Norwich 1-1 Arsenal: Injuries upset precariously balanced system

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“We are so unpredictable in what we are doing; even for me at the back sometimes it looks a bit weird! Sometimes we lose balance but sometimes it is really good so we have to keep going and focus on our game, especially defensively.” ~ Per Mertesacker

I’ve been trying to figure out Arsenal for a while now. Despite my twenty-two year association with the club (that is, the first game I recall watching them in – Cup Winners Cup in ’95), the last ten years have left me most perplexed. It’s not the lack of titles; I’ve come to terms with the mitigating circumstances following the move to the Emirates and subsequently, the wizardry to keep Arsenal competitive that Arsene Wenger has performed. But rather, it’s the playing style which, despite adding back-to-back FA Cups in the last two seasons, Wenger has had to be innovative – unorthodox actually – to keep Arsenal playing the same way that won trophies in his early years, and to challenge more convincingly.

I often hark back to the above quote from Per Mertesacker to assure me that even those in the best positions can find what happens on the pitch sometimes confusing. At this point, I realise that the answer lies in a case study of Arsene Wenger but he places such an unerring faith in autonomy and freedom of expression on the pitch such that nuances of the team’s tactics are as much a product of symbiosis as it is moulded by hand.

That’s evident by the rapid progression of Hector Bellerin from reserve-squad to starter, or Francis Coquelin, who has shaped Arsenal’s tactics the moment he stepped into the first-team last December. It’s a progression which has been a joy to watch and indeed, it’s not usually this discernible to see a footballer grow as we have witnessed with Coquelin, gaining more confidence game-by-game, becoming “more available” as Wenger says, “and [available] more quickly when our defenders have the ball. He blossoms well.” You can say the same thing about Nacho Monreal, where confidence has shaped him such that he seems unflappable at the moment but, because he started his Arsenal career so well but had a blip in between, we already knew his quality. Plus at that time, he played alongside Thomas Vermaelen so it’s understandable.

Coquelin’s injury has had people trying to work out ways to replace him without upsetting the balance of the side too much. However, an analysis by Chad Murphy, a professor of political science, deduces that Coquelin is near impossible to replace like-for-like because the actions he performs are commonly shared by wingers, not defensive midfielders. He’s a unique player, somebody who passes fairly infrequently considering the position he plays but is actually very press resistant because his dribbling out of tight areas is so good. Yet, therein lies Arsenal’s problems, and why Coquelin’s absence will be hard-felt, because Arsene Wenger has built a system reliant on the characteristics of certain key players – not necessarily robust concepts. And generally, once he finds a system that wins, he grinds it to the ground such that any slight change to that formula can cause Arsenal to stutter – until of course, somebody else makes their relative mark on the team.

Mathieu Flamini is the present incumbent of the holding midfield role and in the 1-1 draw against Norwich City; we got a glimpse of just what he can offer to the team in what is probably the twilight of his Arsenal career. Ironically, just as he was looking to make his stamp on team, The Gunners lost two key players to injury, adding to the uncertainty we’re likely to get in the coming weeks. Those losses proved telling, particularly when you focus on the passivity Arsenal displayed for Norwich’s equaliser. Because the thing with Arsenal’s defending, and probably what is the nezt step for Murphy’s analysis, is that it’s reliant on speed – or what Manuel Pellegrini describes as “defending with pace”.

Wenger teams have always been distinguished by this trait but usually when going forward; for this team, it’s probably more a hallmark going backwards, in terms of how quick the defenders recover (and the back-four, apart from Mertesacker are rapid) and the distances they cover when the team loses the ball. In that regard, the two key players are Laurent Koscielny, who departed the game early with a groin injury, and Coquelin of course. They tend to bail Arsenal out a lot of times from average defending situations frankly, by being aggressive, winning the ball back quickly and playing on the front foot. That’s what Flamini tried to replicate in midfield but what Gabriel failed (though he tends to be good at that kind of reading of play) with the missed interception before Lewis Grabban finished for Norwich .

Overall, The Gunners weren’t unduly threatened but there is a sort-of half-hearted press that they use even against the weaker opponents that puts them in situations where they invite teams at them. I would describe it as a 4-4-2 shape for the most parts with Ozil dropping off once the ball is played behind him. (That ambiguity – is Ozil a striker or a midfielder in the press? – sometimes puts Arsenal into trouble). It’s sort of a zonal-man-marking system where the team moves left and right, and backwards and forwards as a unit but when the ball enters a respective player’s zone, they look to aggressively man-mark that player. Certain players might have more freedom of how aggressively they close down an opponent such as Ramsey or Mertesacker who tend to push out, and sometimes abandon the shape in an attempt to win the ball back quickly – see video below.

