December 18, 2011
David Silva scored the winner in a match that should have produced more goals.
Roberto Mancini left out Edin Dzeko, which seems to be standard for big Premier League games. Gael Clichy was suspended so Pablo Zabaleta moved to the left with Micah Richards starting at right-back. Samir Nasri started in midfield over James Milner.
Arsene Wenger was short of full-backs and named an unchanged side from the XI which beat Everton 1-0 last weekend.
This was end-to-end and exciting – neither side ever had control of the game.
Both sides pressed heavily early on – City started in a similar fashion to they did in the defeat at Stamford Bridge last Monday, and Arsenal closed down well in midfield. There were various consequences of the pressing: lots of interceptions, a few fouls that had Phil Dowd reaching for his yellow card, and plenty of space in behind.
City were better at exploiting that space in the first half. Zabaleta got forward well to cross into the space behind Arsenal’s defence for Sergio Aguero for possibly the best chance of the first half – Aguero and Mario Balotelli both looked to spin into that space in central zones.
Arsenal’s approach was different, because their pace was on the flanks. City’s full-backs stayed quite conservative, though, which meant few opportunities for the wingers to speed towards goal. Gervinho played deeper and was good with his short passing but wasteful in the final third, whilst Walcott was much quieter. Robin van Persie played up against Kolo Toure rather than Vincent Kompany, which meant he was to the left of centre. This meant that:
(a) van Persie was in a better position to combine with Gervinho. Those two linked five times in the opening hour (ie before Walcott went off) whereas Walcott and van Persie didn’t link up once – a surprise since they usually enjoy a very good relationship.
(b) Kompany was more often than not the covering defender, and therefore it was difficult for Walcott to find space in behind as he was up against two defenders.
Aguero played high up which meant Arsenal often had 3 v 2 in midfield. When Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry looked to close down Alex Song and Mikel Arteta, Ramsey found himself in space but wasn’t really suited to the frantic end-to-end game, often picking up the ball with lots of space to motor into. He is better when he gets the ball into feet, and doesn’t look entirely comfortable in such an advanced role.
City had two midfielders coming into the centre – David Silva drifted across the pitch between the lines, whilst Nasri played a little deeper and sometimes acted as a third central midfielder. Those two weren’t as productive on the ball as you might expect, and them coming inside probably suited Arsenal’s makeshift back four, comprised of four centre-backs.
Equally, Arsenal weren’t as fluent as usual when they had possession, because neither of their full-backs was comfortable on the ball and capable of stretching the play to provide overlaps. In fact, with both sets of full-backs contributing little to the game in the attacking phase of play, the game was quite narrow overall.
Arsenal were forced to completely reshuffle their defence after Johan Djourou went off injured and was replaced by Ignasi Miquel, but they could have done more to stop the goal. A ball was played in behind their defence in a wide-left position, and Alex Song let Balotelli onto his stronger foot far too easily to get a shot in – Silva turned home the rebound.
City didn’t control the game very well when they were ahead. They continued to push for a second which was good for the neutral, but it was surprising Mancini didn’t introduce James Milner and Nigel de Jong sooner to give some balance and patience to their play in midfield. The game remained open, and both sides could have profited from that, but Mancini surely would have wanted a more ‘boring’ game after going ahead in the 53rd minute.
They still have a problem with giving the ball away too cheaply when Joe Hart is distributing – as shown below, they only really retain the ball when Richards can move high up on the right.
Arsenal fought back well and could have snatched an equaliser, but the two attacking substitutes (Marouane Chamakh and Andrei Arshavin) contributed next to nothing, and it’s difficult to understand why Yossi Benayoun remained on the bench – he would have loved the space between the lines. Thomas Vermaelen was a bigger threat than Chamakh or Arshavin with a couple of good long-range efforts.
This was a great game for the neutrals. So many of the matches between big Premier League clubs have been this season – we’ve had an 8-2, a 1-6, a 4-0, a 1-5, a 3-5 – and this could have been another high-scoring game.
But this should be praised only in terms of entertainment value. In tactical terms, teams may be ‘going for it’ more, but none of the big Premier League sides are good at controlling games. Ball retention is often poor, players aren’t capable of switching from an attacking mentality to a more conservative one, managers rarely use changes to slow the game down and protect what they have, and various clubs could do with another intelligent central midfielder to bring a degree of control.
This, in part, explains why English clubs have performed so poorly in Europe this season – they’re far too open, and seem to have regressed to style of play more fitting of English football ten years ago, albeit with more technical quality. That caveat means matches like this will be regarded as a positive, but had either side played like this against Barcelona or Real Madrid, they would have been soundly beaten. A good advert for the Premier League? Maybe, but not a good advert for English clubs on a broader level.
Judge Chile by looking at their squad list and you might be rather underwhelmed, but many of those who saw Marcelo Bielsa’s side in action throughout qualification see them as the most intriguing prospect on offer in South Africa.
Bielsa is the most fascinating of the 32 managers at this World Cup – if you are not aware of his characteristics, further reading is certainly required. Marcelo Mora y Araujo’s column for the Guardian describes him when he took over as manager, Rodrigo Orihuela at When Saturday Comes touches upon some of his off-field eccentricities, and Tim Vickery has often spoken of his excitement about Chile under Bielsa.
He is a tactical obsessive, an innovator and a character, and he has done a remarkable job with Chile, a country whose only real star player – David Pizarro – gave up playing international football years ago.
