The value of knowing your enemy; a cautionary tale from North Rhein-Westphalia and other locations

Are any of us all that surprised about the events that took place at the Westfalenstadion on Tuesday night?  I for one am not, and maybe that is part of the overall problem surrounding Arsenal Football Club these days.  This will not be a piece reviewing the match, but more so my personal reactions, which I can only hope cause some discussions and debate to be generated amongst ourselves.

To put the matter bluntly, we were not prepared to face Dortmund.  Despite their list of injuries to first-team personnel being far longer than ours, we were still played off the park from the first minute.  Apart from the odd chance or two (quite a few chances fell to Danny Welbeck actually, who has proven that he will not morph into the second coming of Thierry Henry, despite many hoping for such an occurrence), we had nothing on the night that ever caused Dortmund more than a slight moment of pause.

Yes , we were awful, but what so many people are failing to mention in the aftermath, is that our performance on the night (and perhaps the result itself) was completely avoidable.  Have we not run into Dortmund time and time again in the last three or four seasons? And each time, was Jurgen Klopp not the man at the helm, deploying in similar if not exact fashion on each occasion?  Yes he was without Marco Reus, Jakub Blaszczekowski, Ilkay Gundogan and a few other first-team regulars, but Dortmund were always going to deploy in the same fashion - I knew it, you knew it, Jurgen Klopp knew it, and worst of all, Wenger knew it, but did nothing about it.

Clap it up Klopp, you never had a care in the world did you...(image courtesy of Borussia Dortmund's official Facebook page)

Hannibal Barca and his Carthaginian army slaughtered nearly 70,000 Romans at Cannae because he knew exactly how to defeat them on the battlefield each time he faced them - Roman pragmatism and tactical systems were too engrained in their commanders, none of whom were willing to change their ways and it resulted in disaster.  Arsenal, yet again, were played off the park by equal or superior opposition, because everyone knows how to deploy against us and how to target the weaknesses in our tactics that are the same week in end and week out regardless of who the opposition is.

They key to tactical success on the pitch is not always trying to fix your system, it's about finding out the best way to counter your enemy.  Klopp was never going to deploy in any other way than he did on Tuesday, but he was confident in his own system because he knew we would not counter him, and in turn, the fate of the match was sealed before it began.

While I do not want this piece to divulge into a rant about tactics, the nature of this piece is about gaining intelligence on your opponent, but more importantly, what you do with it once you have it.

Again, think back to the fact that we have come up against Dortmund plenty in our recent Champions League future - would it not be sensible to think that, knowing how much pace they have, how direct they play, and how they often times target the center of the defense via diagonal runs from wider and deeper areas, why did we deploy the way we did?

Ask yourselves the two following questions, bearing in mind the knowledge of how Dortmund play

  • Why were our fullbacks instructed to not sit back and defend more rather than always maraud forward?
  • Why did we play a high line with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, even though every German knows just how exposed BFG is given his blatant lack of pace?

A prime example of how Klopp addressed our weaknesses was not by changing the way Dortmund play (which obviously did not happen), it was by a simple change in formation.  Dortmund usually play with a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, but on Tuesday, Klopp fielded a 4-3-1-2, and he did this for two reasons; First, to clog the midfield with Sven Bender (why we have not pushed harder to get him, I don't know), Sebastian Kehl and Kevin Grosskreutz - hard working midfielders who could (and did) shut down Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere, while at the same time offering added support to their fullbacks in dealing with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.

Speed demons Ciro Immobile and Pierre-Emerick Aubmeyang found space to their hearts content all evening, a testament that Klopp did his homework (image courtesy of Borussia Dortmund's official Facebook page)

Second, and more important, was the change of the attacking players.  Up till now, new striker Adrian Ramos has been one of their best performers, but being that he is a target man and lacks a bit of pace, he would not be able to effectively expose BFG the way Klopp needed, so he opted for Italian international and fellow new kid on the block Ciro Immobile instead.  Immobile would parter Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up top, and if you failed to realize just how much of a speed demon the the Gabonese striker is, you were reminded all evening.  Henrikh Mkhitaryan slotted behind the forward pair and ahead of the midfield trio, and hey would be key.  While the Armenian international would spend most of his time threatening central areas and trying to draw out one of our center-backs or exposing Arteta, Immobile and PEA routinely found space in behind Kieran Gibbs and youngster Hector Bellerin.  Once space was found, they were left with the freedom of choice to continue their runs out wide, or make a diagonal run; 90% of the time they opted for the diagonal run, and who can blame them.

