Deep line, 2 man midfield leave Spurs too open in defeat to Arsenal

During his spells at both Chelsea and Tottenham, Andre Villas Boas was rather unyielding in his use of a high defensive line despite not having the ideal personnel to suit such a system. In late October 2011, Villas Boas's Chelsea were ripped apart 5-3 by Arsenal as the Gunners were continually able to run onto the ball in space behind Chelsea's high line. Chelsea's center backs that afternoon were Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry, two defenders more comfortable defending deep and dealing with crosses into the box than playing high and making recovery runs when balls are played in behind them.

Early in this season Arsenal again made Villas Boas pay for his stubborn insistence on a high line, this time as Spurs boss, in a 1-0 league win at the Emirates. In that contest Theo Walcott tucked in to a narrow position from the right and continually ran in behind the high line of Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson. The high line was once again at least partly at fault for the heavy winter defeats to Manchester City (6-0) and Liverpool (5-0) that would ultimately cost Villas Boas his job.

It comes as little surprise then that Villas Boas's replacement Tim Sherwood has adopted a deeper defensive line to keep the opposition from getting in behind his back four, a strategy he stuck with in Saturday's FA Cup tie with Arsenal. Spurs captain and center back Michael Dawson is particularly ill-suited to play a high line and with Theo Walcott employed as the striker for the Gunners, a deeper line meant fewer opportunities for Arsenal's pacey England international to get on the end of through balls and run at Hugo Lloris 1 v 1.

While the deeper positioning may have mitigated the danger behind Spurs back four, it left far too much space between the midfield and defensive lines for Arsenal to exploit. These large gaps between defense and midfield could have been at least partly remedied while still sticking with a deep defensive line in one of two ways: Sherwood could have opted away from the 4-4-2 he's gone with since taking over and pulled a striker in place of a third center midfielder or, having decided to use a 4-4-2, he could have gone with a positionally disciplined, physical holding midfielder. With Sandro unavailable the obvious choice was Etienne Capoue.

As it turned out Sherwood went with Nabil Bentaleb and Moussa Dembele. Both players shuttled high up the pitch when Spurs were in possession, leaving large gaps between themselves and their center backs. Without a third center midfielder to plug the space by sitting deeper in front of the back four, Arsenal were able to quickly transition on the break into the huge amounts of space behind Bentaleb and Dembele and run at center backs Dawson and Chiriches.

Whether you play a high line or a deep one it's crucial that your defensive shape is compact and you leave minimal space between the lines. If Spurs were going to play a deeper line, their central midfielders needed to play deeper as well. This is particularly important against a team like Arsenal who boast a wealth of players skilled at playing in pockets of space between the lines. In this contest Tomas Rosicky, playing the #10 role, and Santi Cazorla and Serge Gnabry, tucking inside from the channels, were all able to collect the ball in space behind the Tottenham midfielders.

The two screen shots below show the buildup to Cazorla's opener. The first image shows the gap between Bentaleb, Spurs deeper center midfielder, and the center backs just prior to Bacary Sagna's simple penetrating ball into Gnabry in space between the lines (the ball is at Sagna's feet in the image who is hidden behind the Macclesfield v. Sheffield Wednesday score). Keep in mind Arsenal are not quickly countering here with Spurs racing to get back- they've had the ball for 8 seconds at this point, giving Bentaleb and Dembele time to get closer to their center backs.

This next image shows Gnabry receiving Sagna's pass. Gnabry is able to comfortably receive the ball in the vast space between Tottenham's defense and midfield while Bentaleb is completely taken out of the play with the Sagna's pass. Gnabry sprints inside forcing both Chiriches and Dawson to step and lays a pass wide to the left for Cazorla to finish. Had Spurs been more compact with a holding midfielder in front of the center backs, that holding midfielder could have stepped to Gnabry, allowing Dawson to check Cazorla's run inside.

The opening goal wasn't an isolated incident of Spurs leaving too much space in front of the back four. Prior to that Rosicky twice found himself in space behind the Spurs midfield and played penetrating passes into Walcott to set up dangerous opportunities. Chiriches made a last ditch block on the first one and Lloris stood his ground well at the front post on the second but Tottenham's weakness was obvious (you can see both chances in the highlights below).

The screen shot below shows another example. The gap here between Chiriches-Dawson and Dembele-Bentaleb is startling. Both Wilshere and Rosicky are in dangerous positions to receive the ball between the lines and cause the center backs problems. On this occasion Wilshere took a poor first touch and conceded possession but the goal would come shortly after.

Playing 4-4-2 against Arsenal is always going to be a substantial risk. Arsene Wenger's side are quite good at tucking their wide attacking midfielders inside and overwhelming the opposition in central areas. With Arsenal playing a 4-2-3-1 in this game and Cazorla often coming inside from the left, Arsenal at times had a 4 v. 2 advantage in the middle of midfield. If 4-4-2 was likely to work for Spurs, Sherwood needed his side to defend in tight, compact banks of four with one of either Soldado or Adebayor dropping in to put pressure on Arsenal's double pivot midfielders Wilshere and Mikel Arteta. As it played out, it was often Dembele and Bentaleb pressing Arsenal's two deep midfielders high in midfield, leaving space behind for the likes of Rosicky, Cazorla and Gnabry.

Many had questioned Sherwood's tactical acumen when he was appointed Spurs manager for the season. The sound defeat Saturday and his denial afterwards that his side were overwhelmed in midfield, or that they were even using a 4-4-2, will do little to quell those opinions.

Organized United beat Arsenal in cagey contest

Robin Van Persie's first half header from a Wayne Rooney corner consigned Arsenal to their first league defeat since their opening day home loss to Aston Villa and closed the gap between the two sides to 5 points.

It was a contest with plenty of passion and organization from both sides but one that produced few genuine goal scoring opportunities or instances of stylish football. That the match ended with more yellow cards (5) than attempts on target (4) is indicative of the hard fought battles happening in midfield and lack of ideas in the final third. In truth the quality in possession was poor from both sides and it wasn't an especially entertaining contest.

Both sides opted for two central midfielders used to sitting just in front of the back four and defended in their own halves with compact banks of four. Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini played the holding midfield positions in Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 while Michael Carrick and Phil Jones played deep in midfield in United's 4-4-1-1. It was a sign both sides were concerned with the threat the opposition's attacking players posed in the seams between midfield and the back four. Both Arsene Wenger and David Moyes had the option of playing more of a box-to-box shuttler alongside a holder for a more attacking, proactive approach but chose the more cautious option. In Wenger's case he could have played Aaron Ramsey alongside either Arteta or Flamini. Moyes could have opted for Tom Cleverley alongside Carrick.

Manchester United looked slightly more dangerous in the opening exchanges enjoying more possession higher up the field than Arsenal. They advanced the ball into the attacking third mainly down the channels with both Rooney and Van Persie drifting into wide areas to create overloads for Arsenal's fullbacks and looked to get crosses in the box from these wide areas. They played 17 first half crosses to Arsenal's 8.

In this sense it was very much like a classic Alex Ferguson vs. Wenger contest from recent seasons. Manchester United used the width of the pitch while Arsenal looked to crowd the middle of midfield. Manchester United's goal came when Rooney drifted to the left flank and whipped in an excellent cross towards Van Persie that Vermaelen did well to clear for a corner. The two United forwards then of course combined for the opener on the ensuing corner.

Wenger's midfield trio of Ramsey, Ozil and Santi Cazorla was quite fluid. Both Ramsey and Cazorla tuck inside from their wide starting positions and the three frequently interchange positions. Usually this allows Arsenal to overload the opposition holding midfielders and control the game with possession. However, today the Gunners were unusually sloppy in possession and struggled to retain the ball. The positional interchanging of the three attacking midfielders is fine when Arsenal are bossing possession high up the pitch but can create big problems defensively when they're struggling to keep hold of the ball. It meant that when Arsenal turned the ball over, Cazorla, Ozil and Ramsey were frequently not in areas of the pitch where they could quickly recover into their proper defensive shape. Patrice Evra in particular was able to take advantage of Ramsey's narrow attacking position when United won the ball back, bombing down the left sideline into space.

Moyes was always a cautious manager when he had limited resources at Everton and has maintained that cautious approach at Manchester United in big games. After taking the lead United were careful not to get stretched, committing fewer bodies forward and maintaining a solid defensive shape. They defended in deep banks of four in the second half and despite three attacking substitutions from Arsenal, United's impressive defensive organization limited the away side's ability to find the space in the attacking third to create meaningful chances. United completed just 30 passes in the final third in the second half, illustrating that Moyes is more confident holding on to a one goal lead with an organized defensive approach than he is seeking out a second goal to kill the game off.

In the end that approach made for a less exciting encounter than many neutrals would have hoped but United will be unconcerned. Their third straight league win means that despite a rocky start to the campaign, they're now just 5 points off their league leading opponents today and are starting to find form.

Both Arsenal and Chelsea exploit oppositon outside back in Champions League wins

Both Arsenal and Chelsea played some sparkling football on their way to comfortable Champions League wins Tuesday evening.

Arsenal dominated a Napoli side that currently sits second in Serie A and came into the evening unbeaten in all competitions this season. Goals from Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud in the opening quarter of an hour shell shocked the Italians who appeared at a loss for how to deal with the blistering tempo with which Arsenal started the contest. Up 2-0, Arsenal never looked like losing the control they'd asserted from the opening whistle. Their second half was professional and efficient- they sat deeper to ensure the game didn't become stretched and cautiously chose when to break forward on the counter. As a result, Napoli saw more of the ball than they had in the first half but never really looked like troubling Arsenal in the final third.

