When the Coach got to coach
POSITIVES, NEEDS and HOPES
I was really looking forward to yesterday’s game. Off the back of two losses and another potential fan meltdown, that may seem a little crazy.
My excitement was based on knowing that the game came with a full weeks preparation time. Something our coach hasn’t experienced hardly at all since he returned to Arsenal due to ‘Covid season’ and ‘post Covid season.’
Knowing that the coaching field is Arteta’s strength, I had a strong feeling that we were going to be impressed. I just didn’t know what improvements we would see. I had hoped that it would be the attacking side of the game and it was.
Many of the recent attacking improvements have included a) a system that suits the team, b) the return of unpredictability and c) advanced movement off the ball.
What we saw yesterday was the 3 missing pieces….. tempo, clear goalscoring opportunities and a game plan that dominated a team whose basketball end to end style is hard to nullify.
Tempo and in particular, the ability to play one touch, is often a misunderstood quality. In a world where rondos and quick thinking are king you’d think that all professional players should be more than capable of playing quickly given a far larger space than a rondo. So, why did yesterday look different? It’s a combination of two factors. Rhythm and instinct.
Arsenal may not have been winning recently but there has been a clear improvement in our fluidity and domination for large periods. In short, we’ve lost but played rather well. So, on top of 5 days of training, the players have the automatic rhythm regardless of the scoreboard.
Even more important than rhythm is instinct. Arsenal started the game with 3 younger players as play makers, all of which have the instinct to see their options quickly and the developmental background to instinctually execute it. Pepe has been in his best Arsenal form but tempo and one touch is absolutely not his instinct. He is the opposite. If you want tempo, don’t just do 1 touch rondos and expect it to translate, pick the players whose instinct is to see and execute quickly. The tempo disease has spread from Thomas Partey to both Ceballos and Xhaka. When Partey showed up, the other two saw levels that they weren’t reaching and have decided that they might need to attempt to reach these levels. Xhaka is a different player now. Plays forward, plays quicker. Ceballos has been twiddling his thumbs on the faded red seats and so consciously or subconsciously decided to replicate the habits of our new midfield. On top of all this I’d guess that Colney has seen a fresh insistence regarding tempo. Finally and after wishing for this for over a year, we didn’t wait for Arteta to figure out Leeds before we stepped on the gas. Minute one, tempo.
With faster ball movement in place married with the fluid movement of January and added to with the natural vision and dribbling ability of ESR, Odegaard and Saka we created one opportunity after another for the majority of the game. Not sure if this was practiced but more a product of selection and again, that instinct.
I have found as a coach of 31 years that there is always a common denominator to your problems. If you aren’t winning or scoring as many as you should, it’s not always shooting practice time. I remember a time recently when I helped fix my teams goalscoring issues with multiple seasons on the importance of an immaculate first touch in crowded areas. It worked. The first touch was so good that the players relaxed in front of goal as it gave them belief. I think that tempo was this common denominator yesterday.
What I know would’ve happened last week (as it happens every week), is work on the game plan.
Not only did Arsenal need to work on tempo and goal scoring as a general improvement but certainly needed this against Leeds as they are capable of having the fitness to pressure for 95 minutes and score plenty themselves. Mikel Arteta’s game plan caused Leeds the kind of problems that can kill their style of play. As they man mark all your midfielders and attackers you need to cause them to panic as this system is risky if a player is left behind. Arsenal moved the ball too quickly for Leeds to press effectively and played one/two’s around their press. The biggest difference maker was committing and beating Leeds on the dribble. In a man marking system the huge risk is who marks the player with the ball if he has beaten his opponent. Somebody has to leave their man and so the whole system can fall apart. Saka did this often and interestingly, Arteta very cleverly used both Gabriel and Luiz in particular to stride out with the ball. Leeds didn’t and couldn’t man mark our defenders as they don’t have the numbers to do so and so Luiz asked them frequent questions by dribbling into and through midfield. Very clever from Arteta.
As if this wasn’t enough there were many times when the movement of our front four killed Leeds’ man to man system. Saka dragging his man inside, knowing he’d follow and leaving Bellerin with a grand opportunity. ESR repeatedly running inside and leaving the inside left channel for Auba to play 1 v 1 with Ayling. Advanced tactics and more importantly, advanced thinking from three so young.
