A NLD Arsenal scouting report: Sp*rs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spurs boast best defensive record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lineups

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

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

Sunderland press, play high line

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

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

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

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

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

Wenger's subs prove vital

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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

Arsenal's matchweek 10 scouting report: Sunderland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal Attack

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

Arsenal's matchweek 9 scouting report: Middlesbrough

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

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

Lineups

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

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

Boro set up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

Arsenal'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.

Arsenal batter Chelsea in most complete performance in recent memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

Arsenal's matchweek 6 scouting report: Chelsea

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

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

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

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

Lineup

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

Ball winning midfielders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea counter

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

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

Midfield balance

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

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

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

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

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

Conte not afraid to change approach

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

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

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

Slow defense

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

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

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

Tactical analysis: Arsenal 4-1 Hull City

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

Lineups

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

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

Arsenal exploit right channel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iwobi poor defending leads to Hull chances down right

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

Arsenal's matchweek 5 scouting report: Hull City

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

 Lineup

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

Hull defense

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

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

Hull defend deep against Manchester United

Hull defend deep against Manchester United

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

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

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

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

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

Hull attack

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

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

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

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

Arsenal approach

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

Final Thoughts

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

Tactical Analysis: Arsenal 2-1 Southampton

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

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

Lineups

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still no alternate attacking approach

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

Arsenal's matchweek 4 scouting report: Southampton

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

Lineup

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

Southampton attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrow shape

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

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

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

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

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

Southampton defense

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

Tactical Analysis: Arsenal 3-1 Watford

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

Lineups

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

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

Sanchez as striker pays off this week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watford attack through the channels

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

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

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

Cazorla-Xhaka partnership provides control in possession

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

Arsenal's matchweek 3 scouting report: Watford

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

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

Lineup

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

Watford general approach

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

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

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

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

Watford attack

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

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

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

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

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

Watford defense

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

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

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

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

Width from our fullbacks key

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

Final Thoughts

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

Arsenal's matchweek 1 scouting report: Liverpool

For the 2016-2017 season Soccermetrica will focus solely on Arsenal. I plan on doing a weekly scouting report of the Gunners’ upcoming opponent that I’ll put out at least a day before each match day. I’ll also write a detailed tactical analysis of each fixture that I will try to put out the Sunday or Monday after a amatch.

Here is the first installment of the weekly scouting report for Arsenal’s week one opponent Liverpool. These should become more detailed with more graphics and game-specific analysis in subsequent weeks as our opponents begin playing competitive fixtures that offer more insight into how they’ll lineup and approach matches tactically.

Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp is enjoying his first preseason at Liverpool having replaced Brendan Rodgers last October. It’s remarkably difficult for a manager to arrive midseason and thoroughly instill a nuanced playing philosophy while also trying to prepare for matches every few days. So while their 8th place finish last season wasn’t hugely impressive (they were 10th when Klopp took over), they did appear to be developing a distinct identity and better positional organization under Klopp as the season progressed, something they were desperately lacking towards the end of the Brendan Rodgers era and will look to build on this time around.

That disappointing 8th place finish may largely be attributable to a congested fixture list brought about by impressive finals runs in both the League Cup and the Europa League. Although they lost both those matches, the fact they got there was cause for optimism in Klopp’s first partial season and offered proof that he was having an effect.

This summer’s preseason will provide invaluable time on the training pitch. Preseason will also provide Klopp’s staff the chance to control the fitness regime of the squad. Liverpool hired on Bayern Munich’s fitness and conditioning coach Andreas Kornmayer and nutritionist Mona Nemmer in May and Klopp has promised the most difficult preseason of his players’ careers.

One thing you know to expect from a Jurgen Klopp side is a tireless work rate and relentless pressing in midfield. They finished tied with Leicester in successful tackles per game last season and if the new training regiment has the desired impact we can expect an even more tenacious side off the ball.

