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August 2021

Arsenal’s Tactical review – part 3 : the attacking force

By Phil Gregory

After part two of the tactical review series, I ended the article just as I started getting to Arsenal’s attacking game.  Here I’ll have a look at that side of our game and consider whether a change of shape may be beneficial.

We regularly see the problem where we attempt to thread the ball through a packed defence, and end up just hurling a cross in from wide which gets nowhere. This problem is a tough one to remedy. Teams know we don’t offer much threat crossing from the flanks, so they play a narrower defence and pack the middle of the pitch, often leaving our fullbacks free out wide. The defending side are happy if we cross as the odds are their defence are better in the air than our attack, and the attempt comes to nothing.

This problem was best summed up by our defeat away to Bolton: 27 crosses attempted, zero successfully. There’s a similar problem when the goalkeeper is forced to play the ball long as a result of a lack of short options. With no forward who is a consistent threat in the air, we often gift possession away when sending it long.

How can we resolve this problem? Well the obvious solution is to introduce an aerial threat into the forward line, and indeed we tried to do that in the second half of games when Chamakh and Bendtner made regular appearances from the bench if Van Persie was starting. This helped, but often at the detriment of either our ability to break down the opponent via short passing (if say, one of the big men were introduced on the flank) or a midfielder who got subbed off for a forward.

This is the big point for fans who want us to switch from a broadly speaking 433 system to a 442. Clearly, Van Persie isn’t going to get dropped from the start for either of Bendtner or Chamakh, so they either play on the flanks or a midfielder drops out for an additional striker. The problem is that losing a midfielder means we are less dominant in terms of possession, and could easily be outnumbered in the middle of the park by either opponents playing a third central midfielder or using a wide midfielder tucking in. Then, the problem switches from being able to score goals to being able to hold the ball, and arguably we take a step backwards.

For me then, switching from 433 to 442 isn’t an option for that reason. The traditional view in football is that if you need a goal, you withdraw a midfielder for a striker, ergo if Arsenal regularly needs a goal, they should start with more strikers. The problem with that is it is simplistic: if you make that change, and then suffer reduced possession of the ball, you might actually reduce your chances of scoring despite the extra striker. Likewise, I’ve seen sides starting in 442 and, needing a goal, actually withdraw a striker and put on a midfielder. The extra midfielder allows the fullbacks to push on more, varies the runs from midfield and results in greater domination of the ball. It’s a brave manager who withdraws a striker when looking for the win, but in the right situation it can win them the game.

Given that therefore, I don’t think switching to 442 is an option for us, especially when you consider many of our players play better as part of a midfield three than a midfield two, or better as a wide attacker than a winger. What can be done then? For me, it is a mistake to take the edge of your strengths in order to strengthen your weaknesses (e.g. weakening your short passing game to get a big man on for Arsenal).We’re not always going to be able to break through every parked bus, but certainly improvements in our attacking game could be made.

The model we seem to be going for is a centre forward who can score and create, and is smart and technical enough to drop deep and create in order to draw the opposing defence forward, making space that the wider forwards can be played into. The wider forwards themselves need to be quick, excellent on the ball and offer a potent goal threat. Unless we can get someone who’s 6’5” and as skilful as Van Persie, I don’t see much changing in that regard this summer. Likewise out wide: Nasri needs to offer more assists, and score more evenly over the campaign, as does Theo, but the quality of there. Perhaps Gervinho will offer the competition to make everyone up their games, and get back the old Arshavin (though a lack of productivity isn’t a charge you could level against the little Russian).

The fullbacks I’m not sure about: unless you get a target man into the box, crosses are only ever going to be wasteful. Perhaps consistently hitting the by-line and putting a flat cross into the six yard box (that fabled “corridor of uncertainty”) could be the best option? I don’t have a problem with either of Sagna our Clichy defensively, and the aforementioned problems make it tough for them to be productive offensively.

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As for the midfield itself, against the parked bus it needs to both create and score in order to maximise goal threat. For that Cesc Fabregas needs to stay put at the Arsenal (his goals and assists stats are ludicrous), while Wilshere’s goal threat will grow with age as he gets the confidence to shoot more when playing for the seniors.

