Monday, 7 November 2016

On Balance

It might seem an odd thing to say, but Arsenal's game against Spurs on Sunday reminded me of the home leg of the Champions League last-16 tie against Barcelona last season, which we lost 0-2. While many Gooners are glum that we didn't put a below-par Tottenham to the sword, I'm pleased that we managed to avoid screwing up on a day when we weren't at our best. On balance, a draw was the right result. Staying in the realm of cliché, a decent tilt at the title will require us to nick a few undeserved wins and eke out draws when we might otherwise lose. As I noted last February, Barcelona won then because they made fewer mistakes and capitalised on ours, and it only took two errors for them to put the game (and the tie) beyond us. Eleven games into the Premier League programme isn't conclusive, but we look to be making fewer unforced errors (Cech's slip yesterday notwithstanding). In that respect, the fortunate draw against PSG and the comeback against Ludgorets away in the Champions League were both encouraging. In earlier seasons, we'd probably be heading for second in the group and another tie against Barca or Bayern (we still might if we screw up the return against PSG).

Plenty of fans have noted the risks that the current team takes, from Mustafi's eager emulation of Koscielny's pre-emptive style to the often reckless tackling of our central midfielders, but what strikes me is that we appear to be managing these risks better, with the only reverse being the opening day 3-4 defeat at home to Liverpool, a game that we clearly weren't ready for but which we might still have got something from. As any fool could tell you, a combination of Liverpool's attack and Tottenham's defence would walk away with the title, but such a hybrid is impossible. Liverpool's pressing style and all-angles running at the opposition goal entails a vulnerable defence, while Tottenham's solidity and smothering of opponents comes at the cost of an attack whose product is distinctly mid-table, even when Harry Kane is available. The last title-winner to both score the most and concede the least was Man City in 2012, but that's as atypical as Leicester last season not being best in either goals for or goals against and yet still finishing top.

What you need is a balance (or synergy) between attack and defence, rather than discrete excellence in each area. For example, Antonio Conte's move to a 3-man defence at Chelsea is clearly intended to provide a more efficient way of transitioning between the two after a season in which the team looked disjointed on the pitch as much as demoralised. Not only does this promise to end John Terry's career, but it also provides a way of reviving Hazard and Pedro by opening channels as the wing-backs stretch play. Mauricio Pochettino tried something similar yesterday, but with players who are less comfortable with the formation. Walker in particular continued to play like an overlapping full-back, getting caught up-field and creating a space that Dier in the centre was reluctant to move into. This allowed Sanchez and Iwobi to counter-attack on the left, more so than Walcott who faced a less adventurous and more experienced combination on the right in Rose and Vertonghen. Our problem was poor shooting in the first half (Iwobi and Ozil) and poor final balls in the second (notably Oxlade-Chamberlain).

In contrast, Walker and Rose were largely contained on our flanks when attacking, with the result that Spurs looked more dangerous through the middle, particularly when Dembélé ran with the ball or Eriksen got between the lines. Though we conceded a penalty, this was more down to the sudden evaporation of our midfield, which allowed Dembélé to reach the penalty area too easily, than to Koscielny's impetuosity. Wenger deployed the more mobile Elneny and Coquelin combo in central midfield against Middlesborough, which might have provided a better defensive screen yesterday, but this led to a goalless draw on that occasion due to a lack of craft in passing beyond mid-range. Granit Xhaka may occasionally go missing (or over-react when turned), but he offers better passing options to the attack, both in terms of timing and accuracy. Again, the manager took a calculated risk. On balance, I think this was the right choice. I was less convinced by the decision to play Theo Walcott from the start, despite his first-half woodwork-cracker.

Walcott has received plaudits for his sudden discovery of tracking back, but I think his game has improved because he's getting better balls from midfield, even if some of those opportunities arise from the whole team being more effective in pressing (it was telling yesterday that they were reluctant to press high because Spurs' extra defender meant a greater risk of being isolated - an example of game intelligence rather than a lack of application). Walcott's good run hasn't quite dried-up, but he has been less effective since Santi Cazorla was sidelined by injury. Xhaka's raking passes tend to be hit to Sanchez on the left, while the diminutive Spaniard sends the ball both ways. Ozil also spreads his passing largesse widely, but his more advanced positioning this season, which has produced more goals but fewer assists, doesn't necessarily benefit Walcott more. Despite giving a good impression of a banjo-player vainly looking for a cow when he came on, Oxlade-Chamberlain has the dribbling ability to exploit narrow spaces when facing five across the back, and the shooting ability to score from the edge of the area, as he proved against Reading in the EFL Cup. This might have been more productive in the first half, with Walcott's pace being saved for the second.

This doesn't mean the Arsenal attack is flawed in design, merely that it is highly dynamic and will mutate as selections vary. For instance, whereas Kane's replacement by Janssen did nothing for Spurs, Giroud's arrival for Arsenal opened up new angles of attack, even if the Frenchman couldn't capitalise when presented with a clear header. Wenger's calculation is that a combination of hot-streaks from different players at different times will prove more effective over the season that one primary goal-scorer. That seems to be an increasingly common view among the leading managers, which gives the sight of Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane at the top of last season's scoring chart an already antique feel. Where the Arsenal squad still need to improve is goals scored from outside the area, though I suspect Wenger will rightly continue to prioritise efficiency within it. Xhaka has shown how, and a combination of him and Ramsey in midfield might be enough to change the team's habits, but it would probably come at the expense of a less reliable defensive screen. As ever, it's all about striking the right balance.

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