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.”

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.

Tactical Analysis: Disjointed Arsenal press leaves gaps Liverpool exploit

Another year another miserable opening day result. Three goals in a 15 minute span to open the second half gave Liverpool a lopsided 4-1 advantage and although goals from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chambers made the final score look a little more respectable, they did little to mask what a humiliating afternoon this was for the club.

In his post match press conference Arsene Wenger put the loss down to three main factors: the psychological blow of Coutinho’s late first half equalizer, being physically not at peak levels, and inexperience. None of those feel like especially valid excuses and if anything reflect poorly on Wenger himself. Coutinho’s free kick was certainly a blow but doesn’t explain the total meltdown at the start of the second half that saw Klopp’s side score 3 in the span of 15 minutes. As for not being ready physically, Liverpool had more players at the Euros than any other club side so they shouldn’t have had an advantage there. Finally, the fact we were fielding an inexperienced side is solely on Wenger for not bringing in needed additional players this summer. Yes we’ve been unlucky with injuries but center back was a spot we’ve needed reinforcements at since the second half of last season.

Lineups

Klopp named a fairly unsurprising first 11 perhaps with the exception of Jordan Henderson given the nod at the base of midfield over Emre Can. They played a 4-3-3 with Adam Lallana to the right of Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum to the left in midfield. Sadio Mane played on the right of the front three, Coutinho played on the left and Firmino started at striker. Across the back Alberto Moreno and Nathanial Clyne played left and right back respectively. Dejan Lovren and summer signing Ragnar Klavan partnered at center back.

Wenger opted not to play Monreal at center back to provide some experience there and instead gave the 19 year old Rob Holding his debut. Holding partnered Chambers with Monreal at his normal left back spot and Bellerin at right back. Wenger stuck with his policy of easing new signings into the squad by leaving out Granit Xhaka and went with Elneny and Coquelin in the holding roles of our 4-2-3-1. Alexis led the line as he had against Manchester City with Ramsey in the hole behind him in the #10 role. Alex Iwobi played on the left. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly Theo Walcott played wide on the right. Wenger has suggested he’s not good enough defensively to play wide but he performed there well in the friendly against City and was rewarded with a start here.

Arsenal press in midfield but keep deep defensive line, leaving big gaps

We started the match by pressing high up the pitch. I imagine the high pressing was designed with the thought of protecting our inexperienced center backs- do our defending high up the pitch with our midfielders and attackers so that Holding and Chambers have less of it to do near our own box. Liverpool were quite sloppy in possession in the first half which made our pressing look better than it actually was. But in truth our pressing was disjointed throughout- we were leaving too big of gaps between the first wave of players pressing and those in behind. The defense needed to step forward a few yards to prevent Liverpool from playing between our lines. The visitors struggled to keep the ball in the opening half but our defensive shape still wasn’t right. In the second half they would exploit us.

One of Coquelin or Elneny would push high up the pitch when Liverpool were in possession to close down Henderson when he got on the ball. As a result, our non-pressing deep lying midfielder was left alone behind to defend the width of the center of the pitch. When Coquelin pressed Henderson, Elneny was 1 v. 2 against Liverpool’s other two center midfielders Lallana and Wijnaldum. Coutinho also tucked inside from his attacking left midfield position which further overloaded Elneny. Liverpool were able to quickly combine through Arsenal’s far too open midfield to create chances. Once they got beyond our first line of pressing there was acres of open space to exploit.

The image below is an illustration. Henderson receives the ball deep in midfield. Coquelin steps out of the defensive bank of four to press. Elneny is left to defend Lallana and Wijnaldum 1 v. 2. One simple pass from Henderson to Wijnaldum means Liverpool have broken our press, leaving Elneny in a world of bother to try to slow down Wijnaldum and Lallana on his own. From this position it’s two passes- from Henderson to Wijnaldum and Wijnaldum to Lallana- and Liverpool are at our back four.

Below is another example just a couple minutes later. Here Elneny is doing the pressing with Coquelin sitting deep. One simple square pass from Lallana to Wijnaldum means Liverpool have passing lanes forward and Coquelin outnumbered 3 v. 1 near the halfway line.

We were also confused by the excellent movement of Firmino. The Brazilian dropped into deep positions from his starting position at striker and floated into the channels to create overloads all over the pitch. Liverpool found an excellent balance with Firmino in this sort of false 9 role with Mane and Coutinho playing the wide forward positions. Coutinho would tuck into the gaps between our midfield and defense to link play forward like a #10 and Mane would tuck inside and play high up the pitch near our center backs, his pace posing a serious threat in behind our defense.

