How Arsenal Will Take or Squander the Chance for 3rd on EPL Survival Sunday
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There will be tears aplenty on Sunday—of joy and satisfaction, or of bitterness and regret.
The Evil or Good Sunday
The King-times are fast finishing. [This season's English Premier League campaign will end on Sunday.] There will be blood [hope not] shed like water, and tears like mist; but the people will conquer in the end.
Lord Byron, January 13, 1821
This to me sounds like an apt portent of this coming Sunday when Manchester United will have lost a title due to their cowardly approach to the very important Manchester derby on the last day of April.
Or—and who knows?—when Manchester City will fail to beat QPR and then succumb to depression.
Or when Bolton Wanderers will slide to the netherworld of the Championship after 11 years in English football's top-tier league...or not.
The Neighborly Enemy
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It will be the best day of my life when Spurs take the third spot from you this weekend, and Chelsea win the champs league soon there after. Then I get to hear [Arsene Wenger] complain all offseason long of the injustices of champs league qualification. It will be beautiful.
The beauty is the schadenfreude this will yield. Call it mind-bending opium if you will—it is the same.
Draws for both Arsenal and Spurs will yield the same result.
But a draw for Arsenal and a win for Spurs will be perfect for such fans as the one above.
Fear, Fear, Fear
If you ask what will happen, I'd say I have always feared this last match as I have anticipated in past articles that it could be the decisive stroke that at last sends Arsenal to Europa. I am hoping, though, that the people Byron refers to—those who will conquer in the end—are Arsenal fans.
Here's how Arsenal could make things easy for themselves on Sunday.
I state a riddle.
These are opponents against which Arsenal played disjointedly.
In the Aston Villa FA Cup match and against Manchester United at the Emirates, Arsenal changed strategy in the second half, from a deep defensive line to a high one, and this changed the complexion of the match.
In the Manchester United match, even though Arsenal lost, the balance of the match in the second half appeared to swing Arsenal's way until a momentary lapse in concentration gave Manchester United the match.
The very annoying Norwich City match by which Arsenal could have sealed their fate for good, the equally annoying lost away to Swansea City and the humiliating defeat to Sunderland in the FA Cup all bear resemblance to one another in that they are unified by the same tactical and strategic flaw.
Did anyone notice that the third goals conceded to these sides where under similar circumstances, on the same flank and identical (almost) in nature (near side to far side)?
The same flaw was present in the Liverpool match at Anfield—albeit mitigated by other factors—with the only difference being that Arsenal managed to eke out a victory. It was also there against Chelsea at the Emirates, although Arsenal survived with a point.
Perseus' Gleaming shield
Now contrast these matches with the victory against Spurs at the Emirates; the demolition of a very good AC Milan side, again at the Emirates; the triumph over Manchester City, still at home; and the character-testing match against Newcastle, yet again at the Emirates, and you'd see that they are unified by the same tactical and strategic approach.
The Science of the Notion
In these two sets of matches, the same result is constant when one and not another strategy is used by Arsenal, and this constant is tinged with a scientific quality. And it is a very simple constant, almost too simplistic as to invite disbelief or ridicule. I have touched on it already.
It is deep or high defensive line.
In the former set of matches, Arsenal played a deep line, and as I observed elsewhere in one of my analysis articles, the result has always been a divide—a huge one at that—between Arsenal's defense and attack, where the midfield becomes the road to nowhere, resulting in a disoriented affair in this particular space for Arsenal.
It was the wormhole that sucked both Aaron Ramsey and Yossi Benayoun at Swansea City. There, both ran around like beheaded chickens. It was the match that dealt Ramsey his first blow on the road to Gooners' disaffection.
Tomas Rosicky fared no better in the first half against Manchester United at the Emirates while the same gap existed in the midfield. When it was sealed in the second half, Arsenal kicked into gear.
Arsenal treaded the waters at Sunderland throughout the FA Cup when the same gap was the snipped vital cord between defense and attack.
Against Liverpool—although Arsenal found a way to severely restrict Liverpool's shots on goal in the second half—the same gap enabled Liverpool to be mischievous in the midfield, mounting waves on waves of attack, even if toothless in the end.
