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Predictable, predictable Arsenal – a quick fix for the Gunners’ goal-stipation

Madness: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Arsenal may be toppish of the league at the halfway mark, but our ability to stay at the top has become less and less convincing every week. Chance after chance spurned, our attackers all enduring the brownest of patches, whilst certain Ukrainian elements of our defence prove more error-prone than Chat-GPT… these are all severely halting our progress up the charts, as the song we’re singing turns from smash-hit to muzak. It’s gone beyond the point where everyone knows the words – it’s now being played in elevators and Home Depots.

Hotel (Nautical Flag)

We witnessed this during the Wenger Years: huge swathes of the season where our tiki-taka possession became less of a means-to-an-end than the end itself: pretty, repetitive and ultimately product-free passing patterns penduluming around a packed opposition box. Touches galore, endless pressure, a heat map that quite literally represents “Hotel” in nautical-flag speak – no doubt because of the amount of time we spent camped on the edge of the opposition box. (Ironically, that self same, red-tipped, white flag signifies that a ship has a pilot on board; if the good ship Arsenal has a pilot on board, he’s no doubt drunk in his cabin, below deck, ‘cos he certainly doesn’t seem to be steering us on a productive path through the low block into the back of the net.)

The constipation analogy alluded to in the title of this post is more apt than merely the obvious lack of… um… end product. To be constipated one must have consumed. And 2024 Arsenal certainly has consumed: bucketloads of xG and Big Chances and all the other stats that traditionally signify success. Juego De Posicion hors d’oeuvres: rondos and automatisms galore; we’ve gobbled up half-spaces and underlaps, channels and transitions, combinations and counter-presses. Chef Arteta has served his players a smorgasbord of delightful stratagems to serve at football’s top table, and they have willingly consumed the lot. They’re bloated, ready to burst.

But the bursting just isn’t happening, and yet the feasting must continue, for football stops for no-one. And so the bloating increases, and with it the agony, the desperation for release.

Let It Flow

A dietician would probably advise against continuing with an… unproductive… diet, lest the bloating lead to more devastating internal damage. With dairy cows, farmers have taken to inserting a stent into the bowels of living animals – a vent, as it were – a chimney – to release the gas build-up and (cruelly) ease the pain of animals continually converting food to milk and methane, and unable to fart.

Fistulated Cow

Yes. Humans suck. [Image Source: unknown]

I’m not sure what the football equivalent would be of fistulated bovines, but we need something to get our goals flowing again. Perhaps a supplement (organic, of course), to kick-start the process of releasing the by-product of our xG-rich diet: something to lube the channels and eliminate the (low)-blockage?

Prune juice. That’s what we need. And I’ve brewed up a fresh batch, for your consideration. Nothing drastic – I’m not asking for the chef to be fired, or the menu to be changed completely: in fact, a small tweak, using existing ingredients, could open the floodgates, and surround us once more with the sweet smell of success.

Why The Logjam?

Saka and Martinelli. Starboy and Gabi. Bright young jewels in Arsenal’s crown.

They’re the Zulu horns of our Isandlwana, and they have been for a couple of years now. Our opposition knows that those two names are the first on our team-sheet, and they have plenty of archival footage to study; they can easily learn just how they operate, and how everything we do goes through them, no matter how much we try and disguise it.

Gone are the days when Zinchenko (or Xhaka) could obfuscate the situation by sneaking into the midfield, sucking defenders with him, and leaving Martinelli unmarked. And oh! if only defenders still bought Ben White’s dummy runs and exposed their soft underbellies to Saka’s scything blade.

This doesn’t happen any more. Premier League teams have cracked Arteta’s code, and results are proving it. Double- or triple-team Ødegaard, Saka and Martinelli out of the game and you’re in with a chance of nicking a win on the counter. It’s not rocket science – Arsenal has been running the same playbook for 50 games now, albeit with slightly different supporting personnel this season.

In Martinelli’s case, it means being glued to the touch line during the build-up, until such time as Zinchenko sees fit to give him the ball. At which point Martinelli puts his head down, engages Fast Mode and enters the 2024 Martinelli Maze. (The eagle-eyed among you will note its resemblance  to The Perpetual Gervinho Maze, except that it has an exit.)

THE 2024 MARTINELLI MAZE by @invinciblog

Both Martinelli and Saka had incredible 2023 seasons, with their prolific goal-scoring and assist records – along with Ødegaard’s – glossing over the fact that we have one striker whose strong point is NOT scoring goals, and another whose inconsistency is the only thing we can rely on.

Last year, Saka’s lower body strength, his ability to plough through bodies and still retain the ball, and his resilience under a constant barrage of fouls, meant that he was able to get into dangerous positions, cut in onto his left foot despite being ushered to the goal line, and score. His frustrating reluctance to use his right foot and cross back into the 6-yard box, however, meant that he was only using half of his right-winger arsenal.

This season, defenders have figured out how to smother his remaining superpowers. The 2024 Saka Maze (below) shows the likely result of Saka receiving the ball and initiating an attack.

THE 2024 SAKA MAZE by @invinciblog

 

So – what is the solution to this problem, the prune juice to open a few more Goal Exits on the mazes above?

Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall

It’s super-simple. Switch them. Put Martinelli on the right, and Saka on the left.

It will completely upend the standard How To Beat Arsenal plans being liberally shared amongst our opposition.

