Few teams have such an idealogical slant as Arséne Wenger’s Arsenal. In a video commemorating the Club’s 125th anniversary, the official website implores fans to explore the “passion, visionary philosophy and belief in youth that the Club inspires.” And certainly, Gus Hiddink believes that Arsenal are still one of the best sides in the world, less perhaps because of their reliance on youth, but mainly due to the attacking way they play football. “It’s true that, today, Barcelona leads the way — as Arsenal has done in the past,” he said in Issue Zero of The Blizzard. “And, in my opinion, still does, even if things haven’t worked their way in the Champions League so far.” However, that was five months ago, before Arsenal’s season imploded in their face like a birthday cake from Sue Sylvester.
Since then, Arsenal have sold off their most distinctive player, Cesc Fábregas. He was the one who was the most synonymous with their style and one who validated their game. Wenger built a system around him to get the best out of his ability to find team-mates that no-one could. Samir Nasri is set to follow and it seems that ideological slant is about to deviate somewhat, focusing less on the tippy-tappy concentrating more on the dynamic.
Arséne Wenger has recast his side following the departure of his captain. They are less focused on possession although it remains a key part to their strengths. However, Wenger’s aims this season are primarily to get the ball forward quickly and pass it with speed. It translates to a more direct approach; in the two games this season against Newcastle and Udinese, Arsenal essentially played with three strikers. Robin van Persie was backed up by Gervinho and Arshavin either side of him in a 4-3-3 formation in the first game and Marouanne Chamakh lined up alongside Theo Walcott and Gervinho at home to Udinese. The result was less passing through the middle and more focus on wing-play. Of course, the upshot of that is that Arsenal’s passing becomes less accurate as shown by the statistics against Udinese. UEFA.com list that The Gunners attempted a total of 546 passes, however, only 69% reached their target; way below their average of around 80%. They also made more fouls than Udinese and took less shots indicating that there may be an ugliness about Arsenal’s play this season.
On the other hand, they were markedly more accurate with the ball against Newcastle but as was often the case last season, they had trouble breaking down the opposition defence. Without players like Fábregas, Samir Nasri and the injured Jack Wilshere, Arsenal not only lose some of their ability to retain possession but incisiveness too. At St. James Park, there was an evident split between midfield and attack highlighting the need for a link player but also the change in emphasis for Arsenal away from the middle and to the flanks.
In the last couple of seasons, 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 this season, though, seem less varied; if Nasri departs it only leaves Arshavin as a player vaguely described a creative winger while Tomas Rosicky will probably get more time in the centre. By playing “strikers on the wings”, Arsenal’s aim is to try and get those two wide forwards behind as quickly and often as possible in an attempt to break down typically obdurate defences they face. One goal thus far in 2011/12 perhaps indicates it is still very much a work in progress but again, for the tactic to work, it is very reliant on the central midfielders to link up the attack. At Newcastle, the distance between midfield and attack was often too large. Aaron Ramsey, playing the playmaker role, likes to drop deep to pick up possession but in doing so, somebody else must occupy the space that he leaves. Tomas Rosicky didn’t and it must be noted Jack Wilshere does this very well therefore the cohesiveness of the whole unit was a bit disjointed. On the plus side, however, the rotation between the three central midfielders does give Arsenal a lot of ambiguity and fluidity and perhaps one of the arguments against Arsenal with Fábregas, no matter how brilliant he was, was that the side were too reliant on him. Now, the three can alternate responsibility.
One of the key differences between the Newcastle and Udinese encounters was Arsenal’s possession and passing accuracy statistics. While The Gunners held the ball for longer in the league, that may be down to the cautiousness of Alan Pardew’s side and the superior tactical nous of the Italians who came to exploit any Arsenal weaknesses.
Possession, as I’ve argued many times, is a form of defence for Arsenal. Indeed, it is for any ball-hungry side. Against Newcastle, by keeping the effectively ball, Arsenal stifled any hint of ambition the Toon Army had. As a result, they looked more secure as a unit although to be fair on the defence, they have been supremely organised these last two games. Wenger, though, lamented the “speed of our passing” in the 0-0 draw as one of the reasons for failing to break Newcastle down so perhaps as a reaction, they tried to raise the intensity of their game against Udinese. They made a breathtaking start, taking the lead in three minutes, but a little concerning was that they never let up. If possession is as much a form of defence as it is attack, they were unable to take the sting from game by holding onto the ball. The fast-paced football inevitably impacted on their ability to keep it for prolonged periods and that always gave Udinese a chance on the break. Perhaps most culpable was Alex Song, who more than just being overly exposed and heavily dependent to maintain Arsenal’s shape, had a pass success of 63%.
The presence of a Wilshere or Fábregas may have helped Arsenal keep Udinese at bay by way of keep-ball and as it turned out, they finally realised the error of their ways and killed off the game in the last twenty minutes. The introduction of Emmanuel Frimpong in that period cannot be understated as he helped Arsenal maintain a 4-2-1-3 shape. Indeed, structure has always remained Arsenal’s biggest weakness as their over-attacking approach tends to require more resources to push forward, leaving gaps at the back and that’s why effective use of the ball is ever more important. It can suffocate teams up the pitch and deny them from springing a quick breakaway. On the other hand, being less reliant of possession does increase Arsenal’s counter-attacking potential and in the absence of so many key players against Liverpool, it may be Arsenal’s best outlet of scoring.
We can probably put down some of the indecision and inaccuracy to the newness of the team and the need to get used to each other. Indeed, one of the reasons Wenger so wants to keep Nasri is that there would be no need to adapt as an understanding is already in place. Nevertheless, if Wenger is hoping to get Arsenal to be more dynamic again, it would still need a heavy dose of technical accuracy therefore the return of Wilshere and possibly a new signing to augment the new approach, cannot come soon enough.