive shape makes it difficult for them to counter. Because they defend with a midfield block of five, Hernandez can become isolate up front when they win the ball back. Since they don’t have a second player up front with him the way you would when you defend in blocks of four with two up front, Hernandez is the only outlet and is tasked with holding the ball up long enough to give other players the time to push forward.

Depending on how we’re feeling physically after the PSG encounter I’d be tempted to press high up the pitch immediately when we lose possession. This should force Hull into knocking long hopeful balls towards Hernandez who will be on his own. As good as Davies has been he’s anxious in possession and will simply clear aimlessly the instant he’s put under pressure. Likewise, Robertson was really poor when United finally started to press in the second half.

Diomande seems to be their quickest, most explosive attacking threat. In possession he’ll tuck inside from his starting position on the left into more of a withdrawn striker role just behind Hernandez. There were two occasions when he received passes between the United lines that lead to half chances for Hull. In the 23rd minute he collected a pass from Huddlestone between the lines and forced Fellaini into fouling in a dangerous area. Snodgrass put the ensuing free kick just wide. In the 47th minute he again received a pass in a similar position between the United lines and slipped Hernandez through on goal but Daley Blind did well to cover. We’ll need to be cautious of where he is.

Arsenal approach

I think Hull will allow us to control possession. Since they don’t pose any huge threat on the counter I would be tempted to use two ball playing holding midfielders in Cazorla and Xhaka as we did in our best performance of the season, the 3-0 win over Watford. Against a deep defending side this is probably a game for Giroud up top since he poses a physical threat and there won’t be space in behind for a quicker striker to exploit. Hopefully Giroud reserves his poor decision-making for Champions League fixtures.

Final Thoughts

We have our difficulties breaking down compact, deep defending opposition so it’ll be interesting to see how we cope with a side that’s been pretty well organized this season. They’ll get a boost from a home crowd that has been left pleasantly surprised at the positive start their team has shown so I think we’ll need to come into the game quickly as Hull will look for a fast start. The talent gap between the sides is significant. That should be enough to see Arsenal through but if we don’t improve on the performances of our last two matches we could be in for a frustrating day.

Thoughts on Arsenal's draw at PSG and Cazorla as part of double pivot

Make no mistake, a draw away in Paris in what on paper is our toughest match of the group stages is a fine result. However from the team selection to the tactics this was a troubling performance.

Wenger used the only formation Wenger ever uses anymore, 4-2-3-1. He opted for Coquelin and Cazorla at the base of midfield. PSG lined up in a 4-3-3 with Adrien Rabiot, Marco Verratti and Grzegorz Krychowiak in their central midfield. We defended in banks of four with Ozil staying higher up the pitch with Alexis. This meant defensively Cazorla and Coquelin were outnumbered 2 v. 3 in the middle of midfield against the PSG midfield three. They were easily able to find the spare man and pass between our midfield and defensive lines.

Cazorla’s contributions in a deep-lying midfield role are often underappreciated. His ability to maintain possession when being pressed, spin off defenders and spot a forward pass is invaluable. He has a level of composure you simply don’t get from a Coquelin or Elneny. However when he plays as part of a double pivot against a side playing a 4-3-3 (as opposed to a 4-2-3-1 with a #10 high up the pitch) it becomes much easier for the opposition to overrun us in midfield. Cazorla is obviously a physically small player. It’s a lot to ask of him to be one of only two center midfielders patrolling the center of the pitch when the opposition has the ball.

Tactically the difficulty is that the presence of Ozil, our best player and therefore one we have to have on the pitch, almost necessitates the 4-2-3-1 formation because Ozil needs to play in a #10 role behind the striker. He’s not a box-to-box midfielder that is going to get back behind the ball when we concede possession and contribute defensively. He therefore can’t play as one of the box-to-box shuttlers in a 4-3-3. So when Ozil and Cazorla both play we have two players in the middle of the pitch that aren’t physically imposing in the defensive side of the game. Therefore Cazorla’s partner in the double pivot role (Coquelin last night) has to be very disciplined and do the lions share of ball winning and defensive covering.

One way to get around this issue would be to have Cazorla play at the base of midfield with two more energetic shuttling midfielders either side of him. Andrea Pirlo was able to operate as a deep lying creator at Juventus because he had Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal as center midfield partners to do the ball winning for him and provide direct running in attack to link play forward. We could mimic that strategy with perhaps Cazorla playing at the base of midfield with Elneny and Xhaka either side of him to provide the legs in the middle of the pitch. Ramsey would also be a great option in the shuttling role when he returns.

The down side to this 4-3-3 with Cazorla as deep lying creator of course is that it forces us to play Ozil wide (unless Wenger played with a diamond 4-4-2 with Cazorla at the base and Ozil at the tip; he wouldn’t). He’d have to do more defending, which he’s not great at, and it would push him further from those areas between the opposition midfield and defense where he is at his most dangerous. However, he has played the wide role effectively, most notably during Germany’s 2014 World Cup winning run but also at times in the beginning of last season for Arsenal (or was it the season before?).

I’m not sure what the best answer is. I think Cazorla is a stronger player deeper in midfield than in the #10 spot he played when he arrived at Arsenal and I think we play at a far higher tempo and with more attacking penetration when he’s on the pitch. With an Elneny/Coquelin combination you don’t have that really creative deep lying passer that can pick out a forward pass. As a result the tempo slows down considerably and we end up passing the ball sideways from sideline to sideline.

However, against strong opposition you may not have enough defensive cover with Cazorla as part of a double pivot with Ozil as the #10. This was hardly the only tactical issue from Tuesday evening. Our defense was so disjointed at times it makes you wonder if there was a tactical plan going into this game at all. It seems we’re never on the same page as to whether we’re pressing as a unit or sitting in deep behind the ball. Half our players are doing one thing, the other half are doing something different. The image below shows one particularly terrifying example from Tuesday evening.

I’m convinced now more than ever that the game has passed Wenger by. I wonder if he doesn’t become self conscious about his own tactical nous as his counterparts in the technical area are barking out tactical instructions and making changes over the course of the 90 minutes that influence the complexion of the contest. Wenger will make more or less like for like substitutions but never any big changes. We were bailed out last night by Cavani’s poor finishing but there was no indication that this Arsenal side can do any better in the knockout stages than recent iterations. I fear that as long as Wenger stays in charge it’ll be season after season of “new year, same old Arsenal.”

