Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Another game decided by an attacking full-back (and failure to learn lessons)

Case study: Arsenal 0-3 Chelsea, 29th November 2009

It’s hard to believe you’ll see two such similar goals in such quick succession all this season. First, an Ashley Cole cross from the left was turned into the opposite corner by Didier Drogba. Three minutes later, an Ashley Cole cross from the left was turned into the opposite top corner by Thomas Vermaelen, who unfortunately got there ahead of Drogba. If relatively basic goals are conceded twice in one game – never mind four minutes apart – it’s fair to say there’s something quite basically wrong with how the conceding side set out defensively.

Skip to 5:05 here, and watch for 90 seconds to see two identical goals.

I don’t think Arsenal’s performance on Sunday was as disastrous as could be assumed from either the scoreline, an embarrassing 0-3, or by the post-match reaction that implied Arsenal couldn’t win the title almost solely because of this result (actually, Arsenal can’t win the title because of the loss of van Persie, but that’s another matter.)

But I’m only going to focus on one thing – if that isn’t too ludicrous a statement four paragraphs in – Arsenal’s lack of preparation for dealing with Ashley Cole’s surging runs from left-back. Anyone who is vaguely familiar with modern football is well aware of the importance placed on full-backs, especially when they are as good on the ball as Cole is.

Therefore, I cannot understand for a moment why Wenger decided to play Arshavin and Nasri either side of Eduardo, when one of the two (who swapped throughout the first half) would have a strong responsibility in tracking Cole’s runs. A far better option would be to have played Emmanuel Eboue – nominally a right-back – on the right-hand side, who would have coped much better with Cole, and at least has some defensive awareness, which, frankly, neither Arshavin or Nasri have whatsoever.

It’s easy to retrospectively analyse the game and criticise a manager for a single error in choosing personnel. But the reason why I found Wenger’s tactical error so disappointing is that there were two previous games this season that demonstrate why Eboue would have been so useful up against Cole.

Firstly, only three weeks ago, Manchester United demonstrated the terrific value of having a player in the side solely to pick up Ashley Cole, when Antonio Valencia was widely praised for his excellent job against him at Stamford Bridge.

Pete Gill at Football365 said ‘Having confessed to his tactical culpability for his side being ‘too open’ against CSKA Moscow in midweek, Sir Ferguson redeemed himself in west London. With Valencia effectively man-marking Ashley Cole and Ryan Giggs pushing in from the left to nullify the anonymous Michael Ballack, Chelsea struggled to exert any authority.Sam Lyon for BBC Sport said, ‘With Rooney floating and Antonio Valencia pushed up against left back Ashley Cole, United stifled their opponents' rhythm.’ Simon Burnton for the Guardian said, ‘Valencia v Cole on the right flank seems the key battle. At the moment it's looking easier for Valencia to escape from Cole than the other way round (the Ecuadorian is doing a pretty good marking job when Chelsea attack).’ Most concisely, I said, ‘Valencia's advanced, wide positioning was particularly frustrating for Ashley Cole.'

Do you see? This wasn’t some obscure feature of the game picked up by me and me alone, this was the key feature of the game – in the only game all season Chelsea were outplayed. They play a diamond midfield, with two upfront. They’re desperate for width from their full-backs, and with Ivanovic a complete donkey on the ball, Cole is the only outlet. You have to close him down, and if you don’t, you’re asking for trouble.

Secondly, Wenger had already done pretty much the same thing away at Manchester United earlier in the season, when Eboue was pushed up high against Patrice Evra (the only other left-back in the world on the same planet as Ashley Cole), and it worked pretty well as Arsenal conceded from stupid mistakes rather than because they were outplayed. For the record, Eboue has also played in the front three this season against Celtic, AZ and West Ham, so it’s hardly as if Wenger thinks he’s completely out of position there. So why, in this, the one opponent you really need a defensive-minded player on the right, did Wenger go with Arshavin and Nasri, both of whom did absolutely nothing for the two goals that were conceded whilst the game was still a contest?

This blog slightly pretentiously highlights ‘lessons’ at the end of the match reports, but this episode really sums up why I do it, because it was Wenger’s failure to learn the lessons outlined above that really cost Arsenal, in what was an absolutely crucial game in their season.


  1. Hi. Nice blog. Really enjoyable. I do a similar thing with tactics and although i didn't cover the game in such depth this time, Ashley Cole did not really get up much.

    If Wenger wanted to pin Cole back, the best bet would have been playing Arshavin centre as the false nine, thus matching Chelsea in the centre and the wide men pinning the full back back (because of the space created by dropping deeper).

    Chelsea were tactically better and were able to stifle a functional Arsenal attack - pretty passing but no unpredictability. Many balls were in wide positions but no one to get to the end.

  2. Hi sir,
    Sorry for the delayed response.

    I 100% agree with the fact that Arshavin should be the false nine. Considering the way we played with van Persie dropping deep in that role, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only option that ensures we continue to play the same style, shape and system (which, let’s be honest, has worked quite well for most of the season). I was pleased to see it worked against Stoke.

    But, even if Wenger had decided that he wanted to play a ‘traditional’ frontman with two wide players supporting, it was still stupid not to confine Arshavin to a role on the left, and have a more defensively aware player on the right. Nasri and Arshavin seemed to swap around, which can often be an effective tactic going forward, but is slightly foolish defensively, in my opinion.

    This was the perfect game for Eboue. And that won’t happen again for a long time – probably until United visit the Emirates and we need to do a job on Evra.