Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea - Wenger gets his tactics spot on

After 13 failed attempts, Arsenal have finally beaten a Chelsea side containing Didier Drogba. Arsene Wenger spoke about the threat posed by the Ivorian before the game, and refreshingly his team selection was geared as much towards nullifying Chelsea as it was towards aiding Arsenal's passing game.

Wenger had several big selection decisions to make and he got all of them spot on:
-Johan Djourou came in for Sebastian Squillaci, adding more physical and aerial presence against Drogba
-A fully-fit Robin van Persie was preferred to Marouane Chamakh and resumed his role as a false 9
-Theo Walcott started on the right to reduce Ashley Cole's influence and provide a threat in behind Chelsea's defence
-Samir Nasri's work rate and economy in possession was preferred on the left with the more lackadaisical Andrey Arshavin dropped to the bench

Arsenal's 4-2-3-1: Song (17) and Wilshere (19) sat behind the front four, covering the right and left flanks respectively.
Van Persie (hidden behind 2) played his usual false 9 role, dropping back into midfield & creating space for Fabregas (4) and Walcott (14) to advance into the box. Koscielny (6) brought the ball out of defence while Djourou (20) stayed back.

In the same fixture last year, Ashley Cole set up two goals from left wing crosses and repeated the feat again at Stamford Bridge this season when he set up Didier Drogba for the opener. In both games Nasri started ahead of Walcott on the right, and the latter goal arose as a direct result of Nasri failing to track Cole's run down the left. Walcott played in the return fixture at Stamford Bridge last season and managed to keep Cole reasonably quiet, so perhaps Wenger had this in mind when deciding to start the young Englishman on the right.

In theory it makes a lot of sense, Walcott has tremendous pace and his diagonal running in behind opposition defences is a major threat - one which requires left backs to play more conservatively. This was the case in the game last night, with Cole barely venturing into the final 3rd of the pitch. Not only did Walcott pin back Cole for the majority of the time he was on the pitch, he also displayed excellent defensive awareness in tracking the runs of the left back (and of Malouda) on the few occasions that space did develop on Chelsea's left side - as this following video shows:

Ashley Cole's passing chalkboard: In the 73 minutes that Walcott was on the pitch, Ashley Cole managed just one (unsuccessful) pass in the attacking 3rd.

Walcott will have got a lot of plaudits for his role in Arsenal's 2nd and 3rd goals but his defensive work was equally excellent. With Cole/Malouda on the left and Ferreira/Kalou on the right, it's clear which side was Chelsea's strongest, and indeed there was a clear passing bias to the left throughout the match.  Walcott's defensive diligence - along with Bakary Sagna and Alex Song's excellent performances - helped to shut down Chelsea's entire left flank.

Arsenal's right-sided dominance: Alex Song (6/6) and Bakary Sagna (5/5)
completed all of their attempted tackles.

Chelsea's left flank shut down: Despite showing a clear preference for passing to the left flank, Chelsea were unable to penetrate into the final 3rd on that side - amazingly not a single pass was played from that zone. They had better luck down the right against the defensively-weaker trio of Clichy-Wilshere-Nasri, but Kalou and Ferreira lacked the ability to take advantage, and their teammates didn't seem to have much faith in them.

Not only did Arsenal defend well in their own half, they also pressed well in Chelsea's. Up until the 3rd goal, Chelsea's keeper and centre backs were put under constant pressure by the closing down of van Persie and Fabregas (and occasionally the 2 wider players), with the fullbacks and deeper midfielders pushing up to close down the gaps in behind. This was a much more co-ordinated form of pressing than has been seen in recent weeks from this Arsenal side, and it paid dividends. Chelsea were unable to build from the back and resorted to numerous long balls forward, which the Arsenal back 4 dealt with fairly comfortably. In addition, Arsenal were able to win back possession several times inside Chelsea's own half, the most prominent example being Walcott's robbing of Malouda in the build-up to Arsenal's 3rd goal.

