Tactics column: Arsenal need to rediscover their sense of fun

Tactics column: Arsenal need to rediscover their sense of fun

It’s beyond comprehension that a Mikel Arteta-Jack Wilshere-Santi Cazorla triumvirate might not work. But early displays between the midfield trio haven’t yet yielded glowing results. They’ve looked unknowing of each other in the eight matches in all competitions they have started together since the 1-0 win over QPR and progression has been slow.

If anything, Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla’s form has regressed in the past two months and that’s reflected in the stats: In the first 8 league matches (without Wilshere in the line-up), the pair combined 250 times. If you take the next seven league matches (and Wilshere only missed one of those games), they have only found each other 146 times. Of course, one might say Wilshere has done his bit by bridging the gap between the two but more likely, it highlights the idea that he hasn’t quite struck the balance we’d all thought his return would bring to the side. Abou Diaby, an effective ball-carrier from deep, probably suited the team more.

Result Arteta to Santi
Sunderland

D

30

Stoke

D

39

Liverpool

W

26

Southampton

W

28

Man City

D

33

Chelsea

L

22

West Ham

W

46

Norwich

L

26

31.25 passes p.g

QPR

W

29

Man United

L

20

Fulham

D

20

Tottenham

W

34

Aston Villa

D

16

Everton

D

11

Swansea

L

16

20.9 passes p.g

It’d be unfair to say this lack of fluency is down to Wilshere, and we’re not, and rather, his return has merely coincided with a tripe run of form. But somehow, Arsenal need to get their two most influential men combining again. Certainly, there have been other factors as to why Arteta and Cazorla haven’t found the same success that they did earlier in the season.

Teams have pressed Arsenal higher up the pitch and especially, marked either one of the two – or both. The Gunners have also been poor passing out from the back. Again this might be down to teams adapting their tactics to suit Arsenal (and in the case of Norwich and Aston Villa, their performances against Arsenal have been the basis to turn their seasons around). Wenger has cited tiredness too and certainly, there are members of this squad who haven’t experienced playing a match every three days.

Another issue is psychological but Wenger is not particularly willing to dwell much on it. He feels the confidence will return once they rediscover the “quality of our game”. Indeed, his thinking, according to Mikel Arteta is that “with a little organisation, simple instruction and faith in playing the game his way, their [Arsenal’s] talent will see them through.”

In other words, if they display those attributes that Wenger holds so dear – technique, pace, skill, creativity etc. – victory should come naturally: as a direct consequence of their supposed superiority. As a result, losing is not contemplated so it catches everyone by surprise; leaving them almost dumbfounded. Uncertainty invades the group, resulting in a collective trauma of which there is no fallback position of which to regroup. Unless, of course, they are winning convincingly again.

Arsenal are in the course of another one of these unconvincing runs. Their last league illustrated just how the fun in their game has dissipated. Against Swansea, a 2-0 home defeat, their performance was laboured. The slick passing that they’re renowned for was rather, performed by their opponents, giving an exhibition of confident one-touch passing that rightfully, certain sections of the Emirates crowd applauded at the final whistle. Partly they did so because there’s a thought that it’s something that has slowly eroded from Arsenal’s game in recent years, making watching The Gunners even harder to endure.

On the face of it, the difference seemed psychological but watching it again, and it might be heretical to say this, there might also have been a subtle tactical element at play for the difference between the two sides. Because the way Swansea play, such as stretching the pitch and making it wide as possible when in ownership of the ball, is the fundamentals of possession football. It’s textbook stuff.

Arsenal’s is more positional-based, adapted to give the players freedom of expression. (Arsenal practice a drill called “through-play” whereby a team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively). Arsenal’s approach isn’t wrong; teams such as Manchester City and Chelsea do it although perhaps a big difference is that they value possession as a consequence of their dominance. For Arsenal, it’s a means to dominate.

When Swansea run out of ideas, they have the textbook to fall back on. They simply continue  what they were previously doing: pushing high and wide up the pitch, rotating the central midfielders and getting options on the ball. I won’t go as far as to say it’s a tried and tested formula because it depends on the mental strength of the players to continue playing the same way but this is the way top-level possession football tends to be coached.

When Arsenal run out of ideas, they look to each other for inspiration. The wide men couldn’t really push up against Swansea because Swansea had continued to commit their full-backs up the pitch all game. As such, Gervinho, starting up front, moved to the left and Lukas Podolski central, to track Angel Rangel’s runs. The Arteta-Wilshere-Cazorla barely rotated. When Arteta pushed forward, he generally did it out of desperation (and his chipped pass, which took a heavy deflection, created Arsenal’s best chance).

It’s not that they don’t practice these things (although the Wenger way is to stretch the field vertically in the build up to avoid the press, and then drop a midfielder to pick up the ball in the extra space. Other teams such as Swansea, stretch it horizontally first, splitting the centre-backs and then drop a midfielder in):  The midfield of last season rotated heavily that the deepest midfielder, Alex Song, ended up as the most penetrative passer. The player who Arteta is supposed to emulate in role, Andrea Pirlo, often ends up doing the same, finishing the season with assists in double-figures.