Tactical Analysis: Arsenal 2-1 Southampton

A last minute Santi Cazorla penalty gave Arsenal a 2-1 win after Laurent Koscielny's excellent overhead kick had leveled the score in the first half. Southampton opened the scoring when Petr Cech tipped Dusan Tadic's free kick onto the bar only for it to bounce in off his back.

While this result is the only thing that will matter come the end of the season the performance was largely disappointing and highlighted some of the longstanding tactical issues we've had in the recent past. Against a Southampton side defending deep with a midfield bank of five in front of a back four we failed to translate possession dominance into goal scoring chances. When we did get into decent scoring positions our finishing was poor. We had 57% possession but our two goals were our only two shots on target. In other words our two goals came from a moment of brilliance from our center back and a controversial penalty. That's not good enough for a side with ambitions of challenging for the title and is particularly concerning on a day when Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool were all excellent.

Lineups

Claude Puel started with the same diamond 4-4-2 shape Southampton have used in all of their matches this season. Jay Rodriguez was rewarded for his equalizer against Sunderland with a start up front alongside Nathan Redmond. Tadic played at the tip of the diamond with Ben Davis and Jordi Clasie either side of Oriol Romeu at the base of the diamond. Ryan Bertrand returned from injury to start at left back while Cedric Soares maintained his starting spot at right back. Virgil van Dijk and Jose Fonte partnered at center back with Fraser Forster in goal.

Arsene Wenger gave debuts to our two new signings Mustafi and Lucas Perez. Xhaka, who was red carded for Switzerland during the international break, was left on the bench as Coquelin came in to partner Santi Cazorla in the double pivot. Alexis and Giroud were both left on the bench with a difficult Champions League game against PSG in the Park des Princes looming Tuesday. Walcott kept his spot wide on the right, Oxlade-Chamberlain played wide on the left. Ozil played in his usual #10 role behind Perez.

Analysis

I mentioned in my scouting report for this match that I’d be slightly surprised if Puel stuck with the narrow diamond 4-4-2 his used in every match so far this season because I thought we’d overwhelm them countering in the channels. Puel did in fact stat the match with his preferred formation.

Southampton controlled possession in the early proceedings as we dropped into banks of four in our own half rather than pressing them high up the pitch. They completed 100 passes in the opening 20 minutes to our 88. I thought that dropping into banks of four and inviting Southampton forward was a smart tactic. With their narrow midfield diamond, Puel’s sides get their attacking width from the fullbacks pushing high up the pitch. I thought that by allowing them to have possession and inviting them forward we’d open up space down the channels that Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain could exploit on the counter with their pace. 

However the approach didn’t work. We couldn’t get tight enough to them in midfield and they used their numerical advantage to pass around us with relative ease. Redmond and Tadic popped up into the space between our center backs and holding center midfielders where they could turn and run at our back four. It was good combination play between Tadic and Redmond that resulted in the free kick Southampton scored their opener from.

When we did win the ball back there were good opportunities to counter but our passing was frustratingly sloppy.  Time and again our initial outlet pass was poor and we gave possession back to them too easily.

After they got the goal Southampton retreated and put the onus on us to control possession and break down a crowded defense. Their shape became 4-5-1 defensively. Redmond and Shane Long, who replaced Jay Rodriguez at halftime, dropped into the right and left channels respectively to form a midfield bank of five, leaving Tadic highest up the pitch. Romeu occupied the space in between the center backs and their other two central midfielders Clasie and Davis where Ozil is so threatening. Puel’s side deserves credit for that compact defensive shape and he deserves credit for employing that tactic. We labored in possession to find the gaps to get the ball into decent attacking positions.

The two screen shots below show Southampton’s solid defensive shape. With Romeu sitting just in front of the back four there is no space between the lines for Ozil to drift into. When the ball is in wide areas they shift well and close down any potential forward passing lanes. Whereas our midfield bank of four left gaps between the defense and midfield, their midfield five meant there was far less space between the lines for us to move into.

Once Puel’s side began defending deep having Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott on the pitch at the same time became a real hindrance. Both players are at their best when the game is open and they have space to run into with their pace. Neither are great on the ball in compact spaces and neither have the creativity or passing ability to unlock crowded defenses. I thought Theo played all right but I’m always amazed at how the more we have the ball, the more uninvolved he seems to become. He completed just 13 passes. On the other side of the pitch Oxlade-Chambrlain had a bit of a disaster, giving away possession inexplicably on too many occasions. I’m not sure you can continue to play him.

Unsurprisingly we looked much better when Alexis came on. It’s no surprise that Ozil was at his most threatening once the Chilean was introduced. They are of course our two most talented attacking players but the two also seem to have a unique understanding of one another’s movement. Just six minutes after Alexis was brought on Ozil moved wide to the left channel to collect a pass from Coquelin. He received the pass facing the touchline with his back to the field so he couldn’t see any of his teammates behind him. Alexis burst forward from an inside left position, seemingly knowing what Ozil would do next. Ozil turned brilliantly and cut a pass forward for Alexis through on goal. Again our finishing was poor- Alexis fired his effort over the bar- but it was a better chance than we had managed before the Chilean’s introduction.

Still no alternate attacking approach

Frustratingly, we have only one attacking approach- patient, short passing combinations. When defenses become crowed and compact that combination play becomes harder to pull off. You’ll never see us throw on two strikers and go more direct hitting crosses into the box from wide areas. Our opposition knows this and are generally happy to give us the ball while we grow more and more frustrated trying to pick our way through compact spaces. On the rare occasions we did alter our approach and go slightly more direct we caused Southampton problems. On one occasion Ozil played Cazorla wide on the left touchline where Cazorla hit a perfectly weighted early cross into the box. Giroud was in front of the front post and wasn’t quite able to redirect the cross on target but it showed the Southampton center backs a different look. On the other occasion Giroud took a chance and made a run in behind the Southampton back four. Mustafi lofted a pass over the top and Fonte brought down Giroud for the winning penalty.

While I thought Perez played decently enough for his debut, all of his movement was back towards the ball. He didn’t make many runs behind van Dijk and Fonte to stretch the defense. When Giroud came on he did well to make those more vertical runs behind the defense, slightly surprising given that he typically plays more with his back to goal.

Final Thoughts

A good result from a poor performance. The optimistic outlook on this match is we found a way to get the three points despite not being at our best. But the truth is we were fortunate. The penalty on Fonte could easily not have been given. Hopefully we can put in a more impressive display in Paris Tuesday.

Arsenal's matchweek 4 scouting report: Southampton

Southampton come into this match with 2 points from their opening three matches with a pair of 1-1 draws against Watford and Sunderland either side of a 2-0 defeat to Manchester United.