We can’t afford to have two centre backs plus a holding midfielder staying further back when the opposition only really have one striker, who may or may not even be past the half way line. We saw how Wenger wanted this situation to work at the start of the 09-10 season, with regular forward runs from Gallas and Vermaelen. The latter is back fit for the upcoming season which is a positive development for both our defensive and offensive game. Moreover, if the opposition have limited ambition in attack we can afford to use players such as Song or a centreback further forward. Perhaps they can offer a modicum of aerial threat and get on the end of some of our crosses?

Much to look forward to for the next season then!

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Why the pessimists are mistaken

The Cesc transfer saga, how they lied to us – part 1

The Cesc transfer saga, how the media finally shut up – part 2

17 comments to Arsenal’s Tactical review – part 3 : the attacking force

  • FunGunner

    Great post, Phil.
    One of the many fab aspects to Fab’s game is that he gets into the penalty box. It would be nice to see one of Wilshire or Song doing the same more often and more consistently through the season. We have also missed Vermaelen’s forays forwards, as you say, and his goals.

  • gulp

    @Fun Ramsey does the same. He shoots alot too.

  • Mandy dodd

    Very interesting analysis. This team at their best are sensational, we just need something, maybe experience, a plan b or whatever to carry us through when we are up against it and stop these confidence killing implosions. As you say, the easy obvious solutions have their flaws

  • Prabal Rakshit

    Good one as usual Phil.

    As you say 4-3-3 offers more balance in midfield than 4-4-2. However I believe we whould still be pursuing multiple alternatives which include something like 4-4-1-1, (which Arsene has occasionally reverted to as a plan B). Some of the reasons are:

    – One common criticism (and justified to a large extent) has been the undue pressure on the fullbacks because of this formation. With our wingers not tracking back, the fullback has to steam ahead while attacking and then again rush to defend his far post. A slightly more defensive 4-4-1-1 formation with players like Eboue instead of Walcott (just an example) would reduce the defensive workload on the fullbacks to a large extent.
    Interestingly SAF has often employed defensively sound wingers like valencia to nullify attacking threats of Ashley Cole, hardworking midfielders like Park Ji-Sung to help Patrive Evra etc.
    I believe this formation is esentially a counter attacking formation and does not suit Arsenal naturally and works well when the inside forward is more of a creator (a la Rooney, Van Persie) and the outer one is a poacher like Chicharito. However this might be a good option when we are defending against teams with genuine threats down the flanks, or when we are defending a narrow lead.

    – Most of our wide forwards like Nasri, Rosicky, Arshavin (and to an extent Theo) are not natural wingers who ‘hug the touchline’. That is a reason we have to rely on our fullbacks to provide width as the wingers try to cut in. Unfortunately the opposition fullbacks in such a case can also move closer to the central defenders and strengthen the already parked bus. To make 4-3-3 a success, we would need wingers that can draw the opposition fullback out and thread in an assist through the vacant space.
    A not so identical example would be the Dutch team in the 2006 W-C. The CF Ruud Van Nistelrooy was flanked by Robben and Van Persie, both of them were natural goal scorers who liked to cut in to the penalty box. Whereas Ruud was a more traditional forward who thrived on crosses. The result was overcrowding in the D with no good service to Ruud.

    Would like to add some more points to your rich write up:
    – Off the ball movement has not exactly been a very strong point for us. You have mentioned correctly that
    “The model we seem to be going for is a centre forward who can score and create, and is smart and technical enough to drop deep and create in order to draw the opposing defence forward, making space that the wider forwards can be played into”
    Robin has been very skillful in drawing opposition center backs out of position (even the likes of Vidic). However except Theo no wide forward had the tendency to rush in to fill the void and get in scoring positions. This is true for both our wide forwards and also the central attacking midfielders. Maybe Cesc’s injury deprived us a lot for this. But this shadow movement (something which Pires and Ljungberg were good at), is essential to beat the parked bus.

    – Although crosses are not a very productive way to score goals (case in point Barca), all too often we have lost chances where there was no one at the empty far post when a cross was delivered. what could have been an assist turns out to be a harmless goal kick for the opposition. This too has its roots in the off the ball movement.

    – If we get someone like Gervinho and/or ricky Alvarez to shore up the wingplay, will it make sense for Nasri and cesc (assuming they stay) to play together in the middle? Not only we would improve the possesson stats in the middle, it would offer Robin invaluable support when he drags the opposition center backs out of position.