A penchant for being deep and ragged at the back was the undoing of Arsenal against Norwich last Saturday. The result was equally calamitous as the loss against the underrated Swansea City. Similarly, it robbed Arsenal of what would have been an easy victory against Chelsea.
In contrast, recall how Arsenal's high line frustrated AC Milan time and time again by causing Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovich to be offside.
Or how it pinned Manchester City in their own half at the Emirates in the last 30 minutes of the second half, where Arsenal went a step further to employ what I call the "V" defensive structure, highly pressed forward, to stifle City.
Again, against Newcastle United, it was what led to the quick equalizer and what kept Newcastle's attack silent throughout the second half.
It was the very factor that gave Arsenal the 5-2 victory over Spurs in February.
Like I have said above, whenever Arsenal have played this way they've dominated their opponents and never have they looked disjointed or out of control.
But whenever they've played the deep line, which ineluctably creates a gap between defense and attack, Arsenal have labored, and they've almost always lost.
True, exceptions exist like the first Chelsea match, but even so, energetic work by all players, who displayed an uncanny willingness to run around to create spaces and triangles (recall also the first Wigan match) mitigated this weakness.
In the second Everton match, when Arsenal dominated early, it was still this high line that enabled this; when the defense became deep, Everton took over. This was also true in the first Everton match, and almost identical in the first and second Fulham matches.
The Tactic at Work
A high defensive line compresses the area or skirmish, bringing Arsenal's full backs and wingers into touching distance. This neutralizes the opponents' offense in these areas, forcing them to attack through the middle.
However, since Arsenal tend to have three bodies in the midfield, this allows the team to play to their strength. It allows Rosicky to be in close proximity to Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott on the right and Benayoun or Gervinho on the left.
Refer to the following diagram:
Notice how the area of skirmish—designated by bold yellow lines—is neatly sewn up by strategic positioning when Arsenal compress the playing space via a high line.
Arrows designate the defensive or attacking movement of full backs, while the holding midfielder Alex Song is able much more to effectively shield the defense.
The box-to-box midfielder—designated by the larger red circle—is much more able to maraud and enforce affairs in the midfield. Every one of his moves connects him to a proximate player.
The strategic movement of the front man becomes more effective since it allows quick rotation with other forwards (i.e., the attacking midfielder and the wide forwards). In short, this strategy allows Arsenal to control the games where it is employed.
The question then comes: if this is so, and since this has proven time after time to be effective, why do Arsenal change from it to the troublesome deeper line, which causes them first to be disjointed and then to lose the matches in which they do so?
The Sphinx and Oedipus
They began the second Wigan match thusly, and while they conceded an early goal, it wasn't the result of the high line—it occurred under a similar circumstance to Barcelona's concession of an away goal at Stamford Bridge when Lionel Messi lost possession.
Here, Robin van Persie took a poor corner, which when cleared and then headed back towards him, he failed to anticipate. This resulted in a breakaway, which wouldn't have happened had Mikel Arteta not been unable to track back.
The second goal against Wigan was akin to Barcelona's first in the last Clasico.
It was a scrappy, the kind that can happen from time to time, even if better cover on the right flank could have prevented it.
Again, with no support up front—due to the incapacitation of Arteta—which normally comes from tracking midfielders, Bacary Sagna was exposed, a scenario that wouldn't have happened had the spaces been well marshaled as shown in the diagram above.
These two goals deflated Arsenal's confidence, a confidence that had been built up in a series of victories that enabled the team to overhaul Spurs' lead on the Premiership table.
The fear of losing was at work at Milan in the San Siro loss, where, again, Arsenal played a deep line with the same tactical problem.
The same fear caused the following loss at Sunderland. It was also at work at QPR where Arsenal played a deep line.
In short, this analysis has excavated the fault vis-a-vis the strength of the team this season.
Whenever the team has been bold and played to its strength by employing a disciplined high line, it has triumphed. Whenever it has approached a match nervously and fearfully, leading to a deep line, it has lost.
Here then is my verdict.
If the team decides towards the way of courage and plays to its strength at WBA, it will triumph and secure third place. If it plays peevishly, standing back and off the opponent, thereby leaving a gap between attack and defense, it'll lose.
The science and rationale of this conclusion has been analyzed.
Verbum sat sapienti est.
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