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 has always been wonderfully inventive with who he casts in the role of Arsenal’s defensive midfielder, and sure enough Francis Coquelin’s pathway to the side has been no less remarkable. We know the story by now: on another non-descript loan in his fifth year at the club, Coquelin was recalled amidst an injury crisis in midfield. He wasn’t expecting to play because things don’t just happen like that, but little did he know that Wenger had birds watching every pass, tackle and mistake that he made, and each favourable/unfavorable report sent back to headquarters served to shape his very future. Luck had played his part too, but when everything down to the last detail concerns a man like Wenger, luck will eventually favour you.
A place had opened up in the side for Coquelin because of injuries – and also because, as Martin Keown revealed during Arsenal’s 2-0 FA Cup win over Hull City, Wenger was looking for someone that could provide the snarl and aggression that Mathieu Flamini did, but more crucially, play more proactively, pushing the team up the pitch. Coquelin did this, reinvigorating the side through the way he did things simply: winning the ball back and passing it quickly. At the same time, other pieces began to align: Mesut Ozil returned from injury back to his favoured position, Olivier Giroud came back like a dog unleashed, and Arsene Wenger could chose from a settled squad.
These things all come together to explain Arsenal’s unbeaten run which began in February and ended at the start of the week, against Swansea. What it showed that finding attacking chemistry takes time and continuing on the Coquelin theme, as does somebody who bends to the will of the side. As Tim Stillman writes for Arseblog, “for Wenger, the defensive midfielder is usually the last piece of his puzzle.” Yet, as we found out in the 1-0 defeat to Swansea, Coquelin is still some way from the perfect fit. He’s as good as Arsenal have got – a halfway house between Mikel Arteta and Flamini – though to be truly “The Answer”, he needs to add more subtlety to his game.
In that game, Coquelin was constantly found wanting as the outlet in possession at the back. In fact, he’s the exact opposite: a decoy when Arsenal have the ball in defence, looking to shuffle opponent midfielders this way and that to open up space for the centre-backs to pass through. Indeed, after the 3-1 win over Hull City, Wenger praised the way Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker stayed composed with the ball at the back, patiently waiting for an opening to develop. Coquelin by contrast, rarely took responsibility for this and in an opening 35 minutes, when Arsenal assumed a two-goal lead, he only made 9 passes. Against Swansea he was more involved yet hardly the pivot that you need when defences are set. Wenger, though, is inventive in that regard when details his midfielders to push up the pitch, to force the opponents back so that Arsenal can play as much as possible in their half. I expand on this tactic in my most recent Arseblog column.
In that game, he also asked Ozil and Santi Cazorla, in addition to Ramsey, to drop deeper for the ball and use their 1v1 ability to get into space or play the pass through. It will be interesting to see how this tactic will develop; whether it was the players who initiated this move by being drawn to the ball or Wenger is trying to draw the opponent’s backline out simultaneously – a la PSG – to play the ball over the top (thus the recent recasting of Theo Walcott up front).
Though the big issue is the role of Coquelin. Does he take it on himself to become a more nuanced midfielder? Because he is a far more subtle player than given credit for; his first-touch is clever which he uses to get out of trouble, while he has two good feet. And we haven’t seen his reaction if opponents press Arsenal up the pitch. Does he continue to follow the same movements away from the ball carrier? The call for him is not to become a playmaker but if he doesn’t get on the ball enough, then Arsenal’s fluency can suffer, especially if other attacking players, Ozil or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain say, are forced to come towards the ball and away from the goal. As Johan Cruyff used to say, if the holding midfielder is not involved in the build-up, then he becomes a “block”, stopping you from passing the ball out effectively. More pertinently he adds, “if you bring the ball out well initially, then you’ll play well. If you don’t do that then there’s no chance of playing well.”
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.
When hoping to get a glossary commissioned translating Anglo-French football terms, journalist Philippe Auclair realised just how under-developed England’s vocabulary was when it came to the beautiful game. Writing in the biography Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King, he says; “The French (and indeed, the Spaniards, the Italians and, believe it or not, the Germans) had at their disposal an arsenal of descriptive words and phrases which my English press-box colleagues had yet to coin.” To highlight his point, he says any piece of skill would generally be referred to as a “flick” whilst “nutmeg” springs to mind as perhaps the only skill to have been baptised.
The English lexicon is similarly unrefined in regards to football positions: a striker is a striker even if in a 4-4-2, one of those strikers drops deep to pick up the ball. Likewise, players are often strictly defined by their roles. For example, the common argument you hear today is that Alex Song cannot get forward because he is a holding midfielder. And indeed, that’s the same argument used against Andre Santos, who has been unfairly criticised for constantly looking to get forward to support the attack.
