Baffling lack of tactical preparedness will continue to doom Arsenal

Arsenal’s failings as a club have been examined from all angles following their crushing 4-0 defeat at Anfield Sunday. From the apparent lack of effort from the players, to the culture of comfort and complacency created by majority shareholder Stan Kroenke and Arsene Wenger, to the bizarre situation that has left 8 players in the final year of their contracts including Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, there’s been no shortage of contributing factors to Arsenal’s decline (and no, success in a knockout tournament is not a valuable gauge of the direction a football club is heading in). Other folks can speak on those factors more eloquently than I ever could- Amy Lawrence’s piece for the Guardian on the stasis at the club was especially fascinating and Andrew Mangan’s Arseblog column Monday was typically compelling.

What I was most struck by Sunday were the relative levels of tactical preparedness between the two sides. Arsenal had a full week to prepare for this fixture, Klopp and Liverpool had a midweek Champions League qualifying fixture Wednesday and therefore had just three days to prepare. Yet Arsenal looked like a team of strangers that had been assembled moments before kickoff.

A team’s strategic approach to football matches can be broken down into two related but distinct factors. One of those factors is the team’s broad footballing philosophy- are they a side that look to monopolize possession and patiently build play (Barcelona under Guardiola), one that looks to defend deeper and play on the counter (Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone), or one that looks to press and break quickly after regaining possession (Borussia Dortmund and now Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp). This broad footballing philosophy dictates the style a team is identified with over the course of an extended period of time despite coming up against opponents with different strengths and weaknesses each week.

The second factor has to do with how teams prepare for individual opponents- how they make subtle tweaks to their broader tactical system in order to gain an advantage against an upcoming opponent. For instance when coming up against a side you know plays a very deep defensive line you wouldn’t start Striker A who’s poor at holding the ball up and linking play but very good at sprinting in behind the opposition defensive line and scoring breakaways. You just aren’t likely to have many opportunities where that player can excel at what he’s good at. You’d be more likely to start Striker B who is capable of playing with his back to goal and getting involved in linking play forward.

Arsenal under Arsene Wenger have had a relatively clear footballing philosophy over his tenure. They play a brand of fluid attacking football, generally look to play on the front foot and have more of the ball than their opponents (in recent seasons there have been several occasions where they’ve defended deeper and played on the break but you’d still describe Arsenal as a free flowing attacking side).

However, under Wenger they seem to place less emphasis on preparing for individual opponents than other sides. It would probably be oversimplistic to say Wenger doesn’t consider opponents at all during weekly training sessions but his attitude is quite different from a Jose Mourinho who tends to set his sides out in big matches to pragmatically stop the opposition and wait for them to make a mistake.

In 2010 while on international duty with Spain at the World Cup, Cesc Fabregas said of Wenger, “At Arsenal we don’t really look at anything from the other team, we look for ourselves and that’s it. Here [with the Spanish national team], maybe two three days before the game, we start looking at some videos, we know more or less the starting 11 that is going to play… we know nearly everything about them.”

That quote highlights a massive problem at Arsenal that was on full display Sunday afternoon. Liverpool’s huge Champions League qualification fixture Wednesday evening meant they only had three days to prepare for Arsenal. With no midweek fixtures Arsenal had an entire week to get themselves ready for an opponent that put 7 goals past them in the two league matches they played last season. Liverpool don’t really spring any surprises on you tactically. You know they’re going to press and break at great speed down the channels through Salah and Mane. You know Firmino is going to move into the channels and drop into deeper midfield positions to move your defenders around and try to create space for Salah and Mane. Arsenal employ crews of scouts and data analysts whose job it is to find out what opponents do well and don’t do well. And yet somehow Wenger’s side looked completely baffled by what they were up against.

Make no mistake the players were woeful. But Arsenal have been getting battered in these big fixtures for years now with different playing personnel on the pitch. The constant has been Wenger. Even setting aside Wenger’s bizarre lineup (you can listen to this most recent Arsecast for poignant commentary on that), the shape of the side was baffling.

At one point in the first half Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ozil were stood directly on top of one another within a couple yards of Mane. The winger made a rather obvious run in behind the two Arsenal players. Both stood still, allowing Mane to be played in behind.

There’s been plenty of discussion from pundits about the positioning of Aaron Ramsey over the course of the 90 minutes. For Liverpool’s first goal he was on the right side of the pitch apparently speaking with someone on the sideline with his back to play when Granit Xhaka conceded possession. For the second he was the highest man up the pitch when possession was conceded and Liverpool were able to easily play through a midfield that consisted only of Xhaka. You can assume one of three things about Ramsey’s tactical performance: 1) that he was given a fairly free role alongside Xhaka by Wenger, 2) that he ignored Wenger’s instructions and took it upon himself to play a free role or 3) that he wasn’t given any tactical instruction at all by Wenger. Either way it’s an indictment of Wenger as a manager. Ramsey doesn’t seem like the type of player to blatantly disregard the manager so you have to assume it was either the first or third factor.

Soccermetrica’s other contributor Daniel sent me two really interesting interviews that I thought were eye opening when considering how Wenger conveys his tactical ideas to the squad in preparation for matches.

In the first interview Jose Mourinho, while in his second tenure at Chelsea, discusses how modern managers must take vast amounts of information available to them and filter that information and operationalize it in a way that can be clearly conveyed to players so they’re fully aware of their most important responsibilities on the pitch in a given match.  Mourinho may not always use the most complex tactical systems in the world but his players tend to know exactly what their roles are. By comparison, Wenger’s Arsenal at times seem genuinely confused about what their roles should be.

