Don’t watch the ball! (Positives Needs & Hopes) [ARS 5-0 SHU]

‘Don’t watch the ball’

An Arsenal blog from a coach’s perspective

Habits are really hard to change. They say when you are raising kids that you need to teach them the ways of the world very early as we all learn 80% of what is important in our lives by the age of eight.

There are a bunch of things that I’m glad that my parents taught me and some habits that I wish I’d been given too. I’ve tried to adopt these habits as an adult but it’s hard.

What is also hard is changing a lifelong habit of watching football and not watching the football.

In this modern game the football moves in a far more predictable pattern. It’s off the ball that matters now. Pressing wasn’t even a term when I played. Nobody taught team structure off the ball. Now it has flipped. Teams post the 73 international breaks play three times a week so spend most of their limited time working on defensive shape as each opponent wants to attack in a particular way, so they practice to funnel them the opposite way.

Arsenal have such a good team defensive structure and understanding of their variety of defensive options that they are now spending more time on ‘off the ball whilst we are in possession.’

I try not to watch the ball travel as so much more is learnt by watching beyond that. Arsenal play in 5 vertical lanes and ALWAYS have a player in each so they have automatisms and can play the Juego de Posicion style of considering defensive transition whilst attacking.

On Saturday there was a lot going on off the ball whilst we had it, which was essentially the entire game.

Eddie was the main event. What was so important for him personally was that he needed to become a conversation. Not with Gooners, as we are talking about him more than any other player this season (bar Havertz), but in the opponents changing room.

He needed to offer himself as a threat behind. Not just for a ball over the top but to move defenders towards their own box in order to open up space for the other attacking players to get the ball to their feet in space. This is advanced elite football and only a few pull it off or even try.

He was a bigger threat in the box. Sharper movement off the ball. More intelligent with his touches. He is finally learning the vital importance of having a maximum of two touches in the box and watching videos of Dennis Bergkamp setting up his shot with a very intentional.

Beyond Eddie, there were lots of other changes off the ball.

Generally, there is an ever increasing push for control and patience. The team is so well set up and organized that the theory that I spoke of last week is easy for Arsenal. For those that didn’t read it, I spoke of modern football being easier to understand and teach if you see it as 11 v 11 keep-away. This is exactly how Arsenal play and we are one of the only teams in world football that does this at both ends. City changed their style and rightly so when they got Haaland and so they send far more balls into the box as hope changed to opportunity with the robot footballer. In order for us to play with such patience we have to be in position off the ball at ALL times. If we weren’t then the crowd would not put up with an ultra patient team who never gets to shoot because they keep losing possession.

There were three new discoveries, also. Very welcome too. Zinchenko was the main recipient of Eddie running behind. He would wander into the ’10’ position and Saliba in particular would dissect the midfield and Zinchenko would turn. This directness was much needed as an option as we were becoming a team that would never penetrate centrally and so were easier to prepare for.

Secondly, Havertz playing right eight put him in the area with which he has had the most success in his career. When all of the Havertz slander started I went to his Leverkusen highlights and wanted to see which areas of the field he was most successful in. It was undoubtedly the area that Odegaard normally plays in. His movement off the ball was good and very varied. If he can get himself into that space he got into in the 98th minute, he will start scoring. Saka playing centrally for a while was interesting. Seeing him drive through more central areas is a free kick waiting to happen, so all we need is to sign Ward-Prowse.

I saw Rice often peel to one side off the ball, allowing Saliba a gap to pass centrally. I saw Havertz wander to CF when a long ball was the option and Martinelli follow him for the potential flick-on. I saw a glimpse of ESR (who is the king of off ball movement when he’s firing), running off Eddie for the third goal. Without this distraction, Sheffield Utd don’t let Eddie turn and shoot that beauty.

Arsenal needed this big victory. Sheffield United are probably no worse than other teams in 20th in the last few seasons. I think that at least half the league is much stronger and the top portion is littered with high level thinking and high level play. Arsenal seem to have largely conquered defending off the ball, but needed to have a game where they could spend what was 100 minutes working on improving their off the ball whilst attacking.

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+ Did you know that we have had 7 subs score this season in 10 games. One of our advantages is that it looks like our whole squad looks motivated and this is shown in this statistic as well as with our eyes.

