Tactics column: Building from the back

Tactics column: Building from the back

It was unlikely that Mikel Arteta was going to cede penalty taking duties to Santi Cazorla, or Olivier Giroud for that matter. This was the responsibility that was given to him and he’s always repaid his manager’s faith in him. When he missed – or rather, when the penalty was saved by Mark Schwarzer – it felt almost inevitable. The invincible edge that Arteta has – that unflappable mentality when under pressure – for the first time in his Arsenal career, felt penetrable.

He had a difficult game. It’s true that he created Arsenal’s second goal but in a way, it almost felt as if it was forced; that he didn’t really want to be that high up the field. Throughout the match, Fulham had blocked his usual supply lanes and as such, Arteta’s passing never really carried the same purpose that it normally does. It got worse for Arteta when he was dispossessed at the edge of his own box by Bryan Ruiz and he contrived to bring the forward down for a penalty. Redemption was offered to him in the last minute from the spot but it just wasn’t to be his day. Which it needs to be, because the way Arsenal play, relies on Arteta to be on top form if they are to play well too.

Mikel Arteta is Arsenal’s main outlet from the back, the one who links midfield to attack. The one who keeps the pressure on the opponents by recycling possession. If he’s not passing it through effectively, the fluency of Arsenal’s game suffers. We saw that on Saturday and although Arsenal raced to a two-goal lead – just as they did against Schalke 04 – it’s agreed that it flattered them somewhat.

In fact, the 3-3 draw with Fulham was characterised by poor passing from the back by both sides. From Fulham’s perspective, with Chris Baird and Steve Sidwell in midfield, they lacked the technical quality to try and pick passes through. Arsenal on the other hand, were undermined by poor movement in front. To give the two sides credit, they kept a superb shape throughout the match only to be undone by moments of hesitancy or individual meekness. Santi Cazorla, as always, pressed with great intelligence while Bryan Ruiz kept tabs on Arteta.

On a wider issue, though, this has been bit of a problem for Arsenal. Because for a team who prides themselves on passing the ball better than their opponents, they have an inexplicable weakness to being pressed high up the pitch. Indeed, as Stewart Robson says, it’s widely accepted that there are two ways of playing against Arsenal; closing them down high up the pitch or dropping deep. By far, the best option is the former. But teams don’t have to do that these days – rather, it’s safer to do a combination of them both; remain compact and stop the passes into midfield.

Of course, this approach is true against any team – not many sides press intensely up the pitch anyway and organisation is the constant quality of any good defensive performance. But teams usually up their game against Arsenal and are more focused due to having prepared days in advance to face the peculiar threat of The Gunners. That’s compounded by an Arsenal team that, at the moment, look unsure of how exactly they should try and break down stubborn opponents.

What Arsenal tend to do then, when opponents stop them from getting into the midfield as they like, is to push the midfielders up the pitch and give room to the centre-backs to pass it out. “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said Arsene Wenger. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. I am comfortable with that but sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

What other top European sides will do, however, is to stretch the centre-backs across the pitch and drop a midfielder in. The idea is to make the pitch bigger to create openings to play. Neither approach is wrong; Wenger likes verticality in his play even if that doesn’t seem obvious at the moment. But there is a problem. Opponents are happy to let the centre-backs have the ball. Per Mertesacker offers little threat in possession from deep, Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen are better. The other issue is that it puts Arsenal’s midfielders closer to the opponent’s midfielders if they push up the pitch and that makes it far easier to mark than if they’re far away.* The issue is resolved, though, if those midfielders alternate dropping deep and pushing forward so that it drags opponents out of position. Against Fulham, Arsenal didn’t do that.

*(As an aside, that highlights the importance of Arteta and why the player in that role must possess great technical ability because when they receive the ball, they’re under immense pressure).

The ironic thing is that Fulham faced a similar sort of set-up in Arsenal’s defensive shape. But where they were better is that they looked to drop an extra midfielder in – usually Bryan Ruiz – to force Arsenal’s midfielders out of position. As a result, they got more joy in between the lines than Arsenal. Martin Jol wasn’t blowing his team’s own trumpet when he said that Ruiz was more dangerous than Santi Cazorla. Looking at where Cazorla received his passes in comparison to Ruiz, he rarely got the ball off his centre-backs.

Whatever the reason for Arsenal’s issues passing out from the back – and it’s not merely tactical as they’re evidently low on confidence – the selection didn’t help. There are certain imbalances in the squad, accentuated by injuries, and that surely had an effect. Francis Coquelin did a solid defensive job but didn’t offer too much in bringing the ball out the back; his misplaced passes were all in the opponent’s half.

Aaron Ramsey was horrendous when he replaced Coquelin, while playing with three strikers mean playing with players who prefer to get on to the end of things rather than start. Selecting Vermaelen ahead of Andre Santos was a bit baffling, especially at home because nothing came down the left-hand side. Arteta, in particular, had no reason to spread the ball wide to the left because Vermaelen was reluctant to get forward.

Wenger probably feels Santos’s vulnerability is symptomatic of the wider fragility in the squad. Certainly, he blamed the frailties in the defence at the end of the game but there is no doubt there is an intrinsic relationship between not moving the ball as well as they did earlier in the season as there is with the team suddenly leaking goals.

For Wenger, possession is valued for the chance creation possibilities. But if they’re not doing that well, teams will always believes there’s chances to get at Arsenal’s defence.

Ignore far-away transfer guff, suggestions for now

Ignore far-away transfer guff, suggestions for now

Last week, after the disappointing game against Manchester United, there wasn’t too much time to dwell on what happened at Old Trafford.