Below is an example of this clever movement from Liverpool. Here, Firmino drops very deep into midfield to collect a pass from Clyne. Coutinho has come all the way across the pitch from the left and offers Firmino a short square pass. The two then combine for a quick 1-2 before playing into Mane between the lines.

This particular move fizzled out for Liverpool but Firmino’s and Coutinho’s movement was critical for Liverpool’s second. Firmino pulled wide to the right channel to get on the ball and Coutinho moved into space between the lines. Firmino plays a penetrating pass to Coutinho who flicks on for Wijnaldum. Lallana makes a driving run into the box and takes down Winjaldum’s cross with a deft touch before finishing coolly.

Even Coutinho’s stunning free kick opener came about as the result of clever movement from the Liverpool front three. Firmino dropped to within 10 yards of the halfway line to collect a short pass from Henderson. Again, Elneny stepped forward to press him, leaving Coquelin behind him and acres of space in the middle of the pitch (see screen grab below). Firmino plays a pass to Mane who is then able to pick out Coutinho tucking inside. Holding steps out and commits the foul. The issue here isn’t just that Elneny is pressing. Pressing when done as a unit is great but the movement has to be coordinated throughout the squad. The issue here is what’s going on behind Elneny. Our defense is way too deep when Firmino gets the ball, leaving a massive gap for Liverpool players to move into and offer him easy passing lanes. The second the defense sees Elneny stepping forward to press they all need to push up to close that gap between defense and midfield. We were never compact enough. On one hand we were trying to press high up the pitch but on the other hand we were playing with a deep defensive line. That’ll never work out well. I’m sure Holding and Chambers wanted to stay deep because they were concerned about the pace of Mane and Coutinho getting in behind them. But if that was the case we needed to have the midfield play deeper to screen the center backs. Our shape was too loose in defense throughout the 90 minutes.

Arsenal don’t exploit Moreno in second half

In the match preview I discussed what a defensive liability Moreno is and that we should be looking to force him into 1 v. 1 situations as much as possible down our right side. In the 14th minute he attempted to head a clearance that fell straight to Ramsey in the penalty area. On that occasion he made a decent recovery tackle but his shakiness was evident. Then in the 28th he took a wild lunge at Walcott in the box leading to an Arsenal penalty. For Arsenal’s opener he was high up the pitch when Lallana lost possession in midfield, leaving him out of position and allowing space down the right for Walcott to drive forward and score.

However in the second half we got away from attacking down the right and made Moreno’s job too easy. Walcott only attempted two take ons in the entire 90 minutes, both of which were in the first half. He completed just 13 passes, 8 of those came in the opening half.

The most maddeningly frustrating stat of the weekend is that according to whoscored.com 48% of Arsenal’s attacks were down the left side and only 27% were down the right side. I’m sure some of this has to do with the fact Iwobi plays more of a possession style and likes to join in the buildup more while Theo is a much more direct player. But when an opposition has such a glaringly obvious weakness in their defensive ranks you have to alter your game to exploit it. Liverpool have a very solid right back and an England international in Nathanial Clyne yet we chose to attack him time and again over Moreno. 

Conclusion

I think the obvious takeaway from this match is how abundantly clear it was that we were unprepared for every facet of a football match. Physically we looked off the pace, evidenced by the fact Liverpool covered 5 kilometers more than us over the 90 minutes. Tactically we were all over the place, conceding way too much space defensively and failing to exploit the biggest weaknesses in Liverpool’s not-all-that-good back four. Mentally we responded to Coutinho’s late first half equalizer by capitulating and conceding three in 15 minutes. Yes we made it close in the end but a hardened, mentally strong team would have never gotten themselves into a position where they were 3 goals down at home on the opening day of the season. That the squad needed reinforcements should have been abundantly clear before the match but now Wenger can’t even try to claim otherwise. All is certainly not lost. The returns of Koscielny, Ozil and Giroud will have a big impact but still the result is troubling. We were played off the park by a team that will be one of our competitors for a top 4 spot. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea all won. Tottenham have a talented squad and could easily be right up there again this season. Competition for a top four spot is as tight as it has ever been and if we don’t improve quickly our run of Champions League participation will be under serious threat.

Tactical Analysis: Aston Villa 0-1 Swansea

After a difficult afternoon, Bafetimbi Gomis turned hero as he turned in a brilliant Jefferson Montero low ball across the face of goal in the 87th minute to give the visiting Swansea a 1-0 win over Aston Villa in an entertaining game.

Gary Monk went with the same diamond 4-4-2 formation he's used in recent weeks and that was so impressive in the first half of their slightly unfortunate 1-0 defeat to Liverpool on Monday. The only change he made to that side was bringing in Frederico Fernandez, who returned to the club after flying back to Argentina for personal reasons, for Jordi Amat in the center of defense.

