How Arsenal have been shaping up for 2011/12

Midfield rotation

With all the talk of Arsenal’s pre-season performances centring around defensive meltdown, it’s arguable (and we will argue that in our next article this week) that replacing Cesc Fábregas – or at least replicating his creativity – will be Arsenal’s main concern this impending season. Frustratingly for us tactical anoraks and dissectors, he hasn’t played a single minute in pre-season which means any tactical conclusions that are to made — if Cesc Fábregas stays of course — will be treading on the hypothetical.

In the friendlies this summer, Samir Nasri and Aaron Ramsey have exclusively played in the playmaker role but to mixed success. While Ramsey has shown the positives and freshness he can bring to the team, Samir Nasri has frankly been disappointing. He is supposedly the heir apparent to the more commonly known “Fábregas-role” but he has shown a underwhelming lack of football application recently, which his national team coach, Laurent Blanc, alluded to: “I hope that Samir, whether he stays with Arsenal or not, will play well for France, which was not the case in the last three matches.”

It seems to be that Nasri has resorted back to the same mannerisms that made him a fledgling talent instead of the match winner he was becoming halfway through last season. Arséne Wenger once said Nasri “was a bit too much attracted to the ball” and his displays in pre-season seem to have gone down that route against. Against Hangzhou Greentown in particularly, he tended to drift and follow the ball when he would be more useful looking to get into space. His other weakness is that his passing is not as penetrative as Fábregas’ but in pre-season, he either attempted too many or was not assertive enough. It’s a far cry from the start 2010/11 where he looked like the obvious successor to Fábregas —  there is, of course, time riddle out these inaccuracies because there is too much talent in Nasri — but he has since been usurped by Aaron Ramsey.

Ramsey is not a typical No.10; he prefers to pick up possession from deep rather than operate in the gap between midfield and attack but thus far, he has created a good chemistry with his two central midfield partners. If he drops back to pick up possession, it opens up space for one of his midfield partners to stride further forward. In the Emirates Cup it was mainly Tomas Rosicky although Jack Wilshere has looked threatening when using his drive further up field. What this tends to mean is the formation, rather than the 4-2-3-1 it is when Fábregas plays, looks more like a 4-1-4-1 with two midfielders either side of Alex Song. Indeed, some of Arsenal’s most cohesive performances last season came when Cesc Fábregas attempted to make a midfield three thus allowing one of his partners to push forward. It was frustrating not to see the Arsenal captain take part against Benfica because it would have then helped to see if this was a purposeful ploy from Wenger to encourage greater rotation between the midfield. As it is, we can perhaps pass it off as part of Ramsey’s natrualistic tendencies to want to play with the game in front of him although Neil Banfield, Arsenal’s reserve coach, gives the greatest insight into the Gunners’ tactics for this season after Arsenal XI’s 3-0 win over Woking. “[Tactically] we are working a lot on winning the ball back fairly quickly,” he said. “Getting our shape and quick rotation from midfield so there is quite a lot we’re looking for this season.”

Of course, the other advantage to Ramsey dropping back to pick up position is that it creates a natural vantage point to spray passes to the wide forwards of which is to become a key feature of Arsenal’s play in 2011/12.

<Figure 1> As happened against Benfica, the opposition when facing Arsenal, tend to press down the middle and get tight, stopping Arsenal from passing the ball out from the back. In the defeat, Alex Song tried to evade the attentions of his marker by moving left and right, opening up space for Aaron Ramsey to pick up the ball. This in turn allows Jack Wilshere to push forward into the No.10 role Ramsey may have started in and gives Arsenal an ambiguity which is harder to defend.

Strikers on the wings

In the matches Arsenal played at the Emirates Cup, they have tended to play with at least one striker on the flanks. That, at least, may have been forced upon Wenger as in the early games in the summer, he had Ryo Miyaichi and Theo Walcott to call upon — at the Emirates both were injured — while Arsenal’s forward players tend to be versatile anyway. What this resulted in, in the two matches against Boca Juniors and then New York Red Bulls, was a narrower attack but more men in the box as essentially Arsenal used three strikers. Against New York Red Bulls, the trio were Benik Afobe, Robin van Persie and Gervinho. And certainly, with van Persie tending to drop deep to pick up the ball, it opens up space for one of those strikers to occupy his position.