While Chelsea certainly had the easier of the two fixtures, their 4-0 away win to Steaua Bucharest was nevertheless impressive. The Romanian side's organization was extremely poor- when they got forward they left huge gaps in front of the back four that Chelsea were easily able to transition into when they won the ball back. Ramires netted twice from runs deep in midfield either side of a Steau own goal and Frank Lampard closed out the scoring with a vintage Lampard goal from just outside the 18.

The most interesting tactical feature of both contests was the rather peculiar use of width seen from both Arsenal and Chelsea. These are two sides known for frequently having both wide midfielders tuck into central areas and looking to break through the opposition defense by overloading the middle of the pitch.

At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho tends to use right footed players on the left wing and left footed players on the right wing so they can tuck into central areas and shoot on their stronger foot. In Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Willian, Andre Schurrle, Kevin De Bruyne and Willian, Chelsea have a slew of these inverted wingers that prefer to tuck inside from wide areas rather than take the ball to the end line and whip in crosses. As a result, Chelsea's play often tends to be quite narrow.

Similarly, Arsenal tend to use players on the left of their midfield that drift in field to offer an extra body in the middle of the pitch. The clearest example of this style is their 1-0 win over Tottenham earlier this season when Santi Cazorla drifted inside from the left to overload Spurs' holding midfielder Etienne Capoue. Cazorla has been out with an ankle injury since the Tottenham fixture and has been replaced by Jack Wilshere who also plays very narrow on the left. Theo Walcott is typically used on the right side of midfield. Although his blistering pace and the fact he's a right footed player used on the right wing are typical attributes of a more traditional winger, he often tucks inside high up the pitch to get on the shoulder of the last defender and make runs in behind the defense. In this role he's more of a second striker than an out and out wide player.

Walcott was also unavailable for the Napoli game due to injury as were wide midfielders Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski who both have long term injuries. As a result, Arsene Wenger's only natural wide player available was Serge Gnabry, an 18 year-old whose only Champions League experience is a cameo off the bench last season against Schalke. While Gnabry has played well in recent weeks in both the Premier League and League Cup, Wenger opted not to risk playing an inexperienced teenager in such a big match up. As a result, he was forced to field five different players whose main positions are in the center of midfield.

Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta played the holding roles. Mesut Ozil played centrally behind the striker. Aaron Ramsey played to the right of midfield, Tomas Rosicky on the left. Without any natural wide midfielders on the pitch, it was fair to expect Arsenal would look to overload the middle of the pitch in the attacking third and try to unlock Napoli with tight passing combinations near the top of the box. Napoli certainly looked as though this is what they expected- they defended in two very narrow banks of four and conceded the channels. Surprisingly, Arsenal were more than happy to take advantage of the space they were given out wide and continually looked to overload Napoli left back Juan Zuniga.

Ozil and Giroud both drifted towards Ramsey into Zuniga's zone on the right flank, forcing the Napoli left back into 1 v. 2 situations which created easy opportunities to play 1-2's around him. Sagna overlapped Ramsey intelligently meaning Arsenal consistently had a spare man open on the right channel. The Gunner's opening goal highlighted their intelligent movement down the right. Sagna received the ball on the flank. Ramsey checked back towards him on the touchline, forcing Zuniga into a wide position high up the pitch and thereby opening up space for Giroud in behind Zuniga in the channel. Giroud's wide run forced Napoli center back Miguel Britos into a wide position. He controlled Sagna's floated pass excellently with his chest. Ramsey burst in behind Zuniga with an overlapping run around the outside, dribbled towards the front post then cut it back for an unmarked Ozil to slam home at the top of the box.

For Arsenal's second, they managed to pin Napoli in on a throw in deep in the visiting side's left defensive corner of the pitch. Flamini won the ball and it fell for Giroud on the right channel. This time it was Ozil making the overlapping run past Zuniga. Giroud laid it off for Ozil then spun off his defender towards the six yard box. Ozil dribbled to the end line then cut the ball back for Giroud to finish easily at the front post.

By the final whistle, fifty percent of Arsenal's attacking moves came down the right third of the pitch. In comparison, 41% of their attacks have occurred down the right third in the Premier League this season.

Similarly, Chelsea's goals came from exploiting one of the wings. Their attacks however came down the left channel. Schurrle was given the start on the left and was instructed to keep a wide position near the touch line. Mata mostly played centrally in the #10 role with Oscar just to the right of him in a very narrow position though the two interchanged frequently. Chelsea's strategy was clear from the off- get the ball wide into Schurrle so that he could exploit the defensive weakness of Steaua's right back Daniel Georgievski. Georgievski's 1 v. 1 defending was woeful and time and again Schurrle was able to blow past him off the dribble, forcing Steaua center back Lukasz Szukala away from the Chelsea penalty area where the Blues were making dangerous runs from midfield.

For their opener, Chelsea broke quickly down the left through Schurrle who was able to easily skip around Georgievski's laughably feeble attempt at a tackle before playing the ball into the box for Eto'o. Eto'o mishit his shot but it fell kindly for Ramires who was making one of his usual lung bursting runs from deep in midfield. Chelsea's second was the result of a quick counter off a Steaua free kick. Mata provided a quick outlet pass for Ashley Cole and then played Eto'o in behind the Steau defense. His effort was saved but Georgievski put it into his own net as he was sprinting back to cover. The own goal would certainly have been embarrassing but was one rare example of the Steaua right back being unlucky rather than just bad.

In the 55th Chelsea again attacked down the left through Schurrle and again exposed Georgievski. This time he tried to close down Schurrle on the touchline near midfield. The German midfielder easily turned him and once again was free down the left channel. Schurrle played Oscar at the top of the box where he spotted Ramires making an overlapping run to his right. Ramires finished the move off with a powerful strike over the goalkeeper's arms.

Whereas Arsenal's strategy was to constantly move bodies in to the one of the channels to overload the opposition outside back and play quick 1-2's around him, Chelsea's was to clear out one of the channels to leave Schurrle with plenty of space to run at a fullback he could consistently beat with ease. In the end both strategies achieved what they were supposed to and resulted in a positive day for English clubs in the Champion's League.

Di Canio's 4-4-2 allows Arsenal to overwhelm Sunderland in midfield

Paolo Di Canio's decision to field a 4-4-2 enabled Arsenal to overwhelm Sunderland in the middle of midfield and were it not for some wasteful finishing from the Gunners in the first half they'd have had the game won by halftime.

Di Canio played both Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher up front while David Vaughan and Ki Sung-Yueng played a two man center midfield. Arsene Wenger played his normal 4-2-3-1 which meant Arsenal had a man advantage in the middle of the pitch. Mathieu Flamini was the deepest of the three center midfielders with Aaron Ramsey operating as a box-to-box shuttler and Mesut Ozil in the hole behind Olivier Giroud. With Santi Cazorla out with an ankle injury, Jack Wilshere played on the left side of Arsenal's attacking midfield three.

After Arsenal's 1-0 win in the North London Derby, Michael Cox highlighted how Cazorla had tucked inside from his starting position on the left, in effect playing as a fourth center midfielder. With Tottenham employing a 4-3-3, Cazorla tucking inside gave Arsenal a 4 v. 3 advantage in the center of the pitch. Against Tottenham's physically imposing midfield trio of Moussa Dembele, Paulinho and Etienne Capoue, the extra man in midfield enabled Arsenal to compete in central areas.

Yesterday Arsenal used a similar strategy, this time with Wilshere tucking in from the left. But rather than competing 4 v. 3 as they had against Tottenham's imposing center midfielders, they were 4 v. 2 against Vaughan and Ki, two players with nowhere near the athleticism of Dembele, Paulinho and Capoue.

Passes received by Jack Wilshere vs. Sunderland. He started on the left but was given the freedom to come inside to flood the middle of the pitch
Arsenal were therefore able to overwhelm Sunderland in the middle of the park. Flamini, Ramsey, Ozil and Wilshere were simply able to pass around Vaughan and Ki, allowing Arsenal to keep possession high up the pitch. Ozil and Ramsey received deserved praise for their excellent performances but Sunderland's two man midfield made it easy for them to find the space to pick out penetrating passes. By halftime Arsenal had completed 92 passes in the attacking third to Sunderland's 22.

Overall Passing Statistics: Sunderland vs. Arsenal
It should have been job done for Arsenal by halftime but Walcott missed two 1 v. 1 chances to make it 2-0. They would almost prove costly. Laurent Koscielny's needless 48th minute challenge on Adam Johnson in the box allowed halftime substitute Craig Gardner to level from the spot. Arsenal continued to control possession high up the pitch in the second half but, chasing a winner, the game became more open and Sunderland had their opportunities on the break. Had Walcott taken one of his first half chances Arsenal could have been more cautious in the second half and looked to play on the break as they've done this season after taking leads. Ramsey would provide a stunning game winner but the contest turned out to be a bit tighter than it should have been. Sunderland were right to feel aggrieved when referee Martin Atkinson failed to allow an advantage that led to what appeared to be a Sunderland equalizer.

Still, on the balance of play Arsenal were much the better team and looked comfortable for most of the contest. Ozil's performance suggested he won't need much transitioning into the squad or life in the Premier League and Ramsey looks to be developing into a top class box-to-box midfielder.

Future opponents of Arsenal should take note of just how much they can dominate a game when up against just two opposition center midfielders. With their gifted passers and tendency to flood the middle of the park, a 4-4-2 is unlikely to be a winning strategy against this Arsenal side.

