In the end there were two Arsenals: the one from North London and the one from the westernmost region of Germany. Both teams tried to play the same way but for a long time last night, Borussia Dortmund out-Arsenaled The Gunners and did everything the way they would have wanted to. In the end, Arsenal will be content with the draw although it leaves with a bit of a sour taste due to the way it came; Ivan Perišić’s wonder goal from the edge of the box came on the 88th minute. For Dortmund though, it was a spectacular way to mark their return to the biggest stage but it was the way they played, that ensured that their return is warranted.
Jurgen Klopp’s side outclassed Arsenal but for profligacy in front of goal, we could have seen a different result. For much of the match they had The Gunners boxed inside – partly due to the way Arsenal were set up – but also because of asphyxiating pressure they put them under. Dortmund pressed – very hard – and it seemingly looked as if they wouldn’t let up. Indeed, they couldn’t because their game plan hinged on stopping Arsenal getting forward so that they themselves could spend as much time in the opponents half as much as possible. When it didn’t pay off – such as a spell of ten minutes in the second-half and around an hour or so – they panicked. But other than that, Dortmund were superb.
They pressed high up the pitch, never letting the defence play the ball out from the back and quickly putting pressure on Arsenal’s sole holding midfielder, Alex Song. They created a line when they didn’t have the ball and that made it hard for Arsenal to pass through. It was particularly effective when it got wide as they suffocated Bakary Sagna for space and closed down his passing options. At full-back, there’s a limited number of passing options you can make as the square ball to your stronger side is effectively null (because of the touchline). And whenever they got the ball, the movement was intelligent and incisive, Mario Gotze in particular was a handful, drifting in from the left but the real plus was the return in form of Shinji Kagawa who ran the channels very well as the “false 10”.
Arsenal’s problems, however, were as much self-inflicted as Dortmund’s mechanical pressing forced them. They played a high-line which BVB constantly sought to get men beyond but it was a lack of cohesion in front that was the real cause of the trouble. Arsenal’s 4-3-3 isn’t the real problem although in this game, there were valid assertions that they should have gone with a 4-2-3-1. Perhaps an available Arséne Wenger in the dugouts would have altered the team as he did in the second-half against Swansea. But the overriding flaw in Arsenal’s game is that it just doesn’t work – you can’t not press and play a high line at the same time – and for that you can accuse Wenger of tactical naivety. Maybe it’s just that; that he’s trying to account for his team’s youthfulness that sees him focusing firstly on shape before they press but that merely invites the opposition at them.
At Signal Iduna Park, Arsenal allowed Dortmund to stride forward with ball from the back and as the midfield attempted to organise itself in their own half, the back four pushed up at the same time. As a result, the two nearly collapsed on top of each other to become one indistinguishable band.Dortmund pushed their full-backs further up the pitch penning Arsenal in their own half and that meant the formation almost became a 7-3. As it showed; you can’t not press and play a high a line at the same time; they’re two incompatible beings.Dortmund showed how it should have been done, pushing the excellent Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic forward and the midfield and attack pressing high up the pitch as a unit. Sebastian Kehl’s error for Arsenal’s goal showed the risks an expansive game has as ironically, it was one of the few times Arsenal closed down high up the pitch that the opener came from. Theo Walcott’s pass to find Robin van Persie after a neat interchange was wonderfully weighted.
That was one of the few good moments from Arsenal and considering the pressure they were put under, they defended with their backs-to-the-wall superbly. And at periods their passing was snappy and direct but that was mixed with some woefully inaccurate ones too. Strong individual performances go to Laurent Koscielny and Song who recovered from nervy starts while Mikel Arteta showed the assurance Arsenal need technically as well as tactically even if it wasn’t the dominant performance he was signed for.
However, despite the nature of the performance and the end result, the fact that a second anxious game in a row didn’t result in a defeat will see Arsenal’s confidence grow. If that keeps happening, Arsenal will surely recover their former glories. And who knows, maybe then they will reach the level that Borussia Dortmund showed in UEFA Champions League Match Day 1!
Dortmund press Arsenal’s full-backs and the problem with Wenger’s defensive strategy
Pat Rice cannot wait for the return of Arséne Wenger to the dugouts – the manager still has one game remaining in his touchline ban from UEFA – and it’s easy to see why having put through a stern examination of his coaching credentials that he didn’t want. While against Udinese the comfort of the early goal dictated the encounter, he got no such assistance away to Borussia Dortmund as Jürgen Klopp sought to impose his style as quickly as possible. And they did, creating an overwhelming swirl of yellow and black around Arsenal in possession. It was a strategy that earned them many plaudits last season and while they haven’t made the best of starts this year, they aimed to put that right against Arsenal, the team that in the past, have been the model of the tireless, high-intensity and rapid passing game they displayed on Match Day 1.
The players were turbo-charged from the off; indeed the popular image of Borussia Dortmund today is that of the “Duracell Bunny”, the wind-up rabbits that front the promotion of the battery manufacturer’s products and Dortmund certainly lived up to their metaphor. They hounded Arsenal on the ball at the back so much so you could see the gears in The Gunners mechanics clicking and stuttering into place, trying to find a solution. Should the midfielders drop back or push forward to counter/negate the press? Or should the centre-backs risk Arsenal’s philosophical game and pass the ball long? Because, as magnificently as Dortmund did press, it’s been a ongoing problem that Arsenal have had to contend with.
