Tactically, it’s hard to underpin what exactly went wrong for Arsenal on their first fixture of the season beyond a bad day in the office. West Ham’s diamond formation should have suited them; with no coverage on the flanks, Arsenal could theoretically move the ball left and right until they found the moments of superiority that they usually do out wide i.e. 3v2s, 2v1s followed by a third man run. (Indeed, this is something that they did superbly in their 2-0 defeat of Liverpool in 2013 against a similar system). Instead, passes too frequently missed their target while off-the-ball, The Gunners looked lethargic in the press.
Arsene Wenger chose to put the bad performance down to nerves and certainly, the psychological factor cannot be overlooked. After the game he said: “I felt we were a bit nervous and we rushed our game a bit. We didn’t always respect the basics. We wanted to be too quick going forward in first half. I don’t think we were too confident, I would rather say too nervous maybe”. We know all about Arsene Wenger teams and their struggle to master their emotions. In more recent seasons, the issue has been against big teams where the players (and the manager) seem so anxious to make a statement, that when things are not going their way, they can “crack” –and badly – from which there is no fallback position. Paul Hayward of The Telegraph calls this a “conviction deficit”. Arsenal seemed to have bucked that trend last season by their performances away from home against Manchester City and Manchester United, and then, in the Community Shield last week when they beat Chelsea. Yet, by plunging the sword into one of their demons, another one has surfaced in the form of this strange, reversing hex which takes effect in the games where Arsenal are overwhelming favourites. In those games, Arsenal seem to crumble under the weight of expectation, too nervous to play their usual game (think about the FA Cup semi-finals against Wigan and Reading, and then the final against Hull City). Again, The Gunners seemed to get over this superiority complex in the cup final against Aston Villa, where they delivered a performance a calmness and clinical precision to prevail 4-0. However, against West Ham, that anxiousness to play – to make an impression – reared it’s ugly head again, pervading their play such that, to compensate, Arsenal tried to play too fast.
But going back to tactics: I think positional indiscipline also had a part to play in the poor performance – which may tie in closely with nerves anyway, but which I’m hoping doesn’t run through the side in the same way.
We all know that Wenger likes to grant positional freedom to his attacking players, especially to one of the wingers, in this case Santi Cazorla. The key is to find moments where they can destabilize the opponent defence through overloads, and when they set up a triangle on one side, combine quickly with each other to tear open the defence. The issue in this game was that both wide players sought to come inside too early in the build-up, thus not offering the outlet when those overloads are created. You can contrast this with the last time the two sides met: Arsenal won 3-0 and the average touch positions showed that Walcott and Alexis stayed up the pitch and occupied the full-backs all game.
In last Sunday’s fixture, when the ball went wide, it usually ended up at the feet of the full-backs rather than a wide midfielder. Wenger sought to correct that by moving Ramsey to the flanks in the second-half, but unfortunately, West Ham scored quickly their 2nd goal which forced the manager to change things again.
I wouldn’t say the issue was that Arsenal were too clogged in the centre; more that the players failed to offer the right solutions off the ball which led to it. Arsenal actually got the ball wide very early in the build-up, but instead of using that advantage that they had over the diamond by doubling up, Santi Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain were too attracted to the centre. As such, West Ham didn’t actually need to play the diamond that well. They simply had to stay in position and block Arsenal’s passing routes. In that sense, you could say that Arsenal’s star performer in that game, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who caught the eye with the some great driving runs, was part of the problem because it’s his role to stretch play. But his modus operandi is not really to pick the ball up high up the pitch and drive at the full-back; instead, he likes to start deeper, as a traditional right midfielder rather than the right-winger that Wenger is trying to create. In time he will become that player, adding behind-the-defence runs to his game – right now though, he still feels a bit of an interloper in the system, somebody who you expect to create two or three exciting moments in the game but not quite fully integrated. (Of course, Oxlade-Chamberlain still created three good chances in the game which suggests he can be such an explosive player for Arsenal).
With Alexis, while it feels a little bit of the same, he’s a constant outlet, somebody Ozil can feed off because he’s always occupying the right full-back. Remember, Ozil’s game is all about lateral movement and against West Ham, there was nobody to move towards. Indeed, it’s notable that when Alexis came on, he was the one Ozil passed to most in the game.
Ozil had the best chance of the game, a shot blocked after a good one-two with Ramsey high up on the left side of the pitch. It didn’t happen enough because Santi hasn’t got the power to get up and down the flanks – which is why Wenger used Ramsey in such a role last season.
I thought last season Arsenal improved their positional play, the second leg against Monaco a good demonstration of the positional interchange Wenger allows and discipline. When it works, it looks great but it needs good decision-making and a clear head. Arsenal didn’t have that against West Ham.
Arsene Wenger was talking about a striker who he signed in his second season in charge at AS Monaco, the Argentine Ramon Diaz. In training, he would say Diaz was so focused on his finishing that “every time he missed a chance, he went absolutely mad. I said to him ‘calm down’ He said to me: ‘Boss, I played 8 years in Italy; I had one, maximum two chances per game. I knew if I missed one, my game was over.’ That’s a little bit [similar] to the Premier League. You do not get 10 chances. You do not get five. You get one or two and you have to put them away.”
