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 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'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 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.

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 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.

Tactical Analysis: Aston Villa 2-1 West Brom

Christian Benteke's 94th minute penalty gave Aston Villa their first win in eight Premier League matches and lifted Tim Sherwood's side out of the bottom three. Villa played a diamond 4-4-2 and took advantage of a 4 v. 2 advantage in the middle of midfield in the first half when they controlled the game and were the better side. West Brom did a better job of taking advantage of space in behind the Villa fullbacks in the second half and were marginally the better side after the break. Perhaps a draw would have been the more appropriate result but Villa were excellent in the first half and were rewarded for an adventurous attacking display.

Lineups

Sherwood opted for an attacking diamond 4-4-2 shape with Charles N'Zogbia playing in the hole behind the front pairing of Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Tom Cleverley and Fabian Delph played the shuttling roles either side of Kieran Westwood at the base of midfield.

Tony Pulis used the same 11 he has in West Brom's last two league fixtures in his normal 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 set up. Saido Berahinho partnered Brown Ideye up front. Craig Gardner, typically a center midfielder, was again used wide on the left in midfield.

Villa exploit 4 v. 2 advantage in middle of midfield

The diamond 4-4-2 versus flat 4-4-2 formation meant Aston Villa had a 4 v. 2 advantage in the middle of midfield. West Brom defended in two compact banks of four. Positionally, Claudio Yacob was matched up against Cleverley, Darren Fletcher was matched up against Fabian Delph. However, Yacob and Fletcher defended zones on the pitch in front of their two center backs and rarely stepped out to get tight to Cleverley and Delph.

With that 4 v. 2 advantage in central areas, Villa always had an open spare man to pass to and were therefore easily able to circulate the ball and maintain possession. N'Zogbia posed a concern for the West Brom defense playing in the #10 role. Because Villa were playing with two strikers in Agbonlahor and Benteke, both West Brom center backs had a direct opponent and therefore neither could step forward to help the holding midfielders track N'Zogbia. He was free to move about in the pockets of space between the center backs and central midfielders. He got into one of these areas behind Fletcher and combined with Delph at the tail end of the first half, leading to Delph striking the woodwork.

But the main advantage Villa gained from their numerical superiority in midfield was that it kept the ball in their own attacking half, allowing them to build in confidence and get the fans behind them while keeping West Brom pinned in their own half. A nervous start could have been trouble for a team that had lost its last seven- by controlling the game it allowed a team with shattered confidence to gather a bit of belief.

Villa press well in first half

Sherwood's side pressed high up the pitch when they lost possession in the first half. Cleverley and Delph would immediately get tight to Fletcher and Yacob while the front three pressed West Brom's back four. Villa's fullbacks Alan Hutton and Matthew Lowton remained high up the pitch on West Brom's wide midfielders. As a result, West Brom struggled to find an out ball that would allow them to transition into attack. With Villa's fullbacks high up the pitch, there was space behind them in the channels for West Brom to exploit but they simply couldn't create enough time on the ball to play those passes into the channels (they improved here in the second half, more on that later). As a result their only route forward was to knock long, hopeful passes into Ideye and Berahino who didn't have enough support to do anything with those passes. West Brom completed just 24 of 52 passes into the attacking third in the first half.

Combination of big striker, quick striker troubles West Brom center backs

For all of Villa's tidy passing and build up play in the opening half, their goal came from the most simple, direct football you could imagine. Okore played a pass back to Brad Guzan at the Villa eighteen, prompting the West Brom defense to step forward. Guzan thumped it long to Benteke who used his superior strength to comfortably hold off Chris Brunt and flick a header on behind West Brom's defensive line. The pacey Agbonlahor read the situation, ran onto the flick and comfortably ran past Lescott and McAuley before slotting home. Five minutes later a West Brom goal kick was headed around a couple times before falling for Westwood. West Brom's center backs were high up the pitch because the goal kick had just been taken. Westwood played a simply pass up over the top and Agbonlahor was clean through on goal once again having beaten Lescott for pace. Lescott was able to save off the line but two extremely simple moves from Villa and the pace of Agbonlahor had nearly resulted in a 2-0 Villa lead.

West Brom start to exploit space in channels

With Villa playing a diamond 4-4-2 they weren't getting any natural width from the midfield. It was therefore up to the fullbacks to bomb forward to provide that width in the attacking third. Hutton in particular was playing more like a wing back than a fullback. As I mentioned earlier, this advanced positioning meant there was space for West Brom to exploit in the channels if they could quickly transition from defense to attack. Villa's decent pressing in the first half prevented West Brom from finding an out ball to allow them to transition. It's difficult to keep up a high pressing game for 90 minutes however and in the second half Villa began to tire. As they did West Brom found more time to transition from defense to attack and exploit that space behind the Villa fullbacks. 

