10 January 2015

Tale of the Tactical Tape: Bojan vs. Alexis

Sunday brings us one the of the Prem's sharpest contrasts in style, with Arsenal offering flittery, ballerina-esque, elvish dancers who can dance with the ball as if their shoelaces are interlaced with the ball's stitches and seams, and with Stoke lumbering about with Cro-Magnon men hoofing it forward to Golem-like, moai-esque attackers, hoping that the ball will somehow find its way to the back of the net. It worked well enough in early December when Stoke pummeled Arsenal into oblivion, scoring three times in the first 45 minutes, and a shell-shocked Arsenal very nearly crumbled to dust. As both sides prepare for Sunday's clash, then, it's only natural to assume that we'll see a similar clash between Elves and Orcs. It's the script each side has been handed, isn't it? And yet...

And yet. There is the small matter of one Bojan Krkić Pérez, the Barcelona product who has started to capture Potters' hearts if not symbolize a new style of play out of the Britannia. Yes, the Potters still throw it into the box to see if Crouch and Walters can make something happen, but these are no longer Pulis's Potters. Yes, Crouch and Potter and Adams, among others, still do what they do.

However, Arsenal are not alone in poaching a player or two from Barcelona. Bojan has come on the scene to offer something new to the Potters' attack: he likes the ball at his feet, maybe to take a defender off the dribble or send a clever pass into space. He may not be quite the talisman that our Alexis has been, but a quick comparison does suggest that Stoke pulled off a smart bit of business in bringing in the crafty winger.

A direct comparison of their production would be misleading, as Alexis at Arsenal has become the focal point of the attack, while Bojan at Stoke is still carving out his role in a side still built around flinging crosses into the box and seeing if Crouch and Walters can win them. The new dimension comes through the second balls that players like Bojan and others can run onto, much as we often attempt with Giroud as our own focal point.

Negating Stoke's counters, therefore, may depend less on battling Crouch and Walters (among others) for that first ball and denying Bojan, Arnautovic, N'Zonzi, and others access to that second ball—much as Chelsea did to Stoke a few weeks ago. Far better it may be to let Crouch win the occasional cross than for Bojan to find the ball at his feet in the box.

Player
Fee
Minutes Played
Goals
Assists
Chances Created
Alexis
£37.4m
1589
10
6
51
Bojan
£1.6m
1046
3
1
25
At our end, of course, we have our own tantalizing talisman in Alexis, who has almost on his own helped us to forget the faltering first half we've floundered through. On its face, it does look as it Stoke has come away with the shrewder bit of business. The transfer-fee we paid to Barcelona to acquire Alexis dwarves the one Stoke paid to acquire Bojan. We paid something close to 24 times the fee that Stoke paid, but are we reaping 24 times the reward? In a direct comparison, no. In the chart you see, Alexis, while performing as his squad's talisman, offers something roughly triple what Bojan, while performing as an accessory to his own squad.

The lesson here is that, while we'd do well to be wary of Stoke's propensity to send crosses into the blender, we'd be just as wise to watch where Bojan and other runners wiggle through the cracks to win the second ball.

At the other end, we'd be wise to watch how narrowly Stoke defend, daring us to send Alexis, Walcott, Welbeck and others into space on the wings. That's almost exactly what they want us to do, as those players will wind up on the edge of the area, invited, nay dared to cross it in. With Giroud returning from suspension, we might feel all the more tempted to test our old friend Shawcross, but the better part of discretion may lie in our willingness to work the ball first out to those wings, if only to lure Stoke's defenders wide in order to create openings for the likes of Alexis, Ramsey, and others to let fly from more-central positions.

If nothing else, we delivered what might have been our worst 45 minutes of football since, well, since 'round about 10 months ago. We came away with a tolerable 3-2 result despite losing Chambers to a soft second yellow while Stoke stayed at full-strength despite Adams's sleeper-hold on Alexis. Somehow, at some level, I wonder if Alexis has ruminated on that moment, wondering if he can send a message to Stoke, to Adams, and to Bojan about who is top-dog.