Tuesday night’s troubles were indicated in pre-season when SL Benfica did well to stop Arsenal playing in part although The Gunners reacted well when Alex Song tried to evade the attentions of his marker by moving left and right, allowing his partners to pick the ball from deep instead. Unfortunately Arsenal didn’t do that enough at Signal Iduna Park, with Mikel Arteta only receiving 23 passes. Contrast that to Song, Arsenal’s main outlet from deep, who received 33 passes. Arséne Wenger’s answer usually is to push his midfielders up the pitch when opponents close down but that was similarly problematic as all it did was lessen the options the defenders can pass to so they were forced to pass it amongst each.
“The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”
Dortmund know Arsenal won’t play very long; indeed, perhaps therein lied another issue. The Gunners stretch the play length-wise, up the pitch but don’t laterally. We know how Barcelona stretch their two centre-backs across the pitch at the start of attacks so that it increases the distance that the opponents can get compact. As a result, a midfielder can then drop in as they’ll have more space now. Manchester United did that well against Benfica last night and the fact that their play is naturally wide made it difficult for the Portuguese side to squeeze the play.
Pressing of full-backs
With all the talk about how well Dortmund played, Arsenal actually had more possession in the first-half. The selection, Benayoun ahead of Frimpong suggested Wenger would try and dominate through possession. Klopp realised this too so he set up his side to work very hard off the ball and when they got it, work the channels to try and get in behind. In fact, Dortmund were content with letting Arsenal’s centre-backs pass the ball, especially Per Mertasacker, who they thought may have more chance fumbling with time on his hands while the more competent passer, Laurent Koscielny was afforded less due to Mario Götze’s tendencies to drift in. As a result, there was a slant towards the left-hand side and Bakary Sagna, the right back, found it was him who was put under the most pressure.
Dortmund’s pressing usually starts when the ball moves towards midfield or out-wide to the full-backs although the two forwards created an initial barrier that stops the easy pass going through. BVB did this very well, creating a line and getting tight when the centre-backs had the ball but when the ball reached the full-backs, ramped up their efforts to close down thus making it hard to start moves off. And certainly, with the success that they had, you wonder why more teams don’t do the same particularly because of the way the game has developed, the full-back has most time on the ball and often start moves off. At the end of the game, both Sagna and Kieran Gibbs made the most passes for Arsenal but by denying them time on the ball, they were unable to influence and spread play wide effectively – their main avenue of attack this season. (Alan McInally, co-commentating for Sky, observed how often Arsenal were forced to play the ball back to their defenders).
<Figure 1> Bakary Sagna was targeted by Dortmud’s pressing, particlarly early on. Whenever the ball reached the wide areas, he was instantly surrounded and making it difficult to find a pass through. The tactic was very effective in the first-half when Arsenal tried to get on the offensive so much so, it’s a wonderment more teams don’t do it more often. Full-backs have such a prominent role in a building attacks and the fact that they stopped him getting forward, affected Arsenal’s game. The knock on feature in pressing a full-back is that it then limits the angles he can pass the ball. Here, Sagna is not offered a 360 degree vision as the side to his stronger foot is closed off due to the touchline. He is thus compelled to pass it back or to the congested centre or else, to try and find a way past Grosskreutz who gets tight.
Arsenal’s (lack of) pressing invites Dortmund forward
It’d be unfair not to praise the way Arsenal defended (not to mention seriously questioning the partisanship of this blog!) because it was an atypically resilient performance with their backs-to-the-wall. Alex Song, in particular, was magnificent in front of the defence although it was he who also had the feel the full brunt of Dortmund’s high-tempo strategy. However, Arsenal’s problems were as much self-inflicted as they were thrust upon them because they simply invited the opposition at them. BVB had three good chances to score in the opening twenty minutes, exposing the kinds of weaknesses that were displayed in the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United. That it nearly happened again shows that there is a serious flaw in Wenger’s defensive strategy and cannot all be excused by unfamiliarity between the players.
Arsenal’s defensive line was all over the place but the real trouble stemmed from the non-existence of a pressing game high up the pitch. If the back four want to push up then the midfield must do so in accordance. However, Arsenal tend to sit off in their own half and that just invites the opponents at them and more crucially, the chance to spring the offside trap. As the game wore on, the midfield dropped even deeper so the chance to get behind was limited but the lack of pressing was still shown by the level of last ditch defending they did; Dortmund had 22 shots in all, 16 in the second-half and half of those were blocked efforts.
Arsenal, with the best defence in open play last season, were not in need of such a drastic overhaul to their pressing and ironically, it was when they did press up the pitch that they created the goal. They say from up the stands you can analyse the action better and you’d hope Wenger, watching from the perfect vantage point, can learn from the side he says pressed the best he’s seen this week and make the changes the side desperately needs.
<Figure 2> The lack of synchronicity between the instructions of the defenders and the midfielders is shown. While the back-four push up to play a high line, the midfield doesn’t follow suit. In fact, they are more concerned with shape – which is all well and good – but by not getting tight, they are essentially allowing the opposition at them. This makes it ripe for Dortmund to attempt the ball over because they are not under pressure to make the pass. At times on Tuesday night, the two conflicting strategies meant the positions collapsing on each other as the midfield dropped deep in their own half, pressing too late and the back-four pushing up. In the second-half, particularly that was the case as Arsenal were unable to get out of their own half.