The start to the Premier League was always going to be tough for the Gunners, as indeed it was for many other teams. Manchester United lost at home despite numerous seemingly strong performances in preseason. Everton drew, Tottenham got lucky, and the top two from last year had to fight very hard for their wins.
In that sense, and with the knowledge that the Gunners are missing key players, the result against Palace was a welcome one. As Wenger often says though, we must step back from the result and analyze the game without taking it into consideration.
It wasn’t a great game of football from the Gunners. There’s no denying that. At the same time, no one should turn a blind eye to the mitigating circumstances and the difficulties faced by other teams that are fighting for the same prizes. Our analysis must, therefore, differentiate between the problems that were understandable and excusable, and those that need to be addressed urgently.
I’d have easily accepted the reasons (insufficient preseason, key players missing, new players still adapting, etc) for the below par effort had this been a one-off performance. But look back at last season objectively and you’ll recall quite a few game against mid to low level teams where Arsenal had to grind out a result. Playing ugly and winning can be a good thing, but only when it’s a rare occurrence in an otherwise dominant run. Last season the Gunners had successful periods but they weren’t dominant ones. And that was the reason I wasn’t too excited about the title challenge. You could see it crumbling once the big games came around. The first blip came in December and then it was all over by the end of March.
Teams that have to consistently fight very hard to beat the smaller clubs will not be able to repeat those performances against the big sides who offer a much more potent attacking threat and are, as an extension, more secure at the back. So, while we should acknowledge the issues that affect the team, it’s very important to also realize there are certain deeper problems that offer genuine cause for concern.
1) Too slow in the central third
I was expecting Palace to sit a little deeper with their two lines right on top of each other with a gap of around 5-7 meters. For a while, thus, it surprised me when they seemed to be pressing around the centre line. Closer observation made things clearer.
Palace were really just sitting back, about 10-15 yards inside their own half, while maintaining good spacing from a defensive point of view. The Gunners had the ball around the centre line but instead of moving it around quickly, too many players were looking to make something happen all the time. Their desire and spirit were admirable but their tactical maturity and game intelligence were not.
When pass-and-move works as it’s supposed to, the opponents are constantly chasing the ball and have very little time to catch their breath. But sometimes the players in possession don’t make the simple pass that’s become available due to a teammates movement and instead wait for another opportunity for a better pass further forward. This discourages the teammate who’s showed for the ball while the others up front are waiting because they have very little space in a congested area. The rhythm of the possession game is disrupted and the opponent gets a chance to close the ball down higher up the pitch.
This explains how the Eagles were able to press the ball in the centre. They were not very good at it though and committed many fouls. They committed 19 fouls in this game and 12 of those came in the central third of the pitch.
12/19 fouls in the central third
Better teams would have a few successful tackles there instead of the fouls and these would lead to very dangerous counter-attacking opportunities.
To an extent, Arsenal’s problem was understandable. The two players on the right flank were debutants and the midfield combination, with Wilshere and Ramsey in box-to-box roles, isn’t the usual one. Sanogo hasn’t played too many games at the centre of the attack either. It’s hard to find fluidity under such circumstances.
Most of Wenger’s teams played their best football when the players get a run of games together and there is some stability. While it is completely understandable, it’s also not good enough to win the major titles anymore. Injury problems, need for rotations, fixture congestion, and other factors mean that the same line up cannot play bulk of the games. It is, as a result, absolutely imperative that Wenger finds a way to develop the tactical level of his players so they can find the fluidity irrespective of the starting eleven and other circumstances.
They have to rely on their passing and movement to create pockets of space rather than waiting for space to appear in which they can play the killer pass. It can be tedious, but the degree of precision and efficiency they achieve in this process will have a direct bearing on where they finish the season.
2) Defensive thought and set-piece preparation
Palace were resolute in defence and worked very hard. Credit to them for that. However, it’s impossible to say they offered any offensive threat whatsoever. Despite that, the Gunners some contrived to make mistake after mistake in gifting them a goal. This is another major cause for concern.
