Tactics Column: Arsenal’s lack of “depth” shown against Villa

Tactics Column: Arsenal’s lack of “depth” shown against Villa

It’s difficult to make sense of the decision to substitute Olivier Giroud when Arsenal needed a win for the defensive midfielder, Francis Coquelin, but it certainly didn’t warrant the chants aimed at Arsène Wenger. When Wenger did remove Giroud, however, on the 86th minute, it was ten minutes after they had attempted what would be their last shot of the match – by Aaron Ramsey.  Arsenal’s game had started to become inaccurate and whilst that doesn’t make any clearer whether Wenger actually “knew what he was doing” (and the inaccuracy of their forward play might have just boiled down to their desperation to get the three points), such outward thinking to freshen Arsenal’s tired approach should perhaps even be applauded.

Coquelin’s fresh legs would bring energy to the team – some direct running – and anyhow, it was evident Giroud levels had dropped considerably in the last quarter. The two substitutions Wenger had made previously, bringing on Gervinho and Andrey Arshavin, added to that feeling of inaccuracy as both are more known for being mercurial threats rather than trusted arsenals. Indeed, Gervinho then moved to centre-forward and had a couple of chances to get behind which Wenger thought wasn’t happening all game. Four minutes, though, was a bit late for such a considered style.

The substitution, in a nutshell, sums up Arsenal’s lack of depth. Marouane Chamakh patently wants out as he didn’t even figure on the bench while Jack Wilshere was only there – carrying a knock, no least – as a last resort option. But it also summed up Arsenal’s lack of “depth” from a tactical viewpoint. Once again, Arsenal passed pretty well despite Aston Villa putting decent pressure at the back but the team lacked ideas in the final third. It was a shame because as Wenger says, Aston Villa gave “room to play”, particularly in the first-half (while in the second-half, they naturally dropped back and split defence and attack).

Arsenal didn’t have the tools in their armoury to make use of the extra space. In the 3-3 draw against Fulham, we saw how both sides, who had trouble passing it through each others midfields, broke through defensive lines through players who can spin into space. Dimitar Berbatov and Bryan Ruiz were key for Fulham while for Arsenal, they relied mostly on Santi Cazorla to step away from markers and then the release quickly of wide forwards.

Against Aston Villa, the passing failed to stick on a greasy surface and as such, it needed players of exceptional ball control. Cazorla was overly relied upon but he was unable to dictate the game but the rest of the team, you wouldn’t describe as good dribblers in tight situations. In that sense Arsenal missed Wilshere although Ramsey had a strong game and his running to try and break through was at least positive (and was Arsenal’s main threat too). Last season, Tomas Rosicky and Robin van Persie were the players who quickly spun into space and changed the direction of Arsenal’s attacks and this season, Abou Diaby started in that vein. The Gunners need more players who can change the emphasis from the neat and intricate. “The key to Arsenal playing well, being penetrative and dynamic, is when players turn on the ball,” says former Arsenal midfielder Stewart Robson. “When they’ve got their back to goal, suddenly they turn and look to play the next ball forward.”

The team missed also, the Bacary Sagna-Theo Walcott axis who have been Arsenal’s most dangerous weapons, especially when they play their quick give-and-goes. That was replicate in sorts, by Kieran Gibbs and Lukas Podolski on the other side where most of Arsenal’s danger came from.

Returning to the subject of a lack of “depth”, it said that top attacking sides must “make the pitch as big as possible” when going forwards and make it as “small as possible” when defending. Vicente del Bosque adds that there are three facets that contribute to a good performance: “possession, pressure and depth.” By and large Arsenal, within their own means, achieved good pressure when defending, winning the ball back many times. But going forwards, they lacked men who could stretch the pitch. At a number of times with possession deep, Wenger urged his men to push forward and play as much as possible, in the opposition’s half. The failure to do this is illustrated by the person who found Olivier Giroud the most during the game: Per Mertesacker with ten passes, each time when the striker was forced to drop deep.

When Wenger told Giroud to play closer to the “offside line” after the 2-0 win against Montpellier, it was not just to use his strengths in the air. When Giroud’s movement was lateral as opposed to backwards on Saturday evening, he created the best chance by crossing the ball to Laurent Koscielny. Indeed, Arsenal’s crossing game can only work when the ball is moved wide quickly; catching the opposition by surprise otherwise it’s easier to defender. As such, if that doesn’t happen, you are more and more likely to see this (although is crossing really a default tactic to rely on?).

However, saying all this, it was a good bad performance by Arsenal considering the result. Their shape was superb, mirroring how they defended at the start of the season, Koscielny in particular having a fantastic game; it’s getting the attack to click which has been the main issue. More depth can be the only solution to the problem.

