Monday, 17 August 2015

Two weeks in: cause for optimism

Francis Coquelin and Arsenal’s system
Officially, Arsenal play 4-2-3-1. More realistically, it’s closer to a diamonded 4-3-3, with a midfield three of Francis Coquelin with Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla ahead (with Cazorla drifting in so much, he can only nominally be considered a left-sided player, even when deployed there), and Mesut Ozil at the tip of that diamond.

The set-up puts a lot of pressure on all three of them, but primarily Coquelin. I’ve been one of his biggest critics, but here’s a player where one of his primary responsibilities is not to give the ball away and yet Arsenal don’t tend to play wingers (a by-product of most off the squad wanting to play centrally) meaning he has no real wide option to distribute to, except full backs he is also presumably supposed to cover for, leading to the unsurprising eventuality where either he goes backwards, or one of the ostensibly more attacking players has to drop back to receive the ball.

What's expected of Coquelin involves him being asked to cover at least one full-back, distribute the ball without the other midfielders having to drop deep, not lose the ball, intercept through balls and high balls, mark runners, tackle and more.

I’m not sure he is good enough to be a first choice defensive midfielder and deep-lying playmaker at the same time, but I’m also unsure anybody in world football is. Perhaps Sergio Busquets is, but he benefits enormously from Barcelona’s unique strangle-hold on possession.

What Coquelin lacks in his game is not medium-length passes to the wings - although he doesn’t often play these, that’s mainly because his team-mates don’t show for them much. What he does lack is intricacy in short passing, like blind passes that fool a marker and clever through balls. I don’t think he’s ever going to have the vision to play those balls, but I’m really unsure he should have to, and it places an enormous weight on his shoulders.

To the extent that Coquelin could try, it involves Arsenal playing a proper double-pivot again - a tactic which was very effective, but has largely been jettisoned. Put less pressure on Coquelin defensively, and it’s intuitive that it would help him, and perhaps the whole team going forward.

A more defensive season?
Although Burnley are a very recent exception to this, teams usually get relegated because they’re incompetent defensively. To the extent Burnley are even an exception, scoring three goals in their final twelve games of the season is such a low scoring rate that it doesn’t really count: few teams in history have ever had such a poor scoring rate - it’s impressive work.

The main thing I’ve seen so far from Watford and Norwich is that they’re teams who are set up reasonably well and aren’t likely to leak many more than fifty goals over the course of the season. That’s bad news for a lot of the other teams who looked like they might go down last season - Villa, West Brom and Sunderland in particular - but it also affects the bigger picture: if you’re less confident you can score yourselves, you’ll probably defend more, leading to more tense games finishing 1-0 and 0-0.

Already last season, there was a marked drop in goals per game in the Premier League to around 2.6. The teams at the bottom of the League have strengthened defensively (a by-product of the massive TV deal allowing smaller clubs to attract really good players from around Europe) but perhaps more importantly, the teams at the top have too.

Arsenal’s major summer business has been the purchase of Petr Cech. Manchester United’s weakness last season was how easily they were cut through in midfield - they’ve responded by purchasing Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin. They may still lack a cutting edge up front (they do, I just like caveating everything), but with proper central midfielders they will be even more solid defensively. I wouldn’t be shocked to see them end the season with the division’s best defensive record. Spurs conceded a massive 53 goals last season, but have strengthened at centre back with Toby Aldeweireld, Chelsea still want John Stones, Eliaquim Mangala will probably kick on for City and even Liverpool haven’t bought badly with Nathaniel Clyne.

Particularly given there’s four teams who could plausibly challenge for the title, it’s relatively easy to envisage a series of close, tight matches between the top four, with teams more afraid to lose than to go for the win.

I think there’s a case to be made that’s good for Arsenal, chiefly because in Mesut Ozil, the Gunners have the best player in the division at unlocking a deep defence and finding the killer ball which is so difficult to defend against, however hard you try. Yesterday’s assist was just such an example of this.

Chelsea look really weak
When I wrote my season preview and tipped Arsenal to come second, I was a little worried that this was more based on hope than anything realistic: most people predicting Arsenal to improve on last season thought City would go backwards. I’d felt for most of the summer - but particularly after City had spent well - that they were the most likely team to win the League this season, and while I was reasonably happy they are a better team than Chelsea, I was really unsure Chelsea were going to drop off.

Still, the evidence against Chelsea isn’t just based on the first two games of the season: the only thing which could be used to defend Chelsea’s terrible performances in the Spring (even against rubbish teams like Hull and QPR) was that they a) they were not playing at full intensity as they did not need to, due to their lead at the top of the table or b) they were knackered from having been over-played earlier in the season.

Given they’re now a) no longer really far ahead and b) coming off the back of a long summer break, neither of those explanations really stand up. Granted, the whole team seems to lack a little fitness, but when the whole League looks less well-prepared than usual, that isn’t sufficient to mitigate two terrible performances, particularly as they’ve struggled at exactly what Jose Mourinho teams usually do very well: they’ve been conceding a ton of shots on goal. As many noted, Asmir Begovic was actually pretty good yesterday.

Last season, when Arsenal suffered a load of injuries defensively, I pointed out how although it might have been a good idea to invest in more defenders, Chelsea actually had fewer defenders in their squad. The response was that it was far more likely Arsenal players would be injured than Chelsea players and so the board should have known better and planned for Arsenal’s injuries.

I’m still doubtful that Arsenal defenders necessarily are any more likely to be injured than Chelsea’s, but regardless, it’s a moot point. Before last night’s signing of Abdul Baba Rahman, Chelsea actually had even fewer defenders than last year, with Filipe Luis having returned to Atletico Madrid. Even with Rahman, they now have six first-team defenders.

Of those six, there’s serious question marks over five of them: Rahman has never played at the top level before (although will probably be a success); Zouma is very young and has mistakes to iron out; Gary Cahill has lost form and Mourinho does not seem to fancy him anymore; and both Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry are getting very old to play every week in the Premier League.

That’s why I say the fitness of Chelsea’s players does not necessarily matter: it doesn’t matter if Terry and Ivanovic are fit, if while they’re fit they’re incompetent. There’s no doubting Terry had a great season last year. But the warning signs were already there with Ivanovic, and at some point Terry’s age was bound to catch up with him.

Clearly, there’s a danger in reading too much into two games, not least when Chelsea have just played probably the most difficult domestic game of the season. But unless Chelsea bring in at least one more top-level defender (John Stones’ price will keep on going up while Chelsea defend this badly), I’m reasonably confident Arsenal will finish above Chelsea.

Keep the faith.

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