New signings

Klopp has made six new signings this closed season. Loris Karius was brought in from Mainz to provide competition for Simon Mignolet but broke his hand in a friendly against Chelsea at the end of July. Sadio Mane will provide attacking pace in wide areas following an impressive last season at Southampton where he scored 11 league goals and provided 7 assists. Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan will provide competition for Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho at center back. Georginio Wijnaldum is a tremendously athletic midfielder capable of providing goals from midfield. He led Newcastle in goals last season and was second in assists and should compete for a spot in the first 11. Veteran goalkeeper Alex Manninger was brought in to provide additional cover for Mignolet and Karius. Additionally, the promising 20 year old midfielder Marko Grujic signed from Red Star Belgrade in January but was immediately sent back to them on loan for the remainder of the season. He’ll provide additional depth in midfield after Joe Allen’s departure for Stoke City.

How they’ll line up

At the Emirates against a midfield as technically gifted as ours I expect Klopp to opt for more of a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1 so as not to get overrun in the middle of the pitch. That midfield three will likely be Emre Can flanked by two of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum or Adam Lallana.

If Klopp does go with the 4-3-3 we could see Mane on the right of a front three, with Coutinho on the left and either Roberto Firmino or Divock Origi at the #9 with Daniel Sturridge likely to miss out as he recovers from a hip injury. This is Anfield’s Henry Jackson predicts Firmino will get the nod after an impressive preseason and with Origi’s late arrival following his participation in the Euros with Belgium.

Like Arsenal, Liverpool are struggling with injuries in defense. They will be without Mamadou Sakho for the opening weeks of the season while it looks like Dejan Lovren will recover from a knock in time for Sunday’s kickoff. Matip is just returning from an injury of his own and apparently looked off the pace in their 4-0 defeat Sunday to Mainz. We’ll therefore likely see Lovren partner with new signing Klavan- who has impressed in preseason- in the center of defense. Nathaniel Clyne will start at right back. The Reds are rumored to be interested in Köln left back Jonas Hector but to start the season the at times erratic Alberto Moreno will retain his spot at left back.

Klopp will hope preparations this summer will result in more assuredness at the back. Despite possessing the 8th best goals against record last season, Liverpool made more defensive errors than any other side with 32 according to data from Squawka (Watford had the next most errors with 28, Arsenal had the fourth most with 25).

How Arsenal will line up

Arsenal have of course been hit with an all too predictable injury crisis that sees us without center backs Gabriel and Mertesacker for an extended period. Koscielny is likely to miss out having just arrived early this week to training after France’s run to the finals of the European Championship. These absences coupled with our baffling inability (or unwillingness) to sign an obviously needed top class center back to partner Koscielny means the situation in the center of defense looks dire for the opener. Ahead of our friendly with the MLS All Stars at the end of July, Coquelin revealed via the Arsenal snapchat that, with Koscielny on holiday and Gabriel out at the time with tonsillitis, he had been training at center back. Krystian Bielik and Rob Holding ended up partnering in the center of defense for that game but both are yet to make their Premier League debut and it’s difficult to imagine Wenger starting an 18 and 20 year old in an important league fixture. Might we then see Coquelin partnering Calum Chambers? Chambers seems the one obvious pick to start but he hasn’t exactly overwhelmed in his appearances at center back thus far at Arsenal. Wenger may opt to rush Koscielny back but has been reluctant to hurry players back at the beginning past seasons even when it has meant using a significantly weakened side. Monreal and Debuchy are also capable of deputizing in the center of defense. If Monreal were to slot inside, we wouldn’t lose much on the left with the able Kieran Gibbs slotting in at left back. Hector Bellerin at right back is the only obvious feature of the back four. What Wenger opts to do with the center backs will be partly fascinating but mostly terrifying.

At the base of midfield we should see Granit Xhaka make his Premier League debut, particularly if Coquelin does indeed start at center back. Mohamed Elneny has been fantastic in pre season showing the impressive energy levels we saw last season but combining that work rate with a range of passing and assuredness on the ball he was at times lacking following his January move from Basel. It’s difficult to see how Wenger could leave him out.

