Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Özil Yin and the Alexis Yang

Since Arsenal playmaker Mesut Özil returned to full-time action in late January, questions have arisen about his compatibility with new teammate Alexis. The two have joined forces in seven matches in 2015, during which Alexis has scored just one goal. That's a significant dropoff from his 13-goal production in 18 games without Özil.

This trend has troubled some supporters and commentators, because they see the integration of these two stars as the key to Arsenal's progress. After all, the club paid the two highest transfer fees in the club's history in 2013 and 2014, respectively, to acquire these remarkable players. In the process, Arsenal signaled its reemergence as a prime destination for world-class talent.

These concerns are misplaced. That's because seven matches, plus 531 minutes in eight matches in fall 2014, don't represent a large enough sample size to declare the two mismatched. More to the point, a close study of their playing styles and ability suggests that the two can emerge as ideal complements.

Playing personalities that jibe

Armchair psychoanalysis of professional athletes is always questionable. We've never spoken with them, and, by and large, we wouldn't be qualified to draw clinical conclusions even if we had met them. We are also wrong to expect elite athletes to behave like we would in high-stakes performance environments; as I've written in "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not," their success depends on their acting not like us.

That said, we can observe their playing personalities. Alexis is all visible action, taking on defenders, pressing with abandon, relishing the spolight. Özil operates in the shadows, exploiting the space no one else sees, directing his teammates into promising positions for themselves, deflecting the attention.

These descriptions give rise to an interesting analysis of Alexis as extrovert and Özil as introvert. FourFourTwo's Chas Newly-Burden lays out this case in a compelling fashion in "Özil, Ronaldo, and Football's Distrust of Introverts."

Because football is a team game, though, what matters is how the players work together. Do their styles, preferences, and abilities -- combined and integrated with those of their teammates -- enhance Arsenal's chances of success?

Complementary expertise

Reasonable supporters, football experts, and appreciators of athletic skill and choreography can't honestly conclude that Arsenal would be a better side without Alexis and/or Özil. The suggestion that the two can't flourish also ignores substantial evidence.

In addition to raising the squad's overall levels of quality and play, Özil and Alexis are an almost ideal attacking partnership. It's been argued that Alexis's reluctance to stay in wide areas, shown by his tendency to dribble toward the center, often crowds Özil out of the Arsenal attack. With a less imaginative playmaker, that might be a legitimate concern. But thanks to Özil's vision and refined sense of playing space, Alexis's forays actually create the conditions in which Özil thrives.

Alexis's zealous excursions, even when they aren't successful, force defenses to change their shapes. In the process, they leave space unoccupied, and Özil is probably the best in the world at identifying that space before anyone else and in exploiting the resulting weakness.

The most striking recent example of this phenomenon occurred in Monaco during the second leg of Arsenal's 2-0 win in the Champions League Round of 16. The play preceded Arsenal's second goal and appears in this video starting at the 8:25 mark.

For the entire match, Monaco had been surrounding Alexis with two, three, and sometimes four players. Özil recognized this tendency and the weakness it created elsewhere.

In this instance, Özil has the ball when Alexis drifts parallel to goal, just outsize the penalty area. Monaco midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia is between the two Arsenal players, but that's not enough coverage to execute Monaco's gameplan.

So Monaco's right midfielder Dirar and right back Fabinho both step toward Alexis. This leaves a gaping hole down Arsenal's left for left back Nacho Monreal to exploit. Özil spots the space and Monreal's run and lifts a pass over all the Monaco defenders, catching Monreal in stride and allowing him to cut the ball back to Theo Walcott. Walcott's shot off the post rebounds to Aaron Ramsey, who shoots home.

Adapting to opponents' adaptations

This combination of awareness and skill is essential because the majority of opponents, like Monaco, are now hyper-conscious of the threat Alexis poses. Premier League sides Crystal Palace, Everton, and Newcastle were all notable in their focus on Alexis, double- and triple-teaming him in an apparent effort to force other Arsenal players to beat them. Indeed, center forward Olivier Giroud's impressive productivity in recent matches might be a consequence of this defensive attention on Alexis.

The player heatmaps and other visualizations on (originating with OptaSports) and the match chalkboards on show the priority many opponents are now placing on stopping Alexis. Everton sent out three defensive-minded central midfielders, Gareth Barry, James McCarthy, and Muhamed Besic, two of whom largely focused on Alexis's side of the pitch, Arsenal's left. All but one of Barry's and McCarthy's successful tackles occurred on that side, and all their interceptions happened there.

Arsenal varied its attacks as a result. It pushed forward on its left 37 percent of the time, right 37 percent, and centrally 27 percent.