It was this anecdote, with a caveat of sorts, which Wenger chose to repeat before Arsenal’s 1-1 draw against Leicester City, on the eve of the summer transfer window, seemingly throwing the gauntlet to his strikers to be more clinical or be replaced. Arsenal’s riposte was a positive one, shooting 24 times at goal; though at the end of the game Wenger bemoaned the lack of clear-cut chances created. Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring with a near open-goal after Yaya Sanogo had fluffed his lines, but Arsenal were pegged back three minutes later when Leicester equalised and were then able to sit back and comfortably able to see the game out for a draw. The next day, Wenger reacted and splashed out £16m on Danny Welbeck.
In a nutshell, this anecdote also sums up Arsenal’s season, though it’s at the other end of the pitch where it is most relevant. That’s not to say Arsenal have solved their (relatively normal by most standards) goalscoring troubles; Welbeck has slotted straight into the starting line-up but his two league goals is not enough of a return for the promise he’s shown. His hat-trick against Galatasaray was a tantalising demonstration of what he can deliver: a high-class display of controlled aggression mixed with clinical finishing, but on the main, he’s been a little too nice, Will Smith nice.
By and large, however, Arsenal have been bailed out by Alexis Sanchez, whose impact – eight goals and two assists in the league – would have been more salivating if not for the frustrating way Arsenal continuously shot themselves in the foot.
Arsenal’s last fixture was a perfect case in example. The Gunners, having taken the lead with a fine counter-attacking move, finished of course by Alexis, should have then found the restraint within themselves to sit back and soak up the impending pressure that was to come from Swansea. Instead, on a dank, wet evening in Wales, they flooded bodies forward in an attempt to get another goal and were punished, as four minutes later, and two goals worse off, the scoreline was reversed. It was a similar story against Anderlecht four days earlier when Alexis contributed with a superb volleyed goal to help Arsenal to a three-goal lead before they threw it all away for a draw.
Contriving to drop points has been Arsenal’s main problem this season. In a broader sense, it has been Arsenal’s problem for a long time, but last season, however, The Gunners, on the main, managed to reverse that trend by controlling moments better. That is, they ensured that they were a goal up, or at 0-0, for as much as the match as possible, before exploiting their opponents’ tired legs. Arsenal’s failure to do that this season explains why their underlying numbers – their possession per game, shots, dribbles, interceptions etc. – have been very good, yet their position in the league is average by comparison.
The problem, as Michael Caley explains for the Washington Post, is that Arsenal “struggle in the clutch” – that is they tend to fall short in the crucial moments that come between winning and losing, and when the pressure is up. To underline the point, Arsenal have scored first only six times this season, and have gone on to win three of those matches (Burnley 3-0, Aston Villa 3-0 and Sunderland 2-0). Two out of the six matches they have drawn (Leicester 1-1, Hull 2-2) and lost one (Swansea 2-1). On the one hand, however, they have shown some resolve by rescuing a point or winning four out of the five times they have fallen behind by conceding first (Man City, Everton 2-2, Spurs 1-1, Crystal Palace 2-1). The issue is, though, that Arsenal have spent more time losing (244 minutes) than winning (175 minutes), and even when they are winning, contrive to conceded goals very quickly.
As Caley explains, shooting conversion increases or decreases depending on what the game state is. He says, “in general, when a soccer team is losing by a goal, it will convert its shots at a lower rate than when it is winning by the same score. Teams tend to outperform their expected goals by several percentage points when winning and under-perform when losing. This is most likely an effect of defensive pressure. Winning teams will sit back and keep more men behind the ball, while losing teams will push forward looking for an equaliser. And indeed Arsenal has done much more of their attacking in less favourable game states compared to most of their competition.
What makes it worse for Arsenal is that opponents only need to attempt a paltry amount of efforts to score a goal. Currently, Arsenal concedes a goal every 6.4 shots. Wenger pinpoints much of this down to confidence, not focusing enough at key moments or succumbing to complacency when The Gunners do score. Certainly, there is an argument that the defensive efficiency in Arsenal’s game is not there yet. Last season, Arsenal managed this by being pragmatic, by retreating to a low defensive block and then hitting teams when they showed mental or physical tiredness – usually through the lung-busting runs of Aaron Ramsey.
This season, they have failed to find efficiency because the team still seems to be unsure of what it wants to do at various stages or yet, haven’t acquired the game intelligence to carry it out; whether to press high up or sit back. That can be highlighted by the first goal Arsenal conceded in their 2-2 draw against Hull City.
Here, Jack Wilshere urges Santi Cazorla to press when nobody else is, eventually leaving Mohamed Diame free to pass to. Wilshere had the right of it to some extent, as Hull’s player had picked up the ball with his back to goal – which should have been the trigger to press – but where he was wrong was that the whole Arsenal team showed no indication to squeeze play prior, with Hull completing 3-4 passes in that area with relative comfort anyway.
In more recent games, however, Arsenal have been more exposed on the break. As Wenger says, “we have put a lot of effort into our work to be more efficient but we give chances away that very few other teams do. At the moment our opponents have made the most of what we have given away.” The work Arsenal have put in to be more efficient has been two-fold, recurring around how they keep the ball and how they press without it.
