Arsenal Season Review 2011-12: Tactics

There is no need to repeat the details but it seems safe to say most, if not all, Arsenal fans were seething with disappointment, anger, or worse after the way events transpired last summer.  Of the millions of words written on the transfer business and the subsequent season, few have covered the fact that Arsene Wenger had a massive tactical challenge in front of him after the departure of his talisman and captain, the player who could have taken his place in midfield, and that of a very hardworking and reliable defender who – even though popular opinion was to the contrary – remains one of the best at his job in the League.

Granted, Wenger might have contributed to the mess in some way through his indecision. Leaving aside that debate due to the lack of verifiable facts, we must acknowledge that the task in front of the Gunners’ boss was monumental. Judging him in May, as he’d like done, it would seem Le Boss has gotten the exceptional value out of his squad at least as far as the League is concerned. The Cups are a different ball-game so let’s leave them out of this discussion.

Arsene often says that he tries to adapt the tactics to suit the players that he has. But given the fact that Gervinho was signed early in the transfer window along with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, it would not be unwise to think he had some change of tactics in mind irrespective of the events of the transfer window. How the team would have lined up had Fabregas and Nasri stayed is anyone’s guess. It’s also difficult to figure out if Arteta and some of the other players would have been signed. But whatever happened happened. We can’t change it and there doesn’t seem to be any fun in examining the what-ifs in detail.

Many fans voiced an opinion last season that the Gunners lacked pace and needed a more direct approach as the tiki-taka wasn’t working. Maybe Arsene saw a semblance of an argument there, or he just had similar ideas of his own. The Gunners started the season with two quick wingers around and three midfielders behind Van Persie. That’s how they lined up for most, if not all, of the first half of the season.

The wingers were constantly looking to get in behind. Walcott had done it fairly effectively in the previous season and Gervinho brought in the ability to dribble and run with the ball with a change in direction at pace. The transitions were quicker or at least that’s what the attempt was. Many opportunities were created with balls being cut back from the byline, or penetrating runs down the middle through the space vacated by RvP. The players were still getting to know each other so the efficiency wasn’t quite there but they were doing enough to string a number of results together to embark on a positive run.

Interestingly, and in contrast to the perception of a few fans, this so-called direct football wasn’t achieved by playing fewer passes. Yes, there was an attempt to use the pace on the break, and to an extent it worked. But by and large Arsenal’s game was still based on dominating possession and pushing the opponents back. The vertical football, as some describe it, wasn’t here to replace the tiki-taka but to augment it.

As a matter of fact, the Gunners actually made more passes this season from open play and they had a better passing accuracy.

While both these increases were marginal it does validate the point that Arsenal weren’t trying to turn football into basketball, if you will. This seems a simple enough argument but some fans don’t quite understand the importance of the passing game and still want Arsenal to score goals in 3 or 4 passes every time they regain possession.

It is no coincidence that the teams at the top are generally the ones who make the most passes. Through this ball rotation and with the related off-the-ball movement, top teams control the play and impose their tactical will on the game. They push opponents back and constantly drag them out of shape. Such adversaries, when forced to focus their energies on defending, are not able to muster as big a goal threat as they otherwise might if the game were an end-to-end battle rather than one based on midfield dominance. It also explains why smaller teams are able to do better at home where they see a lot more of the ball.

Make no mistake, possession is vital in modern football and, while Cup ties might be won by parking the bus, League titles usually demand greater technical quality.

So when Arsenal lost some technical quality on the wings they compensated for it by creating a different role for Arteta and putting a greater burden on the midfield in general (I’d touched upon this earlier in the season in different ways here, here, and here).