  • Anne


    Good analysis. Personally, I don’t think Arsenal needs to make too many changes on offense. However, I would like to see them find a way to utilize Chamakh more. I was really impressed with Chamakh early in the season, and looking at his performances coming off the bench, it seems that it’s a role that isn’t really maximizing his potential for Arsenal.

    Some of you might disagree with me here, but I actually thought that Arsenal’s offense looked more fluid when Chamakh was starting instead of RVP. Although I think that RVP is a better striker than Chamakh, I think that Chamakh’s passing, ball control, and vision as a playmaker are better than RVP’s.

    In fact, when Chamakh was starting, I thought he excelled MORE in his playmaker role (ie, linking up, setting up plays) than he did as a striker. Particularly where Nasri is concerned. Personally, I think that Nasri looked his best last season when he was playing with Chamakh. And when Chamakh and Nasri were playing with Cesc, there were moments when I really saw shades of Messi-Xavi-Iniesta in the way they would connect.

    RVP contributes a lot as well, so I don’t think that Arsenal should play Chamakh INSTEAD of him. But it would be nice if there was a way to incorporate both of them. The only question is how, exactly? I agree that a 4-4-2 isn’t the way to go for Arsenal, and I don’t want to lose Walcott either, so it’s kind of tricky.

    However, one thing that I WOULD be curious to see is how well Chamakh could settle into more of an attacking midfield role. From what I’ve seen, I think he has enough skill on the ball to pull it off, and he also seems to do a decent job tracking back on defense when needed.

    I know that I’m probably the only person in the world who actually thinks this ( 🙂 ), but my gut feeling is that Chamakh COULD play midfield, and play it well. He’s better up front, but playing him in midfield would allow Arsenal to keep RVP up front, but still take advantage of Chamakh’s playmaker skills. And it would also give them an extra dimension to their attack, because Chamakh could still be used as an aerial threat, which would make it more difficult for defenses to park the bus against them.

    So, anyway…I know that my idea of using Chamakh in midfield is kind of ridiculous, and if Arsene Wenger was reading this, he would probably be laughing at me (either that or crying with pity, I’m not sure which 🙂 ). But the point is that I’d just really like to see Chamakh on the pitch regularly along w/ RVP. Anyone else have any ideas on how to do it? 🙂

  • AZ

    @ Anne: OMG I thought I was the only person in the world who thought that Chamakh has better passing than RvP, and arguably better ball retention. I don’t think it’s crazy that he could pull off a midfield job, but there has to be doubt about how he can adapt to a role he’s never played. He may not be as good as RvP in every department, but he does have a sweet first touch and good balance. It helps him retain the ball, fend off defenders, find passes, and even lose his marker. Obviously he’s not as good for a N10 because he wouldn’t be able to dribble as well as, say, Nasri, but he could link up well with someone like Henry who’s incredibly fast and also very skilled with the ball on his feet. Also, Chamakh isn’t an out’n’out striker because I think he lacks the pace to beat offside trap or move instinctively in the box – unless it’s in the air lol.

    Anyway, I’m sure Bendtner must be on his way, because in our system, he’s just way behind everyone. as pointed out earlier, 4-4-2 is unlikely so Bendtner is 3rd choice for a 1-striker formation. On the wings, we have so many players ahead of him, and although he does offer something different, I don’t think he offers what we need. At least I haven’t seen from him yet.

  • Dark Prince

    @Phil- many issues are there in the formation we’re playing in.

    Firstly, the biggest issue being that we have only one attacking midfielder. Both Wilshere and Song are used as holding midfielders who make forward runs in between. But eventually its Cesc upon whom the responsibility lies to create the most number of chances. Even Wilshere is very poor in his final pass and shots which is not really helpful. It can be easily seen that without Cesc, our players jus have a big question mark on their heads in the final third of the pitch. So in my opinion we have to stop this system of dependence on one creative/attacking midfielder and bring in 2 or 3 of such midfielders in our starting line up formation.