With Ozil being rested following his summer with Germany at the Euros I expect to see Ramsey in the more advanced central role. He’ll play that role differently than Ozil, collecting the ball in slightly deeper areas and looking to dribble past the midfield whereas Ozil tends to collect the ball in pockets of space between the lines. Ramsey was hugely impressive this summer with Wales and a return to his 2013-2014 form would be a massive boost, although he’ll likely operate in either a deeper midfield role or on the right when Ozil returns.

Wenger has a difficult to decision to make about who starts at striker. Alexis Sanchez played there in the friendly win over Manchester City on Sunday. He looked a bit rusty but has operated centrally with great success at times with Chile, although usually as part of a front two.

Alternatively Wenger could go with Theo Walcott. The manager views Walcott as more of a striker than a wide attacker though the 27 year old expressed a desire to return to the wing. Wenger feels his defense isn’t strong enough to consistently operate on the right but he performed excellently there in the Man City friendly, providing a first half assist for Alex Iwobi before combining well with Alexis for a one-two before deftly chipping over Joe Hart.

Wenger said in a 2012 interview with FIFA “the 4-4-2 formation is the formation best suited to the dimension of the football pitch.” In recent seasons he has ditched the 4-4-2 for either 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 because it allows for more control in midfield and the presence of Ozil more or less requires you to play 4-2-3-1 with him in the #10 role.  But with Ozil out this weekend I’d be half tempted to use a 4-4-2 with Xhaka and Elneny in the middle of midfield, Ramsey tucking inside from the right and Alex Iwobi on the left. Wenger would likely never spring for it but I do think it suits the players we have available well.

Ramsey is comfortable playing on the right and tucking inside to offer additional link up play forward. You can still defend in two banks of four out of possession- Ramsey is a tireless runner and will track the opposition fullback. In possession he tucks inside and operates more like a #10. Perhaps most importantly, I think Walcott and Alexis are better as part of a strike partnership than as lone #9’s. Their combination that resulted in the goal against City offers some proof they can combine well together. Up against a new and not particularly quick defensive partnership for Liverpool in Lovren and Klavan, I think the two could cause real problems. It’s probably a futile thought- Wenger will almost certainly operate with three in the middle of midfield- but is interesting to consider at least theoretically.

My best guess is we see Chamberlain on the right, Ramsey in the #10 role, Iwobi on the left and Alexis at striker.

Liverpool advantages

The obvious advantage for Liverpool will be their three attacking players against what will be a makeshift Arsenal center back pairing following injuries to Mertesacker and Gabriel.  I imagine we’ll look to maintain possession as much as possible to keep our inexperienced backline from being put under pressure. That means when Liverpool do win the ball back, which under Klopp they’ll do quite well, the midfield need to recover quickly. Any quick transitions forward from Liverpool that leave our center backs exposed could cause some serious troubles. In Mane, Coutinho and Firmino Liverpool have pace and trickery in abundance.

Liverpool could also cause us problems pressing high up the pitch. Chambers has a tendency to give the ball way cheaply when put under pressure and Cech isn’t always convincing when the ball is dropped back to him. If Liverpool can press high and force our center backs to play backwards to Cech, it’ll force him into hitting long hopeful clearances forward. Not only will that prevent us from developing a passing rhythm from back to front, without Giroud we don’t have anyone likely to win any of those long balls.

Arsenal advantages

Whether Wenger starts Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott or Joel Campbell on the right side of midfield, Arsenal should have an advantage down that channel where Alberto Moreno will be at left back for Liverpool. Moreno can certainly be a threat going forward but is a truly awful defender, poor both positionally and in terms of his decision-making and 1 v. 1 defending. He’ll almost certainly look to provide attacking width deep in the Arsenal half when Liverpool are in possession which should open up space down the right to counter into when we win the ball back. Whoever plays at right midfield will have to be diligent tracking Moreno’s bursts forward but should get plenty of joy in transitions. Ramsey should look to float right from his #10 role and Bellerin will get forward from right back, forcing Moreno into tricky overloads where his decision-making tends to be poor.

