There’s an opinion that here in the United Kingdom, the media and managers, among other members of the footballing community, don’t put enough emphasis on tactics, which has apparently contributed to some failings on the European and world stage. This is perhaps true; some newspapers rarely ever delve into the somewhat-unfamiliar-to-them world of tactics, while the likes of Tony Pulis and Harry Redknapp sometimes seem to think that shouting louder or doling out more pats on the back for players is more effective than tweaking with the finer details of the game plan.
However, this disregard towards tactics seems to be slowly but surely fading away. In the media you have the likes of Michael Cox further making his mark and being taken more seriously (except by Owen Coyle, bless his soul), while managers like Paul Lambert, a purveyor of a 4-3-1-2 formation among several others this season, and Brendan Rodgers, a one-time protégé of Jose Mourinho and an advocate of tiki-taka, are both on the rise.
It would seem that the influences of foreign football have led to Lambert and Rodgers’ tactical approaches to the game. While neither Pulis or Redknapp have played or managed outside of the UK, Lambert played for a year at Borussia Dortmund, and is likely to have experienced different methods to those we see here at times (a preference for man management over tactics). With Lambert, the mere fact that he went abroad to play football shows an openness to other cultures and other countries.
With new Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, it’s a little different. While foreign football did not make its mark on him through a career elsewhere, the influences of a different footballing culture found him; Jose Mourinho employed Rodgers at Chelsea as the manager of his reserves side.
While the footballing philosophy Rodgers has had in place at Swansea is quite different to the style Mourinho imposed on his Chelsea side while the Northern Irishman was there – and it’s likely that ‘the Special One’ requested a similar set-up for the reserves to make the transition easier for reserve players to the first team – it can be suggested that Mourinho’s different approach inspired Rodgers to think outside the box too. After all, it was Mourinho who pioneered the move from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1/4-3-3 in the Premier League.
Rodgers’ excellent attention for detail is outlined superbly here at The Path is Made By Walking, and clearly it is this approach to the game that has helped to mould the Swansea side which has won so many plaudits this past season for their footballing style, which is seen by many as a breath of fresh air.
It’s a relief to see attention to tactics paying off, as it will hopefully spread across the Premier League and mean we see better English managers; when Harry Redknapp was forced down our throats as the only candidate for the England job, it became apparent that we have very few good English managers, and this can partly be attributed to a fear of/stubbornness towards trying new things, meaning both careers in foreign countries and different approaches to the game.
Rodgers is not like that – he once said he felt he was from “a different bottle” to the majority of British football managers – and he has reaped the rewards of his analytical, intelligent approach this season. Liverpool will be a different challenge; when he arrived at Swansea, there were already foundations firmly in place to create a side immersed in tiki-taka, while the likes of Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam (prince of the “Hollywood” pass – the king is team-mate Steven Gerrard) might need a little more coaching.
Kenny Dalglish also seemed reluctant to focus too much on tactics at Liverpool – he at times appeared out of touch with the modern game, and it may be that his absence from management meant his approach was too out-dated to work – and a problem that Liverpool faced was that they never seemed to have a set style. This might actually work in Rodgers’ favour though, as he won’t have a firmly imposed blueprint to rip up and start anew from.
If you believe the rumours, Rodgers refused to work under a Director of Football at Liverpool, and this stance of desire for full control most likely means that he wants to impose his own style on the team, and wants as much freedom to do so as possible. It may take a while for this philosophy to settle in at Liverpool, as players will have to adjust and any new signings will have to settle in, but he proved at Swansea that with the right players his methods work very well.
Sadly, last weekend’s match against Newcastle didn’t go at all like I expected. Instead of having a go at a somewhat weakened Arsenal, Newcastle stuck to the proven formula of how to frustrate Arsenal, by sitting deep and narrow, and making Arsenal use the wide areas. Arsenal, however, still could’ve won the match if their end product had been any better; both Gervinho and Andrey Arshavin got behind the Newcastle fullbacks but too often had their final balls cut out.
