Friday, February 27, 2015

Arsenal's Pressing Problem

In Arsenal's last two Premier League matches away from home, Tottenham and Crystal Palace pressed the Gunners aggressively. This activity stymied Arsenal's flow in midfield, the foundation of its offense, and put its defense under pressure.

Many statistics from these games show just how effective this tactic proved. Arsenal were outshot in both matches, but more telling was how much Arsenal struggled to move the ball. The team completed just 72 percent of its passes against Palace and 70 percent against Tottenham. Those figures fall far below Arsenal's season average of 83 percent, which ranks fifth in the Premier League. (Stats from OptaSports via

The risk-reward tradeoff favors opponents

Meanwhile, the major risk of a pressing approach did not materialize. It's thought that a team might succeed in pressing Arsenal for a limited period of time; when the opposition's legs and concentration weaken, Arsenal can profit.

But neither Palace nor Spurs exhausted itself by pressing. On the contrary, the tactic seemed to wear Arsenal down, creating late lapses that led to goals. 

The successes of these two opponents, and those earlier in the season of Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, could encourage others to take a similar approach when they host Arsenal. (Listen to this week's Arsecast Extra Episode 56 for an apprehensive discussion of this possibility.)

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger won't be surprised by this development. After all, aggressive pressing damaged his side in several high-profile away matches of the 2013-14 campaign. Partially in response, he and his staff installed a 4-1-4-1 setup to relieve the pressure on the midfield, focus on covering space, and enable greater flexibility. (See "A Look at Arsenal's Move to the 4-1-4-1.")

Given that Arsenal haven't been able to enjoy these advantages consistently, it's worth exploring other solutions to the bedevilling pressing tactics.

Going airborne

There seem to be two general answers to the assertive press: 1. Go over it; 2. Go through it.
One way to go over the press more effectively would be to return Wojciech Szczesny to the starting goalkeeper spot. Although Szczesny has made some questionable decisions distributing the ball against the high press, notably leading to Tottenham's opening goal at the Emirates in September's 1-1 draw, he varies his passing more than does current first-choice David Ospina.

As Tim Stillman observes in his recent Arseblog column "Ospina and Szczesny Keep the Debate Going," Szczesny has relied on the long ball much less than Ospina has. The Polish keeper has averaged 4.9 long balls and 23.3 passes per match over his 17 Premier League appearances this season, while his Colombian teammate has made, on average, 14 long balls and 28.8 passes per match in seven league appearances.

Granted, Szczesny has often played without center forward Olivier Giroud, while Giroud has provided a target for Ospina in six of his seven League appearances. That may explain some of the discrepancy, as Stillman admits. Ospina seems to aim most of his kicks at the striker, making it simpler for the opposition to defend. And those kicks haven't been especially long, meaning that the opponents' pressing midfield can swarm Giroud and his midfield passing outlets.

This points to another adjustment to bypass the press--offer a different aerial outlet. We saw this alternative at Palace, as Mesut Özil occupied an advanced position, received some long passes, and controlled the ball to relieve pressure. Arsenal could also move Danny Welbeck up the pitch for goal kicks, giving the goalkeeper another target and dividing defenders' attention. A third option might appear when right back Mathieu Debuchy returns from injury; he's an effective relief valve and long-ball target, much as his predecessor Bacary Sagna was.

Arsenal could also vary the source of the long ball, launching from one of the defenders or a deep-lying midfielder. Mikel Arteta's absence makes this choice less appealing. He attempted, on average, 5.7 long passes per game over the 2012-13 and 2013-14 Premier League campaigns, completing an average of 5.0. Contrast Arteta's work in that regard to the passing of Francis Coquelin, who has attempted just two long passes and completed 1.2, on average, during his 11 Premier League appearances this season.

The land route

The downsides of the aerial approach are the sacrifices of possession and control as well as the invitation of more pressure on the midfield. If the long pass doesn't stick or isn't long enough, the opposition can close down Arsenal quickly. That's why the second approach -- going through the press, is appealing.

