The Penalty Box Problem
POSITIVES, NEEDS and HOPES
Well, that wasn’t November and it wasn’t January.
It was somewhere in between.
The Keeper was very good, defence was uncharacteristically nervous, the midfield dominated but it was the attackers or more to the point, the attacking, that was stuck deep in November.
There are multiple layers to this and these thoughts are not based solely on yesterday’s game.
Let’s start with our Right Back who spends over half of his footballing life on the wing.
Bellerin is a buck passer. A professional passer of the buck. A good defender, good at moving off the ball and with the ball in the middle third but has very little interest in making the difference in the final third. Give him an opportunity to make the difference or take a chance and he will give it back to you.
Think of what you love about Tierney in the final third. I think of power, drive, determination and willingness to make the difference. The thing is though that Bellerin has a similar athletic profile and therefore similar ceiling. It’s been clear to me for years that Bellerin is a comfort zone footballer and Tierney is like a kid who won’t stop jumping until he touches the ceiling. When he does touch the ceiling he tries to jump higher forcing his parents to tell him that the room upstairs has a higher ceiling. Bellerin is still in the first room telling his brother, “I don’t want to touch the ceiling, you do it.”
Saka just needs to match his consistent high performance level with consistency in assisting and goal threat but he will and we know it. In the meantime the referees need to be aware of which players are being rotationally fouled as much as they are aware of those that they think they’d like to send off the field.
Auba is a system and situation player. Play him wide and on the counter and he’s dangerous. Hit low crosses to the back post and he’s deadly. The issue with Auba is that he should be better than he is. His athletic profile is almost perfect for his position yet he is physically uninterested in conflict, doesn’t seem to realize that he could combine at Centre Forward with ESR but doesn’t, and lacks motivation against a low block.
Pepe summed up our general performance in that some of his game was November and some was January. Not sure he was the problem though. The closer we get him to goal and the quicker he makes his decisions then the more we will see the newer version.
Emile Smith Rowe is a wonderful talent whose game intelligence is elite. When he gets the confidence to take players on rather than just combine then he will become a greater penalty box threat.
Lacazette is the biggest problem though.
His play outside the box has made me consider whether we should give him 1 more year on his contract as his work ethic and particularly his combination play with the younger players has been very good. The trouble is however that he seems unwilling to partake in the main qualities needed for a centre forward. So often recently we penetrate out wide, cut in and Lacazette is standing on the penalty spot. The interesting thing is that the cut back to the PK spot is often a smart choice. The trouble is however that football is a team sport and the team needs its CF to penetrate the 6 yard box as most of the time the other players cannot physically get there. If they can’t get there then they end up in the same area. Additionally you don’t spread out the defenders. And so…. we chuck away at least 2 tap ins, the easiest chances that you get each game.
Then you have Lacazette’s long term problem. He plays centre forward as if he’s the Post player in basketball. As play develops there he goes looking for the closest centre back to go mark. He staples himself to the CB and because he’s not as strong as they are, not got a leap to contest them and not quick enough to get separation, he becomes a non issue.
None of these factors just showed up however. They are all simply illuminated by organized defences, like Villa’s.
The questions we have to ask ourselves are ‘what level of player do Arsenal deserve?’ and ‘can we improve what we have by coaching?’
I think Arteta can improve the choices our strikers make but I don’t think he’s making a dent on Auba’s lack of physicality or Lacazette’s lack of agility.
I also think that Arsenal absolutely deserve a better centre forward option. The solution may lie at one of Celtic or Red Bull Salzburg. One who is stronger, braver, able to be the solution in any game state and certainly one that isn’t playing basketball on a football pitch.
*Round of applause for Mat Ryan. Didn’t just do what was expected but pushed dangerous shots far from the imminent danger.
*Martin Odegaard’s performance will get lost in the frustration. I saw much. My main takeaway was that if I was Arteta, I’d start him until the team understands the importance of playing the game YOU want to play rather than the reactionary version that Arsenal employ in the first half of games.
Odegaard understands tempo. Not only did he increase the tempo with his one and two touch on his arrival, but he has the skillset and confidence to pull it off too. All PL players can play one touch but only a select few can do it and put the right weight on it and make the right choice. Honestly, and this may hurt, he looks like a City player. Tempo, one touch, penetration.
