I have (in my own mind) put the game against Leicester in a less negative perspective, but at the same time I have a couple of slight concerns that have started to take shape.
The result against Leicester was against the general run of play and the stats were heavily in our favour in all the areas that mattered except the one that ultimately really matters… the end score.
I saw a stat (that I can’t find anywhere now) about touches in the opposition box where we were significantly dominant. The stat for shots inside the box was 9-2 in our favour and the goalkeeper shots saved was one for us and four for them. All of this indicates a game we should not just have won, but won with room to spare.
I know some pundits, (with the gift of commenting after the game), like to portray it as a Rodgers tactical masterclass against our rookie manager but this is seriously annoying punditry nonsense.
Arteta can’t help Laca missing a sitter and VAR chalking off a legitimate goal which would have seen us 2-0 up at half time. In fact such was our first half dominance, especially in terms of touches and shots inside the box, that 3-0 at half time would not have been undeserved.
It only becomes declared as a Rodgers tactical masterclass because we didn’t capitalise and VAR failed again. Exactly the same game with VAR getting it right and us being even a smidgen more clinical and all of a sudden the pundits are harping on about how Leicester and Rodgers got it completely wrong… such is the fickle nature of today’s pundit. It looks the easiest, best-paid job in the world.
So, with those kind of dominant stats, what went wrong? In addition to the the VAR joke decision, and Laca’s sitter he missed, the other key factor was our tactical formation not being balanced enough to exploit the domination we had, at least in the first half. Here, unfortunately, I have to call out our young manager (for the first time really) as having got a couple of things badly wrong.
I am still slightly unsure of our set-up on Sunday. Was it 3-4-3 or 4-3-3? Some reports have it as a 3-4-3 with Xhaka as a left sided centre back but others have it as a 4-3-3 with Xhaka as one of our midfield 3. The latter seems more true to me but maybe someone can shed some light on this. Perhaps a heat map of the midfield three, particularly Xhaka, will provide an answer.
Arteta has used the 3-4-3 since late last year and it served us well at the end of last season, but I think it is a system that should have been largely considered one of temporary necessity, and we should be looking to adopt the 4-3-3 moving forwards.
We are seemingly lacking creativity and must apparently buy Aouer to solve all our problems (which I’m not against, by the way), but I think we should be making better use of what we have and finding out how that shapes up before we go down the familiar path of all our problems being seemingly solved by buying this player or that.
The 4-3-3 gains an extra midfielder over the 3-4-3 and critically that extra midfielder is the attacking (Ozil type) one that plays between the two (primarily) anchoring midfielders and the front three. This is the player that looks to create for the front three and overlapping full-backs and also to offer a goal threat as well.
Playing Partey, Xhaka and Dani should have released Dani into the role but somehow they ended up all strung out as a deeper horizontal three too often, rather than forming up in nice triangles to move the ball around and break their lines of defence.
Dani was either instructed not to play the more attacking role, or maybe he is not as comfortable pushing further up. If it is the latter then keep him as one of our four options in the deeper two (Partey, Xhaka, Dani, Elneny). In reality the question is who partners Partey?
That means we need another player to play in front of them. Personally I think Saka could shine there given a chance, but I also think it is probably Willian’s best position and we also have ESR coming back as well. That’s three good options to try in that position in the 4-3-3 formation.
Beyond this the other (and possibly more self harming) major problem – and the one I really don’t get – was playing Auba from the right and Saka from the left in the front three. I have said this many times before but literally no top team operating a front three plays the right footer on the right and the left footer on the left.
The angle for shooting on goal with the stronger foot is narrowed down compared to cutting in from the opposite flank, and it also removes that option of cutting inside and wrapping your foot around the ball, starting it off outside the post with it curling back in… far harder for the keeper to save. Henry always preferred to attack cutting in from the left when he could.
Personally I think we increase our goal-scoring threat by some 30% if we have a lefty on the right and a righty on the left. If you look at the prolific wing forward types currently (and in the recent past) it tells you everything needed to know. Just ask yourself which side of the pitch all the following play from, relative to their strongest foot: Salah, Mane, Sterling, Mahrez, Son, Bale, Rashford, Hazard, Messi, Robben, Ribery, Gnabry e.t.c, e.t.c
It seems utterly perplexing to me that Arteta went the other way around, and I have my first serious questions about his judgement. He is touted as being a brilliant tactician but it is almost like he is trying to be too clever at times. It felt like this with Willian as a false 9 against City as well.
We can play Laca, Nketieh or Auba as the 9.
We can play Auba, Nelson, Martinelli, or even possibly AMN on the left of the front three.
We can play pepe or Saka on the right of a front three.
We can play Saka, Willian, Smith-Rowe, and possibly Dani as the ACM in the midfield three.
We can play Partey, Dani, Xhaka, Elneny as the two anchor players in the midfield three.
To me we have the players to be far more creative and carry a greater goal threat right now than we have been showing if we get them in their strongest positions.
I am sure most of a certain age remember Claudio Ranierri “the tinkerman” in his stint at Chelsea; it failed. However, funnily enough, when he got to Leicester with fewer options but with some good and dangerous players to whose strengths he consistently played , they won the league.
Arteta remains the man for me and has been for some time now, however I would like to see more basic pragmatism in playing players in their stronger positions and in a way that makes the team more balanced and stronger. I don’t want to be getting the square pegs in round holes out of room 101 again.