That Jack Wilshere and Alex Song rotated so effectively in season 2010/11 indicates there is still much more to come from Arsenal’s trio. Then, Wenger let the pair find a mechanic that works, so when one attacked, the other instinctively dropped back. More work on the training ground should see Wilshere and Arteta work the same way.

Indeed, there’s an interesting statistic which highlights the lack synchronicity between Arsenal’s midfield three. According to Opta, Mikel Arteta has completed 1,228 passes this season – the most in the league – but only 21.5% have been forward passes (796 of those went sideways and 168 went backwards).

It seems finding harmony in Arsenal’s midfield will go a long way in rediscovering their sense of fun again.

Olympiacos 2-1 Arsenal: Meh

Olympiacos 2-1 Arsenal: Meh

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Try as I might, and I’ll confess I’m not trying particularly hard, I can’t muster up anything for this game other than weary indifference. A rag-tag Arsenal side playing in a game which meant little ended up losing and despite Schalke dropping points against Montpellier – meaning a win would have seen us top the group – it didn’t really look like a game from which we’d take three points.

I’ll admit I only saw the first half live, and highlights of the second, but I was reasonably impressed with us in that period. Tomas Rosicky returned to add some zip to the midfield, his ability to drive forward is something the team has really missed so assuming the half-time substitution was planned and not because every tendon in his body went twang that’s a positive thing.

At left back Jernade Meade looked the part too. There was a moment early on when he was showing the ball out for a goal kick and I thought it might be difficult for him to hold off the attacker, given that he’s smaller than a Smurf, but he shimmied one way, the attacker bought it and he dealt with the situation very nicely. For a kid making his first start for the club that showed some real confidence and belief, I think we’ll be seeing more of this lad.

The goal was nicely worked in the end but showed the two sides of Gervinho. One, which can occasionally produce, the other which makes you want to headbutt a wall of spikes … with your eyes. It came after excellent play from Oxlade-Chamberlain who spread the ball wide to the edge of their box. Gervinho had Ramsey outside him, all he had to do was take it down to play in the Welshman but instead he headed it inexplicably back across goal. Having got hold of it again though he took off into their box, played in back for Rosicky who finished well to put us ahead.

Of course we could have been ahead a few minutes earlier when Gervinho broke from midfield, had a clearly unmarked Chamakh outside him, did the right thing by drawing the defenders towards him but instead of then playing in the Moroccan with the outside of his boot just carried on and was robbed. There was no way he was unaware of Chamakh’s presence either, his hair squelches with every step. To be fair though, the likelihood is that Chamakh would have trod on the ball or stopped to repair one of his tufts, so maybe it was for the best.

As for their two goals there was an element of bad luck to both of them, with an unlucky deflection off Ramsey for the first and Szczesny unsighted for the second, but that’s kind of the way things go when you’re in a bad run of form. As they were going in I was actually playing football and on a rare venture beyond the halfway line managed to trap a ball with the outside of my jaw which is now fucking killing me. Lesson learned there, let me tell you.

Afterwards Arsene said:

We have to wait for the draw but we wanted to be first. We need a good Christmas present. I’m not happy with things in the game but I’m happy with the team’s desire. The important thing now is to focus on the Premier League and forget about the Champions League.

And for me that’s the important bit. Tonight just wasn’t that important and when you look at the team that went out there it’s difficult to get worked up by defeat. These were mostly fringe players, bolstered by a couple of first teamers, supplemented by guys who know their Arsenal careers are essentially over. Squillaci, Arshavin – who couldn’t even make the starting XI for a game like this – and Chamakh are not picked for real games for one reason or another. The main one being that the manager just doesn’t believe in them.

So you can’t bemoan their lack of quality on one hand then go mental that we didn’t win the game. The real issue is that we’re still somewhat reliant on these players, by all means go mental about that if you think it will help. The sooner we have them off the pay-roll and replaced by guys who can contribute in a more meaningful way the better, but I can’t muster up the energy to get worked up about last night’s game at all. We know the squad is weak, we know we have little in the way of depth and it’s something we’ve been over time and time again. The drum has been well and truly beaten.

And look, we’ve qualified for the knock-out stages with that squad. I think I’d be far more peeved if, for example, I supported a club who spent a millionty-bazillion on players with petrocash and didn’t manage a single win in the group stages. The only oil we have is the stuff plastered on the top of Chamakh’s head. So a little perspective is no bad thing. We might well be struggling but we’ve done what we needed to do in this competition so far.

Some may complain that finishing second will give us a more difficult draw for the knock-out stages, which may be true, but winning the group would put is in the same pot as Real Madrid as much as second sticks us in with Barcelona. Depending on results we could get Malaga or we could get Bayern Munich. Whoever we draw it’s going to be a tough game, especially given the state we’re in at the moment, but it’ll be the new year when that game takes place and with some January additions maybe it won’t all seem so scary.

For now though, we get back to the bread and butter of the Premier League. Hopefully the legs that are heavy will benefit from a few day’s rest and maybe it’s just me but I’d have swapped any midweek win for three points over West Brom on Saturday.

Till tomorrow.