5 questions to consider ahead of this weekend's Premier League fixtures

1. Will Ozil start? 
With Tomas Rosicky set to miss Arsenal's Saturday clash at Sunderland with a thigh injury he picked up on international duty with the Czech Republic, there's a strong chance Mesut Ozil will start in his first appearance for the Gunners. Wenger could alternatively opt to bring in Mathieu Flamini to play deeper in midfield alongside Aaron Ramsey and push Jack Wilshere into the #10 role. However, against a Sunderland side likely to set up defensively, the prospect of a center midfield trio with as much creativity and attacking ability as Ramsey, Wilshere and Ozil would likely appeal to Wenger. An attacking six of Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, Cazorla, Walcott and Giroud offers the prospect of some truly exciting attacking football. Sunderland's 5 goals against are tied for the worst in the Premier League and the atmosphere is a little stale around the Stadium of Light with Paolo Di Canio continuing to publicly call out his own players- they'll need to be organized and get a big boost from the home crowd to have a chance at getting something out of this one.

(UPDATE: Ozil missed Arsenal's training session today with an illness but will travel with the team to Sunderland. Per Mertesacker also missed with illness and will not travel). 

2. West Ham vs. Southampton: who will win out in clash of styles?
The intrigue of this game is that it pairs two sides with two very different playing styles. West Ham manager Sam Allardyce places far more emphasis on territory than possession. His side is 16th in the league in average possession with 44.4% and have been outpossessed in all three of their opening fixtures. Those stats are particularly startling given two of those games were at home to Cardiff and Stoke, a newly promoted side and a side infamous for its inability to retain the ball (they were also outpossessed at Newcastle in match week 2). West Ham are organized and difficult to break down defensively. They shuttle the ball into wide areas, cross early and often and look for knock downs. They've attacked through the middle of the pitch less than any team this season. The loss to injury of towering forward Andy Carroll and talented crossers Joe Cole and Stewart Downing will certainly hurt West Ham's ability to play their preferred style effectively. Mauricio Pochettino's Southampton side on the other hand currently sits third in the league in terms of average possession. They prefer a more patient, passing attack. The striking partnership of Dani Osvaldo and Rickie Lambert failed to produce a goal in Southampton's loss to Norwich two weekends ago so it'll be interesting to see if Pochettino goes with both those two up front again or decides to go with just one striker. In that loss at Norwich they struggled to defend the flanks which could provide West Ham opportunities to get crosses into the box to Modibo Maiga and Kevin Nolan. West Ham haven't won on their travels since March 2- with a depleted squad that's unlikely to change Sunday. Still, this should be an entertaining game for the clash of footballing philosophies on display.

3. Will Martinez be brave against Chelsea?
Roberto Martinez is a far more proactive manager than his predecessor at Everton David Moyes. Whereas Moyes tends to react to the strengths of each opposition and organize his squad accordingly, Martinez focuses more on his own team's approach. Martinez's Wigan side played Chelsea in the opening fixture of last season and he showed he was unafraid to play expansive, attacking football. Wigan finished the match with more possession but were picked apart twice on the counter in the opening 10 minutes and Chelsea held on for a fairly comfortable 2-0 win. Herein lies the crucial question with Martinez. His sides generally play a brand of football that is attractive on the eye but is he willing to adjust his style to achieve better results? So far his Everton side lead the league in possession yet have managed just three draws. While much of that can be blamed on players getting used to the new system and the lack of an in form striker, questions remain regarding whether Martinez can combine style with substance. If his side continue the trend of bossing possession Saturday against Chelsea, they'll have to be extremely cautious about being caught on the counter. The Blues have a gaggle of talented midfielders capable of reeking havoc on the break and in Jose Mourinho a manager more comfortable playing a counter-attacking style. New signings James McCarthy and Gareth Barry will provide options for Martinez in the middle of midfield after the departure of Marouane Fellaini but on loan striker Romelu Lukaku will be unavailable to play against his parent club. It'll also be interesting to see whether Willian and Samuel Eto'o get their first minutes for Chelsea.

4. Will Kagawa play?
Since the appointment of David Moyes at Manchester United, Shinji Kagawa has played just 7 minutes of competitive football after coming on as a late substitute in the community shield. Moyes has instead opted to use Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck in Kagawa's preferred role behind main striker Robin Van Persie. A 0-0 draw to Chelsea followed by a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool saw Manchester United fail to score in successive games for the first time since August 2007. The lack of offensive output has many wondering why Moyes has refused to field a player with the creative ability of Kagawa. Concerns over Kagawa's ability to defend have been suggested and against stronger sides like Chelsea and Liverpool perhaps Moyes wanted first and foremost to ensure his side had a strong defensive shape. This wouldn't be a huge surprise given Moyes has always been a fairly reactive, conservative manager. However, with newly promoted Crystal Palace coming to Old Trafford and Wayne Rooney sidelined with an injury, not giving Kagawa a shot would make little sense this weekend.
5. Can Liverpool continue unbeaten run?
Brendan Rodgers' side has shown tremendous character opening the season with three difficult wins- an away victory over Aston Villa sandwiched between home wins over Stoke and Manchester United. It's the first time Liverpool have opened a league campaign with three wins since the 1994-95 season. All three wins of those wins have ended in a 1-0 scoreline and the Reds have had to dig deep in each. These were the type of fixtures they were dropping points in last season, points they'll need to pick up to have chance at a top four finish this campaign. They're the only side yet to have conceded. Daniel Sturridge is starting to show his promise having netted all three game winners. Rodgers managed to strengthen his side on transfer deadline day adding French center back Mamadou Sakho and winger Victor Moses on loan from Chelsea. It took Liverpool until October 20 to reach 9 points last season so there's plenty of reason for optimism at Anfield this time around, particularly given the strong form they showed in the second half of last season.

In traveling to Swansea Monday night they'll face another talented opponent. The Swans owe much of their current 16th place standing to a difficult run of opening fixtures, having opened the season with a home loss to champions Manchester United before being beaten by Tottenham at White Hart Lane. They managed their first win of the campaign 2-0 over West Brom at the Hawthornes two weekends ago and will look to use that win and a boisterous home crowd to motivate them Monday night. The Welsh side did however manage just 6 home league wins last season- the 7th fewest in the league.

Arsenal attacking midfield options are scary good

Arsenal shattered their club record transfer fee yesterday, signing German playmaker Mesut Ozil for £42.5 million from Real Madrid. Although there were positions for Arsenal that probably could have used strengthening before attacking center midfield, the addition of arguably the best #10 in the world is hardly a bad bit of business. Sure they could use a tough tackling midfielder for more difficult away fixtures and another striker but I still believe that adding a world class player in a position where they're already strong is going to do more good in the long run than adding a lesser player in a position where they may be a bit thin.

If Wenger chooses to go with Cazorla, Walcott and Ozil for the three attacking midfield spots in Wenger's 4-2-3-1 as is expected, they'll be fielding three players that had 35 goals and 34 assists combined last season. To put that into perspective, Chelsea's excellent midfield trio of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata combined for 10 fewer goals and 6 fewer assists in 2012-2013. When Lukas Podolski returns to fitness (German team doctors expect him to be out a full 3 months) they'll have the luxury of a player who chipped in 11 goals and 9 assists last season coming off the bench. Throw in the creativity of Thomas Rosicky off the bench and the option of playing Wilshere higher up the pitch when Arteta returns from injury and it's hard to imagine Arsenal failing to create a slew of goalscoring chances week in and week out.

Ozil's rate of return at Real Madrid last season was terrific despite falling out of favor with Jose Mourinho for much of the campaign. He had 13 assists, averaging one every 153 minutes of football he played. That rate was better than any of the Premier League's top assist providers and only topped in Spain by Andres Iniesta (16 total assists, one every 132 minutes).

Ozil's output of 3 key passes per game was also the highest rate in Spain. Equally impressive is Ozil's ability to create space for himself and teammates. In a piece from early 2012 tactics writer Michael Cox highlighted Ozil's impressive movement off the ball.
"When one of the opposing players realizes Ozil is free and moves toward him, Ozil recognizes he's now being tracked and replicates his opponent's movement to keep a good distance between himself and his marker. There's two effects of that. First, the other opposition players see he's being tracked by a teammate so don't bother picking him up, despite the fact that the defender is never in control of the situation. Second, the opponent becomes dragged out of position to leave a gap for someone else to exploit. It sounds simple enough on paper, but it's more difficult to combine this constant movement with the actual concept of playing football -- getting the ball, creating chances. He's not just playing tag."
Combined with Cazorla, another playmaker who's movement between the opposition defensive and midfield lines is exemplary, Arsenal should be remarkably fluid in the attacking third. Cazorla enjoys tucking inside when he plays on the left while Ozil is happy to drift into the flanks from a central position. Therefore we'll see both Ozil moving wide alongside Cazorla to create overloads in the channels and Cazorla moving infield to help Ozil unlock defenses around the top of the 18 yard box.

Giroud's poor distribution should encourage Arsenal to sign another striker

This summer Arsenal have failed in their attempts to sign Gonzalo Higuain from Real Madrid and Luis Suarez from Liverpool. They're currently rumored to be interested in another Real Madrid striker, Karim Benzema. As it stands, Lukas Podolski's hamstring injury means that Arsenal's only options at center forward are Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Yaya Sanogo. Injuries elsewhere in the squad mean Walcott's services are required on the right wing, his normal position. Sanogo is just 20 and was playing in the French second division last season. Early signs suggest he's far too raw to be much of a factor this season for Arsenal.

Arsenal's only real option up top at the moment then is Giroud. The French striker is having a solid start to the season. He's scored in both of Arsenal's first two league games and chipped in another in Champions League qualification. With Arsenal lacking depth in other areas of the pitch, some pundits and supporters have argued Arsene Wenger should focus on strengthening other areas of the pitch rather than signing another striker.

I believe Arsenal are most in need of an athletic, tough-tackling holding midfielder. However, to genuinely have a shot at contesting the league and Champions League a more well-rounded striker than Giroud will be required.

