By Omar Khan, @omardelkhan7
I believe we’re all aware of the no-look pass; our very own Rozza executed a spree of them last season which also invited Phil Neville to express his feelings on Rozza’s behavior rather too honestly.
This post is not about the no-look pass; rather, it is about a term I coined up after the weekend showing at St. James’ Park – or is it the Sports Direct Arena? Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the no-look no-pass! What is this Sorcery?
Here’s the catch, it’s anything but sorcery! It’s quite simple really; the no-look no-pass refers to a player – most likely a midfielder – not looking at his forward’s runs [no-look] and hence, does not pass to him [no-pass]. It’s quite painful to watch really – the oohs and aahs we gasp at the successful execution of a no-look pass become ugh and aargh when the no-look no-pass constantly occurs. Let’s re-visit some basics before I make this about Arsenal.
Movement and Passes Post-Newcastle there have been tweets and comments from fans that Theo is not a striker because of his low number of touches or that he lacks movement. These were also, apparently, further proof of why Wenger prefers to start Giroud over the Englishman. I may be wrong but it seems as if movement is only picked by fans if the pass is made. In other words, if a player receives a ball away from his usual position then he is hailed for his movement – especially forwards.
Well, the fans are not wrong in that regard; but, there’s more to movement than just that. Let’s stick with forwards to discuss movement as I’ll be alluding to them later on. Movement isn’t limited to lateral movement across the field i.e. taking a position out wide or working the channels. It can be a bit more vertical leaning towards diagonal as well. How? A majority of through balls hit by midfielders for their forwards are a result of subtle movements by their forwards. These subtle movements include:
- Angling your body towards the direction you’re going to run in; even if you’re positioned between two defenders
- Angling your head towards the direction you want to run in and the ball to be played into; also includes a quick look at the player with the ball
- Arm by the side with a finger sticking out – this is slightly less subtle!
The catch with all these is that the forward starts moving in a certain direction, even if it’s just a few steps; it usually IS just a few steps because he needs to break the offside trap as well. Midfielders need to pick these movements and play their forwards into those areas they’re willing to go in. Those areas usually aren’t too far from the goal either.
The easiest and most recent example to cite is Alexis Sanchez’s goal versus Reading in the FA Cup semifinal last season; the one that was assisted by Mesut Ozil. Fans praised Ozil to the heavens for the assist. It certainly was a brilliant pass from Ozil; however, credit has to be given to Sanchez for his movement and run. That came first. Then came Ozil picking Sanchez’s movement. Then came the pass.
The problem is, in my opinion, we haven’t seen enough of this – not necessarily hitting through balls for forwards to latch onto; but, simply utilizing the movement the forward is offering. Arsenal’s Style of Play Over recent years, Arsenal has become reliant on the lone forward bringing midfield runners into play. We all know this. Our last prolific striker was a certain Robin Van Persie – a player who moved around enough to let others arrive and fill spaces that were not associated with them. He was also the recipient of several through balls as well.
Olivier Giroud brought something different to the table – more physical presence, great hold up and link up play. His lateral movement was decent, though that seems to have curtailed recently. Lack of pace and back to goal approach usually meant through balls were not to be played for him. Arsenal’s possession play combined with a usually slow build-up usually results in teams comfortably putting plenty of men behind the ball for large swathes of a match. We all know this as well.
I have come to peace with Arsenal playing in a certain way with Giroud up front because of the Frenchman’s limitations. Plus, if the limitations were that big a problem, we would have struggled to finish in the top four and win trophies as well. So, I have made my peace with that. However, what I have not made peace with is how the team has not been able to adapt its style of play when Theo is up front.
In Search of Theo Every time Theo has played up front, one of the post-match statistics always cited is his number of touches during the game which are usually very low. This, for me, is not surprising. Theo is not a target man. He will not do what Giroud does. The problem is that the Arsenal midfield also keeps him uninvolved throughout. Theo will not usually drop deeper to hold, or lay off a ball. If he did, it would be counterproductive because he doesn’t have those abilities in his locker.
So, why not adapt to your forward? This is where I bring back the earlier point about movement and picking movement. Theo, every time he has played forward, makes so many subtle movements for his midfield to put him in an area behind the opposition’s back line albeit temporarily. However, you never know what may come of it. The sad reality is we actually don’t know what can come of it because the midfield never picks him out. This was very evident versus the Magpies.
Why Arsenal’s Midfield Can’t Find Theo I can only hazard a few guesses on this, some are interrelated. My first guess is that barring Ozil, we don’t have a player who can do pretty much what Cesc did in this regard. There’s a reason why Ozil is a player with one of the highest assist tallies in Europe, if not the world. We haven’t seen it as much at Arsenal but with Giroud up top, there’s only so much he could have done in this regard. However, he combined well with Alexis at times last season and there should be more of the same this season.
On the other hand, we have not seen enough of the Ozil-behind-Theo combination to be able to say this is the exact reason. Nevertheless, neither Santi nor Ramsey seem to want to pick those subtle movements to play the forward in behind. You can argue that the deep positions of the opposition make it more difficult to play Theo in behind and I agree with that; but, there were plenty of times in the last game and other games when Theo has started up front when the opposition did not full track back but Theo would just continuously to be ignored. We focused on possession and build up again.
This brings me to my second guess, something which fellow blogger Drew (@AFCBVB1410) continuously talks about – tactical rigidity and being tuned to play in a certain way. Arsenal look to break through the middle more than using width, or even if they use width; the ball finds its way back towards the middle again. The Ox is another matter because he’ll whip one in from wide or at least find a more productive pass when around the box. Bless him for that! Quick release and direct play just does not seem a consideration anymore. If you watch Crystal Palace’s first goal versus Chelsea from the weekend; what’s so prominent is their priority to quickly get into a space the can help them create:
What I can’t help but wonder is whether Arsenal would have played the same pass, or let that run slide, slow down, and opt to find a man in a more central area. A slight adaptation isn’t a plan B, the plan B that many fans clamor for but Arsenal apparently doesn’t have from an attacking point of view; the adaptation would entail better use of movements, runs, and space – it’s still plan A but executed better.
Wrapping It Up My coach in high school used to emphasize to us that we have eleven players on the field and that we should be able to use all eleven. Arsenal does not do that when Theo is in the side. Players have preferences of how they want to receive a ball – at their feet or ahead of them; and, teammates should know those preferences and how to use it to the team’s advantage. That’s not happening right now and I hope it changes. It’s not necessary that a midfield players always answer a forward’s movement with a pass; sometimes there are better options available. However, considering our midfield barely answers the call, I hope the era of the no-look no-pass is short lived!
Omar Khan is a contributing writer for Full90Gooner. Follow him on Twitter at @omardelkhan7