The problem is that the best personnel to provide that response were not available at Tottenham or Palace. Arteta's calmness on the ball and passing efficiency would have helped this terrestrial approach. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain'a speed and power may have allowed him to elude and out-muscle aggressive opponents. (See "The Ox Rocks Arsenal 3.0.") Even Jack Wilshere, using ball control and quick surges, might have succeeded in getting through the perilous midfield.

Staying the course

Wenger may weigh these options and decide, based on the personnel at his disposal, to maintain the team's tactics against pressing sides. That would not be an unreasonable decision, especially given the requirement that pressing be precise, tireless, and comprehensive or risk leaving gaps that Arsenal's quick movement, thought, and passing can exploit.

Arsenal's depth also serves the existing approach because it allows the manager to introduce a high-energy substitute like Tomas Rosicky or a high-speed sub like Theo Walcott just as the opponents' energies wane.

The experiences at Tottenham and Palace do suggest, though, that Arsenal's play cannot be passive. The lesson is that even if the Gunners concede possession and look to counter-attack, they need to engage actively for the full period of play.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Mesut Özil Remastered

Arsenal playmaker Mesut Özil has earned widespread acclaim since his mid-January return from a knee injury. This praise marks a change for the club's record signing, who had been a target of criticism for much of his first season and a half in London.

In my view, these negative opinions stemmed from a failure to understand Özil's skill, his subtle contributions, and his mindset. (See "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not" for research and analysis of Özil's psychological advantage.) The spurious nature of the previous criticism notwithstanding, it's clear that Özil has recently improved upon his already world-class standards.

The evidence appears in Özil's physical presence, his statistical production, and his relationships with teammates. Those signs bode well for the team's prospects for the rest of the 2014-15 campaign and for seasons to come.

A remade physique

Three months on the sidelines gave Özil the time to bulk up for the rigors of the Premier League. After his reappearance in January, many remarked on the transformation.


Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger confirmed our perceptions when he told the club Website that "Every day he is in the gym, and he can work on it [getting stronger], and as well you don't have the fatigue of the games. And it's better when you look in the mirror!"

Opponents can't be enjoying what they are seeing. The combination of vision, intelligence, and existing physical gifts with newfound strength makes Özil a formidable midfield presence. Just ask the Aston Villa defenders and midfielders who tried to shove Özil off the ball during Arsenal's 5-0 victory on February 1, Özil's first Premier League start since October 5.

This video compilation is full of physical challenges won by Özil. The most impressive for me happened in the second half, when Arsenal already led comfortably. (It starts at the 7:30 mark of the video.)

Özil takes a pass from Aaron Ramsey near the end line and quickly comes under pressure from Villa's Fabian Delph. Delph slides in and knocks Özil off his feet. Özil regains his footing, shuffles the ball toward the corner flag, and readies himself to be shoved by Delph. Delph shoves him once. Özil moves the ball to his other foot; otherwise, he hardly moves. Delph shoves him again. Özil traps the ball. It takes the intervention of another Villa player, Carles Gil, to clip the ball out of bounds.

Granted, Özil does have a size advantage on Delph, but he doesn't on Villa defender Alan Hutton, whose challenges he also warded off consistently. These were indications of Özil's enhanced strength and determination, to relish contact in a match whose outcome did not hinge on application after Theo Walcott's 63rd-minute goal put Arsenal 3-0 up.

Better numbers

Özil's assertiveness is also appearing in his statistical production. In the six games since his return, admittedly a small sample size that includes matches against two Championship sides and two teams in the bottom half of the Premier League, Arsenal's Number 11 has been more involved in front of goal. He has three goals in 458 minutes of playing time, compared with six in 2,541 minutes of Premier League and FA Cup action in 2013-14. That's 0.59 goals per 90 minutes in 2015, versus 0.213 goals per 90 minutes in the previous competitions. (Stats from  OptaSports via

These goals have come from an increased rate of shots (1.77 per 90 vs. 1.34 per 90) and shots on goal (1.38 per 90 vs. 0.82 per 90). Özil has been efficient with his shots as well, scoring with three of his nine shots. That ratio ranks well above those produced by the Premier League's top goalscorers this season. Last season, he scored six goals on 35 shots in domestic competitions.

