A Theo-Shaped Hole

A Cesc-Shaped Hole

I wrote a blog this summer. It was approximately 5,000 words long (my typical blog is 1,000 words long.) It was in hopeful anticipation of the Return of the Dauphin, Cesc Fabregas. Oh well. The title of the piece was “A Cesc Shaped Hole.” I’m guessing  you can imagine the gist of it.

I often hear it said that we built a team around Cesc, and when he left, we never replaced him, so our approach, our formation was a relic, on hold, waiting for a true replacement.

I’ve had some difficulties with this. After all, we used to play a 4-3-3 of varying variations. The last few years, we’ve seen  variations of 4-2-3-1 blah, blah, blah. Here is my issue. So has everyone else. And we didn’t invent it. 4-4-2 is dead. (Sorry Dave.)

Of course 4-4-2 it’s not truly dead. Everything evolves. Hybrids exist. United play a lot of stuff with 2 strikers, and they win leagues and stuff. We even look a bit FourFourTwoooey ourselves at times. Everything old is new.

But…to say we built a way of playing around Cesc seems a little over dramatic. So did everyone.

Our real issue was…we didn’t replace a World Class player at the #10 spot, which is exactly where you would want to have your world class player if you only have the one.

Santi is brilliant. I think he’s even world class. But he’s not a world class #10. He’s a very good #10. But he’s not good enough from the #10 spot to make Arsenal a top level creative outfit. Not Cesc-like. But Santi may well be a World Class false winger.

So what’s my bloody point. We didn’t build a team for Cesc, even if we did. We went 4-2-3-1 like most of the planet, and we didn’t replace a world class #10. Save the drama about a Cesc-shaped hole.

It ain’t a “Player X-shaped hole,” unless a player is so influential that you are truly doing something different, unique, odd.

Hence, my theory…

We have a Theo-shaped hole, which fortunately we fill with a Theo-shaped Theo.

I could show you lots of diagrams, charts, heat maps, blah blah blah. Not only could I, I will. But just a couple.

AFC vs Sunderland Average Position and Heatmap Marked up

Now whether it’s Wilshere or Cazorla playing the false winger, we have all seen the tendency. Everything gets pulled to the right towards Theo’s wing. If Jack/Santi, Ozil, Ramsey and Flamini are playing, then 3 of them will swap and rotate so that they have a nearly identical central position, while Flamini (or Arteta) holds a somewhat deeper spot.

And in the heatmap, Arsenal plays from left to right. The big heat spot is on Theo’s wing. It is the eye of the hurricane. It is as if an irresistible gravitational force is pulling the play towards him.

Our team is more “distorted” around Theo than it was around Cesc. Cesc took us where we were going anyway.

All that space on the left. What should we do with it? Well, we do pretty well with it at the moment. Any one of Jack/Ozil/Ramsey is free to go and plunder it’s lush, virginal, ample booty, or Gibbsy can go racing up on the overlap like against Marseille and bang in a cross.


Predictably Unpredictable – How we line up

In some ways, we are the most predictable team on the planet – unpredictable in our predictability because of the mad skills of our midfielders. But we can all pick the team these days.

Where other managers tinker, Arsene trusts his players and trusts the formation that lets them express themselves through positive, attacking football.  There are many ways to set up a team, but in the end it’s all about execution.

I think our starting XI template is pretty clear… Pivots are Arteta/Ramsey, #10 is Ozil, Santi on Left Wing. Jack will fill in for whoever is injured or come on after 70 mins. Jack talked about needing 6 more matches playing a full 90 minutes. Marseille was 1. So, 5 to go. Arteta will be back as a starter in a couple of games.

Predictable, but not really. It’s like that bit in the Pirates Of The Caribbean, and I paraphrase: “The Pirate Code…well, it’s more a set of guidelines than an actual code, missy.” Santi or Jack on the left wing but they can swirl inwards at any time, to the point where they only stand on the left at kick-off, it seems. Ozil will peel left or right. And Ramsey moves forward and back at will.

The 4 midfield spots (including the left wing Santi/Jack position) are going to be fun this year. Lots of options, rotations, combos and competition. Add to the list of names: Rosicky, Flamini, Ox and of course Poldi when they are all back.

Arsene stated 70% of total game time was the realistic max for any player in a season. I assume that includes all the cups. It would be interesting to analyze that eg by looking at Santi last year. Maybe he’s the exception that proved the rule. So we will see all our midfielders getting time on the pitch, and we’ll see every combination. Who gets picked for the “Big Matches.” Well that’s where the tears will get shed.

But how we play, how we set up, the template is highly predictable currently. It seems almost ballsy to me. Whether you’re Norwich after an Interlull, or Bayern at the Allianz, you know what we’re going to do, and how we’re coming after you.

So much so that I continually get the picture of Babe Ruth’s called home run:

Babe Ruth calls his shot

When Babe Ruth came to bat in the fifth inning of Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, Cubs fans and players taunted the slugger mercilessly. Then, the Sultan of Swat pointed. Over the centerfield fence.

Ruth predicted a home run and delivered on the 3rd pitch – a curveball that Ruth hit at least 440 feet to the deepest part of center field near the flag pole (some estimates are as high as 490 feet). The game was tied at the time, that homer was his second of the game and took the Yankees to a 7-5 win.

Babe Ruth

Calling a home run and its direction is practically impossible, and it’s never done for that reason. You would just end up looking stupid.

But it feels a little bit like that for me, in the most modest of ways. Pretty much every time we play, the opposition knows how we will set up and how we intend to score.

Why doesn’t that count against us? Because at the end of the day, it’s all about execution. Bayern knew what we were going to attempt. Arsene told them. But it didn’t matter. It’s all about execution. After swinging in from the left wing to pick up the ball deep in midfield, Santi hit that one-touch, midfield-splitting pass to Ramsey, who knocked it across to Rosicky who laid it on for Theo’s diagonal run, who crossed it to Giroud. It was all so irresistible that the Bayern fullback panicked and fell on his ass.

It’s all about execution.

So much so that against Spurs we played a near identical sequence. Santi swung into deep midfield to pick up the ball, passed it forward to Ramsey, who this time added a Scotty Parker 360 priouette before squaring to Rosicky to his right, who played the ball for Theo’s diagonal run, who squared it to Giroud. Goal.

It’s all about the execution. And we signed ourselves one hell of an executioner this summer. But this post is not about him.

Giroud or RvP: no matter. Walcott will be banging in the assists to them. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

We have a Theo-shaped hole filled by a Theo-shaped Theo. Which is handy really when you think about it.


The Gnabry Update (AFC vs Stoke)

So, that piece above was the blog before the Stoke match. It seemed to have Jinxed Theo, because he pulled out of the match during the warm up, and instead, Gnabry lined up.

This intrigued me from the point of view of the Blog I had just written. We are set up around Theo, more than any other player, in my opinion. So, “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?”

It would be an interesting experiment…

Arsenal lined up and played by pretending Theo was still playing, minus his diagonal runs. Gnabry cut inside more, was very sound in possession, recycled the ball, and did more defensive work.

Everyone else played as if Theo was still on the pitch.

Let’s look at some Stats. Firstly, from the 5 EPL matches to date. And then from the Stoke Game with Gnabry…

Areas of Attempt AND OF aCTIVITY

So those stats above are for the first 5 EPL matches this year. Arsenal attack down the Right and Center, but shooting from the Center.

The Stats below show that with Gnabry in place, we maintain that pattern, as if Theo were still on the wing. If anything, we became even more right-side, perhaps in an effort to support Gnabry…

Average positions vs SCFC