    The second issue is our striker formation, which i should say is again dependant on one main central striker – Van Persie. Van Persie is a clinical finisher good at headers, good at free kicks, good at passes as well. So obviously, its quite important to have him as a central striker. But again, we cant depend solely on him. As mentioned lots of times b4, we need 2 central strikers. Let me talk about Walcott, Lets admit, the only reason he scores goals is when he beats the offside trap with his pace. Other than that, he’s very poor when he’s out wide. His crosses are weak and once the opposition tries to push him wide, he becomes useless to say the least. Plus his final pass too isn’t as good. But we have to use his strengths, i.e his pace and shooting power, and that I believe is best exploited when Walcott is used as a central striker. Now comin to Arshavin. Arshavin is a good attacking player, his passes are good, his crosses too r better than most of our players, n his shots are good too, though lately his shots have gone wayward. But what is weakness of Arshavin?? Thats his defensive contribution. You put Arshavin out wide, and he’ll do what he does best, but then, he’ll not be as helpful in giving a defensive support to Clichy. So i believe that he too would be better as a Central Striker rather than out wide where his weakness will be exploited by the opposition. And lets get this straight, Walcott and Arshavin are not wingers. So they both will be not as helpful when they are pushed out wide as normally done by our oppositions. Now comin on to Nasri,i guess he’s a Versatile midfielder who can play out wide as well as through the middle, so i guess he could be our 3rd attacking midfielder. So my suggestion would be to use 2 central strikers in our formation. Maybe we could start with Van Persie and Gervinho, with Arshavin and Walcott used as subs.

    Thirdly, an unusual problem – we dont have any typical wingers. Maybe as you said, its bcoz we want to dominate midfield and keep hold of the ball. And i wouldn’t mind that. But having a player in our subs who is a typical winger will be important, especially when we need to put some superb crosses in the final 15 min if we’re trailing.

    Then lastly, our full backs. I think the only problem of our fullbacks is their crossing. Other than that, they can pass well, defend well, even shoot well when required. But its the crossing that they lack. And my suggestion would be that they should be taught the art of crossing in training sessions. They should learn from other full backs who cross quite well, for eg, Cole, Evra, Maicon, Alves, Ramos, Lahm, etc. Clichy and Sagna should be as good in attacking like the above mentioned.

    So after all those suggestions, i can only think of one formation where all these ideas can come through. And that is a 4-1-3-2 combination. Where we have 3 central midfielders and 2 central strikers. My line up would be-

    Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Clichy
    Song as defensive midfielder
    Nasri, Cesc, Wilshere
    Van Persie, Gervinho/Walcott.

  • Dark Prince

    The best part of this 4-1-3-2 combination is that it suits our needs or 2 Central Strikers, it gives us 3 central attacking/creative midfielders which can dominate possession and plus the full backs and easily run along the flanks with lots of space. And Song can work solely upon his defense and providing cover to full backs when they move forward in attack.

  • I’m quite impressed wif this analyst personally,its a meticulous and precise one…phil on my own opinion i thk we can switch between two formations in one game…the 442 for the first half after getting a goal or two we result to 433 in the 2nd half holding more of the ball…This is ofcourse not wif the appropriate substitutions,so no one on form will be left out..MORESO,we need options in the bench esp wif our strikers n mid fielders subsceptibilities to injury in crucial moments…This apparently is my opinion… GOOners4Life.

  • Woolwich Peripatetic

    Tricky to pull off but despite what you may have read elsewhere, RvP is practically the best false-nine in the world, so why not play a false-nine and a false-ten as well. As in Chamakh. His primary responsibility being to occupy the centre backs, hold up the ball but not to score. A playmaking Emile Heskey as it were.
    I think it was the Ramsey goal against united where this tactic worked. As I recall, we put a ball into their box and then cleared it ourselves (seems daft I know) into the path of the runner from deep. In their own ways Theo, Aaron and Henri could all be that runner (Lansbury in particular is brilliant off the ball) who collects the ball at speed with the opposition defence facing the wrong way.