Firstly, on their ball work. Wenger says that the team has “progressed since last season in the way we dominate the games and the way we combine,” which may confuse some given Arsenal’s league position, but what people might be missing are the palpable steps Arsenal are taking to improve to their positional play. In that, Wenger is looking to emulate bits of the Germany/Pep Guardiola/Dutch 4-3-3 model wherethe attacking line in the 4-1-4-1 occupies the length of the pitch, thereby always creating angles and options to pass to. As Leighton Baines says, in an interview for The Guardian when talking about Everton’s philosophy which goes along the same branch, “the really top teams who have mastered this way (Dutch Total Football), are the ones that gets success.”
On the other hand, emphasis on death by possession makes it tougher for Arsenal to defeat teams as often; defences are set thus making it more difficult to get through. It has made Arsenal more sterile in effect, one of the things Wenger has strived to avoid. However, he has probably come round to see it as a necessary evil because sterile domination is not really an aim for possession teams; rather, it’s a by-product of their voraciousness to have the ball. Keeping the ball better also has the added effect of protecting the team from the counter-attack, an increasingly important aspect when planning your team in the modern game and what Jose Mourinho calls the “fourth phase”: attacking, defending, counter-attacking, and then, countering the counter.
Increased work on Arsenal’s positional play has sought to protect Arsenal from the counter, with players looking to take up positions off the ball so that all key areas on the pitch are occupied. That can be highlighted by the relationship on the pitch between Santi Cazorla and Alexis who switch positions depending on whether one goes inside, or the other stays wide. As Wenger explains, Welbeck can also join in to fill the gaps. In the past, perhaps, Wenger would give too much freedom to his creative players to go where they want but by incorporating little chain reactions, gaps can be covered. In recent games, Wenger has tinkered the set-up to give it a 4-4-2 gloss, though as a result, the team’s fluency has suffered, most notably in the 3-3 draw against Anderlecht where the ball was frequently turned over.
It is thought that an effective possession game must be backed up a fully synchronised pressing system and this is where Arsenal have failed. Perhaps, they’re not suited to such a high-intensity game because it requires concentration and awareness from the whole team and indeed, such a thing was even admitted by Mario Zagallo of his side when coach of Brazil in 1970. “We played as a block, compact,” said Zagallo in The Blizzard, Issue Three). “Leaving only Tostao up field. Jairzinho, Pele, Rivelino, all tracked back to join Gerson and Clodoaldo in the midfield. I’m happy to see the team in terms of 4-5-1. We brought our team back behind the line of the ball….Our team was not characterised by strong marking.”
Certainly Arsenal have missed Laurent Koscielny and Mikel Arteta for certain passages of the season, to of their most astute players, yet on the other hand, the best pressing teams in the past have been led by not necessarily the best runners, but the men on the touchline, usually infectious, obsessive types – Arrigo Sacchi, Pep Guardiola, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Jurgen Klopp, to name a few. That probably hints at psychological effort required to play such a way, and why perhaps more teams don’t do so when logically, they should because modern players are “taller, faster and stronger, and can press right up to the penalty area” says Arrigo Sacchi. But with Pep Guardiola citing motivational reasons for his departure of Barcelona and subsequently, the lack of pressing from his successor, Tata Martino, it suggests it plays a big factor in coaches using it.
In any case, Wenger says, pressing “isn’t about covering distances, it’s about doing it together” and that probably indicates that he is trying to find a balance between pressing up the pitch in certain moments –Wilshere talks about the five second rule that Arsenal are working on implementing when opponents lose the ball – and dropping back into a compact block. It’s an urgent need for Arsenal to learn quickly because there is a feeling that also there is wasted potential in this side; that with the right configuration, there is an exciting blend in this Arsenal team which is waiting to burst to life.
A great attacking performance is such that at first viewing, it seems inherently defensive. Take Liverpool’s 5-1 home win against Arsenal in February this season. It’s true that they looked like they could have scored with every chance such was the alarming regularity they got behind the Arsenal defence. But it was the swirling press of red shirts that was just as memorable, surrounding the Arsenal midfielders in possession and blocking potential passing lanes. And when they regained the ball, the pace and trickery of Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling et al. put The Gunners to the sword.
Great attacking teams don’t just throw caution to the wind when they go forward; effective attacking play is predicated on a solid defensive foundation which allows those players to flourish. It’s indicative of the way Liverpool worked as a team that their best defensive player wasn’t a member of the back four nor a central midfielder: it was Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian won 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions, but was most impressive was the way he filled in the gaps when players moved out of position. In fact, Liverpool’s system is all about little chain reactions: when one players moves, it activates the trigger for another to move into the space. What Coutinho did so well was to make Liverpool’s formation move from a 4-4-2 at various times, to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.
There are other such examples in the past of good defence aiding devastating attacking play. When Ajax beat Liverpool 7-3 in the European Cup over two legs in 1966, Bill Shankly peculiarly declared that “they were the most defensive team we have ever met.” Then there were the two famous 5-0 wins over Real Madrid: the first, by AC Milan in 1989, which put Arrigo Sacchi on the map; while in 2010, we remember mostly the way Barcelona kept the ball, in particular the controlling forces of Xavi and Messi, but just as important was the way they pressed their opponents, hunting in packs to win the ball back.
