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.

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.

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.

Thoughts: Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland

Arsenal failed to make their 70% possession count as Sunderland put in a gritty defensive performance to emerge from the Emirates with a deserved 0-0 draw. It was a pretty straightforward tactical battle; Sunderland defended with two lines of four to restrict the space Arsenal had to play in while the Gunners controlled possession and looked to use quick passing to find gaps in the defense. Here are some of the more interesting developments and observations I noticed.
  • The Wearsiders were content to get all 11 men behind the ball and force Arsenal to patiently pick them apart. They looked to counter through Sessegnon, McClean and Campbell and did so with some success early on. However, as the game wore on Arsenal closed off their outlet pass and Sunderland offered little going forward the final 65 minutes of the game. 
  • With Sunderland dropping deep in two banks of four to restrict the space Arsenal had to play in, it was important for the Gunners to find space in between the lines to unlock the compact defense. New signing Santi Cazorla did this with considerable success early on in the match, moving into pockets of space between the Sunderland back four and midfield. However, Lee Cattermole began getting tight on Cazorla and the Spanish midfielder found it more difficult to find the time for a cutting pass as the game went on. He still found ways to get on the ball, often coming deeper to receive it. He played a brilliant ball to put fellow new signing Olivier Giroud through on goal but the Frenchman, who had recently come on to replace Podolski at center forward, scuffed his effort wide. 
  • Despite starting as the loan center forward, Podolski often came very deep into the midfield to receive the ball. It’s understandable why he was doing this since the the central areas around the box were so crowded. However, it left Arsenal looking like they were playing a 4-6-0. The problem with that was Arsenal didn’t have anyone to stretch the Sunderland defense vertically and create space for Cazorla between the Sunderland back four and midfield. Giroud stayed closer to the Sunderland center backs which created more space for Cazorla and second half substitute Aaron Ramsey to float into. Ramsey got a decent look at goal from 18 yards out but his effort was extremely poor.
  • In the first half Arsenal looked more dangerous when they were able to win possession from the Sunderland midfield and break quickly towards goal with 3 or 4 passes. They struggled when Sunderland were able to get all 10 men behind the ball. I thought at halftime it might be a good idea for Arsenal to concede some possession to the Sunderland midfield and press a little deeper towards the midfield line, the thinking being that they could push Sunderland out of their defensive shell opening up space behind the Black Cats’ midfield to counter into with speed. Indeed, Arsenal seemed to use this strategy and the game opened up very slightly in the middle stages of the second half. However, when Arsenal were able to break they were missing the final ball or and the presence of a poaching center forward in the box to put the ball in the net.

Preview 2012-13: Arsenal

Arsenal's summer transfer windows in 2011 and 2012 are a study in contrasts. In 2011, Arsenal were paralyzed as manager Arsene Wenger's stubbornness seemed to preclude the club from conducting their necessary business. The negotiations for the sales of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri carried on for several weeks and likely interfered with the club's preparations for the upcoming season. Wenger seemed reluctant to close deals on quality players early in the window (e.g., Juan Mata). Only in the aftermath of a devastating 8-2 defeat to Manchester United on August 28, 2011 (the first time Arsenal had conceded 8 goals since 1896) did Wenger seem aware of how desperate the club's circumstances actually were. With only three days remaining before the close of the transfer window on September 1, he completed deals to bring in Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, Andre Santos, Park Chu-Young, and Yossi Benayoun (on loan). While some of these additions proved quite useful to the club, Wenger only acted at the end of an abysmal month in which Arsenal somehow incurred 3 red cards and captured a single point out of a possible 9.

If the summer of 2011 demonstrated Wenger's deficiencies in the transfer market, the summer of 2012 has reminded observers of his primary strength: identifying and purchasing undervalued talent. Unlike 2011 when Wenger procrastinated buying replacements for wantaways Fabregas and Nasri, Wenger quickly moved to bring in replacements for Robin van Persie, the malcontent striker with only one year remaining on his contract. Far in advance of van Persie's public declaration that he would not be extending his contract with the club, Wenger had already negotiated the purchase of Olivier Giroud who scored 21 goals in France's Ligue 1 (joint top scorer) and Lukas Podolski who scored 18 goals in Germany's Bundesliga (joint 4th leading scorer). Remarkably, Wenger purchased Giroud and Podolski for £13m and £11m, respectively. In the current transfer market, these fees are paltry for players of their caliber of talent. Giroud and Podolski are not Wenger's only marquee purchases on the cheap, however. Arsenal understood that the precarious financial situation of Malaga in Spain's La Liga presented an opportunity. Malaga were (and probably still are) desperate for cash and fast, as several players filed complaints that they are owed back wages (among other debts owed). Arsenal, with plenty of cash on hand, may have negotiated a discounted fee for Santi Cazorla by paying most of it up-front to help alleviate Malaga's near-term financial woes. (In general, most transfer fees are paid over the course of a period of years rather than up-front.) The transfer fee for the highly creative midfielder is reportedly around £16m, which is a great bargain for a player of Cazorla's quality.

Wenger and the club certainly deserve plaudits for their activity in the transfer market thus far. Even so, more questions remain than have been answered by Arsenal's transfer activity. If van Persie leaves, which admittedly seems modestly less likely with each passing day, Arsenal lose 40 percent of their league goals from last season. Can the new additions compensate for this dearth of goals? Maybe but it's a big maybe. Adjusting to the Premier League can take time, and Giroud and Podolski are good players, but they are not of van Persie's quality.

Even more problematic for Arsenal, the back four are not improved from last season. Center back Laurent Koscielny had a fantastic season in 2011-12; can he maintain that level of play? Center back Thomas Vermaelen's positioning was very poor last season. Can he improve and play at the level that people expect him to play? While Per Mertesacker is an adequate backup at center back, if he is required to play regularly, as was the case last season, opponents will likely easily exploit his lack of pace. (As an aside, for someone as tall as Mertesacker is, he is incredibly weak in the air.) Left back Kieran Gibbs is a promising young player, but he seems prone to nagging injuries. He missed nearly 4 months of last season due to a hernia and related complications. Reserve left back Andre Santos is dangerous going forward, but he lacks the sort of defensive capabilities that are generally considered requisite to be, errr, a defender. Most worrisome for the club, right back Bacary Sagna will be out for the beginning portion of the season as he recovers from a broken leg suffered at the end of last season. I think his return in February of last season was incredibly important to Arsenal's resurgence in which they took 27 out of 30 possible points between February 4 and April 11. In my view, Arsenal are a substantially better team, both in attack and defense, with Sagna out on the field. Until Sagna is healthy, I believe that Arsenal are better off playing Francis Coquelin out of position at right back over Sagna's understudy at right back, Carl Jenkinson. Even though Coquelin is an improvement over Jenkinson, he is still a huge drop off in quality from Sagna.

In sum, Arsenal have made three very astute purchases in Giroud, Podolski, and Cazorla. They are in a better position leading up to the season than most fans would have anticipated after van Persie announced his intention to leave the club. Even so, whether Arsenal's attacking players can maintain the potency of their scoring threat in the absence of van Persie (should he leave), and whether the defense can improve from last season are questions to which the answers are far from clear.

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