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For much of the game, though, it must be noted that Arsenal were very comfortable. It was after Alexis departed through injury, however, that the team lost a little spark and that is worrying because he is one of two players that push defenders backwards (the other being Theo Walcott), and also, the partnership between him and Ozil generates much of Arsenal’s attacking thrust. Arsenal tend to slant their play towards the left-side, with Alexis stepping five or six yards infield and Ozil floating wide to create overloads. Against Norwich, Monreal was also an important figure going forward, and again, it’s the understanding he has with Alexis that has become a key part of Arsenal’s game. Indeed, both full-backs actually got forward a lot in the match and that was facilitated by a subtle change to Arsenal’s build-up play from the back.

Again it involved Flamini, who tended to drift to the flanks to support the full-backs in possession, thus liberating them going forward. Whether this was accidental or not, it’s hard to say, but Flamini specialises in this kind of movement when Arsenal have the ball at the back. Certainly, it falls in line with Arsene Wenger’s strategy of using the ball-winning midfielder as a decoy, dragging opposition midfielders away with him, to create space for the centre-backs to pass through the midfield to either one of the attacking players or Cazorla who drops deep. This tactic tends to be used against teams who don’t press and indeed, Norwich camped 10 players behind the ball for the majority of the game. The intention is that then, it lures those teams to commit one or two players to the press – going against their gameplan really – so that Arsenal have a bit more space in the middle. Norwich didn’t really budge so Arsenal decided to use the sides of the pitch more in a bid to stretch their opponents. In the example below, you can see Flamini urging Monreal forward as Norwich narrow and Arsenal nearly score.

I find it oddly fascinating to watch this tactic because it goes against the textbook which is to ask one of the deep midfielders to drop in between the two centre-backs to stretch the play. With Arsenal generally resisting the urge to do that, it creates a game-within-a-game, with the midfielders battling with opposition midfielders off-the-ball to follow them. People argue that against the top teams that press, Arsenal would be found out. That hasn’t really been tested because when Arsenal play those teams, they tend to drop off themselves thus playing mainly on the counter-attack. The one time it did work was against Manchester United, when Arsenal blitzed them in the first half-hour, using their ambiguous midfield positioning to confuse United’s marking scheme and Cazorla tending to drop-off in between the centre-backs to pick up the ball. Indeed, his importance in the build-up must be stressed because Wenger calls him the “guide”, because he directs Arsenal’s play from the back rather than dictates, and the team-mates know when they pass it to him, he can get them out of trouble because of his quick-dribbling. That’s one of the reasons why Coquelin will be sorely missed, as together the pair created a unique partnership in the heart of the midfield. Hopefully now, Arsenal can find a different balance.

Arsenal 0-2 West Ham: Positional indiscipline proves costly

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Arsenal 0-2 West Ham: Kouyate, Zarate

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.

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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.

“My philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble” ~ Wenger

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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.”

Read my latest Arseblog Tactics Column: SWANSEA FRUSTRATE AS COQ BLOCKED

Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Gunners have more firepower

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Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Giroud, Rosicky

In between two desperate lunging headers, there was calmness, as Olivier Giroud put to bed a nightmare week to send Arsenal on their way to a 2-0 victory over Everton. His goal was trademark Giroud: a dash to the near post before guiding the ball into the bottom far corner. His other key trait, his heading, can fluctuate wildly as from outside play, Arsenal rely on his aerial prowess heavily; however, in front of goal, desperation seems to kick-in, as if scoring them should be a norm for him. Still, his greatest ability is perhaps his determination, as Arsene Wenger alluded after the win; that he kept searching for the chance.

The whole team too needed to respond and they did, although this was probably a more promising step forward than the other “reactions” we have witnessed this season following setbacks.  Previously, the response has been for Arsenal to stand off and cede possession just to give a little solidity to their defensive game in that sense, the Monaco game was a bit of an aberration, where the Gunners totally dominated) and although here, Wenger said “we could do better with the ball”, The Gunners were more proactive in their approach without it. As such, the game was more or less even (possession 48%/52%): when one team attacked, the other tended to press early then drop back into a compact shape. As 7amkickoff noted on Arseblog News, tackles (11-12), territory (50.5% – 49.5%), crosses (26-24), corners (8-9), seem to corroborate that but Arsenal were far more purposeful in the attacking third.

