Saturday, August 24, 2013

Tactical Analysis: Arsenal pick apart disjointed Fulham defense

Arsenal ran out comfortable 3-1 winners over Fulham at Craven Cottage to secure the Gunners' first win of the season and further ease some of the pressure that had mounted after their opening day defeat to Aston Villa. First half goals from Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski put Arsenal firmly in control. Podolski added his second in the 68th to make it 3-0 and put the contest beyond doubt. Darren Bent got a consolation goal for the home side in his first appearance with the Cottagers.

With Laurent Koscielny suspended Bacary Sagna slid in to center back and Carl Jenkinson started at right back. Arsene Wenger opted to rest Jack Wilshere and went with a midfield three of Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky. Ramsey sat in front of the center backs when Arsenal were in possession with Cazorla to his left and Rosicky to his right in more advanced positions. The formation was therefore more 4-3-3 than Arsenal's usual 4-2-3-1. Podolski played on the left of the front three with Walcott on the right.

Martin Jol made three changes to the side that beat Sunderland in the opening week. New signing Scott Parker replaced Derek Boateng in midfield. David Stockdale came in at goalkeeper in place of the injured Martin Stekelenburg and John Arne Riise was given the start at left back with Kieran Richardson also sidelined with an injury. Fulham's shape was their usual 4-4-1-1 with Patjim Kasami playing off Dimitar Berbatov up top.

The key for Arsenal in the first half was their domination in the center of the park. The 4-3-3 vs. 4-4-1 match up meant Arsenal had a man advantage in the middle of the park that led to Parker and Steve Sidwell simply being overrun in the middle. Fulham defended in two banks of four with Kasami and Berbatov higher up the pitch. Podolski tucked inside from the left giving Arsenal a further advantage in the middle. Both of Arsenal's first half goals came as a result of Parker and Sidwell having too much distance between the two of them and an overall lack of compactness in Fulham's defensive shape. This created loads of space for Arsenal's midfielders to move into.

The image below shows the buildup to Arsenal's opener. Sidwell pressures Cazorla in possession, Parker positions himself centrally just in front of the back four. Ramsey slides into the space to the left of Parker and in front of Riise, receives the pass in space and has plenty of time to turn and shoot before he's closed down. His shot is a weak one but falls to Giroud to tuck home. The issue here for Fulham is the amount of space Ramsey has to collect possession. Ideally in a 4-4-1-1 you'd want either Kasami or Berbatov working back to pressure Cazorla on the ball so that Sidwell can position himself side-by-side with Parker in front of the back four thereby preventing Arsenal's midfielders from easily collecting possession by sliding either side of Parker. There was a real disconnect defensively between Fulham's two center midfielders and two advanced attackers which forced Parker and Sidwell into chasing the ball in midfield while leaving at least one Arsenal midfielder unmarked.

Arsenal's second goal again came from poor defensive shape from Fulham. In the top image below you can see the large distances between Fulham players, leaving huge gaps for Arsenal to play in to. Parker is pressuring Cazorla on the left while Sidwell sits in the middle close to Rosicky. There is some 20 yards of space between the two. Fulham are neither pressing nor organizing into a compact shape at midfield which leaves Arsenal with time on the ball and the space in advanced positions to pick out forward passes. Here, Podolski simply tucks inside from the left and Mertesacker is easily able to play a pass into his feet. With the simplest of balls Arsenal have bisected the Fulham midfield. Podolski receives the pass, Sidwell slides over to close him down and that leaves Cazorla completely unmarked to burst forward through the middle. He's able to slide a ball through to Walcott whose shot can only be pushed by Stockdale into the feet of Podolski to slam home. It's Mertesacker's simple pass into Podolski that has Fulham completely out of position and scrambling to get pressure on the ball. If Fulham are going to press here they need the back four much higher up the pitch. If they aren't going to commit to the press everyone needs to drop off and Parker and Sidwell need to much closer together in the center of midfield.

Fulham neither pressing nor dropping in and getting compact. Too much space between Parker and Sidwell

Podolski easily able to tuck in and collect possession from Mertesacker. Fulham midfield bisected with one simple pass.
Arsenal's second half was professional. Whereas in the first half they defended with banks of four and looked to boss possession, in the second half they defended with a midfield bank of five, conceded some territory to Fulham and looked to hit them on the break. With Arsenal dropping deeper, Fulham had more of the ball in advanced areas than they did in the first half- they completed just 29 passes in the attacking third in the first half compared to 56 in the second half- but Arsenal's compact midfield five meant they were unable to find any decisive penetrating passes to trouble the defense. The Gunners ultimately did hit the home side on the break in the 68th to seal the win.

Overall Arsenal will be pleased with their performance. They dominated meaningful possession in the first half and were able to overrun Fulham in the middle of midfield. Comfortably in control by the end of the first half, they wisely didn't stretch themselves going forward in the second. Given their lack of true holding midfielder in the side, it would have been an unnecessary risk to continue pressing forward as they did in the first half and leave themselves exposed at the back.

Fulham made the game far too easy for Arsenal. They owe much of the loss to some abject defensive shape. They were far too disjointed and Jol will need to make sure Parker and Sidwell stay more compact in future fixtures.

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