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.