The Premier League is said to be the best league in the world. I’m not convinced about that but I’d say the EPL is certainly the fastest league in the world. There is more end to end action in England than in any other country.
After watching games from various leagues over the last few years I’ve come to believe that in the Premiership the teams play as if they’ve to follow a basketball law – get a shot on goal within 30 seconds of getting possession. I know that is not the case literally. The point is that most teams in England try to get the ball into the opposition box as soon as possible. Many use Route 1 tactics while others try to play it out wide and cross it in at every opportunity.
With the balls fizzing around the penalty box and a lot of goalmouth action, the games do look exciting to watch for the casual fan. It isn’t the best way of playing the game and good teams often make sides using such tactics look woefully inept, but since it’s the majority approach it works and is appreciated.
Arsenal are an exception to this in some ways. The Gunners pass the ball around more often and better than many other teams. Most of their attacks are also created by good movement and pin-point passing. In the context of the English game, Arsenal are unique. But if we look at teams like Barcelona (Spain) or Holland, Arsenal are still a very direct team.
I’m not against the direct approach per se. When it works, and it’s successful more often than not, we can get performances as exhilarating as the first half against Newcastle. But there are times when it doesn’t work. There can be many reasons for that like the opposition playing a well organized pressing game, Arsenal missing key players, some players being out of form, team going down to ten men, and so on.
I have noticed that when Arsenal struggle to get control of the ball and don’t create enough in attack, they often struggle at the back too. Oddly enough, Arsenal look more vulnerable at the back when defending in numbers than when they play a high line and challenge the opposition to break them down (This is different when playing two or three big teams but in general this is true).
The most recent example we saw was in the dreadful second half against Newcastle. Having finally seen the second half again I’m convinced the ref had a bigger say in the result than I’d initially thought. But some blame does fall on the way Arsenal defended and it wasn’t something new. We’ve seen this far too often for it to be a one-off result affected only by the ref.
I agree with Wenger that the players were too concerned about defending the lead. The problem was that they still played a very direct style. So every time they got back possession, they tried to attack. Two or three players went forward, another couple stayed in the middle while others stayed deeper. This meant the team was not compact and with 10 men on the pitch it allowed Newcastle to find a great deal of space on the pitch.
The two or three who went forward couldn’t really create much as they were outnumbered. So the hosts won possession back really quickly and at times they were able to bring the ball to the Arsenal penalty box within seconds of it being out.
This made the players more nervous and the cycle repeated. It also lifted the crowd and their players who pressed higher up and got into the box in numbers. Once this happens the ref gets a lot more chances of influencing the game as the ball and opponents get into the danger area regularly.
Now to be perfectly honest I can’t see Arsenal parking a bus and making it look solid. We can park a lot of expensive, high performance sports cars and hope that it will do the work of one big two-tiered bus but it won’t always work.
Wenger has to find another way of defending and I think he should look at Spain, Holland, and Barcelona. All these teams play patient football and they also show excellent composure and defensive possession.
All through the World Cup the Dutch team played a defensive style but it wasn’t akin to the ‘Park the bus + hoof and hope’ style so common in the Premiership. The Oranje moved the ball between their defenders, keeper, and defensive midfielders. They waited for the opposition to come out and that created space for the likes of Robben and Sneijder to exploit.
Even Barcelona dropped back into their own half after scoring two goals against Arsenal at Camp Nou last season. They defended well and negated the threat of Walcott. At the same time they tried to find ways of exploiting the space behind the Arsenal defence and Messi was successful on two occasions to make it an emphatic score line.
When Arsenal are under pressure this is what they have to learn. The defenders need to stay deep, two central midfielders and a wide player should stay close to them and the striker should look to link up with a winger. Walcott does not have the close control or dribbling skills of Robben or Messi but he has explosive pace. If Arsenal can keep six/seven players deep and play the ball between them, they will undoubtedly find ways of using the space behind the opponents.
This would be a major tactical change from the current style that Wenger uses. Right now Wenger does not use a functional approach. Le Boss gives his players the right to decide how to play and the flexibility created by that is one of Arsenal’s biggest strengths but at times it also turns into one of their biggest weaknesses.
Arsenal are trying to adapt. I have seen this in patches. In the away games this season, the Gunners have been a lot more cautious than the last couple of seasons. They have played much deeper and have worked on their collective defending. I have also noticed that Fabregas looks to drop back a lot more and Walcott and Nasri have been making good runs from wide positions. Occasionally, I have also seen Arsenal play the patient possession game to control the lead but this doesn’t last more than two, three minutes at a time. Interestingly, Denilson is usually on the pitch when Arsenal do this.
Such an approach would have been very useful in the upcoming games with Diaby suspended, Djourou injured, and no updates on Song. But I can’t see it being implemented in the coming weeks.
I realize these are complex changes because the system is affected by the movement of each and every player on the pitch. If you’re playing a patient game deep in your own half and one player switches off or is caught out of position it could give the opponents a clear opening. So such a change cannot be implemented overnight and a lot of work has to be done in training.
But Wenger will have to create such a system sooner rather than later. He cannot just hope that having enough bodies in the box will work out so often, especially as these bodies are like cars and not buses or trucks.