A Tuesday evening game in the Champions League against Schalke meant the focus switched very quickly, and similarly we had Fulham to look forward to at the weekend in the wake of that particular game. Now, with a series of nonsensical international friendlies to contend with, it means Fulham is going to be replayed and debated all week long, ahead of a game on Saturday which takes on an extra edge.

Of course there’s always something special about the North London derby – who can forget how the game at home last season turned our campaign around and broke Sp*rs? Brilliant stuff. But with both sides going into it on the back of disappointing results, and with Arsenal needing a similar boost again, it’s going to be one which is fairly intense, I’d imagine.

It’s quite amusing this morning to look around the various newspapers and read story after story about who Arsenal are going to sign in January. Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace, Edin Dzeko from Man City, Michel Vorm from Swansea, Fernando Llorente, Adrian Lopez, Pepe Reina blah blah fucking blah blah. Whether it’s speculative stuff from the papers or some PR/spin via some ‘friendly’ journos to try and lighten the mood I just don’t know but, frankly, January is the least of our problems right now and these stories are stupid.

That’s not to say we don’t need to spend in January. Clearly we do. Arsene Wenger complains of lack of options and his players going away;

We have no time to train, because the players go away, and when you play every three days you cannot practise too much. At the moment we cannot rotate too much, so it’s not ideal. I would prefer that the team stays here, and prepares our next game.

The main reason we can’t rotate much is that we don’t really have the players to rotate with. So, there’d be no complaints from me if we went out and bought in January. I’d be inclined to ask why we couldn’t have bought those players in the summer, you know, like normal people, but hey, beggars, choosers and all that. But right now, on November 12th, it’s a smokescreen.

We have 12 fixtures in all competitions before the end of 2012, then another 4 inside the first two weeks of January, so, making the assumption that whatever signings we make aren’t likely to happen the very second the window opens, we’re looking at 16 games before we can realistically add to the squad. My advice? Don’t worry about January and who we might buy in the last seconds before the window closes, worry about the group of players we have now because they’re the ones tasked with winning those 16 games.

The issue isn’t who Arsene Wenger is going to buy, it’s how he gets more out of the players he has at his disposal right now. It won’t be easy, there’s a lack of confidence, a mental fragility that manifests itself in goals conceded and costly individual errors, and a lack of cohesion between the various individual units on the pitch. Plus a manager who is struggling, no doubt about it. So what does he do? Keep faith with players who he obviously has trust and faith in but who fail to deliver, or try something different, something brave? My suggestions:

1 – Bring back Wojciech Szczesny now: The Vito Mannone situation seems uniquely Arsenal. A player who would have been allowed leave on a free because the manager knows he’s not quite good enough has played the majority of our games this season. He’s done his best and you can’t really ask any more than that of a player who doesn’t pick himself for the team.

But you read about Julio Cesar turning us down (obviously because QPR offered more money) and one injury to our number 1 means we’re in stop-gap territory. I think there’s real potential in Szczesny, certainly more than in any other young keeper we’ve had for a long time, but after a disappointing Euros and an untimely injury, it’s time for him to knuckle down, get serious, concentrate on his football and show he’s got what it takes. Some of his personality traits might grate, but if he can back that up with performances we’ll be more solid at the back. I don’t think it’s unrelated that our defensive jitters come when playing with a keeper who doesn’t instill any real trust in his back four.

2 – Keep faith with Giroud/Podolski/Cazorla: After early promise from the Spaniard and the German, they’ve faded somewhat, and the Frenchman, written off after his first few games, has shown why Arsene Wenger paid £12.5m for him. He’s thriving from decent service, enjoying playing with Walcott (not for long, eh?!), and looks to be settled in properly now.

Podolski and Cazorla are experienced players with enough quality to contribute more and maybe they’re finding the going a bit tough from a physical point of view, but I think we need to remember they’ve only been playing together a few months and all of them have long contracts with Arsenal. It can take time to build relationships and understanding on the pitch, we probably need to persevere a bit here.

3 – Shake it up a bit in terms of squad selection: When times are tough it’s difficult to be brave. Most managers will err on the side of caution, choosing experience over youth but when experience doesn’t produce maybe it’s time to look at other options. Injuries have meant that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been underused this season – now that he’s back he needs to be more involved. There’s a reason Andrei Arshavin has been on the sidelines but in his various cameos this season he’s nearly always looked likely to produce something. If he’s not a starter, maybe give him more than a couple of minutes at the end when injury forces the manager’s hand.

The boss might also look at somebody like Thomas Eisfeld. The young German is beginning to, if he hasn’t already, outgrow U21 football. He’s lively, he scores goals and he’s got a touch of the Freddie Ljungberg to him in terms of his movement and timing in and around the box. I’m not advocating him as a starter but maybe as an alternative from the bench he’s somebody who could offer something a little bit different to the team.

4 – Demand better and remind these players who they’re playing for: Of course no player makes a mistake on purpose and form fluctuates, but too many of the goals we concede are just downright stupid. The kind of goals you wouldn’t want your Sunday League team to let in, never mind a Premier League club. As I said yesterday, it’s basics, get those right, and it’ll make the rest a little bit easier.

100% concentration and focus, giving that extra bit when your legs are heavy and doing the simple things right will help improve things. There are standards at this club that have been set by this manager and his teams down the years. Maybe we did take the good times for granted a bit but Arsene has set the bar, and while I think there’s an understanding that this current team is incomparable to the best ones he had, that doesn’t excuse some of the lapses and performances we’ve seen.

12 games before the end of 2012, minimum 16 before we can realistically add to the squad (not forgetting new players taking time to settle and so on), so the most important work we have to do is not in the transfer market, it’s on the training ground and on the pitch come match-day.

Till tomorrow.