Although Giroud's finishing has steadily improved since a rocky start at Arsenal, he lacks quality distribution. Too often he gives the ball away. Last season he completed just 64% of his passes and had 3 assists. Arsenal's summer targets all offered better link up play last season. Suarez completed 76.6 % of his passes and had 5 assists, Higuain completed 74.8% of his passes and also had 5 assists. The distribution of current target Benzema offers a particularly striking comparison. Despite starting in five fewer games Giroud and making four fewer appearances, he had 11 assists. Benzema completed 79.2% of his passes and still scored as many goals as Giroud.

Arsenal are fluid throughout midfield with a number of players than can score goals. All three of their main attacking midfield players- Walcott, Cazorla and Podolski- managed double digit goals last season. If Arsenal managed to sign a striker that could contribute his share of goals but also add to the fluidity of the side with sharp passing, they'll be a better team.

Giroud's passing through two games has shown an improvement over last season. He has completed 72% of his passes. Still, 14 other Premier League players that have started games this season as either a loan striker or as part of a front two have a better pass completion percentage (Soldado- Tottenham, Van Wolfswinkel- Norwich, Van Persie- Manchester United, Dzeko- Manchester City, Aguero- Manchester City, sturridge- Liverpool, Berbatov- Fulham, Cisse- Newcastle, Michu- Swansea, Danny Graham- Hull, Sagbo- Hull, Jelavic- Everton, Chamakh- Crystal Palace, Anelka- West Brom). Benzema would bring at least as many goals in and provide the link up play and final ball to make Arsenal a more lethal team in the final third.

Podolski's absence could prove significant in North London Derby

Arsenal's 2-0 win over Fenerbahce last night in the final round of qualification for the Champions League group stage capped off a fine week for the Gunners that seemed to restore much-needed optimism around the club after the opening day league defeat to Villa had Gooners pressing the panic button. The win secured Arsenal's passage to their 16th consecutive season in the group stage of the Champions League, a staggering achievement for Arsene Wenger given the departure of some of the club's best players in recent years. It was a third win in seven days. Aaron Ramsey scored both goals in yet another man of the match performance. Santi Cazorla was fantastic playing off of Olivier Giroud through the middle and was unlucky not to get a goal of his own. Laurent Koscielny was given a rest after his nasty head injury in the first leg of the tie and yet Arsenal's makeshift back four still managed a clean sheet. With the North London Derby looming at the weekend, Arsenal established firm control of the contest early and never had to kick into a second gear, significant given their thin squad at the moment. On the whole this was as convincing and professional a performance as Wenger could have hoped.

Yet not all was perfect. Lucas Podolski was stretchered down the tunnel early in the second half with a hamstring injury that will sideline him for three weeks. While the German left sided attacker may become more of a fringe player as first team regulars return from injury and Arsenal bring in new signings, it was important Wenger have him available for the weekend derby.

The absence of Podolski means in all likelihood that Wenger's lineup picks itself. With both Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sidelined with injuries, Cazorla is almost certain to play on the left of Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 with Thomas Rosicky in the #10 role and Ramsey and Wilshere occupying the two deeper midfield positions. While Wenger may well have gone with this set up even if Podolski were available, the injury does enable Spurs manager Andre Villas Boas a few days to prepare for Arsenal with a good idea of exactly how they'll set up. Wenger doesn't change his team's style much regardless of his opponent or the personnel available to him so this isn't necessarily a huge advantage. However, it does give Spurs players the benefit of studying where Arsenal has tended to exploit teams when fielding this lineup and how teams have beaten this lineup.

The injury could also hinder Arsenal in that it means Cazorla will be unable to play through the middle (unless Wenger makes a surprise move to use either Gibbs or Monreal as a left winger).
Cazorla is Arsenal's most gifted player on the ball. While he typically performs well when employed on the left, he doesn't get nearly as many touches as when he plays the #10 spot and therefore can't impact the game as much as he's capable. He played in the middle alongside Ramsey and Rosicky as part of a 4-3-3 in the win over Fulham where he made crucial passes in the buildup to the first two goals before assisting Podolski for the third. He completed more passes in the attacking third than any other player (25) and created more chances (6). He was excellent again last night as the center attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. While Rosicky is a fine footballer, I don't think he gives Arsenal quite the same dynamism in the middle of the park.

Podolski would also have provided Arsenal a good counterattacking option to exploit space in behind Kyle Walker. Walker is a very attacking right back and will consistently overlap the right midfielder to provide width. This leaves space down the right side of Spurs defense for the opposition to break into quickly when they win the ball back. Podolski has the pace to track Walker's runs forward then sprint into the space in behind him and set off counters when Arsenal retain possession. In Arsenal's 2-0 win at Anfield last season, Podolski executed this kind of movement perfectly to score the Gunners' opener. Liverpool right back Glen Johnson had pushed into the attacking third to provide width before Steven Gerrard cheaply gave the ball away 25 yards from the Arsenal goal. With Johnson out of position, Podolski burst in behind him down the left flank. Arsenal played an outlet ball to Cazorla who took a few dribbles before sliding the unmarked Podolski through on goal for the finish. Unfortunately, I can't find a decent video to the full sequence that led to the goal but you can see Johnson chasing the play in the video below.

Although Cazorla is quick, he doesn't have the same speed over distance that Podolski has and therefore likely won't be able to exploit the spaces that open up on the channels when Walker gets forward.

Most importantly, Podolski's injury means Arsenal don't really have any viable substitutes to bring on in the midfield or up top. It will therefore be vital that Arsenal keep hold of the ball and force Tottenham to do a great deal of defensive work. With Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky and Cazorla all on the pitch they certainly have players with the passing ability to do so. Wenger won't want an end-to-end game because Spurs will have plenty of midfield substitutes than can come on and change the game if their first 11 tire. Having still failed to bring in any new signings, Arsenal don't have the same luxury.

Tactical Analysis: Arsenal pick apart disjointed Fulham defense

Arsenal ran out comfortable 3-1 winners over Fulham at Craven Cottage to secure the Gunners' first win of the season and further ease some of the pressure that had mounted after their opening day defeat to Aston Villa. First half goals from Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski put Arsenal firmly in control. Podolski added his second in the 68th to make it 3-0 and put the contest beyond doubt. Darren Bent got a consolation goal for the home side in his first appearance with the Cottagers.

With Laurent Koscielny suspended Bacary Sagna slid in to center back and Carl Jenkinson started at right back. Arsene Wenger opted to rest Jack Wilshere and went with a midfield three of Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky. Ramsey sat in front of the center backs when Arsenal were in possession with Cazorla to his left and Rosicky to his right in more advanced positions. The formation was therefore more 4-3-3 than Arsenal's usual 4-2-3-1. Podolski played on the left of the front three with Walcott on the right.

Martin Jol made three changes to the side that beat Sunderland in the opening week. New signing Scott Parker replaced Derek Boateng in midfield. David Stockdale came in at goalkeeper in place of the injured Martin Stekelenburg and John Arne Riise was given the start at left back with Kieran Richardson also sidelined with an injury. Fulham's shape was their usual 4-4-1-1 with Patjim Kasami playing off Dimitar Berbatov up top.

The key for Arsenal in the first half was their domination in the center of the park. The 4-3-3 vs. 4-4-1 match up meant Arsenal had a man advantage in the middle of the park that led to Parker and Steve Sidwell simply being overrun in the middle. Fulham defended in two banks of four with Kasami and Berbatov higher up the pitch. Podolski tucked inside from the left giving Arsenal a further advantage in the middle. Both of Arsenal's first half goals came as a result of Parker and Sidwell having too much distance between the two of them and an overall lack of compactness in Fulham's defensive shape. This created loads of space for Arsenal's midfielders to move into.

The image below shows the buildup to Arsenal's opener. Sidwell pressures Cazorla in possession, Parker positions himself centrally just in front of the back four. Ramsey slides into the space to the left of Parker and in front of Riise, receives the pass in space and has plenty of time to turn and shoot before he's closed down. His shot is a weak one but falls to Giroud to tuck home. The issue here for Fulham is the amount of space Ramsey has to collect possession. Ideally in a 4-4-1-1 you'd want either Kasami or Berbatov working back to pressure Cazorla on the ball so that Sidwell can position himself side-by-side with Parker in front of the back four thereby preventing Arsenal's midfielders from easily collecting possession by sliding either side of Parker. There was a real disconnect defensively between Fulham's two center midfielders and two advanced attackers which forced Parker and Sidwell into chasing the ball in midfield while leaving at least one Arsenal midfielder unmarked.

Arsenal's second goal again came from poor defensive shape from Fulham. In the top image below you can see the large distances between Fulham players, leaving huge gaps for Arsenal to play in to. Parker is pressuring Cazorla on the left while Sidwell sits in the middle close to Rosicky. There is some 20 yards of space between the two. Fulham are neither pressing nor organizing into a compact shape at midfield which leaves Arsenal with time on the ball and the space in advanced positions to pick out forward passes. Here, Podolski simply tucks inside from the left and Mertesacker is easily able to play a pass into his feet. With the simplest of balls Arsenal have bisected the Fulham midfield. Podolski receives the pass, Sidwell slides over to close him down and that leaves Cazorla completely unmarked to burst forward through the middle. He's able to slide a ball through to Walcott whose shot can only be pushed by Stockdale into the feet of Podolski to slam home. It's Mertesacker's simple pass into Podolski that has Fulham completely out of position and scrambling to get pressure on the ball. If Fulham are going to press here they need the back four much higher up the pitch. If they aren't going to commit to the press everyone needs to drop off and Parker and Sidwell need to much closer together in the center of midfield.