Wenger has always been on the cutting edge of technology and the use of new forms of information to help improve the side, evidenced by the more enlightened views on nutrition and fitness he brought to England early in his tenure at Arsenal and the club’s purchase of the football data analytics company StatDNA in 2012. However, whereas Alex Ferguson was willing to delegate the weekly tasks that go into the training and preparation for matches, Wenger is a notoriously hands on manager that likes to be involved in all key decisions at the club. It’s easy to speculate that he’s become overwhelmed by the breadth of what it takes to prepare a football club and is losing his ability to identify important information and convey that information to the players in a way that gives them the best chance to win matches.

In a John Cross article that appeared in the Daily Mirror yesterday, former Arsenal captain and current NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira compared the approaches of Mourinho and Wenger.

“Arsene always gives freedom to his players. To have that freedom is good but if you can give them the freedom and respect the tactical aspect of the game it will be even better.

“They all had something I loved and something I’ll take with me. When you talk about Jose that I had in Inter, he was always focused on the details; giving players information that allows them to go on the field and respecting the tactical game.

“Then you have Arsene who is always positive and always giving confidence to the players no matter what. His approach and relationship with players I find really interesting.

“I would like to be the balance of both. I would like my teams to have the discipline that Jose has but also allow players to express themselves into that discipline like Arsene.”

The trust Wenger puts in his players is laudable and when Arsenal are at the top of their game it makes for some brilliant football. However, Vieira’s quotes sound like he’s suggesting Wenger more or less ignores strategic preparation for individual opponents. As a result under an organized manager like Mourinho teams can still win matches when they aren’t at their best. Under Wenger Arsenal have to be clicking on all cylinders to win matches and struggle to get results when they aren’t playing well. That was certainly on display at Liverpool Sunday.

Early worries for Chelsea, Conte

All is not well at Chelsea. Antonio Conte made no secret his discontent with the club’s summer transfer dealings and a lackluster performance in their Charity Shield penalty shootout defeat to Arsenal last weekend did little to quell mounting suspicion that preparations for this season’s title defense are feeling uncomfortably familiar to those of the 2015-16 season, the last time they came into a campaign as defending champions. They finished 10th that season after an awful start that saw Jose Mourinho sacked in December with the team one point above the relegation places. Parallels have been drawn between Conte’s irritated demeanor thus far and that of Mourinho in 2015.

Mourinho has played a role in Conte’s frustration this summer and the Italian may already be regretting his preseason jab at the Manchester United boss, when he said Chelsea “want to avoid the Mourinho season.” He was of course referring to that ill-fated title defense but Conte would do well to replicate Mourinho’s record as manager in his second season at clubs. The Portuguese has won the league in his second full season everywhere he’s coached and is in his second year at Manchester United.

Mourinho and United plucked Conte’s number one summer target Romelu Lukaku seemingly from under the feet of Chelsea when it looked like the Belgian was certain to make a return to West London. United’s purchase of Nemanja Matic dealt Conte a further blow- the Italian apparently had no say in the matter and described the midfielder’s sale as “a great loss.” While Matic’s performances last season often appeared unspectacular, his positional intelligence and the constant passing option he provided complimented the all-action style of the superb N’Golo Kante well. His performance in United’s convincing seasoning opening win for Manchester United highlighted the structure and stability he brings to a side that allows more attacking players to thrive further up the pitch.

Tiemoue Bakayoko, midfielder brought in from Monaco and Antonio Rudiger, defender brought in from Roma, are both fine players but will likely both take some time to adjust to a new footballing environment. I actually think Alvaro Morata is a better player than Diego Costa and expect him to perform well, particularly once Eden Hazard returns from his broken ankle. However, it remains to be seen whether Chelsea can reproduce the same dogged competitiveness in the absence of the fiery Costa. No one in the Chelsea squad immediately jumps out as a player with a mean streak that will get under the skin of opponents and motivate his teammates in the manner Costa did.

By my count Chelsea have had 30 players either sold or sent out on loan this summer, excluding Costa. In Dominic Solanke, Nathanial Chalobah and Nathan Ake they’ve sold three gifted and promising young talents to Premier League opposition. Kurt Zouma, Isaiah Brown, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham are all capable squad players and yet have been sent on loan. That’s probably a good thing for the development of the players but it doesn’t help Chelsea address the fact that at present they have a thin squad that will be competing on multiple fronts.  

The unsettling summer foreshadowed Chelsea’s shock 3-0 opening day defeat to Burnley. Gary Cahill’s early red card certainly was a substantial blow but even so, the nature in which they capitulated defensively was startling, especially given Burnley’s abysmal away record last season. After Cahill was sent off Conte replaced Jeremie Boga, a surprise inclusion in the starting 11, with center back Andreas Christensen to reinforce the defense. Chistensen certainly lacks Cahill’s experience but he’s played consistently for Borussia Monchengldbach and was promising after coming on.  Even with ten men the Blues should have been able to keep things tight at the back. You’d have expected the red card and subsequent substitution to have a bigger impact at the other end of the pitch given they’d replaced a midfielder with a central defender.  Instead Chelsea conceded three in 20 minutes.

It’s difficult to overstate just how bad Burnley were on their travels last season which makes this result so troubling for Conte. They picked up just one away win last season and that was at Crystal Palace in their second to last away fixture at the end of April. Only Hull City collected fewer points and scored fewer goals on the road than Burnley’s 7 points and 13 scored. They failed to score 3 goals in any road match and scored two in just two matches.