Elsewhere, Arsenal could cause problems to what will be a new center back partnership for Liverpool in Lovren and Klavan. Whoscored.com lists Klavan’s weaknesses as aerial duels and tackling, two seemingly important skill sets for a Premier League center back, and Lovren can at times look clumsy and unathletic though he enjoyed a marked improvement under Klopp after a disastrous 2014-2015 season. If the Arsenal front four can get behind the Liverpool midfield and force the two center backs into defending 1 v. 1 we’ll be favored to win those battles.  

Liverpool 0-3 West Ham: West Ham defend deep, counter into channels, take advantage of Liverpool errors

West Ham put in an organized counterattacking performance and took advantage of Liverpool defensive errors en route to a 3-0 away win, the East London club's first league win at Anfield since 1963. Forced to play on the front foot, Liverpool looked a shell of the side that put in an excellent performance in a 0-0 draw at Arsenal Monday.

In his first season at Liverpool in 2012-2013 Brendan Rodgers stated his preferred formation was a 4-3-3 with one holding midfielder in front of the back four flanked on either side by two box-to-box running midfielders. He said he preferred this to 4-2-3-1, with two holding midfielders, because it offered more vertical passing options higher up the pitch whereas in a 4-2-3-1 the holding midfielders often play a lot of square passes either into each other or wide to the fullbacks. You can hear him explain his reasoning in the video below.

But right away Liverpool had problems with defensive balance in that 4-3-3 formation. The fullbacks would bomb forward to provide width high up the pitch. This left just the one holding midfielder and the two center backs in deep positions when Liverpool conceded possession. The opposition therefore had acres of space to quickly counterattack into, particularly behind the advanced fullbacks.

Lucas Podolski's first goal in a 2-0 Arsenal win at Anfield in early September 2012 exemplified that lack of balance. Steven Gerrard gave the ball away cheaply in Liverpool's attacking third. Right back Glen Johnson had pushed forward down the channel to provide width. Joe Allen, playing as the lone holding midfielder, was the only Liverpool player in a defensive position in midfield to try to stop the counter. Santi Cazorla easily drifted into a space between Allen and the Liverpool center backs and collected a pass from Podolski. Podolski continued his run and sprinted in behind the advanced Johnson, received a well timed ball from Cazorla and slotted it in.

Liverpool has used a 4-3-3 in their last two Premier League games, the 0-0 draw at Arsenal Monday evening and today. Those were two very different games for Liverpool and the formation worked to different effect in each. Against Arsenal, Rodgers was content allowing the home side to control possession. Liverpool defended deep in a 4-1-4-1 shape, invited Arsenal forward, then looked to play on the break. It was an excellent away performance- they frustrated Arsenal with compact defending and forced the home side to come up with the creativity to break them down.

Today, Liverpool's role was reversed. They were the favored side playing at home and therefore the onus was on them to break down a visiting side that was always likely to defend deep and play on the break. Rodgers' side had some of the same problems in the 4-3-3 that his 2012-2013 side had in that 0-2 loss to Arsenal.

Lucas Leiva played at the base of midfield, with Emre Can and James Milner either side of him in the shuttling roles. Both Milner and Can moved into advanced positions in the attacking third when Liverpool were on the ball. Coutinho and Firmino tucked inside from their starting positions, leaving Joe Gomez and Nathaniel Clyne to provide the width from fullback. As a result, Liverpool often only had Lucas and center backs Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel behind the ball. Liverpool therefore struggled to defend the width of the pitch against counters. Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini would break forward into the channels in the space left vacated by Gomez and Clyne to join striker Diafra Sakho. This forced Skrtel and Lovren to move into the channels to defend Payet and Lanzini on the counter, a position that neither center back is particularly comfortable in given the lack of pace they share.

The screen shot below is a good example of Liverpool's first half shape. Lucas is on the ball with Lovren and Skrtel just behind him. Can is in a slightly more advanced position to his right. Out of the shot Firmino has taken up a central position from the right and Clyne has gotten forward to provide width down the right channel. If Liverpool concede possession from this position they are in a difficult shape to defend against the counter. Payet can run past Clyne and force Skrtel to defend him 1 v. 1- a position that's always going to favor Payet. On the oppositie channel, Lanzini can sprint behind Gomez and force Lovren to defend in the channel. Again, it's a battle you'd expect the West Ham wide man to win.