Indeed in Chris Anderson and David Sally’s The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong, they find, using statistical evidence, that keeping a clean sheet helps a team more than scoring lots of goals does. That’s what the basis was for Arsenal early season form, with Arsene Wenger telling Arsenal Player: “It’s very important for the confidence of the team that we have such a [defensive] stability. As I said many times, we are an offensive team, but you are only a good offensive team if you have a good defensive stability.”
Sadly, that assurance in defence has dissipated in recent matches, most crushingly when Arsenal were defeated 6-0 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The irony was that Wenger’s worst defeat waited until his 1000th match in charge of Arsenal. Still, The Gunners are in with an outside shot of the title, and have a great chance to break their nine-year trophy drought with the FA Cup but in my opinion, that owes much to the defence – which individually, is perhaps Wenger’s best for a long time. Those big defeats Arsenal suffered, against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, which have put a damper on their season, mainly originated from Arsenal frequently giving the ball away in midfield thus exposing the back four repeatedly.
For me, a large part of Arsenal’s vulnerability – that good players, like Aaron Ramsey, who Arsenal have missed massively, can alleviate – stems from the unique way they bring the ball out of defence. To understand that, first we must understand Wenger.
Explaining Arsene Wenger’s philosophy is a trickier task than at first it actually seems. It’s widely accepted that he’s an attacking coach but can that be distinguished from a coach that favours possession first? For example, his Arsenal side do not stretch the pitch as wide as other possession-orientated sides might; instead the Wenger way is to stretch the field vertically in the build up to avoid the press, and then drop a midfielder in to pick up the ball in the extra space. Other teams such as Barcelona – at the far end of the attacking-possession extreme – stretch the play horizontally, firstly by splitting the centre-backs and then dropping a midfielder in between.
Instead, the main focus for Wenger is on expressionism and autonomy, cultivated on the training ground by small-sided matches – games of 7v7 or 8v8 – to encourage better combination play. (Think about how, in the first-half in the 2-0 win against Crystal Palace, Lukas Podolski kept on drifting inside too early in the build up instead of, as he should have, hugging the touchline to open up space. It was later in the second-half, when he curbed his tendencies to get on the ball, that he attempted his first shots in the game). The importance of possession is preached of course – Arsenal practice a drill called “through-play” whereby a team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively – but keeping the ball must have means: patience is only tolerated to an extent. Cesc Fabregas expands: “Wenger showed me a lot, but wouldn’t say ‘I want you to copy what I show you.’ He let me find by myself the player I was meant to be. Now whenever I have the ball I look to gain yards. This sense of verticality, it’s Wenger. He made me an attacking player.”
“Wenger always said to me: ‘Forward, Cesc, forward! Attack! Attack!’ From a young age I heard him say that. All the players he’s coached will tell you: the eyes must always look to the opponent’s goal. He didn’t really like spending training working on defensive strategies. What he loves is seeing his team take initiative and create chances.” And comparing Arsenal to Barcelona, Fabregas says: “Wenger didn’t really like it when we kept ball for long periods, he thought it counter-productive & sterile keeping the ball but not really doing anything with it (not attacking), he (Wenger) hated that. What (Wenger) loves is goals. For example, if at 3-0 up we could still score two more, he’d push us to do so. The Barca style is more composed. You have to string passes together. Bam. Calm. Bam. Calm. I had to adapt to team’s needs which are different from Arsenal. Here I must play as the coach wants and respect the philosophy of the team.”
This idea of verticality works against most sides as they tend to defend deep against Arsenal, and while that throws up problems of its own, Wenger is secretly happy to face those sides as it means Arsenal have most of the play. However, it can be a problem when teams play high up, as we have seen against Southampton, Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Liverpool to name the most troubling.
Wenger’s aware of this, but he places great faith on his two centre-backs to pass the ball out and one of the central midfielders, usually Mikel Arteta dropping in. He says: “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle. 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. I am comfortable with that, although 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.”
What Arsenal do is, instead of opening the pitch horizontally to evade the press as other possession sides usually do (typically that means splitting the two centre-backs wider and dropping a midfielder in between or asking one of the midfielders to move laterally), they push the team up the pitch to create space in the middle of the pitch for one of the central midfielders to pick up the ball in extra space. The problem is when say Wilshere (who is not very good with the ball deep) or Arteta get the ball there, they’re often isolated and thus easy to dispossess. Often, they have to try and dribble their way out as Mesut Ozil was forced to when he was tackled in the build up to Liverpool’s 3rd goal. In fact, if you cast your mind back to the defeat 3 out of 5 of their goals came from Arsenal relinquishing possession meekly.
Arsene Wenger takes great stock in players who have the dexterity and close control to get out of tight situations, as he said recently when describing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s strengths in central midfield: “He has the sense of positional play and he has the qualities which you want to see in the modern game,” Wenger said. “He has that capability to break through because there is a lot of pressure in the modern game. So those players who have the ability to get out of that pressure are of course very important.”