It started with a poor pass from Chambers. Part of it is excused by his youthful exuberance and inexperience. We can also appreciate that he was trying to do something positive. This though, was another case of a player taking unnecessary risk when many simpler options were available. It is very important that defensive players (Centre Backs, Defensive Midfielders, Full Backs in defensive positions) are constantly aware of the shape of the team at any given moment and work very hard to ensure they don’t lose the ball. And never in a central area because that completely opens the game up for the opponent.
Once Chambers gave the ball away and the counter-attack was on, the second mistake came from Szczesny. He’s been trying to play the sweeper, as was obvious from a couple of preseason games, but he clearly doesn’t know how to pick the right moments. I thought Koscielny was in a good position to deal with the ball and the Pole could have stayed back without any problems.
Having decided to charge forward, Szczesny again betrayed his inability to assess danger as he lumped the ball forward into a very dangerous area where there was no teammate to challenge a grateful opponent. I don’t know whether he was trying to play a pass-cum-clearance, in which case it was poor execution, or if simply didn’t think about what he was doing. The best option for the ‘Keeper in such cases is to put the ball out of play. This gives everyone a chance to get back into position. Obviously, he’d have to adjust his body shape as he arrived at the ball in order to hit it towards the touchline. Time would not have been a problem had he been clear about it from the moment he sensed danger.
The errors by Chambers and Szczesny show a lack of defensive thought that has repeatedly plagued the Arsenal defence over the years in one form or another.
Koscielny made a good block (although the shot was probably going wide) and then a good tackle as the ball went out of play. The danger should have been averted but for Arsenal’s set-piece vulnerability.
There must have been some analysis in the summer that suggested that the Gunners didn’t need a man on any post. Maybe there is merit to it, which will be proven in the long run. This is something we should keep an eye on.
The main problem in defending that corner seemed to be a poor understanding of roles.
For instance, Sanogo was at the near post. Usually strikers are needed there and do a good job of clearing such balls. However, when Chamakh made a run and took up a position just in front of him, the youngster seemed confused. Koscielny then pointed, and presumably said something, after which the lanky forward went a couple of steps ahead to mark one of his predecessors. That little movement probably meant the ball was able to float over his head and drop perfectly for Hangeland.
The goalscorer’s run and Arsenal’s response to that also showed the problems with the requirements of the system as understood by the players. Initially, it was Sanchez marking the giant defender. In fairness, the Chilean was simply marking a zone (probably pre-assigned in training) that the Norwegian was occupying. At first Alexis went with the run of the former Fulham man, as if by instinct. And then, confused, he let him go, glancing back with a worried look to check if his zone had been compromised. All this while, Koscielny was not aware of his counterpart’s movement and it was too late by the time he reacted.
A lot of these things came together for that goal to materialize. Had Arsenal put a man on the back post, or if Sanogo had held his ground, or if Sanchez communicated to Koscielny the moment Hangeland made that run, this goal could have been averted or at least made much harder to score with pressure on the header.
Mertesacker’s return should help things but I think a lot more work is needed on the training ground.
3) Too many take-ons
The Gunners attempted 37 take-ons and lost most of them.
Alexis was successful with 3 of his 10 attempts. Ramsey managed 1 out of 6. Sanogo had a fifty percent success rate from his four attempts and Cazorla did just better with 5 out of 8 (although he lost a couple that broke promising moments down).
This numbers are too high and corroborate the tendency to do too much as discussed earlier. When things are not going your way it’s better to revert to the basics and keep things simple. I’d rather they lost possession trying intricate combinations with quick touches, or when making more runs in behind, or via intercepted through-balls rather than lost take-on attempts.
That said, we should see some improvement on this front once the players get their sharpness back. Nevertheless, it would be better if they’re aware of their sharpness levels and make appropriate choices based on that.
Apart from the result of course, there were a few other details that were appreciable.
The equalizer was well worked and Koscielny’s header was clever because it was a tough angle.
I also liked the way the team kept going till the end. Wenger made good substitutions. Their concentration levels right at the end were excellent and I also enjoyed the way Koscielny and Giroud directed their headers purposefully.
Debuchy took up really aggressive positions and that can lead to threatening moments if used well.
Some other positives are covered in individual analysis.
This section is much smaller than the problem areas discussed above but don’t take that to be a ratio of the bad and the good from this game. Areas of concern need some elaboration and thus that write up is much longer. We expect Arsenal to win such games, which in turn implies the team is really good. There is no need to explain the strong points we see every day.