West Ham's second goal, through Lovren's ridiculous error, came as a result of the Croation defender being forced to defend in West Ham's right attacking channel. West Ham right back James Tomkins knocked a ball over the top behind Gomez into the right channel. Lovren slid over and collected the ball near the touchline but was put under immediate pressure by Lanzini. The defender looked to have escaped the pressure but was woefully ponderous in possession and gave Lanzini another bite of the cherry. The Argentinian nipped in, won the ball and slid it across the face of goal. It was ultimately deflected to Mark Noble who slotted home coolly.

In the draw with Arsenal early this week, Liverpool were always in a tight, compact defensive four with Gomez just to the left of Lovren in a position to defend the channels. Lovren could therefore stay central, check the runs of any Arsenal players moving into the box and clear away anything that came to him. His lack of mobility wasn't much of an issue because Liverpool's deep compact shape allowed him to do all his defending inside the penalty area.

Today, with Liverpool dictating possession, Gomez was higher up the pitch meaning Lovren didn't always have that cover to his left. He was pulled wide into the channels and forced to defend quicker players 1 v. 1. The graphic below shows the passes West Ham completed in the final third. They completed just 50% of their passes into the final third but nearly all of those occurred in the channels where Liverpool were most vulnerable, particularly down the left side of Liverpool's defense.

Rodgers change in formation at halftime to 3-4-2-1 with a back three and wing backs was an acknowledgement of just how vulnerable his side had been defending the channels in the first half. Alberto Moreno came on for Emre Can and played left wing back. Gomez moved to right center back with Clyne operating as right wing back.

The shape allowed Coutinho and Firmino to take up the narrow positions they had been in the first half just behind Benteke. It also enabled Liverpool to get width from their wide defenders, Clyne and Moreno. But whereas Liverpool had just two center backs to defend the width of the pitch when the fullbacks bombed forward in the first half, they now had three center backs and could therefore more effectively cover the channels. Gomez and Lovren would split into wider areas when Liverpool had the ball. When they lost possession West Ham could no longer knock it into the channels to spring counters because Lovren and Gomez were already positioned there.

With Liverpool's change in shape West Ham didn't offer as much on the break in the second half. We didn't have time to get much of an idea how it would've worked for Liverpool in attack as Coutinho was foolishly sent off for a second yellow in the 52nd minute.

This game follows a fascinating trend so far in the Premier League of favored home sides struggling to break down deep, compact opposition looking to play on the counter. Notable examples have been West Ham's 2-0 defeat of Arsenal at the Emirates, Newcastle's 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, Everton's 3-0 win at Southampton and Liverpool's 0-0 draw at Arsenal. I didn't watch Chelsea's 2-1 home loss to Crystal Palace today but I presume it followed a similar pattern. Remarkably, as I type this, the home side has won just 7 of the 37 Premier League matches played thus far.

I'm not sure what explains the trend. I imagine the tradition of English football being played at a frenetic pace means teams are less comfortable when the game slows down and they have to patiently pick apart the opposition. I think the main reason we're seeing home teams lose is that they become too proactive. When home teams are up against opposition that is defending deep and inviting them to push numbers forward, they always take that invitation and leave themselves too vulnerable at the back to quick counters. In Italy you'll often see a side bating the opposition to bring numbers forward so they can hit them on the break but the opposition often won't take the bate. They'll attack more conservatively, always conscious of what type of defensive shape they'll be in if they concede possession. While that conservative attacking may make for some slower, less entertaining spectacles for viewers, it mitigates the risk of being caught out on the break.

It's something you'll rarely see in England but something home teams probably should do more of. English teams are generally filled with pacey, direct players most comfortable when they have the space to run with the ball. By allowing an away side to play on the break, home teams are are giving the opposition the chance to play a style that most suits their personnel.