It maintains to be seen how this tactic will develop if Nasri goes back to the right or when Walcott and Andrey Arshavin come in. Wenger has tended to balance out the wings with one creative player –sometimes referred to as a “half-winger” — and a more dynamic winger the other side. His options next season seem less varied; if Nasri departs it only leaves Arshavin as a player vaguely described a creative winger while Tomas Rosicky will probably more time in the centre. There was plenty of interchange in pre-season, Gervinho particularly impressing and making sure he was always available. He’s the type of player, like van Persie, Song or Fábregas, that make the system who, when missing are evidently missed. Utilising the space behind the opposition through diagonals will be key, especially as space is already a premium whoever Arsenal are up against and Gervinho does that particularly well. His drive tended to lift the pessimistic atmosphere at the Emirates and is always deadly on the counter-attack.

<Figure 2> Arsenal faced a packed defence against New York Red Bulls with space at a premium. Arsenal struggled as the game wore on as their opponent camped more and more deeper but they still had good chances in the first-half to score. Aaron Ramsey getting behind was a key feature but as much was the wide men who constantly looked to profit in the spaces that Robin van Persie left behind when he dropped short. As a consequence the attack narrowed but Arsenal had more men to target in the box. Maybe Wenger got some of his inspiration from Barcelona who tend to flit in and out of a narrow and stretched front line and the wide forwards looking to get beyond Messi is a key feature.

Set-piece configurations

Arsenal’s woes from set-plays have been well documented. The most widely agreed solution is that Arsenal need a more dominant defender to slot in alongside Thomas Vermaelen and while that may be the case, Wenger is of the solution there is a more deep rooted problem than that. Of the 42 goals The Gunners conceded last season, 22 came from set-pieces but further delving into that statistic reveals only six came from corner kicks; the rest from free-kicks. That seems to suggest Wenger’s assertion that it is as much, a concentration and anticipation issue, as free-kicks whipped tend to be more varied and can cause confuse the defence as they are often back-tracking. Picking up your man in a man-marking system then becomes a bit of a muddle so it may be better to do away with the needless jostling for space and concentrate on what matters most: winning the ball. A zonal-marking system has now been deployed although we haven’t been able to fully examine it beyond corner kicks (although the goal conceded against Greentwon Hangzhou suggests a mixture, predominantly man-marking is used at free-kicks).

<Figure 3> The zonal-marking system displayed is a change from last season whereby Arsenal used a mixture of both although it was pre-dominantly man-marking. There is a curved line of six defenders at the edge of the six yard box, containing Arsenal’s best headers of the ball with the striker at the near post. Time will tell how the new layout will work as Premier League teams generally put pressure on the goalkeeper. (In this picture, the New York attacker is doing the same). It’s the same structure many teams who play a zonal-marking system use and it might be notable to say that the “Famous Four” under Geroge Graham also used zonal-marking.

Relaxed pressing

Arsenal’s pressing was also more relaxed. In this picture below, you can see Arsenal are more cautious, generally pressing more intensely if the ball gets into their own half or when they trap a defender. Last pre-season, Arsenal were practising an aggressive but structured pressing system but seem to have abandoned that. The structure is still there using the principles of through-marking but the intensity has been reigned in.

Kieran Gibbs adds a new dimension

Gael Clichy’s performances last season, while not the disaster some fans have made out, didn’t really rise above the average. Defensively he was generally solid and particular when Arsenal pressed, he was magnificent but he tended to handle pressure badly and suffered from a lack of concentration which sometimes led to him giving away dangerous opportunities. In attack he was not very effective – which was understandable given that he was forced to play cautiously as he wasn’t afforded the same protection as Bakary Sagna on the other side. (Sagna had the added bonus of having Alex Song in front of him in the double pivot as opposed to Clichy with Jack Wilshere).

It maintains to be seen just what Kieran Gibbs will bring defensively although he does look very comfortable if a bit carefree but he should make a huge difference to the attack. Already in the warm-up games he was very influential, getting into the box frequently and making dangerous runs and importantly, he crossed in for Robin van Persie in the 2-1 defeat to Benfica. A less talked about contribution he may bring is his ability to break down deep-lying defences as is often the case for Arsenal. Full-backs are generally the only players “free” on the pitch although against Arsenal that’s not always the case. Nevertheless, his bursts down the left can leave the defence unaware and he does have a dynamism about him which is hard to counter-act.

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