Arsenal try to press, centre-backs follow Lukaku

The early period, between 15-20 minutes, was dominated by Everton. Perhaps that was to be expected because Arsenal were always going to be a bit cautious after the 3-1 defeat to Monaco in midweek. On the other hand, Everton made it difficult for Arsenal to really gain a foothold in the match by being a bit risk-free themselves on the ball, stretching the pitch with the full-backs and looking to lure Arsenal out.

At times it worked, especially when they bypassed Arsenal on the flanks and had The Gunners forward players turned. It probably hints at Arsenal’s weakness as much as Everton’s strength when they push Seamus Coleman and Luke Garbutt forward because Arsenal’s press is not entirely co-ordinated.

It’s not unusual to see the forward players – namely Alexis Sanchez – gesticulate and cajole their team-mates to push up the pitch though no-one follows, or if they do, they usually do it with a brief burst of intensity. Indeed, Alexis’s pressing should be the signal for Arsenal to up their intensity; instead as he goes by himself, it often shows up the rest of the side, or has the unwanted effect of exposing the midfield. That’s the issue with Arsenal: there doesn’t seem to be clear understanding between the team on when to move up the pitch together, or what the triggers are to really up their intensity. Against Everton, that natural cautiousness meant Arsenal were able to retain a compact shape and cut out the passing lanes to Lukaku. Still, there were moments when the body twitched, and in that sense, it’s a tortuously fascinating experience to watch Arsenal grapple with the concepts of moving and reacting as a team together, as if Wenger asked them to analyse ten Salvador Dali paintings before sending them out on the pitch.

Thankfully against Everton the shape was more promising and the line just the right height not to allow Romelu Lukaku the chance to run behind. Still, Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny were diligent in their efforts to mark Lukaku, often following the striker across the pitch. It’s undoubted that having the two centre-backs in the backline aids Arsenal’s pressing strategy, to get the team up the pitch, because both players love to intercept and win the ball back early. In Wenger’s pressing game, whole team essentially has to man-mark and get tight, and Gabriel and Koscielny’s style might just be the platform to transform Arsenal into a better pressing outlet.

Ozil, Cazorla central to the way Arsenal create chances

Once Arsenal settled, the game proved to be an intriguing, if not entirely entertaining, example of how two sides noted for their treatment of the ball, can be so different. What the match showed is that possession football is diverse – as diverse as the game itself (as everybody passes the ball) – and that there is no such thing as a single, homogeneous style of build-up play.

Arsenal’s style is mainly position-based, and as such, it’s easy to identify the typical passing lanes. The centre-backs pick up the ball and look to feed one of the midfielders, in this case Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla (though neither is as adept in deep positions as the absent Mikel Arteta. Coquelin is improving, though he’s far from a prober, rather a player who uses his first touch to open up passing lanes), who in turn has the option of passing it to a myriad of attacking players who have committed forward in front of him. With this approach, Arsenal look to have as much of the play in the opponents half as possible and it’s up to the players, based on a know-how accumulated over time and matches, to find solutions.

Everton on the other hand, have the majority of their play at the back and are happy for it. Instead, they look to work space patiently by stretching the pitch as wide as possible in the hope that eventually, this will create a bit of space for one of the midfielders in the 4-3-3 to find a killer pass.

In this game, Arsenal were much better equipped, and with the attacking quality they have, looked to get them combining as often as possible quickly in tight spaces. The way Arsenal do this is by creating a numerical advantage on one part of the pitch by committing an extra man to the build up.* Naturally that suits Ozil, who loves to drift into the channels, though with Alexis going the other way, found it more fruitful to move to the left. Kieran Gibbs would then come haring down the touchline to offer an outlet to play a penetrative pass forward, or wait for Santi Cazorla who would push forward to create an extra man. The aim is to create numerical advantage through overloads; situations of 3v2, 2v1, or 4v3, particularly in tight spaces and then suddenly break through with a incisive pass or late run.

