Arsenal vs. Wolves: What Could Arsenal Have Done to Get the Victory?

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Arsenal vs. Wolves: What Could Arsenal Have Done to Get the Victory?
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
The stubborn luck

If at the end of the Wolverhampton Wanderers game the home crowd wanted to boo the Gunners, then perhaps they, themselves, should be shipped off in January. The scattered boos at the end of the match were nothing but brainless reaction at its most thoughtless.

Arsenal fans like to lambast under-performing players and say things like: "We don't want to see so and so wear the Arsenal colors, ever."  After such a disgraceful reaction, maybe they too should consider changing clubs. City will gladly have them. I heard that they now score whenever they want.

My first reaction to the match, then, is that the Emirates crowd is one of the most perplexing.

When they reacted against Samir Nasri's insulting comments in the summer, one thought the fans were justified in expressing their righteous anger. It turned out that Nasri had a point, after all. Click here and see.

Mr. Karl Matchett, a Bleacher Report columnist, has it right when he writes:

After an open start to the game between the Gunners and Wolves, the crowd barely even flickered into life when Gervinho opened the scoring after seven minutes, mustering just a moment or two of applause and cheering instead of the huge roar of celebrations generally associated with a Premier League goal.

In truth, there was little—from a tactical point of view—that Arsenal could have done to change the outcome of the match. The match settled into a groove of sorts in the second half, such that it could have continued for another 30 minutes with little changing.

Even the mighty Barcelona can be frustrated

These things happen. When Barcelona were handed their first loss of 2011 at the hand of Gatafe, it was under a similar circumstance as the one Arsenal faced at the Emirates against Wolves. Barcelona toiled away and peppered the Gatafe goal to no avail.

Here's what Jordi Clos wrote afterwards:

Luis García's team continued with their solid defensive display after the break, leaving Barça with little space to develop their trademark game, though Guardiola's men gradually began to create danger closer to Moya's goal. Then, on 67 minutes, Getafe won an isolated corner and Valera met it well to head low past Valdés for a goal very much against the flow of play. There were still 20 minutes left for Barça to turn it round and Guardiola brought on Pedro and Cuenca, whilst reverting to a fixed three man defence.

Barça now threw everything at the Getafe goal, with Piqué playing as a target man. Pedro made two dangerous moves in from the right, but it just wasn't Barça's night as first Keita was harshly adjudged off side to deny Messi the equaliser and then the Argentinean hit the post in injury time. In the end, all the hard work and effort was not, this time, rewarded with the points.

When it's not your night, nothing you do works for you.

The match, though, was lost in the first half.

In that half, Wolves were willing to venture out of their own half to attack. After the opening goal, Arsenal approached the match in the proper way by keeping possession to build attacks from the back. They could have scored more than one goal had they been more clinical in front of goal. 

If we are to fault them a little, then perhaps, we could say they should have been more efficient in front of goal when the match was still more open.

However, there's little I could have changed as a manager in this first half. Arsenal played well, but were unlucky to concede an unexpected goal. When Wolves got their fortuitous goal, they decided it was best to sit back in their own half.

I'll like to cull extensively from one my articles, in order to make my next points. Please, indulge me. The quotes come from my preview of the 2010 World Cup final.

In that article, I made no bone about my preference for the Netherlands. I am a lifelong admirer of their Total Football, even if the "total" wasn't quite evident in this particular tournament.

Since Spain had the stronger midfield, quite evidently, this is what I wrote:

If the Netherlands successfully neutralize Spain's midfield on Sunday, they will win the highest prize of football.

Scott Heavey/Getty Images
Nothing was wrong with Wenger's tactics

On paper, Spain have a stronger midfield than the Netherlands do, who have depended on the intelligence of Wesley Sneijder as a marshaling force. And although Van Bommel works as a wrench in the wheel of the opponent, I do not think, even with these two, the Netherlands can win the midfield battle against Iniesta, Busquets, Alonso, or Fabregas if he plays on Sunday.

To achieve the neutralization of the midfield, the Netherlands should use pressure marking when not in possession (as I have said above) and long balls from the defense into the danger zone of Spain when in possession.