Fulham neither pressing nor dropping in and getting compact. Too much space between Parker and Sidwell

Podolski easily able to tuck in and collect possession from Mertesacker. Fulham midfield bisected with one simple pass.
Arsenal's second half was professional. Whereas in the first half they defended with banks of four and looked to boss possession, in the second half they defended with a midfield bank of five, conceded some territory to Fulham and looked to hit them on the break. With Arsenal dropping deeper, Fulham had more of the ball in advanced areas than they did in the first half- they completed just 29 passes in the attacking third in the first half compared to 56 in the second half- but Arsenal's compact midfield five meant they were unable to find any decisive penetrating passes to trouble the defense. The Gunners ultimately did hit the home side on the break in the 68th to seal the win.

Overall Arsenal will be pleased with their performance. They dominated meaningful possession in the first half and were able to overrun Fulham in the middle of midfield. Comfortably in control by the end of the first half, they wisely didn't stretch themselves going forward in the second. Given their lack of true holding midfielder in the side, it would have been an unnecessary risk to continue pressing forward as they did in the first half and leave themselves exposed at the back.

Fulham made the game far too easy for Arsenal. They owe much of the loss to some abject defensive shape. They were far too disjointed and Jol will need to make sure Parker and Sidwell stay more compact in future fixtures.

Are Wenger's tactics to blame for poor Arsenal showing against top 5 opposition?

The two tables below show how last season’s top five Premier League teams fared against one another and how they fared against the other 15 teams.

Despite amassing fewer points against top five opposition than Manchester City or Chelsea, Manchester United cruised to the title 11 points clear of their nearest competitor thanks to consistent form against the bottom 15 teams. Likewise, Arsenal managed just one win over top five opposition, amassing 6 points fewer than Spurs, yet were able edge their North London rivals to the final Champions League spot because of their ability to beat teams they were expected to beat. In fact, only United had a better record against teams outside the top 5.

Arsenal’s failure to collect points against top sides is interesting. A critique of Arsene Wenger is that he plays the same style against every opponent and doesn’t alter tactics based on the opposition (this isn’t entirely fair but Wenger pays far less attention to tactics than Rafa Benitez at Chelsea, AVB at Spurs, Sir Alex at Man United and Roberto Mancini at City did). Arsenal’s strong record against weaker opponents and poor record against top five opponents suggests they’re able to win games when they have superior talent but struggle when the opposition is equally gifted or better. Tactics employed are often the difference when top sides with similar levels of talent match up with one another so Wenger’s less than fastidious approach to preparing for the unique strengths of each individual opponent could be costing Arsenal valuable points. Wenger is undoubtedly a great man manager and one of the best developers of players the game has known but it would be interesting to see how Arsenal would fare for a season with a more astute tactician in charge (Wenger’s transfer dealings are a subject for another blog post).  

Premier League predictions: Chelsea champions; Spurs to pip Arsenal for 4th

Predicting the top five finishers in the 2013-2014 edition of the Barclay's Premier League...

1.     Chelsea
Like both Manchester clubs, Chelsea will enter the 2013-2014 Premier League season with a new manager. Unlike at United and City, the new manager is also the old manager and is immensely popular at the club. Mourinho’s incredible achievements in his first spell as Chelsea boss mean he’ll be looked at with less skepticism from the supporters and media than either David Moyes or Manuel Pelligrini and should therefore allow the squad to go about their business with minimal distraction. For the first time since the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti, there’s been a sense of calm confidence surrounding the club in the buildup to the campaign. While I believe Manchester City’s summer transfers have given them the most talented squad, I expect it to take them some time to get used to playing with one another and to adjust to Pellegrini. Likewise there will be a learning curve for Pellegrini in his first season in England. Chelsea’s first 11 will look similar to last season so they should already have a decent chemistry that should translate to a fast start. New signings Marco van Ginkel and Andre Schurrle, along with Kevin De Bruyne, Michael Essien and Romelu Lukaku returning from loan will make Chelsea a deeper side and provide Mourinho the squad rotation options to navigate a busy fixture list. If Chelsea fail to pry Wayne Rooney away from Moyes at United, the striker position could still be a question mark. Lukaku was fantastic in his loan spell at West Brom last season but I’m still not certain he’s ready to be the main option up front for an entire season while Demba Ba and Fernando Torres failed to impress in 2012-2013.

2.     Manchester City
New signings Fernandinho, Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic will give City a new look this season as all four are expected to receive significant minutes. Jovetic and Negredo have been brought in to provide goals for a City team that managed just 66 last season, tied with Tottenham for fewest among top 6 teams and 20 less than their Manchester rivals. Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko will provide competition for what will likely be two forward starting spots. Finding the best partnership will be an important early task for Pellegrini. For me Fernandinho and Navas are the more important of the two signings. Navas represents a significant improvement over James Milner and the inconsistent Samir Nasri down the right hand side. Fernandinho impressed with Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League season and is an improvement on Gareth Barry. Like Toure he is mobile and enjoys breaking through the midfield with the dribble. One concern though is that a Toure-Fernandinho pairing could become too fluid if both advance forward and fail to protect the back four from counters. City’s league position will likely depend on how quick of a start they get off to. If they stumble early as they adjust to new players and a new manager the gap may well become too big for them to bridge in the second half of the season. If they get off to a flying start they certainly have the talent and depth to win the title.

3.     Manchester United
Managing the weight of expectations that comes from replacing arguably football’s greatest ever manager after 26 successful years is not an enviable task, even if it means the opportunity to coach a club with the history, support and resources of Manchester United. How quickly Moyes manages that pressure and convinces supporters he’s up to the task will go a long way in determining the near future for United. So far he’s had a difficult time navigating the transfer market as United have failed to land targets Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona and Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines from Moyes old side Everton. It is the failure to land Alcantara and Fabregas that will hurt United the most. Although I rate Shinji Kagawa highly and Michael Carrick is consistently solid, I don’t think Anderson or Tom Cleverley are good enough and feel United have a weaker midfield than Chelsea and City. Moyes inexperience chasing trophies and lack of squad depth relative to their closest competitors mean United finish outside the top two for the first time since 2004-2005.

4.     Tottenham
For a couple of years now folks have been predicting Spurs will pip Arsenal yet it hasn’t happened. But with Spurs making some excellent summer signings in midfielders Paulinho and Ettiene Capoue, winger Nacer Chadli and forward Roberto Soldado, and Arsenal failing to secure a major signing, Spurs are in a better position to make that happen than last year even if Gareth Bale makes a big money move to Real Madrid. Between Paulinho, Chapoue, Moussa Dembmele, Sandro, Lewis Holtby, Tom Huddlestone and Scott Parker, Tottenham have tremendous depth in the middle of the park and Soldado will provide more ruthless finishing in the box than Jermaine Defoe or Emanuel Adebayor managed last season. They could lack depth at the back however. With the excellent Jan Vertonghen set to miss Spurs opening fixture at Crystal Palace, Younes Kaboul will likely get his first start in almost a year. A lengthy injury to Michael Dawson or Vertonghen could see Spurs Champions League aspirations thrown off course.

5.     Arsenal
Having gotten some 60-70 players off their books this closed season and signed just one, Arsenal’s squad is looking a little thin to start the season. Injuries to Abou Diaby, Tomas Vermaelen and Nacho Monreal have compounded that problem while it also looks like Mikel Arteta is set to miss the opener Saturday to Villa with an injury. Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud struggled to have a big impact in their first season at the Emirates.* While only Manchester United and Chelsea scored more goals than Arsenal last season, the Gunners scored fewer goals against top five opposition than City, United, Chelsea and Spurs. More importantly, their results were poor against top five opposition where they managed just 5 points in eight matches. By contrast, Spurs finished with 11, United with 12, and Chelsea and City both with 14. Having only added 20 year-old Yaya Sanogo this closed season- a player unlikely to feature much anytime soon- it’s difficult to see how Arsenal will avoid a further dip this time around.


Tactical Analysis (Brief): Arsenal 0-0 Everton

 Arsenal and Everton drew 0-0 at the Emirates this evening, a result that likely wouldn't satisfy either side as they chase a top four finish.

Although the game was lively and entertaining, it wasn't particularly interesting from a tactical perspective. Both sides have consistent systems they rarely stray away from and that was the case today.

Everton played their usual 4-4-1-1 formation. Leon Osman missed out for the first time in the league this season with an injury. He was replaced in the lineup by Ross Barkley who played in the advanced midfield role normally occupied by Marouane Fellani. Fellaini dropped in alongside Darron Gibson in a deeper midfield role- a spot he has stated he is most comfortable playing.

Arsenal made two changes to the side that beat Norwich 3-1 at the weekend. Theo Walcott replaced Gervinho on the right flank and Vermaelen was dropped for Per Mertesacker. Jack Wilshere played in his usual position off the center forward while Santi Cazorla was used on the left.

The opening half was a chippy one and neither side really developed any sort of offensive rhythm, evidenced by the fact we didn't see a shot on goal until Barkley's forced Wojech Szczesny into a save in the 39th minute.

Everton defended in two banks of four with Barkley and Anichebe staying higher up the pitch. Barkley looked to deny passes from Arsenal's center backs into Arteta, forcing Ramsey to also drop into deep areas to provide Koscielny and Mertesacker with a pass forward. When Ramsey received passes in front of the Everton midfield four, Fellaini would quickly step out and pressure him, forcing him into quick decisions.

Arsenal's attacking midfield three was quite fluid, as is often the case when Cazorla and Wilshere are in the same lineup. Both players often drifted to the right side of the field looking to create overloads for Leon Osman and Steven Peinaar. The graphic below of Arsenal's first half passes in the attacking third shows how focused their attack was down the right side in the first half. The graphic also shows Cazorla's attacking third passes in the first half. The number of those passes that occurred on the right side of the pitch is surprising for a player lining up as a left midfielder.