  • Todd

    Not a bad tactical overview, but I think it’s very important to differentiate between a 4-3-3 vs. a 4-5-1(or a 4-2-3-1 if you prefer). A 4-3-3 was how we lined up at the beginning of 09-10 season. ’10-’11 season was a distinct 4-5-1 version. This is important because the use of your wingers is vastly different in the two systems as well as the responsibilities of your CM’s. This season I felt we had a distinct midfield overload which is a common problem with a 4-5-1.
    Compare our general pattern of play vs. Barca(a true 4-3-3) or even Chelsea(often a 4-3-3). When they play a 4-3-3 their front three are truely a front three. Defensively they press the opposition defense, but they generally don’t track back to provide deeper defensive cover. That responsibility falls on the midfielders. If you think of the pattern of play on the field in a 4-5-1, the players have a narrow and long area of responsibility. In a 4-3-3 the players have a shorter and wider area of responsibility. Both styles have their advantages, but you have to use them in the manner which gets the most out of you players.
    I think playing a 4-5-1 doesn’t work to our players strengths well. I really don’t think Fabs, Wilshere, Ramsey, Song, Diaby, or Denilson are attacking Midfielders. They all play a version of box to box. In a 4-3-3, that is exactly what would be doing in a wide version.
    More specifically I’d like to see Arsenal move to a more distinct 4-2-1-3, with three true forwards whose primary responsibility is to keep the opposition defense from being involved in play in any way, including their fullbacks.

  • Woolwich Peripatetic

    A 4-3-3 with a high line and a 4-3-3 with a low line are two entirely different concepts. Chelsea play a low line where there is less requirement for the front three to come deep to defend as the space in behind them fills up very quickly. Their midfield drops deep off the ball to deny space in between the lines. Our defence is usually pushed right up the field and is therefore vulnerable to balls over the top played to a runner coming from deep.
    Barcelona are the oddity in that their defensive strategy doesn’t work unless things are going their way but their offence shifts the balance. I’ve said it repeatedly but their defensive strategy is flawed, a decent passing side can beat their press and carve them open at will. On the one occasion we were able to field almost a full side we managed to gain the upper hand because of their defensive weakness.

  • Todd

    I agree that there is a significant difference between the two versions of 4-3-3, and I think a part of that is the difference in style of play between spain and england. I think Barcelona are susceptible to long balls much like we seem to be, but don’t tend to play teams that play long ball. Also, because their front 3 press the defense so well, the other team doesn’t have time to put in accurate long balls.

    This has been our problem. We’ve basically been using Fab/RVP to press the back four, while Theo/nasri/Arsh track the wingers. This leaves the D time to put in decent long balls, which changes the nature of defending to being a natual 1v1 or 2v1. Our problem has usually not been an issue of getting overrun and outnumbered on D, it’s always a version of the other team bypassing the midfield(our strength) and putting the ball in a position where it’s a 1v1.

    Another component to think about regarding the use of a 4-3-3 is the offensive ineffectiveness of our fullbacks. With a 4-3-3, the fullbacks would really be focused on D, and not making overlapping runs followed by crappy crosses as the widemen up front would be responsible for that wide area..

    I also disagree that “…a decent passing side can beat their press and carve them open at will”. If that is true, then Real, Manu, Arsenal, Inter, Chelsea, are not “decent passing side”s, because none of them have been able to carve barca open at will. You’re seriously underestimating the manner in which barca press. I’m not gaga for Barca, but the way they’ve been beat is generally not by being passed around, it’s by a team that can soak up pressure and hit them hard and fast with long diagonal balls to the wings.

  • Woolwich Peripatetic

    Slight semantic difference, I said “can beat” not “will beat” and aside from Arsenal none of the teams you mentioned have nearly enough players who can execute tricky passes under intense pressure. Valencia and Villareal would be better examples than Real/Manure/Inter or Chelsea.

  • Anne

    @Woolwich Peripatetic:

    Actually, there is only one “passing side” in the world that has ever managed to “beat [Barca’s] press and carve them open at will.” And it was Arsenal. At the Emirates. 🙂 Basically, Arsenal exposed weaknesses in Barca’s defense in that match that no other side in the world has ever exposed, including all of the “flaws” in Barca’s defense that you mentioned in your post. These weaknesses all emerged as a result of Arsenal’s tactics in the match.

    I’m not sure where you got the idea that any “decent passing side” can beat Barcelona’s press and get behind their backline, but you’re incorrect. In fact, the opposite is true. In general, NOBODY can beat Barca’s press. Just as evidence of that, last season, Barca conceded an average of 0.5 goals/match, and that’s despite the high back line that they play.