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There was was a bit of apprehension about Arsenal’s play against Everton that meant they didn’t quite profit from these moments as they might have, (because those moments against Monaco were when Arsenal over-committed) though the best moments that wasn’t goals featured such build-up. Hector Bellerin’s blocked chance halfway through the first half and two Santi Cazorla long range efforts a few such examples. In the end, Arsenal showed the special quality that they have above Everton to make the difference; Olivier Giroud’s expert finish and then Ozil’s fantastic cutback to find Rosicky which sealed the win.

*
Mikel Arteta explains how Arsene Wenger cultivate moves like this in a feature for Four FourTwo Performance:

“At Arsenal, we do a lot of exercises where you have to play through the mannequins, but you can use cones. This is a great drill because it’s real; you’re moving and finding the holes to play the diagonal pass, just like in a match.

“The drill starts with player one passing the ball through two mannequins to player two, who with one touch steps through the next two mannequins. He then passes the ball to player three on the outside. Player three returns the pass and begins his run around the three mannequins, forming a triangle

“Playing one-touch football, player two and three exchange passes between mannequins one, two and three. Once player three has run past mannequin three he plays the ball back to player two and sprints around mannequins four and five.

“Receiving the pass, player two takes one touch through the mannequin gate and plays a diagonal pass to player three as he runs past mannequin five.

“The process repeats itself, with each player swapping positions in a clockwise direction. This drill will help you during a game when out to create two versus one situations against a defender.

“It’s also great for finding the spare man. Think of player two as a midfielder and player three as a full back or winger on the overlap.”

Danny Welbeck shows finishing touch

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It was all Danny Welbeck could do not to chip it. Bearing down on goal with the goalkeeper hotfooting it off his line, Welbeck’s thoughts would have turned to his miss on his debut against Manchester City – orthat chance for Manchester United against Bayern Munich – when he decided to chip the goalkeeper. Had he pulled it off, we would have been talking about an audacious piece of skill, a moment of daring that epitomised this precocious talent. Indeed, when he chipped Joe Hart, the goalkeeper was flummoxed by the shot though the ball bounced excruciatingly back off the post. Sometimes, however, the chip is the best option. Instead, against Borussia Dortmund, with the score at 0-0, Welbeck hesitated ever so slightly and sent a tame shot wide of Roman Weidenfeller’s post. Arsenal would later lose 2-0.

Thankfully, Danny Welbeck would make no mistake when the opportunity to chip presented itself again this time against Galatasaray, and with the confidence of two goals already behind him, he poked the ball calmly over the onrushing goalkeeper. “The third goal was probably the hardest because I was stretching for it,” said Welbeck after the 4-1 win. “I’ve been in that position a few times, trying to chip the keeper. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t.”

It’s this bouncebackability that Arsene Wenger preaches from his strikers, and why Welbeck endears so much to him because he believes finishing is a learned skill tha can be practiced on the training ground – while Welbeck already does everything else well – and you only worry when the team is not creating the chances. Against Galatasaray, Arsenal were clinical, scoring from the first real chance that fell to them, and with each goal Welbeck (and Alexis Sanchez), showed real composure to tuck the ball away.

Understandably, it’s taking a while for Welbeck to develop this side of his game and it shows the short-sightedness of football that Welbeck was previously judged so harshly on his goalscoring record. Ahead of him he had Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, two strikers who had to adapt their game from being attracted to the ball too much from when they were younger to developing a blood-thirsty appetite for finding the back of the net. Wenger calls this instinct “animalistic.” As Rooney explains, he did “too much running,” when he was younger, “and then didn’t have the energy to get into goalscoring positions in the box. I’m a cleverer player now and know when to run into the box and when not to, and as a result more chances have come my way and I’ve scored a lot more goals for the club.”

Welbeck probably fell victim to this demand at Manchester United where, because he had all the tools to be an explosive striker, goalscoring was expected to come naturally. It’s this sort of paradox modern striker have to juggle because although they are asked to do more – to drop off opposing centre-backs, hold the ball up and make runs behind, whilst pressing aggressively – they have to also find a way to be more economical with such movement. Speaking at a UEFA coaching conference, Roy Hodgson remarked:  “I wonder how this will evolve. There is a danger that this job will become too lonely and too difficult. In many cases, the striker is not just expected to act as a target and to hold the ball up, but also to do a lot of chasing and to work hard as the first line of defence.” Former Juventus coach coach Antonio Conte cited Atletico Madrid’s Mario Mandžukić as an example of the new breed of striker who possesses extraordinary athletic qualities and is, as he put it, “defensively aggressive and committed with a selfless attitude towards defensive duties.”

