Story of a Match: Arsenal

Posted by on November 21, 2011 in Match Analysis | 11 comments

The Arsenal game was a weird one, and it wasn’t just because I was watching it with a weapons grade hangover. As Lambert rightly pointed out, we were in it until the very end, and a 2-1 defeat to one of the league’s best teams is not to be sniffed at. Yet there’s a feeling that we didn’t quite give it all – we didn’t quite put in the same performance we did vs Liverpool or Man Utd. So why is that?

Losing the midfield battle

This is not altogether surprising when you’re up against a midfield of Aaron Ramsey, Alex Song and Mikel Arteta. These are fantastic players who have graced the Champions League and it’d be foolish to assume we could school them on our patch the same way we did Swansea. Saying this, however, we didn’t quite do enough to compete. The key change in personnel involved bringing in Crofts for Bennett, a change a lot of us might have predicted or supported given Bennett’s less than stellar performances lately. Unfortunately Crofts was, at best, pedestrian. Bradley Johnson had a better game than he’s had recently, but was still lacking urgency, and all of this can be summed up when you look at their equaliser.

In this screenshot, the ball has just been played from Van Persie to Walcott. In the build-up, Russell Martin (1) has stepped out of defence to pressurise Van Persie because no one else was doing it. Around him you can see 3 other Norwich shirts, belonging to Crofts, Fox and Johnson. As the three players given the task of protecting the back four, it is their job to close down threats before they hit the backline, and their lack of pressing in this dangerous area led Martin to step up and force the pass wide. The consequence of this was that Leon Barnett was the sole centre-back, covering Gervinho. When Walcott, two seconds later, beats Tierney and has an acre of space in front of him, Barnett is unable to get across in time and close down because he’s been forced to stay central as the last remaining CB. If he’d stepped across earlier, as he normally would to cover his full back, Gervinho would have been unmarked and the cross would’ve been delivered anyway. So Theo is able to put in an uncontested cross, the two centre backs are not in the best positions, and RVP, running from deep, is able to tap it in. All of this comes about because the midfield has not done a good enough job of protecting the back four. If there was any urgency in their play, the centre backs would’nt have been put in the position they were.

Unfortunately, while we were losing the midfield battle for most of the game anyway, it got worse second half. The 1-1 at half time was flattering to Norwich as Russell Martin had almost single-handedly kept the score down. The introduction of Bennett at half time to provide width and cover on the right hand side wasn’t all that surprising, but removing Fox was, in my eyes, a mistake. This may not surprise some of you. Crofts completed the same number of passes, the same number of interceptions and only 1 more tackle in 90 minutes that Fox made in 45. In Crofts we have a hard working player who is unfortunately out of his depth and was a passenger for most of the game. Added to that, we removed one of the players we can rely on to keep possession.

And it was made worse when Gervinho was taken off for Benayoun. Michael Cox of Zonal Marking makes the same point but isolates it to the removal of Hoolahan for Holt, but the impact is there to see. We had lost Hoolahan, Fox and Pilkington, and they had packed the midfield. Prior to the introduction of Benayoun we were still making some chances and getting the ball forward. By removing a player who is a speed merchant outlet pass, and bringing on someone who helped monopolise possession, Arsenal saw out the game comfortably, and we barely got hold of the ball in the last 12 minutes. As you can see from the chart above, half the passes we did attempt were long hopeful balls that got nowhere, and this is because our 3 best players with the ball at their feet were off the pitch. I understand the logic of bringing on Holt and Jackson, but taking off the bystanding Crofts and, more likely, Johnson, would have given us a better chance to grabbing that equaliser. In my eyes, anyway. That isn’t to minimise Johnson at all, as he had a decent game.