Against Crystal Palace, the attacks went predominantly down the left (again, 37 percent), where Alexis spent most of his time. Palace's primary method of coping with Alexis was to foul him. He drew four fouls, the most among Arsenal players in that match, contributing to his total of 57. That's the fourth-highest figure in the Premier League. (Stats from OptaSports via and from

These decisions by opponents might be related to Alexis's reduced goalscoring, as much if not more than his tiring or misfiring are. Whatever the mix of factors, the genius and skill of Özil have intervened to provide the perfect complement and to lead Arsenal to success so far in 2015.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Theo Walcott & Arsenal's Best Attack

As Arsenal forward Theo Walcott returned from a 12-month injury layoff in January, he praised his teammates' collective attacking talent. Walcott, typically a measured interviewee, made what was for him a bold statement to the club's Website.

After describing the qualities of newcomers Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, Walcott identified other members of the Arsenal attack and said, "And the list goes on, that's how good we are going forward. It's a headache for the manager when you have that many great attacking options. When I came, it was Pires and Ljungberg, Bergkamp, Thierry and Reyes - that’s some attacking force as well. I think this squad probably does beat it, but we need to prove it first."

Some observers took this as provocation and rejected the notion that Arsenal's current attack is better than the legendary strikeforce of the early 2000's. The more interesting twist is that Walcott's assessment relegates him to a less vital role in the squad, a position likely to affect his contract negotiations.

Comparing firepower

It's always problematic to compare statistics across sports campaigns; after all, field conditions, managerial decisions, injuries, the quality of opponents, training methods, team chemistry and turnover, and many other factors affect production. Still, this kind of analysis can be interesting and might help us weigh Walcott's statement.

In the current Premier League campaign, Arsenal have scored 56 goals in 29 matches. That's a rate of 1.93 goals per match, on pace for 73 league goals. This production would rank third among Arsenal's past six league seasons and is far off the 2.29 goal-per-match pace set by the 2004-05 team, the most prolific of manager Arsène Wenger's tenure with 87 goals.

Those numbers don't support Walcott's assertion--at least not to date.

Let's also consider how broad the contributions have been, because that might indicate an overall level of talent in line with Walcott's argument. Arsenal currently have the highest number of goalscorers in the league. Fifteen Gunners have scored, led by Alexis with 13 and Olivier Giroud with 11. Manchester City and Chelsea have each seen 13 players score.

In the record-setting 2004-05 league season, only 14 Arsenal players marked their names on the score sheet. Thierry Henry had the largest contribution, 25 goals. It's also worth noting that the 2009-10 team's 83 goals (2.18 per game) came from 18 players, the most broadly productive of Wenger's Arsenal squads.

Walcott wasn't performing a quantitative analysis, to be fair. He was looking at his teammates and their quality and drawing a conclusion about their potential potency. Forwards Alexis, Giroud, Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Walcott himself; attacking midfielders Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, and Tomas Rosicky; and central midfielders Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere do, on paper, make up an awesome array of offensive talent.

Theo's participation

In this context, the status and future of Walcott have become popular discussion points among Arsenal supporters. Tim Stillman has written some compelling pieces for Arseblog, most recently "Can Theo Walcott Dance to Arsenal's New Tune," examining the issues Walcott faces as he rejoins the team.

What seems clear is that Walcott is no longer an automatic starter, as he was, for example, in 2011-12, when he started 32 league games. His first appearance this season was in the 2-0 loss at Southampton on January 1. Including that match, Arsenal have played 10 league contests for which Walcott was available. He started just three of those matches and made five appearances as a substitute.

No one is suggesting that Walcott should have started all 10 of those matches; he had just returned from a major knee injury. And he did start two of the club's four FA Cup matches, came on as a substitute in one other, and saw time in both Champions League matches against Monaco. This seems like a reasonable number of appearances in 11 weeks. (Appearance stats are from OptaSports via

The extent of those appearances has raised questions, though. Walcott has played a total of 514 minutes, while the team has run out for 1440 (16 matches) since his January 1 return.

Wenger has acknowledged his reluctance to use the England man. "I have been holding him back," the manager told the Arsenal Website on March 13, "because he has been out for a long time and for the fact there is intense competition."

Whither Theo?

That squares with Walcott's own assessment of the talent around him, but it glosses over the issue of his fit with his new teammates and their revised style of play. With a mix of coordinated pressing and disciplined defending now expected of all 10 outfield players, Walcott's primary assets of speed and finishing aren't sufficient. (See Stillman's aforementioned article and "We Need to Talk about Theo" and Anam Hassan's "Tactics Column: Walcott on the Periphery, Ramsey, Giroud on Top Form" on Arseblog for deeper analyses.)

Indeed, the manager has hinted at this gap between Walcott's skills and the enhanced expectations. "When you have the ball in the modern game you have to attack, when you don’t have the ball you have to defend," Wenger said. "All the players who can’t do that, cannot play."

In Alexis, Welbeck, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Giroud, and even Cazorla, who has displayed a defensive ability to go along with his eye-catching control and passing skills, Arsenal have a large contingent of players who meet those modern requirements. So as much as the multiple attacking options that Walcott identified have displaced him, the expectations of defensive contributions make him less essential to the team than he's been since his breakthrough.

