This is something I have been thinking on and observing since the Crystal Palace game. A busy lifestyle has prevented it from being brought out until now.
Let me start by stating some truths, or “truths” that are well believed:
- Arsenal either go out pressing high and attacking to play beautiful total football, and are beaten on the counter by top teams like the special one’s boys in blue. Can’t win the big game that way.
- Arsenal have fixed this with a deeper lying formation that does the same, and also shelters the big German dude from pace and youth, but are still beaten when teams then press us in return.
These all lead to arguments about who is best or better, who fits the EPL, and, in the end, questions about whether Arsene has lost it, and not kept with the times.
I will argue here that something more fundamental has happened. In particular, that both the above approaches, total football and sitting deep to counter, are played by Arsenal. And played well. We have beaten top teams with it, and lesser teams, as well.
However, … And there is always a however, the game has changed… I think…
In past, weaker to mid table teams would sit deep and hope for the Fat Sam Miracle (FSM), known to American football fans as the “Doug Flutie, bye bye Florida State (or was it Notre Dame? 🙂 ) hail mary” to pull out one or even three points. Also commonly known as parking the bus and daring you to get through. So, what has changed?
Teams have realised this “prevent defense” (another American football term), is, to use what Americans often call it in context, the “prevent yourself from winning” defence. More simply, they have realised that it invites top teams to totally dominate them, and that with the ever increasing talent gap they will eventually get through. They will, not, they might or they should, they will.
The talent gap is ever greater than before with so many top Euro teams, not just in the EPL, looking for talent and depth. Thus, what to do? Time to innovate of course!
Simple answer? You can’t be dominated if the other team doesn’t have shape or form, and is lightly battered like good fish and chips, which is to say as much as the missus (in the refs uniform here) will let you get away with! This is easily done by hiring pro wrestlers to come in and chase the other guys around. However, it tends to pee off the fans and the ref.
So, how to get this done by stealth? How to ruin your opponents game so much they cannot score, while offering you the ongoing FSM opportunity?
Simple, don’t park the bus, don’t press, which is what people (or many such) *think* they are seeing now, when Arsenal struggle. Instead, play what I call a disruptive game. I differentiate pressing and disruption, as one which is playing forceful defensive football and keeping shape, while the other is defined to ensure the other team has no flow and no shape. Thus, narrowing that talent gap.
In particular, pressing is a game played to win, disruption is a game played not to lose. More specifically:
- Pressing = turnover and fast transition to press/contain the ball as far up the field as possible. Generally, 1 on 1 or 2 on 1, looking to force the turnover on either a long ball prayer having cut off all reasonable passes or marked them closed, or on a poor dribble into a player all other options being closed off. A third equally positive outcome is forcing the pass to keeper who then belts it up field. All turn the ball back towards us by forcing high risk, low opportunity balls from the other side that we can easily take. And take in a form ready to go forward in transition.
It’s about controlling shape and getting the ball back to go on offense with good shape.
- Disruptive = looks a hell of a lot like a pressing game but involves more often 2-1 and 3-1 defending. A rush at the ball holder and not necessarily caring about others. The goal is not to contain and restrict field space, but to disrupt passing lanes, foul often to disrupt runs and passes, and a greater focus on taking the ball by running many players at the ball handler.
When this is done the ball may turn over but you are not in a position with players in shape and well spread to take best, or sometimes any, advantage. It forces players to far more quickly find something, far more quickly approach their own ball carrier (shrinking the pitch to smaller areas). Thus, against Palace who played this way a lot, we often won the ball but had nothing to really do with it. Hence, they had lots of ball, but little or few opportunities really, as when they won it, they too, were in no shape to attack.
They make our defending easier, but make our attack much harder. They didn’t threaten until we shut off a bit at 93 mins, after almost getting a third goal at 92 mins. We weren’t dominated, we were disrupted, by a team playing for 1 or hoped for 3 points.
So, you say, they sound the same. But, the difference is that a Pressing team is trying to control space and win the ball back anywhere. It’s a plan that focuses on organizing defence as a form of attack and positioning with structure.
A Disruptive team cares less about shape on defence and how it leads to attack with good team shape when the ball is turned over. Their goal is to take away the other team’s ability to move the ball regardless of what it does to their own ability to move the ball. It’s a negative form of football.
It’s also highly successful at times. It is a great equalizer across teams of different abilities – thus reducing that talent gap. It also creates a scenario when you are at home and know the field and have the crowd, where it is likely the better choice of odds than parking the bus.
Keep the other team off balance and out of shape / ball and hope that, despite having no real shape to go forward yourself, you can get a quick breakaway or mistake to capitalize on. Then hunker down, disrupt more, and hope to hold on.
Hence, I think when we play these types of teams among others, or top teams away, we seek to have a deep lying defence. That allows shape to be maintained and lets them, or forces them, to come to you. You then have shape to counter from, which we have the squad for. But, it still won’t solve the problem of being disrupted on attack. The only way to avoid it is to move quickly with lots of field space when they are not near to run after you … Sounds like “on the counter” to me.
But listen again, and hear what isn’t said. That if we can only score on the counter, or mostly so, the opposition have taken us out of our game, forced us away from dominating with talent that we have.
The solution is risk. Again, playing to the opposition. Another possibility. A great rock of a ball holder. Coquelin has done the defensive thing, but not that. That was Vieira. It is Toure and Kompany when they are in form. It might be Schneiderlin. It isn’t Santi, Ozil or Alexis who are tricky enough, but too light and dynamic and want to go forward.
The real key?
In my opinion, a rock and a fast passing game. One that isn’t afraid to go backward if it is isn’t there. If we can’t counter, we need to control through speed.
Thus, and perhaps this is now past length, we have the squad for it. It is perhaps something that has evolved and perhaps we are finally smart enough to do it instead of going after them like we have so often done away against such teams (for which we have been punished).
Sadly to say, it also means that Mourinho may know something and be quite clever having seen this first or nearly so? Look at his squad, sit deep, counter, pass quickly, Terry and others are the rock…
Questions for the critics?
- Is disruptive, and yes, ugly, football the future?
- What’s your solution?
- Who do we need to implement it?
- Or, am I being too subtle and over analytical, just bring on the fresh faces?