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.

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.

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.

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.

Monk proves tactical intelligence as Swansea beat Manchester United again

Garry Monk's change in formation from 4-2-3-1 to a diamond 4-4-2 following Manchester United's opening goal today inspired a brilliant comeback from Swansea. The wins means Monk is the first manager in Premier League history to lead his side to three successive wins over Manchester United. The 36 year old Swans manager has proved during his year and a half at the Welsh club to be an intelligent tactician, evidenced by the fact they did the double over Manchester United and Arsenal last season.

This was a victory of stability, long term planning and a coherent tactical approach over big money spending and continued tactical tinkering by Van Gaal during his time at Manchester United.

After being appointed player-manager following the sacking of Michael Laudrup in February 2014, Monk helped the Swans avoid relegation. Last season, Monk's first full season as a professional manager, a number of pundits questioned whether he was too inexperienced to lead a top flight side. He went on to lead the club to a record top flight points total despite losing star striker Wilfried Bony to Manchester City in the January transfer window.

Swansea currently sit 4th in the table, level on points and goal difference with third place Leicester, and have gotten a draw away to Chelsea and a win over Manchester United while playing some magnificent, free flowing football.

Monk is known for his tireless work rate and extreme attention to detail. In a Guardian piece this summer on Swansea's preseason training regimen it was revealed he wears a microphone to training sessions so he can listen back to himself and make sure he's making his points clearly enough.

That commitment to improvement he demands of everyone at the club combined with the club's outstanding business organization and community-focused outlook have created one of the Premier League's more objectively likable sides.

Monk proved his managerial proficiency today, outfoxing one of the game's most celebrated managers.

Manchester United opened the scoring three minutes into the second half through Juan Mata. Swansea had been the more dangerous side in the first half- Gylfi Sigurdsson put a shot just wide of Sergio Romero's right post before Bafetimbi Gomis struck that same post in the opening half.

United's goal came when left back Luke Shaw collected possession on the left channel, got the better of Kyle Naughton's weak attempted 50/50 challenge and provided a chip across the face of goal for Mata to smash home.

Ten minutes after that opener Monk made a substitution and tactical change that would ultimately turn the game on its head. He brought on Ki Sung-Yueng for Wayne Routledge and changed shape froma 4-2-3-1 to more of a diamond 4-4-2. Jack Cork played at the base of midfield with Jonjo Shelvey to his right and Ki to his left. Sigurdsson played higher up the pitch in the tip of the diamond, Jordan Ayew joined Gomis up front.

In the 4-2-3-1 Swansea had started the game with they defended with a midfield bank of four, leaving the striker Gomis and Sigurdsson higher up the pitch. After the change to diamond 4-4-2 they defended with only a narrow midfield three of Ki, Cork and Shelvey, leaving Sigurdsson, Gomis and Ayew in attacking areas.

That narrow midfield three meant United's fullbacks no longer had a direct opponent marking them and were therefore given space in the channels. It was a risky move from Monk- it meant giving Shaw, the provider of United's goal, free reign on United's left channel and forced Ki, Shelvey and Cork to do an immense amount of defensive work in midfield. Almost immediately after making the change, Mata nearly doubled United's lead.

However the change in shape would prove to be a touch of brilliant tactical understanding from Monk. By encouraging Shaw to take the space he was being afforded on the left channel, Swansea's shape opened up space down that sideline to counter into in the area vacated by Shaw's forays forward. With Sigurdsson, Gomis and Ayew all high up the pitch they had the numbers to exploit the space. One player could float into the channels behind United's advanced fullbacks, collect an outlet pass and have two attacking players to aim crosses at into the box.

For Ayew's equalizer, Shaw was high up the pitch down United's left channel when they conceded possession. Sigurdsson floated into the free space behind Shaw and provided the well weighted cross for Ayew to finish. The second goal was similar. Shelvey provided a brilliant outlet pass to Sigurdsson after Swansea won the ball back in midfield. Sigurdsson touched it to the right channel for Ayew who provided a curling outside of the foot ball in behind the United defense for Gomis to run onto and slip in.

The goals were a result of Monk's calculated gamble. He risked sacrificing one midfielder in defense so that his side would have an extra attacker up the pitch when they countered. The diamond shape invited United's fullbacks to take the space they were given, but in doing so left the visitors shorthanded at the back when possession was turned over.

It was the move of a clever manager with real tactical nous. Van Gaal rarely misses a chance to pat himself on the back when he makes a formation change that impacts a match. Today he should tip his hat to his opposite number. Monk was the better manager, his side more prepared and more determined. Swansea are in good hands with him at the helm.

