29 September 2014

Tactical Analysis: Set-pieces, zonal marking, and counter-attacks

As we prepare for Galatasaray on Wednesday and look to Chelsea on Sunday, a palpable sense of dread hovers in the air. But for a few inches on Saturday, a sharply driven header from Mertesacker would have bathed him and glory and perhaps won us the NLD. It was one bright spot in a match full of headaches, namely, how often we tried to head in. Fifteen corner kicks.Why do we do it? Why, when we bemoan our own vulnerability in conceding from set-pieces on our end, do we insist on trying to score from them at the other end? It's high-time that we set aside this silly set-piece situation and attack with greater purpose—which will allow us to defend in greater depth along the way.

First, a quick defense of zonal marking on set-pieces: we have little choice, given the size of our squad (height and healthy players included). With the shortest squad in the Prem (again, height and health), we don't have the height or brawn to man-mark. Our average player-height is a minuscule 175cm; our average player-weight is 69.8kg. In neither case can we grapple with man-marking on a set-piece, not against squads the size of Chelsea's, who are the tallest (185.4cm) and second heaviest in the Prem (79.4kg). Even if we could match up with that kind of physicality, man-marking means little against an onrush of players crashing into the box, colliding with defenders or slipping in behind a teammate. Far better, it seems to defend zonally. Even if four of the seven goals we've conceded have from set-pieces (three of them headed), it's still a far better approach given the personnel we have available to us. For as generous as we've been this season, do remember that we did far better a season ago when defending set-pieces felt almost like a strength.

In other words, the problem may not lie so much in the approach as it does in the application. With new personnel to bed in, there's going to be some stumbling, On top of that, when you remove Giroud from set-pieces, we become that much weaker at both ends—at least on set-pieces. If only we could sub him in and out for corner-kicks, leaving Welbeck in for open play.... More seriously, though, Giroud led the team in defensive headers from set-pieces, and so it's no accident that his absence coincides with the return of our set-piece profligacy to this point. He's no savior, but he would solidify our set-up, if defense if not as much on offense.

I'm less worried about how we defend set-pieces than I am with how we use them. Having established that our squad is the shortest and lightest in the Prem, why did we continue to toss the ball into the mix and hope for the best? So far, we've taken 68 corners without scoring a single goal. I (and others) mocked Man U for their 82 crosses against Fulham last season, so it's only fair that I point out our own exercise in futility against Spurs. Those 44 crosses make even less sense when Giroud is not in the box and when they require Mertesacker to get up the pitch. Yes, he was a glorious Lloris save away from making much of this seem irrelevant, but there are two points that I want to emphasize;
  1. Crossing into the box is a fool's errand, especially for Arsenal. As at the defensive end, we lack the size and strength to win the ball out of the air in a crowded box. Too many corners were either too low and short to get past the near post, just as many sailed past the far-post, and Lloris was able to claim many out of the air anyway.
  2. Sending our biggest and slowest defender into the box because he's tall might deliver a some great goals, but it also exposes us to counter-attacks. Even at his spriest, Mertesacker needs several weeks to get back to position. Ask yourself: would you rather marginally improve our scoring chances on corners by having Mertesacker attacking, or would you measurably improve our defending against counters by using corner-kicks differently?
Between these two, I'd much rather see us play a short ball and then work some passes, even if this means we're bringing the ball back to midfield to draw our opponent's defense out. Against Tottenham, as in so many matches, we've been at our most dangerous when we can pick apart a defense before it sets up.  If we use corners as a reset rather than an attempt at scoring, at least somewhat more occasionally, we might position ourselves for a more-direct shot on goal or for a cross into the box without so many bodies in the way. The added benefit to this is that it blunts our opponents' ability to hit on those counters to which we've been so vulnerable. Whether a counter leads to a goal or to a corner-kick that leads to a goal, it strikes me as bloody foolishness for us to continue hoofing the ball in, hoping our slow-as-molasses centre-back gets a head to it, and watching in terror as our opponents pour forward into the vast, empty space he and others have offered.

Zonal marking against set-pieces? That, I can live with. Continuing to loft crosses into the box? The proverbial ostrich with his head in the sand knows better than that—and might have a better conversion-rate than we do.

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