Lineup

New manager Claude Puel has opted for a very attacking diamond 4-4-2 with Dusan Tadic playing at the tip of the diamond just in behind Nathan Redmond and either Shane Long (Watford and Manchester United) or Charlie Austin (Sunderland). Oriol Romeu shields the defense at the base of midfield. Ben Davis plays in an inside left shuttling position, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (or James Ward-Prowse) plays the inside right role. Width comes from the two fullbacks- Cedric Soares on the right and Matt Targett on the left. Virgil van Dijk and José Fonte partner at center back with Fraser Foster in goal.

Southampton attack

Southampton’s issues early this season have stemmed from their inability to put away chances. The summer departures of Sadio Mane (Liverpool) and Graziano Pelle (Shandong Luneng) have left Saints without their two top goal scorers in the league from last season.

Their diamond 4-4-2 shape is a brave and very attacking approach from Puel and they haven’t struggled to keep possession and create shooting opportunities. Puel has stated he wants to adopt a possession-oriented approach with Southampton up against a crowded fixture list this season due to their involvement in the Europa League. They have the third highest average possession in the league at 57.8% behind only Manchester City and Chelsea and have taken the second most shots per game (17.7) behind only Liverpool. However, only 4.7 of those are on target. That ranks just 8th in the league. They’ve created some free-flowing, attractive play in the Watford and Sunderland games but haven’t done enough in the final third. Interestingly, in both of those contests they seemed to be bolted into life by the opposition scoring first then created a slew of chances and could have won. However, they’ve scored just two goals in their three matches.   

They have a capable yet not entirely consistent crew of attacking options to replace Pelle and Mané.  Shane Long is an excellent athlete, full of pace and strength, but isn’t a prolific goal scorer. In his 11 seasons of professional football in England (in both the Premier League and Championship) he has scored 10 or more goals just twice. He hit 10 last season, his best effort in the Premier League.

Charlie Austin was brought in in January from QPR. He scored a late winner against Manchester United in his first appearance for the club but hasn’t found the net since. His movement was sharp in his start this season against Sunderland and he put himself about but failed to find the net and was caught offsides repeatedly.

Dusan Tadic is an electric attacking midfielder, capable of single-handedly changing a game on his day the way very few other Premier League players are. He provided 12 assists last season, tied with Dimitri Payet for third behind only Ozil and Christian Eriksen. He also chipped in 7 goals. That’s a brilliant output but if any criticism can be leveled at the Serbian it’s that he occasionally lacks consistency and can disappear from matches.

Nathan Redmond was brought in from Norwich this summer. The 22 year old looks like he has the potential to be a real talent. He’s able to take defenders on with his direct dribbling and finished a volley excellently in the opening weekend against Watford. He scored 6 and assisted 3 for Norwich in their campaign that ended in relegation last season and prior to that scored 6 and assisted 13 in the Championship for the Canaries in 2014-15. Consistency could be an issue with a player his age but he’s looked quite sharp so far this season and will be hoping for a breakout campaign.

Jay Rodriguez has remained at the club after rumors he would leave before the end of the transfer window. He netted the equalizer in the draw with Sunderland, his first league goal since the 2013-2014 season after suffering some horrible luck with injuries. He missed the whole of the 2014-2015 season with a ruptured cruciate ligament and missed nearly five months last season after having to undergo ankle surgery. Rodriguez was brilliant in 2013-2014, his last healthy season, netting 15 times in 33 appearances. He’s still just 27. Puel will hope he can push on after his goal against Sunderland and offer a goal threat off the bench.

Saints also signed Moroccan attacking midfielder Sofiane Boufal from Lille at the end of the transfer window. Boufal had 11 goals and 4 assists for Lille last season. He’s a player I know very little about. If he were to feature in Puel’s diamond 4-4-2 it would likely be for either Redmond or Tadic, Saints’ two best players so far this season so I certainly don’t expect to see him from the outset this weekend. However, he’ll provide depth they’ll need with European football on the horizon. He does have a poor disciplinary record however. He racked up 10 yellow cards and 2 reds at Lille last season.

I don’t see any of these players getting a 20-goal season but all of them are capable of chipping in. They are a talented bunch that could cause us issues if we aren’t organized. They’ll offer a different attacking test to us than Watford in the last match- they’ll move the ball along the ground and build play from the back. Individually their players are more technical and clever.

Narrow shape

With no natural wide attacking midfielders in the diamond 4-4-2, Puel’s side can at times be extremely narrow. Their numbers in central midfield allow for plenty of passing options in the middle of the pitch but at times they’ve gotten themselves into some trouble when Tadic, Redmond, Davis and Højbjerg/Ward-Prowse have occupied the same areas of midfield, making the pitch very small and congested.

The screen shots below offer an example. Romeu has just played a pass for Redmond coming deep into midfield. All 5 of Romeu, Redmond, Tadic, Ward-Prowse and Davis are in a 20’ x 15’ area, making the pitch small and allowing Watford to defend in a tight compact shape. If Redmond is able to control the pass in a confined area he has nowhere to go with it other than maybe to Targett in the left channel (on this occasion he wasn’t able to control Romeu’s pass and they conceded possession).

Again, we see Southampton’s front three of Tadic, Redmond and Austin occupying the same space below, this time in the Sunderland game. Tadic and Austin are on top of each other and Redmond is right there as well doing nothing to stretch the pitch. They may be able to play some tight combinations in those areas if their technique is sharp but it’s relatively easy to keep a nice compact defensive shape when the opposition is making the pitch that small.

With such a narrow midfield Southampton’s width comes in one of two ways. The two fullbacks will push high up the pitch in possession or one of either Tadic or Redmond will drift wide. Both players can pose a real threat in wide areas. Against Sunderland Tadic drifted to the right channel, beat two defenders and stood up a cross to the back post that Long couldn’t quite head home. Redmond is also good when given the space to run at defenders 1 v. 1 in the channels.

With Southampton playing very narrow in midfield Monreal and Bellerin will have to play narrow to even up the numbers in the central part of the pitch. This will leave space in the channels for Soares and Targett to overlap into from their fullback position so our two wide midfielders will need to be diligent tracking their runs forward.

Southampton defense

If Puel continues with the diamond 4-4-2 Southampton will be at their most vulnerable in the immediate moments after they concede possession. With the fullbacks pushing high up the pitch there will be loads of space in the channels to counter into.