How? you ask…

Well, here are a few ways that it could shake things up:

  1. ObservationShot Quality Deterioration
    Let’s face it: the number of attempted shots by Martinelli and Saka (when cutting in from their current wings) that gets past defenders is very low. And as those shots become more and more difficult, their execution level is raised, resulting in fewer shots actually on target, and those that are on target have been increasingly lame. More and more often, both attackers are shepherded further and further into midfield until their threat is essentially nullified, and no shot is even attempted.Their goals have dried up.
  2. Observation: Saka’s Crossing
    In Saka’s case, his right foot is so much weaker than his left, that he barely trusts it to deliver crosses from the goal line, let alone shoot with it. This effectively removes two out of the four options a winger has: shoot (with either foot) and cross (with either foot). Saka is effectively operating at 50% capacity, even at his best. Anyone who watches football knows that an early cross by a winger into the small box from the goal-line is a defender’s nightmare. Defenders and attackers are rushing towards the goal mouth, creating uncertainty for the keeper, and creating chaos – they often result in own goals, tap-ins, corners and general mayhem.Arsenal hardly ever uses this tactic from the right, which is unfortunate, as the natural fox-in-the-box finishers – most likely to benefit – are on the opposite side: Martinelli/ Jesus (Nketiah)/ Havertz. Rarely – very rarely – Ben White may offer this option by overlapping Saka, but generally this happens once opposition defenders are comfortably positioned, and is seldom productive.When Saka does cross with his left foot, the crosses are in-swingers, which always favour the keeper, and, if over-hit, go out for a goal kick. Saka’s right footed crosses – as mentioned earlier – could easily be mistaken for back-passes to the keeper.

    The problem is exasperated by the fact that Saka’s most used non-shooting option is the cutback to Ødegaard on the edge of the box. Ødegaard is, of course, equally left-footed, and defenders know how to stop him from shooting effectively. Ødegaard knows this too, and so Arsenal has to rely on Wilshere-vs-Norwich-style intricacies to dribble the ball into the goal.

  3. Observation: Martinelli’s Cutbacks
    Martinelli suffers from the same one-footedness, meaning he has to cut inside to shoot on his right foot. Everybody and their five-year old kid knows this, and doesn’t let it happen. His other trick is to run to the goal-line, turn right, and keep running towards the goal, looking to beat the keeper at the near post (a rarity) or cutback into or around the six-yard box, the zone of chaos, where anything could happen.If Martinelli does decide to open his body and attempt a right foot cross – it is also an in-swinger – flying away from our non-existent onrushing attackers, and into the goalie or overhit, for a goal kick.

    saka and martinelli

    Credit: Stuart MacFarlane/ Arsenal.com

  4. Observation: Exposed Dribbling
    Both Saka and Martinelli, playing on their current wings, naturally present the ball on the inside while dribbling with their favoured foot. This is far easier for the defender: it allows them to poke a foot in and tackle, and it forces both Saka and Martinelli to contort into unnatural and static positions to protect the ball from prying feet.On the opposite side of the pitch, they would be able to keep their forward momentum while protecting the ball – resulting in faster transitions and therefore a less structured defence when entering the opposition’s final third. They would also be able to receive passes with more optimal body shapes, as well as keep long cleared balls along the touchline in play with the stronger (now) outside foot.Defenders would then be faced with the conundrum: force the winger to the goal-line (and their favoured crossing foot), or allow them into the penalty box, fraught with the dangers that presents.
  5. Observation: Efficiency
    The crosses that Martinelli and Saka would produce from their switched positions would theoretically come in quicker, be more accurate, and swing away from the goalie, into the feet of onrushing attackers and defenders.If they ran the goal-line cutback option, they would be naturally protecting the ball, and defenders would have to risk pushing or kicking the player and risk being penalised.In short – they would be more efficient, and therefore, one hopes, more productive.

Finally: A Plan B

It seems a no-brainer to at least try this option. If it was attempted for significant periods of the game, and then switched to the more ‘traditional’ formation – it would surely cause confusion in the opposition wingbacks, and make their jobs twice as difficult – if only due to the fact that they would have to learn TWO completely opposing defensive strategies, depending which winger they were marking.

It would speed up our transition play, without compromising control and security, since the ball is more naturally protected with Saka on the left and Martinelli on the right.

By keeping Ødegaard on the right, paired with Martinelli, and Havertz/Trossard on the left, with Saka, it makes it even harder for the opposition, as Arsenal would now have right- and left-footed players on either side. There would be no “safe zone” into which our attackers could be ushered.

Martinelli would then be crossing towards our more natural back-post runners. Saka would be cutting back towards our more natural front-post runners. Long, out swinging shots would fall to Arsenal players on the opposite edge of the box, and give them more time to shoot.

One needs only to look at the success of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool: probably the Premier League’s most lethal wing-back combo. Surely they serve as a prototypical argument for the strengths of having wingers with favoured outside feet?

Disclaimer

I am not a tactician. Or a statistician. I am more than happy to be proved an idiot.

Also – the fact that Arteta has never meaningfully used this option in-game makes me wonder how sensible it is. Mikel has forgotten more than I will ever know, and I’m sure this is something he must have considered and even tried in training… There must be a reason why he isn’t using it. Perhaps one of you enlightened readers will educate me in the comments below.

Thanks for reading this somewhat obtuse and verbose post.

TL;DR:

Switch Martinelli and Saka and let sh*t happen.

 

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One Response to Predictable, predictable Arsenal – a quick fix for the Gunners’ goal-stipation

  1. Welsh Corgi January 4, 2024 at 9:18 pm #

    Evening, and thanks for a new post.

    Yepp, 100%agree, we’re slow, no ball tempo, no one touch football and have sterile position. Not sure why.

    Is it because of Xhaka and Partey being absent or what? Changing Saka and Martinelly is a great proposition as we now look we’ve been found out. However you think we could use ESR more too? Thinking that he offers verticality more than our players=something different?

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