The average person may blame Gibbs and Bellerin, but is that wise?  They did not go about their business because they wanted to, they did so because they were instructed to by Wenger.  Why were they instructed to?  Because these are the same instructions given each and every week, against each side we play, regardless if we are at the Emirates or away.  All that this means, is that far too many managers know how to play against us to exploit our weaknesses, while we make zero efforts to counter our opponents weaknesses in similar fashion - we're just far too busy playing the same football week in and week out, and somehow people are still shocked that we get trounced by any side that has a quality manager and good talent on the pitch.

The hardest truth to take away from Tuesday was not that we got obliterated, it's that it has happened so many times before, and that it will certainly happen again.  If you think back to last season when we were thrashed by City, Chelsea and Liverpool, you'll remember that they all killed us in the same way, and targeted the same exposed areas.  This is nothing knew, and what grinds my gears about it all is that it is one-hundred percent avoidable.

Many will always claim that Arsene Wenger is a genius, an innovator and one of the best managers in the world, but it is neither genius nor innovative to continuously make the same mistakes.  This it not a Wenger hate blog, it must be said that such pragmatism in a manager is unacceptable.

So yes Arsene, there is value in knowing your enemy.  And while it can be seen as commendable that you continuously put faith in the way you do things, go back in time and ask the Romans how that worked out for them near a little unknown village in the south east of Italy.

Preview by Numbers: Aston Villa v. Arsenal

Villa Park, Birmingham
Saturday, September 20
10:00 a.m. EDT, 15:00 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Jones
    • Assistants: Mark Scholes and Ian Hussin
    • 4th Official: Kevin Friend
  • This Match, Last Year: Aston Villa 1 - 2 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 77 Arsenal wins, 66 Aston Villa wins, 45 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W // W-D-D-D
  • Aston Villa's League Form: L-L // W-D-W-W
  • Weather: Partly Cloudy, 17 C / 64 F
When these cylinders aren't firing properly, it is usually
Mesut Ozil's fault.
PANIC STATIONS, PEOPLE! Okay, maybe not. Calm down.

Arsenal, who are, according to certain circles of the Internet, the worst team in the history of the known observable Universe, will look to get back on the right track this weekend in the Midlands as they take on an Aston Villa side that have been one of the surprises of the young season. So far this season, the Gunners have looked, well, what's the opposite of "firing on all cylinders?" I'm sure it involves jaded handbrakes...

The Gunners will hope that the trip to face a club that was predicted to finish in the league's bottom half will get the internal combustion engine working again, though Villa are in fine form, having won 1-0 at Anfield last weekend. Arsenal's performance in Germany on Tuesday made it painfully clear that some changes need to be made, either to the personnel or the formation or, ideally, both, to get back to winning ways.

There were enough positives to take out of last week's draw with the champions for me to be convinced that all is not lost; if you've watched Arsenal over the past five seasons or so, you know this kind of spell has frustratingly become part and parcel. There's simply too much individual talent on this team for this to be a long term problem.

As I often say, you can only win games one at a time, so it's time to put Tuesday's failures aside and focus on getting out of Villa Park with all three points.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Debuchy (ankle,) Giroud (ankle,) Gnabry (knee,) Walcott (knee)
Doubts: Wilshere (ankle,) Monreal (back,) Sanogo (hamstring)

This was the third Arsenal match this season where neither
team wore red.
Good news: as of writing this, it does not appear that anybody else has joined the "long term injury list."

Bad news: Jack Wilshere, one of the midfield's few bright spots this season, will likely be a doubt after rolling his ankle on Tuesday. Jack says he expects it to be fine, but Jack always says that and then misses several months. There may be some doubts about other players who did not make the bench midweek, like Nacho Monreal, Mathieu Flamini, and Yaya Sanogo. Flamini had a muscular problem, but even on Tuesday it was said he would likely be fine for the weekend. I still don't know what the issue was with Monreal and Sanogo, though I've heard it was a back injury and hamstring injury, respectively.

An unavailable Jack Wilshere might force Arsene Wenger to, oh, I don't know, return to the 4-2-3-1 formation that has worked in the past. Watching this new 4-1-4-1 has been like trying to jam square pegs into round holes. If it's designed to get the best out of the available talent (which is the approach you should take to select a formation, in my opinion,) then it isn't working.

Personally, I'd like to see some rotation, get some guys in that could use a start, like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla, or Tomas Rosicky.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Chambers, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Flamini, Ramsey, Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexis, Welbeck. That's probably way off.

Aston Villa Squad News

Out: Vlaar (calf,) Kozak (leg,) Benteke (match fitness)

Darren Bent, shown here after scoring at the Emirates in
2011, has scored eight goals in his last 11 against Arsenal,
and has five in his last five against the Gunners.
Aston Villa captain and Dutch penalty misser Ron Vlaar is expected to remain out with a calf injury; Vlaar has not played since before the international break. Christian Benteke completed his first week of full training on his way back from a ruptured Achilles, but will not have the match fitness to feature this weekend. Libor Kozak remains out after breaking his leg in training in January.