Stephen Ward’s strike for Burnley’s second was brilliant but Sam Vokes’s two goals from crosses from the right channel were preventable with some even remotely competent defending. There was perhaps a touch of good fortune about his first but the fact the towering striker was left with so much space inside the penalty area showed a lack of organization and focus that is uncharacteristic of a Conte side.  It was certainly time to part ways with John Terry this summer but it’s worth considering how good an organizer he was and how comfortable he was defending crosses deep in his own box. It’s difficult to imagine Chelsea conceding those two had he been available to come off the bench.

It’s worth remembering Chelsea got off to a difficult start last season before a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal towards the end of September sparked the formation change to three at the back and the side went on a run of 13 games unbeaten in the league. However expectations are very different this time around. Last season the side were coming off an awful season, Conte was in his first season with the club and was therefore always going to be given patience from the fans and Roman Abramovich. The side also weren’t dealing with a fixture list congested due to Champions League participation. Conte massively overachieved but could become a victim of his own success and, perhaps more pertinently, of the clubs complacency this summer.

Chelsea didn’t even have the best squad in the league last season but they had the best manager.  They’ve failed to improve the squad over the summer while other title rivals, the two Manchester clubs specifically, have added key pieces. They’re already chasing City, United, Spurs and Arsenal after those four sides all won over the weekend. If they fail to improve the squad before transfer deadline day on August 31, it could be a long season at Stamford Bridge and perhaps a short one for Conte.

WFI Tactics podcast w/ segment on Arsenal's approach this season and why Spurs employed 3-5-2 in derby

The excellent Stevie Grieve explains the difference between tactics (a more overarching philosophy that dictates how sides approach football regardless of opponent) and strategy (how within your tactical set up you plan on exploiting the weaknesses of a given opponent) on a recent World Football Index Tactics podcast. Most interestingly he discusses the tactics we've seen employed by each of the top 5 sides this season and how their strategies have changed based on game-specific circumstances.

He talks in depth in the first 12 or so minutes about how Ozil's role has changed with Alexis playing as our number 9 as opposed to Giroud. As we've discussed here at Soccermetrica, Grives points out that Sanchez drops into deeper positions and floats into the channels which encourages Ozil to make those runs in behind the defense in the space vacated by Alexis. Alternatively, when Giroud plays up front he stays central and higher up the pitch which encourages Ozil to move into deeper positions to get on the ball and create. It's no surprise then that we see Ozil with more goals and fewer assists than he had at the same point last season. Importantly, both strategies can be effective and allow Arsenal to be flexible in how they approach individual games based on the opposition and changing scenarios over the course of a match.

Around 18 minutes Grieve puts forth his thoughts on why Spurs went with a 3-5-2 against us (it allowed Son and Kane to press our two center backs, the wing backs to press our full backs and still left them with 3 v. 3 in midfield). It's a fascinating podcast and I highly recommend all of the WFI Tactics pods. Grieve delves deeper into game analysis than you'll get from just about any other source and does so in a way that's easy to follow and understand.

A word on Arsenal's transfer inactivity

To date Arsenal have made three summer signings. Japanese striker Takuma Asano and center back Rob Holding are ones for the future and aren’t expected to feature in the first team (though Holding may get his chance sooner than expected). Xhaka, signed from Borussia Monchengladbach for around 30m, is the only signing thus far that will feature in the first team.

While Xhaka has the potential to immediately be a brilliant signing it doesn’t mask the fact everyone knew we had two key problems areas that needed to be addressed, center back and striker. Three long months later neither has been addressed and injuries at center back mean we’re nearing full brown crisis in defense. Wenger suggests he’ll only buy players that will improve on the ones he already has but that’s starting to sound like nonsense.

Mertesacker suffered his knee injury over two weeks ago. If the higher ups at the club somehow hadn’t realized how in need of a center back we were before then, Mert’s injury should have jolted them into action.  Instead they did nothing. Almost inevitably Gabriel went down with a serious injury a week before the opening league fixture.

If Shkrodan Mustafi was our guy why have we waited so long to go get him? We have the money, the need for the player is clearly there- what are we waiting on? Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City have all addressed weaknesses in their respective squads prior to the opening fixture. Yet again it seems we’re waiting until the season starts before even thinking about addressing obvious shortcomings.

Yes the market is madness at the moment but it is what it is. You either pay the market rate or risk getting left behind. Sit on piles of cash long enough after announcing how much of it you have and sellers will be looking to get as much out of you as they can. Wait until injuries mount up at center back and sellers know you’re desperate and you’re not going to have a strong negotiating position.

We can’t compete for the title without a better center back than Gabriel or Mertesacker to partner Koscielny and someone who at the very least provides a different option to Giroud up front. That much has been obvious to everyone since the second half of last season. Not going balls out to sign a striker and center back when they are so obviously required shows a disheartening but too unsurprising lack of ambition from the club.

Time hasn’t run out. I’m still hopeful we’ll land Mustafi and a striker and that I’ll be left eating my words. If not we’re in for another predictable season. 

Thoughts from Italy 2-0 Belgium

Emanuele Giaccherini scored the game winner for Italy in the 32nd minute from an inch perfect diagonal ball over the top from Leanardo Bonucci. Graziano Pelle sealed the win for Italy in the 93rd with a thumping volley from a cross from the excellent Antonio Candreva.

Italy and Belgium found themselves in historically unfamiliar positions going into this match. Belgium's highest ever finish at a European Championship was third in 1972 when they were the host nation and only four teams made the finals. Italy on the other hand have won four World Cups, a European Championship and have been Euro runners up twice, including in 2012.