While the defending was excellent, there was still the small matter of breaking through Chelsea's deep-lying defence. It's been a problem area for Arsenal in recent encounters between the two sides, with Chelsea keeping clean sheets in each of the previous 3 games. But this time it was to be different. In an attempt to break down stubborn defences, Wenger has given Alex Song more license to get forward this season (facilitated by a change in the midfield set-up from a 1-2 to more of a 2-1). The decision paid off against West Ham, and it did again yesterday as the Cameroonian started off an attack from deep, driving into the box before calmly shooting into the far left corner of the net.

In fact, Wenger will have been delighted with all 3 goals yesterday because they were a perfect demonstration of his attacking philosophy, and of the capabilities of Arsenal's 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation:

Overall, a very positive performance for the Gunners. Not only does it keep them in touch with the league leaders, it also provides a tactical blueprint with which to approach future big games. One of my main criticisms of Wenger has been that, while he may be an expert technician, he is not necessarily an expert tactician. On last night's evidence I am beginning to believe he may also be the latter.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Assists of the Week - Sunday 19th December 2010

Freezing temperatures have been playing havoc with the fixture schedule across much of northen Europe, so only 5 assists are worthy of inclusion this week. Diego Milito's clever backheel to Javier Zanetti stands out as the best of an average bunch.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Assists of the Week - Sunday 12th December 2010

Three assists stand out for me this week - Kabangu's brilliant standing flick for Mazembe; Lennon's clever reverse pass for Spurs; and Moras' precise first-time throughball for Bologna. If I had to pick one winner, it would be Moras for the fact that he's a defender and his assist gave Bologna a late 2-1 win over Chievo.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

10 ways to break through a parked bus

The parked bus - scourge of attacking teams worldwide. Two rows of deep-lying defenders designed simply to frustrate the opposition into submission. Initially used to transport players to and from grounds, football managers later discovered its usefulness as a defensive tactic on the pitch.

Much like attacking, defending can be an art, and coaches can spend hours planning how best to set up their bus. There are many types of parked bus, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Here are 5 examples:
The 4-4 bus: In a 4-4-2, midfielders track back and form 2 compact lines, with wide players helping full-backs to double up on opposition wingers. It stops crosses being delivered into the area but can be sliced through centrally by quick passes and box overloads.
The 6-2 bus: In a 4-4-2, full-backs tuck in and wide midfielders are responsible for marking the opposition wingers. 6 central players can disrupt the opposition's passing game, and even if the wide players are beaten one-on-one, the central mass of players should be able to sweep up any crosses into the area. However flat lines of defence can be breached if one player strays from the line and plays opposition attackers onside (e.g. Pique goal vs Inter, CL Semi 2nd leg 09)

The 5-3 bus: Slightly rarer due to the decline in 3-man defences in the modern game. A spare centre-back allows for close marking of any free players, and 3 narrow midfielders help block the spaces in front of the defence. The wide areas are conceded in the expectation that any crosses into the box will be cleared by the mass of players. However this can be exploited if the wide player decides to shoot instead (e.g. Maicon goal vs North Korea, WC 10 Group Stage) 

The 4-5 bus: A 9 man bus, this is incredibly effective as it covers the wide areas and the space in front of the defenders. Commonly used by 4-3-3/4-5-1 teams such as Chelsea, Inter and Man Utd, who have had great success with this bus against Barcelona in the Champions League recently.

The last minute bus: This is the sort of bus you employ when you're leading 1-0 in the Champions League final in stoppage time. While its numbers are strong, it lacks in organisation and can self-destruct through mass panic.

Those are some specific examples of parked buses with their own particular strengths and weaknesses. But regardless of bus shape or organisation, certain attacking strategies can be employed effectively against all types of bus. Here are 10 ways to break through a parked bus:

1. Patience

Sometimes breaking down a stubborn defence is a waiting game. Through composure on the ball and methodical passing, defenders can be drawn out of position and gaps created momentarily for a pass to exploit.

2. Move the ball into space quickly

Much like a literal parked bus, a group of 8 or 9 defenders doesn't accelerate very well. Shifting the ball around the pitch at pace can help to transfer the point of attack from a densely-packed crowd to a slightly less suffocating area of the pitch, forcing the defenders to chase and opening up gaps in the back line.

