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 EplIndex.com
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