Chile’s standard formation is a 3-3-1-3, similar to the one Bielsa used throughout his period at Argentina boss – where the shape was very successful in qualifying, but failed in the World Cup in 2002 when Argentina were eliminated from the first round despite being favourites. Various suggestions have been put forward for why it went wrong – the inability of the players to operate at the physical level needed (with little rest after the domestic season, and with the warm climate in South Korea), a lack of natural wingers, a striker who was not comfortable switching positions with other players, and Juan Veron being played in a position too far forward.
It’s a bit of a simplistic cliché, but after that failure Bielsa has unfinished business at the World Cup. Chile’s performance since he took over as manager has been sensational; when Bielsa lead Argentina to top spot in the qualification for 2002, Chile finished dead last – ten out of ten. Four years later they improved slightly, to seventh. But this time, under Bielsa’s stewardship, they finished in second place, an incredible achievement considering the relative lack of talent and resources he was afforded.
Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 is an inherently attacking formation that aims to take the game to Chile’s opponents, press and defend high up the pitch, and stretch the play as wide as possible when in possession. His back three and the holding midfielder are essentially the four defensive-minded players, whilst the two wing-backs surge forward whenever possible, trying to create overloads against opposition full-backs, and also venturing into more central attacking positions to provide a goal threat.
The number of players Chile get into the final third is frightening at times. Take Mati Fernandez’s goal against Peru, where he is one of seven players who find themselves within twenty yards of the goal:
Bielsa never changes his favoured un enganche y tres punta (one playmaker and three fowards) system. The forward trio stretch the opposition defence – the wingers start from very wide positions and open up gaps that are exploited by Humberto Suazo, the centre-forward (if fit), and the enganche, Fernandez.
For such an unusual formation and such a specific style of play, the most surprising thing about Bielsa’s team selections is that he has found various players who fit into the system seamlessly, especially in defence. Of the players who play in the six positions closest to Chile’s goal, none of them started more than 12 of the 18 qualification games.
Bielsa is happy to chop and change between games and to deploy individuals in a variety of positions. Arturo Vidal, for example, has been deployed as a right-sided centre-back, a holding midfielder, a left-wing-back, a right-wing back, and a right-back when Chile switched to 4-2-3-1 (when up against one striker). He’s also happy to play nominal midfielders, like Jara, in the defence.
The system, by those in the know
The comments section on this website often features great insights about individual sides’ tactics from those who follow particular teams or competitions closely, and Bielsa’s Chile side has been discussed in great depth. Here’s two particularly enlightening comments, first from Roberticus, who runs a terrific blog about South American football, and then from Mave, a Chilean.
I’m certainly a long-term admirer of Bielsa’s philosophy and of his teams’ pro-active approach. I’ve tried to keep as close an eye as possible on Chile’s World Cup qualification games, their players’ individual fortunes at club level both domestic and abroad, and also followed the debates in the Chilean media.
In terms of how the midfield shapes up; it is generally laid out as a diamond and is never flat, which means that the wide-of-centre players do not necessarily have to be wide midfielders or wing-backs, though some indeed are. Overall, I think Bielsa likes to have a mix – and so, beside the obvious presence of a holding player (either Gary Medel of Boca Juniors or Pedro Carmona), it is common to see a wing-back/wide-midfielder on one side whilst a more well-rounded midfield player can take the other flank.
The idea here being that the playmaking duties will not be the exclusive preserve of the No.10 (Mati Fernandez or Carlos Valdivia) lest that guy’s creativity be stifled by close marking. So the wide players can indeed push out to support the outside-forwards and of course to assist the outside centre-backs in the three-man defence when the opponent is raiding down that particular flank.
Another result of having that diamond is that the wide midfielders do not have to overlap the wingers, but instead can surge diagonally through the middle to latch on to second balls; so in this sense they are like box-to-box midifelders.”
“I’m from Chile and I’m very impressed with Bielsa’s work. We’re happy to qualify for the World Cup with such a proactive game and we hope to give a good display. I think this is a unique moment for Chilean football, so I must admit that I’m kind of eager to see them perform in South Africa.
The formation changes so quickly and so significantly because there are a lot of players that can play two or even three positions in that scheme. Bielsa rarely uses pure defenders in the back line. He mostly uses defensive midfielders on that position for two reasons: (a) They are quick on covering defensive positions and (b) because they can pass the ball better through the rival attackers, and can assume advanced positions. The most notable players who do this are Gary Medel, Arturo Vidal and Marco Estrada.
As Roberticus said before, this system changes depending on the opposition formation. If the opposition are playing with three attackers, Chile plays with four in the back. If they play with one attacker, there is only the need for two centre-backs. Bielsa doesn’t ever move the three attackers nor the attacking midfielder (Matias Fernandez or Jorge Valdivia) in front. They are focussed upon starting the defensive pressure at the beginning of the rivals attack.”
That’s pretty much ZM’s job done! Bielsa’s insistence that Chile press high up the pitch and their consequent high defensive line means that they can often be caught out on the counter-attack. Despite their impressive qualification form, they were sometimes opened up too easily, and the questionable form (and fitness) of their back three is a cause for concern.
Chile are the most unique side in the competition, and as result it’s difficult to predict their performance. They should start with a comfortable win against Honduras, and then the second game against Switzerland will be a tremendous battle, with two vastly different styles. It’s not unthinkable that Chile could win the group if Spain ease off in their last game having already qualified – although this is perhaps unlikely seeing as they will be keen to avoid the winners of group G, likely to be Brazil.
Whatever happens, it will produce an interesting result tactically. In a month’s time, we’ll either be in awe of Bielsa’s work, or we’ll be questioning why his system works so well in the South American qualifiers, but not at the World Cup.