However, Belgium are currently second in the FIFA World Rankings, boasting a wealth of big name players throughout the squad. By contrast, this Italian side has been considered by many to be the weakest they've brought to a major tournament in some time with expectations low.

Despite being the top ranked side in the tournament, there were still large doubts about whether Belgium could be included in the group of tournament favorites. Some of those doubts centered around the relative inexperience in big games among the squad but an even bigger question was whether they could develop more cohesion and tactical nous under manager Marc Wilmots than they showed in the World Cup in Brazil where they often looked disjointed and less than the some of their very talented parts. The answer to that question today was an emphatic no. You'll struggle to find a clearer example than this match of tactics and a superior manager winning out against more talented opposition.

Facing the most gifted manager in the tournament in Antonio Conte, Wilmots' side looked desperately unprepared against Italy's 3-5-2. At halftime, with Belgium down a goal after being thoroughly outplayed, it was shockingly written in a Telegraph live feed that journalist Raphael Honigstein had mentioned that a Belgian colleague had told him Belgium had trained once during the week against a 3-5-2 and the first team were beaten 4-0.  Belgium looked utterly helpless at how to approach a system they rarely come up against. 

Both wide attacking midfielders Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne stayed high up the pitch when Italy were in possession which left the two holding center midfielders- Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan- to defend nearly the entire width of the pitch in midfield. Italy's wing backs, Candreva on the right and Matteo Darmian on the left, took up extremely wide positions on the touchlines. With Belgium defending as a fairly narrow midfield two, the Italian wing backs continually found the space to collect diagonal balls into the channels. This forced Jan Vertonghen and Laurent Ciman to close down the ball in wide areas from their fullback positions, leaving a large gap between themselves and their center backs. Italy's two midfield shuttlers Marco Parolo and Giaccherini, and the second striker Eder, were able to run into that gap and overload the Belgium fullbacks. With 2 v. 1's in the channels, Italy were comfortably able to get to the endline and provide cut backs and crosses into the penalty area.

Defending with only a midfield two also created defensive problems for Belgium in the middle of the pitch. With Fellaini, Hazard and De Bruyne all staying high up the pitch when Italy were in possession, Nainggolan and Witsel had to cover a tremendous amount of ground. Not only were they responsible for defending Italy's center midfield three, they also had to worry about quickly shifting into the channels to help their fullbacks when Italy got the ball in wide areas. As a result, the two split some 10-15 yards apart from one another in positions somewhere in between the middle of the pitch and the touch line, leaving a huge gap between them. Italy were easily able to play forward passes between that gap into Pelle dropping off from the center backs. Higher up the pitch Fellaini, Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku didn't press the Italian center backs or Danielle De Rossi in his holding midfield role so they were able to comfortably pick their heads up and find a forward pass.

The screen shot below shows an example of Belgium's bizarre defensive shape. Andrea Barzagli is able to easily collect possession from Bonucci. De Bruyne and Hazard are neither trying to close down the ball nor drop in to midfield to give Belgium a midfield bank of four. Nainggolan and Witsel split to either side of the center circle so they can shift wide if the ball goes into the channels, leaving a large gap in the center of the pitch. In the left of the shot you can see Pelle dropping off from the center backs to exploit the space where he can receive a penetrating pass. Belgium's defensive shape was basically a 4-2-4 which is something you might see out of teams that like to press hard high up the pitch. However, the front four did almost no pressing in the first half and Italy were easily able to play through a surprisingly disjointed defense.

Wilmots' did improve in the second half as the front four worked harder to get tight to the ball higher up the pitch, forcing Italy into more hopeful long balls forward and some sloppy giveaways. It's a mystery why Wilmots didn't take this approach earlier in the match given the age and athleticism of his side relative to Italy. Of Italy's three center backs and three center midfielders, only the 29 year old Bonucci is younger than 30.

Belgium Assessment:

The Red Devils were disorganized and uninspired in the opening 45 minutes raising questions about whether Wilmots is suited to getting the most out of a squad bursting with talent. Both Lukaku and his second half replacement Divac Origi were massively disappointing. Lukaku couldn't seem to bring the ball under control and gave away possession time and again. Origi missed two straightforward opportunities from inch perfect crosses from De Bruyne. The Manchester City wide man was too quiet himself for long stretches of the match as was Hazard on the opposite side of the pitch. Belgium should be more comfortable in their remaining matches against Ireland and Sweden, sides that will play formations that will cause the Belgians less confusion. However, if they aren't better organized and more committed from the opening whistle they'll be no guarantee they get points from those fixtures.

Italy Assessment:

The Italians were unsurprisingly organized- the Juventus quartet of Buffon, Barzagli, Chiellini and Bonucci at the back is the best defense in the tournament. They used the space the wingbacks were afforded on the channels well. Candreva was particularly excellent down the right. Parolo and Giacherrini offered enough energy and endeavor in their shuttling roles and although Pelle was guilty of squandering a couple of first half chances to make the score 2-0, he ultimately finished off the chance that put the result beyond doubt. Despite this excellent, professional performance, Belgium were an ideal opponent for this Italian side. They tried to take the game to Italy, leaving space for Conte's side to exploit on the counter. Belgium also used a relatively high line and didn't put much pressure on the ball, which ultimately led to Italy's opener when Bonucci was able to pick out Giaccherini in behind the defense with a long diagonal. Italy and Sweden will not look to have as much of the ball as Belgium. They'll drop deeper and force Italy into unlocking them with more creative buildup play. With few creative options in the squad, Italy could struggle to create chances. However, with the win today they're virtually guaranteed a place in the last 16 with just one more point. They're a better team than both Ireland and Sweden, coached by the best manager in the tournament so I expect them to win this group.