Furthermore, Arsenal’s midfield setup caused some confusion. Instead of playing the 4-2-3-1 that was used throughout the past two seasons, Arsenal played the 4-1-2-3 that was used at the beginning of the 2009/10 season. While it still broadly uses the same structure as the 4-2-3-1, there are two key difference: First off, there isn’t a playmaker behind the striker, which allows for sharing of playmaking duties and allows for greater space for the two advanced midfielders, especially if the opposition centre backs are pulled out of position by Robin van Persie’s tendency to drop deep, as shown below. The second difference is that the holding midfielder has more space to cover, meaning Alex Song was at times overstretched in the first time, and got booked.
The problem on Saturday was that neither Ramsey nor Rosicky took advantage of the space and didn’t drive forward, leaving Gervinho and Arshavin a paucity of options in the area. On Tuesday night against Udinese, Ramsey’s forward movement was much better, and he took a right wing position for the goal as Marouane Chamakh dropped deep and Theo Walcott popped up in the centre forward spot. Tuesday night, though, emphasised the need for a replacement of Cesc Fabregas. Tomas Rosicky had a good game Saturday against Newcastle, but had very little pressure applied to him.
Udinese were a different story, and when they began to press in the midfield, Arsenal lost the midfield. According to UEFA stats (which differ from OPTA, oddly), only Aaron Ramsey completed 80% or more of his passes among Arsenal midfielders. By continually giving the ball away, Arsenal put themselves under pressure, as Udinese kept on attacking and winning the midfield. Ironically, it lead to the same strategy that is usually used to frustrate Arsenal: Defend deeply, and defend narrowly, and play long balls in the channels. Bringing on Emmanuel Frimpong eventually settled down the midfield, even though the debutant gave away several dangerous free kicks.
What then, for Liverpool? It appears Samir Nasri may play his last game for the club, and it’ll be interesting to see where he plays. Arsenal have lacked creativity in the midfield so far, and one option would be to put Andrey Arshavin behind Robin van Persie, dropping Aaron Ramsey deeper. Arshavin played in the middle to great effect for Russia in the 2008 European Championships and for Zenit St Petersburg. Putting him in the middle gives him more freedom, and, so far, he has played the best pass from the middle this year. Arshavin also has habits that would let him make forward, untracked runs beyond Robin van Persie, allowing him to score like Cesc Fabregas often did.
With Arshavin unlikely to play in a 3 man midfield, playing 4-2-3-1 would mean there is less stress on Emmanuel Frimpong in his first Premier League start, and with Aaron Ramsey’s wonderful range of passing, possession would be retained better.
As for defending against Liverpool, players like Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam are less effective when pressed. Arsenal showed this in last year’s 3-1 defeat of Blackpool, where Adam made about 50% of his passes, and was unusually quiet. Downing is a player who goes through hot and cold patches, but if he isn’t given space, he can’t deliver dangerous crosses for Andy Carroll, so Bacary Sagna will have to get tight.
Furthermore, Arsenal will have to be wary about Carroll and the long ball threat. Despite promising a more pass and move style, Carroll still received 40 long balls, mostly in the area where a defensive midfielder would be stationed. With the aggressive style of Arsenal’s centre backs, Carroll may find him up against a centre back rather than Emmanuel Frimpong and thus using him as a target man to relieve pressure may be nullified. If Arsenal can do this, they can stop a major threat of Liverpool’s attack.
I’m delighted to welcome Simon Furnivall as a guest poster on CoA. A Liverpool fan, here he talks about how Michael Thomas broke his five-year-old heart. Enjoy.
“Thomas, it’s up for grabs now!”
Those words still hurt me. I was just shy of my sixth birthday, but I still remember it as if it were yesterday. The crushing disappointment, the broken heart of a sports fan, to my dying day I will never be able to forgive Arsenal for inflicting that pain.
