Arsène Wenger’s big test will be to find the balance between the pass-and-move style of football and providing greater protection from the counter.
Two goals were scored away from home and four were conceded therefore it should be clear which end of the pitch the problems lie. However the analysis after the defeat to Manchester City was split close to 50-50 between the two disciplines.
There are a number of reasons for this but each will inevitably reach close to the same conclusions, namely along the lines of organisation, discipline and balance.
Arsène Wenger’s post match analysis usually plays down the performance of the opposition after a win and that was the case once again against the Eastland club. “There was more in the game for us than what we got” was Wenger’s staunch analysis (although he did criticise his defence), referring to the amount of possession and territorial advantage his side had, not to mention the chances. But in today’s game, it is a perfectly viable tactic to have less of the ball and look to counter-punch the opponent when possession changes hand. And City did that, ruthlessly exposing Arsenal on the break as Wenger’s side looked to press on for victory. 1-1 was quickly 2-1, 3-1 and then 4-1 all in a blink of an eye.
In his book ‘Teambuiding: The Road to Success’, Rinus Michels states the best teams play a brand of football which is all about dominating possession and having all players capable of creating chances, knowing when to release the ball. (It should also be noted, the best teams can alter the style of play to a counter attack style and switch back seamlessly). That’s stage three of a club’s development cycle, a phase in which Arsenal are said to be in.
In contrast a club in stage two, which Manchester City are in (e.g. having a stable youth infrastructure, stadium etc. but yet without the trophies) in their quest for domination, are typically all about compactness, organisation, and counter-attacking football. They were perfectly happy to give the initiative to Arsenal, defending deep and once the opportunity arose, looked to break with speed. It will be interesting to see as City develop as a club, should they look to become more possession orientated. But why should they?
As mentioned already, counter-attacking is a viable modern tactic while on the other hand the margins for a possession side are thin; one will always be better than the other which inevitably will turn the game into one of thrust and counter-thrust. The hallmarks of English domination in the Champions League against ball tapping opposition has been their ability to attack from all angles and adapt to a change tempo, dynamism, speed and of course supreme organisation. Judging by City’s signings so far, Mark Hughes side won’t be any different.
How the once masters of the counter-attack have become out-counter-attacked was one fans reaction after watching the late flurry of goals at Arsenal’s end. He was obviously referring to Wenger’s Invincibles side who were not only quick as a bullet from the break but were very confident in possession, strong, ruthless in front of goal, experts at controlling zones and possibly also, fantastic at making up superlatives.
Their unbeaten championship win perhaps fittingly also came at the dawn of a new era in the Premier League. Liverpool under Gèrrard Houllier (when attention was not focused on whether he had signed the next Zidane) had signaled their arrival as a force once again while money, and lots of it in the form of Roman Abramovich and soon with the hiring of Jose Mourinho had changed the outlook of the league. The Special One’s 4-3-3 which doubled up as a 4-5-1 became in vogue and soon ‘smaller’ clubs gave up all ambition against the bigger sides, defending deep and in two organised bands.I recently took a quick flick at ESPN’s Premiership classics programme where they were showing a game during Wenger’s Invincible period and it was particularly surprising just how high up the pitch the opposition defended at Highbury.
It would do the other league bosses injustice to attribute the change of thinking to the already inflated ego of Jose Mourinho but he had brought about more awareness. In an interview he gave with UEFA he mentioned just how key transitions had become in turning games, also stating that he always kept five back in order to safeguard his side from such moments. “Transitions have become crucial,” he says. “When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position.”
Because Arsenal is so elaborate it may mean they require more resources when getting forward which in turn is likely to leave gaps at the back. The trade off for this is effectiveness and with Arsenal’s goalscoring start to the season, it seemed Wenger had found the right balance. His side where pressing high, tirelessly tracked back and provided able support to the lone forward. There was the steel to go with the flashy football.
That probably still is the case as we haven’t seen enough of the real Arsenal because of the personal they are missing. The injury to Fabregas was a big blow at United which would have made the big difference. Walcott’s speed gives a new dimension on the right while Rosicky and Nasri’s ingenuity are key to the side’s style. However such a team as the one put out against Manchester City would have had to make sure they were watertight in defence because of the lack of creativity, movement and cutting edge. With two non-wide men playing in wide forward roles (Diaby and Bendtner) it meant the Gunners lacked dynamism forcing the full backs to push forward to make up for the ineffectiveness, leaving space at the back to exploit.
It’s going to be up to Arsène Wenger to prove his side have that balance in the long run because while there is always going to beauty when he’s in charge, there will also be transitions. And with that being the case, clubs will always know that they have a sniff of a chance of beating Arsenal.
* NB: There is already some confusion and a bit of finger pointing. The title is only a play on words on the word transition as it has a number of meanings. The one I’m referring to is the process of change in football from defence to attack and such a process will always stay in the game. I’m in no way implying Arsenal will be stuck in a rut forever.
There is unlikely to be match analysis following the Standard Liege game unfortunately (I will try and fit an article in) but normal service should resume for the game against Wigan.