Although his production of assists per 90 minutes has actually fallen in 2015 relative to the 2013-14 season, he is setting up teammates much more frequently. He has delivered an eye-catching 3.34 key passes per 90 minutes since his return, including eight in his star turn against Middlesbrough; in the Premier League last season, that figure was 2.82. (Last stat from Optasports via

Perhaps these figures will trend toward those of the previous competitions as Özil and Arsenal face more accomplished opposition. But even if, statistically speaking, Özil's production reverts to the mean, the overall results for Arsenal seem bound to improve.

Chemistry and relationships

That's because Özil's contributions are enhanced by the involvement of his teammates. Unlike last season, when opponents could limit the team's attacking potential by focusing on Özil, the 2014-15 version of Arsenal boasts many weapons.

First, as has been widely observed, the team has more speed. Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck, and Alexis Sanchez can frighten defenses with their speed and receive those passes on the run that Özil has long been adept at delivering. His relationship with Alexis appears especially promising--watch this video for the exchanges between the two in Sunday's FA Cup tie with Middlesbrough for a hint of the potential.

Another benefit Alexis provides Özil is the deflection of the spotlight. Unlike last season, when Özil's record transfer fee created the expectation that he would be an immediate, eye-catching star, this season has brought Alexis's spirit and ability to the fore. This has freed Özil to maximize his introverted genius. (I think this theory was first offered by Arseblog and Gunnerblog on an Arsecast Extra, but I can't find the precise citation.)

From a tactical perspective, Özil's interaction with an outstanding Santi Cazorla has allayed much of the concern that the two could not thrive in the same midfield. What we saw against Middlesbrough, in fact, was an attractive symbiosis. As Adrian Clarke noted in his Breakdown segment on Arsenal Player, the two formed the contest's most frequent passing combination. Cazorla had 129 touches while Özil had 114, so there was plenty of the ball to go around.

There was also plenty of space. Cazorla took up a deeper position, by and large, and Özil focused his activity on the final third, with a slight bias to the left wing. (See the player heatmaps on for a visual representation of the pair's complementary positioning.)

With Alexis, Welbeck, and Oliver Giroud in the forward line, the offensive unit was fast, strong, skillful, and determined. Not every match will provide a platform for such a setup, but it's hard to envisage an encounter in which Arsenal's performance will suffer from the involvement of the freshly masterful Mesut Özil.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Passion of Mikel Arteta

In the month of January, the trials endured by Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta intensified.

Most recently, he had to stand by silently as his employment security came under question. Arteta's agent Inaki Ibanez told Foot Mercato on 27 January that the club had extended the captain's contract until June 2016. Manager Arsène Wenger, however, made no such commitment in his press conference before Sunday's victory over Aston Villa. Asked about Arteta's contract, Wenger said, "We have nothing to announce yet."

These mixed public messages about Arteta's contract appeared while his in-game influence, the most obvious expression of a club's captaincy, was waning. Arteta hasn't featured for the team since departing Arsenal's 2-0 Champions League victory over Borussia Dortmund in late November.

His absence became extended in mid-January when he underwent surgery to repair a bone spur in his ankle. He will likely not recover until mid-April, meaning he won't appear for the first team until May at the earliest. By that point, he will have missed 27 of Arsenal's 38 Premier League fixtures.

Such an inactive season has to be a worry for a soon-to-be 33-year-old and especially for one whose contract ends this summer. He no longer seems indispensable either, due to the assured performances of Francis Coquelin in his position (though Arteta does not seem the type to begrudge teammates their individual successes).

In this context, it would be only a mild surprise -- but a huge sadness for many -- if Arteta doesn't play another competitive match in Arsenal colors.

Arteta's importance

The reason for the sadness is that many will recognize the important role Arteta has played in the club's trajectory. He has ushered the club through the transition from its youth project, a response to the financial restrictions created by the Emirates Stadium construction, to the current and likely last version of Wenger's Arsenal, which I have called "Arsenal 3.0." (See "The Ox Rocks Arsenal 3.0.")