3. Quick passing exchanges

Parked buses are designed to congest the middle and shut down passing teams. Which is why it's all the sweeter when the opponent rebels and decides to slice straight through the middle of the defence with surgical precision. Quick one-twos are a very effective instrument in this case.

4. Defence-splitting pass

Very rarely the opportunity will arise to bisect the entire defence with a single pass. Obviously it takes a very special player to pass accurately through a crowd of players, which is why the first 3 clips in the following video all feature Dennis Bergkamp. Notice the off-the-ball runs of the goalscorers too, which create attacking avenues that previously didn't exist.

5. Dribbling

Defenders hate pace and trickery, particularly when it's inside the box and they can't risk a foul. Beating a player not only takes him out of the equation, but also forces other defenders to rush out and cover the gap, creating space for a pass or shot.

6. Crossing

Usually a parked bus can deal comfortably with a cross into the box thanks to its numerical superiority over the opposition attackers. But crossing to the back post can yield results, especially if there's a wide player drifting in un-seen and un-marked. Notice how the first 3 goals in the following video are all scored by left back Ashley Cole.

7. Ball over the top

A parked bus is by definition deep-lying. But certain situations can attract a defence a few yards forward and create space for the ball in behind. Most defences usually advance forward after a set piece or cross has been cleared to try to win any 2nd balls and put pressure on the recipient of the loose ball. Those few seconds provide a window of opportunity for diagonal balls to be quickly hit in behind, onto the head or feet of attackers making forward runs against the momentum of the defence.

8. Shooting

Probably the best anti-parked bus strategy of all. Not only is there a chance a shot will sail through the mass of bodies and ripple the back of the net, it's also possible that the keeper will parry the ball into the path of quick-thinking attackers to score or square across goal for a tap-in.

9. Win a penalty

With so many feet and hands on display, there are plenty of potential sources of mis-timed tackles and handballs. Unfortunately a lot of referees shy away from making big calls inside the box, so this is probably the least effective strategy of all.

10. Send the ball into the box

With so many bodies in the box, there's always the chance of getting a lucky break. A weak clearance, a deflection, an own goal ... or maybe even a sneaky handball. Sometimes you just need to get the ball into the box and see what happens.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Assists of the Week - Sunday 5th December 2010

With only 5 assists to choose from this week, for me the winner is obvious. Lionel Messi's diagonal ball to Villa for his 2nd goal against Real Madrid is a thing of beauty.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

What's the best way to score against Manchester United?

Data from all 57 goals conceded by Manchester United in the Premier League and Champions League games since the start of the 2009/2010 season. A break-down of goals conceded at Old Trafford alone is included in a separate tab:

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Ronaldo vs Messi Attacking Statistics 2009/2010

(Click on tabs underneath to see different categories)

Real Madrid Attacking Statistics 2009/2010

(Click on tabs underneath to see different categories)

Standout attacking performances:

Cristiano Ronaldo
2 goals, 1 key pass
Real Madrid 5-0 Xerez (La Liga)

Cristiano Ronaldo
2 goals, 1 key pass
Xerez 0-3 Real Madrid (La Liga)

Cristiano Ronaldo
1 goal, 2 assists, 1 key pass
Real Madrid 6-2 Villarreal (La Liga)

Cristiano Ronaldo
3 goals
Real Mallorca 1-4 Real Madrid (La Liga)

Cristiano Ronaldo
2 goals, 1 key pass
Zurich 2-5 Real Madrid (Champions League)

Gonzalo Higuain
2 goals, 1 assist
Tenerife 1-5 Real Madrid (La Liga)

Gonzalo Higuain
3 goals
Real Valladolid 1-5 Real Madrid (La Liga)

2 goals, 1 key pass
Real Madrid 6-2 Villarreal (La Liga)

Rafael Van der Vaart
2 goals, 1 assist
Real Madrid 6-0 Zaragoza (La Liga)

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Assists of the Week - Sunday 28th November 2010

Lots of variety in this week's assists, but the backheels stand out in particular and for me Lucas Barrios' pass was the most difficult to pull off. That's why it's called the beautiful game.