+ Saka is a great case study. Why is he so well thought of? How does he have such high productivity even when he is only 7/10?

I think it’s because of his ability to protect the ball. I think this is his foundation. A foundation that few wingers have. The rest lose possession quite frequently and we accept it because they are the risk takers. Watch how he dribbles. Every time the defender is near him he either changes direction a little to keep the ball out of reach or he puts his right foot in between. He’s brave because it doesn’t stop defenders trying but he is more successful than others. This is pivotal in the modern game because top coaches want wingers that can take risk but not lose possession. Another example is Jack Grealish.

+ Our fans are starting to adjust to our more patient style. I hope that against strong defensive units that we continue playing this way but change against those that are not. Brighton are the perfect example. Until they get the balance right between attack and defence they can be got at during the first 20 mins. If you saw them play City, this is what City did. They knew that they did not have to control the game from the beginning. They went for goals early as they didn’t fear Brighton as a defensive unit that was going to score, pack it in and be successful at that. Forest are the same. Hit them early as if they score first, they don’t have the defensive concentration to keep you out for over an hour.

+ I think the Raya situation needs some more explanation. He is going to be signed permanently because he is good at taking risks. He feels fine playing left center back when needed. It doesn’t stress him. He deliberately steps further out when he anticipates a cross than the rest. I keep hearing people comment about how clean he is at crosses but the truth is that it’s his positioning. It is stopping numerous headed opportunities because he is there earlier and strikers don’t bother challenging him.  Even though there have been edgy moments, those will clean up just like they did with Ramsdale. I think he’s playing because he has shown himself to give off an aura of confidence in these areas. It’s how Arteta wants to play and he sees the best of Arsenal as a team that dramatically reduces opponents opportunities to score.

+ Never give Arteta a chance to have a team talk halfway through the first half. SHU did this and we scored 90 seconds later. I just love watching the players listen to him as they look like they know he can fix whatever happens.

+ I’d love to hear from Auston Trusty as to what he made of the improved Eddie. What was really interesting was that he is a hard working defender and he gave up after Eddie’s first touch on his first goal. Almost like there was an inevitability that he recognized in his finishing because he has seen it in training.

+ Every time I watch Man United, I’m reminded of Arsenal in the latter Wenger days and the dark days of early Arteta. Except Utd seem to care even less. It also helps me to not forget what our leadership has achieved. Not just Arteta either. The decision by the Kroenke’s to support him, believe in him and fund his ideas. Edu being the charming chap that understands how to go above and beyond with the human touch. Man Utd are so very far away from this and in my opinion made things twice as bad the day they made ‘Bruno the whining rat baby’ their captain. That was worse than giving Phil Jones a four year contract on 110K a week because it affects everybody.

+ Zinchenko was really good. In the absence of Odegaard playing and using his shooting gift more than his passing one, Zinchenko stepped up. He offers not just superior technique but disguise on his passing. Two of his shots were goal bound too before they were blocked. He is a large spoonful of pace away from being in the elite bracket. The bracket where you are under consideration for being in the World Team of the Year or whatever it’s called. I felt the same way about Giroud. Large spoonful of pace and he would’ve been unstoppable.

+ Regardless of how quick PL full backs are, Martinelli is quicker. Is there anyone in world football that can get clear separation as quickly as he can? Maybe Mitoma, Coman, Kubo and Salah but the list is very short.

+ One player that I rarely praise is Ben White. I have decided to forgive myself for this sin because I think he would. He is invisibly brilliant. Invisible because what he does so well is done so frequently. If Gareth ‘grey day’ Southgate throws away this golden generation because we get skinned at right back then we nor Ben White will be forgiving the grey man. England are blessed with a large bucket of right backs. So many that one plays left back and the one who plays right back should be playing right centre mid in a 4-3-3 and still we have more great options. The trouble is that none of them are as reliable and serious as Ben White. None of them specialize in both defending and attacking.

I’m noticing his superpower now. It is anticipation. He is so much quicker than others at reading the game. When most players are taking a mental nap, he is predicting the future like a footballing palm reader. Eddie’s second goal was a classic example. After their keeper flapped at the cross, everybody stood and watched Eddie get up and finish it. Everyone except White. In half a second he ran in front of the keeper to make sure he was blinded. Who even thinks of that let alone finds time to do it.

