Arsenal scored three goals in the last 15 minutes to defeat Stoke City. That it proved such a long time coming owed more to Arsenal’s insipid build up play than inspired Stoke defending. Granted, Stoke were disciplined and tenacious; their broadly man-marking approach stifled Arsenal’s free-form style, as moves frequently broke down.
Arsene Wenger was willing to attribute that to Arsenal, in the first-half, lacking “urgency, pace, drive. In the second half, we rectified that.” Delving deeper into the reasons for the improvement, he said there was some tweaks made in the second-half, though “it was not so much about football, more mental. We broke up two weeks ago, came back, switched off…”
Indeed, looking back at the game, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the tactical tweaks were. If anything, it seemed as if he left it on the players to take it upon themselves – namely Mesut Ozil – to grab hold of the game and exert more influence. How Ozil did that can be displayed by his two pass maps from either half. As you can see below, in the first-period, Ozil’s main involvements were nominally down the right. Starting from an inside-right position, he struggled to get hold of the ball, as he was being marked tightly by the Stoke left wing-back, Eric Pieters. As such, he was often forced to come deep for the ball, which is not discouraged in Arsenal’s system, but Stoke, using a 3-4-3 system, were able to pass him on to the left winger, Ramadan Sobhi, who was able to tuck in as Hector Bellerin was left isolated, or one of the central midfielders as Stoke pushed up the pitch.
Mesut Ozil, however, has the keys to the Emirates, and in the second-half, was basically allowed to roam all the way to the left flank and stay there. He did that anyway in parts of the first-half, playing give and gos, and then drifting to the other side, looking for that killer space, but in the second period it was more permanent. Indeed, it’s a tactic Arsenal have used at various games this season, hoping either Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere – the free midfielder in the system – to occupy Ozil’s position, or use it as a ploy to work the ball left-to-right*, and get Bellerin free.
In the 2-1 second-leg Carabao Cup win over Chelsea, Wenger tweaked his system in the second-half to allow Ozil to played more centrally, and it was Granit Xhaka moving into his position on the right, who scored the winner.
Back the game really revolved around the positioning of Ozil. Wenger gave him almost complete license to roam across the pitch, but initially, in the 4-3-3, he was too far across from the right side, and Arsenal struggled to play out effectively. pic.twitter.com/7MMZMWGKo8
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) January 25, 2018
In the 2-2 league draw against Chelsea, however, it worked less well, with Ozil’s switch to the right coinciding with a drop off in performance from Arsenal. (Similarly, I also tweeted in periods in the 3-1 win against Milan, Ozil moving from right to left affected Arsenal’s build-up adversely).
Arsenal used that space better, with Mesut Ozil, on the left-hand side, brilliantly taking advantage of Bakayoko’s tendency to push up and leave room behind. Inexplicably, however, when 1-0 up, Arsenal seemed to lose grip on the game once he moved towards to the right, pic.twitter.com/YFdR9ITldz
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) January 4, 2018
Wenger deployed something vaguely similar in the 1-0 win over Newcastle in December, using Ozil in a deeper role therefore allowing Alex Iwobi to take up his position at no.10. “He links up the play,” Wenger said after the game. “When you have problems to build up the game, he comes a bit deeper and Iwobi goes a bit in his position. So overall, we still have a good occupation of the pitch and we know as well that the passing starts well.”
By this point, with Alexis Sanchez looking likely to be leaving the club, Wenger had already made a conscious decision to hand the freedom of the Emirates to Ozil, saying: “I think he takes responsibility and that’s what you want from him. He is more mature, he guides the team very well, he does a lot on the ball and your heart rate always goes down when he has the ball.”
It’s no surprise then, the game against Stoke turned when Ozil decided to drive the team forward by just doing what he wants. It took a good ten minutes, however, for him to decide that attacking from the left would prove more fruitful, and it was his drive into the box that won the first penalty. Of course, the second-goal came from his corner-kick, which was a result of his saved shot.
Before then, however, the warning signs were there that he was beginning to turn the screws, especially when he played a sumptuous through-ball to Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang. Maybe that was part of the reason for his improvement and the decision to move to the left; because there were more options on the left (Bellerin is always isolated), better players even (note how he would often naturally gravitate towards the left when Alexis was there) or that the angle to attack was better (he could face play now, and not constantly be marked when he moved inside to his left foot, whilst he often had his back to play in the first-half).
*At the start of the season, Arsenal went the other way for better effect, from right to left, especially against Swansea, switching the build-up to Kolasinac.
Blocking the centre and ceding the flanks is not a problem for Arsenal. They like to play side-to-side, and then make the switch. https://t.co/3fYDd2wtfm
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) October 29, 2017
In the end, Arsenal were indebted to Mesut Ozil, but that cannot be considered a sustainable strategy. There needs to be a greater focus on the positional play from the other top coaches in the league that has seen, not Wenger’s tactics become outdated as such, but overtaken.
He relies on a sort of locational play as I’ve seen someone call it, with the 4-2-3-1 as the template, but through guided habits and one-twos and wall-passes as the trigger to up the tempo. It works because he generally tends to pack the side with ball-players – more so this season to the detriment of 1v1 ability – who just know where to move. They can play in short spaces and bump passes off each other such that it alleviates any positional deficiencies Arsenal have. But this relies on Arsenal having good days, and for the most part, against Stoke, it didn’t work.
The free-form structure meant Arsenal’s play was naturally funnelled into central areas as players overlapped and swapped positions, but that’s also where Stoke found it easiest to man-mark. If Arsenal wanted to drag Stoke out of position, they needed to use width better, and create holes where the players followed them. Of course, it took a long while, and Ozil, realising that opening the pitch up might have meant moving to the other touchline, did that.
Mustafi playing risky game
I took some stick tweeting that Shkodran Mustafi had a good first-half because he made some absolutely vital tackles. That anxiety that spread because of Arsenal’s erratic display meant that his good work – or anyone’s for that matter – was overlooked. And Mustafi normally compounds that nervy feeling because he defends on both spectrums of daring and stupidity at the same time. However, he made three tackles in the first-half that denied Stoke in very promising positions, coming after Arsenal gave the ball away. (Though below I replicate only two of them, and one from the second-half).
When you watch Mustafi you get the feeling he gets such a rush from charging out and winning the ball that it’s almost a game-within-a-game that he is playing. But, as I’ve written for Arseblog in the pass, Arsenal’s defensive system relies on risk. Impetuous is encouraged rather than tempered. That’s because Arsene Wenger knows Arsenal’s openness can put the team in uncompromising situations. He says he’s willing to accept that risk to arm Arsenal’s offensive game. That might make Mustafi look stupid at times – and indeed, he doesn’t help himself – but Wenger knows his defenders’ value if they can step out and stop attacks quickly.