Excellent Everton counterattacking display in 3-0 thrashing of Southampton

Everton cruised to a 3-0 win over Southampton at St. Mary's as a first half brace from Romelu Lukaku gave the Toffees a dream start before Ross Barkley put the game beyond doubt with a beautiful curling effort in the 84th minute. After a poor performance in their opening day draw with Watford, Everton looked a different side and produced a display of excellent defensive organization and counter attacking football. Lukaku and Barkley both endured difficult seasons in 2014-2015 but put in the type of performance that suggests the two could kick on and fill their tremendous potential this season. Their energy and direct running proved lethal on the counter and both took their chances with aplomb.

It was a frustrating afternoon for Ronald Koeman and Southampton. They enjoyed plenty of the ball but were short on creativity in the final third.

Here are a couple of key points from this one.

Excellent tactical performance from Everton

Everton gave up 19 points from winning positions last season, more than any Premier League side. That tendency to squander leads largely came down to needless mental errors and perhaps some tactical shortcomings- they often left themselves far too open defensively in chasing a goal that would kill the game off.

Their performance today however showed tremendous maturity and professionalism in playing with a lead. They were willing to cede possession to Southampton, drop off into a solid defensive shape inside their own half, then use the pace and power of Barkley, Lukaku and Arouna Kone on the break when they won the ball back.

Southampton set out in a 4-2-3-1 with Steven Davis and Victor Wanyama at the base of midfield and Saido Mane in a more advanced role off of striker Graziano Pelle. Everton stifled Southampton's ability to quickly advance the ball into the attacking third by man marking the three Saints central midfielders. Rather than defend in a zonal midfield bank of four, Gareth Barry sat just in front of the back four and tracked Mane. Higher up the pitch Barkley and James McCarthy man marked Davis and Wanyama. Barkley and McCarthy would sit off the two Southampton deep lying midfielders, allowing them to collect the ball from the center backs, but then would quickly close them down once they received possession.

This tactic successfully cut off the supply of penetrating balls into the attacking third for the home side. With Mane man marked by Barry and Wanyama and Davis not being given enough time on the ball to pick their heads up and spot a forward pass, Southampton were left hitting hopeful longer balls into Pelle. The screen shot below shows a good example of Everton's defensive shape. (To start the second half Southampton replaced Dusan Tadic with Oriol Romeu. Romeu slid in alongside Wanyama, Davis moved forward into the #10 role and Mane moved to the left channel where Tadic had played but the shape remained 4-2-3-1). Below Barry is tight to Davis (1), the attacking central midfielder, Barkley is stepping out to Wanyama (2) on the ball and McCarthy is playing off Romeu (3), ready to step out when Wanyama plays the square ball. As the screen grab shows, Everton were content to allow Wanyama and Romeu to play square passes among themselves- their focus was on denying the supply line into the attacking third. In the image the only ball on for Southampton is the square pass to Romeu.

When Everton won the ball back, Barkley constantly broke forward behind the Southampton holding midfielders to provide an outlet for the counter. His energy was used expertly by Martinez. He was the one player on the pitch that had the legs and pace to both contribute defensively in the middle of the park then sprint forward to spring attacks.

Southampton lacked creativity

Southampton didn't have the creativity to unlock Everton's man marking. With the center attacking midfielder being man marked by Barry, they needed the wide players to be more clever with their movement and tuck inside to the space either side of Barry. Instead Tadic tended to stay wide while Long tucked inside but took up positions close to Pelle to get on the end of knockdowns rather than coming short to provide a forward pass for Davis and Wanyama. That's not terribly surprising. Long is more of a striker being played out of position on the wing. His strengths are his pace, energy and physicality rather than clever tactical movement and defense-splitting passes.

Southampton's difficulties penetrating Everton through the middle of the pitch show up in the stats. Their only approach to channeling possession into the attacking third was either through the flanks or by knocking it long towards Pelle. As a result they attempted a startling 39 crosses. Southampton scored just 4 goals from headers all of last season. Although they did manage 2 headed goals on the opening day, sending loads and loads of crosses into the middle isn't the most effective approach for a side that doesn't tend to score a lot of headed goals. The graphic below showing the passes received by Pelle highlights Southampton's dependency on longer floated balls into the tall striker. For a side that played a swift attacking style last season, there were a surprising number of long passes knocked in towards Pelle. Again, Everton's excellent defensive shape was largely responsible for the home side's approach.