Match Analysis: Arsenal 0-0 Liverpool

Arsenal and Liverpool played out an entertaining goalless draw at the Emirates this evening. Arsenal had an early Aaron Ramsey goal wrongly disallowed for offsides but the visitors were by far the better side in the first half.

Brendan Rodgers said prior to the game that he had studied Arsenal's most recent defeats and realized Arsene Wenger's side bossed possession in them but struggled to break down compact defenses. Arsenal also control possession in the overwhelming majority of home wins as well so I'm not sure how much can be learned by simply comparing possession figures and results. However, it's easy to understand what Rodgers was getting at- Arsenal are a technical and slick passing side and if you try to beat them at their own game in their own stadium it likely won't end well for you.

With that in mind Rodgers set his side out in a 4-3-3 with three center midfielders adept at the defensive side of the game. Lucas Leiva, who had failed to even make the matchday squad in Liverpool's first two games, sat just in front of the back four with Emre Can to his left and James Milner to his right.

Liverpool defended in a 4-1-4-1 shape with Leiva sitting in between the defensive and midfield banks of four. Leiva tracked the movement of Mesut Ozil between the lines. Can picked up Francis Coquelin, who was the right sided holding midfielder, Milner picked up Cazorla, the left sided holding midfielder.

In the first half Liverpool would look for opportunities to press Arsenal high up the pitch. The home side were forced into employing a makeshift center back partnership of Gabriel and Calum Chambers (Laurent Koscielny had a back injury, Per Mertesacker was ill) and Liverpool looked to take advantage of a nervous Arsenal back four. Coutinho rattled the crossbar inside of 4 minutes with the Arsenal defense at sixes and sevens.

Chambers in particular endured a torrid first half. Twice he gave away possession deep in Arsenal's defensive third, leading to Liverpool chances. Arsenal fans were holding their collective breath every time he got on the ball. On a separate occasion he tried to dribble out of defense but was dispossessed at the halfway line, leaving him hopelessly out of position and forcing the much better Gabriel to bail out his partner. The left side of the graphic below shows Gabriel's successful tackles during the 90 minutes. He was the left-sided center back- the two tackles he made in the box occurred when he was forced to provide cover for Chambers. In fact Gabriel made more tackles in Chambers' zone than Chambers made all game.

Arsenal improved in the second half. Liverpool sat deeper and deeper and attacked with fewer numbers. Because Liverpool were getting fewer numbers forward when they were in possession, they didn't have the opportunities to press high up the pitch they had in the first half and therefore forced fewer of the bad giveaways Arsenal were guilty of in the opening 45 minutes.

Arsenal kept sustained pressure on the visitors but there was very little space for them to operate in the final third. Liverpool set up their defensive lines at the edge of their own penalty area and challenged Wenger's side unlock them. Arsenal provided a few of their vintage quick passing combinations to open up the defense and had two good opportunities to open the score, the first Sanchez put into the side netting after being put through on goal, on the second Giroud couldn't get enough contact to beat Mignolet as he reached to get a shot away.

Liverpool were simply too deep and too compact for Arsenal to break down. All of Arsenal's possession was happening in front of the Liverpool back four. Liverpool were rarely made to turn around and face their own goal. Against a side defending that deep, you're not going to be able to get in behind them through the middle of the pitch- there simply isn't enough space between the center backs and goalkeeper. Theo Walcott's introduction for Giroud was therefore never likely to have a huge impact; he's at his most effective in the striker role when he has the space to run behind the center backs.

The one way to get in behind a side defending that deep is in wider areas. If you can channel the ball wide and get the opposition fullback in a position where he has to defend 1 v. 1, opportunities open up to get to the endline and cut it back across the face of goal if you have a player capable of beating the opposition fullback off the dribble. Ramsey is a very gifted player and had a good game but almost always takes up an extremely narrow position when he plays on the right. His positioning therefore can pose difficulties tactically for the opposing fullback but he rarely picks up the ball in wide areas and asks questions of their 1 v. 1 defending ability by running at them. The graphic below shows Ramsey's average position- quite narrow. Ramsey's interior positioning can often overload the opposition center midfielders but that wasn't likely to happen today with Liverpool employing three deeper center mids in their 4-1-4-1 set up. Normally those overloads will occur when the opposition is defending in banks of four and leaving two further up the pitch. Liverpool had ample numbers in the center of the pitch to deal with Ramsey moving into narrow zones.

It's easy to say in hindsight but I thought Wenger should have perhaps introduced Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right earlier. His directness and raw pace may have provided an outlet for Arsenal when they couldn't find the little gaps of space to play their quick combinations. In Joe Gomez he'd have been up against a left back making just his third Premier League appearance. Gomez has been excellent thus far, a far more focused and poised option than Alberto Moreno, but his direct opponents in his first two starts were Stoke's John Walters and Bournemouth's Matt Ritchie. Both are decent enough players but neither have the same ability to run past defenders that Oxlade-Chamberlain possesses. His introduction would have presented Gomez with a challenge he hasn't faced yet in his young career. If he could have beaten Gomez to the endline once or twice and provided cutbacks it would have forced the likes of Skrtel and Lovren to perform the difficult task of clearing the danger while facing their own goal.