Tim Sherwood opted for a flat 4-4-2 with Gabriel Agbonlahor partnering Christian Benteke up front and Tom Cleverley playing alongside Fabian Delph in midfield. Cleverley went off with an injury and was replaced with Carlos Sanchez in the 25th minute and Villa kept the same shape.

With the diamond 4-4-2 versus flat 4-4-2 the teams had clear numerical advantages in different areas of the pitch. Swansea enjoyed a 4 versus 2 advantage in the middle of midfield, giving them the impetus to control possession and overload Aston Villa through the center of the pitch. Aston Villa enjoyed a 2 v. 1 advantage in the channels, meaning they had opportunities to overload the Swansea fullbacks with overlapping runs and get balls into the box from wide areas. This game had three distinct tactical phases: in the first phase Swansea's advantage in midfield won out and they overran Villa in that zone, creating several good chances that they failed to conver; in the second phase Villa disrupted Swansea's rhythm and looked the more dangerous side attacking through the channels where they had the numerical advantage; in the third phase Monk switched to a 4-2-3-1, nullifying Villa's dangerous overlapping fullback runs and creating a threat through Jefferson Montero down the left.

Phase 1: Swansea use 4 v. 2 advantage in midfield to control possession

Just as they did in their defeat to Liverpool, Swansea controlled possession and had the better of play in the first half. Villa looked to press the two deepest lying Swansea center midfielders, Jack Cork and either Ki or Jonjo Shelvey and played a high line to to mitigate the space between the midfield and back four where Gylfi Siggurdsson was playing. However, with the 4 v. 2 advantage in the middle, Swansea were able to comfortably play through the press, get players on the ball in behind Delph and Cleverley then look for passes in behind Villa's extremely high defensive line. Within the opening 10 minutes Swansea were fractionally offside twice but it looked like only a matter of time before they'd exploit Villa's loose midfield and risky high line.

With Delph and Cleverley overloaded in midfield, Charlez N'Zogbia and Scott Sinclair were forced to tuck inside from their wide midfield positions to offer defensive help in central zones. This created loads of space down the channels for Swansea's overlapping fullbacks Neil Taylor and Kyle naughton to get forward. In the sixth minute Shelvey and Taylor played an excellent 1-2 down the left channel that resulted in Taylor getting to the byline and cutting back for Gomis 8 yards from goal. Gomis put his shot straight at Brad Guzan but the buildup from Swansea was excellent. Unfortunately for Monk, good build first half build up play but wasteful finishing has become a theme the last two games. Gomis looked to be struggling for confidence. While he uses his strength well in the build up and works hard, the fluid 4-4-2 system has created a number of chances for him that he hasn't taken well enough. It's difficult not to speculate whether the Liverpool result may have been different if Wilfried Bony were still at the club. Hopefully Gomis' winner will provide him with a boost of confidence. He's shown in France he has the ability to be a prolific striker. Under this diamond 4-4-2 he'll likely continue to get plenty of chances.

Phase 2: Villa dangerous down the flanks

As good as Swansea have been in the first halves of their last two fixtures, there's been a worrying trend both that they haven't converted that dominance into goals and that they haven't maintained the dominance into the second half. Out of the gates from the second half Villa looked the more energetic side. They disrupted the rhythm Swansea had in the first half, breaking up play in midfield better and limiting Swansea's space. Monk's side defended with a narrow midfield three of Cork, Shelvey and Ki. Sigurdsson dropped in just in front of them to pick up Villa's deepest center midfielder or an advancing center back while Routledge and Gomis stayed higher up the pitch. This meant Swansea were defending quite narrow in midfield and that there was no one to track the Villa fullbacks when they advanced forward. The Swansea fullbacks were therefore overloaded 2 v. 1 in the channels- they were occupied by both the Villa wingers and fullbacks. Villa began to take advantage of these 2 v. 1's in the channels by getting the fullbacks forward and having them overlap the wingers. They were able to get towards the byline and hit dangerous balls in from wide areas. This was a real threat given they had a dominate physical presence in Benteke to aim at in the box.

In the 57th left back Alan Hutton overlapped Sinclair down the left and played a driven cross into Benteke. He was able to use his strength to hold off a defender and knock the ball down for Agbonlahor. His effort was blocked well by Taylor but the move illustrated where Villa were their most dangerous.