If they don’t, then it can prove catastrophic as Ozil continually found against Liverpool when he dropped deep and instead, was forced to pass backwards or attempt to dribble through. Bear in mind that there is no right or wrong way – Liverpool have often been in uncompromising situations when they split their centre-backs – it depends on how well you execute your plans and Arsenal are better than most. And better teams are more likely to expose chinks, as Liverpool did and then Chelsea in their 6-0 win. Again, goals were relinquished through easy concession of possession in midfield, as Chelsea not only pressed up the pitch, but intelligently and structurally.
However, in the recent Champions League encounter against Paris Saint Germain, Chelsea tried to replicate the same tactics but frequently hit a brick wall. Why? Well, for one, they were without their master presser, Nemanja Matic, who is cup-tied in Europe, but the way Paris play under Laurent Blanc, it’s like a game-within-a-game they play at the back, taking risks with the ball in an attempt to draw the opposition out. Chelsea tried to press but each time they did, they were rebuffed either from brilliant close control, especially from Marco Verratti, or intelligent positional play from the Paris players, stretching the pitch horizontally, and then dropping a midfielder in the extra spaces to the side of Chelsea’s attackers so they couldn’t press effectively.
Arsenal could take some hints. For me, Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s foremost deep-lying midfielder, is fantastic at keeping Arsenal’s intensity high in matches where the team is on the front foot and can play in the opponent’s half; indeed, that’s how Wenger used him in the 4-1 win against Everton and 1-1 draw with Manchester City. But when the opponent forces him to play almost as a quarter-back, he can be easily nullified. What Arsenal need to do is offer more rotation; when one of the central midfielders drop deep to pick the ball up, the other pushes up so that it’s harder to mark. Indeed, that’s what Aaron Ramsey did so well before his injury, often out-passing his own teammates and the opponents’. Therefore it’s suffice to say also that how Arsenal cope with high pressure depends on the personnel available.
There’s an argument that Arsenal also lack enough players with the change of pace and direction that has been the standard of Wenger sides in the past. Chiefly, that has been levelled at striker Olivier Giroud who it is said could run the channels more, thus opening space for the attacking players behind him. Giroud, while his link-up play brings others into play, is mainly static, exclusively playing in between the two centre-backs and as such Arsenal’s play can look predictable, and it relies on moves being perfect.
Indeed, it’s even arguable that Arsenal don’t use him enough as a target man to bring more variety into their play – or rather that they can’t because his ball retention is wildly inconsistent. It’s more convenient (and frustrating as well) to think of Giroud as an extension of the midfield, another pass before Arsenal eventually get inside the box.
One must also consider the psychological factor in appraising whether Arsenal are more susceptible to the press. Because so much of Arsenal’s play is predicated on passing the ball well and playing attractive football, thus creating a perception of superiority that is often enough to overwhelm teams lower down. But against the top sides the players (and the manager) seem so anxious to make a statement,* that when things are not going their way, they can crack –and badly – from which there is no fallback position. Paul Hayward of The Telegraph calls this a “conviction deficit”. In that sense, Arsenal needs not just strong individuals, but technical leaders (players like Xabi Alonso, who sets the tempo, ideologue for Real Madrid) or more damningly even, a more robust footballing strategy beyond merely “expressing” yourself.
*Think back to when, before the 1-0 defeat to Manchester United, Mesut Ozil said “we are going to Old Trafford to have fun – and that is why we are going to win.” What we saw instead was a very timid Arsenal performance, visibly uncertain about the best way to break down a defensive United side.
This can also tie in with Arsenal’s vulnerability to the high press because players are not sure where to move on the pitch to evade the pressure. Above all, though, it seems that what we need to see most to alleviate this flaw is a more confident Arsenal, one with real relief belief in the way they play – and of course, their best players fit and available together.
The match was billed as an encounter between two aesthetes – “Old Arsenal” and “New Arsenal” – but this win was all Swansea City’s own. Arsenal weren’t just beaten; they were beaten at their own game. Yet, it would do disservice to Swansea to say that they are Arsenal-lite; they did what Arsenal normally do but at times they did it better. WhenArsenal were beaten by Barcelona in the Champions League last season, Arsène Wenger spoke of their “sterile domination” and in a way, it’s something Arsenal have been unable to achieve and Swansea did. They may have ultimately profited from lapses in the defence but it was their fantastic ball retention – like Barcelona, which at times, was extraordinarily casual – and voraciousness when they lost it, which suffocated Arsenal’s play. “I like to coach my players to manage pressure with the ball,” manager Brendan Rodgers said afterwards. “In the last few minutes they were able to play some nice little triangles to get out of trouble and launch some attacks of our own.”
Wenger later bemoaned defensive frailties and some “unbelievable chances” missed but in regards to the former, at least, he might have seen it coming. The Gunners have gotten through a torrid start through strong team spirit to defend more securely but sooner or later, the gaps would be shown again unless they become more cohesive as a unit. In particular, they owe much thanks to Mikel Arteta, who has steadied the ship and before this fixture, had not missed a game since his début, ironically against Swansea. Perhaps they haven’t progressed as much as they thought they had following the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United but Mikel Arteta is single-handedly papering over the team’s cracks. (Robin van Persie has performed miracles with his goalscoring exploits and we must be be appreciative of that, but in terms of team performances, Arsenal haven’t much improved in 2011. Indeed, once Arteta slotted in, it was then the team was transformed from the cavalier to more controlled).
