“We are so unpredictable in what we are doing; even for me at the back sometimes it looks a bit weird! Sometimes we lose balance but sometimes it is really good so we have to keep going and focus on our game, especially defensively.” ~ Per Mertesacker
I’ve been trying to figure out Arsenal for a while now. Despite my twenty-two year association with the club (that is, the first game I recall watching them in – Cup Winners Cup in ’95), the last ten years have left me most perplexed. It’s not the lack of titles; I’ve come to terms with the mitigating circumstances following the move to the Emirates and subsequently, the wizardry to keep Arsenal competitive that Arsene Wenger has performed. But rather, it’s the playing style which, despite adding back-to-back FA Cups in the last two seasons, Wenger has had to be innovative – unorthodox actually – to keep Arsenal playing the same way that won trophies in his early years, and to challenge more convincingly.
I often hark back to the above quote from Per Mertesacker to assure me that even those in the best positions can find what happens on the pitch sometimes confusing. At this point, I realise that the answer lies in a case study of Arsene Wenger but he places such an unerring faith in autonomy and freedom of expression on the pitch such that nuances of the team’s tactics are as much a product of symbiosis as it is moulded by hand.
That’s evident by the rapid progression of Hector Bellerin from reserve-squad to starter, or Francis Coquelin, who has shaped Arsenal’s tactics the moment he stepped into the first-team last December. It’s a progression which has been a joy to watch and indeed, it’s not usually this discernible to see a footballer grow as we have witnessed with Coquelin, gaining more confidence game-by-game, becoming “more available” as Wenger says, “and [available] more quickly when our defenders have the ball. He blossoms well.” You can say the same thing about Nacho Monreal, where confidence has shaped him such that he seems unflappable at the moment but, because he started his Arsenal career so well but had a blip in between, we already knew his quality. Plus at that time, he played alongside Thomas Vermaelen so it’s understandable.
Coquelin’s injury has had people trying to work out ways to replace him without upsetting the balance of the side too much. However, an analysis by Chad Murphy, a professor of political science, deduces that Coquelin is near impossible to replace like-for-like because the actions he performs are commonly shared by wingers, not defensive midfielders. He’s a unique player, somebody who passes fairly infrequently considering the position he plays but is actually very press resistant because his dribbling out of tight areas is so good. Yet, therein lies Arsenal’s problems, and why Coquelin’s absence will be hard-felt, because Arsene Wenger has built a system reliant on the characteristics of certain key players – not necessarily robust concepts. And generally, once he finds a system that wins, he grinds it to the ground such that any slight change to that formula can cause Arsenal to stutter – until of course, somebody else makes their relative mark on the team.
Mathieu Flamini is the present incumbent of the holding midfield role and in the 1-1 draw against Norwich City; we got a glimpse of just what he can offer to the team in what is probably the twilight of his Arsenal career. Ironically, just as he was looking to make his stamp on team, The Gunners lost two key players to injury, adding to the uncertainty we’re likely to get in the coming weeks. Those losses proved telling, particularly when you focus on the passivity Arsenal displayed for Norwich’s equaliser. Because the thing with Arsenal’s defending, and probably what is the nezt step for Murphy’s analysis, is that it’s reliant on speed – or what Manuel Pellegrini describes as “defending with pace”.
Wenger teams have always been distinguished by this trait but usually when going forward; for this team, it’s probably more a hallmark going backwards, in terms of how quick the defenders recover (and the back-four, apart from Mertesacker are rapid) and the distances they cover when the team loses the ball. In that regard, the two key players are Laurent Koscielny, who departed the game early with a groin injury, and Coquelin of course. They tend to bail Arsenal out a lot of times from average defending situations frankly, by being aggressive, winning the ball back quickly and playing on the front foot. That’s what Flamini tried to replicate in midfield but what Gabriel failed (though he tends to be good at that kind of reading of play) with the missed interception before Lewis Grabban finished for Norwich .
Overall, The Gunners weren’t unduly threatened but there is a sort-of half-hearted press that they use even against the weaker opponents that puts them in situations where they invite teams at them. I would describe it as a 4-4-2 shape for the most parts with Ozil dropping off once the ball is played behind him. (That ambiguity – is Ozil a striker or a midfielder in the press? – sometimes puts Arsenal into trouble). It’s sort of a zonal-man-marking system where the team moves left and right, and backwards and forwards as a unit but when the ball enters a respective player’s zone, they look to aggressively man-mark that player. Certain players might have more freedom of how aggressively they close down an opponent such as Ramsey or Mertesacker who tend to push out, and sometimes abandon the shape in an attempt to win the ball back quickly – see video below.
An example of Arsenal’s defensive shape, pressing v Lyon (Emirates Cup) pic.twitter.com/2neUxbvavb
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) August 3, 2015
For much of the game, though, it must be noted that Arsenal were very comfortable. It was after Alexis departed through injury, however, that the team lost a little spark and that is worrying because he is one of two players that push defenders backwards (the other being Theo Walcott), and also, the partnership between him and Ozil generates much of Arsenal’s attacking thrust. Arsenal tend to slant their play towards the left-side, with Alexis stepping five or six yards infield and Ozil floating wide to create overloads. Against Norwich, Monreal was also an important figure going forward, and again, it’s the understanding he has with Alexis that has become a key part of Arsenal’s game. Indeed, both full-backs actually got forward a lot in the match and that was facilitated by a subtle change to Arsenal’s build-up play from the back.
Again it involved Flamini, who tended to drift to the flanks to support the full-backs in possession, thus liberating them going forward. Whether this was accidental or not, it’s hard to say, but Flamini specialises in this kind of movement when Arsenal have the ball at the back. Certainly, it falls in line with Arsene Wenger’s strategy of using the ball-winning midfielder as a decoy, dragging opposition midfielders away with him, to create space for the centre-backs to pass through the midfield to either one of the attacking players or Cazorla who drops deep. This tactic tends to be used against teams who don’t press and indeed, Norwich camped 10 players behind the ball for the majority of the game. The intention is that then, it lures those teams to commit one or two players to the press – going against their gameplan really – so that Arsenal have a bit more space in the middle. Norwich didn’t really budge so Arsenal decided to use the sides of the pitch more in a bid to stretch their opponents. In the example below, you can see Flamini urging Monreal forward as Norwich narrow and Arsenal nearly score.
Watch Flamini at the bottom left corner. This is what Arsenal do when teams don’t press; split the CMs sideways pic.twitter.com/5v6CO4TTH4
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) November 30, 2015
I find it oddly fascinating to watch this tactic because it goes against the textbook which is to ask one of the deep midfielders to drop in between the two centre-backs to stretch the play. With Arsenal generally resisting the urge to do that, it creates a game-within-a-game, with the midfielders battling with opposition midfielders off-the-ball to follow them. People argue that against the top teams that press, Arsenal would be found out. That hasn’t really been tested because when Arsenal play those teams, they tend to drop off themselves thus playing mainly on the counter-attack. The one time it did work was against Manchester United, when Arsenal blitzed them in the first half-hour, using their ambiguous midfield positioning to confuse United’s marking scheme and Cazorla tending to drop-off in between the centre-backs to pick up the ball. Indeed, his importance in the build-up must be stressed because Wenger calls him the “guide”, because he directs Arsenal’s play from the back rather than dictates, and the team-mates know when they pass it to him, he can get them out of trouble because of his quick-dribbling. That’s one of the reasons why Coquelin will be sorely missed, as together the pair created a unique partnership in the heart of the midfield. Hopefully now, Arsenal can find a different balance.