Tactics Column: Arsenal’s illusionary domination

Tactics Column: Arsenal’s illusionary domination

It was Didier Deschamps, in a conversation with Jean-Claude Suaudeau, who said that in today’s game, there are “two zones of truth…if you’ve got a great keeper and a great striker, you’re not that far from victory.” Naturally, Suaudeau, a former coach of Nantes and someone who is from the same philosophical bloodline as Arsene Wenger, disagreed. However, after Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester United on Saturday, it was hard not to side with Deschamps – in the short term at least. Up front, Robin van Persie was the difference – as he was for Arsenal for much of last season – while Vito Mannone pulled off a string of good saves to keep the scoreline respectable.

But it’s Suaudeau’s words, ultimately, which ring loudest. He said to Deschamps that “a game is won in midfield. Only the midfielders are able to find the right way to play. They are the animators. They are the inspiration. The more players of that kind you’ve got, the more you can hope to win in the long term.”

Arsenal had four midfielders in their front six – Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla – and one, Andre Santos, in their back four. With some of the best passers in the Premier League, you would have expected domination filled with rhythm and verve – joie de vivre. Except we got inexplicable nervousness, uncertainty and loss of possession. The opening period was one of the strangest I’ve ever seen watching Arsenal. They looked like they’ve never played with each other before – which is almost true – but they played much better at the start of the season when they actually never played with each other.

The Arsenal midfielders were inhibited by something. Whether it was Manchester United’s shape – which resembled a lot like their own this season, compact and disciplined: one of their few successes in a sobering start so far – they didn’t know what to do. It’s almost as if they didn’t expect United to play this way but more likely, was that Arsenal were perhaps too familiar with such an approach. Norwich City, QPR and Schalke – not to mention the goalless draws at the beginning of the season – played the same way. The Gunners failed to create many chances then; imagine now doing it against the best team in the Premier League. Impossible. So what we got was, as Wenger called it, ‘illusionary domination’; Arsenal passed as if it looked like they knew what they were doing, but in fact, had no clue how to break down this United side.

There were some damning statistics (check 7am Kick-Off’s Numbers Column) but none more so than this: Arsenal attempted only 6 take-ons (dribbles that attempt to beat a man) and were only successful with one. The game was built for Abou Diaby or Jack Wilshere – a player that could break between the lines and carry the ball forward. Indeed, it seems much of Arsenal’s strategy this season hinges on those two players staying fit – an extraordinary risk to take – more so Diaby who gives physical balance. So far, though, Arsenal have got next to nothing from that crucial position in between Arteta and Santi Cazorla.

That was all the more important in this game because United marked Arteta by dropping Wayne Rooney and/or Van Persie when Arsenal had the ball deep (and as such, Per Mertesacker attempted the most passes in the match with over a hundred!). And it almost seems no coincidence that Cazorla has had his quietest games when that supply line is cut off to him. To be fair, Wilshere had a fairly solid game until his red card although it still looked too early for him to partake in a game of this intensity. Arsenal’s troubles in this position were summed up when Ramsey – starting on the right – was forced off injured and Arsenal had no like-for-like replacement to bring on for Wilshere without substituting on a more defensive player (Francis Coquelin). Tom Cleverley, similarly walking on a disciplinary tightrope for United, was taken off only a few minutes before. His replacement Anderson, then proceeded to get booked – almost taking the hit for his team-mate Cleverley.

It was little wonder Olivier Giroud got no service. He was left isolated up front and increasingly had to drop deep to get possession, something he’s not so comfortable with. Indeed, what is overlooked about Robin van Persie’s impact last season was that he was also almost an extension of the midfield, getting into good positions to not only score but to create chances. On Saturday afternoon, he pressed brilliantly just as he did for Arsenal as the spearhead in the first line of defence while his movement was deadly. Wenger talked about his “speed of analysing those little pockets around the box” and such is his intelligence, he’s already stoked up a partnership with Wayne Rooney that Olivier Giroud can only envy. To be fair to Giroud, he did get through a lot of ground but while he looked better whenever he got the ball around United’s box, his link-up play – splayed with flicks and deft touches – often fell short of finding team-mates.

At the end of match, Wenger bemoaned the mistakes that led to the goals, especially for the first. It came from a loss of possession in midfield and that inability to move the ball effectively surely is the reason why the team looks “more vulnerable defensively than we did at the start of the season.” Possession is a form of defence as it is an attack  but even Wenger doesn’t believe in passing it for passing’s sake. For all of Arsenal’s keeping of the ball sideways, there was very little depth to their play and urgency. Theo Walcott would have helped stretch play but Arsenal have failed to get the different components of the team to work as a whole that it seems a little futile to suggest it would have solved their problems in penetration. There were no distinguishable periods of pass and move as there was at beginning of the season – just pass.

Arsenal are certainly going through a confidence crisis. Defeat to Norwich could be written off as a one-off; performances against Schalke and QPR as just a brief aberration of form but lose so meekly to Manchester United and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it highlighted a gulf in quality.