Defensively we were very astute in the first half. We positioned ourselves in passing lanes to deny Leeds’ chosen exit route and also between two Leeds players yet close enough to pounce on either. When Leeds did look like breaking through we didn’t concern ourselves with the ball as much as our shape, therefore denying Leeds what they had hoped for in Arsenal players trying to defend as individuals on islands of expected failure.
As we are so intertwined with the emotion of the results maybe we hadn’t noticed that our performances were showing us that this bigger victory had been coming.
Large round of applause to Mikel Arteta for putting this together and out coaching one of the best coaches in World Football.
– We are not sure if the decision to not play Lacazette and Pepe is rest based or a new plan. What does seem important to recognize however is that we need to lean into Auba rather than Lacazette. When Auba signed the 3 year deal and with the wages he’s collecting the decision was made and we have to back it. Lacazette is likely off in the summer and so we don’t need to upset Auba by benching him, sell Lacazette and have Auba tap us on the shoulder and tell us that he wants to follow his mate out the door. The game yesterday was perfect encouragement for this scenario.
Out of nowhere, Auba looked like the 19/20 version. Beautiful.
-Odegaard has just started I think. We’ve seen glimpses of his vision but it’s tempo and intelligent use of his body to protect the ball that stands out. Saka has the similar quality. Most players can only play the way they are facing but Odegaard has clear pictures and so can face south but protect the ball and yet still play in all]
four compass points.
-Ceballos is such an odd player. Athletically looks like he’s dragging the sandbags yet has a strong work ethic to chase and at least attempt to fulfill what athletic potential he does have. He is becoming more intelligent with his decisions too and I was purring at his deceptive cheeky pass for Bellerin’s goal. Just the level of deception that I’ve been preaching recently.
– Gabriel was back to his best. Alert and so well positioned to step into backs or in order to outrun Bamford.
-I’m delighted to say that Bellerin had his best game for a while. It wasn’t just his goal but the timing of his powerful runs with the ball infield. He has a very modern role and isn’t perfectly suited but certainly gave a solid 7/10 both attacking and defending.
-Saka has higher levels to travel. Exciting. I wonder which we will get to see first? If I was coaching him I’d encourage him to be a little more selfish when he’s ‘feeling it.’ There was a run in the first half when he’d shaken off his marker and was running centrally. He got to the top of the D and looked like he knew he must pass rather than continue to drive into the box. I want him to be comfortable with a lower pass completion rate and higher dribbling numbers as some players are worth this risk.
-The numbers in the box during attacks was hugely encouraging. When playing against a man marking team this was perfect as they will follow you rather than sit on the edge of the box and kill us on transition.
-The timing of the runs into the box was also a new improvement. Not arriving too early and standing still but delaying our runs. To be fair, this skill is why Gundogan will likely win Player of the Year.
-I’ve been reticent to speculate but I’m gonna dive in now….. I think there may well be a playing time related detail in Willian’s contract. I think it’s also Arteta’s pride in trying to prove he’s good but I think that there is more. We are largely unaware of the many bizarre things written into contracts so I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a line stating ‘Club has to pay X amount if Willian does not play X minutes per game/s’ or ‘if an unused sub.’
I sure hope I’m wrong. I’m fearful of that ‘tap on the shoulder’ I talked of earlier and it being Gabriel Martinelli and his agent.
-We have a set play coach. Our throw ins are poor. Our corners are worse. Can we have an upgrade, please?
-Not sure why we were delaying simple passes in the second half. It was as if too many of our players were getting fatigued by their personal marker and wanted to prove something.
-Arteta has some very interesting selection headaches for Thursday.
Auba or Laca? Odegaard or Pepe with ESR moving back to 10? Holding/Luiz/Gabriel? Do we bring back Tierney or wait?
Benfica are struggling and their coach is under pressure. Start fast Arsenal and get the away goal.
Arsenal are improving fast even though Graeme Souness and may other half blind pundits aren’t paying attention.
We’ve seen everything this season from woeful to average to good to better then impressive. I have a feeling that we will soon see a period of dominance. Big call.