Nathan Baker will continue to deputize at center back in place of Vlaar; he's partnered with ex-Arsenal Philippe Senderos. With no changes to the injury list, I would not expect Paul Lambert to make any changes to the XI that won at Liverpool last week. This means a 4-5-1 formation, including Tom Cleverley, purchased from Manchester United on deadline day. Alternatively, Lambert may start Carlos Sanchez, purchased for £4.7 million this summer, in midfield. Gabriel Agbonlahor will likely start up top, though Villa will have Darren Bent, always a threat against Arsenal, on the bench.

Predicted XI: Guzan, Hutton, Baker, Senderos, Cissokho, Weimann, Cleverley, Westwood, Delph, Richardson, Agbonlahor.

Current Form

Paul Lambert signed an extension after last week's win at
Liverpool, though in this image from that match, he looks
completely zoned out.
The tone of Arsenal's form has changed dramatically lately. After the draw with City, the opinion was largely, though not entirely, one of "well, they're still undefeated on the season." Now that that is no longer true, it feels more like Arsenal is staring down the barrel of a gun, because nothing among Arsenal supporters is done in moderation. Arsenal now have just one win in their last six across all competitions. Aside from the Community Shield, both of Arsenal's victories have been, for lack of a better word, uncomfortable. It took 91 minutes to beat Crystal Palace and the 1-0 over Besiktas was marked by hanging on for dear life at the end. Arsenal have not won outside of London since the final day of the Premier League season last year, at Norwich.

It should be noted, though, that Arsenal are one of three teams that are still unbeaten in the league; Aston Villa is one of the other two. Villa have three wins from four, beating Stoke at the Britannia on opening day, drawing Newcastle 0-0 at home, beating Hull City 2-1 at home, and last week winning 1-0 at Liverpool. The Villans have now picked up at least a point in each of their last four visits to Anfield. Villa's 10 points from their opening four matches marks their best start to a season in 16 years. Astonishingly, Villa have picked up those 10 points by scoring just four goals with a total of just six shots on target in their four matches. On the other hand, Villa have lost in the League Cup, dropping a 1-0 match to Leyton Orient at home.

Match Facts

Remember what being happy was like?
Arsenal have not lost in their last 15 matches at Villa Park, winning eight and drawing seven. Last year, Arsenal jumped out to a 2-0 first half lead, with Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud scoring a minute apart. Arsenal should have been out of sight, but after Christian Benteke pulled a goal back in the 76th minute, things got nervy because it was Arsenal after all.

Villa's last win over Arsenal at home came in December of 1998; Arsenal led that match 2-0 at halftime and lost 3-2. As alluded to above, that 1998/99 season was the last time Villa started a season as well as they have this season. At the time of that win, the Villans were top of the league. They remained top as late as December 28. In the spring, however, Aston Villa went winless over a 10 match span; the club fell to 6th.

The Villans have just three wins in their last 21 matches against Arsenal overall; of course, one of those wins came in the season opener last year. The less said about that match, the better.

The Referee

He looks a little like Sting, right?
The referee is Chester-based Mike Jones. Arsenal have a strong record with Jones as the referee, winning 11, losing two, and drawing one against a parked Manchester City bus in January of 2011. The Gunners split two matches with Jones as the referee last season, losing 1-0 at Stoke to a debatable penalty, then winning 1-0 over West Brom late in the season when the result was academic for both sides.

Aston Villa had Jones twice last season as well, though the Villans won both. They defeated Manchester City in a surprise at Villa Park last September and later won 1-0 at the Stadium of Light against Sunderland on New Year's Day.

Jones has worked two Premier League matches this season, both bonkers draws: the opening day 2-2 between Leicester and Everton and the 3-3 between Newcastle and Crystal Palace. Last week, Jones worked in the Championship, as an 18th minute red card doomed League One-bound Fulham to a 3-0 defeat at Reading.

Around the League
  • Saturday (early): Queens Park Rangers v. Stoke City; Loftus Road, London
  • Saturday: Burnley v. Sunderland; Turf Moor, Burnley
  • Saturday: Newcastle United v. Hull City; St. James's Park, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • Saturday: Swansea City v. Southampton; Liberty Stadium, Swansea
  • Saturday (late): West Ham United v. Liverpool; Boleyn Ground, London
  • Sunday (early): Leicester City v. Manchester United; King Power Stadium, Leicester
  • Sunday (early): Tottenham Hotspur v. West Bromwich Albion; White Hart Lane, London
  • Sunday (late): Everton v. Crystal Palace; Goodison Park, Liverpool
  • Sunday (late): Manchester City v. Chelsea; Etihad Stadium, Manchester