Sunday School dunce Joe Cole taught a lesson by ‘Le Professeur’s’ pet Samir Nasri
The saying goes that “There are no atheists in foxholes”, and some may argue that when it comes to football, “there are no simpletons playing in the hole”. Well, we would all like that to be the case, but unfortunately, Joe Cole managed to supply reason to suggest otherwise.
Plotting against him was Samir Nasri, impressive throughout pre-season, rejuvenated from his omission from the the French World Cup squad (dodged a bullet there), carried his form through to the new season with an impressive display against Liverpool.
By contrast, Joe Cole, who played the similar role for his Liverpool team, desperately struggled for the 45 minutes he was on the pitch before getting sent off (dodged a bullet there). He thrashed around the central areas of the pitch, straining to receive the ball, constantly closed down by Arsenal’s midfield tight midfield trio of Diaby, Nasri and Wilshere.
His worthlessness can be seen by examining his passing; he did not manage to make a pass past the opposition’s centre-circle, showing how deep he had to come to receive the ball. Elements of his game that he showed against FK Rabotnicki Skopje were shown, his creativity, quick feet and movement were instead replaced with inadaptability and enthusiasm that lead him to more often than not running into Arsenal’s midfield.
His disappointing league debut was forced by Arsenal’s high defensive line and tight midfield, restricting all time and space Cole thought he may have had in the middle of the park. Suffocated by Diaby and his own inability to drift wide (more on this later), he buckled and committed footballing suicide by lunging at Arsenal centre-back Laurent Koscielny.
In contrast, Liverpool sat deeper, allowing Nasri more freedom to move into dangerous areas of the pitch. The result was that passes could find Nasri easily, giving him more time on the ball, presenting him the opportunity to pass the ball in the attacking third, making him a lot more dangerous than his counterpart Joe Cole. Nasri had much more of an influence over the game, orchestrating passing moves, unfortunately for Arsenal, his conducting led to nothing more than rendition of ‘World’s saddest song, played in world’s smallest violin’.
The deeper line that Liverpool operated against Arsenal could be seen as dangerous, by sitting deep and inviting pressure, teams find it hard to disrupt Arsenal’s passing and to win back the ball. Teams that employ a deep line are usually hoping for one of those ‘Arsenal off-days’, where the incision and patience on the ball does not result in goal-scoring opportunities. It was one of those days on Sunday.
Of course, this is not to say that Samir Nasri had a ‘world-class’ game – he didn’t. He failed to play any defence-splitting passes or create any clear chances and credit has to be given to Liverpool’s organisation and compact shape in the defensive third.
The advantage of sitting deep is that it allows the team to keep its shape and restrict the spaces behind your defence (think of Inter vs Barcelona in the semi-final of the Champions League). In a way, managers, when setting their team-up against Arsenal face a trade-off between space in midfield or space behind your defence. Hodgson chose to restrict the space behind the defence, making it difficult for Arsenal to find the final ‘killer’ ball. Barcelona opted for the different approach, of pressing high and closing down when each player had the ball, and it worked for them. This approach differed to the manner opted for by ex-Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez.
Roy Hodgson’s different approach when playing Arsenal
The strategy employed by Roy Hodgson of sitting deeper is different to the one implemented by Liverpool’s former manager, Rafael Benitez. Benitez looked to press-high up the pitch and work hard to win the ball back, offering players little time on the ball. Hodgson’s approach gave Arsenal more time on the ball in the middle of the park, resulting in fewer unsuccessful passes, allowing them to dominate possession.
Think back to the 2-1 win at Anfield last season for Arsenal. In the first half Liverpool were playing the football that brought success in the latter half of the season before, they constricted the space and forced the opposition to rush and misplace passes. It was a tactic that had worked well for Benitez, think to the 4-4 at Anfield, remembered because of Arshavin’s goalscoring exploits. What was overlooked was the fact that Liverpool harassed them and Arsenal played very poorly, unable to string together passes in midfield and defence, the vital areas where they start their ‘spinning top’ of passing and movement.
Back to Joe Cole, my ‘Sunday School Dunce’
What Joe Cole needed to do in Sunday’s ‘high line, high pressure situation ‘is just take some time to think about what his movement can do to help his team What needed to click was that his position is very flexible, he can move around the pitch without Liverpool losing a shape or creating any weaknesses in the team structure. Effectively, what he does without the ball is just as important as what he does with the ball, which is where game intelligence is needed to manipulate a an opposition’s shape to create weaknesses and potential opportunities.
I’ve written before about Mesut Özil, the blueprint of an intelligent attacking midfielder, and how in tight defences he moves out to the flanks, dragging midfielders out with him thus creating space for players to move into. It is this sort of movement that was needed, but was desperately lacking throughout.
He also could have realised that he could join David N’Gog up-front, looking to run onto the balls over the top of the Arsenal defence, making the Arsenal defence more wary about the long-ball, as well as dragging a central midfielder out of position (Diagram 1).
A further implication of this is that it causes the defence to drop deeper as they’re wary of runs from deep, giving space for a midfield partner to move into (Diagram 2), giving the opportunity for Steven Gerrard to drive into central areas where his powerful runs often create something. Instead, he just shuffled around in central areas, looking stifled and frustrated.
This does not bode well for his chances of shifting the label that has been put on his forehead by Carlo Ancelotti, that he’s a bit ‘thick’. Perhaps it was the fact that it was his league debut, that he wanted to be on the ball in the middle and get involved, but he did not help Liverpool take advantage of the high-line played by Arsenal. This lack of game intelligence shown by Cole was magnified with his ill-judged attempt at blocking the ball in the dying stages of the first half. I just hope that Joe Cole has his books and pens ready, for he is going to have to be taught a lesson by Mr. Hodgson on how to play football given his performance on Sunday.