In some systems where the fullbacks play high up the pitch in possession the two center backs will split quite wide and the deepest lying midfielder will drop in between them to form a back three. With the center backs split wide it leaves sides less vulnerable to counters in the channels when the fullbacks are advanced in the attacking third. Guardiola introduced this system at Barcelona with Sergio Busquets as the deep lying midfielder that would drop into more of a center back position when Barca were in possession.

Southampton however don’t really replicate this tactic. The center backs stay fairly central with Romeu just in front of them in the holding role. Therefore we should be able to cause real problems in the channels if we can quickly transition from defense to attack.

As the deepest midfielder Romeu will have an important role breaking up counter attacking opportunities. The ex Chelsea man isn’t especially quick or graceful in the tackle so the more we can get on the ball behind their more advanced midfielders and run at him the better. Forcing him into an early yellow would really limit his ability to break up play.

When they’re able to slow up the opposition and get numbers behind the ball defensively they do something really interesting. The two forwards will drop into wide positions to defend the opposition fullbacks, leaving Tadic highest up the pitch.

Final Thoughts

I’d maybe be a bit surprised if Puel stuck with the narrow diamond at the Emirates he's employed in the first three matches. We overwhelmed Watford in the channels last time out and I think Southampton open themselves up to a similar fate if they try to play narrow.

Although they’ve struggled to find the net thus far, they’re a far more fluid attacking side than Watford and have more dangerous players in their side capable of a moment of magic. We’ll need to be switched on defensively throughout the 90 minutes.

Ozil could be key. His movement between the lines is so clever. I think he’ll move into pockets of space either side of Romeu and dominate this match in the attacking third.

Tactical Analysis: Arsenal 3-1 Watford

Arsenal rushed out to a 3-0 lead in an excellent first half then did enough to hang on for the 3-1 win in a more difficult second period. It was a promising performance that will hopefully go some way to bolstering confidence before the international break.

Lineups

Ozil was deemed fit enough to start after his impressive cameo against Leicester. Cazorla dropped into the deeper midfield role alongside Xhaka. Otherwise the side was the same as the Leciester game.

Walter Mazzarri stuck with his favored 3-5-2 from the start. Younés Kaboul made his Watford debut at right center back with Craig Cathcart out with a thigh injury. Christian Kabasele played left center back with Miguel Britos missing because his partner was due to give birth. Sebastian Prödl played in the middle of the back three. Nordin Amrabat and José Holebas played right and left wing back respectively. Valon Bahrami played at the base of midfield with Adlène Guédioura to his right and Etienne Capoue to his right in the shuttling midfield roles. Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney partnered up front.

Sanchez as striker pays off this week

Sanchez had not looked particularly good as a lone striker in our first two matches and I was admittedly frustrated when I saw the team selection with him leading the attack and Giroud left on the bench. But credit to Wenger- if Sanchez's selection up front was a tactical one it was an intelligent decision. In Prödl, Kaboul and Kabalese Watford had three tall, lumbering center backs well equipped to deal with a physical striker like Giroud but too slow to deal with a pacey, mobile striker like Sanchez.

Alexis continually drifted to the left channel in the space behind the wing back Amrabat and outside of the right center back Kaboul to create overloads with Oxlade-Chamberlain. I mentioned in the preview to this match that Chelsea had found some joy in that area of the pitch last weekend against Watford and it looked like we had clearly done our homework and set out with a plan to exploit that space. With Watford in a 3-5-2 it meant the wing backs were the only ones defending the wide areas of the pitch. We could therefore create overloads on their wing backs with either our fullbacks joining the attack or with Ozil and Sanchez drifting wide into the channels. We did this to great effect in the opening 45 minutes.

Our stunning third goal came when Oxlade-Chamberlain collected a pass from Koscielny near the left touch line with Amrabat on him. Alexis pulled wide and made an overlapping run outside Ox. He collected the ball in plenty of space in the channel to pick his head up and provide a perfectly weighted cross to Ozil making a run into the box from deep in midfield.

The left side of the graphic below shows passes received by Alexis. Notice the cluster near the left touch line where he was working to create those overloads. The right side shows his passes in the attacking third.

I thought another key to Alexis's success up front was that we had players making penetrating runs in behind the defense from deeper areas. When he starts in a central role Alexis likes to come deep to get on the ball and look to create. Too often when he does this we don't have players making vertical runs behind him to stretch the defense. This means the opposition defense can sit deeper and allow all of our movement to happen in front of them. Yesterday we did a solid job of making those forward runs beyond Alexis when he came back to get on the ball. The second and third goal are both excellent examples.

For the second Alexis received a long ball from Monreal in the left channel and did brilliantly to hold off Kaboul. Ozil moved beyond him to collect a pass in the middle of the pitch. Bellerin then did well to break forward quickly and provide an overlapping run on the inside right. He played wide to Walcott whose driven ball to the back post was excellent. Sanchez showed his usual work rate to not give up on the move and made nearly a 50 yard run after his initial pass to Ozil to finish the move.

The third offers an even better example. When Alexis collects on the left channel rather than staying in midfield and waiting for the ball to swing back his way, Ozil takes a chance and sprints 35 or so yards into the box to provide someone for Alexis to aim at.

Watford attack through the channels

In their opening two fixtures against Southampton and Chelsea Watford's main form of attack was to get the ball wide to Amrabat and hit crosses towards the back post. Today was no different. They've lacked a creative enough player in midfield to build play with controlled possession so instead look to get it in the channels early and wreak havoc on the opposition penalty box.

I didn't think we did a particularly good job of cutting off the supply of these crosses from Amrabat. Oxlade-Chamberlain was poor defensively and time and again Monreal became overloaded down their right channel, particularly after Mazzarri introduced Pereyra in the second half and switched to 4-4-2 with Amrabat playing a traditional right winger position. Pereyra played on the inside right and continually collected possession and drove forward. Amrabat provided overlapping runs and kept getting the ball in space outside of Monreal.

The second half was too uncomfortable and we were maybe a bit fortunate not to concede a second which would have made for a nervy finish. We did enough to get over the line away from home, which is great, but if we’re nitpicking you’d maybe like to see us control that second half a bit more.

Cazorla-Xhaka partnership provides control in possession

After a really poor substitute appearance in our opener against Liverpool and what I thought was a mixed performance against Leicester, Xhaka was excellent today. He hit a few delicious diagonals into the channels and overall his passing was quick and incisive. Xhaka completed 87.3% of his passes after just 79% last week. He was apparently going to start on the bench in place of Coquelin but a late knock to the French midfielder meant Xhaka was given the nod. He doesn’t provide the defensive shield Coquelin does but against weaker opposition like Watford who will force us to break them down patiently I think Xhaka is probably a better answer.