It seems a truism to say games are won and lost in midfield, especially when individual errors directly caused Arsenal to lose to Manchester United. But Arsenal’s game is set up in such a way that they must win the midfield battle to have a chance of winning the game. That they failed on that count meant that there was always no way back even before one of those midfielders had to leave the pitch.

Options Options Opti … oh

Options Options Opti … oh

Morning all,

a new week, dust is still settling from Saturday, and we’ve got no time to really dwell on it because we’ve got a game tomorrow night against Schalke in the Champions League. It’s going to be one in which we’ll have to dig deep and try and find something approaching cohesion, if not form, again.

As disappointing as Saturday was I don’t really feel like it’s a true reflection of the squad we have. We saw almost the same players hold their own against Man City, and but for two very preventable goals against Chelsea (again down to individual errors) I don’t think that’s a game we would have lost. So while I continue to question how light we are in terms of striking personnel, and the defensive side of our game scares me more than a winged clown, you have to wonder why we were so limp against United.

As expected Arsene spoke about his decision to leave Jack Wilshere on, citing lack of options for the reason:

We were in a position where we had to attack and I had no offensive central midfielders on the bench as well.

Which I understood yesterday, especially when we are light in midfield. But, having thought about it, couldn’t he have put on Coquelin in the more defensive role and moved Arteta forward? The Spaniard was shackled by Rooney most of the game, I’m sure Coquelin could have got stuck in there and allowed Arteta to move into an area of the pitch he’s more than comfortable in.

Sometimes Wenger’s rigidity is confusing. On the one hand he seems tactically inflexible and unwilling to make changes when it’s obvious things aren’t working, on the other he’ll play Gervinho at centre-forward, Ramsey on the right of a front three, last season Benayoun in a similar way. I’ve seen calls for changes in formation, a return to 4-4-2, perhaps, something which seemed to serve us well against Reading.

I’m not convinced it’s the system that’s the problem though – it’s not an issue when the team clicks and does well. Nor am I convinced we really have the players for a 4-4-2. I think it requires a more physical presence in the centre of midfield than we possess and the players who might play wide don’t convince. That said, with everyone fit a team like: Szczesny – Sagna – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Gibbs – Podolski – Arteta – Wilshere – Oxlade-Chamberlain – Cazorla – Giroud could be quite tasty, with Cazorla as the traditional number 10 behind the main striker.

But, with the players we have in our squad I don’t see it as a long-term option. Podolski really isn’t a wide midfielder, Oxlade-Chamberlain can be whatever he wants, but beyond that the players just aren’t there to make that formation work on a regular basis and deal with injuries/substitutions. So, what we have we hold, in terms of how we line up, and it’s down to the manager to make it work with the squad he has.

The problem is it looks better on paper than it does on the pitch and perhaps all the new relationships are making it difficult for us to click. After 10 games there ought to be more understanding between Giroud, Cazorla and Podolski but they looked like strangers on Saturday. Jack Wilshere has come back into a side vastly different from the one he last played for. The early signs, against QPR, were good, but he’s got to find a way to dovetail with the two Spaniards and they with him.

Then the manager has to consider form and whether or not to introduce more competition into the team. We’re at a point now when we have to think about using Theo Walcott and even Andrei Arshavin to add some unpredictability into our attacking game. United looked at us and saw how nullify that threat, that the manager didn’t react properly was part of why we were so flat on Saturday.

There are issues with both players though. Walcott’s contract situation is far from ideal while the Russian, whose contract expires next summer also, has been peripheral and out of the team because of his lack of form and/or application. Yet both bring something to the team that others don’t. Walcott’s pace is a weapon and when he has an on-day he’s clinical and can turn games. Arshavin has moments where he too can influence games, not as often as he should, no doubt about it, but even if we’re never quite sure what either player is going to produce, shouldn’t we use them as we try and play our way out of the doldrums.

The choice for the manager is to stick with what he’s got, hoping they’ll gel and start producing the way he wants them to, or look at alternatives. Maybe a bit more first XI competition wouldn’t be a bad thing either, but it’s hard to find much solace in the fact that we’re looking at two players who are unlikely to be at the club next season to help turn things around. Still, desperate times and all that.

As an aside, I’m quite careful about who I follow on Twitter and as such I’m not hugely exposed to the grubbier side of it, yet a few re-tweets yesterday cropped up on my timeline and it seems the wife of Andre Santos was on the receiving end of abuse as she tried to explain the shirt swapping thing. Perhaps her explanation of ‘cultural differences’ didn’t really convince, but as I said yesterday the incident was foolish and little more than a sideshow. Andre Santos swapping a shirt at half-time really is one of the least of our problems right now.

So while Santos himself is open to criticism (and I use that word carefully) anybody who has nothing better to do that direct their vitriol at the wife of a player on Twitter really, really needs to get a life, grow the fuck up and reassess their priorities. One of which should be plummeting to their death via the top of a tall building. The stupid cunts.

Right, there’ll be team news and various bits and pieces as the squad travels to Germany today – keep up on Arseblog News.

Till tomorrow.