The New and the Familiar
POSITIVES, NEEDS and HOPES
Arsenal are sneaking up on us.
As we have seen ourselves as a dominant possession team for the largest part of the last 20 years, I don’t think we give this current group the credit they deserve for their current improvement. For at least the last month, regardless of the scoreline, we have become increasingly dominant in possession. Perhaps that has illuminated the frustrations as we see that we are at least capable of being in this seasons top 4 race, but we are a way off. Strip away the emotion and I see a team making noticeable strides. We have played Olympiakos away many times but never been that dominant. It’s not just yesterday though, it’s becoming regular.
One of my favourite parts of watching Arsenal recently isn’t so much the possession or the even more impressive defensive structure, but the times when they break the attacking structure.
It’s not just Arsenal that are playing the new ‘coaches game’ vs ‘players game’ that football used to be. Training is now about organization, both both and offensive. The offensive training has a heavy eye on protecting transition too so we see much of the individual flair and creativity gone now. Coaches may say that they want it but their actions point towards utter panic when a player goes rogue.
I love the rogue though.
What I saw yesterday were 6 key moments.
I saw Odegaard saying, ‘sod it, the movements not there. I’m going rogue…. Boom!’
Then ElNeny does the same thing. I nearly fell off the couch when he opened his hips and dribbled forwards (an epic ElNeny achievement in itself), let alone a 25 yard screamer!
Then I believe it was Luiz and Willian who decided to go against Arsenal’s set piece coach. It was almost as if Willian decided to move up a spot and become the 2nd least popular AFC employee when he improvised and crossed for Gabriel.
These 3 key moments were bigger than the 3 goals that should see us progress. They were a reminder to a coach that prefers structure over what his players can do if you allow them to improvise. In a sport that is supposed to hold this banner as its primary joy too.
I hope Mikel takes note. It wasn’t his game plan this time, it was initiative. I’m reminded of a brilliant tongue in cheek Bob Paisley quote, ” If you are in the penalty area and don’t know what to do with the ball, put it in the net, and we will discuss the options later.”
The familiar in this game was almost satirical. As we all know, we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot as a regular feature. Yesterday was a whole new thing though. We aimed the gun at our foot twice (Odegaard and Luiz) before Ceballos and Leno decided to hold the gun steadier.
Part of me sees that mistakes are inevitable especially in the new and higher risk world of playing your football in all 120 x 80 yards of the pitch. The other part of me wonders if we practice shooting ourselves in the foot at Colney as it’s become an every game heart attack. If we were more clinical at the other end then we probably wouldn’t care as much.
So, yet again we come out of the game as if we’ve just stepped out of a wind tunnel. 1)’That was great, we won 1-3 away in Europe!’ 2)’Our game plan didn’t work so we relied on 3 worldie goals which is not a basis for future success.’ 3) ‘Can we leave the gun at home?’
I think I’m really happy. Maybe I’m relieved.
The truth is that Arsenal make me emotionally confused.
-I’m loving the high line. Gabriel gives us this option as he plays on the half turn and is never out run. This allows us to be so much more dominant in possession as we can press more as our defensive block is so compact.
-I watch Saka getting tactically fouled every game and wish that he was receiving balls higher and in the final third. It is far too easy to foul him 60 yards from goal. The reason that he is though is that our defensive structure is without holes therefore making it a longer process to transition. I’m not willing to forego the defensive structure but if Saka was rotated more perhaps he’d have more sprints in his legs to get away on the counter.
-Have you noticed that we have gone from ‘not having any good Centre Backs’ to ‘they are all good?’ Like my last article, this has been Arteta’s greatest success. Not only is this his best achievement but also the most underrated.
-Watch Gabriel’s goal again. He ran from the penalty spot to his left, jumped like the proverbial salmon, twisted his body in mid air to head it with immense power back across the keeper. This is the best header I’ve seen this season as the difficulty level is so high. What an athlete he is!
-I love that we started fast. I loved the opportunity created by Tierney that Odegaard spurned. I’ll take more of those cutbacks, no doubt.
-As much as I like the cutback cross, I’m unconvinced that Arsenal are playing to the players strengths. I think that this was the main reason why we didn’t create the clear cut chances that our domination deserved. If Auba is our focal point and we play with Odegaard, then surely the slot pass to a pro active Auba run is leaning into the strengths of both of these players? As good and frequent as Bellerin’s runs were he needs to hit those crosses harder to the back post as Auba is always in this same spot. Much like City do, but our crosses are too frequently blocked.
-I’ve made this mistake way too often whilst attempting to coach my teams to success…. neglecting finishing practice.
As impressed as I feel with Arsenal’s improvement in possession, I get the impression that training is likely based on preventing the next opponent and taking advantage of the next opponent. Every week. I’ve made the mistake of over-focusing on how to get my team into positions and forgetting that in order for the butterflies to fly away when the goal scoring moment shows up, attackers need to have trust in their instinct. To be familiar with the situation that is flying towards them. Partey needs repetition on shooting with significantly less power. He keeps getting the wrong golf club out of the bag.
Pepe just needs reps of the blindside run to the penalty spot. Odegaard needs repetition of the bending shot from outside the box as he passes it up 95% of the time. Willian separates himself on the top corner of the box but delays the shot that we saw often at Chelsea. Lacazette needs desperate help with his movement. ESR needs reps so he never has to think as he is top level when he trusts his eyes. Saka and Auba have the technique but seem to have to shake off rust and hope for more chances in order to convert.
-Willian is consistently playing ok and assisting goals. I can understand that Arteta wants to keep this run going as the improvement might be from 3/10 to 6/10, but it’s improvement. I do think that the Willian over Pepe selection is wrapped up in ego. I remember Wenger saying recently that he stayed on to prove to the fan base that wanted him out, that he could still do it. I think Arteta wants to prove us wrong. I’m hoping it won’t burn him as the fanbase have a Willian shaped bullet in their back pocket ready to fire when prompted.
-Has David Luiz ever scored a free kick for Arsenal? Does Arteta just let the players pick who takes them? If he does, I can see value in that as often players score set plays because they are ‘feeling it.’ What does concern me is that much like the finishing, are we doing set play shooting repetitively?
-As we are conquering possession I am hoping that the next layer is 1 touch passing. This is currently a rarity in our team, yet we have the players to do it. I’d like to see ESR return on Saturday as he has this and the team needs this level of tempo. A summer purchase or two with tempo in mind will be on the horizon.
Many thanks for the hundreds who sent me their best last week when my Mum passed. Quarantine rules in the UK are keeping my family and I from returning home right now so these words of support were much needed. Thanks also to Kim Brown who told me that it was Bob Paisley and not Brian Clough 🙂
Former Highbury regular. Moved to TN, USA in ’99. Married with 3 kids. Coached in UK and US for 27 years.
Mike McDonald Soccer Academy in Morristown TN, Olympic Development coach, Regional Premier League Champion.