The performance today showed the value of having three gifted passers of the ball in the middle of midfield, particularly against inferior opposition. The interplay between Cazorla and Xhaka at the base of midfield and Ozil further up the pitch was excellent at times. All three can get the ball out of their feet with one touch and make a quick pass. We were able to circulate possession quickly to get the Watford defense out of balance.

Cazorla is underrated as a deeper lying midfielder. His ability to keep possession in tight areas and spin off of defenders to get the space to find a forward pass often get us out of dangerous positions when the opposition is pressing higher up the pitch. His passing accuracy is wonderful. He completed 92.3% of his passes and 20 of 23 in the attacking third. His set piece delivery can also be a real threat. The Elneny-Coquelin and Coquelin Xhaka double pivot partnerships we saw in the first two matches don’t provide the same tempo and assuredness on the ball you get when Cazorla is in his deeper role.

Finally, Ozil proved just how important he is to our attacking play. He was involved in all three goals, providing the chip that Alexis was fouled on for our opening penalty, offering a pass to Alexis and playing a pass to Bellerin in the build up to Alexis’s goal, and scoring the third himself. His creativity and vision make Arsenal an entirely different team than we are without him.

Final Thoughts

Some of the football we played in the first half was as pleasant on the eye as you’re likely to see anywhere. I’d maybe like to see our game management improve- the second half was too frenetic- but overall it was a good performance that we can look to build on. You wish we could keep the momentum going without the two week break. Back to the Emirates for Southampton next.

Arsenal's matchweek 3 scouting report: Watford

Arsenal will head to Watford in matchweek 3. The Hornets have one point from two difficult opening fixtures. They drew 1-1 at Southampton on the opening day before giving away a one-goal lead in the second half home to Chelsea last week in a 2-1 home defeat.

In Walter Mazzarri Watford have an experienced manager with Champions League experience but this is his first job outside Italy as either a player or manager. How quickly he adapts to the less tactical, more chaotic Premier League will go a long way in determining what kind of season Watford have.

Lineup

Mazzarri has opted for an Italian-style 3-5-2 to start the season. He’s used the same starting 11 in their first two fixtures. Sebastian Prödl plays in the middle of the back three with Craig Cathcart to his right and Miguel Britos to his left. Valon Behrami plays in the middle of midfield with Adlène Guédioura to his right and Etienne Capoue to his left in the shuttling midfield roles. Nordin Amrabat plays right wing back, José Holebas is the left wing back. Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney partner up front.

Watford general approach

I’m sure Mazzarri, whose previous management jobs include a successful spell at Napoli and a less successful spell at Inter, wouldn’t appreciate the comparison but Watford are built a bit like the old Tony Pulis Stoke sides that caused us so much difficulty over the years. Like those Stoke sides, the most striking feature of this Watford side is their physical stature. In their opening two games against Chelsea and Southampton 8 of their 10 outfield starters were 6 feet or taller and they had an average height of 6’1”. By contrast Arsenal had just two starting outfield players 6 feet or taller against Leicester, Holding and Koscielny, and averaged just 5’10”. Watford’s average weight was 172 lbs., 10 lbs. more than Arsenal’s average of 162 lbs.

Therefore I expect Mazzarri’s side to continue to look to take advantage of their size advantage by bullying Arsenal in physical battles, just as they attempted against Southampton and Chelsea. They’ll hope to take advantage of set pieces and look to get the ball wide to the wing backs and hit crosses into the box towards Deeney and Ighalo.

We’ll need to be cautious about not conceding free kicks in areas where they can get their giant center backs Cathcart, Britos and Prödl into the box. Tracking the runs of Ighalo, Deeney and Capoue from midfield (if he’s available after Diego Costa smashed his outstretched leg) when the ball goes wide will be important.

Watford are more concerned with controlling territory than controlling possession. Only Sunderland and Burnley have lower average possession than Watford’s 40.4% after the first two matches.  Only Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Burnley and West Brom have a lower pass success rate than Watford’s 72.5%.

Watford attack

They are pretty short on ideas in the attacking phase of the game. Remarkably they’ve scored 2 goals in the opening 2 matches from just 3 shots on target. While 2 goals from 3 shots on target indicates an impressive conversion rate it is not sustainable. They’ll need to find more creativity to have a successful season.

Their main form of attack seems to be to get the ball wide to Amrabat and Guedioura in the right channel and hit crosses in towards the back post. This means Holding and the diminutive Bellerin will have to be alert to back post runs and Monreal and Alexis will have to close down Amrabat to prevent him from picking out dangerous crosses. Both of Watford’s goals this season have come from crosses on the right towards the back post. Against Southampton in the opener Amrabat found Deeney at the back post. From there Deeney cushioned a header for Capoue to smack in. Against Chelsea Guedioura crossed from the right towards Deeney at the penalty spot. Deeney couldn’t get anything on the header but his leap put Branislav Ivanovic off enough that that he couldn’t get a touch either and the ball fell for Capoue to volley in at the back post.

They’re not at all reluctant to knock it long from deep inside their own half towards the powerful Deeney to flick on for Ighalo. The graphic below shows Deeney’s received passes against Southampton and Chelsea, a number of them coming from long balls.

They completed just 39 of 76 attempted passes in the attacking third of the pitch against Chelsea for a pass completion rate of 51.3% and were. They weren’t much tidier against Southampton where they completed 52 of 96 attacking third passes for a 52.4% pass success rate. Many of those attempted attacking third passes were longer balls from deeper positions.

Their attacks are vertical and direct. They won’t look to tap it patiently around midfield waiting for an opening in the opposition defense but instead will get it wide to the wing backs as quickly as possible then crash the box for crosses coming in from the channels.

Watford defense

Defensively, Watford start in a 3-5-2 when the opposition has the ball in their own half and they’ll apply some pressure in midfield. When the opposition advances the ball into their own half the wing backs will drop off and join the three center backs in a defensive bank of five. Against Chelsea Ighalo and Deeney would work back to prevent easy entry passes into N’Golo Kante so Xhaka may have to work to find space.

I thought in the opening half Watford did well to press Chelsea when the Blues won the ball back, preventing Conte’s side from getting out on the counter. However, when Watford are defending higher up the pitch in a 3-5-2 there are pockets of space between the wing backs, center midfielders and wider center backs that I think Alexis in particular will be able to exploit.