The after effect of this quest for the apotheosis is that it has created three layers of strikers where once there were two: the best and the rest. Now, is the age of the super striker*: a level beyond what would normally be considered great and out of reach of the rest making them look like footballing Ali Dias; where the achievements of a select few, namely Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, have distorted the market. Where once scoring 20+ goals a season was considered the gold standard, now it is the bare minimum expected of a top-level striker.

Welbeck’s hat-trick against Galatasaray goes some way to proving that he’s not such a bits-and-pieces purchase that some had suggested when Wenger splashed £16million out on him in the summer transfer window. Instead, he’s an amalgamation of a number of different types of strikers. He can play within any tactical framework, whether as wide forward in Arsenal’s 4-3-3 or as a spoiling presence just behind another striker, picking the pockets of opponent playmakers with his long legs. Or more traditionally, he can function as a poacher or a target man.

Indeed, Welbeck in the past has been likened to Nwankwo Kanu by Sir Alex Ferguson which is good news for Wenger whose fetish has been to clone a more mobile version of the Nigerian striker. Indeed, taking account of the tall, rangy strikers he has brought in during the last 15 years, you can almost chart the evolution as a sort of linear sequence starting with Kanu and ending, hopefully, with Welbeck.

When Wenger signed Emmanuel Adebayor he labelled him as like “Kanu with pace”; with Sanogo he said that “he has similar strengths, strong of body, but as well technical skills.” Welbeck meanwhile, has been described as having the “perfect style to play through the middle.” In between, Marouane Chamakh and Olivier Giroud can be seen as aberrations in the perfect genetic line: an over-indulgence in one quality – technical ability – over the other key component of Arsenal’s play: mobility.

Of course, Kanu, in the Wild West days of the Premier League was an extremely artful striker with a deceptive turn of pace, but he probably veered slightly too much to the side of maverick talent. Adebayor, on the other hand, never really won over the fans with his languid style whilst Sanogo is the opposite; endearing to fans after his performance in the FA Cup final as a defence-stretching-forward scuffler creating space for Arsenal’s other more imaginative players to play.

Danny Welbeck is more rounded: a lovely mover around the football pitch who principally tends to float towards the left-hand side, though when he does get the big chances, it usually happens from the right. That shows you the measure of the player that he is because Welbeck’s game is all about sudden little bursts – what coaches call “high intensity sprints” – be it closing down opponent defenders in order to force a mistake or make darting, arrowing runs into the box. His goals against Galatasaray showed how his timing is getting better and the improved understanding he has with his teammates. His hat-trick goal to dink the ball over the ‘keeper was probably his best although the second goal was typical Welbeck: robbing the central defender of the ball, shrugging him off with a dismissive swat of the arm and then finishing Henry-like into the bottom corner.

The other impressive facet to Webeck’s play has been his link-up which is tidy and accurate. His pass success is 86% in the league, a massive improvement on Olivier Giroud’s erratic 68% from last season. Giroud, though, contributed to Arsenal’s play due to his neat flicks and tricks bringing others into play, often acting as a wall to play passes off. Welbeck is a bit different, more likely to end up at the end of moves, but when he drops off too he can be very effective, helping the way Arsenal like to play when they set up triangles on one side on the pitch, then switching the play quickly to the other side. He did this very well against Aston Villa, in particular stoking up an intelligent partnership with Mesut Ozil with both seemingly never too far away from each other. In the 3-0 win they combined 18 times, and two of those times led to goals. Against Galatasary, the combinations were more varied: Welbeck was slipped in by Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain for two of the goals. The other was from a Galatasaray mistake. Each time Welbeck finished with great aplomb.

*The most interesting aspect of the super striker is that they come in all shapes and sizes due to the prevalence of the single striker system. With most top level teams playing a variant of the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, the strikers’ strengths (and weaknesses) can be balance out in a system that covers all bases. For example, in Barcelona’s treble wining side of 2012, Pep Guardiola used David Villa as the more traditional poacher-like player, making runs behind, but he played mainly on the left while Pedro stretched play in the other side. Behind them they had a myriad of ball players that could find them easily but the chief creator and goal-getter was Lionel Messi who, as a false 9, was now given the freedom to pop up wherever he liked.