Moreover, it just so happened that the departures of Cesc and Nasri when combined with the injury to Wilshere and Ramsey’s lack of form left Arsenal with fewer creative options down the middle. Consequently, the role of the midfield was modified to a more conservative one. While last year you might have seen Cesc, Nasri, and Wilshere playing tiki-taka around the opposition penalty box, and even Song got into the act at times (see his goal against Chelsea for instance), this season the midfielders stayed relatively deeper. Song and Arteta, in particular, were pulling the strings from a few yards behind the attackers. Even Ramsey, who started many games as the advanced midfielder, played a more disciplined box-to-box role rather than the kind of free role that Cesc had in the preceding couple of years.

The idea probably was to have a couple of midfielders shielding the defence at all times and also looking to ping passes that found the runs of the attackers. After that, if possible they were supposed to join in the attack. Song’s prolific through-ball attempts were part of this tactic. More on that when I look at the midfield in detail.

The thing with such a system was that balance was hard to find. If the midfield took a conservative attitude the front three lacked support and goals dried up. When the men in the middle took a bit more risk the defence was exposed. Even when the Gunners turned things around from early October onwards, they weren’t completely dominating the games or playing the opponents out of the park. As discussed in the previous post, most of the wins were of the ground out variety.

Since there are so many different events that happen in each game and these again vary with each fixture, it’s difficult to generalize, but the tactical changes meant that Arsenal did have a problem with maintaining their shape. The gap between the lines wasn’t always ideal and it allowed the opponents more room to build their attacks. The problems with the shape of the side also meant that the Gunners weren’t always able to transition from defence to attack as quickly as they might have liked to despite having players with blistering pace.

It’s difficult to capture this in stats and the following numbers are not solely down to the problems with the tactical structure of the side but the difference between the number of duels, not their success rate but simply the number of duels engaged in, does hint at positional weaknesses.

Across the board (Ground duels, Aerial duels, Tackles, and Interceptions) there is a clear drop in 2011-12 when compared to the last season. The success rates are marginally better but in general the Gunners were involved in fewer duels. Now the whole of this drop is not related to positional issues but there were many occasions where the positioning of players was questionable. Fans were often left wondering why a midfielder wasn’t around to win the second-ball, for instance.

Given the way the defence was exposed time and again, it’s no surprise that the number of defensive errors increased from 16 to 31, although they didn’t all lead to goals. The defenders also deserve tremendous credit for protecting the goal with last-gasp efforts as Successful Last Man Tackles increased from 3 to 25! Without these Arsenal might have conceded a lot more and even Europa League football might not have been possible. More on this in the article on defence.

After Gervinho went to the ACN, and with all full-backs injured around the same time, Arsenal also started struggling to get any value out of the left side of the attack.

To his credit, Wenger noticed this system wasn’t working quite as well and introduced the changes which played a pivotal part in Arsenal’s seven game winning run and a relatively solid end of the season run-in that helped secure third spot.

Starting with the away game at the San Siro where Rosicky was pushed out to the left, Arsene started reverting to the use of a technical player on the flanks. Benayoun didn’t exactly offer the work rate and technical contribution of a midfielder but he did provide better balance on the left. Initially it was in away games and against big sides but the Israeli soon ended up starting all games as the Gunners fought for every single point.

Looking back at the season with the benefit of hindsight, it would seem Arsene never completely found the right balance. The players still deserve credit for fighting hard. Van Persie provided wonder goals whenever the creative spark threatened to fizzle out. The defenders, Koscielny in particular, kept the Gunners in the race with many vital last-gasp tackles. Again this wasn’t about Arsenal playing like a side that was good enough to challenge for the major titles but one that showed tremendous mental strength and the spirit to defy the odds. Of course, as stated earlier, the events of the summer had made the manager’s job an extremely difficult one and the performances of Dalglish, Redknapp, AVB, and others showed us that Wenger still did a marvellous job even if it wasn’t at the level of title winning sides.

Finally, apart from the overall tactical discussion based on Wenger’s favoured system, it’s important to note that this season many fans again sensed a lack of flexibility. Why wasn’t Chamakh used more often when things weren’t working out in attack? Why didn’t the defence and midfield drop back to hold on to vital leads (Norwich for instance)? Why did the players run out of ideas after going ahead and why did they start so many games with the handbrake on? And so on.

