I want to start off by acknowledging the response to the previous article. Thank you. And I am sorry I wasn’t able to respond to the many considered opinions that were shared. Right now I am really struggling for time, which is also forcing me into compressing two or three articles worth of content in one.
In this piece I want to focus on a key systemic issue at Arsenal. Regular readers know that I have been talking about weaknesses in the system for a long time and have covered some in the past.
I believe the system of play is a team’s single biggest strength. This comes from the manager and the way he thinks about football. It could also be a philosophy of the club as is the case of Barcelona. Often the two are interlinked.
In order to understand this ask yourself the following questions – How can Wenger keep Arsenal in the top four even while fielding the likes of Almunia, Eboue, Denilson and Diaby in the starting line-up on a regular basis while other managers like O’Neill, or those at Tottenham, spent a lot more money on supposedly established stars but failed to dislodge the Gunners? Why didn’t Manchester United struggle after losing and not replacing the likes of Tevez and Ronaldo? Why was Ibrahimovic a flop at Barcelona, even when the club was successful? Why is the same Ibra a success in Italy?
None of these questions have straightforward answers and they lead us back to the quality of the managers and the systems they use. Ibrahimovic didn’t fit into the Barcelona style. Ferguson and Wenger have much stronger systems than their counterparts at other clubs. This allows them to get more out of their players and they can dominate other teams that spend a lot more money.
A system, in my opinion, is not limited to the numerical formation. A 4-3-3 system deployed by two managers can be as different as sugar and salt. Take a look at the two World Cup finalists as a case in point.
Wenger has often said that the system he plays is based on the players he has. It’s not as simple as 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. A lot of details go into making a distinctive style and as Vermaelen was quoted on the official website today, it’s the little details that make a difference.
I want to look at a few snapshots from the 3-3 draw with the Tiny Totts towards the end of last season. This example is from the 88th minute. I would suggest that you not focus on the instance per se but more on the conceptual discussion.
In the first image we see that Song has just played a pass to Cesc who is running towards the opposition box. Wilshere is next to him and moving in the same direction. Sagna and Bendtner can be seen on the flank. Arshavin, who is supposed to be the left sided attacker, is on the edge of the box.
The Russian and Cesc were able to pass the ball in a tight space which created half a shooting chance for Fabregas. It is interesting to note that only Van Persie is in the box. Bendtner can hardly contribute from his wide position.
The shot is blocked and it falls to Wilshere. Note the two Spurs players just outside their box. These players are free and can counter attack if an opportunity arises.
Eventually, Wilshere chooses to cross with only the Dutchman as the target. The ball floats harmlessly over as he is well marshalled by the two central defenders.
In the final image, it is important to note the positions of Bendtner, Wilshere, Arshavin, Cesc, Sagna, and Song. If the ball had been headed out or intercepted, Spurs would have had a break on as the six players above and Van Persie would have been out of the game because of their positions and the way they are facing.
Song would have to compete for the ball and the two players on the edge of the box could easily play a one two around him to get into yards of space with only two central defenders and perhaps Clichy in front of them. This could easily lead to a three-on-three or a four-on-three situation.
In this case it did not happen but just ask yourself how many times have you seen the ball move from the attacking third to Arsenal’s defensive third in less than 10 seconds?
Here is an excellent video of a similar situation, although there are some differences it shows how easy it can be for a team to transition from attack to defence against Arsenal. The replay around the 17 second mark is from an excellent angle.
At the same time it is important to note that more often than not the defenders do make a block, tackle, interception, or clearance. Otherwise the Gunners would concede a dozen goals in each game. Defenders, when put in such situations regularly, can look like chumps but that’s not the right way to judge them.
The problem is that such transitions lead to a number of free-kicks, corners, and throw-ins in dangerous territories. This increases the chances for the opposition to score and puts pressure on Arsenal.
It also affects the confidence of both sides. The opponents know they will always get some chances. Wenger’s men are always wary of making a mistake.
Overall this affects the balance of play and reduces the impact that Arsenal can have with all their possession. That is the reason teams might consider facing Barcelona, United, or Chelsea (in their pomp) a monumental task but they’d always fancy their chances against Arsenal.