I might move to Norway. I believe they have rage rooms. I feel like I’m going to need one this summer and I’ve got my ‘cut out Gareth’ ready.

+ Big wins are not just fun but they are needed. Not for the fans but for the squad. We have a happy and competitive squad and that will only remain happy and competitive if we can rotate. With all the changes and the 5-0 victory, Arteta will be encouraged to do it again. It’s all very well fussing at him for not resting players but he is the head on the chopping block if we lose. It wasn’t just Zinchenko, Kiwior, ESR, Havertz and Eddie that came in, it was Nelson, Vieira, Tomi and Trossard that all got satisfaction from Saturday.

+ Saka as captain was very interesting. I’d love to ask Arteta why he chose him. There are many candidates and I’m sure the squad would’ve accepted Rice even though he is new. I used to use the captaincy as a motivational tool, and I wonder if this is what he is doing. Giving it to somebody that needs a boost. It could also be a special memory for him to add to his love for Arsenal because we have to believe that he will get offers from Madrid, City some day.

+ Trossard looked rather excitable. Looked faster, more willing to show his toolbox of skills and he looked very much in the mood. Arsenal have an ever growing list of players who could claim to be the ‘first guy off the bench.’ He is one for sure. ESR will be hoping that he can get that spot. Tomi is probably holding the title right now. Kiwior will be pushing the more he plays. Good player that chap from Poland. Havertz might be it because of his versatility and Nelson could be it if he was trusted more. I often think that Arteta thinks that it in his ideal world it is Eddie and Jorginho. Jorginho because he can close games out by managing the tempo and Eddie because he seems like he should be a super sub at a club like Arsenal.

+ Perhaps my favourite positive of the day happened in the 80th minute. Zinchernko misplaced a pass. He looked shocked. The fans seemed confused and I had the realization that we had played 90% of the game without a silly pass.

Arsenal are good.



+ I was in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio this weekend. Coaching a soccer tournament in the pouring rain. We had to go home on Sunday early as they cancelled the rest of the games so we went to a rare sighting instead. A store that actually has soccer gear. I stood there staring at our three kits and remembering how good our players look in them. Not so much us fans, but the players for sure. Then when I got home I watched the replay. What on earth were Sheffield United wearing?!?! Light grey is a good colour in your house on the walls or as a school uniform but light grey should never be seen in two places…. as tracksuit pants or as a one colour football kit. They can’t make the excuse that they were wearing red socks because I know that they were forced to do that because we had white socks.

Dear Sheffield United,

Only Spurs are allowed to wear light grey because their fans deserve this punishment. The rest of us don’t make this life choice. If you insist on a light grey away kit then put a dark grey design on it and definitely don’t wear the light grey onesie. You deserve to be relegated just for this.

Regards, Arsenal.

+ Watching Smith-Rowe was like having your funny uncle over for Christmas. He only comes at Christmas and you think he is really funny. You are 8 years old, by the way. No sooner has he arrived but you are asking him to crack jokes. His name is Alan, by the way. Everybody has an Uncle Alan, especially if you live in the UK.

He can’t think of any jokes because you are putting him under pressure. He is an improv guy. You don’t care and Uncle Alan is behaving more and more like a shrinking violet to the point where he is hiding in the toilet. Everybody hides in the toilet, by the way. Well, I do.

At the very end of the day Uncle Alan starts cracking a couple of jokes and you give him a big hug and tell him that he needs an actual stand-up routine prepared next time. Uncle Alan is secretly an introvert. You are just the only person that laughs at his jokes so he kept doing them for the first 7 years of your life.

Smith Rowe played like Uncle Alan.

He showed up to play. Once a year of course. There was much expectation and because he felt the pressure, he seemed to play very safe. As the game got into the last third he came to life and reminded us of his talents. I suppose what we need to do is give Uncle Alan some space. He’s coming to another family event on Wednesday (West Ham) and your Mum has told you that you might just see more of Uncle Alan if you’d just let him perform at his own pace.

+ I love to guess at the next evolution in football. I wonder if it will be the ‘cutback to zone 3?’  As you will see in the image, Zone 3 is that area before you get to the side of the 6 yard box.

