Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pressing, and what can Arsenal learn from Barcelona?

Think back to Arsenal's first match of the season: 6-1 away to Everton. While the result was remarkable for the amount of goal's that Arsenal scored it was also remarkable for the way Arsenal pressed. Everton were hardly allowed time on the ball, and they gave the ball away a lot. One example of a goal created by pressing was Arsenal's fourth: Arshavin won it from Hibbert, and Arsenal were away. Pressing continued against Portsmouth, Celtic, Man United and Man City, and Arsenal were fairly unlucky to lose in those last 2 games. Yet, what has happened to the pressing that Arsenal employed earlier in the season?

In a recent article in the Guardian, tactical genius, and author of the excellent book, Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson discussed pressing. He writes here

"Without the ball," Pep Guardiola said after last season's Champions League final, "we are a disastrous team, a horrible team, so we need the ball." It is a sentence that could equally be used of Arsenal: of course they are much better in possession than out of it. The difference is that Barcelona are much better at regaining possession than Arsenal.

After 20 minutes last Wednesday, Barcelona had had 72% of the possession, a barely fathomable figure against anybody, never mind against a side so noted for their passing ability as Arsenal. Their domination in that area came not so much because they are better technically – although they probably are – but because they are better at pressing. In that opening spell, Barça snapped into tackles, swirled around Arsenal, pressured them even deep in their own half. It was a remorseless, bewildering assault; there was no respite anywhere on the pitch, not even when the ball was rolled by the goalkeeper to a full-back just outside the box.

He then further goes on to describe pressing, as quoted from Valeryi Lobanovskyi, the father of modern day pressing:

In The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, the book he co-wrote with Anatoliy Zelentsov, Lobanovskyi lays out three different kinds of pressing. There is full-pressing, when opponents are hounded deep in their own half; half-pressing, when opponents are closed down only as they cross halfway; and there is false pressing, when a team pretends to press, but doesn't – that is, one player would close down the man in possession, while the others would sit off.

It is full-pressing that Arsenal employed in the opening matches, and through that they had a lot of the ball; even away to Manchester United they had 53% possession, and away to Manchester City they also had 53% possession. However, injuries, tiredness, and players playing unfamiliar roles, like Arshavin at centre forward, meant that the full pressing went out the window.

There are also obvious problems with full pressing, and a perfect example of the problems are in the 2-2 draw with Barcelona. When teams full press, they become vulnerable to quick counter attacks, or long balls over the top. Full pressing also makes a team get tired, which is why Barcelona were not as good for the final 20 minutes as they were for the first 70 in that 2-2 draw, and they were vulnerable to the quick pace of Theo Walcott. Arsenal have also been vulnerable to quick counter attacks when pressing, as against Manchester City, Chelsea, Everton in that 2-2 draw, Manchester United, and Chelsea again. After that last Chelsea game, Arsene Wenger made a bit of a switch, pushing Cesc Fabregas up, and also not having players full press. Arsenal false pressed more often, and while they didn't concede as many, they didn't score as many, evident by the amount of late goals we've had to score this year. Against Barcelona though, we couldn't get away with not full pressing, as they had all the time in the world on the ball, and they punished us, scoring 6 in 2 games. We were also punished against Tottenham and Wigan; Danny Rose had a lot of time for his first goal, even though it was a wonder strike, and against Wigan, in those final 10 minutes, Wigan had lots of time on the ball (see their first goal, and their third), though that can also be attributed to lack of mental focus.

So what's next for Arsenal, mainly, what kind of pressing should they do next year? Obviously, full pressing, while extremely effective is also hard to do for 90 minutes. For an answer to that, I'll turn again to Wilson:

Particularly against technically gifted opponents, Lobanovskyi would have his sides perform the full-press early to rattle them, after which false pressing would often be enough to induce a mistake – and often, of course, his side would be comfortably ahead after the period of full-pressing.

Next year, that should be the Arsenal game plan. We have one of the fittest teams in the league, as evident in all the late goals, and they should be able to press, not fully for 90 minutes, but press enough that they can win the ball back, as Arsenal try and conquer the last divide that separates them from Barcelona (aside from Barcelona having much more technically gifted players than us).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Wigan 3-2 Arsenal: What the hell happened there?

Earlier in the season, Arsenal pressed hard, they won the ball back, and they scored lots of goals. Against us last week, Barcelona did the same thing. Did Arsenal start to press again? No, but the teams they played, Tottenham and Wigan did press, and they won the 2 games. Arsenal didn't press, they didn't defend as a unit, and that cost them. If these same players had played Wigan in the beginning of the season, when Arsenal were pressing, they would've won the game comfortably.
Arsenal were very poor yesterday; they looked tired, they defended poorly, and their heads weren't in it. They passed poorly, 74%, and they allowed Wigan to get back in the game.

by Guardian Chalkboards
Arsenal's passing was poorer than usual, and Wigan were allowed back in the game.
Still, at 2-0 up, Arsenal should've held on to the lead, but they didn't. Defensive frailties, like Fabianski dropping the ball on Bramble's head (was Almunia really injured), and Silvestre being beaten easily (he actually had a decent game), but a major problem was holding the ball. Arsene Wenger said as much, and that issue was compoinded by Sol Campbell and Mikael Silvestre hoofing the ball in later periods.