My first memory of anything to do with football is the 1988 FA Cup final. As the son of a man who grew up on the Kop, a man who had been at Heysel, the fact that I was born in Leeds was not going to have any say on the matter, I was destined to be Red through and through. I was told stories of the glory days of league titles and European Cups, I grew up safe in the knowledge that Liverpool were the greatest team in history.
Lawrie f***ing Sanchez fairly quickly shattered that illusion. But it mattered not, we were still league champions, still the best. I don’t remember much of the detail of the ’88-’89 season – save for the fact that I fell deeply in love with John Barnes – but May 26th 1989 is burned on my memory, and you’re crazy if you think I had to look up that date.
Back in those days a live televised match still generated excitement. We had won the FA Cup just six days earlier – a cathartic moment after the horrors of Hillsborough – and I remember the thrill of anticipation growing throughout the day.
My dad was working away for the day, down in Oxford or some such place, and wasn’t going to be back in time for kick off. We had arranged that my mum would tape the game and when my dad got home he would get me up and we would watch it together, ‘as live’.
Being a cheeky little b*****d, however, I spent the entire evening after getting home from school bugging my mum to let me watch the game live, then again when my dad got home. Eventually she gave in, but first made me promise that I wouldn’t let on that I knew the score.
Despite my tender years, I fully grasped the fact that Arsenal had to beat us 2-0, and just how unlikely that was. I had grown up with ‘This is Anfield’ still putting the fear of God into opposing sides, and we simply didn’t lose at home.
A goalless first half and things were looking rosy. Two seasons and two titles and an FA Cup, my football supporting career was getting off to a pretty good start. Even Alan Smith’s 52nd minute header didn’t overly perturb me. I was soon back to thinking everything was rosy and lifting my imaginary league trophy to the sky.
At some point towards the end of the game I had started doing laps of honour around the living room. I was probably jogging past the imaginary Kemlyn Road stand in my front room when Brian Moore uttered his immortal line; I certainly wasn’t looking at the TV. I turned round just in time to see the ball rolling back out of the net and Michael Thomas doing his weird backflip celebration as hundred of Liverpool fans streamed out of the exits behind him.
The immediate feeling was one of utter betrayal. Liverpool won league titles, they didn’t lose them. Liverpool won at Anfield, they didn’t lose by two goals in matches of monumental importance. I couldn’t quite process what had happened, other than to explode in a flood of tears.
My mum comforted me then shepherded me off to bed, but I couldn’t settle. I got back up and wandered around, eventually sitting at the top of the stairs, tears still streaming down my cheeks. When my dad walked in the front door, the first thing he was was me, inconsolable, and he instantly knew what had happened. To this day he has never watched that game.
It is said that it’s the hard times which define us as sports fans. They bring us together, and it is certainly having tasted the lows that make the highs all the more enjoyable. Twenty-two years later, however, the pain is still as raw as it was then. No matter how much beautiful football Arsenal now play, no matter that Thomas went on to score in the 1992 FA Cup Final in a Liverpool shirt, I will never be able to forgive them for the day that Michael Thomas broke my heart.
Only the Arsenal could give us such unconfined joy, before sending us into depression in a matter of minutes.
Only the Arsenal could take the lead with a 98th minute penalty, before conceding another in the 101st, throwing away a title challenge in the process.
The game will be analysed over and over again, with many pointing to different reasons for our draw. Some say bad luck, some say lack of effort, some say poor tactics. Others point to the referee. Some would just argue that our players aren’t good enough.
Perhaps, though, it’s a combination of those reasons. It was bad luck that Koscielny hit the bar with his perfectly timed leap and header. Bad luck that the referee was conned by Lucas. There seemed to be a lack of effort in the final third, but things just weren’t clicking for us. The tactics just weren’t working – they rarely do against teams that defend deep and in numbers. The referee should have blown up before Liverpool even got the free kick in the first place. The players weren’t good enough on the day, as we didn’t create enough chances.