The Wings

This point was isolated by Match of the Day but they aimed it at the Theo/Tierney duel. While this was the more eye catching one, with Theo providing the cross for the first goal, the full back who was really done for on Saturday was Naughton. The decision to drop Bennett, as I’ve said, was not surprising but it did expose Naughton as he had little cover in front of him. He then made a few dodgy decisions (not for the first time) when he had the ball, or stepping up to try and win it, and left absolutely miles of space behind him for Gervinho to run into. If that boy could finish, we’d have lost by a lot more.

Caught out of position.

Caught so far up the pitch he was barely in camera shot by the time Gervinho had made his effort.

Caught far enough up the pitch for two Arsenal players to get in behind him, one of whom was a centre back. This is just dumb play. Part of it would have been helped if he’d had adequate protection from a winger or by the bank of three midfielders in front of him, but a lot of it was just dumb play. Against Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool the back four were incredibly disciplined and stuck to their task, but Naughton was exposed time and time again and another day we’d have been heavily punished.


A weird game. We only lost 2-1 and could have gotten something from it, and the stats have us doing alright. We held our own and the performances of Ruddy, Martin and Pilkington in particular were highlights. But there was an element of not being up for it, of being passed by by a team they were expecting to lose to. Without adequate commitment in midfield, the defence was exposed to two of the fastest players in the premier league and it’s most in form striker. After doing so well in other games, there’s just this niggly feeling we should have done more.


  1. Vindication at last for my one man “Naughton is not good enough” campaign!! Walcott played well against Tierney but most of the danger came from our right, as it had against Villa (Agbonlahor) and Blackburn (Hoilett).

    QPR have Wright-Phillips and he will also murder Naughton – Lambert has to put de Laet in at right back or we will get turned over again.

  2. Pretty much bang on as usual, I’ve got more sympathy for Naughton than mentioned here as he was trying to get forward and play breaking down caught him out, but the lack of protection from midfield was the route cause as you rightly point out, too narrow, not enough awareness of danger positions, especially from crofts, he was like Rocky chasing a chicken all game, sadly well out of his depth I’m afraid for both Wales and us in truth.

  3. Agree wholeheartedly about Crofts and Naughton and the need for de Laet at RB. I also question PL and IC (heresy, eh?) for their line-up and tactics from the start and for the subs. Pilks is a threat, but was lost on Saturday wandering about off the wing for most of the game and this seemed to affect his confidence because when he did get out on the left in the second half he never once tried to run on past his marker who was a centre back filling in at RB – just waiting to be roasted! Neither he nor Wes is appropriate or effective to play off Morison, who in turn is poor at holding the ball up. And taking off Fox was ridiculous unless he had an injury, and similarly Wes. And in general there’s too much emphasis in selection on just workrate and just pace, and not enough on intelligence, decision making ability and control. We need help, I agree. But why haven’t C Martin and S Lappin had opportunities – they both are smarter players than most, and certainly than Crofts and imo Johnson too.
    2-1 flattered us – if I was Wenger I’d be furious that Arsenal didn’t hammer us and ramp up their goal difference.

  4. Martin had his chance and was rather hapless/ineffectual, Lappin, I fear (and I like him) proved he was average in the championship and doesn’t really fit into this system he’s a wide left defensive midfielder with a good cross but little else imo. Agreed on tactics and Morison hold up ability (or lack of) but there was no quality up to him on Saturday either, looked like 4-3-2-1 to me and not sure Wes or Pilks got it, Crofts certainly didn’t. Johnson underrated, cover play is best I’ve seen in DM position since the 3 lungs! And people still moaned about Wes playing CM when he didn’t play there!

  5. Good post.

    My take is that Norwich competed very well in the first-half although saying that, they should have been behind at the interval. Arsenal upped the ante in the second-half, Wenger telling Ramsey to push forward more and use his drive, making it more closer to a 4231. His tackle – as a result of playing higher – led to the winner.

    In regards to Norwich’s tactics; in the first-half, their movement caused problems. As you pinpoint, Hoolahan was key; it looked like he ran out of steam but after his sub, Norwich weren’t a threat.

