Monday, December 11, 2023

Tactics column: Koscielny, Ramsey reap the rewards of risk

Arsenal fans have long come to understand that Laurent Koscielny is one of the finest centre-halves in the Premier League. Yet,one of the misunderstandings of Koscielny – especially when a player is not part of your own team and you don’t get to watch them week-in-week-out – are the nuances.

The Frenchman’s game is all about risks, stepping out of the defence and looking to nick the ball before it gets to the opponent. He favours a close-marking style, sticking tight the striker he’s marking so that he often follows them out of the back to try and retrieve the ball back quickly. Sometimes you’ll even see him dangle a leg around the player such is his eagerness regain possession.

He explains his style to Julien Laurens  in an interview for “Interceptions! It’s my game. It’s one of my qualities. I try to make it not dangerous for the team. I’m good at reading the game and a pass. I think it could help my team too. It’s a big psychological challenge. I try to know where the pass will land, how the pass will be played. I’ve always had that in me. It’s partly instinct but also a lot of experience and knowledge of the game.”

When you watch Koscielny you get the feeling he gets such a rush from intercepting the ball that it’s almost a game-within-a-game that he is playing. He makes strikers uncomfortable and in recent seasons he has bulked up enough that he’s confident of winning every ball. It’s not that he’s become a leader now in the physical sense, but technical also because his intensity sets an example for the rest of the team.

Indeed, you might even argue that the team itself is reliant Koscielny’s ability to step out because defensively Arsenal are quite an average team. What really sets them apart is their speed: the team has a number of players who are exceptionally quick and can bail out the team from uncompromising situations.

Francis Coquelin is one, revolutionising Arsenal’s midfield by playing on the front foot when Arsenal lose the ball, but it’s not just going forward that they’re reliant on pace. Hector Bellerin, at this formative stage of his career, makes plenty of errors, but always seems to recover quickly to correct them. How often do you see him make last ditch challenges at the front and back-posts?

We saw just how much Arsenal missed these types of players in the 1-1 draw with Norwich City the week before when both Koscielny and Coquelin departed the game through injury. The Gunners were extremely comfortable for half-an-hour but inexplicably invited their opposition on them by dropping off and conceded just before half-time.

It was the same story again on Saturday against Sunderland, though Arsenal proceeded to win 3-1 in the end. Wenger explains this deficiency as psychological, that the team relaxes too easily at certain scorelines and periods of pressure. While there’s some sense in that, I would argue that Arsenal’s defensive plan tends to be a bit sketchy which, when they’re not amazingly clinical, can invite the opposition to take advantage.

We saw the two sides of Arsenal’s defensive game in both the Norwich and Sunderland fixtures. In the former, The Gunners were guilty of being passive for two distinct periods of the game and were punished but, otherwise, they were very comfortable. In that match, as explained, they missed two key defensive players thus their defending lacked their usual intensity.

How Arsenal defend is broadly in a 4-4-2 shape with Mesut Ozil dropping off once the ball is played behind him. (That ambiguity – is Ozil a striker or a midfielder in the press? – can sometimes put Arsenal into trouble). It’s sort of a zonal-man-marking system where the team moves left and right, and backwards and forwards as a unit but when the ball enters a respective player’s zone, they look to aggressively man-mark that player. Certain players might have more freedom to how aggressively they close down an opponent such as Koscielny or Coquelin (or Aaron Ramsey) who tend to push out, and sometimes abandon the shape in an attempt to win the ball back quickly.

Against Sunderland at The Emirates, The Gunners were mainly on the front foot but were painfully open when they lost the ball. Normally, Coquelin pushes up the pitch to win the ball when it’s loose. In his absence, Koscielny took responsibility to step out and while he had a splendid game for the most part, was culpable for Sunderland’s best chance – and then conceded the foul which led to the equaliser.

For the Fabio Borini chance early on in the game, he attempted to win the direct ball played up to Steven Fletcher by following the man into midfield but ended up bumping the striker instead. That left a huge gap in his position that Borini ran into, but shot thankfully his shot was directed straight at the goalkeeper. For the equaliser, Koscielny ended up in the right-back position chasing the ball played into the channel and trod on the winger. That’s the risk he plays with and while it can prove costly, he’s generally exemplary at reading the situation and snuffing out the danger.

For the rest of the game, though, his audacity took the breath away. In one move, he took a high ball down with the striker chasing behind him, ran into space then played a piercing pass through the lines to Olivier Giroud. Then, there was another attack which he quashed by initially dropping back to give him distance with the forward running at him with speed, but once he sensed the loose touch, was quick as a cat to pounce on it and win the ball back.

In that game he showed just why Wenger is so quick to rush him back from injury all the time; Koscielny’s presence in the side makes Wenger feel safer and even in the easy victories, you will often hear him go out of his way to praise the centre-back, even if in passing.

There was focus too on Aaron Ramsey who finally returned to the centre of the pitch. He’s another player who plays with risk and a touch of audacity, and with an extended run in the side, has the chance to transform Arsenal’s system. With Santi Cazorla, Wenger felt he was the guide in the team, providing balance in possession but Ramsey, with his all-round skill-set can evolve the team’s dynamics for the better.

Here, he underwhelmed a little with his play-making but as Sunderland opted to drop back, playing with a 5-4-1 system, he sensed that he had more space to run into and tried to be a factor between the lines. His running was a key feature of Arsenal’s attack as he constantly got behind Sunderland’s midfield to transform The Gunners’ formation from a 4-2-3-1 to broadly a 4-1-4-1.

Arsenal needed that because, for the most part, they were disjointed and that forced Wenger to make an early switch with the two wingers in a bid to encourage more combination play. Wenger was visibly frustrated by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s play as he generally ran into blind alleys and taking the ball long distances without a team-mate in sight. He quickly moved him to the right-flank where he could drop shorter for the ball.

When Arsenal got the first goal, it was a thing of beauty with Ramsey picking up the ball in the middle of the park and urging somebody to drop short into space between the lines. Giroud answered his calls and in doing so, dragged the centre-back with him, bumped the ball into Ozil and his pass found Joel Campbell running into the space Giroud created.

This is what Ramsey does, upping the emphasis and tempo of play with quick one-twos and he was crucial again in the second goal when he crossed moving into the left-channel after a good burst from Nacho Monreal.

There’s an argument that Ramsey’s runs leave the team exposed but doing it intelligently as he tends to do – and will only get better with games – creates numerical superiorities ahead of the ball that are important for the way Arsenal build-up. At the end, Ramsey had the last word anyway, getting his reward with what turned out to be the winning goal.

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