31 March 2014

Flamini's goal: basic passing, beautiful movement...

For weeks now, we've bemoaned our ability to unlock stubborn defenses or create chances, much less finish them, settling all too often for pointless passing—a long sequence of tentative passes back and forth across the field, only to pass back to Per or Kos to reset, perhaps, or to try to draw the opposition forward. Gone has been the incisive movement or aggressive passing that are necessary to create actual scoring chances. It was therefore especially gratifying to see us score a goal on Saturday, and not just for leveling the score. The passing from start to finish, and the movement that led to the goal, added up to a wonderful sight to see. It wasn't quite on a level with the goal scored against Norwich, at least not in an aesthetic sense, but its significance more than makes up for that.

The sequence started with Giroud collecting the ball in the right corner and dribbling the only player on the pitch who might have been slower than him: Demichelis. His pass found Arteta at the edge of the box. Closed down by Kompany and and Clichy, Arteta passed to Rosický, standing about 35 yards out, and Gibbs one-touched his pass to Podolski on the flank. With Zabaleta in front of him, Podolski clipped in a bouncing cross that Flamini found, all alone, in the middle of the box to slot (or scuff, as is your preference) home. Whether Demichelis, Toure, or others underestimated or forgot about Flamini is open to debate. Defenders were watching the ball, not him, and he found the seam.
Blue arrows: City's player-movements. White arrows: Gunners' movements. Shaded arrows: the ball.
What's notable about this is that Man City has seven, even eight defenders behind the ball during this sequence (not counting Hart). Only Silva, who briefly challenged Rosický before he passed to Gibbs, and Dzeko, who is off-screen and up-field, were not involved in some aspect of defending this. All told, there were six Gunners involved in the build-up, and this included three two-touches (Arteta, Rosický, and Podolksi) and two one-touches (Gibbs and Flamini) for a total of nine touches on the ball, including Giroud's to start the sequence. To have the confidence, awareness, and touch necessary to pull this off against a Norwich or Sunderland is one thing; to have attempted and pulled it off against Man City is another indeed, and it should remind us of the quality that still remains in the squad despite the innumerable injuries we've had to endure.

Without making too much of it, it suggests that there is still some fight left in this squad, enough so that Pellegrini felt pressured to make a defensive substitutions to salvage a draw as, in addition to the goal, we were looking the livelier for much of the second half, threatening to find a second goal. A lion's share of credit for that equalizer goes of course to Flamini, who even had a first-half goal disallowed for offsides (the right call, by the way). It's rare to see him push so far forward, and rarer still to see him do something with the ball when he's there. Not to take away from his toil, but the goal was of course a credit to the others around him and to one heretofore unsung teammate: Santi Cazorla. His run through the box to the near-post dragged both Kompany and Fernandinho with him. It even challenged Hart to come off his line, and this created open space into which Flamini ran to receive Podolski's pass. Without that run, Podolski's pass has nowhere to go. Maybe he doesn't even try the pass through the thicket of defenders that would otherwise present itself. With Hart out of position, Flamini had what amounted to an open net for his one-time volley.

It's a vital reminder that, as important as the passing and dribbling are, movement off the ball matters. We've been missing that, whether it's Walcott threatening to get behind defenders, Özil ghosting along, apparently aloof, Ramsey bursting forward through the heart of the defense. I won't claim that Cazorla was thinking to himself, "I should go near-post to trick Kompany and Fernandinho." Maybe he was. He doesn't seem to know that Flamini is there to run into space behind him until after Podolski has made the pass, at which point he whips his head around just in time to see Flamini take the shot. Such was the threat that Cazorla posed on the afternoon that he drew the attention of two defenders and the keeper

Even if Cazorla was hoping to receive a pass to Podolski, perhaps an angled pass to the near-post, intent matters less than outcome. It was an intelligent run for any purpose, and the proof is, as the saying goes, in the pudding.