Win tickets to Arsenal v Swansea

Win tickets to Arsenal v Swansea

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Wenger, journalists, and respect

Wenger, journalists, and respect

We begin with an exchange from the Aston Villa press conference.

“I don’t understand why you’d want to create any kind of rift with the Arsenal fans.”Unnamed journalist to Arsene Wenger.

“Why should I create any rift?” - Arsene Wenger.

“Because it’s not showing them any respect”Unnamed journalist.

Now, I have my issues with Arsene Wenger, like many people do. I’m concerned about the lack of depth in the squad, as I outlined yesterday. He can be stubborn, intransigent and frustrating. Clearly he hasn’t been as successful as he would like to be, or fans would like him to be, and some of his decisions are difficult to understand on and off the pitch.

This all sparked, of course, from the substitution late on during Saturday’s game with Villa. Wenger took off Olivier Giroud, put on Francis Coquelin, and there were some chants from some of the travelling fans about the manager not knowing what he was doing. Obviously those chants were seized upon by the journalists after the game and put to Wenger in an increasingly confrontational way. At first he tried to laugh them off, in the end he got quite annoyed. You can see the video on this page here (2nd video down – and it’s well worth watching to get the context).

So here’s another frustration – Wenger could have easily downplayed the whole thing by saying, “Giroud was tired, I moved Gervinho – who has got 5 goals this season – up front, and I was also aware that we’d had just one shot on target and I didn’t want to lose the game.”

Ok, it might have been hard to take but some days you have to accept that it’s not going to happen for you from an attacking point of view and although we have what we hold isn’t ideal, one point is better than none. Villa had crashed a shot off the bar and a Carl Jenkinson clearance with his heel prevented another break. Given our tendency to concede silly goals maybe it was sensible.

Arsene Wenger is intelligent and articulate enough to be able to deal with questions like that without getting the hump the way he did. He could easily have answered those questions in a way which would have played down the whole thing. Not using Wilshere? Concern over his ankle, as John Cross reveals today, but perhaps he didn’t want to let slip every bit of information. Odd substitution? See above.

I think, in hindsight, he’ll look back on it and think he could have done better and really shouldn’t have risen to the bait – because bait is exactly what it was. A few weeks back, in and around the time of the AGM and the poor results against Norwich and Schalke (and leading up to the Man Utd game), journalists and columnists were tripping over themselves to write articles about how Arsenal fans ‘deserved better’.

It was as if they’d taken a quick tour of Twitter, jotted down all the complaints, listed them off, wrapped them in some patronising prose and toddled off with themselves, pleased with their day’s work. Now, this isn’t to question the validity of complaints in any way, many of them will be found here (although perhaps not expressed as vociferously as elsewhere and certainly not the Piersian depths of Twitter), but to ask – who the fuck are these journalists to speak on behalf of Arsenal fans?

How is it that a journalist can sit in a press conference and talk about Arsene Wenger not showing any respect while not showing any respect himself? Since when did they give one single shit about what Arsenal fans ‘deserve’? The truth is they don’t, bar one or two whose leanings are red and white, but then those journalists don’t ask those kind of cretinous questions or write columns like that.

They are perfectly entitled to ask questions of Arsene Wenger, on behalf of their own paper or TV station or whoever it is they provide copy for, but never, ever on behalf of Arsenal fans. If you, Johnny Journalist, have an issue you want to bring up with Wenger have the balls to do it in your own name, not ours. Otherwise you’re just a shit-stirring coward who doesn’t have the chops to confront a football manager about football decisions.

It’s Jellyfish Journalism at its fucking worst. There were legitimate questions to be asked of Arsene Wenger on Saturday evening. The substitution, the team’s performance, the lack of attacking options on the bench and so on, but to cloak them as if you were concerned about us poor old Arsenal fans, well, it’s pretty craven. And in the end nobody got any kind of decent answer.

Arsene Wenger, who looked like a frustrated man but one also feeling the pressure, reacted to the stupidity of the questioning. I wish he’d done better, I wish he’d turned tables and asked that hack who he was to talk about respect and Arsenal fans. You can be quite sure the next time there’s a chance to stick the knife in about Arsenal supporters he’ll do it without thinking twice. Same with all the others who were so concerned and so worried about what we deserved.

In the end nobody comes out of it smelling of roses and while we all have our frustrations with Wenger, which I accept go right across the scale, it’s a bit rich for any journalist to accuse him of a lack of respect to Arsenal fans while doing exactly the same.

Till tomorrow.