To be fair to Santos, he had rarely played at full-back for his club side, Fenerbahce, before signing (although he did for Brazil) so his enthusiasm to join the attack may have partly stemmed from that. However, in saying that, his forays forward have been selective and they only have the look of reckless abandon because when he does get forward, he tends to do so with the aim of maximising from the opportunity. Yet, the misgivings about his excursions up the pitch say more about the tactical sophistications of the English game than about Andre Santos’s deficiencies.
In Brazil, the full-back is known as the “lateral” which is perhaps misleading as although it gives the notion of width; it could just as well be misconstrued for the English definition of the full-back whose primary purpose is as a defender who defends across the back-four. However, in Brazil, the full-back is an integral part of attack and the term “lateral” indicates “a wide player, but not necessarily a defensive one,” writes Jonathan Wilson. This idea can be further elaborated by José Thadeu Gonçalves who, writing in the book, Principles of Brazilian Soccer (1998), highlights just how important the full-back is as an attacking capacity.
“One of the most effective ways to penetrate into the offensive zone during the game is utilizing the lateral parts of the field. Because of the excessive development of defensive tactics and the tremendous physical power of many teams, the only way to identify an open space in that zone by moving the attackers and the outside midfielders inside, carrying their marks, and opening space to the full-back moving forward to become the attacker responsible for the crossing.”
The quote has particular resonance to the scenarios Arsenal frequently face and you don’t need to go further than the last fixture against Fulham to see how The Gunners are often faced with deep-lying teams. Thus the attacking thrust of Santos becomes more significant and towards the end of the 1-1 draw with Fulham, he nearly created the winner.
Arsenal failed to get enough from their full-backs last season, particularly on the left. Gael Clichy’s performances, while not the disaster some fans have made out, didn’t really rise above the average. Defensively he was generally solid and particular when Arsenal pressed, he was magnificent but he tended to handle pressure badly and suffered from a lack of concentration which sometimes led to him giving away dangerous opportunities. In attack, though, he was not very effective and as a result, Arsenal suffered when breaking down defensive sides. It proved crucial towards the end of the season as a lack of creativity proved to be the downfall of their title challenge.
In defence, Santos is not the liability he’s made out to be. In seven matches in the league, he averages 4.9 tackles per game – the highest at the club – and makes the most interceptions too at 3.4 per game. The notion that he dives into tackles far too much is fair – as he can commit a lot of fouls – but it’s also a key part of Arsenal’s game. With every ball he wins back quickly, he’s initiating another attack, in a sense, similar to Alex Song who also commits his fair share of fouls but makes even more successful tackles. Risk comes with reward might be the mantra but as intelligent players, they are being selective also. Nevertheless, Santos has shown a composure on one-on-ones that is essential to Arsenal, especially playing on the left side as he does. And that’s because Arsenal have a bias to the right-hand side; 34% of their attacks start on that side as opposed to 31% on the left and that figure increases to 37% at home matches. The reason for the tendency to build up towards that side may be that Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey, two of the three central midfielders, are attracted the to the right whilst Theo Walcott is given a box-to-box role on the flanks. Gervinho, on the other hand – and on the other side – is afforded more freedom and generally stays up the pitch. Bearing that in mind, you might want to forgive Andre Santos if he ever does complain about the lack of protection he gets.
That difference can be shown by their chalkboards in the game against West Bromwich Albion; Santos had more of the ball deeper as generally he was isolated while Carl Jenkinson was allowed to get forward more easily due to more options around him. As a result, his passes are less frequent and involve a lot of “give-and-goes” while Santos often has to go inside for options and use his drive to influence higher up the pitch. Full-backs are generally the only players “free” on the pitch and Santos’ bursts down the left can leave the defence unaware just as when he did scoring against Chelsea and Olympiakos.
In the game against Fulham, however, and that may be the trend in the coming games as Arsenal are to play without a recognised right-back, Santos was expected to provide more of the width. Johan Djourou’s distribution was understandable more simplistic for a player in a make-shift position and as such, most of Arsenal’s play came on the opposite side.
Andre Santos, though, realises the differences between the English and Brazilian games and is learning quickly in order to improve the defensive side of his game. Arséne Wenger, however, signed Santos for his attacking capabilities and is not going to let the English game’s restrictive linguistics hold him back: “For me, having a full-back who creates is an important part of winning,” he said. “Take the Brazilian national team, the ones who have won trophies anyway, you will see that there is always two good full-backs. With two average full-backs they would not have won.” Arsenal already have one outstanding attacking full-back and it’s a shame Bacary Sagna can’t join him due to injury.