Thoughts from Switzerland 1-0 Albania

Fabian Schar's 5th minute header from a Xherdan Shaqiri corner, the earliest goal in European Championship history, was enough for Switzerland to eke out a 1-0 victory over 10 men Albania.

Albania had center back Lorik Cana sent off for a second yellow in the 37th minute after an intentional handball at the edge of the penalty area.

This was a match largely defined by a lack of quality from both sides in front of goal with both failing to convert a slew of 1 v. 1 chances against the opposition keeper. Albania striker Armando Sadiku had a 1 v. 1 saved by Swiss keeper Yann Sommer in the 31st minute after being played in behind by an excellent ball from right back Elseid Hysaj. In the 76th Sadiku got the wrong side of Swiss left back Ricardo Rodriguez but put his effort into the side netting from a tight angle. In the 87th the Albanian substitute Shkelzen Gashi got in behind the Switzerland back line but failed to convert his side's best chance of the match as his effort was again saved by Sommer.

At the other end Swiss striker Haris Seferovic twice failed to convert golden 1 v. 1 opportunities in the 15th and 67th minutes.

A more ruthless striker could have been the difference for both sides but these are two teams lacking quality in the #9 position. Albania scored just 7 goals in qualifying for the tournament finals, (they were given a 3-0 win over Serbia after that game was abandoned so finished with 10 goals credited to them) by far the lowest of any side in the tournament. Six of their players were tied as top scorer with one goal each.

For Switzerland, Seferovic has scored just 3 times in 13 league matches for Eintracht Frankfurt last season.

Switzerland assessment:

After a remarkable start, Switzerland put in a desperately disappointing performance. This is a side with a talented group of midfielders in Granit Xhaka, Blerim Dzemaili, Valon Behrami, Xerdan Shaqiri and Admir Mehmedi. After going up a man they should have been able to establish more control on this match and found the penetration needed to find a second goal and put the game to bed. Instead they looked slow in possession and short of ideas in the attacking third. A draw in their next match against Romania would almost certainly be enough to ensure qualification into the knockout stages but given the performance today that's hardly a guarantee. Switzerland have the talent to play better than they did today- they were unlucky to be knocked out by Argentina in the last World Cup- but they'll need to improve on this performance. The achilles of the side looks like it'll be the center back pairing of Johan Johan Djourou and Schar. Djourou was nervy throughout, nearly giving away possession on three separate occasions that could have led to Albania chances and failing to deal with basic long balls into the Albanian front men.

Albania assessment:

Albania will be bitterly disappointed they failed to get anything out of this match. They showed the organization that enabled them to concede just five goals in qualifying and created good enough chances to get at least a point. Their energy off the ball was excellent- they pressed Switzerland all over the pitch and even with 10 men didn't allow the opposition time on the ball to pick them apart. I think along with converting chances, one of the biggest concerns for them will be how they defend the area in front of the back four. Their midfield pressed high up the pitch but the two center backs maintained a deep position. This created a gap between defense and midfield that Swiss attacking midfielders could comfortably move into. We saw this in the 15th minute when Shaqiri was able to tuck inside between the lines from the right and collect the ball in loads of space to play Seferovic through on goal. The defeat means Albania will need to keep the score close against France in their next match then beat Romania in their final fixture to have any chance of qualifying as a top four third place side.

Guardiola will need to overhaul City midfield

A day after seeing his Bayern side knocked out of the Champions League semifinal for a third consecutive season, Pep Guardiola may have watched with some concern as his future team produced an uninspiring attacking display in a 1-0 defeat to Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. Gareth Bale's deflected cross off Fernando proved to be the decider as Manchester City bowed out of Europe to the ten-time holders in a relatively poor match where both sides struggled to carve out meaningful chances.

This was a match between two sides whose central midfield trios possessed remarkably different characteristics from one another. In Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and Fernando, Manchester City used three midfielders noted for their power and size but not for their vision or range of passing. Conversely Real Madrid used Luka Modric, Isco and Tony Kroos, three players with decidedly normal physical attributes that possess tremendous composure on the ball. In other words, Real Madrid boasted a midfield that would fit perfectly into the soon-to-be new Manchester City manager Guardiola's footballing philosophy while City's midfield was far more functional and reactive- something more akin to what you'd see from Guardiola's rival Jose Mourinho.


In Marti Paranau's behind the scenes account of Guardiola's first season at Bayern Munich, Pep Confidential, Guardiola discusses how he adopted his footballing philosophy to take advantage of the strengths of German football but will always insist his side's control matches. So while Guardiola's Bayern side played with more width and hit more crosses into the box than his Barcelona, they still dominated possession. Likewise, you'd expect Pep's City to maintain some of the physicality and pace of the English game while keeping the overarching philosophy of controlling the tempo. With the lack of deeper lying midfielders able to control a match currently on the books at City, Guardiola will need to make overhauling that area of the pitch a top priority.

Toure will leave in the summer and it's difficult to imagine a place for a player as one dimensional as Fernando, particularly given Guardiola's insistence of playing a pivote at the base of midfield capable of keeping possession ticking over in the mold of himself, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso or Philip Lahm. Fernandinho has been solid and will contribute to the squad but his energetic bursts forward from deep areas will likely be less of a feature in a Guardiola side that will dominate possession. Guardiola does have a knack for converting players into new positions in new systems however so it's not too difficult seeing Fernandinho having a role to play somewhere on the pitch.