The screen shot below shows the one example where West Brom were really able to take advantage of the Villa fullbacks' advanced positioning on the counter. Hutton is on the ball and Lowton, who for the most part kept a deeper position than Hutton, is at the edge of the 18 yard box. Hutton plays a diagonal ball into the box that West Brom end up with. In the next sequence Morrison runs into the right channel behind Lowton in acres of space. He's through on goal but his lack of pace allows Lowton and Clark to recover. Morrison played a ball to the back post that Okore does well to cut out but Villa left themselves exposed down the wings when they lost possession.

Because Villa were defending with just a midfield bank of three, West Brom's fullbacks didn't have a direct opponent when they were in possession and the Baggies therefore had a 2 v. 1 advantage in the channels. In the build up to West Brom's equalizer Dawson collected the ball in space on the right channel and played an overlapping Morrison. Morrison whipped in a dangerous low cross across the six yard box that Ciaran Clark did well to snuff out for a corner. West Brom would score from the subsequent corner. Their strategy was clear-funnel the ball wide into the channels and get crosses into the box.

Conclusion

Tony Pulis doesn't offer tactical surprises and today was no different. He makes the individual tasks for his players remarkably simple- they defend in banks of four, attack through the channels and look to exploit set piece opportunities. While he is often derided for it, it is that simplicity that allows his sides to be so well organized and difficult to break down. While it's not often easy on the eye, it's the reason he's never been relegated. Although they were awful in the first half and only marginally improved in the second, they showed that characteristically Pulis ability to get an ugly result. In the end they were let down by a poor decision by Foster to dive in on Lowton after mishandling a cross but I expect Pulis to continue to collect enough points to have West Brom comfortably enough outside the relegation zone by the final week of the season.

Aston Villa put in a much improved showing, particularly in the first half when I thought they were excellent, but for all their tidy play they still don't create enough genuine scoring opportunities. The result shouldn't mask the fact they scored from a route one move in which Benteke looked to be offside and from a penalty that resulted from a mistake by the opposition keeper. They won't get those breaks every week and need to improve their play in the final third. However, they should gain confidence from a good showing and a badly needed three points.

Tactical Analysis: Roma 1-1 Juventus

Juventus went one step closer to claiming a fourth consecutive Scudetto with a 1-1 draw at second place Roma. The result keeps the gap between the two sides at 9 points. Juventus will perhaps feel they missed an opportunity to extend their lead after Vasilis Torosidis was given a second yellow for a foul on Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez scored from the resulting kick. However, Seydou Keita earned his side a point after heading home an Alessandro Florenzi free kick.

This was a slow-moving contest- with Juventus comfortably in control of top spot in the league a draw was an acceptable result and they were content to defend deep with eleven men behind the ball and look to break on the counter. Roma lacked the creativity and tempo to break down a compact Juventus defense- they were too slow and methodical to cause the visitors problems. Tevez's goal was Juve's only shot on target but they were the more dangerous side throughout playing on the counter. Second half substitution Juan Iturbe injected some pace and direct running for Roma in the second half- he won the free kick that led to Keita's equalizer- but Roma were extremely poor in attack.

Rudi Garcia opted for the same starting eleven that beat Feyenoord in the Europa League Thursday in Rotterdam. Daniele De Rossi, Miralem Pjanic and Keita made up the midfield triangle in Garcia's 4-3-3 with Radja Naingollan left out.

Massimo Allegri returned to 3-5-2, Juve's default Serie A formation, after playing a diamond 4-4-2 in the bianconeri's 2-1 Champions League win over Dortmund last Tuesday. Andrea Pirlo was out with a calf injury sustained in that match and was replaced at the base of midfield by Claudio Marchisio. Paul Pogba also just missed out with Roberto Pereyra filling in alongside Vidal in the shuttling midfield role.

Juve defend deep

The most obvious tactical feature of this contest was Juventus's deep defending. Evra and Lichsteiner dropped back towards the center backs to form a back five. Tevez and Morada dropped 10 yards within their own half to pick up Roma's deepest lying midfielder, usually De Rossi. This meant Juventus's three center midfielders had a 3 v. 2 advantage against Pjanic and Keita in deeper positions. Pjanic, Roma's most creative midfielder, couldn't find pockets of space to influence the game in a crowded center of the pitch. He played 15 passes in the attacking third but they were mostly short and into wide areas and not the type of defense-splitting through balls likely to cause the Juventus center backs problems.

For Roma, both Gervinho and Adem Ljajic like to tuck inside from their wide starting positions. However, with Juventus playing three center backs their movement into central areas wasn't causing the type of overloads it would against the center backs in a back four. Instead they were moving infield to an area of the pitch that was extremely crowded. There weren't the gaps in those interior zones to find any space. With Lichtensteiner and Evra dropping deep, the only space in midfield for Roma was in deep positions in the channels. Juventus were happy to concede this space- the only real threat from those deep wide areas was big diagonal crosses into the box but with a front three of Totti, Ljajic and Gervinho Roma didn't pose any type of aerial threat from crosses.