    When you say that Barca’s “defensive strategy is flawed,” “a decent passing side can beat their press and carve them open at will,” I’m actually wondering if you’re basing your opinion solely on the match at the Emirates. Because that’s a fairly good description of what Arsenal did to Barca in the match. However, Arsenal is the only club in the world that’s found a way to do it.

    Barca has always gotten away with playing such a high back line due to the strength of their possession game. Basically, whenever they lose possession of the ball, they have enough speed and skill to regain possession before the ball makes it into any dangerous areas. Teams will get in behind them occasionally, but not enough to be a serious threat, and never on a consistent basis.

    However, in their victory at the Emirates, Arsenal proved to be the exception to that rule, and was able to exploit Barca’s high back line as a weakness in their defense. And the reason that Arsenal succeeded where other clubs have failed is actually pretty simple. Basically, Arsenal has just gotten too good at football for Barca to get away with pushing up that high against them. When they get the ball, Barca can’t catch them to get it back.

    Arsenal’s main advantage in this area is the speed with which they can move the ball up and down the pitch. They can get possession at one end of the pitch, and have the ball in on the opposite goal seconds later. Also, they’re very good at connecting on long passes that Barca can’t intercept, and their general possession and ball control skills are far superior to those of most clubs Barca faces. When Arsenal gained possession, they were able to move the ball into dangerous areas before Barca could intercept them, and consistently get in behind Barca’s backline. End result? Game over Barca 🙂

    However, the big question is exactly how MUCH of a “game over” for Barca this is going to prove to be? Unless the match at the Emirates proves to be some sort of anomoly, this creates serious problems for Barca. As you correctly observed, Barca’s “defensive strategy is flawed,” as it applies to Arsenal. And it’s a major flaw that’s going to be difficult for Barca to address.

    First, Barca’s high back line is primarily an offensive strategy, and plays an integral role in Barca’s offense. In fact, I don’t even know what Barcelona would do without its high back line. But what that means is that fixing the “defensive flaw” would severely weaken and perhaps even cripple Barca’s offense. So, if Barca is forced to make tactical changes to contain Arsenal’s attack, they will have to re-work both the defense and the offense.

    This would likely be followed by an “adjustment period” for Barca, which would coincide with a “winning streak” for Arsenal. Considering that Barca and Arsenal only play each other twice a year (at most), this could quite possibly stretch out over a period of years. So, Barca will want to avoid making these tactical adjustments, and will probably only make tactical changes on defense if every other alternative fails.

    However, if Barca continues to play a high back line against Arsenal, other options for containing Arsenal’s attack are limited. The only alternative Barca would really have would be to target Arsenal’s passing game. Going into the CL 2nd leg, it’s clear that Barca was already thinking along these lines.

    Barca was well aware that Arsenal’s passing game at the Emirates had exposed a serious weakness in their defense, and their strategy in the 2nd leg was to completely frustrate Arsenal’s passing game. In interviews before the match, several players said that the goal was to put intense pressure on Arsenal, and ensure that the Arsenal players “didn’t even have time to breath.” Because it would be difficult to control Arsenal’s passing game (Arsenal is too good), the idea seemed to be to completely stifle it.

    This tactic seemed to work well in the first half, considering that Arsenal had no opportunities on goal. However, it’s unclear to what extent Arsenal was sitting back on defense as well. Unfortunately, the ref’s decision to ruin the match early in the 2nd have, prevents us from knowing how these tactics would have ultimately played out. Arsene Wenger said that he believed Arsenal would have gone on to win the match because Barca was tired after pressing so hard in the first half. I think there’s a good chance he’s right.

    In the end, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see whether Arsenal is able to continue to exploit Barca’s weakness in the back, and whether Barca can succeed in stopping Arsenal players from passing the ball to one another.

  • Woolwich Peripatetic

    The V&V examples undermined my point really but both teams show the familiar weakness of La Liga, that retaining or acquiring good players is impossible because of the individual TV deals. Neither Villareal or Valencia possess a particularly effective defence (this is crucial to containing Barca as Mourinho has shown) and Valencia in particular suffered due to players not being replaced for this season past.
    The question of how long can Barcelona keep playing the same way is an interesting one. As you suggest, not many sides can combine enough defensive solidity to stay in the game against them with enough attacking ability to hurt their weakish defence.

  • refreshing content. Keep up the great work!