The midfielder arrived from Everton at a tumultuous time and provided a steadying influence. Recall August 2011: Captain and star Cesc Fabregas had demanded a move to Barcelona, while another midfield talent, Samir Nasri, had been sold to Manchester City. The result was an unsettled squad and an 8-2 humiliation at Manchester United.

Yet thanks in part to Arteta's calmness in midfield, Arsenal overcame its early season struggles and finished third in the Premier League, essential for yet another Champions League qualification. Arteta's late strike against Manchester City, giving Arsenal a 1-0 home win in April 2012, was particularly important.

Arteta's contributions deepened and broadened the following season, when he became, with Santi Cazorla, the team's top performer. Some observers, such as 7AM Kickoff's Tim Bostelle, named him their player of the season for 2012-13.

Indeed, Arteta emerged over that campaign and the next as one of the Premier League's standout deep-lying midfielders, as shown in the following statistics from

As with any set of numbers, this one does not tell the whole story. However, the stats do show that Arteta has competed with the best in the Premier League.

Arteta's position among Wenger's captains

Arteta has performed at this high level while equaling or exceeding his counterparts' leadership contributions. Many have watched Arteta's demeanor and concluded that he's not a strong leader because he doesn't point, shout, and intimidate. But his leadership qualities are remarkable in the way they have helped him -- and Arsenal Football Club -- navigate a changing captaincy.

Here are Arsenal's first-team captains during Wenger's 18-year tenure:
  • Tony Adams, 1996-2002
  • Patrick Vieira, 2002-05
  • Thierry Henry, 2005-07
  • William Gallas, 2007-08
  • Cesc Fabregas, 2008-11
  • Robin Van Persie, 2011-12
  • Thomas Vermaelen, 2012-14
  • Mikel Arteta, 2014-present

Setting aside the Gallas disaster, we can discern a trend in the dominant traits of Wenger's captains. The first two, Adams and Vieira, were vocal and tenacious. They were the first into a scrap. Henry was just as tenacious, but in a different way: He was unrelenting in pursuit of goals. He was also obviously the star of the team.

After Henry's departure and the Gallas interregnum, talent defined the next two club captains, Fabregas and Van Persie. They were, like Henry, the headliners of their Arsenal sides; given the inconsistent ability around them, the captaincy may have partly been a tool to secure their loyalty. It failed.

Then came the appointment of Vermaelen. He was not the club's star player, nor was he vocal. Vermaelen's foremost quality was his professionalism. He conducted himself with thoughtfulness and class, and in that way, he became an extension of the club's management. Holding that as a priority guided the choice of Arteta.

Exercising new responsibilities

The qualifications of an Arsenal first-team captain have therefore changed. It's no longer enough to be the club's most vocal, tenacious, or talented player. The captain has to be a professional ambassador for all the club's activities, accomplished in board rooms, with the media, at charity events, with teammates, and with supporters.

Not all clubs are viewing the captaincy in these terms. See Wayne Rooney at Manchester United. But even Joey Barton, the Queen's Park Rangers captain who does not fit the Arteta mold, has hinted at the importance of professional management in a captain, even as he struggles with that aspect of the role. Barton has written: "As captain you are the go-between for the manager and the players on a daily basis. But there are times at football clubs when a captain’s role goes further. This has happened to me at QPR. There can be any number of issues that can cause board members or owners to ask a captain’s opinion."

To represent the players and the club in the modern, corporate game, the captain must take on the duties and qualities of professional management. That's especially true of Arsenal Football Club because it is aware of its position in the public eye. The club's role in the community and its relationships with diverse constituencies call for a captain with leadership skills that go beyond supporting or criticizing teammates during matches.

Wenger and his colleagues appear to have recognized these new requirements when they appointed Vermaelen captain. Arteta's captaincy has solidified the trend, as he has fulfilled the new management role gracefully and perfectly in a season that might have broken the spirits and conduct of lesser characters. This will be a meaningful legacy even if injuries cut short Arteta's tenure as captain.