Juventus's deep positioning always kept Totti from picking up possession in dangerous areas between the lines. Totti dropping into deeper positions to get on the ball is an element of Roma's play- he's a gifted creative player and it allows space for Gervinho and Ljajic to run in behind him- but it was incredible just how deep Juventus's defensive positioning was forcing him to come. The graphic below shows where the Roma captain received passes. The vast majority of those were beyond 30 yards from goal and he received just one pass in the box.

Juventus counter behind fullbacks

With Ljajic and Gervinho tucking inside for Roma, their fullbacks Torosidis and Holebas were tasked with providing attacking width. This left space down the channels for Juventus to counter into when they won possession back. Morata broke into this space quickly behind the Roma fullbacks then Pereyra and Vidal would use their pace and power to join in with runs from deep as Roma struggled to get back into defensive position. In the build up to Juve's opener Pereyra won possession in midfield, sprinted forward with the ball and provided a pass for Vidal in a position inside of the left channel. Torosidis had been high up the pitch providing width and was left struggling to recover as Vidal had gotten in behind him. He clipped the Chilean's heels as he was breaking into the box, picking up his second yellow and giving Juve the free kick Tevez would go on to score from.

Roma substitutions impactful

Reduced to ten men, Garcia was forced into making substitutions that turned out to be hugely influential. Florenzi replaced Ljajic to restore Roma's back four and five minutes later Iturbe replaced Totti. Roma moved to a 4-3-2 with Iturbe taking up a right forward position. The two substitutes gave Juventus more trouble than they'd felt all game combining down the right. Florenzi brought more pace and guile in possession than Torosidis and Itrube offered more direct running on the ball Roma had lacked and that finally forced the Juventus defense to do some 1 v. 1 defending. Iturbe won a free kick with a burst of pace down the right channel that Florenzi clipped into the back post well for Keita to equalize.

Perhaps Juventus were guilty of allowing themselves to become too stretched after going a man and a goal ahead and looking for the second to kill it off. Roma certainly enjoyed more space once they were reduced to ten than they had at any point beforehand and you feel that maybe had Juventus continued to defend cautiously as though it was still 11 v. 11 they may have held on.

Conclusion

Roma may take some pride in fighting back to snatch a point from a difficult situation but this was a poor result both in terms of the performance and the impact a draw has on their chances at getting back into the title race. The tempo was too slow and they couldn't get their creative players into positions where they could impact the game.

Juventus will be somewhat disappointed they didn't hang on for the three points they probably deserved but they too didn't really create enough. The draw suits them fine however- they will in all likelihood cruise to another title.

Ibe's positioning at wing back opens space between Rose and Vertonghen that Liverpool exploit

Mario Balotelli's first Premier League goal since 2012 gave Liverpool a 3-2 win over Tottenham in a game that twice saw Spurs come from a goal behind to draw level. The win crucially puts Brendan Rodgers' side just 3 points behind 4th place Arsenal and just a point behind Spurs in the race for Champions League places. A win would have seen Spurs go third at least briefly with Southampton and Manchester United still to play tomorrow.

This was an immensely entertaining contest for the first hour with with two quite different formations that created some really intriguing tactical battles. With both sides having played important derby matches just two days ago, fatigue seemed to set in on the hour mark and the energy fell until Balotelli's 83rd minute winner. Rodgers' second half substitutions made the difference- Balotelli replaced the excellent Daniel Sturridge, still regaining fitness from the thigh injury that has seen him miss most of the season, in the 74th minute and was set up with an assist from Adam Lallana who came on for Lazar Markovic in the in the 79th.

What proved to be the key tactical feature on the day occurred down Liverpool's right attacking side. Rodgers opted for the same 3-4-2-1 formation he's used in recent matches with Jordan Ibe given a second successive league start at right wing back after his excellent performance at Everton Saturday. Ibe was instrumental in setting up both Liverpool second half goals and proved a tactical nightmare defensively for Spurs left back Danny Rose and left midfielder Christian Eriksen.

Markovic and later Lallana operated in a narrow right-sided attacking midfield position. The left side of Spurs defense was confused throughout about who was responsible for picking up this inside right attacking midfielder and who was responsible for tracking Ibe. Ryan Mason played as the left-sided holding midfielder in a double pivot with Nabil Bentaleb (in the 69th Paulinho replaced Mason and Bentaleb moved into Mason's left-sided position). He pressed Henderson, Liverpool's right sided holding midfielder, when Liverpool were in possession. This left Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder with space behind Mason and in front of Rose and left-sided center back Jan Vertonghen (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Markovic occupies space behind Mason and in front of Rose and Vertonghen.

Figure 1: Markovic occupies space behind Mason and in front of Rose and Vertonghen.

Rose and Vertonghen therefore had a difficult decision to make about their positioning. Vertonghen could step out from the back line to get tight to Markovic/Lallana but it would have opened up space in behind for the pacey Daniel Sturridge to make a diagonal run in behind (Figure 2).