Alongside his obvious level up we saw two perfectly weighted through balls. Two balls that nobody else is doing at Arsenal currently. Smith Rowe needs a break before he breaks. Play Odegaard.
*For the largest part of the game we played Grealish very intelligently. He was quiet and nowhere near as influential as usual.
*In the 43rd minute, Rob Holding found himself just outside Villa’s box. He looked left. The whole Villa defence moved that way. He rolled the ball to his right and opened up a really good situation for Saka inside the box.
This exemplified what for me is the biggest missing element in modern football.
The game is becoming more and more predictable with passing patterns and coaches dominating and dictating play like a conductor. The best way to overcome this is to be unpredictable.
Fernandes at Utd rubs me the wrong way more than any other. I’m writing this as he’s playing and I just saw his goal. The ball is played to him and he intentionally swings and misses it. This totally threw the Everton defensive unit. He gets it back and I’m sure his coach was promoting a predictable cross. The defenders were too and adjusted accordingly. Bruno bends one in the top corner. I paused and wondered why that looked so odd. So out of place with what usually happens. It was of course, unpredictable.
I ask my team at every half time interval what the opponent doesn’t want you to do. They tell me and then I tell them, “do THAT then.”
*Granit Xhaka has listened to a serious conversation. I’d imagine that Xhaka has asked about a new contract and that Mikel Arteta has told him that an upgrade is coming unless he can play quicker and forward. To his credit he is currently doing both and in the best period of his entire Arsenal career. I do think that Partey’s introduction has taken so much pressure from Xhaka but he has optimized this.
*Why Willian? Why is Willian ever the answer?
My biggest concern isn’t the short term but the long term problem that we create by even involving him in the matchday squad at all. I anticipate that Martinelli and Nelson (who I think will both have big careers), could knock on the coach’s door in May wanting to leave and ask why they didn’t get on the field or even the bus, and Willian did.
I have a theory that Arteta is an overly proud man and is trying to prove that his summer ‘pick’ wasn’t a mistake after all. The problem for Arteta isn’t simply form though. The Brazilian isn’t interested and has one sandal on the Copacabana already.
*Talking of sub decisions, Arteta moving Pepe to the right is another decision made based on making an out of form player more comfortable than an in form player.
*You may have noticed that as we build play ESR is positioned on the opposite side to the ball. This is to encourage a switch and overload and discourage crowding the area in front of the passer. This is fine but only if you switch it quickly. If you don’t then you gain no advantage and ESR looks uninvolved for large parts.
*Why was the first half played with the tempo and energy of the second half of an extra time contest and the second half played with the intensity that a pro active team should play their first half? Alongside this, why is Arteta so good at getting tempo, energy and goals in the 15 minutes after half time but not in the first 15 minutes? If I was a journalist, this is my first question as it’s a regular pattern.
*I appreciate Rob Holding being the most aggressive player in the opponent’s box especially as those who are paid to score are not willing, but he needs to work on his accuracy. Gets many chances and rarely gets close.
*To quote a greater man than I (@BigJimmy_V), VAR needs cameras and microphones on them in their Stockley Park suite, so there is less anonymity around it.
I’d add that there needs to be an explanation published with a rule page to back it up. It’s currently all too easy for these amateurs to make season defining decisions and then slide off into the midnight fog. If the PGMOL claim that they need to remain anonymous then I think that the on field ref should too therefore wearing a bag on their head. Perhaps the Stockley Park jokers could use the time when they are not VAR’ing to control the ref with a joystick rather than eating oversized bags of *Monster Munch. Not sure that the refereeing would be any worse to be fair. *Monster Munch are the Best of British crisps. Fight me.
*Partey didn’t have his best game but his presence is such a distraction and help to Xhaka and athletic comfort to our whole team. Hope he is fit soon.
*Whilst Partey is gone can we try Odegaard or ESR alongside Xhaka? Sounds mad but what don’t they have that Ceballos and ElNeny do? You might say that neither are CM’s but I’d say that Odegaard played there this season at Real Madrid. I’d also say that ESR has such high levels of intelligence that he could do it.
*Time for Martinelli at Centre Forward? He certainly doesn’t have the problems that Auba and Laca have. Hoping we see it at least as an option.
The next game is a week away. Arteta is a coach that improves players and has improved our team. He has at least 4 sessions to improve our attack. I expect it to look much different against Leeds.