Us football fans are a masochistic bunch, aren’t we? Not content with sacrificing what felt like the entire weekend to a dreary trip into the dark depths of Norfolk, we are subsequently obliged to spend several days rolling in the stinging nettles, forcing ourselves to go over and over the pain of The Worst Arsenal Performance In Ages.
And if you thought we’d moved into Looking Forward To The Next Game mode, what with the Schalke game coming along quickly, then think again – for Ol’ Gingers is here to stick a knife into Saturday’s corpse and take a blood-splurting look into what went wrong.
Arsenal’s inadequacies were, in fairness, largely acknowledged by the boss in his post-match comments.
“We didn’t produce much,” Arsene said. “It was a disappointing performance.
“We missed today what makes success at the top level – complete focus. That today was not at the level we’ve produced until now.”
“[There was a] big difference between possession we had and amount of chances we created… we didn’t create enough.
“We had a lot of the ball but did not create much with it. It was an illusionary domination.”
Very true, Arsene, very true. So let’s take a collective deep breath and have a closer butcher’s at what happened…
The Start of the Game
In the opening 10 minutes, the Arsenal completed over 100 passes – a positively Guardiola-esque rate. But most of the passes went nowhere of interest, as Norwich happily settled with two close banks of players sitting deep and preventing our boys from getting remotely near their goal.
Their tactic was immediately obvious. The talented Wes Hoolahan would join the two sitting midfielders (Tettey and Johnson) along with the two supposed “wingers”, Pilkington and Bennett, to form a bank of five that were often only a matter of yards in front of their bank of four defenders.
Grant Holt would remain deliberately isolated up front, only ever moving his substantial bulk to chase their long “outlet” balls – like a chubby cream-filled cat who only bursts into action when it spots a mouse scampering behind the sofa.
The tactics Norwich deployed – of sitting deep and tight and not allowing space between the lines – have often been used against Arsenal in recent years. It’s probably the first chapter of the How To Beat Arsenal manual like what all them British managers send to each other during the course of a season.
The gap between Holt and their midfield meant a) that Arsenal had acres of space to pass it around the middle of the park and b) that Norwich struggled to keep the ball when passing it forward whenever they won it back.
However, they didn’t give a Delia Smith about either a) or b). Arsenal could pass it around as much as they liked, so long as it was in front of the Norwich back nine. And direct balls up to Holt were very much part of their plan, too.
Here’s their system working early on:
Yellow lines indicate the two banks of four, with the circled Hoolahan dropping back (and, at times, forward-marking Arteta)…
This example is one of many in which Arsenal lose the ball while attempting to work it into a dangerous central area…
And in the following image, note that Holt is way out of shot, such is the gap between him and the Norwich midfield…
While the above examples are all from the opening 10 minutes, they bring us onto the main problem that Arsenal suffered across the entire game.
Lacking a little bit penetration
The most depressing aspect of Saturday’s defeat was how Arsenal never really looked like scoring. The following chart, via @statszone, shows how the huge majority of our passing occurred in areas where Norwich were happy to let us have the ball. The yellow area demonstrates the stark scarcity of passes into dangerous areas of the final third:
As if the graphic isn’t demoralising enough, observe these facts from the game:
- Arsenal’s most common pass combination was Vermaelen to Mertesacker
- Giroud and Podolski did not exchange one single pass between themselves
- Gervinho only found Giroud ONCE in the final third
- Giroud only found Gervinho ONCE
Watching from the stands, I found the Arsenal front three to be thoroughly dysfunctional. Podolski seemed to be deeper and wider than we’d like (more on this later) – and thus removed from the more advanced positions of Giroud and Gervinho. Yet those two, despite often being located closer together, appeared to have no understanding whatsoever (perhaps not a surprise, given how little time they’ve shared on the pitch). On a couple of occasions they showed visible frustration with each other’s play.
Here is just one example. The ball falls to Gervinho, who has seen Giroud and expects him to be ready for a little flick forward…
Yet Giroud is on his heels, anticipating nothing, and the ball just drops to the Norwich defenders. As with much of the game, Arsenal are extremely tight, with wide zones (here on the right) entirely unoccupied…
There were far too many examples of our dysfunctional attack to paste them all into this blog post. But for now I want to focus on another problematic aspect of Arsenal’s play on Saturday…
Santos in for Gibbs
It was at Carrow Road last season, when Arsenal won, that I first began to really appreciate some of Andre Santos’s qualities. He is an excellent passer of the ball, and executes many a brilliantly-timed interception. He is also a good dribbler and, as we all know, can be a potent attacking threat.
This time around, however, his inclusion in place of the injured Kieran Gibbs did Arsenal no favours. There were two reasons for this:
- His lack of fitness
- The tactical difference between his play and Gibbs’ play
I won’t dwell on the first for too long. Suffice to say that at several points during the game I spotted Santos standing still and visibly trying to catch his breath. Perhaps his time on the bench this season has resulted in a lack of match fitness, but in any case it’s clear that he simply cannot bomb up and down the line as well as Gibbs.
He is also far less likely to end the game with chalk on his boots, than the young Englishman. For much of Saturday I noted that Podolski was wide and deep (as mentioned earlier), rather than looking to join Giroud up front. Often this season Arsenal have done well through Podolski coming inside and attacking space between the opposing defenders, while Gibbs takes up the left wing position. This rarely happened on Saturday, with the single possible exception of Podolski’s first half chance.
Some more screenshots, by means of an explanation…
This clip from early on shows Santos, as often happened, playing 10 or 15 yards inside Podolski. The Brazilian frequently looked to get into attacking “inside left” style positions, which appeared to push Podolski out wide. This is the polar opposite of the system we’ve seen this season whereby Gibbs overlaps Podolski on the outside.