IMG 1248 (1)

Martinelli in particular is routinely getting there but not finding an easy goal scoring option as the front post becomes smothered. My guess is the coaches will figure out that instead of hitting a pointless ball across a crowded 6 yard box and being denied entry at the front door, that it would be better to cut it back 7 yards to a player standing exactly where you see the number 3. It seems a much better idea and an easier angle to score from. Alternatively, and in Martinelli’s case in particular, beat you man a little quicker so that the front door to the tap in isn’t closed.

+ I felt bad for Sheffield United. Mainly because they were forced to wear that kit. Also, because most folks don’t seem to understand that the jump from Championship to Premier League isn’t ‘one step.’ I’d say it’s more like jumping 8 leagues.

Here is how I see the top 10 leagues;

  1. Premier League
  2. La Liga
  3. Bundesliga
  4. Serie A/Ligue 1
  5. Portuguese league/Dutch league/Brazilian league/Argentinian league
  6. Saudi League
  7. Turkish League
  8. MLS/Mexican League/Japanese league
  9. English Championship/Russian and Ukrainian Leagues
  10. Scandanavian/Australian/Chinese leagues

This is how players have to look at it. It’s not stepping up one level at all. You aren’t entitled to play in the Premier League just because your team got there. If you get to play there you have to step up 8 levels. And quickly.

It’s the same for our Academy players. Even though we have produced many Arsenal players from Hale End over the years, for them to step up is probably 15 levels, not one. We need to speak this way because it’s only fair to players like Saka who have managed to do it and it stops entitled footballers who think that Academy football to first team is one step up when it’s probably 15 levels.

+ I’m being greedy. Please can we score a header from a corner.

+ There is a game that I play that seems to be quite enlightening for high level players. I last played it whilst doing a session at the collegiate level here in the USA. It is essentially a 6 v 6 match with the goals 25 yards apart. The only rule that is different is that you HAVE to shoot with your first touch regardless of where you are. It seems a little ridiculous but it is eye opening to footballers. They quickly discover the importance of body shape in and around the box. After the match I tell them that they are leaving goals on the table simply because they are not preparing their body shape or aren’t even considering a shot when they could actually score.

There is nothing quite like discovery and I point to the many goals that were scored in this manic 30 minute shoot-a-thon simply because of a mentality shift. Romelu Lukaku really needs to play this game.

+ Talking of shooting…. Declan Rice needs to unload. He passed up three 20 yard shots from central areas. Watching him on the top of the box was like watching someone who didn’t think he was worthy. Considering he can literally do everything else, he needs to know that he is worthy of shooting too.

Screenshot 2023-10-30 at 3.35.56 PM



+ Arteta is talking about the need for more subs being allowed. It’s such a shame that he has to think this way. The season is about to get silly. Three games a week for 7 months. Utterly ridiculous and no wonder that we are seeing more hamstring injuries than at any other time in football. Arteta knows that those running the game are as corrupt/incompetent as those running countries right now so I suppose he is clever in not trying to stop a money addict from wanting to not make more money at the expense of actual people. That’s impossible for them. Don’t bother.

+ Have you heard of this guy……?

Screenshot 2023-10-30 at 3.38.16 PM

His name is Chido Obi. He is 15 and become the youngest ever player that Arsenal have called up to the Academy team. I’m thinking we need to keep an eye on him.

+ The more I watch Amadou Onana, the more I’d love him at Arsenal. If Thomas Partey’s time at Arsenal is short we have to firstly understand that he will be hard to replace. I hear talk of Tchouameni but I can’t see why Madrid would sell unless they need funds to sign Mbappe and ultimately, Haaland. Onana would at the least be a really useful option in physical games.

+ The left eight spot at Arsenal is currently the only one that hasn’t been grabbed by someone. We have Havertz, Trossard, ESR, Vieira and perhaps the best option which hasn’t been tried in Zinchenko. Of this rather large group I think there is one who is an Arsenal player that I believe has the highest ceiling of all of them and his name is Charlie Patino. The decision to retain him was a huge relief because he is simply different. There are only a handful of players in each generation who make the sport look easier than the majority can. I am unashamedly offering the opinion that I think that Charlie Patino could be the answer in the race to solidify the left eight spot.

+ One of the coolest things I get to do is take young men to watch professional soccer games that they can’t without help. I was blessed to take Jadiel, Cesar, Iker, President David and Max to watch our friend, Tyler Gibson win their play off game for Louisville City. It’s not easy to watch soccer here. We have to travel at least 4 hours to do so.