Guardiola will have no shortage of resources available to him and in Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and Kelechie Iheanacho he has an immensely talented core of still relatively young attacking players. However, there are significant holes to be filled elsewhere on the pitch and it will be fascinating to see how he builds this team in the summer.

Tactics notes: Watford 0-0 Chelsea

Watford and Chelsea played out a 0-0 statelmate at Vicarage Road, a result that saw both sides move up a spot in the table. Watford leapfrogged Stoke into 9th position while Chelsea moved ahead of West Brom into 13th.

Chique Sanchez Flores opted to keep the same 4-3-1-2 shape the Hornets used in their 2-1 win over Newcastle with the midfield unchanged. Jurado played in a #10 role behind Deeney and Ighalo, Capoue and Behrami played either side of Ben Watson at the base of midfield. Defensively, left back Nathan Ake was ineligible to play against his parent club and was replaced with Jose Holebas. Austrian Sebastian Prodl partnered Crag Cathcart in central defense with Juan Carlos Paredes at right back.

Guus Hiddink named an unchanged side to the one that beat Arsenal in their last league outing. Willian, Fabregas and Oscar played the attacking midfield positions behind Diego Costa in 1 4-2-3-1. John Obi Mikel and Matic played the holding midfield roles in front of a back four of Ivanovic, Zouma, Terry and Azipilicueta.

Ighalo and Deeney have struck up a wonderful strike partnership this season. The two have a bit of the old school big-quick partnership, with Deeney using his size and strength to contest aerial challenges and hold play up and Ighalo offering tricky direct dribbling. As playing with two strikers has become less fashionable since Jose Mourinho introduced the 4-3-3 when he first arrived at Chelsea in 2004, center backs have gotten less accustomed to playing against two strikers. Against a single striker system one center back can mark the striker while the other drops in to offer cover. In a two striker system both center backs have the more uncomfortable responsibility of marking a striker, meaning they don't have the security of their partner cleaning up in behind them.

Deeney and Ighalo made Terry and Zouma uncomfortable in the first. Watford had no qualms skipping right over top the midfield and playing long direct balls into Deeney who would bring them down for Ighalo in support. Because Terry and Zouma both had a striker to mark, space opened up for Jurado just off the two strikers. Matic and Mikel picked up Capoue and Behrami in midfield, meaning Jurado had space between the Chelsea holding midfielders and center backs to exploit. With Terry and Zouma both having to mark a striker, neither could step forward into the gaps to deny entry passes into Jurado or they'd risk leaving one of the strikers unmarked in the final third.

The downside to playing with two strikers and an attacking #10 for Watford was that they were quite narrow in the midfield defensively. At time Jurado, Deeney and Ighalo all stayed high up the pitch when Chelsea were in possession, leaving Watson, Capoue and Behrami to defend as a midfield bank of three. The three central midfielders did well, maintaining a compact shape in the middle of the pitch but the narrow shape meant Chelsea enjoyed some space in the channels. Because Watford were playing without wide midfielders, their fullbacks Holebas and Paredes took up wide starting positions in order to prevent Chelsea from playing easy diagonal passes into the wings. However, with the fullbacks playing relatively wide, it opened up a gap of space between the fullbacks and center backs Prodl and Cathcart. Diego Costa exploited this space on a few occasions but was poor once he got in possession. Second half substitute Eden Hazard exploited the gap between Holebas and Catchart in the second, getting to the byline before cutting back to Ivanovic who forced a terrific point blank save from Heurelho Gomes.

In the end both sides mustered some half chances- Chelsea forced two fine saves from Gomes late on- but it was a game short on attacking quality.

Arsenal vs. Tottenham Preview

Sunday marks the first North London Derby of the Premier League season with Arsenal having eliminated Tottenham in the league cup 2-1 at White Hart Lane in September. Given that league cup games tend to be more open and less tactical than Premier League games and feature fewer first teamers in early rounds, that result offers few clues as to how Sunday will go. After all, Mathieu Flamini won the match with the first brace of his career.

Both sides enter Sunday's contest in excellent form in the Premier League. Spurs haven't been beaten since the opening day of the season at Old Trafford on an own goal in a game in which they were the better side for much of the 90 minutes. Arsenal's last loss was the controversial 2-0 defeat at Chelsea in mid September.

Formations and Lineups

Both sides will line up in a 4-2-3-1. Injuries have become a major conern for Arsene Wenger. Arsenal are without left back Hector Bellerin and Laurent Koscielny is also doubtful. Mathieu Debuchy will replace Bellerin, Gabriel will partner Per Mertesacker at center back if Koscielny doesn't recover. Those omissions in defense could pose a significant problem for the Gunners. The Mertesacker-Gabriel partnership was carved apart in a woefully disorganized performance in a 5-1 defeat at Bayern midweek and Debuchy has been unconvincing in his performances since returning from long term injury last season. Joel Campbell will start at the right of midfield with Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all still out through injury.

Mauricio Pochettino has nearly his complete squad to choose from- his only major absence is Nacer Chadli. The Argentinians major concern will be the freshness of his players. He played a near first choice squad in Spurs' 2-1 win over Anderlecht in the Europa League Thursday with Aderweireld, Vertonghen, Alli, Dier, Lamela, Eriksen and Kane all starting.

Tottenham left versus Arsenal right

Wenger should be concerned about his team's right side. Ramsey and Bellerin formed a solid partnership down that side defensively and were key to how Arsenal attacked. Ramsey tucks inside from a wide starting position, opening up space for the blisteringly pacey Bellerin to overlap in the channel and cut passes back across the face of goal. Debuchey doesn't have that level of pace that allows him to get in behind his marker. Campbell's positioning isn't as fluid as Ramsey- he'll cut inside from the right but will maintain a starting wider position than we'd see from Ramsey. Arsenal will therefore be a bit more rigid and predictable down that side.