The screen shot below shows Chelsea with possession inside their own half. John Terry is receiving a pass from Kante. Amrabat pushes up the pitch to apply pressure to Chelsea left back Azpilicueta. Guedioura is tight to Matic in midfield. Behind them and out of screen are the Watford back three. There is space behind Guedioura and Amrabat and in front of Cathcart, the right-sided center back, for a player like Alexis to drift into and get on the ball. If he receives possession in those pockets of space Cathcart will have to pull wide and do a lot of 1 v. 1 defending against Sanchez in wider areas. Cathcart can play right back so isn’t entirely uncomfortable defending in the channels but it is a matchup you’d favor Alexis to win at least a few times. Also, Ozil will be quick to drift to wide areas to provide overloads when Cathcart and Britos are forced to defend in wider positions than they’d like.

Chelsea also occasionally had success playing long cross field diagonals into Hazard behind Amrabat, allowing him to get on the ball in space and run at Cathcart. Xhaka was wayward with his long passing last weekend at Leicester (the graphic below shows his long passing in that match) but he showed the ability at Mönchengladbach to accurately hit those long diagonal balls. With accurate long diagonals we should get Alexis isolated against Cathcart in the channel.

Width from our fullbacks key

Finally I think getting width from the fullbacks will be important. Southampton played an extremely narrow diamond 4-4-2 which played right in to Watford’s strengths. With their 3-5-2 Mazzarri’s side have 8 players taking up central positions then the two wing backs in wide areas. They’re well equipped to deal with narrow attacks. Space will come from overloading them in the channels. Therefore expect Bellerin and Monreal to play an important role in advancing the ball up the pitch.

Final Thoughts

Watford are strong and powerful but an extremely limited side technically. My biggest concern is they get an early lift from the home crowd and batter us with an aerial assault and maybe nick a goal. If we deal with any early onslaught without conceding we should grow into the game and dominate. The return of Giroud and particularly Ozil to the starting lineup should provide a massive boost. While I don’t currently have a huge amount of faith in Wenger to prepare the team tactically, I’m hoping the gap in quality will be too much for Mazzarri’s side to overcome.

Tactical Analysis: Arsenal 0-0 Leicester

This match was untidy and cagey for the first 65 to 70 minutes or so before turning untidy and open at the end. In both the more cautious and more open phases Arsenal didn’t do enough to create meaningful chances and in the end were fortunate not to concede a late penalty when Bellerin bundled over substitute Ahmed Musa after Musa had shown incredible pace to get around our right back.

Lineups

Claudio Ranieri reverted to nearly the exact lineup he used throughout Leicester’s title winning last season with the exception of Nampalys Mendy alongside Danny Drinkwater in midfield for N’Golo Kante, the Frenchman having left this summer for Chelsea. Shinji Okazaki replaced Musa from last week’s lineup up front alongside Vardy. Marc Albrighton replaced Demarai Gray on the left wing and Robert Huth returned from suspension to partner Wes Morgan in the center of defense.

Arsene Wenger made four changes to the side beaten by Liverpool in the opener. Santi Cazorla played in the #10 role with Aaron Ramsey missing with the hamstring strain he suffered in the Liverpool defeat. New signing Granit Xhaka replaced Mohamed Elneny at the base of midfield alongside Francis Coquelin. Alex Iwobi was also out with a thigh injury suffered in the opener and was replaced at left midfield by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Laurent Koscielny returned to the squad to replace Calum Chambers at center back alongside Rob Holding.

Both sides cautious of opposition counter attacks

As expected this was far less of a swashbuckling affair than the 5-2 win at the King Power in the seventh game of last season. Leicester conceded 17 goals in their first 9 matches last season then went on to concede just 19 in their final 29 games. After starting the season with an open, free flowing style that often left the defense exposed on the break, Ranieri began setting up in deeper banks of four, pressing hard in midfield and playing on the counter.

Leicester struggled in a week one defeat to Hull City because they were forced to have a lot of the ball and build play patiently from the back. Arsenal are a side that likes to force the issue and maintain possession high up the pitch and were therefore a more conducive opponent to Leicester’s preferred style of play.

Leicester defended in two banks of four often with all 10 outfield players inside their own half. Their style is not a passive, park-the-bus one though. They’ll press and hurry you in midfield once you get within around 40 yards of their goal. The role Vardy and Okazaki play in this pressing is massively important.

Okazaki would drop deep into areas just in front of the center midfield duo of Drinkwater and Mendy and stay tight to Xhaka so that we didn’t have a constant easy drop pass to play to restart attacking moves and maintain possession. Vardy closed down our center backs, forcing them into quick decisions and not allowing them the time to pick their heads up and find a forward pass. Koscielny completed 41 of 44 passes (and was overall excellent) but nearly all of those were sideways. I thought Holding was solid defensively but he completed just 73.6% of his passes.

By using Okazaki to not allow simple passes into Xhaka, and closing Xhaka down quickly when he did receive the ball, Leicester were forcing our center backs to be the ones to act as our deep lying creators. Holding is still young and while Koscielny is hugely talented and probably underrated in terms of his technical ability, he is not Leandro Bonucci, capable of stepping out of the center of defense and providing passes that dissect a compact opposition defense.  

Xhaka did complete the game’s second most passes but had a pass success rate of just 79.5%, not all that impressive a number for your deepest lying midfielder tasked with setting an offensive rhythm and maintaining possession.

Below is a screen grab of Leicester’s defensive shape. This was taken after Arsenal were in a great position to counter but Mahrez tracked back 40 or so yards to slow down Ox. Leicester are so compact there’s no easy pass on for Cazorla on the ball. Okazaki is denying any simple passes into Xhaka or Coquelin that would allow us to easily switch play to the left side of the pitch and unbalance their defense.

Again, in the shot below Leicester are deep and compact and Okazaki is denying Ox a simple drop to Xhaka to recycle possession.

Transition defense

Before the match I thought one of the keys to Arsenal having a successful defensive afternoon was how well we transitioned from attack to defense when we conceded possession and whether we could minimize Leicester’s opportunities to counter. Overall I thought we did a pretty decent job of that. There were some frightening moments at the end when the game had become stretched but on the whole we didn’t allow them too many favorable positions on the break where they can be so dangerous.

Much of that success had to do with the presence of Koscielny. His pace meant Vardy wasn’t up against a center back he could easily get in behind. But I thought the whole defensive shape was an improvement from last week. When Leicester won the ball back we got numbers behind the ball quickly and forced them to play slower than they would have liked.