My theory is that the tactical structure of the team introduced a degree of fear into the players’ psyche as they were being exposed far too often. What might seem like a complacent start was often a more conservative start with the players unsure of the degree of attacking intent that they could exhibit without completely opening the route to their own goal. This induced safe passing and off-the-ball movement which in turn created the impression that they weren’t trying hard enough to win. After going behind they didn’t have anything else to lose and could play with greater freedom.

If you flip the argument around, the Gunners faced a similar dilemma after taking the lead and often seemed bereft of a clear tactical approach. For instance, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was having a good game against Norwich but completely stopped playing after the Gunners scored the third goal. It was as if he didn’t know whether to take players on and continue attacking or to sit back in a defensive position. Same happened to many players and it affected the quality of football they could produce in attack as well as defence.

Before next season Arsene will have to find a system, develop a tactical identity for the side, that encourages his players to express themselves without providing the opponents with easy opportunities to threaten the Arsenal goal. That will be the first and most important step in creating a side that can challenge for the major trophies.

Stats from


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13 Responses to Arsenal Season Review 2011-12: Tactics

  1. telugabbayee says:

    @Desi Any idea abt how many of those 25 last man tackles were made by LK6?

  2. too says:

    Nice and intriguing article Desi. You’v given me so much to think about.i always wonder why you have never taken a coaching job anywhere because i think your insight in football is highly remarkable. Arsen is a good manager by all means, the way he works with low budget team is nothing but fascinating. but his inability to spot weakness and players who are not good enough in the team is simply appalling for a manager with so much experience under his belt. His tendecy to be predictable and rigidness in tactics of late makes me (an aspiring football manager,who looks up to wenger) loose respect for him a bit. A magician cant simply loose a trick over night? Am sure deep down wenger still has it,i have never lost faith in him. If he does a good job in the transfer market and adjust his tactics like the title winning sides he has built,he will be back to his best. That remains to be seen though. I am giving him one final season to prove me right,if it becomes disastrous like the last,i will be left with no choice but lebel him as bad news

  3. cupsui says:

    Again great analysis desi…well done. I do feel that wenger has a shift in midfield in mind and this was severley hampered by the loss of whilshere.
    I have mentioned this before and I do see us signing a Defensive minded midfield that still has some attacking abilities (M’Vila and Capoue top the wishlist for me). This would allow us utilise 3 “complete” midfielders and give us adequate cover ALWAYS in front of the back four. with at least one of the 3 covering the back four.
    I do think we were stronger when we had the two more direct wingers and i feel we will be even stronger in that respect next season with two of walcott, Gervinho, The Ox and Podolski playing on the wings.
    Our best run came with rosicky at AM and he does drop back to cover well and is a good tackler but still not natural like arteta/song/jack. Rambo while he has a good work rate is a very reluctant tackler and prefers the option of simply getting his body between opponent and goal to put them off. More of a wingers form of defence…
    And on that note i see rambo being utilised more in that sort of role next season. Coming off the bench as the AM or Winger and i think that will help him a lot and he can be very effective there…

    So i feel all we really need is a DM and we are an awesome side…(although we might need a defender if JD does a runner).
    Oh and of course getting RvP to resign (along with theo) which i think will happen (his wife and mum gave me some confidence there)

  4. Charlie says:

    Always a good read Desi, thanks. You elude to the fact that Arsenal suffered because there was a lack of an attacking midfielder in the centre. Do you see Wilshere as taking that role next season and alleviating the problems or would you like to see a new signing and who ? Also how do you see Arsene modifying the tactics to accommodate Podolski ?

    • cupsui says:

      I think whilshere will play the most advance role (mostly) but i think you will find him dropping back a lot too to cover if song or arteta (or our potential new DM) move forward. Arteta could also play a little more advanced too if we can get a solid DM in too.