If anything., late wins against Stoke, Wolves and Hull have shown that in the dying minutes the ball needs to be played on the ground, not hoofed in the air. Wenger also said the team became complacent, and changes should've been made to rectify that; starting from the 65th minute, Wigan, who had shown little, got into the ascendency. In the end, the subs were ineffectual and too late, and Wigan took advantage.

by Guardian Chalkboards
Wigan had control atfer their first goal went in, and Arsenal struggled to get the ball and get forward, and their second goal was fairly inevitable.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Revival of 4-2-4

Recently, the two teams playing pass and move football, Barcelona and Arsenal, have switched to a 4-2-4 variation formation. And with Arsenal only 3 points behind Chelsea, and Barcelona joint top in Spain, and in the semi finals of the European Cup, there is a good chance that a major competition could be won by a team playing 4-2-4 for the first time since 1970.
What Happened to 4-2-4?
The problem with 4-2-4 is that the midfield gets overrun fairly easily. While it worked during the 60s, and fairly early 70s many managers realised that when possession was lost, it was increasingly difficult to win possession back. Because of this reason, 4-4-2, developed independently of each other in Russia and England by Viktor Maslor and Alf Ramsey. Argentina too, played a 4 man diamond. The death bell was sounding for 4-2-4, and Rinus Michels joined other managers when he realised that 4-2-4 would not work for Ajax. He played 4-3-3, and in the 1974 Final, both teams, Holland and West Germany, played 4-3-3. The age of the 4-2-4 was over, and teams were moving to 4-4-2, catenaccio or giocco al'Italia, 4-5-1, 4-3-3, or the newest formation, 3-5-2, that was developed in 1986 by Carlos Bilardo. In that final, West Germany played 5-3-2, and, as Jonathan Wilson put it, the pyramid was inverted. The days of the 4-2-4 and it's free scoring were over, as the 1990 World Cup had one of the lowest amounts of goals in it. FIFA outlawed the backpass and the tackle from behind, but the 4-2-4 still looked very dead.
Yet 4-2-4 was not dead. In fact, did it even die?
One of the last teams to successfully play 4-2-4 was Brazil 1970. However, with Jairzinho and Rivellino playing slightly behind Tostao, and Pele dropping off, what was their formation but 4-2-3-1? 4-2-3-1 is just a slight variation of 4-3-3 or 4-5-1; if it's 4-3-3, just have the wingers drop back a little, and have a midfielder advance, and it becomes 4-2-3-1. Or, it was a variation of 4-4-2; have a striker drop back, wingers push up, and you have 4-2-3-1. The credit in Spain for inventing 4-2-3-1 goes to Juan Manuel Lillo when he was in charge of 3rd Division Cultural Leonesa in 1991/92; it was transported to England when Manchester United adopted the formation after losing to Real Madrid in 2000, though Alex Ferguson claimed he has always played with split forwards. France won Euro 2000 with it, and 4-2-3-1 is now a fairly common formation; looking at the Guardian's Squad Sheets for the weekend's games, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City are all expected to line up in that formation, and England, once the standard bearer for 4-4-2 has now switched to 4-2-3-1. And with 4 defenders, 2 midfielders and 4 attacking players, what is 4-2-3-1 but 4-2-4?
Arsenal and Barcelona
That brings us to Arsenal and Barcelona.
Both teams independently came to their 4-2-4 variants after some problems with their preferred 4-3-3. For Arsenal, as described here, the issue was being suspect to counter attacks after defeats to United and Chelsea. Abou Diaby dropped back into the midfield, the wingers drop slightly deeper and Cesc Fabregas played like a ponta da lanca, off of Nikclas Bendtner (that role is now Samir Nasri's after Fabregas' injury). This article in Zonal Marking covers Barcelona's switch; here, Lionel Messi drops back, Andres Iniesta pushes up, and either Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Thierry Henry plays as the number 9, with Henry being more of a false 9. Both are fairly similar, except that with Barcelona's formation, it was a midfielder being pushed up on the left, and Messi, they're most creative player dropping into that playmaker's role, while at Arsenal, it was Fabregas playing in the playmaker's role. Both formations could easily be described as 4-2-3-1, and maybe they should be, but with the 4 attackers being higher up than they would be in a 4-2-3-1 (which can be attributed to the amount of possession both teams have), it's more accurate to describe them as 4-2-4, which, as a formation is having it's swansong before it sweeps into obsolescence for the final time.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Defensive frailties the difference

Arsenal can take a lot from this two-legged tie with Barcelona. They showed us how to press well, and their passing was great. For Arsenal tonight, we need to take the positives, which I guess can be we scored. Defensive frailties were a major difference between Arsenal and Barcelona; while it was a Barca mistake for the first goal, Silvestre played a 1-2 with Messi. The second goal was just an excellent team goal all around, again Silvestre at fault a bit, and the third goal was a typical Arsenal goal to concede. Vermaelen goes forward, and it's wide open for Messi to complete his hat trick. 3-1, and the tie was over.
Like the first leg, this was a difficult game to analyze tactically. In fact, if you want a brief report you could say this: "Barcelona passing excellent, 61% possession, pressing excellent, Messi". And that is what it boiled down to; its not demeaning of Barcelona in any way, in fact it's a testament to the way that they control the game. They're passing and pressing were just top draw; ours (69% passing, must be the lowest this season) was not. As expected, Walcott started, and created the first goal, with his speed. But, as I feared, he didn't get in the game that much, and wasn't able to latch on to through balls. Rosicky was poor, Clichy was alright, and Silvestre was abject. It says enough about his defensive capabilities, that Sagna was pushed to centre half.
Disappointing, but not unexpected, and the better team won.