This will, in the former instance, disturb the rhythm of Spain, and in the latter instance, effectively cut off the midfield (the strength of Spain), exerting the burden of pressure on the latter's defense.

And Spain's defense has shown a propensity to lose its nerves and resort to frantic clearances when pressured.

Examples are the USA match and the matches against Switzerland and Paraguay. The goal Spain conceded against Switzerland resulted from a defense that lost its nerves at the slightest of pressures.

Meanwhile, when Paraguay used long balls to pressure Spain's defense, even when utilizing a single attacker, they constantly rattled the latter's defense. Needless to say, Paraguay could have won that match. Note as well that in this match, Paraguay did not allow Spain to play at its own pace for extended periods

Here are the points I want us to take from this quote.

First, in the first half, Wolves used pressure marking in the middle of the pitch to force Arsenal to play the ball to the flanks. This seems counter-intuitive, since the flanks can often serve to stretch the defense.

But this is true only if you are not working deliberately to cause just this to happen. If this is your purpose, then you know what the next step is—how to marshal your spaces, how to negate the "stretching effect" of the flanks.

Concomitant to this is how Robin Van Persie was pressure marked. Team are now wise to his danger, which leads me to recall one of my observations from last week—the need for Van Persie to play deeper and off a more advanced striker in situations such as this.

 

Van Persie was given little room to work with in this match

In that observation, I had said that Van Persie needed to have dropped deeper in the Manchester City game since he was being pressure marked by the City defense. This could have produced one of two effects:

1. Free him to be more creative and to overlap for the killer pass, since somebody else would be holding the ball (I thought Marouane Chamakh could be employed specifically for this) to allow Van Persie to make decoy runs for the potent pass.

2. Serve to disrupt the opposition's defensive strategy, since they'd either be forced to follow him into the deeper zone of the pitch (opening up space as a result), or decide not to, and thereby leave him to play the role in number one.

Now, let me assure you that this observation—about pressure marking in the midpoint of Wolves' own half of the pitch—is not being made in hindsight. It's something I noticed quite early in the game, even after Arsenal had scored the opening goal.

It was quite evident that Wolves' strategy was to congest that area of the pitch by quickly putting four or five bodies around any possessing player in the middle. This, of course, was part of the reason why they conceded the first goal, but apart from this, the strategy worked by and large.

Now note that this strategy served to contain Arsenal's main strength, the midfield. When I wrote the original article, this is the exact effect I was aiming for against Spain.

Here's the second point, the long balls.

Here's a maxim, and I'm putting it in bold because of its importance.

If the opponent congest the middle of the pitch, or if they drop very deep into their own half to play what is essentially a 9-1 formation, then revert to this formation: 2-3-5 (or its variation), whereby your front five sit deep in the opponent's goal area and the supporting three sit in a diamond formation behind the five to gather loose balls.

The back two, plus the goalkeeper, should then launch long balls into the opponent's penalty area at every opportunity. One of those balls is bound to result to a scrappy goal. Scrappy...who cares? A goal is a goal.

The second way to play a 9-1 situation is to do what Arsenal did throughout the second half—try to unlock the defense by intricate passing. In many instances this can work, but when it doesn't, the long balls are definitely the way to go. They cause panic in the penalty area more times than not and can easily result to a penalty kick.

In reality, the team could use both of the two strategies alternatively.

This was my conclusion in my original article:

Dropped long balls over the midfield and into the danger zone of Spain will cause Spain to make mistakes and concede corners or free-kicks at dangerous positions, which the Netherlands could then exploit to score.

Here's another extended quote from the original article. It shades light on the foregoing points:

One other tactic the Netherlands could use against Spain is to cede the flanks to Spain in order to congest the midfield. The reason why the midfield should be congested should be obvious. It relates to most of what I have said in the foregoing.

But why the flanks may be ceded might not be as apparent. In fact, it might sounds counter-intuitive, more so, since one of the strengths of the Netherlands is the flanks, where Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt are imposing.

Here is why the Netherlands should cede the flanks.

By ceding the flanks, they'd gain more bodies in the midfield, congesting it and troubling Spain. This will disorganize Spain's passing game and will not allow them to enjoy possession, a thing in which they delight.