However we do still have some frustrating problems when we do decide to press. In the 55th minute Cazorla, Walcott and Sanchez pressed high up the pitch but the midfield was 15 yards behind them (screen shot below). Huth was able to play a simple square pass to Morgan who then had plenty of time on the ball to pick a pass and get Leicester forward. Cazorla was left visibly frustrated. A move that could have resulted in Arsenal pinning the home side deep in their own half resulted in Arsenal stretching to get back in defense and committing a foul in a dangerous area for a Leicester free kick.

Sanchez not a lone striker

The first two weeks of the season have shown that Alexis probably isn’t suited to playing as a lone #9. It was little surprise he was at his most dangerous when Giroud came on and he was moved to the left wing.

But apart from being played out of position, he still doesn’t seem to be quite right. I was actually surprised to see he completed 49 of his 58 attempted passes, a high number of passes completed for a striker and very solid pass success rate of 84.5% for that position. But on the occasions he did give the ball away it was from really poor decisions on passes he didn’t need to attempt that often led to Leicester opportunities to counter.

I think one of the biggest issues with Alexis at the #9 is that he is so eager to get on the ball and make something happen for the team that he’s always coming into very deep positions to receive possession and act as a playmaker. That sort of “false 9” striker is fine when you have other players on the pitch that will make runs in behind the opposition defense to stretch them. Liverpool used Firmino as a false 9 excellently in their win over us last weekend but their success came because they had Wijnaldum, Lallana and Mane making vertical runs behind our defense. Walcott’s pace means he’s well-suited to tucking inside and making those vertical runs, which he did on occasion yesterday, but his finishing was poor and he’s too limited a player (compared to a Mane) to justify a position in the starting 11. With Ozil on the bench it makes sense Alexis was eager to come deep to link play forward but in doing so it meant our most dangerous goal scorer on the pitch was receiving the ball with his back to goal 40 yards from goal.

Arsenal inability to change approach

I know the “Wenger has no plan b” arguments become tiring to hear for Arsenal fans but in an opening two weeks that have seen us earn just a point, Chelsea have recovered three points from a drawing position and three points from a losing position in the second half of games against West Ham and Watford after Antonio Conte switched their shape from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2. Those brave changes helped alter the outcomes of those games. While Wenger made proactive personnel changes, introducing Ozil and Giroud, we never really change our approach to how we attack. We get it into the final third then pass from side to side just outside the box waiting for a gap to open up against deep, incredibly compact defenses before inevitably getting it intercepted. I realize just throwing on more strikers isn’t necessarily the best tactic when chasing a game. Replacing midfielders for strikers often leads to sides losing control of the midfield and creating fewer chances than when they had just one striker. But we never change the style in which we attack. We rarely try to hit it long early in behind the opposition center backs. Even the pacey Sanchez continued dropping back into midfield to get on the ball rather than trying to run in behind the Leicester defense and stretch them vertically. The opposition knows all our movement is going to happen in front of them. They’ll happily concede the channels because when we get it there we just drop it back inside (partially because there are rarely players running into the box to aim at). So they play deep, narrow and extremely compact. Any side, even one with as many tidy passers as Arsenal, will struggle to break that down by trying to pass through it.

Final thoughts

Ozil's return will help. If we don't bring in new players we can look forward to him and Sanchez leaving next summer.

Arsenal's matchweek 2 scouting report: Leicester City

Claudio Ranieri’s side started its title defense with a shock 2-1 defeat away to Hull. Hull have had a nightmarishly disruptive summer. Steve Bruce quit in frustration at a lack of summer signings and they were without first team regulars Allan McGregor, Michael Dawson, Alex Bruce and Moses Odubajo through injury.  Caretaker manager Mike Phelan set his side out in a reasonably well-organized 4-3-3 and succeeded in frustrating Leicester and taking advantage of set pieces and crosses from wide areas. Leicester were perhaps a bit unlucky however. They carved out some really decent chances that Vardy failed to convert. Losing against a club in disarray, and one with only 13 available senior players, is certainly concerning but I didn’t think the performance itself was disastrous.

Ranieri used the same 4-4-2 Leicester rode to the title last season with a few personnel changes. After starting 34 games on the left wing last season, Marc Albrighton found himself on the substitutes bench with the 20 year-old Demarai Gray taking his place. After N’Golo Kante’s summer move to Chelsea, Andy King started in the middle of midfield alongside Danny Drinkwater. Summer signing Ahmed Mussa got the nod up front alongside Vardy in place of Shinji Okazaki. Robert Huth was serving a suspension carried over from the end of last season and was replaced by summer signing Luis Hernandez in the center of defense. Otherwise it was a familiar Leicester lineup.

Hull set out in a 4-3-3 that turned into a 4-1-4-1 when Leicester were in possession with Sam Clucas sitting just in front of the back four.

Arsenal’s approach to this weekend’s match will certainly be more proactive than Hull’s but there are a few key features of their win we should be paying attention to for this weekend’s meeting:

1). Leicester’s discomfort at having to keep possession and patiently break down a deeper defense

2). Leicester’s surprising inability to defend set pieces, especially corners

3). Leicester’s eagerness to take quick goal kicks long to Vardy and Musa in the channels- if they aren’t given the opportunity to break quickly in the run of play they’ll try to from set pieces.

Leicester struggle when denied ability to play quickly and vertically

Towards the end of last season and over the summer much was made about whether Leicester would be able to win matches once opposition sides had figured out their counter attacking style and forced them to patiently build attacks from the back against compact defenses.

Remarkably Leicester ended last season with the second lowest pass success rate in the division at 70.5% and the third lowest average possession with 44.8%. They defended in compact banks of four then looked to break forward as quickly as possible. Vardy’s incredible pace meant he was deadly when afforded space to run into behind the opposition center backs.

Hull defended deep in a 4-1-4-1 shape with Sam Clucas sitting in the gap between the back four and a midfield bank of four of Diomande, Meyler, Huddlestone and Snodgrass. Their 4-1-4-1 shape meant they had a 3 v. 2 advantage in the middle of midfield against Danny Drinkwater and King. That advantage allowed David Meyler and Tom Huddlestone to get relatively tight to King and Drinkwater while Sam Clucas had a freer role behind them and could pick up any Leicester attacker looking to drift into the gaps between the Hull defense and midfield.  

Outnumbered in midfield and without space in behind the Hull defense to play longer balls over the top, Leicester struggled to move the ball from defense to midfield to attack. They often passed sideways from center back to fullback or from Drinkwater to the fullbacks. Leicester’s top pass combination was Drinkwater to left back Christian Fuchs (20).  They had a 76.9% pass success rate and 50.2% possession, higher than they averaged last season, but they are a team built to play quick and direct. Denied the opportunity to do so they at times had difficulty finding the creativity to generate attacking moves.