We were pretty close to full strength, so no excuses there really. Song may have been missing, but Diaby put in a pretty decent shift again. There was a massive lack of cutting edge in attack. There was one period of play where it was desperately obvious what it was we were missing. All it took was a one-touch pass from Cesc to Nasri, who immediately flicked it into van Persie, and on another day, the keeper doesn’t manage to get a hand to it. That’s what we need to be doing – one-touch football that bamboozles the opponent.
But instead, we play an unbelievably slow game. Players spend ages on the ball, there’s no movement, and they don’t even try to shoot when left with pretty much no other option. The mentality is wrong in attack. We wait, and wait and wait for the space to just magically appear. We can’t do that, we need to create the space ourselves with our own speed of thought and movement. My mind drifts back to Samir Nasri’s second goal against Manchester United a couple of years ago. It was a multi-pass move that got us in a decent position in the opposition’s half. Suddenly Walcott sped across the Manchester United defence, confusing them, and Vidic had to go with him. This opened up the space for Fabregas to find Nasri, who scored.
Where’s that change of pace now? We saw it in van Persie’s chance, but other than that, it was non-existent. We’re too one paced. But the formation and tactics don’t help. The one striker we play isn’t an out and out striker. He’s done brilliantly to score as many as he has done, but he’s more of a Bergkamp player. We really need that Henry to play ahead of him. Can Walcott be that player? Hopefully. Time will tell.
But this team is a shadow of the side that crushed Chelsea 3-1. Cesc had a poor game. Theo couldn’t get the better of an inexperienced full back. Robin couldn’t get the chances and when he did he didn’t take them. Nasri was lacklustre, just like the whole team. But why could we not close the game out? You can say what you want about the (ridiculous) amount of time added on at the end of the added time. But we should have been able to keep the ball away from our goal. But we couldn’t.
Arshavin and Bendtner didn’t change the game much, but put themselves about which was good to see. It was also good that Arshavin got a huge cheer when he came on, which would have helped him. What wouldn’t have helped the team was the incessant groan every time a ball was misplaced. Then the players become afraid of trying the difficult passes – the passes that win you games – because they’re worried that the crowd will get on their backs. Maybe that’s the reason we’re better away from home these days. Because the away fans don’t constantly turn on the players.
There seems to be a “them and us” mentality at the Club these days. It seems like the fans and the staff (not just the players) are part of two separate factions. That shouldn’t be our attitude at all. Everyone at the Club has one common goal, for Arsenal Football Club to be successful. We should be striving together to reach that goal, everyone pulling in the same direction and doing whatever we can to get that success. But no.
It seems like some people have forgotten this great Club’s motto. Victoria Concordia Crescit – Victory Through Harmony. Some people need to read the definition of the word harmony, because they’re definitely not showing it right now. There are some really fickle “supporters” who forget that being a football fan is all about the lows as well as the highs. It’s the lows that make the highs so thrilling. Remember that amazing top of the world feeling of beating Barcelona, the world’s best team? That wouldn’t have come around without the low of losing 2-0 to Braga and 2-1 to Shakhtar. Going back a while longer, if hadn’t drawn to Wimbledon in the penultimate game of the 1988/89 season, one of the greatest moments in the Club’s history would not exist. It wouldn’t have been “up for grabs now”, as it would have already been clinched.
And it’s not as if it’s mathematically impossible for us to win the league. It seems silly to hope, given what’s happened in the past, but what’s the use in giving up? At this Club, we don’t give up until the bitter end, until the fat lady is well and truly singing. It may seem hopeless, but as long as there’s a chance, we should be getting behind our team and singing at the top of our lungs, to desperately help the team win. If we win our remaining games, and Chelsea beat Man United, regardless of what happens in United’s other games (ours excluded, as I’m counting that in our games) we’ll be level on points with them. If we can boost our goal difference, we have a good shout of bringing the title to the Emirates. It may be six points, but stranger things have happened.
Now all we can do is focus on a massive North London Derby on Wednesday evening. The players must know how important a game it is. Let’s hope we get all three points.