Sarri on Bielsa spying: I don't have good spies!
Midway through an intriguing Premier League season, arguably the most two tactically interesting sides meet this weekend at the Emirates.
Neither Arsenal nor Chelsea are challenging for this season's Premier League, and have stuttered in recent weeks after promising starts under Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri respectively. Assessing how the sides have adjusted to the new regimes, though, has been fascinating.
Neither Emery nor Sarri appeared a perfect fit: Emery is a tactical tinkerer, joining a club who were accustomed to "playing the Arsenal way." Sarri is the opposite, an ideologue committed to possession football at a club fixated upon winning at all costs. It's been something of a role reversal, and this weekend we might witness Chelsea travelling to the Emirates and dominating possession, something that has happened very rarely in the past 15 years.
Both managers have also encountered one particular problem: how to format their side in the attacking third. The past decade of the Premier League has witnessed the dominance of one-striker formations, whether in a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-2-1, but these sides find themselves without a truly effective lone striker. Therefore, Emery and Sarri have approached the problem in different ways: Emery is deploying two, while Sarri is using none.
Emery is determined to play both Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang together. In basic terms, there's no issue here; the two are good friends off the pitch, and have occasionally combined effectively on it, as was the case for Lacazette's excellent goal at Cardiff early this season.
A literal two-striker formation doesn't suit Arsenal, however, and therefore Aubameyang has been incorporated on the left. This isn't disastrous, and he's recorded excellent goal-scoring statistics, but ultimately it's not his best role. Aubameyang played wide earlier in his career, but developed into an excellent penalty-box finisher, excellent at finding himself in the right place at the right time. Starting from the left -- and, more recently, from the right -- he's less of a goal-scoring threat.
There's also a problem with Arsenal's link play. If Aubameyang is on the left, intent on running in behind, it means the player on the opposite flank needs to contribute heavily in terms of bridging midfield and attack. This, obviously, is exactly what Mesut Ozil excels at, but he finds himself surplus to requirements, presumably because of a personal issue between him and Emery. Without Ozil, and with Henrikh Mkhitaryan injured and Lucas Torreira not hitting the heights of his first couple of months, Arsenal lacked any kind of creativity against West Ham last weekend. Alex Iwobi is excellent at positioning himself to drag opponents out of position and playing simple passes in behind, but he's not quite the player to bring everything together.
Too often, Aubameyang and Lacazette are disconnected from their teammates, which prompts the question of whether it's worthwhile playing two strikers. The alternative is playing just one, which means Aubameyang, the more senior and prolific forward, getting the nod. But Arsenal's collapse in a 5-1 defeat at Anfield showed the problem with that system: Aubameyang offers little with his back to goal, and doesn't bring others into play in the manner of Lacazette. Should it be Aubameyang omitted instead? In tactical terms, quite possibly. But Ozil and Aubameyang are Arsenal's best two players; if the optimum system excludes both, something's gone disastrously wrong.
Sarri, meanwhile, has turned away from strikers altogether. Alvaro Morata's confidence crisis meant he often wasn't even in Chelsea's 18-man squad, while Sarri seems to regard Olivier Giroud as a Plan B despite his fine combination play with Eden Hazard.
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Instead, Hazard has been used in the central striking position. The Belgian doesn't like this role, because he doesn't touch the ball often enough. He doesn't score enough goals to belong in that position, either. Intriguingly, Hazard recently said that his performance in Belgium's 2-1 World Cup quarterfinal win over Brazil last summer was the best of his career -- and he particularly enjoyed it because he didn't score or assist, proving you can play well without contributing directly to a goal. It was a refreshing take, but probably not music to the ears of Sarri, who wanted Hazard to target 40 goals this season.
The impending loan signing of Gonzalo Higuain theoretically improves the situation. Higuain performed excellently up front for Sarri's Napoli, scoring a record-breaking 36 Serie A goals before moving to Juventus. But Sarri's Napoli side arguably looked better after his departure, when Dries Mertens pushed inside to lead the line, a la Hazard. Higuain has also appeared somewhat immobile in recent months, and lacking the speed that he discovered at Napoli, where he became pacier after losing a considerable amount of weight. He might be a useful penalty-box man, which is what Chelsea have desperately lacked.