Conclusions

Martinez got his tactics spot on. Southampton are an attractive attacking side but are at their most effective when they have space to break into behind the opposition midfield and get at the back four. They simply didn't have that space today. Martinez forced them to build patiently and challenged them to come up with the creativity to unlock a deep, compact defense. Koeman's side didn't have an answer. Other sides will certainly take note of Everton's approach. Southampton won't be able to surprise teams in the manner they did last season. They will have to improve their approach against opposition that cedes possession and forces them to break down a crowded defense or a repeat of last season's 7th place finish seems unlikely.

Should Brendan Rodgers switch Liverpool's midfield box to a diamond after being overrun in midfield by United

Following Liverpool's 3-0 defeat away to Manchester United in mid December, Brendan Rodgers decided he'd seen enough positives from the 3-4-2-1 formation he used for the first time that afternoon to give the formation another go. It was a brave decision to stick with the experimental shape after a heavy defeat to bitter rivals but Rodgers' side had played much better than the scoreline suggested- David De Gea was excellent in the Manchester United goal coming up with 9 saves. Rodgers' decision paid off- Liverpool went on a 13 game unbeaten run in the league with the 3-4-2-1 formation and put themselves in a position to contest for the final Champions League spot.

However, over the course of their last two fixtures, an unconvincing 1-0 win over Swansea and yesterday's defeat to Manchester United, Liverpool have begun to look more stretched defensively and less threatening going forward. Swansea were dominant in the opening half, controlling possession with 57.8% and getting into dangerous scoring positions. Their wastefulness in the final third let them down but Swansea were the better side in the opening 45 minutes. It was a similar story yesterday. Liverpool were entirely overrun in the first half. Manchester United bossed possession with 60.4% but more importantly controlled the tempo and didn't let Liverpool get anywhere near them.

The source of Liverpool's recent difficulties seem to largely be coming from the central midfield zone. The 3-4-2-1 shape uses two holding midfielders- Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen- and two attacking midfielders- generally two of Adam Lallana, Coutinho or Raheem Sterling- in what in effect is a midfield box. At its best the shape allows the two attacking midfielders to float into dangerous pockets of space between the opposition defensive lines, creating plenty of forward passing options and resulting in a brand of football that is fluid and confusing for opposition defenses. Over the last two games however it has caused Liverpool to be overrun in midfield. In the system, the two attacking midfielders stay high up the pitch when the opposition is in possession. Liverpool defend with a defensive bank of three- the three center backs- and a midfield bank of four- the two holding midfielders and the two wing backs. The shape forces Henderson and Allen to do a tremendous amount of defensive work in the middle of midfield. Against a side that plays with three central midfielders like Manchester United yesterday, Allen and Henderson are outnumbered 2 v. 3 in the central midfield zone. As a result, Liverpool have had difficulties getting the ball off the opposition which is why we saw Swansea and Manchester United with such high first half possession totals.

We also see big gaps form in the center of the pitch between Henderson and Allen. The opposition can split these gaps with vertical passes, easily bisecting Liverpool's midfield. This happened time and again against United. United were in a 4-3-3 with Herrera and Marouane Fellaini to the left and right respectively of Michael Carrick at the base of midfield. Both Herrera and Fellaini would take up positions closer to the channels than the center of the pitch. In order to deny passes into them in these areas, Henderson and Allen would have to get tight to them in the wider positions they were taking up. This left what at times was a 15 to 20 yard gap between the two Liverpool holding midfielders. United were able to play passes between that gap, effectively taking the entire Liverpool midfield out of the game with one simple vertical pass.  The screen shot below shows one of many examples of the vast gap between Henderson and Allen in the first half. With Carrick enjoying plenty of time on the ball he has plenty of options for playing forward passes against a stretched Liverpool midfield line.

