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So here it is. I’ve been really flattered by the response to me even announcing this newsletter and I just hope I can live up to that.
This weekend in the Premier League was slightly bizarre, Sunday particularly, in that almost every goal was a freak. Burnley’s corner, Liverpool picking up pieces from last-ditch tackles, Arsenal’s goals, and Chelsea contriving to turn this into a 2v1 against Antonio Rudiger.
THERE ARE SIX PLAYERS!! (plus Jorginho).
Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk about this week:
There’s no easing in with gateway analysis, this is straight to the hard stuff.
Davinson Sanchez got beaten multiple times by Nathan Redmond during Tottenham’s match against Southampton, but I wanted to highlight this one as a case of always needing to be switched on and a weird thing about defending.
As a defender, there are a lot of moments where one needs to be moving towards an opponent while being prepared to start sprinting in a completely different direction if the attacker decides to put on a burst of pace.
Late in the game (so Sanchez has something of an excuse in that he was probably tired) a ball was played down the line for Redmond to chase, with Sanchez on his tail. It looks like a perfectly manageable situation at first, with Redmond facing the corner flag as he runs onto the ball.
As Redmond approaches the ball though, he gets his body squarer to the goal-line. This is less manageable.
Redmond’s manoeuvred himself so that he can no longer be easily shepherded towards the corner, and he’s opened up a lot of the field for himself. At this point, Sanchez should be preparing for a movement. He is not.
Redmond could either put on a burst of pace and sprint down the line or do what he actually does and (unexpectedly) cut inside. Sanchez’s body isn’t really in a position where he’s prepared to react quickly to either option.
He’s banking on the fact that he naturally reacts quite quickly and is able to accelerate quickly as well, to deal with any movement.
Without being a proper expert in kinesthetics I can only offer my reading of the situation, but I think being more crouched would mean he’d get more push off any change of direction or pace he needs to make, and a lower centre of gravity would make a turn easier.
As it happens, he’s able to impede Redmond enough as the forward cuts inside (without it being called a foul) to slow Redmond down.
From there, Sanchez’s natural acceleration gives him the push to catch back up with the attacker, but he was still caught off-guard when he shouldn’t have been.
This isn’t strictly defending, although if you were being facetious you could say that successfully maintaining possession and building attacks is a form of defending.
I was thinking, during the United game, how much we could have expected them to do better, given injuries and fatigue. (As part of my job for Football Whispers, I touched on this today for RedArmyBet here).
One of the things I think United struggled to do throughout was to play through/around Arsenal’s high press. With Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Mesut Ozil in the front line, with Aaron Ramsey not far behind, they had a mass of players to press up the field.
Here’s one example early on in the game. Luke Shaw, at left-back, has just passed the ball to Victor Lindelof. Arsenal’s players up the pitch are covering all of Lindelof’s team-mates (there’s an Arsenal player just off-screen ready to pounce on a potential pass to Fred).
Playing long played into the hands of Arsenal’s back five. I’m not an expert on passing patterns to bypass a press by any means, but I feel like United should have done better. Immediately, Luke Shaw should have backpedalled heavily to create an angle for Lindelof.
Getting round the press, coincidentally, led to Luke Shaw having the time to put in a great ball for Romelu Lukaku. As United get the ball left, out to Shaw, you can see how centrally bunched Arsenal’s main pressers are, and how much space that gives the United left-back.
While I’m on United, a word on Lindelof switching sides with Chris Smalling. On Sky’s commentary, the consensus (as I remember it) was that Lindelof had struggled against Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and switching with Smalling at the end of the first half enabled him to get out of that battle.
I’m not convinced it was quite that simple, although I’m also not convinced that I completely understand the decision.
Lindelof looked shakey, sure, but I don’t think this was much to do with Arsenal’s forwards per se. His main moments of uncertainty were all when the ball was in the air. Lindelof’s never been a good aerial defender (something I highlighted when United were first rumoured to be looking at him, here), and the gusty wind won’t have helped.
I think moving him over to the right certainly sheltered him more – between Diogo Dalot and Ashley Young rather than Shaw and Paul Pogba the right flank was better protected than the left. I’m just not entirely sure it was because he was being bested in the first half.
A brief nugget from the Watford vs Manchester City game.
City are attacking (surprise surprise). Riyad Mahrez has drawn two players into him and created space for Bernardo Silva to his right. City players, anticipating a cross, are making runs into the box, and Watford midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure is in the process of folding himself into the back-line to help out.
This does actually create a nice mini-back four in the box that’s narrow and has good space between each player. Because of Doucoure dropping, they’re able to cover that space effectively.
However, the original cross is blocked. It comes straight back out to Silva who gets ready to put in another, but Doucoure has switched off. Instead of just stopping and sidestepping back up a yard to hold a reasonable offside line, he trots around in an arc.
You can see Bernardo Silva already eyeing up his cross. Doucoure, after having filled the space between centre-back Christian Kabasele and right-back Daryl Janmaat, is now circling around in front of Kabasele.
This leaves two City players in the open space he’d previously been in. (Kabasele doesn’t even get chance to back up and fill the space Doucoure vacates, because Doucoure is coming out of a blind spot).
Sergio Aguero gets a header and puts it wide, but if he’d left it for David Silva, it could have been an easier chance.
I’m not saying every midfielder who drops into the defensive line when the ball gets near the box will do this, but it’s the kind of thing that they seem to be prone to do.
The bizarre decision to trot around instead of stopping and sidestepping is bad enough, but it’s worse that he vacates space that his teammate then has to cover when the cross goes in. When you’re defending a cross, you’ve got to trust that your teammates behind you have got things covered or that they’ll communicate with you if they don’t. Doucoure just vanished.
It also (and I’ll post the last picture again below for you to look) leaves a gaping space in front of the defensive line where an actual midfield could be.
I apologise for the VAR. I, like many others, find VAR ‘debates’ very tiresome. Like being stuck on the spinning teacups, it’s fun at first but then it makes you feel bored and queasy.
But a comment from Michael Caley made me think:
What if the footballing authorities flipped the switch and, forced by VAR to tighten the boundaries on interpreting the rules, made football a ‘forward’s game’?
You can see why they’d do this. On review, referees seem more likely to give a marginal call than not give it anyway and, at the same time, it could make the game more exciting and appealing to a competitive market for attention.
On grappling in the box, where defenders regularly hug the man they’re marking, this flip-switch would see any holding penalised. It would be harsh, it would be brutal. But eventually, they’d adapt; we’d probably see more zonal defensive systems. But would that even matter?
If more zonal systems took off, you’d probably then get discussions about whether blocking a run, either of an attacking or a defending player, should be penalised. Maybe that would become the new grappling. Plus ça change…
Other ‘forward’s game’ changes you could see would be harsher penalties for tactical fouls and delaying quick-free-kicks (sin bins perhaps?). Offside could be loosened up, with a player judged onside unless all of the player is over all of the offside line (or would this just incentivise long-ball football too much?).
Anyway, this is really interesting.
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‘Til the next time
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