On the other hand, the Netherlands would force Spain to attack through the flanks. When they do this, they'd predictably fall into the deliberate plan of the former. The Netherlands could then counter these attacks by using a 4-5-1 formation.

The key is to have strong full-back positioning, operating just ahead of the center-halves. If executed well, this should act as a brick-wall, forcing Spain to retrace their step in an attempt to reform their beloved "U" attacking format.

This back-pedalling, of course, would allow the Netherlands' midfield to reorganize and their defense to reposition.

If the the Netherlands employ pressure marking as I have suggested, this will force Spain to hold the ball longer in their own halve, possibly losing it and conceding a corner, or worse, a goal.

And if Spain are forced to hold the ball longer in their own halve, the danger of their causing havoc to the Netherlands would be greatly reduced.

Notice that this is more or less what Wolves did against Arsenal.

One more strategy

What, then, can be done from the perspective of the attacking team? I have already suggested two of the things that could be done—long balls and intricate passing.

Barcelona often use the latter method as do Arsenal. Lack of height in Barcelona's case may prevent them from using the first option. More often than not, the second method works for them. But there are times when it doesn't. The Gatafe situation is a recent example.

Let me suggest another method, one that Barcelona use with great success. It has worked time and again against Madrid.

It happens in the form of Lionel Messi's diagonal runs at the opponent's defense. Now these runs are of two types and are deliberate strategic weapons.

The first is Messi's diagonal run towards, but apparently away from the opponent's goal, as though being forced wide. Please, seek out Barcelona clips and look for this.

Here is the key, but let me give you a Sir Alex Ferguson commentary on this to help me strike the point.

When forwards attack from wide to inside, they are far more dangerous. It's funny when I see centre-forwards starting off in the middle against their markers and then going away from goal. Strikers going inside are far more dangerous, I think. When Henry played as a striker, and sometimes when Wayne does, they try to escape and create space by drifting from the centre to wide positions, when that actually makes them less dangerous.

Sir Alex Ferguson is only half right. But he's referring to the strategy I'm alluding to.

If your point is to have the striker himself score, then Ferguson is absolutely right.

But, as I have explained in the case of Van Persie, there are situations when it's better for your best player (if he happens also to be your main striker) to drop deep into the midfield to collect the ball. (A good example of this is what Messi did in the recent clásico to create the first goal.)

In this particular example, although Messi does from time to time score from these counter-intuitive diagonal runs across goal, their purpose is not mainly for him to score. Their purpose is to have him driven wide, when this happens, he takes, at least, three defenders with him. Now look out for the reverse ball!

Ding! Another player receives the reverse pass, and...goal! See the diagram.

 

Dotted lines or arrows indicate players' run from one position to the other. Solid arrows indicate the movement of the ball.

The curved dotted line indicates the strategic run of the player to receive the reverse pass from Messi's decoy on-the-ball run. At least one other player makes a decoy run off the ball so as to distract defenders from the player intended to receive the pass.

Note that Messi often runs in the other direction, across and away from goal. As a matter of fact, this is the most deceptive. In this case, he often tries to reverse the run, which is what happens in the second type of run.

The other type of Messi's diagonal run is from the wide area towards goal. This is what Ferguson says is the most dangerous run. See Arshavin make this run here to score.

Messi often makes two kinds of diagonal runs

But again, it is only so because the possessing player intends to score himself. This player (the best player, presumably) may not always have the opportunity or the space to make this run, especially in situations such as the one we're examining.

In that case, the first type of run will prove the most devastating to the opponent, who, for a moment, think they've forced the dangerous player wide only to be tricked by the reverse ball.

Here's my final thought

At a point, I thought Arsenal actually missed Theo Walcott.

You may recall Van Persie's through-ball to Yossi Benayoun. A fine ball, but pace failed Benayoun. Walcott would have left his defender in the dust. This goes to highlight the unique attributes of each player.

Finally, I can't fault Arsenal's performance in this game. I thought they did all they could under the circumstance, it was only that that winning goal would not come. On another day, Arsenal could have won by three goals to one.

The opportunity to rise to fourth was missed, but that's not the end of the world by any stretch of the imagination.

As always, your thoughts are treasured.

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