Arsenal’s pressing game has suffered since the start of the season mostly due to a matter of distances.
Shortened names are all the rage these days. From Subo (Susan Boyle), R-Pat (Robert Pattinson) and Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), it’s a wonder they still haven’t thought of one for Babyshambles front man Pete Doherty. And after Barcelona swept all before them to bag six trophies last year, with Bordaeux and Chile prevailing as underdogs doing it, Arsenal became the latest side at the start of this season to adopt football’s trendiest tactic – that of “high intensity pressing.”
Enter the first game and a swirling cloud of red, snapping and snarling at the heels of each Everton player, giving them no time to rest, was a welcoming surprise from a jittery pre-season campaign trialing the same tactics. Somehow such usually difficult opponents were swatted away with great ease and efficiency also, and it was not just defensively Arsenal had found improvements on – the Gunners put six past Everton. Arsenal were voracious in attack, averaging around three goals per game and even though they leaked the odd goal, it seemed at last Arsène Wenger had found the right balance and the players were tactically maturing. But fast-forward to defeats at Barcelona, Tottenham and Wigan and that pressing system has started look fragmented, no less exposed by the Catalan side and their pressing standards.
Why Pressing is Important in the 4-3-3
As Barcelona have shown, pressing is as much an art to them as a through ball, with Pep Guardiola claiming that his side would not be as effective as they are were it not for the mechanism put in place of pressing the ball when it is lost. And after watching Barca’s dismantling of Arsenal in this year’s Champions League, many felt that that was the key difference between the two teams – that Barcelona had a more thorough defensive system in place to complement their attacking style. The need to press in either sides variant of 4-3-3 is a pertinent one as it allows allows the side to remain compact in a way not offered by most formations. Typical formations are more concerned with zones therefore when possession changes hands, they can more easily fall back into a defensive block to retain their shape and press within. “There is less high-intensity pressing from the front in advance areas (in top-level European football),” says Fulham boss Roy Hodgson. “This is partly because concern of the interpretation of the offside law has led to teams to play deeper. Sides are sill compact, but this is mainly in their own half of the pitch.” Teams who played a similar style – the Ajax sides of the late 60’s0/early 70’s, Dynamo Kyiv and Holland in ’74 – were able to do this because the interpretation of the offside law meant they could play in a small area of the pitch to squeeze the opponents.
The 4-3-3 deployed by Barcelona and Arsenal is unique in that, when in possession, in order to be dynamic in attack and offer more angles in the pass, the side is required to stretch play up the pitch. However that is also what makes it such a specialised formation in the modern game because the danger is, when you lose the ball, the distances between your players will be large and thus presents a great opportunity for opponents to exploit. Therefore, the need arises for the team to compress space and that is best served by pressing the opposition when the ball is lost. Which sounds simple enough, however, pressuring still requires a structure – a framework – which all players should be willing to conform to. And that, in essence, was the gulf in execution between Barcelona and Arsenal in both legs of the quarter-final.
A Matter of Distances
Much of Arsene Wenger’s talk early in the season was one of maintaining correct distances and indeed the different defensive assignments he gave to his players led him to label the formation as a 4-1-4-1. The midfield four behind Robin van Persie as it were, were to pressure along the same band as each other with Alex Song the self-titled stopper of counter attacks.
The auxiliary left central midfielder was to have a stabilizing role – one to cover for the left forward (who was usually Andrey Arshavin because of his tendency to drift infield) and the other, to drop slightly more deeper to help out Song.
That ploy would of course allow Cesc Fabregas to push further up the field and enable the captain to exert greater influence between the lines and pressure higher. However, slowly but surely, as Arsenal’s goals dried after van Persie’s injury, Fabregas was pushed closer to the main forward in order to create goals but rather than it multiplying his impact, it proceeded to inadvertently upset the balance of the side.
That problem was in part highlighted in the 2-1 defeat against FC Porto, where Swansea manager Paulo Sousa, commentating for ITV Sport, mentioned that Arsenal’s problem with pressing was in balancing their intensity. The gap between attack – the first line of pressure – and defence was too large and that made it a difficult transition from the attacking phase to the defensive phase. So if Tomas Rosicky, starting on the left in that game, pressured the right-back high up the pitch – of which he attempted on a number of occasions – his hard work would invariably fall flat as one pass could essentially free the defender from the Czech’s advances. And that made it all the more difficult for Rosicky to track back as the ball is hit forward quickly.
In truth, that was only half the story as Porto purposely made it difficult for Arsenal by looking to stretch the game as much as possible, defending very deep and stationing the three forwards in direct confrontation with the Gunners defenders at all times. Nevertheless the idea was to expose burgeoning problems in Arsenal’s defensive phase which, after a good start to the season, was feeling the strain of chasing silverware.