Figure 2: If Vertonghen steps to Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder it opens space in behind for Sturridge to run into

Figure 2: If Vertonghen steps to Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder it opens space in behind for Sturridge to run into

Alternatively, Rose could have tucked inside towards Markovic/Lallana, leaving space down the channel for Ibe to run into behind Eriksen (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Space opens up for Ibe down the touchline if Rose tucks inside towards Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder.

Figure 3: Space opens up for Ibe down the touchline if Rose tucks inside towards Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder.

Spurs opted more for the option in Figure 3 with Rose tucking inside. The problem that arose for Pochettino's side was therefore that Ibe was happy to take that space near the touchline behind Eriksen. To effectively deal with that threat, Eriksen would have had to been asked to track Ibe's runs all the way into the Liverpool attacking third. Such a strategy would have had its own drawbacks- Spurs wouldn't have wanted their most creative attacking player pinned 80 yards from the opposition goal.

When Ibe got the ball in advanced wide positions his direct and incisive decision-making were extremely effective. By receiving possession near the touch line he forced Rose to sprint wide to close him down. Spurs left-sided holding midfielder (Mason and then Betaleb when Mason was subbed) would drift to that channel to offer defensive support for Rose, vacating space in the middle of the pitch that Markovic and then Lallana could exploit.

The screen shot below shows the buildup to the penalty won by Sturridge that resulted in Liverpool's second goal. Ibe gets the ball wide, forcing Rose to the touchline. Bentaleb offers defensive cover leaving space at the right edge of the box Sturridge to move into on this occasion. Ibe finds Sturridge with the next pass who dribbles past Mason and is taken down by Rose in his effort to make a recovery tackle.

The buildup to Balotelli's winner was remarkably similar. Here, Ibe receives a pass from Lallana on the touchline. Once again Rose is forced wide to close him down with Bentaleb providing cover. Lallana drifts into the space left vacated by Bentaleb and provides a well-weighted ball across the face of goal for Balotelli to tuck in.

Markovic's opener was slightly different- Simon Mignolet's long punt toward Sturridge ultimately fell for the Serbian in space to dribble forward, but like the other two it resulted from a Liverpool player finding space just inside the right channel.

Pochettino's side created their share of difficult tactical issues for Liverpool. With Markovic, Coutinho and Sturridge all staying high up the pitch Liverpool were outmanned in the middle of midfield where Gerrard and Henderson often found themselves trying to defend Bentaleb, Mason and Dembele as well as Eriksen and Lamela tucking inside. Spurs' fantastic opener came when Lamela and Eriksen tucked insideto overload that zone and played a tidy 1-2 before Lamela laid off an inch-perfect reverse pass for Harry Kane.

One final interesting feature of this contest was Liverpool's first half pressing of Bentaleb and Mason, an approach that differed from that taken by Arsene Wenger in the North London Derby Saturday. Arsenal sat deep and allowed Bentaleb and Mason plenty of time on the ball. The two midfielders looked excellent, Bentaleb providing the cross for Kane's winner, and Spurs controlled the game. Today the two looked extremely uncomfortable with the pressure they were being put under and struggled to move the ball forward to the front four. Both Mason and Bentaleb played poor back passes that nearly led to one v. one opportunities at the Spurs goal for Ibe and Sturridge. The difference in strategy between Arsenal and Liverpool could be attributable to the fact Arsenal were the away side Saturday and therefore more cautious, but it's difficult not to wonder if Arsenal couldn't have come away from that contest with something had they put the two rather green Spurs midfielders under more pressure.

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal: Spurs press pins deep defending Arsenal

A second half brace from Harry Kane gave an outstanding Tottenham a 2-1 come-from-behind win over Arsenal in the North London Derby. Despite going behind from an 11th minute Mesut Ozil tap in, Spurs dominated throughout and were deserving winners. The win sent Spurs a point ahead of Arsenal and into 5th after Southampton's dramatic late win over QPR.

Arsenal adopted a similar defensively organized, counter-attacking approach to their 2-0 away win over Manchester City at the Emirates three weeks ago, an excellent performance that earned the Gunners their first away win over City, Manchester United or Chelsea since 2011. In the past Arsene Wenger has been rightly criticized for his unwillingness to adopt a more pragmatic approach to big away fixtures. The City performance seemed to suggest an evolution of Wenger's tactics and a maturation of his players. They showed tremendous professionalism and concentration, comfortably nullifying the attacking threat from City and carving out good chances of their own that they finished efficiently.

Given the effectiveness of that performance it maybe wasn't a surprise that Wenger would adopt the same approach in another big away fixture against talented opposition. Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey both dropped deep in the middle of midfield with Francis Coquelin just behind them in the hole giving Arsenal a 4-1-4-1 shape with 9 players behind the ball. It was a strategy aimed at preventing Coquelin becoming overrun in central areas in front of the back four. Both Tottenham wide players Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen enjoy tucking inside from the channels to find space between the lines. With Ramsey and Cazorla dropping deep it prevented Eriksen and Lamela from creating 2 v. 1 or 3 v. 1 overloads against Coquelin, who had a direct opponent in Spur's central attacking midfielder Mousa Dembele.