Drinkwater completed more passes than any other player on the pitch but the vast majority were in front of the Hull City midfield and didn’t penetrate their lines. He completed just 10 of 17 passes into the final third and every one of those was into the channels. All of his attempts to play through the middle of the Hull midfield were unsuccessful.  The graphic on the left shows all of Drinkwater’s passes, the graphic on the right shows his final third passes.

The series of screen shots below shows a sequence in the 13th minute that illustrates Leicester’s difficulty building from the back. In the first image Meyler is tight to King and Huddlestone is tight to Drinkwater so Mahrez has had to come deep from his attacking right midfield position to offer a passing option. In the next few seconds Mahrez plays square to Drinkwater, who plays square to Fuchs, who drops it back to Morgan.

Morgan then plays square to Hernandez who drives forward (second image below). Again, Meyler and Huddlestone are tight to King and Drinkwater so there is no forward passing option. Behind them Clucas is denying space between the lines. Hernandez plays it square to Simpson who plays a hopeful ball down the touchline that Hull easily cut out to regain possession.

While Arsenal will certainly play more proactively than Hull and in all likelihood outpossess Leicester, Wenger will have noted Leicester’s difficulties when forced to maintain possession. In the last two seasons the Gunners have been more content to drop into a compact defensive shape and allow the opposition to pass around the back rather than pressing higher up the pitch (though that certainly wasn’t the approach we took in loss to Liverpool). If we can successfully recover into a solid defensive shape, that’ll limit Leicester’s chances of countering quickly and having space to run behind the back four.

Leicester struggle defending set pieces

Perhaps it had to do with the suspension of Robert Huth who will be back to face us but Leicester looked shaky defending nearly every Hull City set piece. Hull took the lead in first half stoppage time when Curtis Davies flicked a Snodgrass corner to the back post for Adama Diomande to volley home. Prior to that Davies had gone close from a corner in the 6th minute. In the 60th Snodgrass again whipped a delicious corner that dropped right at the six that neither side got a touch to.

Although we aren’t known traditionally for being especially proficient from corners or set pieces from wide areas, Arsenal had a respectable 13 goals from set pieces last season, good for 7th in the Premier League. The potential return of Giroud and Koscielny should provide an added aerial boost from corners. If our delivery can match the quality of Snodgrass’s, we could pose a threat from dead balls.

Must stay switched on during Leicester goal kicks

Arsenal will need to keep their concentration levels sharp during stoppages of play. Twice in the first half Kasper Schmeichel looked to play long balls over the top to his forwards from dead ball situations deep in Leicester’s own half. The first time he found Musa on the left channel. Hull were caught off guard and Musa got close to the end line and cut back for Vardy in a dangerous position- fortunately for Hull he got the strike badly wrong. The second was from a goal kick and went just beyond the reach of Vardy. Hopefully by this time Arsenal will be using a more experienced center back pairing and their concentration levels won’t dip.

Leicester can also be threatening through Christian Fuchs’s long throws. Again, it’ll help to have a more experienced center back pairing otherwise we may see Leicester trying to exploit this channel and get balls into the box to contest us in the air.

Kante’s departure means there’s a big opportunity to overwhelm Leicester in midfield

Arsenal won this fixture last season in a memorable 5-2 match in late September, handing Leicester their first loss of the season. However that was only the 7th game of the season and came at a time when Leicester were conceding goals regularly. They let in 17 goals in their first 9 matches for an average of 1.89 goals against per game and had no clean sheets. They would go one to concede 19 in the final 29 matches for an average of 0.66 goals against and had 15 clean sheets.

That change in defensive form came about as a result of Ranieri making the side less open than they’d been in those opening nine matches. Their defensive compactness improved immensely as they dropped into deep banks of four and played on the break.

Much of that defensive success is no doubt attributable to the relentless effort of the tireless Kante in the engine room of midfield. Kante is irreplaceable. He led the Premier League in both tackles (4.7 per game) and interceptions (4.2 per game). By contrast Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, our double pivot partnership for the beginning of last season, averaged 2.8 and 1.9 tackles per game respectively (for a total of 4.7 per game between the pair) and 3.0 and 1.7 interceptions per game (4.7 between the pair). In effect Kante was doing the defensive work of two midfielders.

With King now partnering Drinkwater, Leicester have a very different type of midfield partnership. King is more attack minded and likes to make late runs into the box to finish off chances, somewhat in the mold of Frank Lampard. That means Drinkwater is left to do the heavy lifting defensively in midfield. Drinkwater isn’t a bad defender by any means but he doesn’t have the mobility of Kante to cover the width of the pitch and break up play.

 image via  Squawka

image via Squawka

Without Kante patrolling the midfield, Arsenal should look to transition quickly from defense to offense when we win the ball back, forcing Drinkwater into situations where he’s responsible for slowing our counter attacks. If we can force him into making a yellow card challenge early, he’ll have to play cautiously which should give us further advantage in the center of the pitch.

I think there’s a real possibility Ranieri opts for Daniel Amartey over King alongside Drinkwater to provide more defensive solidity in the midfield. Amartey is a holding midfielder by trade and can also play center back and right back so brings more defensive quality into the squad. I also wouldn’t be shocked to see Ranieri go with Okazaki up front with Vardy, pushing Musa wide to the left and dropping Grey. Okazaki works incredibly hard on both sides of the ball and along with Vardy sets the tone for the energy Leicester defend with from front to back. Alternatively Ranieri could play all three of Drinkwater, Amartey and King in a 4-3-3 with Mahrez wide right and Musa wide left if he’s concerned about getting overrun in the middle of the pitch.

Finals Thoughts

We’ll be without Aaron Ramsey and in all likelihood Iwobi. In his press conference following the defeat to Liverpool Wenger was noncommittal about the availability of Koscielny, Ozil and Giroud. I initially figured the three would play but following the injury to Ramsey, which Wenger blamed on the Welshmen being rushed back, I’m less confident. Surely we’ll at least see Koscielny after conceding four.

Given that our early pressing caused us to tire and capitulate in the second half against Liverpool, and since Leicester had a difficult time breaking down a deeper defensive block, I’d be tempted to get behind the ball in banks of four when we do concede possession. If we can get a couple of chances to play on the break I think we could cause some real problems for Drinkwater.

This was a ridiculously open contest last season. Leicester will want to be more compact but without Kante I imagine our midfield can boss this game through the center of the pitch. Whether or not we can turn possession into goals and our ability to either defend against or altogether prevent counter attacks should decide this one.