The game opened up a bit in the second half and Arsenal were the more dangerous of the two sides. The mostly ineffective Wilshere was replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott was replaced by Lukas Podolski on 68 minutes. Cazorla moved into the middle with Podolski to his left and Oxlade-Chamberlain to his right. The Spaniard tends to be much more effective playing through the middle where he has fewer defensive responsibilities and can get on the ball more often between the seams. The personnel change and shift in positions nearly had an immediate impact. On 78 minutes Podolski recovered possession deep in Arsenal's defensive third and played a smart outlet ball to Cazorla who had drifted into a dangerous area behind the Everton midfielders to spring an Arsenal counter. Cazorla found Oxlade-Chamberlain breaking down the right edge of the penalty area unmarked. Oxlade-Chamberlain could have taken a shot himself but instead opted to slip the ball across the six for Giroud. The ball was played behind the French forward however and ended up in Tim Howard's grateful hands.

Although Fellaini unsurprisingly didn't have the same offensive impact we're use to seeing when he plays in the #10 role, he was excellent occupying a defensive midfield position and was arguably the game's best player. He was consistently perfectly positioned to slow down Arsenal counter attacks and did a fine job both tracking bursts forward from Ramsey and providing cover on the right side where Arsenal continually looked to attack. He had 6 successful tackles, more than any other player in the game, and 4 interceptions, the third most of any player. He also completed more passes than any Everton player with 51.

Arsenal 2-2 Liverpool: Rodgers scraps possession philosophy for counterattacking approach

Brendan Rodgers adopted an uncharacteristic counterattacking approach in an intriguing 2-2 draw against Arsenal at the Emirates. Liverpool finished the game with just 38% possession, by far their lowest total in a league game under Rodgers, and only the fourth time they've been out-possessed this season. The strategy looked as though it had worked perfectly when Jordan Henderson put the Reds 2-0 ahead in the 60th minute but Arsenal began exploiting pockets of space either side of Lucas Leiva who was sitting just in front of the Liverpool back four. Both the Gunner's goals resulted from collecting the ball in the area between Lucas, left back Glenn Johnson and center back Daniel Agger.

With the exception of Pepe Reina replacing Brad Jones in goal, Liverpool fielded the same side that defeated Norwich 5-0 in their last league outing.

Arsenal made no changes to the side that beat West Ham 5-1 a week ago.

The theme of the game was established early and didn't change throughout the 90 minutes- Arsenal pressed high up the pitch and looked to regain possession quickly, Liverpool sat deep, soaked up pressure and looked to play on the break.

Defensively, Liverpool used a 4-1-4-1 formation. Henderson and Steven Gerrard pressured Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey in possession while Lucas sat just in front of the back tracking the movement of Santi Cazorla. The strategy was to not allow Ramsey and Wilshere to get goal side of Gerrard and Henderson where Lucas would be forced to leave Cazorla and step to ball. Downing and Suarez tracked the forward runs of Gibbs and Sagna.

Offensively, Liverpool looked to counter through Suarez and Downing breaking in behind Arsenal's outside backs and through Henderson darting into space behind Wilshere and Ramsey and in front of the Arsenal center backs. Effectively, what was 4-1-4-1 in defense became 4-2-3-1 when Liverpool were in possession with Lucas and Gerrard rarely joining forward. The player influence graphic below shows Lucas's and Gerrard's average positions were actually as deep as Agger's over the 90 minutes.

When Liverpool found an outlet ball to Suarez, Henderson or Downing, they'd look to play the ball through to Sturridge behind the Arsenal center backs. Suarez's opener was more a result of a comedy of defensive errors from Arsenal than anything tactical but Liverpool did create some very good scoring chances off of counterattacks. Shortly after taking the lead Downing released Suarez in behind Sagna down the left flank after Liverpool had regained possession. Suarez chested and played a wonderful volleyed through ball behind the defense to Sturridge but he put his effort wide. Later in the half Downing broke into the middle of the pitch on the counter and played Henderson in behind the defense towards the edge of the box. Henderson chipped over after Szczesny left his line but the move highlighted Liverpool's effectiveness on the break.

Second Half
The second half continued in much the same way as the first. Arsenal continued to boss possession in midfield but they increased their tempo in possession and become more vertical with their passing. Liverpool were clearly straining a little more defensively early in the half as Arsenal combined with more passing combinations higher up the field. A main contributing factor to Arsenal's increased threat in the attacking half was that they began to exploit the space either side of Lucas between Liverpool's defensive and midfield banks of four. Cazorla drifted from the middle into these areas and was then able to look for gaps between the center back and fullback to slip balls through. On the right, Walcott tucked inside, leaving Lucas and Johnson to communicate whether Johnson would track him inside or Lucas would shift over. Arsenal were beginning to find pockets of space between the lines they hadn't in the first half. With the Gunners seemingly on the ascendency, Henderson's goal on the hour mark from more blundering Arsenal defending came as a bit of surprise. Mertesacker and Andre Santos, brought on to replace the injured Gibbs in the first half, were the main culprits this time as both allowed the Liverpool midfielder to beat them too easily.

However, Arsenal's response was emphatic as they struck twice in three minutes to draw the score level. As they had begun to do early in the half, Arsenal exploited the space in front of Agger and Johnson and to the left of Lucas for both goals. For the first goal Walcott was able to cut in field from the right, forcing Lucas to slide over to provide help and commit a foul. Giroud scored from the resulting kick. On the second goal Cazorla drifted unmarked into this zone and was able to play a decisive ball for Giroud whose layoff Walcott finished in style. Jose Enrique was introduced on the left wing to provide added defensive cover there after the Gunners had equalized, with Suarez moving to forward and Sturridge coming off.

Arsenal's energetic second half pressing prevented Liverpool from finding the outlet passes to spring counters they had in the second half. 10 of Arsenal's 13 interceptions came in Liverpool's defensive half. Fatigue set in for Suarez, Henderson and Downing as the half wore on and they weren't able to break into space behind Arsenal's midfield as they had in the opening period.

It was surprising to see Rodgers take such a pragmatic approach and allow Arsenal to take the game to them. His likely reasoning however seems understandable- in Wilshere and Ramsey, Arsenal had two deeper lying midfielders that like to get into more advanced areas and aren't used to the responsibility of breaking up counterattacks. He thought he'd be able to exploit space in behind these two on the break and indeed he was right- had Sturridge's and Henderson's finishing been a bit more clinical in the first half, Liverpool may have put this one to bed. That they completed just 54 passes in the attacking third, by far their lowest total of the season, is evidence they were prepared to play the bulk of this game inside their own half. While Rodgers has been praised for his belief in his possession-based system, some have suggested he may be a bit tactically inflexible. Today showed he is at times willing to adjust his tactics.

The tempo of Arsenal's passing and movement was excellent in the second half. The second goal was wonderfully worked and they deserve a great deal of credit for showing the patience in their system to come back. An enjoyable game overall and probably a fair result in the end.

Preview: West Ham vs. Arsenal

Click to view larger image
Arsenal will look to go within 4 points of Spurs in the race for the final Champions League spot as they host West Ham in another London derby this evening- a game that was rescheduled due to the Boxing Day tube strike and is therefore each teams' game in hand. They couldn't ask for a much more favorable opponent at the moment as the Hammers have struggled away from home all season. Only Newcastle, QPR and Reading have collected fewer points on their travels than West Ham and they've failed to score in their last four away league games. They've managed just 5 goals away from Upton Park, the worst away goals record in the Premier League.

Arsenal will be without holding midfielders Mikel Arteta and Francis Coquelin to injury. The absences mean that Jack Wilshere will almost certainly drop in to a deeper midfield position alongside Abou Diaby after playing higher up the pitch in an attacking midfield role the last two games. Cazorla will take his place behind the forward after spending the last two games on the left wing. Lukas Podolski has recovered from illness and will likely play on the left. Theo Walcott will likely continue on the right with Olivier Giroud at center forward; however, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has recovered from illness so Wenger has the option of playing him on the right with Walcott at striker.

Sam Allardyce will be without James Collins who remains sidelined with a hamstring injury. James Tomkins will take his place. Marouane Chamakh is ineligible to play against his parent club so Carlton Cole will return to the lineup at striker.

Arsenal Approach
Unsurprisingly, Arsenal dominated with 69% possession in their 3-1 win in the reverse fixture at Upton Park in October. They'll again enjoy the lion's share of possession this evening. The key will be whether they can translate that possession into goalscoring chances against a compact and physically imposing West Ham defense.

West Ham's back four isn't especially athletic or pacey. Walcott in particular will have a big speed advantage over Joey O'Brien so the Gunners may well look to play through balls between O'Brien and Winston Reid for Walcott to run in behind. Against Chelsea Walcott tucked inside from the right wing and played high up the pitch, almost as a second forward, looking for balls played behind the defense. West Ham will almost certainly keep a deeper line than Chelsea did but I'd expect Walcott to again play high up the pitch and look for opportunities to make runs inside behind the defense. 

It'll be interesting to see where and how often Arsenal choose to press. The Hammers aren't especially comfortable passing the ball in midfield- they have the third lowest pass completion rate in the Premier League at 75%. They like to get the ball into the attacking third quickly by playing long balls into Carlton Cole and then getting the ball wide for crosses to be played back in the box. If Arsenal press and play a high line they'll both force West Ham to control the ball in a compact space in their own half and take Carlton Cole away from goal, reducing West Ham's chances to get the ball into the attacking third by knocking it long to the big striker. Cole has a bit of pace but not enough to worry Vermaelen with balls played over the top of a high defensive line. If the Gunners instead drop into banks of four it'll invite West Ham to play direct balls into the box where they're very good at winning second balls.

West Ham Approach
West Ham will work hard in midfield to prevent Arsenal's skillful midfielders from getting into any kind of a passing rhythm. They did excellently in the second half of their 3-1 win over Chelsea to get tight on Chelsea's diminutive attacking midfielders and physically impose themselves through the middle of the pitch- they'll have to repeat the energy levels and organization shown in that game if they're to have a chance this evening.