    What worked – to some degree, as they were level – was that they tried to compress the midfield. As a result, the most joy both sides got were on the flanks and they competed with Arsenal for possession. What Arsenal do well, though, is to keep the three forwards up the pitch and thus they exposed Norwich to one-on-ones. In the second-half, Arteta rose to the fore as he was below-par in the first and was exemplary positionally.

  6. Did Fox pick up an injury? You rightly point out how vital he is to the team. After playing the full 90 mins against Wigan, he was then dropped until Bolton away, where his crosses led to both goals. He then featured against Sunderland, another win, and was subbed against Man U after 74 mins when we were 1-0 down. He played the full 90 against Swansea and Liverpool but was subbed at 3-1 down against Blackburn. The recovery there, however, owed more to luck than judgement! Against Villa, Fox was dropped but brought on at 3-1 down, providing, as Holtamania pointed out, more cover for the defence and after his introduction we got a goal back. Needless to say on Saturday he was subbed when the score was still 1-1. My point is that while Fox has been on the pitch we have scored 12 and conceded 10,(a goal difference of +2 as opposed to our current -3) which is more astonishing given the fact he was off the pitch by the time we fluked 2 late goals against Blackburn. We could have picked up more points without a doubt if Lambert kept faith with him more.

    • Good post as normal – Ruddy made some good saves but didn’t you thonk his kicking was poor? The midfiels often found themselves in each others pocket in the first half. I thought Bennett played pretty well and the problems the Gunner wingers gave us negated Naughton and Tierney as an offensive weapon something they have been all season. Arsenal succeeded by passing to players on the move and knowing where they were. Also the “holding midfielders” were just not abl;e to be beaten by us at all. Morison was isolated with little support and Holt was I am afraid to say a liability and has been hot and cold this year #justsaying

  7. Fox wasn’t injured, the change seemed to be tactical. And I don’t think it worked.

  8. At the risk of repeating myself, I could make exactly the same point in this game regarding Norwich’s passing with Fox vs without Fox as I did with the Villa game. In addition to your stats regarding passes and interceptions, it’s also worth noting that Fox received 26 passes in the first half, whereas Crofts only received the ball the same number of times over the entire game. It’s no surprise in my opinion, because Crofts just looks nervous on the ball. It’s not game. He doesn’t have the same touch or skill or comfort on the ball. Barnett made 12 of 14 passes in the first half, compared to 6 out of 10 after his withdrawal, and Martin made 21 of 25 in the first compared to 14 of 20 in the second, a total for the pair of 33/39 first half and 20/30 second half. Without Fox, the centre backs just don’t have the outlets to pass out of defence. Obviously this means more long balls and giving up of possession, and of course can arguably be attributed directly to Arsenal’s second goal, where Martin, with no pass on, felt the need to dribble and got caught in possession. I think it’s essential that he plays.

    It’s difficult I admit, because he’s never the most ‘outstanding’ player, by which I mean literally noticeable, and Crofts has the appearance of a hard-working, hard-tackling, high pressing, energetic hassler, the kind of idiosyncratic british midfielder ‘who gets stuck in’. But as all the stats show, Fox actually makes the same amount of tackles or interceptions as anyone else. I happen to think Hoolahan suffers from exactly the same problem, as I know you’ve pointed out before Holtamania. This has been compounded this year by nature of the fact that Hoolahan plays a different, slightly deeper role than at the tip of the diamond and isn’t seen to be contributing the same level of goals or assists as in previous seasons. But the pair of them really are as integral to the team as any number of cliches about ticking clocks would explain.

    • Spot on.

  9. Excellent review. I think Tierney struggled with Walcott (as anyone would), but he let himself down by not getting tight on Walcott in the first half. That lunge that led to the first goal summed it up – he looked scared of him, which is unusual because he’s had most other opponents in his pocket until now. He was better second half – going tight on Walcott, which the winger doesn’t like.

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