Arteta presence was sorely missed on Sunday although he wasn’t the only significant absentee – Arsenal’s full-back woes have been much documented and notably, Ignasi Miquel was caught out twice up the pitch for Swansea’s two goals. Yet, if Swansea would still have retained the same measure of possession if Arteta had been playing, because he too was non-existent in the second-half against Fulham, his positioning was Arsenal’s biggest loss. As a result, poor Yossi Benayoun was drafted in out of position as a central midfielder and the Isreali was found wanting defensively. Often he was attracted higher up the pitch or towards the left. Indeed, Benayoun has often been a drifter which has as much irked his previous coaches as well as endeared himself to them. He’s a tactical anarchist, making hay with his superb off-the-ball movement but that would normally be on the flanks. Andre Villas-Boas couldn’t find a space in either position so he cast him off to Arsenal where he has only started out wide twice (excluding Carling Cup), making one assist and has been called upon twice in central midfield. The ramifications of playing Benayoun in a makeshift position was that it caused imbalances to Arsenal’s team. Normally, Arteta would play closer to Alex Song but on this occasion, Arsenal’s defensive screener was often isolated. With Benayoun tending to drift left, it meant Aaron Ramsey had to drop ever deeper to close the gaps and in the end, he was culpable for two of Swansea’s goals, fouling for the penalty and then dawdling on the ball. (Arsenal were increasingly exposed in transitions and the drastic tracking-back proved fateful).
<Figure 1> With Benayoun constantly tending to drift to the left, it created an imbalance which Aaron Ramsey sought to plug. As a result, he was unable to press up the pitch as normal and Arsenal suffered on the break whenever both got forward.
The other effect this had on Arsenal was that they were unable to press effectively, as usually, it’s Ramsey who gets close to van Persie. In this instance, Benayoun’s naturalistic tendencies saw him push higher leaving Ramsey somewhat tactically lost. Only in a 10 minute period before half-time did Arsenal look more organised and they pressed Swansea in possession well (this being Arsenal’s best spell of possession as well). [Click here for Chalkboard]
After this seventh defeat (as if compartmentalising is needed at this stage) Arsenal’s league objectives took a huge battering. It’s not just in defence they look jittery; the attack hasn’t sparkled without the divine intervention of van Persie. Theo Walcott got his goal while Andrey Arshavin also bagged an assist but the two wide men can still seem a bit disassociated and that was more the case as Swansea squeezed their involvement out of the game. Perhaps then, there are few holes in Arsenal’s philosophy. Arsène Wenger can certainly learn a few things from Swansea who treated the ball with a a calmness and tranquillity as if strolling through the Irish farmlands. Arsenal on the other hand, looked anxious to exert their game when in the past, it would have been expected to come naturally. Wenger said they showed a “lack of appreciation of the ball” and this graphic below might tell it’s own story.
Note: We used an imperfect measure to rate the quality of chances Arsenal create and concede per match (Chance Quality Index). Against Leeds, Arsenal created an average chance quality of 5.3/10 and conceded an average quality of chance 6.5/10. As Wenger said, they created better chances against Swansea at 6.4/10 but also conceded at a similar rate at 6.6/10. OPTA don’t measure quality of chance as it’s interpretative so we implore you guys to help develop this further. (At the moment, it’s rudimentary rating of chances out of ten).
Since Mick McCarthy was charged for fielding a weakened team against Manchester United in 2009, he hasn’t been the same. Not just that he won’t roll over again against “stronger” opposition so easily but he’s rarely had to make the same drastic reshuffle to his pack. Because it was he who was one of the first to highlight the importance of rotation to the mainstream media so it’s slightly strange he hasn’t been pressed to do so (though that may be because Wolves play much less matches than top Premier League sides). “I read an article where Carlo Ancelotti had said that the risk of injury in one game is 10%,” said McCarthy justifying his changes in that infamous game. “And then that goes up to 30% or 40% if another intensive game follows in three or four days. We believe that anyway, but that came from the Milan Lab research centre set up by AC Milan.”
Indeed, that’s been the trend in the Premier League this season; unforced rotation has almost non-existent amongst the top clubs this season because they’ve just been unwilling to deviate from a formula. Arséne Wenger may have thought about resting Robin van Persie had his team played on the same day as everybody else but the dropped points from his closest challengers gave Arsenal an window of opportunity they had to take. One of those changes saw Yossi Benayoun slot in on the right, making only now, his first league start for Arsenal as Wenger finally budged on his three striker system. Nevertheless, Benayoun was detailed to play more of a direct style instead taking a creative role although he still contributed with the assist for Arsenal’s only goal. But, such has been their luck this season, Wolverhampton equalised though a fortuitous goal and then survived an onslaught in the final third of the game as goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey performed heroics to deny Arsenal.
1. How the changes saw Arsenal shape up
As mentioned Benayoun started on the right although he constantly swapped positions with Gervinho throughout the game. Tomas Rosicky also began the game and much of early impetus came through him. As Ramsey has, Rosicky undertook a energetic role although with a bit more finesse and was unlucky that some of his through passes did not find their men. Indeed, the front men started so dangerously in the first thirty minutes but in lacking that conviction in the final third, it always gave Wolves hope, even if they hardly saw any of the ball. At the end of the game, as Arsenal threw everything forward, it wasn’t necessarily creativity that suffered although Wenger might not have saw it that way; they just could find a way past Hennessay. Wenger on the other hand felt Arsenal betrayed a bit of their technical philosophy and they should have kept a calmer head. Perhaps that’s why Benayoun was taken off even though he might have been the type of player which suits that occasion. Benayoun had a pass accuracy of 61% and although he created two chances, his care-free approach saw him replaced.