Match Analysis: Leicester 1-1 Tottenham

Riyad Mahrez continued his terrific run of form as he provided a brilliant curling effort to the back post in the 82nd minute to equalize for Leicester just a minute after Dele Alli put Tottenham ahead. This was a cagey contest that really came to life in the final 10 minutes.

Claudio Ranieri opted for the same 4-4-2 lineup that beat Sunderland 4-2 on opening day and won 2-1 at West Ham last weekend.

Mauricio Pochettino gave Eric Lamela his first start of the season for Spurs with Christian Eriksen missing through injury. Spurs played their usual 4-2-3-1. The attacking midfield three rotated often but it was mainly Lamela through the middle, Chadli on the left and Dembele on the right.

The obvious tactical feature of this one was Leicester's deep, organized defending in banks of four. They put all ten men behind the ball, challenging Tottenham to come up with enough creativity to unlock them.

Okazaki and Vardy dropped inside their own half, usually picking up Tottenham's two holding midfielders. Higher up the pitch Chadli and Dembele tucked inside and took up extremely narrow positions. With Leicester defending with a compact midfield bank of four, the middle of the pitch was extremely crowded. Tottenham's midfielders struggled to find pockets of space between the lines to create a forward passing option and as a result they ended up playing a lot of sideways passes deeper in midfield.

With space between the Leicester defensive and midfield lines limited, Spurs' attacking midfielders would drop in front of Leicester's midfield four to pick up possession from Mason and Dier. This meant Leicester still had 8 men behind the ball. Tottenham simply couldn't break down the Leicester lines. Eriksen's injury was important. He's clever with his movement, capable of moving into tight pockets of space to receive passes and creative enough and tactically gifted enough to then pick out a penetrating pass. Lamela, Dembele and Chadli didn't offer enough creativity on the ball. Spurs dominated first half possession with 72% but the tempo was quite slow and Leicester were comfortable.

The absence of creativity meant Spurs were unable to link play forward into Kane. He had to work the channels, as he always willingly does, or drop into positions deep in midfield in order to get any sort of touches. The left side of the graphic below shows all of the passes Kane received in the first half. There's a noticeable lack of passes received in the middle of the pitch around the penalty box, where you typically want your best goalscorer to be collecting possession. There was an improvement in the second half. As the abnormal heat (the referee stopped play for water breaks in both halves) led to a fall in Leicester's pressing in midfield, more space opened up for Kane in the middle of the pitch. For Tottenham's goal he was able to collect possession in between the lines and drew in three Leicester defenders. This allowed Chadli to go unmarked down the left channel where the Belgian floated a ball towards the back post for Alli to nod home. After playing the ball wide Kane did well to continue his run into the box which forced Leicester center back Wes Morgan to slide over and check Kane's run, leaving Alli free at the back post.

The difference in attacking styles between the two sides was pronounced. While Spurs were patient and, more often than not, ponderous, Leicester's attacks were direct and vertical and therefore didn't involve many passes. Spurs completed a total of 437 passes to Leicester's 183.

With the entire side defending deep, Leicester looked to spring quick counter attacks when they won the ball back by hitting balls behind the Tottenham fullbacks into the channel for Vardy. The graphic below shows the number of passes Vardy received in the channels. Mahrez and Albrighton would break forward to join in the attacks. However, the home side weren't particularly incisive in the final third.

In the end the draw was a fair result and one both managers were probably content enough with, though Leicester nearly got a late winner through Morgan after he got on to a brilliantly whipped in ball from Mahrez. A 0-0 draw seemed probable until the final ten minutes- neither side had been all that threatening up until that point. Mahrez was once again the standout player. He now has four goals and has been the league's best player up to this point. A whole slew of pundits mocked Leicester for appointing Ranieri and pegged them to be relegated. Having guided the Foxes to 7 points from their opening three, the unfairly derided "Tinker Man" looks good value to keep his side up.

Preview: Arsenal vs. Liverpool

Key tactic: Both sides have played 4-2-3-1 formations in their opening two fixtures. I think the key tactic here might just be how the two sets of holding midfielders cope with their defensive responsibilities. From the sounds of things Jordan Henderson will be out for Liverpool with a foot injury. This could be a good thing for Brendan Rodgers' side. It likely means Emre Can will partner James Milner at the base of midfield. I'm not convinced the Henderson-Milner partnership is a great one. They are similar players in that both are more all-action box-to-box types than calming, assured figures in the middle of midfield. Double pivots tend to work better when there's an obvious deeper lying midfielder partnered with one that performs the box to box role (in other words there's not much actual pivoting between the two). I think Can will offer tactical discipline in front of the back four and provide a platform for Milner to drive forward and help in the attack. Arsenal tend to overload the middle of the pitch in attack so Milner and Can will have to remain disciplined.