This weekend, though, it will be Hazard who leads the line. And while there are imperfections in his interpretation of the false-nine role, last weekend against Newcastle he performed well, particularly for his contribution to Chelsea's second goal, scored by Willian. Hazard came short to receive the ball, dragging Newcastle's defenders up the pitch before elegantly turning past them and feeding the Brazilian, who cut inside and curled the ball into the far corner. It was everything you want from a false nine.
This weekend could be perfect for Hazard. Arsenal's centre-back trio of Laurent Koscielny, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and, in particular, Shkodran Mustafi all have a habit of advancing too high out of the defensive line and finding themselves out of position. Aside from tactical fouling, it's difficult to imagine how they'll cope with Hazard's change of direction, and Chelsea should be able to create goal-scoring chances at will.
This, therefore, might be the most interesting aspect of this weekend's clash. It's north London versus west London, red versus blue, possession versus pragmatism. But it's also likely to be two strikers versus no strikers, as both sides compensate for their lack of a truly outstanding lone centre-forward.
Mauricio Pochettino says Tottenham feel no pressure to sign a replacement for injured striker Harry Kane, and has vowed not to "cry" as injuries and departures mount within his squad.
Spurs expect Kane to be out of action until March and there have been reports of interest in 31-year-old free agent forward Giuseppe Rossi, who has been training with Manchester United.
But Pochettino told a news conference: "I think there's many names that appear in every transfer window. He's another name to add on the list but it's only a rumour. We are not considering him.
"It's a rumour like another but if you ask me, I think no, it's not a possibility.
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"I think [Harry's injury] is not going to change our mind about the view of the squad. Always we're open to improving our squad, to adding players that can improve us. But I think that's not going to put pressure on us to sign some players.
"We know very well the market now is so difficult, and the circumstance that we have. Of course, if we identify the player that is going to help us and can add qualities that we don't have in the squad, we're more than open to trying [to make] that happen. But at the moment, I think there's not too many possibilities to add this type of player that can improve us.
"Of course it's going to be an important player who's out for a time. He's one of the best strikers or players in Europe, or the world, and always it's going to affect the performance.
"But we think and are in the same way -- positive that we can cope with the situation and we have enough players to cover that place, and it's not going to change our approach in the different games we're going to play without him."
Spurs are also short of central midfielders. Moussa Sissoko is due to miss the next fortnight with a groin problem and Eric Dier is not yet fit enough to start after recovering from appendicitis, while Victor Wanyama is also out of action and Mousa Dembele was sold on Thursday.
"In football, you have two options, to cry or to see a possibility for another player to play and step up, and an opportunity to play in a different way," said Pochettino. "I'm the person that chooses the second option.
"It's a massive challenge. For me, rather than to sit in my chair and cry it's to find another way to try and challenge ourselves and be consistent and keep the same level of performance."
Dembele has joined Chinese Super League side Guangzhou R&F and Pochettino said: "I think he's a player and a person that we're going to miss.
"You know very well my feeling about him -- he was one of the greatest players that I met in my career. Of course, I wish him all the best.
"His wish was to move to China and his dream became a reality now. It was a pleasure to share with him an unbelievable time here in Tottenham."
Meanwhile, Pochettino admits he has been disappointed by the "Spygate" scandal at Leeds, where his former manager Marcelo Bielsa has admitted to having the training sessions of his opponents covertly watched.
"It's a situation that makes me a little bit sad," he said. "Always my love is going to be with him -- he was a person so important to me, to helping me build my career as a player. But after that, we're talking about one situation that happened last week and I can't agree [with it]. For me, it's wrong. I can understand Frank Lampard's feelings.
"The English people and the culture you create in the past here gives you the opportunity to work in privacy that doesn't happen maybe in Germany or Argentina or Spain. That makes us feel more responsible to keep that idea, that you can work and feel at home and you don't need to hide anything.
"It doesn't change my view about Marcelo but I can't agree with what happened."