Swansea go 4-2-3-1

After about a 20 minute spell of Villa creating good chances down the channels, Monk made a substitution in the 64th minute introducing Montero for Sigurdsson. Montero played wide on the left, Routledge moved to a right attacking midfield position, Shelvey moved forward into a #10 role and Swansea played a 4-2-3-1. They defended in banks, Montero and Routledge tracked the runs of the Villa fullbacks and mitigated the danger Sherwood's side had posed in the channels. The game became tighter, neither side really created any great chances. Montero posed the biggest threat for Swansea, his quickness on the ball caused problems for Leandro Bacuna, a center back playing out of position at right back.

Monk made a substitution that proved the deciding factor in the 85th minute, bringing on Nathan Dyer for Shelvey. Dyer played wide right and Routledge moved back inside to the #10 role. Two minutes after the change Routledge collected the ball in the middle of midfield and played a clever outside of the right foot pass to Montero in space down the left in behind Bacuna. Montero played an incredible first time pass with the outside of his right foot across the face of goal for Gomis to slide home after using great strength to hold off Ciaran Clark. Monk's personnel and tactical changes had paid off. The change in shape to 4-2-3-1 had stifled Villa as they were on the ascendency and the introduction of Montero on the left proved a game changer.

Conclusion

Tim Sherwood was accused at times of being tactically naive last season at Spurs. Those accusations were often leveled when Sherwood played an open 4-4-2 that left his side too open and outnumbered in midfield. His decision to play a flat 4-4-2 against a side he knew would likely play a midfield diamond seemed a strange one given how Sherwood chose to have the team defend. Rather than operating in deeper banks of four, they pressed with Cleverley and Delph in midfield and played a high line. This left gaps of space for Swansea to to easily move into and collect possession, where they could play dangerous passes in behind the Villa high line. That the score remained level at halftime was a product of Swansea's inability to finish- Villa were fortunate not be trailing.

They improved in the second half and were more compact defensively. However, Sherwood maintained the same shape and tactics throughout, whether his side were being outplayed or on the ascendency.

Monk on the other hand reacted to changes in how the contest was taking shape. When his side lost their first half dominance and were being dominated in the channels, he changed to a shape with wide midfielders to give his fullbacks defensive cover in the channels.

This was a fluid and enjoyable contest between two sides playing decent football. Monk will be slightly concerned his side's dominance of late hasn't been translated into enough goals, Sherwood will feel Villa missed a chance to get vital home points in their battle for safety but both managers can take positives from today's match.

Should the U.S. continue to attack after taking the lead?

The U.S. conceded a goal to Portugal in the 5th minute, but the team admirably fought back. After dominating the run of play for lengthy periods and creating several scoring chances, the U.S. scored in the 64th minute from a Jermaine Jones wonder strike after the Portuguese muffed the clearance of a corner. The U.S. looked especially dangerous down the right wing exploiting the space behind Cristiano Ronaldo who unsurprisingly focused on attacking and neglected his defensive responsibilities. In the 81st minute, the U.S. scored the go-ahead goal off of a DeAndre Yedlin cross that bounced around the box until Dempsey deliberately used his abdomen to guide the ball into the net.

In his recap of the U.S.-Portugal game, Michael Cox makes an important observation about the U.S. tactical approach after taking the lead:

[T]he wider problem is the USA’s tendency to react too much to the game state. Throughout their opening two matches they’ve showed some great attacking play when behind, or drawing. They started brilliantly against Ghana, and responded superbly to conceding an equaliser – but during the period they were ahead, they sat extremely deep and invited so much pressure.

Similarly, in this game they were excellent for long periods when needing a goal, but then immediately conceded the midfield ground when ahead. It’s almost like they need someone to shout out that old Sunday League call of “Still 0-0, lads!” after a goal, and continue to play their usual game, regardless of the scoreline.

Cox’s observation is apparent from the figure below, which shows the passes completed by the U.S. and Portugal in each 5-minute increment of the game. The U.S. indeed reverted into a defensive shell after going ahead in the 81st minute and attempted to absorb the pressure of Portugal’s attack. Quite remarkably, the U.S. team completed only 8 passes in the final 15 minutes of play (which includes the final 10 minutes of regulation and the 5 minutes of stoppage time). By comparison, throughout the entire match, the U.S. on average completed about 60 passes per 15 minutes of play.

In their final game of the group stage, Mexico faced a similar situation to the U.S. after going ahead of Croatia 1-0 in the 71st minute from a Rafa Márquez goal. Yet, the Mexicans seemed to maintain a relatively attacking approach, which paid dividends in the form of two insurance goals in the 75th and 82nd minutes. While Croatia scored a consolation goal in the 87th minute, Mexico had already all but secured a berth to the round of 16.