Spurs will likely look to attack down that same channel through Eriksen and Danny Rose. Eriksen is Spurs most creative attacking player and will take up dangerous positions in the space between Debuchy, Mertesacker and Francis Coquelin. His movement inside will force Debuchy into narrow positions opening up space for Rose on the overlap. Rose rarely needs a second invitation to take the space and bomb forward so Campbell will have to be diligent tracking back. Ramsey is a tremendously fit player and typically does a decent job providing protection for his fullback while still possessing the engine to transition into attack quickly when Arsenal win the ball back. Campbell has played sparingly over the last few seasons and is therefore short on match fitness. He worked hard tracking back to protect Bellerin at Swansea last weekend but at times looked completely exhausted. It will be interesting to see how his fitness holds up as he plays his third game in nine days.

 Eriksen tucks into the space between Debuchy, Mertesacker and Coquelin which forces Debuchy to tuck inside and opens up space in the channel for Rose to run into. Campbell must therefore track the runs of Rose or the fullback will have the time and space to pick his head up and pick out a pass in the penalty area.

Eriksen tucks into the space between Debuchy, Mertesacker and Coquelin which forces Debuchy to tuck inside and opens up space in the channel for Rose to run into. Campbell must therefore track the runs of Rose or the fullback will have the time and space to pick his head up and pick out a pass in the penalty area.

Eric Dier versus Mesut Ozil

Tottenham's formation operates as more of a 4-3-3 when they are in possession with Alli pushing forward into advanced positions and Dier sitting just in front of the center backs at the base of midfield. This gives Pochettino's side plenty of vertical passing options as they build attacks form the back. Alli and Dembele's positioning in front of Dier when Tottenham have the ball means both Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla will have a direct opponent in the center midfield zone rather than enjoying a two against matchup on a lone #10.

The advanced positioning also has the potential to leave Spurs vulnerable to the counter attack however. When Spurs concede possession with Alli high up the pitch it leaves Dier to defend the entire midfield zone on his own against quick opposition transitions. In Mesut Ozil, Arsenal have the league's in form playmaker who will have no problems moving into spaces either side of Dier to collect outlet passes to start the counter. With a remarkable 9 assists already this campaign Ozil is deadly with the final pass. Arsenal are without Walcott, whose pace running in behind the opposition defense offers the ideal outlet when Arsenal player on the break, but in Alexis Sanchez they have a player who will break forward at pace and join Ozil and Giroud on the counter. Dier will have to be mindful of where Ozil is even when Spurs are in possession and get tight to him when the ball turns over.

 Graphic shows positioning the moment Spurs lose possession in the attacking third. Ozil will look to float into the space either side of Dier to receive outlet passes to start the counter. Sanchez will look to break out quickly into the space behind an advanced Kyle Walker.

Graphic shows positioning the moment Spurs lose possession in the attacking third. Ozil will look to float into the space either side of Dier to receive outlet passes to start the counter. Sanchez will look to break out quickly into the space behind an advanced Kyle Walker.

Stats to consider

-Spurs have the third highest shots per game average and the third highest shots on target per game average; Arsenal have the highest shots per game and second highest shots on target per game behind Manchester City.

-Arsenal's 21 goals for is fourth in the Premier League, Spurs' 19 goals for is fifth.

-Arsenal are tied with Manchester United with the best defensive record having conceded just 8. Spurs have conceded just 9. All these stats suggest two well balanced teams so it's difficult to predict how this one will go.

-Spurs have scored 7 goals from set pieces this season, two more than any other side in the Premier League. With Arsenal missing Koscielny, set plays could present a good opportunity for Tottenham.

A few thoughts from Real Madrid 1-0 PSG

Real Madrid rode their luck to a 1-0 win over Paris Saint Germain at the Santiago Bernabeu despite being outplayed. Here are three thoughts from the Champions League match.

PSG dominant in defeat

This contest highlighted how strange football results can be. If this had been a higher scoring sport like basketball PSG's dominance would have been reflected in a comfortable win. Instead they go home with nothing against a Real Madrid side whose performance was hardly deserving of even a draw.

Perhaps Laurent Blanc's side could be accused of not being sharp enough in the final third- they had just 3 shots on target to Real Madrid's 8 despite having 60% possession- but this was largely down to poor luck and on another day they could have scored three or four. Adrien Rabiot, on after Marco Verratti went off injured in the 17th minute, struck the post with a wonderful volley. In the 45th minute left back Maxwell provided a teasing cross across the six yard box that fell inches in front of the outstretched legs of both Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Moments later, deep in first half injury time, Angel Di Maria played Cavani through on goal with a brilliantly weighted through ball. Cavani had just enough time to get a soft touch over Keylor Navas who had done well to close the angle quickly but Raphael Varane was able to clear before the ball crossed the goal line. Twice in the first half Ibrahimovc shot inches wide of Navas's right post, once from the left side of the box and once from a free kick.

In contrast, Madrid's goal came when Tony Kroos's speculative effort was deflected by Thiago Silva into the path of the left back Nacho. He appeared to attempt to play a one time pass out of the air across the face of goal but PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp was caught in no man's land and the ball managed to trickle directly into the far corner. It was the one bright spot in otherwise poor performance from Rafa Benitez's side.

Ibrahimovic dropping deep allows PSG to control midfield

Both sides lined up up in matching 4-3-3 formations. Casemiro played at the base of midfield for Madrid with Luka Modric to his right and Tony Kroos playing a slightly freer role when the side were in possession. For PSG Thiago Motta occupied his normal role at the base of midfield with Rabiot to his right and Blaise Matuidi to his left.