<Figure 1> Yossi Benayoun’s game is certainly laden with risk as he seeks to attempt the killer-option. He may have been partly inaccurate but it presents Arsenal a different option; one which none of the wide players have. The issue is, will Wenbger deviate from his three striker ploy?
2. Robin van Persie more dangerous as the orthodox striker
Van Persie has an extraordinary goalscoring record this season but he’s also taken a ridiculous number of shots. Against Wolves, van Persie attempted 12 shots with five on target. He should have probably scored and he looked more dangerous, as he has all this season, playing up the pitch. His movement was fantastic and as well as getting behind on more than a number of occasions, he dragged the Wolves defence all-over the pitch. On the other hand, his link-up play can be erroneous as a heavy touch and too much time on the ball can retard his impact. His spontaneity has been his biggest strength and while he was unable to use it to his full advantage and he became desperate after the break, he was still Arsenal’s best chance of winning.
<Figure 2> Van Persie pass received and shots attempted.
3. When nothing goes right, nothing goes right for Arshavin
Andrey Arshavin isn’t having the best of relationships with the fans; his introduction was met with groan and bemused looks and some things he attempted achieved the same reaction. He had one snap shot, showing the unpredictability Wenger was banking on. His chalkboard below isn’t so interesting except that what failed, happened on the right; the rest was accurate. It probably shows that he is not a crossing type – that of which he attempted at the end of the game from the right – while he mostly looks to play quick and go’s inside – the ones on the left. His position echoes another substitute’s, Marouane Chamakh, who again failed to make an impact. His time is ticking.
<Figure 3>Andrey Arshavin’s peculiar pass chart.
4. Aaron Ramsey: a viable full-back option?
As Arsenal chased the winner, they dropped Aaron Ramsey into full-back. His first contribution after his immediate arrival was to drive at the Wolves defence, nearly putting in Robin van Persie. He was later playing at right-back and was able to provide the passes and drive Johan Djourou was not. Certainly this was against backs-to-the-walls opposition therefore Wolves were unable to test his defensive game but with wing-backs being an important part of Arsenal’s play, perhaps is not such a far-right option.
5. Wolves defend in a pack
Wolves deserve some praise – if indeed most. Arsenal played well but ultimately failed to break through and that must go down to some brave defending and a little bit of luck. A moral victory may be that they forced Arsenal to crosses and not enough ground play in the final quarter of the game. Nevertheless, the defence and crucially, Wayne Hennessey, got in the way for Arsenal.
It’s become a footballing cliché to do an Arsenal: to promise so much but to inexplicably throw it away. That might happen again this season but if it does, it’s sure to be a boring thud rather than a Crash, Bang, Wallop! back to the ground. And that’s because of the dealings Arsène Wenger made in the summer. They may have been atypically Wenger; late in the window, experienced and in quick succession – panic buys if you will – but by signing proven talent, Wenger knew what he was bringing in. When one of those players scored in their last match, Yossi Benayoun in the 2-1 win over Aston Villa, the joy of the players spoke more than just the importance of the goal or the improbability of it (he’s scored a crucial header against Real Madrid for Liverpool too); it symbolised their new-found spirit driving their quest for glory. “There is a new team spirit at the club,” Laurent Koscielny said. “We are all fighting for each other, we are all united.”
Robin van Persie has spoken of the support the signings have given him after a difficult start (Per Mertesacker might be considered his “consigliere”) and indeed, Wenger may have been pressed to act after he realised the enormity of the task facing his new captain. Van Persie has led by example on and off the field. He organises weekly team dinners and afternoons together and his team-mates openly appreciate the extra time spent with each other. On the field, van Persie’s goals continue to keep the side alive. Arrigo Sacchi names van Persie as the most “complete striker” and his 16 goals is nearly half the total Arsenal have amassed in the league this season and in the past year, he has hit the net 34 times. The reliance is staggering and it has led some to ask whether Arsenal are a one-man team.
Wenger admits there is a reliance on van Persie “because he scores many goals” but the statement is not frank as it may first seem. He feels his team do a lot of good approach play but at the moment, the outlet is singular – usually Robin van Persie. However, The Gunners do have someone to call on with capability to give Arsenal’s play a plurality in Yossi Benayoun; a fleet-footed schemer with an art deco finish but Wenger’s adamant his three striker tactic can be deadly and as such, Benayoun misses out. (Given the right creativity – another reason why Benayoun must play more often – and penchant to keep the ball).