And the next image, from around half an hour in, shows Santos again staying relatively central, instead of offering to provide width down the vast space on the left hand side of Norwich’s penalty area…
Again, just before half time, we see a situation where Podolski (red circle) is tied to the touchline while Santos (yellow circle) looks to attack a central area…
As was often the case in this game, Norwich crowd out the central option, and Podolski opts to pass backwards…
The final example is from shortly after the hour mark, and just a minute or so before Podolski was withdrawn. Cazorla has the ball on the left hand side of midfield, with his best pal Podolski in an old fashioned inside left kind of position. In this situation you would hope that a full back would overlap, at least to drag a player with him and create some space. But alas Santos was already showing signs of fatigue, and was merely ambling up to an unhelpful position behind Cazorla. The mini-Spaniard thus went for a long pass to Giroud, which didn’t work…
As I said at the beginning of this section, I value many of Santos’s skills. But the absence of a fast and furious touchline-hogging left back hampered Arsenal on Saturday. Under the right circumstances, Santos’s different kind of movement (such as making runs into the channels) can be beneficial – but it certainly didn’t work out that way against Norwich.
Notably, Santos didn’t put in a single cross all game. Gibbs, by means of comparison, put in six crosses during the previous game at West Ham.
A very quick note on the goal conceded. In my post-Olympiakos analysis I noted the dangers of relying on attacking players to defend, when sitting deep without the ball. Getting men behind the ball and in a nice linear, tight shape has been a clear change in tactics for Arsenal this season, and on occasions has worked excellently. But against the Greek champions, Cazorla was caught out in defensive areas on a few occasions, which presented them with some opportunities.
And on Saturday, another piece of strangely bad defending from an attacking player led to us conceding a match-costing goal. Using the markings on the pitch (and the red dot that I’ve added) note below where Podolski was standing when the ball came to Norwich’s Alex Tettey…
Now look at where Tettey was when he struck the ball that Mannone spilled into Holt’s path…
As you can see, Podolski was pretty much already standing in the place from where Tettey would shoot – but he instead moved leftwards, vacating that area.
While blame can be given to the goalkeeper and potentially other defenders (Santos is playing Holt onside, for example), one cannot ignore the strange fact that Podolski moved out of the way of the original threat rather than just taking one step forward and confronting it.
I do not think this is due to any cowardice, but rather naivety and a too literal belief on his part that, as a left sided player, he needed to move himself to the left and allow Arteta to come into the middle and deal with the threat. Whereas obviously, when defending, sometimes you have to forget about positioning and just stop the bloody fella who’s about to get a shot at goal.
It’s a numbers game
After Arsenal had drawn both of their opening league games 0-0, I asked the boss (at Stoke) if maybe they should send more players into the attack towards the end of these ties. Shouldn’t the full backs, for example, push right up? Isn’t it worth taking the risk to get a result in such circumstances? He swerved the question by repeating that Sunderland and Stoke were very defensive and difficult to break down; and after Arsenal scored shed loads in subsequent games, the issue was forgotten.
But I was reminded of it again on Saturday, particularly because this was a game that our boys were losing, rather than just drawing. Throughout the game, but especially at the end, I couldn’t understand why there weren’t more red and white shirts bombing forward.
What did they have to lose?
Constantly we saw situations where Norwich had far more shirts back than Arsenal had forward.
Here’s just one example, from the hour mark, which shows Arsenal supposedly on the counter attack. And yet Norwich outnumber the Gunners by two to one in their own half…
Even when Cazorla cleverly finds Gervinho, we were still left with very few options.
And I couldn’t help but chuck in the following example, too. Now in stoppage time, an Arsenal ball into the box involves only three red and white shirts being inside the area, and two just outside – whereas Norwich have THEIR WHOLE TEAM either inside the box or on its perimeter…
On so many occasions I looked back to see Arsenal with two, three or even four players deep, while Norwich left only one up front. Could we not have gambled more than that? Is Holt really such a devastating threat on the counter?
(No, he’s not. He’s only a threat on the counter when the counter has a “Do Not Lean” sign on it and is full of custard tarts.)
Saturday was an odd one, with many people puzzled by the frankly abysmal nature of Arsenal’s performance. Were they cream crackered from scooting around on their Interlull adventures, we wondered? Or were they just stunned by the sheer beauty of the sky above the Geoffrey Watling City Stand, as captured here by amateur photographer Hayley Wright?…
There is probably some truth in the argument that this was a one off bad performance, and that the team will bounce back. They’ve had some pretty damn good wins this season, and I am sure that more strong performances will follow. Sometimes people just have a bad day at the office.
There are, however, some more lingering concerns. The first is what Arsenal do when faced with teams who defend deep with two banks of four – or even with one bank of four and one bank of five. This was, pretty much, the tactic deployed by Stoke and Sunderland, and at times even by Chelsea (whose own double pivot, Mikel and Ramires, did not operate too unlike Johnson and Tettey on the weekend). Do we have a real answer to this very obvious and easy-to-execute ploy?
The second is why Arsenal keep conceding the first goal – as has happened in each of the last four league games.
The third is whether Arsenal really know how best utilise their attacking players and, specifically, where Giroud fits in with the team. On Saturday, whether through his own fault or not, it really wasn’t clear how he was supposed to be used to benefit the side – or how Gervinho and Podolski were supposed to link up with him (if at all). There’s a lot of upheaval among the forward positions at the moment, partly because of the fourth problem – injuries. We’re starting to pick up more of these, which can only damage the search for consistency in the first team.
Anyway, dissection over. Thanks for reading, and let’s hope for a more enjoyable experience at home to Schalke tonight.