The most prominent super strikers are Messi, Ronaldo and possibly Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez. Aiming to join them or were once in the list but slipped out are Robin van Persie, Neymar, Diego Costa, Radamel Falcao, Mario Mandzukic, Edinson Cavani and Robert Lewandowski.

Alexis Sanchez can take centre stage for Arsenal

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In his book, Lonely at the Top, a biography of Thierry Henry, Philippe Auclair reveals the psyche of one of Arsenal’s greatest players, although in getting there, the troubled image he has in his native France. In particular is the fascinating account of how Henry ended up at The Gunners, having become an increasingly maligned figure in his country despite winning the World Cup, and having attempted to manufacture moves early in his career to Real Madrid, then to Arsenal.

Henry was desperate to move to North London to rekindle a fleeting relationship he had with then coach, Arsène Wenger, who threw him in for his professional debut for AS Monaco at the age of seventeen amid in-fighting between board members, injuries and bad form. Back then, in the summer of 1994, Wenger had the chance to manage Bayern Munich. However, depending on which report you read, Wenger either resisted the corporate German giants, or that the move was blocked by AS Monaco, who in comparison, were not so much the tiny family-owned business, but if that business operated the only shop-front in a 50-storey building and had its own car-park. And that family was the royal family. In any case, Wenger stayed in the hope that Monaco would grant him a free-hand in teambuilding. A game after handing Henry his debut, however, the Frenchman was sacked.

Despite that, Wenger continued charting Henry’s progress whilst keeping an eye on France’s other youth prospects and it was in one of his trips to follow Les Bleuets that he told Henry that he was “wasting his time on the wing and would have a different career as a centre-forward.” Suffice to say, it would take a nightmarish half a season at Juventus – playing sometimes even as a wing-back – for Henry to realise how right Wenger was. “I won the World Cup as a winger,” Henry says in Lonely at the Top. “I’d already been in the national team, and Arsène was telling me I could have another career as a centre-forward. It was difficult for me to understand.”

*****

Nobody knows the full extent of the conversation that Alexis Sanchez had with Arsène Wenger before signing for Arsenal, but it is likely Wenger seduced Sanchez by offering him some assurances of his future position, namely by promising to play him up front.  Sanchez, though, when pushed on what was said was unwilling to give an exact answer, possibly because of the language barrier, saying that they only talked about using him in a number of positions, but also possibly because he’s been here before, as settling on his best position has been a bone of contention throughout his career.

In the youth sides, Sanchez was an attacking midfielder, given a free role to dazzle with his quick feet and vast array of tricks. “The first time I saw him I said he had no limits,” says Nelson Acosta, the manager who first drafted Sanchez, as a 16-year-old, into his first team at Cobreloa. “He has everything. Normally in young boys there is something missing, be it skill, or vision, or the ability to beat a man. Not in Alexis. That is very rare.”

Soon Sanchez would be snapped up by Udinese although he would have to wait a while before playing for the first team, twice being shipped out on loan to sharpen his skills. When he came back to Udinese, he took a while to get going, shunted out to the right wing before some genius decided it was best move him back to the centre where he first caught the eye. Here Sanchez flourished playing as a kind of second-striker-winger hybrid – a fantasista in the loosest sense – behind the celestial Antonio Di Natale, scoring 12 league goals and notching 10 assists. His exerts caught the eye of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, who was ever looking for ways to perfect his Barcelona side, and the prospect of dovetailing both Sanchez and Messi was a scintillating one. The first sign of what they could do together was in El Clasico, when Sanchez was used as a poacher in a 4-3-3 and with half-an-hour played, Messi slipped him through with a delicious through-pass. Sanchez didn’t take long to compose himself, slotting the ball into the bottom corner in a soaking wet night in Madrid. It would be the last time, however, Messi would play second fiddle to somebody and for the next three seasons, Sanchez would almost exclusively ply his trade on the right-flank.

It’s not as if Sanchez failed to perform with his distinction in that role: his darting runs off the flank into the box would become a key feature of how Barcelona would play and in his final season, he would score 19 goals, yet he has always felt as something of an interloper, an incorrigible cog in a perfectly oiled system. The way Barcelona play, where the passing is low risk but high percentage, and where opposition defences are set, it requires a sureness to your play that Sanchez was only just beginning to get to grips with. Indeed, if you look at his underlying numbers, you realise just how much his creative instincts were dulled: key passes are at 1.7 per game whilst he only completed 36 dribbles all season. (To put that into account, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Jack WIlshere completed more. It’s likely, when given a central role at Arsenal, those two parts would become a key factor of the team’s play). On the flip side however, his shooting and assists numbers are excellent.