The Cesc Fabregas Question
Arsene Wenger once stated you are more worried about correcting the creative side of a team than the defensive balance and indeed as Arsenal’s attacking play started to become stale, Cesc Fabregas was pushed higher up the pitch. The game against Liverpool, following successive defeats to Chelsea and Manchester United, saw Arsenal attempt to revert to a more pragmatic approach to balance both sides and it proved successful. The full-backs got tighter to their opposing wingers and likewise the two central midfielders to their opposite numbers while Fabregas and Arshavin led the way in closing down aggressively high up the field. And just as that re-found stability looked set to reignite Arsenal’s title challenge, old habits soon kicked in.
The biggest problem is seemingly in the centre where teams, especially during December and January, where able to profit from the gaps in the centre. On paper, it looks like pushing Fabregas higher may have had an adverse impact on the balance. Yet, Barcelona, in their new variant of 4-3-3, whereby Guardiola has deployed Messi in an interior role similar to Fabregas indicates that is not necessarily the case. The difference comes in how rigidly Barcelona stick to their individual and collective assignments and press aggressively not just the ball carrier, but to eliminate all passing options completely. That means when the forward presses, he will continue all the way even if the ball is passed backwards while his team-mates back him up by looking to get tight and at times, get in front of potential passing options. That tactic may in part explain why opponents are not so willing to go direct as confidently against Barcelona and of which enables the Barca defenders to be more assured in taking the risk to push up. Because it is true that, if teams go direct more quickly, as Inter did in their 3-1 win, Barcelona can be exposed from the ball over the top. Indeed, Aston Villa, Burnley, Everton, Fulham and West Ham have displayed similar tactics against Arsenal, stopping the Gunners from passing the ball out from deep and profiting through gaps in the channels.
If one uses the example of Rafael Marquez in the second leg, four or five could go and press him as they did in Arsenal’s 4-1-4-1 in the defensive phase but that would surely result in inefficiency. It may theoretically claustrophobe the target but not necessarily stop him making a pass to an opponent were he was in space. So when Marquez had the ball, having the vision the Mexican has and the movement his teammate’s do, all it took was for Xavi or Buqsquets to drop into a pocket of space and an opportunity opened up. And on the occasions that one player did press Marquez, the others did not quite follow up and get tight on the potential passing options on offer. What that will inevitably lead to is inefficient pressing, which if not followed through correctly will become false pressing – which is not exactly pressing at all. The different defensive assignments Wenger has given to his players are there for a reason and are there to help balance the side defensively – the 4-3-3 can feel like chain reactions and one player’s movement can impact on the effectiveness of another. Simon Kuper, writing for the Financial Times, wrote of how Bayern Munich’s strikers, under Louis Van Gaal, “harries their defenders, not in order to win the ball but to pressure a pass to central midfield, where Bayern will win it.”
It is an area Arsenal must improve upon otherwise repeats of how Denilson was exposed in the centre during the 3-1 defeat to Manchester United are likely occur again. It seems at the moment, the Brazilian is stuck in transition of which system of marking to follow – zonal, man-marking or neither. Gael Clichy’s indifferent early form goes some way to suggest this is also indicative of more than one of his team-mates. “With 4-3-3 it’s all about choosing when to go and when to stay rather than just going for the sake of it,” says the left-back.
In that respect, Alex Song has been a vital cog in Arsenal’s pressing system as he has looked the one who has most benefited from closing down early. His presence in the middle often results in a better team performance for the Gunners and allows Arsenal to win the ball back quickly. Robin van Persie is also arguably a better presser of the ball than Nicklas Bendtner but it also must be stressed the importance of the role the Dane played early in the season on the right hand side of the attacking trident. That Nasri and Rosicky have had more game time later on in the season in wide areas may have also had an adverse effect on the pressing game as their tendencies are not so forward thinking and quite lackadaisical. Arsenal have also been bad starters of games, only scoring twice in the league in the opening fifteen minutes which can again explain that Arsenal need time to adjust to the distances.
Pressing however, is best realised by a good attacking game, and that Arsenal have not been as dynamic in attacking in the second part, nor as obsessive in possession of the season has probably undermined their confidence in pressing the ball high up. Nevertheless, as a team collective, there is no doubt that the pressing game has been for the better for Arsenal and with the players maturing each time. They have less been exposed on the break as previous seasons and the strain their expansive style causes on the back is not as apparent. Thomas Vermaelen has improved Arsenal’s winning back of the ball and that Arsenal are the best utilisers of the offside trap indicates an effective back line which only needs greater synchronicity with the midfield. “I think we all want to get the ball back very quickly,” explains Bakary Sagna. ”Everyone is defending quicker and the forwards are doing more. It helps us play as a team. We worked a lot on this in pre-season because we changed the formation and we have to keep working on it.”