      But we gotta get jackie boy back and playing first

  5. excellent analysis.

    Reduction in ground duels should have been compensated by improvement in interceptions. But since both went down it surely means a massive positional cock ups.

  6. Abhishek says:

    Excellent analysis..

    I do believe that a time during the last season, especially when Arteta was pulling the strings, we were really solid defensively. I looked into the number of goals we conceded while Arteta was playing (~23 in 29 games) and when not playing (26 in remaining 9 games)..also remembering the fact that 4 of those 23 goals were conceded at Blackburn which was early days for Arteta at AFC means we have been really solid as a defensive unit..
    To relate this to the bigger picture.. I would say we need a better link up with the attack with this solidity in defense..I believe a better AM other than Ramsey will help rectify this problem..player such as Jack Wilshere or even Abou Diaby can be the best solution to this problem in my opinion..
    as far as buying new players, I believe we should focus on adding more depth to the squad..I know M’Villa would be an excellent addition to the squad..but would he or Alex Song be willing to play bit part role throughout the season?..maybe less marquee signing might help us in that regard..though, I would like us to buy a left back who is as good as Bacary sagna is on the right…I believe the current team doesn’t need much changes to challenge for honors..need to focus on building a squad with depth and we will come good next season..

    • cupsui says:

      I agree 100% regarding Arteta because when he was out it was Ramsey or Rosicky forced to play his role and neither is even close to being able to do that. They do not have his positional awareness and strength in the tackle, with ramsey really flat out not liking a sliding challenge.

      But i don’t believe signing an M’Vila/Capoue (even Biglia) would cause that signing or song to be forced into a bit part role.
      Lets assume that a new DM signing comes in (I’LL CALL HIM LUCAS M’VOUE – combo of the 3 highest potential signings)
      I think at the start Lucas M’Voue – song – arteta will all start in midfield as Jack won’t be fit for the start of the season.
      All i think arteta would start in the more advanced AM role song CM and Lucas M’Voue DM. But they would move around these positions and interchange with each other. And i think that is Song, Arteta, and whilshere’s (along with M’Vila, Capoue and Biglia from what i’ve seen) biggest asset…their vesatility (they can all play all three positions as they have strength, defensive and positional awareness, creativity and great passing skills – FOOTBALLING BRAINS as they say)

      When Jack comes back you have the option to leave one of them out every game, which is an asset not a problem as they will not all be fit all the time (this is arsenal we’re talking about) and rest gives fresh legs and enhances our ability to compete on multiple fronts…

      For me signing a VERSATILE Defensive mid is #1 priority. And i would be happy if that was all but would not baulk at a versatile attack such as Dempsey or Affelay coming in. No one else is needed if we keep the main core together…

      going out should be – Bendy, Vela, Denilson, Squid, park (chamakh depends on another striker but i can’t see Doumbia/Giroud sitting predominantly on the bench esp with podolski as 1st back up even though i think he’ll play mostly LW)

  7. Charlie says:

    Undoubtedly the team was more solid with Arteta and I believe it had everything to do with his intelligence and experience. The one major defensive problem was that the midfield left the defense exposed at times. What Arteta gives you is that he is aware of what players around him are doing and knows when and where to cover. Song also has this ability but Ramsey doesn’t seem to. This is what leads me to believe that the club needs another DM, to rotate with Song and Arteta. It may be enough to have Jack back, he does have better defensive instincts that Ramsey. I am not sure that he is experienced enough though and I think he may be more suited to the AM role than DM. I think Verthongen or M’Vila need to come in to ensure that the team is not left exposed whenever Song or Arteta are out. If Verthongen came it would be as a DM, not a CB.

  8. sameep says:

    I am little off the topic Desi, but did you read the post by Arseblog News on M’villa where he has statistically compared Yann with Arteta, Song, De Jong, Wilshere etc. He has, in my opinion, has done a good statistical review. It is worth reading.

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