 For Arsenal, Francis Coquelin could be given a decent test by Adam Lallana and Coutinho. The two have consistently rotated between the #10 and a slighter wider role in Liverpool's opening two matches with Jordan Ibe maintaining a wider position on the opposite flank. Lallana and Coutinho will look to combine in the spaces between Arsenal's defensive and midfield lines. Coquelin will have to be conscious of their movement. He played well overall last week but committed a couple of fouls after already being booked and was perhaps lucky to not get sent off. (He committed 4 fouls which is a lot but how often do we see Fernandinho commit 4 fouls over the course of a game to cynically break up opposition counter attacks without anyone calling for him to be sent off?)

It's also probably worth pointing that Arsenal need to do a better job of closing down the opposition when they get into shooting positions around the 18 yard box. In both of the Gunner's opening fixtures they were guilty of not committing themselves to get blocks on opposition shots that resulted in goals. In Coutinho, Liverpool have a player that has proven he's capable of scoring magical goals from outside the area. He won't hesitate to have a go if he isn't closed down.

Key stat: I'm not sure how "key" this stat is to Monday's game but it highlights the difficulties Liverpool have had in their visits to the Emirates: the Reds have won just once at the Emirates since it opened in 2006. That win came after Emanuel Frimpong was sent off in the second half, followed shortly after by an Aaron Ramsey own goal. Luis Suarez sealed the points late on.

Liverpool were battered 4-1 at the Emirates last season in a match where they had a golden chance to go ahead early but failed to convert. They'll need to take advantage of any opportunities that come their way Monday evening to take anything from this one.

See our match week 3 Everton vs. Manchester City preview here.

See our match week 3 Leicester City vs. Tottenham preview here.

See our match week 3 Manchester United vs. Newcastle preview here.

Preview: Everton vs. Manchester City

Key Tactic: I think a key tactic in this one will involve how well Everton can execute counter attacking opportunities. They were brilliant playing on the break in their 3-0 win last weekend at Southampton, the opening two goals coming from textbook counter attacks. Although they'll be the home side Sunday, Manchester City don't tend to take a more conservative approach on their travels.

Yaya Toure has had a magnificent start to the season but his lack of urgency in making defensive recovery runs still leaves his midfield partner Fernandinho doing an immense amount of defensive work. Towards the middle of the second half of their convincing 3-0 win over Chelsea, Toure's unwillingness to make defensive recovery runs began to leave City remarkably open and Chelsea created a couple of decent chances on the counter. The best of those chances fell to Eden Hazard with the score at 1-0 but the Belgian missed his opportunity to equalize, putting his shot straight at Joe Hart.

Recognizing his side were too open, Manuel Pellegrini brought in Martin Demichelis to play at the base of midfield alongside Fernandinho and moved Toure forward into the #10 role. This gave City far more solidity defensively and they went on to score two additional goals. It was an astute move from Pellegrini, one that Mourinho acknowledged (while managing to compliment himself in the process as he tends to do), but one I thought he nearly waited too long to make. While Mourinho's claim the 3-0 result was "fake" is asburd- Chelsea could well have conceded three or four in the first half- it is true that they had opportunities to get back into it in the second half and had Hazard finished his chance it may have been a different result. An Everton side firing on all cylinders as they were last weekend, led by a central attacking partnership of Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukuka, will be far more lethal on the counter than the ineffective Costa and surprisingly tame Hazard. The Everton duo were brilliant last weekend- Lukaku scored a brace and Barkley scored the third and provided an assist. City will have to be mindful of the Toffees on the counter.

Key stat: They key state here comes courtesy of Manchester City have been leading at halftime and full time of their last 8 Premier League matches. I think it's important Everton don't allow City to go ahead. Although the Toffees showed decent fight in coming from behind twice at home to Watford on opening day to secure a draw, coming from behind against a side that has finished second and first in the last two seasons and boasts the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Toure is a different prospect than doing so against a newly promoted side that hadn't played a top flight match since 2007. If Everton manage to take the lead they'll need to retain their focus as they did last week. They lost more points from a winning position last season than any side so going ahead is no sign they'll actually emerge with any points.

See our match week 3 Arsenal vs. Liverpool preview here.

See our match week 3 Leicester City vs. Tottenham preview here.

See our match week 3 Manchester United vs. Newcastle preview here.