In Modric and Kroos Madrid have two of the world's best midfielders at dictating the tempo of a game and keeping possession. It was strange then to see Benitez's side cede the possession battle to PSG so overwhelmingly- the away side ended with 60% possession. A large part of PSG winning the possession battle was the positioning of Ibrahimovic.

The Swedish striker dropped into deep positions in midfield to get on the ball, playing almost as a false 9 and thereby giving PSG a 4 v. 3 advantage in the central midfield zone. With a spare man always available, they comfortably circulated possession around Madrid's midfield three. The graphic below shows the positions where Ibrahimovic received passes, the bulk of which are over 25 yards away from the Madrid goal.

For some sides, having their striker drop so deep to get on the ball would be problematic. If the wide players are more creative, ball-playing types that like to move towards the ball (for instance a Juan Mata or Isc) a side may not have anyone making penetrative runs in behind that will stretch the defense. For example this was a problem Arsenal had early in the season, particularly when playing Olivier Giroud at striker. Giroud would drop deep and use his strength to hold up the ball but Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez- all players that want to get on the ball- were also taking up deeper positions and no one was making those vertical runs behind the defense. When this happens everything occurs in front of the opposition defenders and makes their life relatively easy.

However, in Cavani PSG have a player operating on the left whose main position is a center forward and therefore has the instincts to make those vertical runs behind the defense.

Ibrahimovic's positioning posed a number of tactical dilemmas for Madrid. Benitez's side dealt with him dropping deep by simply allowing him to do so and ceding control of the midfield to PSG. With his side being overrun in the middle of the pitch, Isco began to tuck inside from the right to help even the numbers in that zone. But as a result, PSG's left back Maxwell was free to advance down that channel in loads of space. The warning signs were there early for Madrid. In the 28th minute Di Maria could have played Maxwell through on goal down the left but he failed to spot the pass. Di Maria ended up winning a free kick on the player but you could see several of him teammates' frustrated reactions that he had failed to find the pass. The image below is a screen grab of that incident. Isco is tucked inside tracking the run of Matuidi. Danilo has strangely tracked the run of Cavani all the way to the middle of the pitch rather than passing him off to Varane leaving the entire right side of Madrid's defense exposed.

Later Maxwellcollected the ball in space and played a near perfect whipped cross in that Cavani probably should have managed to get a foot to and equalize. He provided 6 crosses over the course of the game and offered a consistent threat down that channel.

Madrid could have elected to deal with Ibrahimovic's positioning by having Varane step out and track his runs into midfield. This could have evened the numbers in the center midfield zone and prevented PSG from constantly having the extra man available for a pass. However, doing so would have also left a gaping, dangerous gap between the left sided center back Sergio Ramos and the right back Danilo that Cavani would have certainly looked to make lateral runs into. A manager like Pep Guardiola that insists on his side dominating the ball and will therefore take chances to ensure his side are in positions to recover possession quickly would almost certainly have had Varane stepping tight to Ibrahimovic. Benitez however insists on a more rigid, compact defensive system.

Benzema sorely missed, would have helped Madrid play on counter

With PSG controlling possession, Madrid needed to pose a threat on the counter but they were hurt in this regard by the absences through injury of Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. Benzema has the strength to receive outlet passes and hold up play to allow his attackers the time to sprint forward. There are also few if any classic #9's better at providing a final pass. His inclusion would have allowed Ronaldo to make darting vertical runs behind the defense on the counter rather than being the one to receive the first outlet pass and hold up play. With Bale and Ronaldo operating as the wide forwards in a 4-3-3 there is blistering pace and directness to operate on the counter. That would have been a real threat today given how high PSGs fullbacks were playing up the pitch.

NYRB comfortable in 1-0 win over poor DC United

Dax MacCarty's 72nd minute goal from a Sacha Kljestan free kick gave the New York Red Bulls a 1-0 win over DC United at RFK in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. In the end it was a fair result. DC United were extremely poor and NYRB looked comfortably in control throughout. The away side rode their luck however. Second half substitute Ronald Zubar, on after starting center back Damien Parrinelle suffered what looked to be a bad knee injury, should have been sent off for a horror challenge on DC's Markus Halsti.

This was a battle between two very different systems. Jesse Marsch's NYRB operated in a modern 4-2-3-1 and attacked in numbers with fluid movement. Sacha Kljestan moved from side to side from his #10 role to create overloads and they got attacking players into the box to attack crosses.

D.C United played with an extremely rigid, functional 4-4-2 akin to what you might see from a Tony Pulis coached side. They defended deep in two banks of four and left the bulk of the attacking up to the front two pair of Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola. Perry Kitchen and Haltsi were tasked with shielding the back four in the middle of midfield but neither are the type of player to provide the creativity to transition into attack. In a 4-4-2 you often need that creative link play to come from the wide midfielders but Chris Rolfe and Nick DeLeon spent the bulk of the first 45 minutes defending deep in their own half. As a result DC United rarely had an outlet ball to transition into attack other than knocking it long towards Espindola and Saborio.

As the game progressed, NYRB took more and more control of possession with their man advantage in midfield. DC were pinned deep in their own half and when they won back possession they couldn't get players up the pitch quick enough to support Saborio and Espindola who were left to attack 2 v. 4 or 2 v. 5.

It's difficult to see a way back for DC. NYRB will boss the second leg even more at home and it's difficult to see where goals will come for Ben Olsen's side.