Both sides attack the same channel

With the center of the pitch crowded, the space to exploit for both sides was in wide areas. Both sides were particularly vulnerable down the same side of the pitch, Arsenal's right and Spurs left. Spurs were remarkably dangerous when they were able to quickly switch the point of attack from their right side to the left channel. Eriksen was Arsenal right back Hector Bellerin's direct opponent. With Eriksen tucking inside to central areas from the left channel, it forced Bellerin to follow him into very narrow positions, leaving space down the channel for Spurs left back Danny Rose to sprint into. Rose was able to sprint past Arsenal right midfielder Danny Welbeck, in the side ahead of Theo Walcott for his defensive work rate, and get the ball in space in the attacking third.

With Eriksen's narrow positioning, Bellerin was forced inside, leaving space on the right side of Arsenal's defense. Tottenham were able to switch the point of attack quickly in the opening half and find Danny Rose in space down that channel.

With Eriksen's narrow positioning, Bellerin was forced inside, leaving space on the right side of Arsenal's defense. Tottenham were able to switch the point of attack quickly in the opening half and find Danny Rose in space down that channel.

Rose got the ball in dangerous positions at the edge of the 18 yard box four times in the opening half hour. He delivered a poor ball in early after getting to the end line, produced a smart save from Ospina in the 14th, shot just wide of Opsina's back post in the 22nd and delivered another disappointing ball after again getting behind the defense in the 24th. Despite Arsenal being set up to defend and prevent good scoring chances for Spurs, the tactic wasn't working particularly well. Spurs inability to find the net in the first half was more a product of their lack of ruthlessness in the final third and strong goalkeeping from Opsina than Arsenal keeping them contained.

Rose's forays forward did create space for Arsenal to break into down their right and they looked dangerous in the opening half hour countering into that channel. Arsenal got their 11th minute opener when Giroud won the ball in back in midfield and it ended up at Welbeck's feet around the right channel. Welbeck took one touch behind Rose, who was high up the pitch with Spurs having just been in possession, and had room to carry the ball towards the endline. He cut it back for Giroud whose scuffed shot fell kindly to Ozil to tuck home at the back post.

Spurs press, Arsenal pinned deep

Spurs continued to dominate possession and control proceedings in the second half. The key tactical feature of the final 45 minutes was Arsenal's deep defending and Spurs pressing. With Arsenal continuing to drop deep near their own box with a defensive midfield bank of 5, Olivier Giroud became isolated up front. Spurs quickly closed down Arsenal high up the pitch when they lost the ball and the Gunners simply didn't have an outlet ball to spring counters. Their only release valve was hopeful balls towards Giroud, who was being outmanned by Spurs' center backs Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier. The graphic below shows that the bulk of passes to Giroud in the second half were either in deep positions near midfield or hopeful long ball. Spurs won possession back quickly and created wave after wave of attacking pressure. They finally broke Arsenal's resistance in the 56th through Kane after a sustained spell of pressure.

The graphic below of where each team won tackles highlights the two sides' strategies. Spurs pressed quickly when they lost possession and won the ball higher up the pitch while Arsenal defended in deep lines around their own 18 yard box.

Tottenham got fantastic performances throughout the lineup. Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb comfortably controlled the middle of the park with Bentaleb providing the assist for Kane's winner. Eriksen put in a typical tidy performance tucking inside and linking play from midfield to attack, Lamela took a while to get going but grew into it and offered plenty of creativity in the second half. The majority of the plaudits however will rightly go to Kane. His coolness in front of goal is hardly believable given his age and lack of Premier League experience but he's also more than just a ruthless finisher. His work rate off the ball is phenomenal- he'll run in behind the defense, work the channels to get on the ball and hold up play with his back to goal.

Conclusion

It would be unfair to criticize Wenger for Arsenal's approach given the success a similar one brought at City but it's difficult not to wonder how this contest would have panned out had his side looked to establish a bit more authority. Spurs had Bentaleb, Mason and Dier in their defensive spine and although all three are fine players, they are 20, 23 and 21 years of age respectively and don't have a ton of big game experience. Could Arsenal have rattled their nerve with more attacking pressure?

For Pochettino and Spurs this performance should provide a platform for what they're capable of. This was an even more complete and dominant performance than their 5-3 win over Chelsea. They simply didn't allow Arsenal to get into any decent scoring positions for the bulk of the 90 minutes. The question now is can they consistently replicate this type of performance. Two seasons ago Spurs beat Arsenal by the same 2-1 scoreline at White Hart Lane in early March. The lead left them 7 points clear of Arsenal and third in the league but Wenger's side ultimately secured the final Champions League spot at their expense by a point on the final day of the season. Arsenal are the more talented side and will still be considered favorites for the Champions League but Pochettino is a very good manager and Liverpool proved last season what momentum in the second half of the season can do for a squad. With 13 points from their last 6 fixtures, including wins over Chelsea and Arsenal, they're in a great run of form at just the right time.

