How do you win a game of football? Most coaches will tell you that there is really no specific way to play that 100% ensures winning. But most coaches will tell you that you will need to create chances if you want to win.
How many chances? Well, an average shot in a soccer game has a 0.10 chance of scoring. That’s 1 out of 10. To get 3 goals, you may need up to 30 attempts. But we have all watched football and seen that Ibrahimovic goal against England. That was one shot, one goal. And that leads us to the fact that not all chances are created equal. Remember Yakubu Ayegbeni’s miss against South Korea at the 2014 World Cup? If you had ten of that in a single game you will probably score ten times. But those kind of quality chances are difficult to make in football and rare enough. That’s exactly why the average shot only has a 1 in 10 chance of going in. Sensibly then, to win a game of football, the best bet is to be able to create lots of chances.
That leads us right to Arsenal, Arteta, Mourinho, Tottenham and all the conundrum of a promising young manager who is struggling to lift a club out of the gruel of midtable obscurity. Arteta is a student of Pep Guardiola, a legendary manager who hacked the formula for winning a 38-game competition season after season. Guardiola’s system is underpinned by possessing the ball, and passing to move the opponent around so you can have space for a shot on goal. In his words, the ball moves faster than anyone. Manipulating the ball is manipulating the opposition. His system is designed to create lots of chances. Basically, a factory of shots. If you can produce 1000 shots a season, the law of averages says you should have about 100 goals. That is ultimately more than enough to win a 38-game league.
But there is a catch: playing that kind of football requires quality at every position. And not just traditional quality either. You will need your defenders to not just be good at defending but also at passing. Your goalkeeper need not only to be good at palming the ball away from the net but also quick to come out and play like a defender for an instant. That kind of quality, needless to say, is not easy to come by even at the best soccer clubs.
In modern European football, all of the clubs that have the greatest chance of winning 38-game leagues play to produce as many chances as possible. They have all copied the Guardiola philosophy. There is simply little chance at winning the league when your direct rival is scoring 100 goals regularly across the season all the time and you are not, as Real Madrid 2008-2015 found out. If your aim is to win a top European league at some point, there is no way around it, you’ve got to play as a chance factory.
There is another catch, though. Playing that way requires you to be expansive on the field. You can’t play defensively with 10 behind the ball and expect to be creating chances at factory speed. Everyone attacks with 5 players nowadays, usually with some variation of 2-3-5 or 3-2-5 on the ball. And that is where another legendary manager, José Mourinho, comes in.
Mourinho does not follow the Pep method of having the ball all of the time so that you can constantly create with it. Mourinho thinks that the team that has the ball is the one more likely to make a mistake with it. Then because you have come forward to try to score, he can capitalize on the space that is behind you. The Mourinho philosophy is traditional. Most teams simply don’t have the quality to be able to create chances against 11 men too many times. They don’t want the ball and when they have it they can just get in behind. This philosophy works because while the average shot in soccer is very unlikely to result in a goal, if those shots are produced by running in behind a defense with nobody between you and the goalkeeper, they will tend to be of greater quality than the average. You don’t need 10 shots to score a goal, you just need less defenders between you and the opponent goalkeeper when you take the shot.
The catch is that you actually need less precision to score a goal against 2 men behind the ball than against 10 men behind the ball. Since it is easier to score a goal with Mourinho’s philosophy, you don’t need as much quality players. Of course, quality players are great for everyone but if you are only interested in scoring a goal the Mourinho way, you can live with not having Lionel Messi.
Well, since it is easier to score a goal the Mourinho way than the Guardiola way, why doesn’t everyone play like that? Because most clubs do not have the quality of players needed to play the Guardiola way to a high level, they resort to throwing 10 men behind the ball, so there is no space for a Mourinho system to work. In your average league, except for the financial monster that is the Premier League, only an average of 4 clubs are dedicated to the Guardiola way. Most of your matches will be against Mourinho types and the Mourinho way becomes drastically less effective (how else do they score? Set-pieces?). This is why most shots in soccer are poor in quality.
So, ultimately, in your average league, if you can get the required players, it makes obvious sense to play the Guardiola way. Which leads us all the way to Mikel Arteta, the protégé of Pep Guardiola, managing Arsenal, a club that has insufficient quality required to play the Guardiola way in the Premier League.
Arteta is painfully aware of both the fact that the Guardiola way is best, and the fact that the squad he has is not good enough to play the Guardiola way. Which explains why he has changed his approach four times since his appointment. First, the Guardiola way. Then after a loss to Olympiakos, the Mourinho way to great success. He returned back to the Guardiola way for a few games after getting two quality players in the transfer window until games against two of the best Guardiola teams in the league. Then after unsuccessfully playing the Mourinho way against those teams, back to the Guardiola way till date. All the while, Arsenal have amassed a measly 13 points from 11 games (which is equivalent to a point per match), rank near bottom of the league in chance creation numbers, have made the most crosses in a singular game, and largely completed most of their passes. All together, they have not looked much like Mourinho or Guardiola team. They look like the worst of both worlds. Which leads to the question: is Arteta a good coach?