Defensively, they'll keep a deeper line to prevent the likes of Walcott and Podolski getting in behind them. They'll look to force Arsenal to patiently build attacks from the back and restrict the spaces for Cazorla and Wilshere to get on the ball between the lines.

Arsenal aren't the most physical side and the Hammers did cause them some problems in the reverse game by getting balls into the box and winning knock downs. They'll again look to get the ball to the wings and play crosses towards the back post. They'll bring the center backs forward for any free kicks in the attacking half and play the ball high into the box. Set pieces will be offer their best chances of scoring.

 Arsene Wenger press conference

Wilshere excels in advanced midfield role

When Arsene Wenger's lineup for Arsenal's FA Cup replay with Swansea revealed Jack Wilshere would likely be playing as the most advanced midfielder, with Santi Cazorla shifting to the left wing, I was admittedly skeptical of the effectiveness of the change. I realize it's a shift some Arsenal fans have been calling for for some time- many believe Wilshere's best position is the #10 role and Cazorla excelled mostly as a winger prior to joining Arsenal.

However, I've always been impressed with Cazorla's clever movement and ability to find space between the opposition defense and midfield when he plays centrally off a main striker. That Wilshere is already a very good player with loads of potential is clear, but I thought the Gunners would miss Cazorla's close control and passing vision in crowded spaces around the box. Wilshere, I thought, was the archetypal box-to-box midfielder, strong in the tackle, energetic, able to beat opponents with his dribbling and possessing a wide range of passes. Playing him off of the striker, I assumed,

Wilshere injected a directness and pace into Arsenal attacks they don't possess when Cazorla plays attacking midfield. Time and again last night he was able to get the ball in the final third, turn and use his pace and skill to advance beyond Swansea's two holding midfielders. This would force one of Swansea's center backs to step to him and leave space for balls to be slotted through to Giroud, Walcott and Cazorla. A combination of poor finishing, bad luck and last ditch Swansea defending kept Arsenal off the scoreboard for 86 minutes (before Wilshere himself broke the deadlock) but Wilshere was creating good goalscoring chances seemingly at will.

Cazorla plays patiently as the #10, keeping hold of the ball and waiting for angles in which he can use his excellent vision to provide defense splitting passes. He sets a patient tempo to the Gunner's buildup play, allowing them to get numbers forward and play intricate passing combinations around the penalty area. At times this style works excellently but it can also allow the opposition time to recover into deep, compact defensive positions where they can prevent gaps from opening up for Arsenal to play balls in behind.

Wilshere's style is more explosive- he looks to receive the ball, beat a man and slip a teammate through on goal. With Wilshere as the #10, Arsenal's play in the attacking third is much more vertical and much faster. His first instinct when he gets on the ball is to face goal and run towards it. Anyone who has watched Lionel Messi knows that a central attacker who constantly looks to run towards goal at pace is a terrifying prospect. Although it would be ludicrous to compare Wilshere to the Ballon D'or winner at this stage in his career, he brings that same narrow-minded desire to get at the opponents goal Messi brings to Barcelona.

Of course this was just one game against a distracted opponent that was not at full strength. Against certain opponents Cazorla may well still be the better option at the #10 role. However, Wilshere's ability to play that position well will offer Arsenal a different option in that area of the field at a time when Cazorla's form has dropped over recent weeks. Since registering a hat trick and an assist in the Gunner's 5-2 win in December over Reading, he has just one assist and no goals in the last six games. The option of playing Wilshere higher up the field and Cazorla on a wing will allow Arsenal to alter it's approach in the final third and make them a less predictable opponent.

Preview: Manchester City vs. Arsenal

Manchester City head to the Emirates to face Arsenal Sunday, albeit with about 900 fewer supporters than expected as they voice their displeasure over the 62 pound ticket prices Arsenal will be charging for this 'Category A' fixture.

Since Sheikh Mansour's takeover of Manchester City the storylines that have surrounded this fixture have been intriguing- a clash between the nouveau riche Manchester City, who in recent seasons have lured the likes of Samir Nasri, Emanuel Adebayor and Gael Clichy away from Arsenal with higher wages, and Arsenal, the poster child for football clubs living within their means. However, their recent clashes at the Emirates have not lived up to their Category A status.

As Michael Cox wrote in his column for Soccernet today, Roberto Mancini has taken a very cautious approach to this fixture over the last few seasons, resulting in cagey, dull contests. Mancini has visited Arsenal in the league three times since taking over at City in 2009. The first two of those contests ended 0-0; Arsenal edged out a 1-0 win last season (City haven't registered a league goal at Arsenal since the 2006-2007 season). City sat deep and employed three defensive minded midfielders for most of those three games.

Click to view larger image
The absence of Yaya Toure, on international duty with the Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations, means Mancini will be forced to use two defensive minded holding midfielders in Javier Garcia and Gareth Barry, raising concerns among neutrals that Mancini will again be tempted into trying to make this a cautious contest. Samir Nasri is serving the final game of a three match suspension so James Milner is likely to start on the right wing. Sergio Aguero will miss out with a hamstring injury- Carlos Tevez will play just off of Edin Dzeko.

There are more questions surrounding Arsene Wenger's selections, particularly who he'll start at forward and on the right wing. Olivier Giroud picked up a slight knock against Swansea last weekend so there's a good chance Wenger will continue with Walcott through the middle. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played 70 minutes for the under-21's Wednesday, suggesting we could see Aaron Ramsey take his place on the right. 

City Cautious Approach
Arsenal are a more dangerous side when games become open. Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski and Walcott thrive in games when there is enough space to use their pace to get in behind the opposition defense. There's a good chance that in the early stages, playing away from home and with key attacking players absent, Mancini will retain his cautious approach at the Emirates and maintain a compact defense to prevent the game from opening up too much. City won't have the attacking thrust of Toure through the middle and James Milner is more trusty foot soldier than creative attacker on the right: City will therefore only have 3 truly attack minded players on the field- Tevez, Dzeko and Silva. Mancini may feel his hand is forced into playing more defensive. The fact the Gunners have struggled to break down deep, compact defenses this season may offer further incentive to play deeper.

If Wenger anticipates City defending deep it may be a smart move for him to go with Ramsey on the right (I can imagine Gunners fans exiting my post now, but hear me out). David Silva will be playing a narrow left-sided position for City. Defensively, he'll be responsible for tracking the forward runs of Bacary Sagna but he doesn't have the engine or tackling ability of James Milner on the other side of the pitch (who will track Gibbs). In all likelihood Sagna will get chances to get in behind Silva when Arsenal are in possession. Whereas Oxlade-Chamberlain would keep a wide position, Ramsey will tuck inside from the right to give Arsenal an extra body to compete in the middle, drawing Clichy in towards his center backs. This will create space for Sagna to make overlapping runs near the touchline and collect the ball in space on the wing. If Clichy doesn't follow Ramsey in field, Arsenal will be able to overload Barry and Garcia in front of the City back four with Ramsey, Wilshere and Cazorla.

Of course, the danger of getting Sagna in possession high up the pitch is that it leaves space for City to counter down the left when they retain possession. As Arsenal's outside backs join the attack, we could see Tevez floating in space behind them on either channel where he'll look to spring counters through direct balls out to the wings. Dezeko's winner at WBA show that his movement can be deadly on the counter. Arteta will therefore have to remain focused on Tevez's positioning.

Arsenal Approach
It'll be interesting to see how Wenger chooses to defend. Yaya Toure often provides the link from defense to offense for City with either forward passes or his powerful vertical runs with the ball. Neither Barry nor Garcia possess the same ability to make forward passes and they certainly can't match Toure's powerful dribbling. We may therefore see City struggle to advance the ball into the final third. Wenger may elect to drop his wingers alongside Wilshere and Arteta defensively to provide a midfield bank of four and limit space in between the seams for the likes of Tevez and Silva to move into and provide a passing option. With few easy forward passing options we could see City frustrated into playing horizontal balls in the midfield between Garcia, Barry and the center backs. It's difficult to imagine Wenger being quite this pragmatic at home however.

If the Gunners choose instead to press they may force City into knocking long balls in towards Dzeko from the back but they also run the risk of leaving Tevez space to get on the ball and run at the back four. In all likelihood Arsenal will do some combination of dropping in deep and pressing. 

Whereas City's lineup often includes five prominent attacking threats, absences mean they'll only have three Sunday- David Silva, Tevez and Dzeko. Mancini is always cautious in this fixture to begin with- without Toure and Aguero he has an even greater incentive to be pragmatic once again. I'd expect another cagey, low scoring affair. I hope I'm proven wrong.

Review: Arsenal 7-3 Newcastle

Theo Walcott bagged a hat trick as Arsenal hit Newcastle with four unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes to give the Gunners a wild 7-3 win. Had Olivier Giroud's late header off the woodwork been a few inches lower, it would have tied the record of 11 for most goals in a Premier League match (Portsmouth beat Reading 7-4 in September of 2007).

It was a match that typified the first half of the 2012-2013 Barclay's Premier League season- plenty of action and drama but desperately lacking in convincing team performances and tactical intelligence. That 10 goals were produced was a shock given the rather dismal performance of both sides in the first 45 minutes- the scoreline is more a reflection of silly mistakes and perhaps fatigue than any scintillating team display. With both teams fielding three man central midfields and getting numbers behind the ball defensively, neither side was able to dominate the midfield in the opening 45 minutes and the game was played at a remarkably slow pace by Premier League standards.