Chelsea pressing improves after disjointed start

Chelsea maintained their perfect start the Premier League season with a 4-2 home win over Swansea. Jose Mourinho's side were too disjointed in their pressing early on, allowing too much space between the midfield and back four, but improved in that area just before the half hour mark and took firm control of the game from there.

Lineups

Mourinho opted for the same starting 11 and 4-2-3-1 formation he used in Chelsea's first two games against Burnley and Leicester with Cesc Fabregas playing a deeper role in midfield just in front of Nemanja Matic and Oscar as the most advanced midfielder. The Matic-Fabregas holding midfield partnership appears as though it'll be one Mourinho uses at home or against weaker opposition. It allows Chelsea to have an additional creative player on the pitch but comes at the expense of playing two defensive holders to protect the back four and as a result Chelsea can become a bit more stretched. The presence of an additional creator against weaker opposition is an important one- too often last season Chelsea were unable to break down deep defenses. On the road at Everton Mourinho played Fabregas as the #10 with Ramires partnering Matic in the holding roles in a move that in theory was meant to make the side more compact at the back. They went on to concede three that day in a 6-3 win but the personnel decision reflects Mourinho's focus on not losing and allowing the opposition to make mistakes against top sides on the road rather than proactively setting up to take the game to the opposition. We'll likely see Fabregas as the #10 next week away to Manchester City with two defensive holders behind.

Gary Monk's only change to the side that won its first three league games was the inclusion of Bafetimbi Gomis for Wilfried Bony who had just met up with the team from international duty yesterday.

Chelsea press disjointed

Early on Chelsea appeared to be caught between two minds whether they wanted to press high up the pitch or drop off and defend in banks of four. At times Fabregas and Matic would step forward to join the front four and press but the Chelsea back four didn't step forward in tandem to play a higher line. As a result, there was a big gap between the pressing midfielders and the back four. Sigurdsson and Gomis got on the ball in these positions before moving it wide where Dyer and Routledge could use their pace to run at Azpilicueta and Ivanovic.

The two images below give an of Chelsea's failure to press as a unit. Diego Costa closes Amat down, Hazard is tight to Rangel, Matic has moved forward tight to Ki, Fabregas (just at the edge of the shot) is moving towards Shelvey, Oscar is in a position to deny a pass into Shelvey or close down Ashley Williams if Amat plays a square pass to his left. Here, the front six are in good pressing positions.

However, the back four are far too deep. Amat picks out Sigurdsson positioning himself between the lines (below). He receives the pass with loads of space to turn- you don't even see Chelsea's defenders in the screen shot below. With Swansea playing a lone striker, the Chelsea center backs have a 2 v. 1 advantage. Therefore, when the midfielders press, one should be able to step out from the defensive line and get tight to the back of Sigurdsson, not allowing him to turn.

It isn't hugely surprising that Terry and Cahill were reluctant to move up the pitch and play a higher line. While both are positionally solid, neither have a tremendous amount of pace and would be worried about opposition attackers running in behind them. Both are more comfortable playing a deeper line and dealing with high crosses into the box.

Chelsea's pressing midfielders were also at fault for the early struggles. They were hesitant and uncertain when closing down the ball and as a result Swansea had that extra second to pick their heads up and find a pass.

Chelsea press improves

Right around the half hour mark Chelsea began to press with more conviction. There was a 20 second or so spell where Fabregas and Oscar closed Shelvey 30 yards from goal and committed a foul. Amat played the resulting free kick square to Williams rather sending it forward and Diego Costa and Oscar immediately pressed the two Swansea center backs. Amat received a pass back from Williams and played the ball forward into Shelvey who was put under pressure straight away by Fabregas. He was forced to play back into Fabianski's feet and the goalkeeper simply had to hoof it forward to escape the pressure. From that point on Swansea couldn't find a way out of their own half and Chelsea took control of the game. In the opening 29 minutes Swansea completed 11 passes into the attacking third. For the remainder of the half they completed just 1.

Mourinho moves to 4-3-3

At the start of the second half Mourinho introduced Ramires for Schurrle and moved to a 4-3-3 shape. Matic anchored the midfield with Ramires to his right and Fabregas to his left, Oscar moved to an attacking right position. Chelsea continued to press relentlessly and man marked in midfield with Ramires and Fabregas versus Ki and Shelvey and Matic versus Sigurdsson in front of the Chelsea back four.

The major impact the change had for Chelsea was that it allowed Fabregas to get into more advanced areas to dictate tempo in the attacking third, knowing that he had two midfield partners in Ramires and Matic that were going to do the defensive leg work. With his position on the left of the Chelsea midfield trio he was able to create overloads and combine for 1-2's with Hazard in his position down the left channel. The two combined brilliantly for Chelsea and Diego Costa's second. Fabregas played 12 attacking third passes in the first half in his slightly deeper role, 17 in the second half before being subbed off in the 82nd including the assist to Costa.