Of what? A Mourinho team? Well, he has coached that to great success. A Guardiola team? Well, not much, but he is a direct Guardiola protégé and his team has shown very promising flashes of the Guardiola way. The sensible conclusion is that Arsenal lack consistency, in style and substance. How do you improve consistency? Well, by sticking to your guns. But I joke. Consistency is best ensured by quality. Pep Guardiola’s teams lose and Mourinho’s teams lose but they are consistent at what they do. Arsenal lost the North London Derby in two moments, one from a goal produced from a location that should not have been a goal, and one from when they had their best player of the game, who happens to be a defensively oriented midfielder, hobble off the pitch just as Tottenham were counterattacking.
But seeing as Arsenal do not have the quality to effectively play Guardiola’s football and it seems as though their manager is going to stick to his guns this time, how can they improve their effectiveness in the short term before they can get more quality into the club?
That leads us right to another legendary manager in the making: Jurgen Klopp. Jurgen Klopp can be seen as a subscriber to both the Guardiola and Mourinho system of football. His team can stay behind the ball and hit space effectively; they can also hold the ball and conjure out shots from possession. How does he manage to be able to do both? By coaching some of the best pressuring football ever seen.
Klopp’s teams, whether they hold the ball or are behind it, are pressing monsters. His players hunt for the ball with speed, strength, hunger and structure. Whenever the other team has the ball, to Jurgen Klopp, they are like a Guardiola team and are vulnerable to leaving space in behind. Another catch of pressing is that it helps you to sustain your attacking pressure. Sustaining attacking pressure simply means constantly creating chances after chances around the opposition penalty box for an extended period of time. This is really difficult to do. Since most chances won’t end in a goal, your opponent will get the ball after you have failed to put it in the net. That means you don’t have the ball anymore and can’t create another chance almost immediately. But if you are good at pressing, your opponent will quickly lose the ball to you and you can then create another chance. Simple, isn’t it?
No wonder why the best attacking teams are always the best at pressing. You can’t be too effective in the Guardiola way without pressing effectively and maintaining that pressure on the opposition goal. What Jurgen Klopp has discovered is that pressing is the best playmaker in football. In his own words, if the opponent are moving the ball and you can get it back, they are usually not defensively well structured in that moment and you can therefore exploit the open space to score.
This is where Klopp is different from Pep Guardiola. Since goals are the most important thing in football and pressing can create goalscoring opportunities, a won tackle/interception is a chance to score and must be treated as such. Pep Guardiola sees it a little differently. Since he has an attacking structure that can create chances like a factory can produce candies, a won ball is to be put back in the machine (not immediately as a direct attempt) and the factory carries on. Klopp has built a team with pressing as a primary objective while Pep has built a team with attacking structure (his factory) as the primary objective and pressing as the secondary.
Pressing is physical and mental. To press effectively, you need players who are physically great (strong, fast, plenty of stamina) and mentally motivated. This explains Liverpool’s high-achieving midfield. All of Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Milner, Henderson, Chamberlain, with the plausible exception of Keita, are physical monsters. Even Keita was used to pressing at RB Leipzig. And so, now, is Thiago at Bayern and Barcelona.
Klopp was so good at pressing and scoring goals that teams started to play Mourinho style against his team. They didn’t want the ball no more because Mou’s truism came true: the team that has the ball is more likely to make a mistake. Klopp had to play more and more like Guardiola, which required more quality, but he had bought the time to get in that quality by pressing hard even when he did not have so much quality.
One thing that Arteta can and must improve at Arsenal is the quality of the pressing. Can he coach that? Well, against Liverpool and Manchester United, he has shown that he can. But since pressing, like anything in football, requires quality — athletic quality — which Arsenal do not have in abundance, perhaps the inexperienced Spaniard is afraid. However, pressing does not require that much quality and smaller clubs (who, admittedly, might have more athletic quality) have been able to employ pressing to effective results. Southampton are a great example of Klopp’s truism: they create most of their chances from pressing. And they have more goals than Arsenal.
Can Arteta coach a good press? Clearly he can. And this is why the Spaniard is an extremely promising coach. His stated preference for athletic beasts in midfield and obvious preference for creating through wide areas has ensured that a prime Arteta team will look more like Klopp’s than Guardiola’s. And when you consider that Klopp’s Liverpool are one of the most complete teams in history, Arteta’s potential is more promising than most.
Against Tottenham, Arsenal largely dominated the ball and found entry into the penalty box several times. A possession count of 76-24 is indicative of where Arteta wants this team to go. In the first half, Tottenham found unexpected joy in transition. In the second half, they had no joy with only one more attempt. Arteta successfully neutralized the counterattacking threat but you may put that down as Mourinho’s management to an extent. The point though is that Arsenal were unlucky to have conceded and unlucky to not have scored. Ignoring the passes that went into the penalty box without an attempt on it, Arsenal generated more expected goals than Tottenham but lost two nil. That is what you get when you play against the most efficient shooter in the league + the most efficient passer in the league + the best striker in the league rolled into one.
Arsenal are on the brink with Arteta. They are poised for something unimaginably great or something unimaginably bad. It is 11 games in and they are 5 points off the top 6. Their billionaire owner has begun to gradually flex his purse with the acquisition of Thomas Partey. It is widely reported that Arteta wants another central defender, two midfielders, and a new striker. The January transfer window is close by. Arsenal are looking to go somewhere. Where will it be?