That makes the renewal of Walcott's contract, which ends in June 2016, a tricky proposition.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Good, the Bad, the Amazingly Coiffed Olivier Giroud

Arsenal center forward Olivier Giroud received widespread condemnation for his performance in the club's 3-1 home Champions League defeat to Monaco. The criticism wasn't entirely unwarranted: Giroud had misfired on six shots, failed to complete eight of his 18 passes, and went off defeated midway through the second half.

The interesting development wasn't Giroud's failure in that match; it was his response. When manager Arsène Wenger trusted Giroud with a starting spot four days after the Monaco loss, he scored Arsenal's crucial opening goal against Everton. He did the same three days after that against Queen's Park Rangers.

"He's strong mentally," Wenger said of his compatriot after Wednesday's match. "He can take some criticism and respond. He's shown that. I feel it was a bit harsh for him because he missed some chances. That can happen."

This fortitude, which few people outside professional athletic circles can comprehend, may make Giroud the ideal Arsenal striker from a psychological perspective.

How to stand tall in a storm

Center forwards at Arsenal are lightning rods. Fans, pundits, and other observers see the shortcomings of the leader of the team's attacking line and use that criticism to bash Wenger. There are three main reasons for this:
  1. Many watch football for the exploits of goal scorers
  2. The model of the Arsenal striker was established and perfected by Thierry Henry
  3. The "value-oriented" approach to player acquisition has been most obvious in pursuit of strikers

Until the summer of 2014, when the dearth of world-class central defenders drove the price of David Luiz to £50 million, acquiring an elite forward was the transaction most subject to the irrational forces of the player transfer market. (I wrote about this last summer in "Who Is This Mythical Arsenal Striker?") It just wasn't possible to get the services of a proven goalscorer for the prices Arsenal have been able or willing to pay. Arsenal supporters bemoaned this reality and its implications for their club's standing among the elites.

These laments, of course, conveniently overlook the status of Henry when Arsenal bought him from Juventus. Although the club paid a record £11 million to acquire him in 1999, Henry had only scored three goals in one season at Juventus and a total of 28 in five previous seasons with Monaco.

Yet he emerged as the top striker of the Premier League era and the ideal in that position among Arsenal supporters--the thin, fast, cool, smart, and lethal predator. That became the aesthetic expectation.

Giroud, much like the Henry of 1999, does not meet this expectation. However, his mental makeup appears to equip him perfectly for the current football culture. He is confident but not so confident that he doesn't recognize the need to improve, particularly in the face of direct competition from newcomer Danny Welbeck. He acknowledges criticism but does not let it paralyze him. And he risks failure to achieve success. (Without engaging in too much armchair psychoanalysis here, I must note that Giroud's handsomeness might be an asset in all these respects.)

Improvements in skill and instinct

Many have analyzed Giroud's awareness, strength, and touch and have deemed him vital to Arsenal's style of play. Without those attributes, the skillful attacking play of Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, and Tomas Rosicky and the speed of Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott, Welbeck, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain lack a foundation. His three-month absence due to injury in the second Premier League match of the season coincided with the team's most tentative offensive displays.

Since his return in late November, Giroud has shown newly keen instincts in front of goal, finding or creating space in crowded areas and scoring timely goals. His savvy is a major reason that Arsenal's performance on set pieces has improved so dramatically: Through 28 matches, Arsenal have scored 10 goals from free kicks and corners this season, compared with eight all of last season. (From's Team Rankings)

We saw this contribution on his goal against Everton. As his teammate Gabriel ran toward the near post, Giroud pulled back into the space Gabriel and his marker Gareth Barry had vacated, just slipping away from Everton defender John Stones. Giroud then caught Özil's cross on the volley with his weaker right foot and directed it into the far corner of the net.

Against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup, Giroud spotted empty space at the near post, a frequent hunting ground for him, darted toward it and volleyed Alexis's quickly taken corner into the net with his left foot. He was also expertly positioned to prod home a rebound against Crystal Palace and a blocked shot against QPR.

These four recent Giroud goals indicate a varied approach, an important quality that prevents defenders from predicting the location or timing of the danger he poses.

Numbers among the best

As a result, Giroud has emerged as one of the top strikers in the Premier League. He's not the absolute best, as Henry was, but he is competitive with other widely lauded forwards. The stats below from OptaSports via provide evidence of Giroud's growing stature:


He's fractionally behind Manchester City's Sergio Aguero and Chelsea's Diego Costa in goals per 90 minutes and level with Tottenham's Harry Kane, while scoring more from fewer shots than all of them except Costa.

These aren't the numbers of the worthless lug many Arsenal supporters have portrayed Giroud to be. Instead, Giroud appears to be making remarkable progress. His goal production per 90 minutes was 0.4 in his first Arsenal season and improved only slightly to 0.5 in 2013-14. Those came from 4.1 and 3.3 shots per 90 minutes, respectively.

His current 0.8 goals per 90 minutes ratio would, over the course of a full season, amount to something in the neighborhood of 30 goals. Although we should be wary of projecting a full season's performance from one particularly productive period, it's possible that Giroud is becoming the perfect combination of mentality and skill to lead the Arsenal line.