Team tactics played virtually no role in the game and there was very little tactical development over the course of 90 minutes. There was some fine finishing on display, with Walcott in particular deserving of praise for an excellent performance, but lapses in concentration on defense were largely responsible for the bulk of goals. With the scoreline at 3-3, all 6 goals could be blamed on silly errors (footytube highlights here):

  • 1-0 Arsenal. Danny Simpson pushes forward from his right fullback position to join a Newcastle attack. The Magpies lose possession. Arsenal look to counter quickly through Podolski who had burst into the space behind Simpson. Cazorla hits a pass behind Podolski forcing him to turn around and put his back to goal to retrieve the ball. This allows Simpson time to recover. But rather than pressing Podolski and forcing him to go backwards, he continues to retreat towards his own goal, allowing the German winger the space to turn, lift his head and slot a through ball to Walcott.
  • 1-1. Bacary Sagna makes a silly foul on Papiss Cisse in a dangerous area just outside the box.
  • 2-1 Arsenal. A horribly underthrown throw in from Danny Simpson falls to the head of Podolski- he's able to play his header forward to Cazorla whose pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain is finished off well by the Arsenal teenager. I realize it sounds like I'm looking for someone to blame pinning the goal on a throw in but watch the highlights at 2:18: it really is a dreadful throw in that gets nowhere near a Newcastle player.
  • 2-2. Sylvain Marveaux is 40 yards from goal when Obertan collects the ball on the left wing in the build up to Newcastle's second goal. He makes a casual run towards the back post as Obertan dribbles at Sagna. Not a single Arsenal player notices his run in the entire sequence and he's allowed to tap in the simplest of goals unmarked at the back post.
  • 3-2 Arsenal. Tiote is carelessly nicked of possession by Wilshere in midfield leading to an Arsenal counter that ends in Podolski's tap in header. Wilshere did excellently to close in on the Ivorian midfielder but Tiote got his first touch stuck under his feet leaving him unable to get rid of the ball before Wilshere could pounce.
  • 3-3. Marveaux bursts forward with the ball from midfield. Sagna and Wilshere have the chance to double team for Arsenal at the 18. The two fail to communicate and both back off allowing Marveaux to pick his head up and play a clever ball to Ba at the back post with the outside of his foot. Gibbs was guilty of ball watching and switching off on Ba.
Arsenal's fourth was the first goal of the game that had more to do with the team shape of the attacking team than mistakes by the defensive team. Throughout the second half Podolski had been tucking inside on the left, forcing Danny Simpson to track him into the middle of the box and leaving space for Gibbs to overlap in the channel.  On the fourth, Podolski mad a run into the center of the box. Simpson followed and Gibbs dutifully made the overlapping run into space and provided the cut back for Walcott to smash home.

Arsenal's fifth, sixth and seventh goals came when the game had become very open. That Walcott had a hand in all three was no surprise. His pace and ability to run in behind defense is suited for open games, something he stated himself in the post match interview. He turned provider for Olivier Giroud for the fifth and sixth goals and finished off his hat trick in style with a slaloming run into the box for the seventh.

Tactical Analysis: Arsenal 1-0 Wigan Athletic

A 60th minute Mikel Arteta penalty after Theo Walcott had been clipped by Jean Beausejour in the box gave Arsenal a 1-0 win over Wigan. On the balance of play Arsenal may have been fortunate to emerge with the three points and that was largely because Roberto Martinez got his tactics spot on while Arsene Wenger made a questionable substitution that nearly cost the Gunners. A defensive mistake from  Beausejour and poor delivery from wide areas proved costly for Wigan

Wigan started in their normal 3-4-3. Martinez didn't have any of his first choice center backs available so dropped James McCarthy back from midfield to play at the center of the back three. David Jones played alongside James McArthur in the center of midfield.

Wenger stuck with the same lineup he used in Monday evening's 5-2 win at Reading. Theo Walcott was employed at center forward while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played wide on the right.

The most interesting tactical feature of the game was Wigan's use of their back three. Because Arsenal were in a 4-2-3-1, Wigan had a 3 v. 1 advantage in the center of defense and therefore had two spare center backs. The two man advantage at the back also meant they were short a man in the center of midfield. To even the numbers in the midfield, McCarthy stepped into the midfield in front of the "outside" center backs Boyce and Figueroa and man marked Santi Cazorla. Wigan still had a spare man at center defense- Boyce and Figueroa were 2 v. 1 with Walcott in deeper areas. Wigan's wing backs picked up Arsenal's wide forwards. In effect, defensively Wigan were playing with a back four of Stam, Boyce, Figueroa and Beausejour with McCarthy playing a holding midfield role tracking Cazorla between the seams. Then when Wigan won possession Beausejour and Stam would push high up the pitch from their wing back positions and McCarthy would drop between Figueroa and Boyce to form a back three. This is very similar to the way Barcelona play with McCarthy playing the Sergio Busquets role.

The strategy worked to stifle Cazorla's offensive contribution. He played the pass that led to Walcott being awarded the penalty but aside from that he had a relatively quiet afternoon with McCarthy constantly tracking his movement.

Offensively, Wigan tried to overload Arsenal in wide areas with their wing backs and wide forwards looking to get Arsenal's fullbacks in 1 v. 2 situations. With Arsenal's wide forwards often failing to track Beausejour and Stam defensively, the two Wigan wing backs were often able to get the ball in space on the flanks. However, their delivery from wide areas was poor all afternoon.

Wenger made the game's first substitution on 75 minutes, replacing Podolski with Coquelin. Cazorla moved to the left and Coquelin played in the middle of midfield. I assume Wenger made the substitution to give the Gunners some extra bite in the middle of the pitch but Wigan were mainly threatening from the wings- it was a poor decision from Wenger and one that nearly proved costly. Cazorla is not good at tracking runners defensively and helping his fullbacks. Within minutes of making the change Stam had blown past Cazorla and received the ball in space down the right wing. Again his final delivery was poor but Wenger's decision to move Cazorla to the left nearly cost Arsenal. Finally, in the 90th minute he brought on Koscielny for Cazorla to provide Gibbs with some protection on the left. It was a substitution he should have made immediately when he had taken off Podolski.

That Wigan lost was no fault of Martinez who got his tactics spot on and frustrated Arsenal defensively for large parts of the game while threatening down the wings. However, they lacked the final delivery needed and still could use a center forward that is lethal in front of goal.

Arteta's role in Arsenal attack understated yet vital

Mikel Arteta certainly isn't one of Arsenal's flashiest players in attack. His contribution in the final third of the pitch tends to be several square balls played into the channels. He has only two league assists and two of his three league goals have come from the penalty spot. The one goal he scored from open play was controversially given despite the fact he appeared to be in an offside position.

Those are hardly overwhelming statistics but they mask just how vital the Spaniard is to the Arsenal attack. It's easy to brush over the offensive contribution of a player whose offensive game mostly revolves around unglamorous, high percentage two touch passes. While it's easy, and indeed correct, to say his significance to the Gunners attack lies in his ability to sit just in front of the back four, circulating passes from side to side and dictating tempo, it's much more difficult to quanitfy how those skills make Arsenal a better attacking side.

Tempo in possession is important to any football team- teams that fail to move the ball quickly are easy to defend. Tempo is particularly important in Arsene Wenger's possession-based philosophy. Arsenal have never been a physically strong team that uses powerful midfielders to jam the ball down their opponents throats (like, for instance, the Chelsea teams that played 4-3-3 under Mourinho and Ancelotti). Their attack is based around intelligent movement off the ball and keeping the ball moving from player to player quickly.

It is Arteta's ability to keep the Gunners passing tempo high that is his main asset to Wenger. He finds space just in front of his back four and behind Arsenal's more advanced midfielders and provides his teammates with an easy pass when no other option is available. He generally receives the ball deep in midfield and plays a simple pass to a teammate with a touch or two. Rarely is he playing a defense splitting 35 yard through ball- it all looks rather ordinary on television and he doesn't seem especially threatening to opposition defenses. However, he allows Arsenal to continually move the ball at pace. With Arteta consistently providing an easy passing option, he prevents his teammates from being forced to hold on to the ball while they wait for a pass to open up- a situation that makes a team static and easy to defend. An unmarked Arteta allows Arsenal to keep the ball moving quickly and forces the opposition defense to shift as quickly as the ball moves.

Lately opposing teams have picked up on Arteta's importance to the Arsenal attack and employed either an attacking midfielder or forward to deny Arsenal easy passes into the Spaniard. As a result, Arsenal's movement has been much slower and they've become a more static, predictable side. In Arsenal's 17 league games, Arteta has completed more than 80 passes in nine games and fewer than 80 passes in seven games. In those games he's had fewer than 80 passes Arsenal have won twice, drawn 3 and lost 3 for an average of 1.13 points per game and are averaging just 0.75 goals per game. In games he's had more than 80 passes the Gunners have 5 wins, a single defeat and 3 draws for an average of 2.00 points per game and are averaging 2.78 goals per game. This is a remarkable difference made all the more staggering by the controversial nature of the only two wins Arsenal have picked up when Arteta has completed fewer than 80 passes. The first was a 1-0 win over QPR when Arteta picked up the winner in the final 10 minutes despite replays showing he was offside. The second was their recent 2-0 win over West Brom when a controversial penalty given for a clear Santi Cazorla dive changed the complexion of the game. Arsenal weren't especially threatening in either game. Aside from their two penalties against West Brom they could only muster one other shot on goal. 

Teams will by now have picked up on the fact that denying easy passes into Arteta makes Arsenal static. It was shocking last night to see Reading leave him unmarked for the duration of the game. While Brian McDermott's side had more problems than just how they defended Arteta, particularly their defense on Arsenal's left flank, it was telling that Arsenal's most fluid offensive performance in some time coincided with the Spaniard ending a four game spell in which he'd failed to complete 80 passes (he completed 93 last night). It'll be interesting to see how the Gunners adjust moving forward as more sides look to take Arteta out of games. As important as quick ball movement is to the club, it'll be crucial they find another way to dictate tempo.