These situations are also linked to the decision making by players which in turn is related to their confidence and mentality at the given moment.
When the team is on a roll players tend to make better judgment calls and the whole unit looks a lot more compact and threatening. When they are down, small errors creep in. Someone might cross the ball when teammates are out of position, another might not be ready to chase back, a tackle might be mistimed, and so on. These are the little details that make a world of difference.
In general, when a football team is attacking, it must also be prepared to defend at a moment’s notice. Barcelona do this by having a large number of players in a small space that leads to their suffocating pressing. Most teams rarely get past this but as Arsenal showed, once you do that, the chances of scoring against the Catalans increase manifold. More importantly, Barcelona rarely play a risky pass when many of their players are out of position or on the wings.
Take another look at the last image above and ask yourself, would a Barcelona player ever cross the ball in such a situation? The odds of success are too low and the risk of a counter-attack is high. They just don’t do it. This comes from an instinctive understanding of the game and only when the players have been in a system for a long time. That is one of the reasons it is important to keep the squad together to the extent possible.
United have a different approach. They are a predominantly defence focussed side i.e. they go out with the intention of not conceding before they think of scoring. They also do this by focussing on the shape of the team. Even when they are camped in the opposition half you will never see two of their central midfielders out wide on a wing at the same time along with their wide player and fullback. They get into a shape so that two or three players are available in the box, someone is covering the opposite flank, and at least two players are present between the opposition box and their central defenders. Such a functional approach limits their ability to attack (still it is better than most) and is found out when the opposition is top class but it works for them in most games as they lose very few.
Arsenal are somewhere in between. In some games, especially away ones, we saw more focus on defending and maintaining the shape last season. And we saw the results in the form of the best away record in the League. In other matches, the team tried to dominate the ball and played an attacking, possession based style. Those games had mixed results.
Based on these observations, I believe Wenger will have to work really hard on improving the shape of the team during moments of transition i.e when Arsenal have to move from attack to defence. This is not an easy task but if you look closely enough it’s clear that they are working hard. The away games last season and some of those against the big teams showed the impact of the work being done to improve in this area. But a lot more needs to be done. The pre-season games, while friendly in nature and intended for fitness and development purposes, have shown that the team shape is not at the level needed and the opponents are able to move from their defensive third to the attacking third within seconds.
One big change could come in the form of limiting the number of players who have the freedom to roam. In the above example, we could see that Arshavin was a long way from his designated areas, Cesc naturally had a free role, and Wilshere too was overlapping Fabregas. In the pre-season games so far, Wilshere has shown the tendency to move forward with the ball. It looks good when he can drop the shoulder and beat a man or two but it affects the team. Nasri and Arshavin didn’t get on the ball often enough and eventually got crowded out.
Keeping Wilshere in deeper positions and having him pull the strings while having a broader view of the pitch can make a big difference. He has the talent to switch the flanks effectively, put in telling balls over the top when the defence is reorganizing, and also chase/tackle when the opposition gets the ball.
This might not be the only solution or a comprehensive one but it should make a difference.
If the players have to have the freedom, a lot more emphasis is needed on retaining possession – no obvious passes than can easily be intercepted, lesser number of crosses, etc. – when they are out of position and exposing the defence. The positioning of the fullbacks can also be altered to provide better cover down the middle.
Similar analysis can be done for transitions from defence to attack but I’ll leave it for another day. Then there are issues with defending set-pieces and some others that I want to cover if I get the chance.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not supposed to be a definitive opinion. Fans and students of the game cannot come up with those as we know very little. I doubt even managers like Redknapp, O’Neill, Hughes, et al. can come up with truly authoritative problem definitions and solutions as far as the Gunners are concerned. If they could, they’d have created teams better than the Arsenal by now!
I realize many people like clear cut answers. Media hacks, pundits, and some bloggers provide that. Unfortunately, nothing worthwhile works that way.
Fans have to acknowledge the complicated nature of issues involved and an honest effort is needed to understand them before one can comment on finding solutions. This is just a step in that direction. With your help I will try to go further down this road during the season.