Rodgers recognized this issue in both the Swansea and Manchester United games. In the second half of those contests he replaced one of the two attacking midfielders with Steven Gerrard who operated just in front of the back four, altering the shape from a midfield box to a midfield diamond. Against Swansea Gerrard replaced Alberto Moreno with Lallana dropping in to fill Moreno's left wing back spot. Against Manchester United Gerrard replaced Lallana. The midfield was therefore Gerrard at the base, flanked on either side by Henderson and Allan in shutting roles with Coutinho at the top of the diamond. The subtle change in shape gave Liverpool more control in the Swansea contest. Defensively, Allen and Henderson would drop in alongside Gerrard to form a midfield bank of five rather than the four they had when they were operating with two attacking midfielders. They were better able to compete in midfield and prevent Swansea from circulating possession as they had in the opening half. We were unable to see whether the change would have a similar impact yesterday after Gerrard's immediate dismissal following his introduction at halftime.

I think the midfield diamond as opposed to the box is something Rodgers may need to opt for more often in the final fixtures to give Liverpool a stronger presence in midfield. With the two deeper lying midfielders used in the box they're asking Henderson and Allen to do too much ball winning in the central midfield zone. By switching to a diamond and defending with a midfield bank of five rather than four they'll be better able to disrupt the attacking rhythm of the opposition and allow fewer gaps in midfield for the opposition to play passes into. Figure 1 shows their current defensive set up with the midfield box, Figure 2 shows the defensive shape with a midfield diamond. (I'm using the traditional numbering system here so these numbers don't correspond to actual Liverpool players, it would have made way too much sense to show the names of actual Liverpool players in their normal positions.) In the box system there is at times too big a gap between Henderson and Allen that the opposition can easily get in between. With the introduction of a holding midfielder those gaps are tightened.

Figure 1: In their current midfield box with two holding midfielders and two attacking midfielders, the holding midfielders are asked to cover a tremendous amount of ground defensively and gaps form between them.

Figure 1: In their current midfield box with two holding midfielders and two attacking midfielders, the holding midfielders are asked to cover a tremendous amount of ground defensively and gaps form between them.

Figure 3: By introducing a holding midfielder just in front of the back four and defending with a midfield bank of five there are fewer gaps for the opposition to play through in the middle of midfield and Liverpool can compete better defensively in that zone.

Figure 3: By introducing a holding midfielder just in front of the back four and defending with a midfield bank of five there are fewer gaps for the opposition to play through in the middle of midfield and Liverpool can compete better defensively in that zone.

They'll still have four central midfielders and will therefore continue to be able to overload the opposition midfield when in possession but it will be more structured, less of the swashbuckling style we've seen with the current box midfield. Gerrard's dismissal of course means he'll be unavailable for the next three games but they still have the personnel to play the diamond. Lucas Leiva is a fine candidate to play at the base of the diamond. He lacks Gerrard's range of passing but is competent in possession and provides needed bite on the defensive end.

The one obvious downfall of switching from the box to the diamond is that Rodgers would likely have to remove one creative midfielder to make way for Lucas. However, Coutinho has already shown he can be effective in a slightly deeper, shuttling role. He's played on the left of a central midfield triangle in a 4-3-3 and on the left of a center midfield diamond in a 4-4-2. One option would therefore be to go with Lucas at the base of the diamond with Henderson to his right and Coutinho to his left in the shuttling roles and either Lallana or Sterling at the tip of the diamond as shown in Figure 3 below. Allen would be the odd man out. It's a set up that provides quite a nice balance of defensive steel, energetic running and technical ability.

Figure 3: Hypothetical Liverpool lineup with three at the back, wing backs and midfield diamond.

Figure 3: Hypothetical Liverpool lineup with three at the back, wing backs and midfield diamond.

Throughout his time at Liverpool Rodgers has shown a great deal of tactical flexibility. If he feels a system isn't working he's more than willing to experiment with another one. Given yesterday's loss was only Liverpool's second since introducing the 3-4-2-1 it's hardly time to scrap the system. However, the Swansea and Manchester United fixtures may hint the midfield box leaves Liverpool too thin in midfield.

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.