Arsenal’s reliance on van Persie is nothing new. To a certain extent, all teams lean towards one or two individuals and it’s fair to say, some successful teams wouldn’t enjoy anywhere the same level of achievement without that one SPECIAL player. Even Brazil’s great sides in the late 50’s to early 70’s may have owed a lot of their success to Pele (although Garrincha proved just as deadly). It’s evident Barcelona would not be the same side without Lionel Messi although he surrounds himself with a stellar supporting cast. Yet there is a feeling, take him out, and they would be just like the Spanish national team; brilliantly gifted but the ultimate procrastinators. France’s 1982-84 team took a novel approach with one of their best individuals, shifting Michel Platini around to suit the match rather than the team. It worked to great effect as Platini scored 9 goals in the 1984 European Championships. The idea of a one-man team may have been a realistic notion in the past but in the modern game, teams are more geared to the collective and as such, harder to ascertain. Robin van Persie would be quick to point out the hard work of his team-mates and that, it seems, is the real secret to Arsenal’s turnaround this season.
– Midfield rotation allows Song to get forward – Ramsey gets closer to van Persie in second-half – Win displays much needed improvements after stumbling start to season
There were times in the last two seasons when watching Arsenal that Tony Adams thought, “Thank God for Alex Song.” Because for all of Arsenal’s enthusiasm going forward, there was always one man back to cover for the team’s vagaries and that was Song. In recent campaigns, Song has grown into the role, playing with an urgency and intelligence that it’s not an understatement to say The Gunners wouldn’t be ass effective if it wasn’t for his input. Despite his physique, though, it’s not the battling qualities that make Song an indispensable fixture of their side; it’s his urgency and “get and give” attitude that Arséne Wenger so dearly values. Against Bolton Wanderers, it was those qualities that shone the most but this time he was an asset higher up the pitch.
Song scored the final goal of the match to make it 3-0 and he was constantly found in the final third trying to give direction to Arsenal’s game as Bolton Wanderers, for the majority of the match, camped in their own half. (Song attempted 28 passes in the attacking third, three more than Aaron Ramsey). There’s no doubt that this was a considerably weaker Bolton side than Arsenal would normally have faced but Owen Coyle made his intentions perfectly clear with his line up; to sit back and attack Arsenal with speed on the turnover. In that respect, The Gunners were much better here than they have been this season, stopping Bolton breaking forward through defence by keep-ball. Every time Bolton tried to spring a counter-attack, Arsenal had enough men back. As we will talk about, it’s not just in attack the central midfield rotated well – the trio delegated responsibility accordingly for at least one to stay back showing the holding role need not to be fixed. (Ramsey’s tracking back was noticeably much improved).
It’s probably the greatest indication that the central midfield is finding is rhythm because it was the partnership between Jack Wilshere and Alex Song that worked so well last season that ensured Arsenal played some of their best football in an (otherwise largely) forgetful last two seasons. This time, however, it’s not a two and Cesc Fábregas as it was last season – that’s probably understandable as it would be mightily difficult to replace Fábregas directly – but as a trio, taking turns to engage the space the other team-mate has vacated. (As a result, the average touch positions might show Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey almost playing on top of each other but the way they swap roles, it’s statistically harder to depict in a simple diagram).
With Bolton defending deep, Song’s drive was useful in helping Arsenal break them down. And although he didn’t score until the side’s third, his idea to get close to Robin van Persie was the right one. The Dutchman hasn’t had the same effect with his movement this season and he has stated that the new personnel – particularly out wide, where Arsenal are trying to get the ball more to – have seen him play more orthodox. It’s that balance between dropping deep and staying close to the goal which he has to get right because Arséne Wenger would like to get the ball in behind more but a fluent link between midfield and attack is stopping that. It was almost the problem for Arsenal in the first-half until Wenger instructed Ramsey to get closer to van Persie after the break and it was his pass that led to the opener. Arsenal’s play became more dynamic and when David Wheater was dismissed, the space opened for the strikers to get in the act. Gervinho and Walcott grew in influence as the ten men of Bolton were unable to shackle Arsenal on the flanks through tight marking as they did in the first. Van Persie nudged in the second expertly before Song wrapped up the win.
Wenger has adjusted the formation in the last two games to a 4-2-3-1 and it clearly suits Ramsey more. He is still adjusting to playing with his back to goal and indeed, at times he did look uncomfortable in doing so, but the system allows better fluidity than the 4-3-3 did and it gives him more freedom to get on the ball. There’s still a belief that Arsenal need a number 10 or at least, someone to get close to van Persie as Ramsey did halfway through. In that regards, the 4-2-3-1 has worked better than the 4-3-3 because there’s less pressure on one of the midfielders to take the initiative higher up. Both Ramsey and Arteta like to pick the ball up from deep and that has meant Arsenal are able to circulate the ball better early on in the build up – and – it possibly offers Arsenal a solution to a slight weakness to their game and that is opponents pressing aggressively. On the other hand, Arsenal’s pressing was much improved although being on the front foot for nearly all of the game, it was a must that they closed down quickly to stop counter-attacks. The proof will be when teams hold the ball much longer in midfield and if Arsenal press more intensely early on.
Slowly Arsenal are making the improvements that is needed following the departure of Fábregas and that expected time-period needed to adjust. They won’t replace their former captain directly, though, but through a holistic route which suits the players better. And with Robin van Persie also finding the net, this win – albeit against a poor Bolton side – was a massive step in the right direction.
Arsenal 3-0 Bolton Wanderers: van Persie 46, van Persie 71, Song 89