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Created by Ted Knutson (follow @mixedknuts)

It was as if at times, his instincts were dulled, from once playing with the intrepidity of a leader of a street gang in a central role, cooking up ideas behind his angular forehead that you wouldn’t expect, his role was reduced to a ferreter and furrower, running up and down the flanks as if seeing the pitch as elaborate tunnels.

The trouble is, Sanchez always looked like a winger which in itself an achievement in an age where footballers are, at a certain level – below the very best and above the second rate – relatively indistinguishable in terms of athleticism and basic skills. And as Barney Ronay writes, that means “football has become more chess-like, more a matter of the location and exploitation of momentary weakness.” At Barcelona, where almost all outfield players are below six-feet, that problem was exacerbated because the whole team, even down to the goalkeeper, was viewed almost as an extension of the midfield. There was no need for specialist strikers (and defenders as Javier Mascherano would find out). Everybody’s relative skills were taken into account of how they would contribute to goals: Alexis was fast and an excellent dribbler therefore he would run into the box from the flanks.

Playing for the national side in the World Cup was a breath of fresh air. Used in an inside-right position with the freedom to move centrally, Sanchez was outstanding as Chile were agonizing knocked-out on penalties by Brazil, though his best play happens to be just before the World Cup started when he produced three scintillating assists in a 3-2 comeback win against Egypt. Here, he showcased everything that he came to promise when he first burst onto the stage; his impudent dribbling ability, the vision to see a pass and power from deep. Put simply, it was Messi-esque. Perhaps it’s as Wenger once said; that by deploying a central player wide as Barcelona did, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.”

****

When Alexis Sanchez joins the first team back from his holidays, the expectations will undoubtedly be high. At that cost, at around £32m, he certainly has to be a game-changer. Certainly, it changes the way Arsenal play if indeed he is deployed as a lone striker, because in the exact opposite way Olivier Giroud brings others into play with his neat touches and flicks, Sanchez, by running the channels, sometimes away from play, can create space for the ball-players to play.

For me he has the three ingredients to play up front that all Arsenal strikers have possessed in the past: 1) the spontaneity to produce something out of nothing; 2) the ability to run behind and stretch defences and 3) excellent dribbling in 1v1 situations. However, there’s a psychological adjustment he would have to make, maybe more so than the physical, as now defenders will be breathing down his neck. For the most part of his career, Sanchez has generally tended to play facing the goal, although having said that, it’s an adjustment he should easily make as protecting the ball, then twisting and turning away from markers is one of his strengths. Indeed, that’s probably why he endears so much to Wenger. Like Henry, who others didn’t see as a central striker (most when at Juventus where Carlo Ancelotti admitted it was one of his great regrets), Sanchez is an all-rounder, capable of dropping deep or pulling wide, and then, as quick as a flash, able to change the emphasis of an attack with his one-on-one dribbling and explosive running. Indeed, that’s exactly what makes Arsenal dynamic: when they’ve got their back to goal, and then suddenly they spin away from markers and look to play the next ball forward. Alexis Sanchez could play a central role in any success Arsenal have next season.

Have Arsenal become easier to press?

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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.

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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.

Ozil’s options are compressed as he opts to dribble past Henderson in an attempt to go forward instead of passing it backwards to Mertesacker or Arteta.
Ozil’s options are compressed as he opts to dribble past Henderson in an attempt to go forward instead of passing it backwards to Mertesacker or Arteta.

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.

Then there’s the intricate, almost one-paced play Arsenal play. At times this season, it’s been exhilarating: the team goals against Sunderland and Norwich are some of the best I have seen and that burgeoning understanding can only get better with time and a full complement of healthy players. But the statistics also say this is probably the worst of Wenger’s sides at keeping the ball, dropping to fifth in the Premier League for average possession per game at 56%, down from the last three seasons of 60%+. Of course, this is partly a purposeful ploy from Wenger, implanting a pragmatic side to Arsenal’s game, as they are more willing to drop off and soak up pressure, gradually working a foothold in the game and taking the chances that come. However, it’s also hard to ignore that they now take four less shots per game and concede one more shot on average per game than they have in the past few seasons. Is it a strategic fault that Arsenal have or is it the players that account for the drop-off?

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 saidwe 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.