Looking at the equivalent figure above which shows completed passes in each 5-minute increment for the Mexico-Croatia game, the Mexicans yielded much of the possession to the Croatians after scoring in the 71st minute. However, they continued to push forward when opportunities arose, exploiting the huge spaces that resulted from the Croatians pushing forward in search of goals. As is obvious from the passing figure below, the Americans struggled to connect on their passes while the Mexicans repeatedly advanced the ball into dangerous positions, especially down the right wing.

It’s not unusual for teams to take a defensive approach in the latter stages of the game after taking the lead. Yet, that sitting deep and absorbing pressure is the norm doesn’t mean that it’s in fact the most effective strategy. Unfortunately, from an analytics perspective, this is a particularly challenging issue to investigate, as teams that choose to sit back and defend are probably more likely to concede and less likely to score regardless of the strategy they choose. Nevertheless, it’s something for viewers of the game to consider on the many occasions that they witness their team choosing to sit deep and invite attacks.

France exploit space behind Switzerland fullbacks

France cruised to a 5-2 win over Switzerland in Group E with one of the outstanding attacking performances of the tournament thus far. This contest had one of the most obvious tactical features we've seen in Brazil: France left their wide forwards high up the pitch when Switzerland were in possession and then broke quickly down the channels in the space behind the French fullbacks.

France stuck with their usual 4-3-3 formation but made two personnel changes to the side that beat Honduras in their opener. Olivier Giroud came in at striker while Karim Benzema shifted to left forward in place of Antoine Griezmann who struggled to have a big influence against Honduras. Moussa Sissoko replaced Paul Pogba on the right side of France's center midfield three.

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In the opening 15 minutes France were forced to patiently rotate the ball around the back four. Switzerland defended in blocks of four and left Haris Seferovic and Granit Xhaka forward. The two shared defensive responsibility denying entry passes into France's deep lying playmaker Johan Cabaye and allowed center backs Raphael Varane and Mamadou Sakho to play square passes to each other. Higher up the pitch Gokhan Inler matched up Sissoko and Valon Behrami marked Blaise Matuidi. With the numbers evenly matched throughout the pitch France struggled to find space to play penetrating passes in the opening proceedings.

The opener came when Valbuena pressed Ricardo Rodriguez, blocking a pass that fell to Giroud on the right flank. Giroud's ball across the face of goal forced a last ditch tackle, earning France a corner that Giroud rose well to head in. Just a minute later France added a second when Behrami inexcusably played a back pass into the feet of Benzema. The Real Madrid striker put Matuidi through on goal and he finished at the front post.

At 2-0 down Switzerland had to chase the game and at this point we saw the games defining tactical feature. France defended with only their midfield three, leaving Benzema, Valbuena and Giroud in the attacking half. This meant that Switzerland's fullbacks were unmarked when they made forays forward. Matuidi and Sissoko would shuttle into wide areas to pick up the two Switzerland fullbacks when they got on the ball. Switzerland could have caused some damage if they could have quickly switched the point of attack to the opposite side fullback who was consistently in acres of space. At one point towards the end of the first half Swtizerland had moved the ball from the left to Xhaka in the center of the pitch 25 yards from goal. France's defense didn't have time to rotate and Xhaka could have switched the attack to Lichtsteiner running in space to the right edge of the box. Instead the Swiss #10 took a wildly ambitious shot.

Leaving Benzema and Valbuena high up the pitch on the wings meant France always had an outlet ball into the channels to spring the break behind Lichsteiner and Rodriguez. Benzema won a penalty when Lichsteiner cheaply gave a pass away in midfield, leaving him out of position. Cabaye played a simple ball down the channel to Benzema and he was able to run freely down the left until Djourou made a silly tackle in the area. Benzema missed the penalty but France would soon score from another counter down the left, this time after Switzerland left themselves exposed from one of their own attacking corners. France dealt with the initial ball in and Varane played a quick outlet to Giroud completely free on the left flank. He drove forward and played a well weighted ball to Valbuena at the back post to tuck him.

The graphic below shows where Valbuena and Benzema received passes. They kept relatively wide positions on their respective flanks and received nearly all of their passes in the attacking half, often in behind the fullback tasked with marking them.

It sounds obvious but France's second goal completely changed the complexion of the match and effectively ended it as a contest. From that point on Switzerland were forced to take on a braver approach getting forward, moving their fullbacks higher up the pitch and leaving themselves wide open to counter attacks. It was a brave decision on the part of French manager Didier Deschamps not to adopt a more conservative approach at 2-0 up and have Valbuena and Benzema track the Swiss fullbacks. In the end it made for a brilliant attacking display from France and tremendous spectical.