Diego Costa

Costa has been on fire, his hat trick today taking his tally on the season to 7 in 4 league matches. Mourinho lamented his lack of an in form striker last season. Costa's goals today were of the poaching sort Chelsea desperately lacked last season. Last season Torres constantly dropped between the lines to try to link play forward and at times was effective in doing so. However, he never seemed to pop up in key areas in the box to finish moves off. Costa doesn't drop off the opposition back four to get on the ball and link play forward- with the attacking midfielders Chelsea have he shouldn't need to. He'll drift into the to get on the ball and run at defenders but always gets himself into the right areas in the box when Chelsea get into dangerous positions. He's also an imposing physical presence. His headed opener showed his power and strength, his second and third showed his positional instincts.

Tactical Analysis: Manchester United 1-2 Swansea

Louis Van Gaal's reign in charge at Old Trafford got off to a poor start as Manchester United were beaten 2-1 by an organized Swansea side.

Van Gaal was without Michael Carrick, Luke Shaw, Johnny Evans, Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck through injury while Robin Van Persie was not yet fit. Van Gaal was therefore forced to field a bit of a makeshift side in the 3-4-1-2 formation he favored with Holland at the World Cup and with United in preseason. Tyler Blackett and Jesse Lingard were given their United debuts at left center back and right wing back respectively. Lingard however was forced off early with an injury and replaced by Adnan Januzaj. Javier Hernandez started alongside Wayne Rooney at forward with Juan Mata just behind in the #10 role. Ander Herrera and Darren Fletcher played deeper in midfield.

Gary Monk opted for a 4-2-3-1. Wilfried Bony was given the nod up front ahead of new signing Bafetimbi Gomis after his excellent second half of last season. Jonjo Shelvey and Ki Sung-Yueng anchored the midfield. Wayne Routledge, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Nathan Dyer took up the attacking midfield positions. Angel Rangel, Jordi Amat, Ashley Williams and Niel Taylor made up the back four.

United attack down right

Swansea defended with Shelvey and Ki sitting deep in front of the back four. When United's back three had the ball, Swansea's ball side wide midfielder would step forward to apply pressure along with Sigurdsson and Bony while the opposite side wide midfielder tucked back into a narrow position alongside Ki and Shelvey to form a narrow bank of three. Swansea's fullbacks moved into very wide positions to pick up United's wing backs. This tactical feature should have provided a bigger advantage for United than it did. With Taylor moving all the way towards the touch line to pick up Januzaj, a large gap was left between Taylor and Williams in Swansea's defense. With United playing two center forwards, Williams and Amat both had direct opponents to mark and therefore Swansea didn't have a spare center back to pick up midfield runners. Any runs United midfielders made into that gap of space would have forced Williams to leave Rooney in order to pick up the runner (Figures 1 and 2). However, Herrera and Fletcher kept deeper positions and Mata didn't make those penetrating runs into the corner of the penalty area. United attacked continuously down the right, and Januzaj looked a genuine threat running past Taylor, but LVG's side couldn't take advantage of the space between Taylor and Williams that was there to be exploited.

Figure 1:  Januzaj receives ball on wing, Taylor moves wide to close him down. Both Swansea center backs have a marker, neither spare to track midfield runners. Mata and Herrera have space in gap between Williams and Taylor to make dangerous penetrating runs. Too often they fail to make those runs.

Figure 1: Januzaj receives ball on wing, Taylor moves wide to close him down. Both Swansea center backs have a marker, neither spare to track midfield runners. Mata and Herrera have space in gap between Williams and Taylor to make dangerous penetrating runs. Too often they fail to make those runs.

Figure 3:  If Herrera makes the run into the gap it forces Williams to slide over to close him down and leaves Rooney free in the box.

Figure 3: If Herrera makes the run into the gap it forces Williams to slide over to close him down and leaves Rooney free in the box.

Swansea opener

Manchester United man marked in the middle of midfield. Mata picked up one of the Swansea holding midfielders, Herrera stepped out to get tight to the other and Fletcher sat in the hole on Sigurdsson. United are without wide midfielders in their 3-5-2 shape and therefore Swansea's fullbacks didn't have a direct opponent in possession. For Swansea's opener Fletcher was pushed into a position wide on the left of United's defense to pressure Rangel on the ball. Rangel looped a ball in behind left wing back Ashley Young into Dyer. This forced Blackett to shift wide to the right channel to close down Dyer. With Fletcher high up the pitch after picking up Rangel, Sigurdsson was unmarked in the middle of the pitch. He was spotted by Dyer. Herrera and Mata did a poor job tracking the Swansea midfield runners- they were up near midfield when Ki burst forward, collected a pass from Sigurdsson and slotted home to give Swansea the lead.

United lack ball playing center back

One of the keys to playing three at the back is having one of those central defenders possess the vision to step out of the back and play forward passes into midfield. Smalling, Jones and Blackett did not show that vision. They were unable to channel passes into Fletcher and Herrera in midfield and simply passed sideways to one another at the back. United's top three passing combinations in the first half involved the three center backs. Their top seven pass combinations involved either passes between the three center backs, a center back and a wing back or de Gea and a center back. United need to sign a center back with more vision if they wish to continue playing three at the back. Ideally that player would be Mats Hummels who offers excellent composure on the ball and good passing vision.