IMG 1236 (1)



We started with Eddie and he deserves us to finish with him too.

I’ve said for a while now that he lacks passion and hunger in his game. An understanding of how you can become loved. England is a simple country to get footballing love. The fans want to simply SEE you care. When you score they don’t want humility, they want a chest thumper because they can relate as they are in the crowd thumping theirs. Eddie still needs to work on the second part but certainly brought the first part on Saturday. He was a factor in MULTIPLE areas. He desperately needed to show us this. He was a threat inside the six yard box, twice. Was making runs that were for others or offering the long option as well as the slide pass between full back and centre back. He was a threat outside the box on the spin turn. A threat floating between the lines turning and supplying and the biggest change of all was when his teammates offered him the perfect movement off the ball to strike what is our Goal of the Season to date.

If Arsenal are in the top five teams in world football right now (which I think they are), they need and deserve a striker who can offer everything. I look at Declan Rice and see a single pivot who can do more than any other including Rodri, as he can drive with the ball too. I feel that we deserve him and he deserves us. He is the level we are trying to get to. Eddie needs to understand that we aren’t judging him because we are fed up of Hale End players playing in the first team, but I think that subconsciously we feel like we deserve a well rounded finished article that offers the multi threat and the consistency that someone like Harry Kane offers every single game and every single season.

Sorry for using an ex-Spurs player but he’s just lobbed the Darmstadt goalie from 67 yards with his weak foot and I’m reminded that he scores so many different types of goal and has the same threat in assisting too.

Congratulations to Eddie. I hope that he becomes what we need. That performance was different. His best ever for Arsenal and very encouraging. I think he might just get there. Arteta clearly loves him and now that England have Callum Wilson, Ollie Watkins and Harry Kane in form, Eddie has no choice but to press repeat if he wants to make the Euro squad. I’m sure this is in the very front of his mind even though it’s a sidenote to us.

Thanks for reading. Give me a follow @mike_Mmcdonald

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5 Responses to Don’t watch the ball! (Positives Needs & Hopes) [ARS 5-0 SHU]

  1. Andy October 31, 2023 at 6:41 pm #

    Cheers Mike. Excellent read as always

  2. Las October 31, 2023 at 11:29 pm #

    Thanks! Love your style 🙂

    • Francis Redheart November 1, 2023 at 2:47 pm #

      Hello Mike,

      Finally! But after all the work you do, I want to make sense of what I have watched with your opinion.

      Very nice for the use of the squad and this is something Arteta rarely does but is doing this season.

      With your analysis of the academy being rings below the PL, I guess that’s why we haven’t seen more of Nwaneri and Walters in particular unless the is really outstanding because suddenly we now have quality players all over the team.

      On a final note, since Kanu played for Arsenal more and more players from Nigerian descent are always at the club.

  3. Bobby McMahon November 1, 2023 at 2:16 am #

    Every column you write makes me think a little bit harder about Arsenal and Arteta’s approach. But you have outdone yourself on this one – an absolute cracking read.

  4. allezkev November 1, 2023 at 3:10 pm #

    Mike, there is so much to consume from your posts that it’s difficult to respond to everything you opine on so I’ll stick to just two.

    Eddie Nketiah, his third goal was, well it was out of character for our fox-in-the-box, but what a crackerjack of a drive, sublimely put beyond the goalkeeper’s grasping hands.

    We’re so used to Eddie sniffing out the finishes from within the goal area, as was the case with numbers one and two, but number three was different and it made me wonder if this was always a part of Eddie’s armoury kept hidden or was it due to work done with Arteta and the coaches (a la Rahim Sterling)..?

    Mikel has continually spoken well of Eddie and maybe he’s always seen something else in his game, something to work on and develop because if Eddie can start hitting the onion bag from the edge of the area then maybe we do have the beginnings an interesting striker on our hands?

    Tonight I suspect that we won’t see any of our talented youngsters, not in the starting XI that’s for sure. We have too many squad players who need the minutes and West Ham are certain to field a near full-strength side so it’s going to be tough. Walters is an interesting shout though because with Tomiyasu leaving to play in the Asian Cup there might be an opportunity for Reuell to stake a claim in the senior squad?

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