Szczesny: Was a spectator for long periods. Handling was good when the ball did come at him. Didn’t have any saves to make. The lack of defensive thought discussed above is a concern. Could he have done more to organize the defence for the first corner?
Debuchy: Saw a lot of the ball and used it well. I loved his shot on the swivel in injury time and the positions he took up in the box when the ball was on the other flank. Wasn’t really tested in defence. I’m not sure if his aggressive positioning was just natural or part of the game plan. Will have to keep an eye on this in other games and see how it changes based on the opposition. It’s important that the full back doesn’t lose sight of his defensive duties or get in the way of his more talented teammates.
Chambers: One mistake, bad as it was, shouldn’t take too much away from an otherwise assured outing. Was confident on the ball, got tight to the attackers and made tackles when he had to, didn’t commit unnecessary fouls and was wise enough to make one when the opponent got away from him (we’ll have to see how he handles better and faster opponents). Had these moments of stepping out of the defence with the ball, but they seemed hesitant. He can do more with the ball but it’s only fair that some time and experience is needed.
Koscielny: Excellent goal, great block and tackle, good helping hand (or head) for the winner, could probably have done something more to prevent the goal, reliable distribution, seems like he’s picked up where he left off last season.
Gibbs: Was a lot more conservative when compared to his teammate on the other flank, which was a safe choice. Passing could have been better. Seems a little bit off his best at the moment.
Monreal: Was very good in the attacking areas with his positioning, runs, and passing. Gibbs could learn form that. His weakness in one-v-ones was not tested.
Apart from the mistakes discussed above, the defensive players had a very comfortable game. There were times when the full backs were diagonally opposite in the opposition half with Debuchy near the penalty area and Gibbs around the centre line. I’m not sure if this was a conscious tactical choices based on their qualities or if it just worked out that way.
Arteta: Typical game from Arsenal’s captain. Helped with ball circulation constantly, kept things simple and brought others into the game, got into good defensive positions, I liked the way he dropped back at times to let Chambers step up.
Ramsey: Another player who saw a lot of the ball and worked hard constantly. That said, it wasn’t a particularly good performance. He really needs to simplify his game and learn to pick his moments. I don’t know how long these decisive moments are going to last and it’d be a shame if the team dropped points when players are trying too hard.
Wilshere: Was a foul magnet. Played deeper than Ramsey and didn’t venture forward as much. A decent outing but passing could have been crisper/quicker.
Cazorla: He hasn’t looked at his best all through the preseason and this game wasn’t very different. Just seems a little off-the-pace and a couple of promising moves broke down when he was tackled. Movement is good and I think he will do better if the central midfielders and the wide player on the right make full use of his vision and technique. Wenger will probably give some thought to starting him in a central attacking midfield role while Ozil finds fitness.
Sanchez: Saw so much of the ball he seemed more like a midfielder than a forward. Came inside all the time and made a few runs in behind. I’d have preferred it if he spent more time on the defensive line threatening the space behind. Passing needs some calibration. His dummies, the angles on some attempted through-balls, and general movement highlight a great football brain. Now Wenger has to get it to synch with others in the team. Had some interesting moments when playing on the left. I think he can do better from there if he wants to keep coming inside because that provides a more natural passing angle for him as a right-footed player.
Chamberlain: One powerful run that lacked end product. Steady effort otherwise. I think his running on the right and Sanchez on the left can be very interesting in some games.
Crystal Palace completed 123 passes in the game. Arteta was on 100, Ramsey 92. The midfield was in complete control of the ball and territory. But they have to convert that control into greater incisive threat.
Sanogo: His technique is poor and that will limit the contribution he can make, particularly in games where space in the attacking areas is very tight. Also showed his immaturity at times. For instance, he had a great chance to play a one-two with Sanchez and get in-behind but he went for a wildly ambitious shot from outside the box.
Giroud: Had greater presence than Sanogo and was a lot more involved. Good header in the build-up of the winner. Had a couple of other moments in the box that could have troubled Speroni on another day.
Wenger: Some of the problems mentioned above are not new ones, even if the players are new. He’ll have to solve these issues if any sort of a challenge has to last the distance.