United switch to 4-2-3-1

Van Gaal switched formations at halftime bringing on Nani to replace the woefully ineffective Hernandez. Nani played wide on the left, Young slipped back to left back, Jones slid over to a traditional right back role and Januzaj played a more advanced right midfield position. The change in shape prompted United's most dangerous attacking spell of the contest and resulted in more attacks through the middle of the pitch, as opposed to attacking mostly wide on the right in the first half. Although it seems counterintuitive, the main reason for the increased pressure through the middle was the change to playing with two wide players on each side of the pitch- a wide midfielder and fullback- rather than just one as they had with the 3-4-1-2 shape- the wing back. The reason being that with Jones and Young providing width from the full back position, Nani and Januzaj were able to tuck inside giving United more passing options in central areas. Now, rather than having only Juan Mata working the space between Swansea's defensive and midfield lines, they had Nani and Januzaj who could also move into those dangerous areas. With Nani and Januzaj tucking in at times, Swansea's fullbacks had to take up narrower positions closer to their center backs. This meant that when United did get the ball into wide areas there was more space. Januzaj continued to cause trouble when he tucked out into the channels and won the corner that ultimately resulted in Rooney's equalizer. The graphic below shows United's more varied and central attacking in the second half compared to their reliance on attacking the right channel in the first half.

Swansea go ahead

Bony was isolated up front for Swansea for much of the game but did well to hold the ball up and earn the foul that led to his side's winner. United were guilty of switching off immediately after the whistle was blown and Bony was alert enough to release Sigurdsson towards the left. He played the ball down the left channel for freshly introduced Jefferson Montero. Montero's lofted pass to the back post was mishit by Routledge but fell kindly for Sigurdsson to smash home.

Conclusion

The bulk of this post has focused on Manchester United's performance however Gary Monk and Swansea deserve plenty of credit for their excellent organization. United never really threatened from open play and the Swans' organization was particularly admirable after retaking the lead. It's a dream start for Monk after some questioned whether he was too inexperienced to be up for the task of managing in the Premier League. This was certainly a performance Swansea can build on.

Van Gaal will need to strengthen his squad. Injuries didn't help today but at present this isn't a side with enough depth or quality to contest for the title or even a top four position.

Herrera too reactive after Mexico take lead

Late goals from Wesley Sneijder and Klaas Jan Huntelaar broke Mexican hearts as Netherlands battled back from a 48th minute Gio dos Santos opener to win 2-1. This is the sixth consecutive World Cup Mexico have been eliminated in the round of 16.

Last week Dan analyzed how Mexico continued to offer an attacking threat after taking the lead in their final group game against Croatia. As is often the case when a side takes a lead, Mexico conceded some possession to Croatia after the goal and defended slightly deeper but pushed numbers forward on the counter and were a real threat. They were rewarded with two insurance goals and comfortably saw out a 3-1 win.

Their approach today after dos Santos's opener was different. Javier Aquino replaced dos Santos in the 61st minute and slid into the right side of midfield, changing Mexico's shape from 3-5-2 to more of a 5-4-1. The change left Oribe Peralta (and then Javier Hernandez when he replaced Peralta) isolated up front when Mexico won back possession. They had no outlet pass to allow them to counter and quickly gave possession back to the Netherlands, inviting wave after wave of second half pressure. The graphics below illustrate Mexico's inability to offer an attacking threat after taking the lead. Up until dos Santos's goal Mexico produced 7 shots to just 1 for the Netherlands. After the goal Mexico produced just 3 shots to 12 for Netherlands.

Mexico with 7 shots in the opening 48 minutes to Netherlands 1.

Mexico with 7 shots in the opening 48 minutes to Netherlands 1.

Netherlands with 12 shots after dos Santos's goal to 3 for Mexico

Netherlands with 12 shots after dos Santos's goal to 3 for Mexico

Mexico's attacking third passing statistics were similar to the Netherlands before the goal. They completed 38 attacking third passes in the first 48 minutes, Netherlands completed 41. Following the goal Mexico completed only 24 attacking third passes while Netherlands completed 43.

Attacking third passes up to dos Santos's opener.

Attacking third passes up to dos Santos's opener.

Attacking third passes after dos Santos's opener

Attacking third passes after dos Santos's opener

It was a shame Miguel Herrera was so reactive when his side went ahead. They had been the better side throughout the first half, looking comfortable defensively and producing some decent scoring opportunities of their own on the break. They allowed a Dutch side that had been ponderous to attack for long periods of time without having to worry much about being picked off on the break. Louis Van Gaal made an intelligent change in shape from 3-5-2 to more of a 4-2-3-1 in the second half, knowing a third center back was unnecessary while Mexico were playing so deep. Had Herrera stuck with his approach against Croatia and not given the Netherlands so much respect in the second half, Mexico may well have broken their round of 16 losing streak.

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.