Tactics Column: Jack Wilshere sets the tempo for Arsenal’s pressing

Tactics Column: Jack Wilshere sets the tempo for Arsenal’s pressing

Steve Clarke’s post-game comments suggest there’s still much more for Arsenal to do to rebuild their formidable reputation even after their comfortable 2-0 win on Saturday. “We knew the longer the game went, the more pressure would come on Arsenal and then we would have a chance to play,” said Clarke, adamant that his side could have done what Swansea did if the score had remained goalless. Purely looking at shots attempted, though, one might feel Clarke is being a little optimistic because West Bromwich Albion only managed 8 shots to Arsenal’s 19. However, considering that only three of Arsenal’s total shots were on target, and two of those were penalties, perhaps Clarke had a point.

Except, that would be telling half the story because unlike against Swansea, where Arsenal had only 10 shots and visibly had trouble creating openings, there was more purpose about Arsenal’s play and especially in the case of Gervinho, were a more confident player away from adding to their goal tally.

Not all of Arsenal’s swagger returned although a move which started with a quick triangle between the enticing triumvirate, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla, and ended with a Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain cut-back, showed that it flickers from time to time and is not too far away from burning for longer.

In the main, Arsenal’s play was about releasing the ball quickly, avoiding the clutter and nuisances in the middle of the park and combining with pace. Gervinho was released on a number of occasions and should have finished but his speed was always an outlet.* It was Jack Wilshere, though, who typified Arsenal’s new-found urgency and was usually the impetus to begin attacks. He dovetailed well with Santi Cazorla and together, they look a formidable duo, capable of turning defence into attack quickly. That would be music to Cazorla’s ears in particular, as he has had to shoulder that burden in Abou Diaby’s absence. Against WBA, the pair drove Arsenal forward and with their ability to change the emphasis and speed of Arsenal’s attacks gives a dimension to the team which I wrote was lacking in previous matches.

While the return of Wilshere close to his best is a timely boost, others step to the plate too. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain delivered a mature performance, choosing wisely when to roam inside or stay wide; while Mikel Arteta was imperious in front of defence too and his two goals should convince him of his attacking prowess. (His relationship with Wilshere, timely enough after my last piece, looks to finally developing the understanding required with Wilshere saying: “I speak to him during the game. I say ‘Mikel if you want to go forward, I can sit.’ It’s quite a good understanding.  He knows I want to get forward and try and get on the scoresheet. He’s the same. At Everton, he was our most attacking midfielder. I think it’s a bit of both. But I think he lets me go [forward] a bit more than he does.”)

* Wenger’s deployment of Gervinho, especially in the first-half, was interesting. He pushed the Ivorian up the pitch, almost as a wide-forward at times, closest to Olivier Giroud. Wenger likes taking the initiative early on in matches and as such, Gervinho pace looked to be exploited when the match could be described as its “most open.” Other games such as Everton away and Montpelier at home, he used Walcott and Podolski respectively, pushing up on the left (with Santi Cazorla usually covering and someone balancing on the right. In that sense, it highlights Oxlade-Chamberlain’s increased maturity against WBA to remain disciplined).

Arsenal Pressing

While the way Arsenal won their two penalties might be disputed – Cazorla did dive while Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dispossessing of Goran Popov bordered on punishable by free-kick – Wenger will be happy that Arsenal never let up as they might normally after they scored the first spot-kick. And when Oxlade-Chamberlain won back possession in the lead up to the second, it typified their graft on the evening. Indeed, it’s a good question to ask to what degree was Arsenal’s improved pressing 1) tactical; 2) psychological or 3) due toWest Brom’s approach? The answer probably is a mixture.

Certainly tactically, there was nothing drastically different to Arsenal’s pressing strategy in this game. The way Arsenal play, they chose to close down opponents only after they get into shape, usually in their own half. But due to WBA’s slow passing – a stark contrast to Swansea last week – Arsenal weren’t forced to retreat into shape quickly. Instead, they could push higher up the pitch and win the ball back where it caused most problems. Indeed, Borussia Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp says “the best playmaker on earth is (gengen)pressing” (his own term for asphyxiating high-intensity pressing). For a team that likes to pass the ball as Arsenal, it suits them if they can press the opponents high up the pitch when it’s possible. They did so on Saturday every time West Brom moved it backwards and got their reward when Oxlade-Chamberlain forced a foul from Chris Brunt after stealing the ball at the edge of the box.

Certainly, West Brom were hamstrung in their ability to pass the ball out due to the absence of their most important player, Claudio Yacob, a neat distributor in front of the defence. Nevertheless, complacency was never a thought that crossed Arsenal’s mind. They knew that they would have to work hard to win the game after the defeat to Swansea, a game which Wojciech Szczesny admitted they thought they “should be winning comfortably.”

There wasn’t the same self-entitlement this time and it was evident to the crowd from the first-minute, that their approach to this game would be markedly different – for the better. Wilshere embodied that, showing purpose with the ball, driving the team forward and then a tigerish focus when without it. “He won balls when he closes down and he made a difference running with the ball,” said Wenger. “He’s an enthusiastic player – he goes for the challenges the day before a game. I don’t hold him back because I think it is good to have that attitude. When the best players have that attitude, you have always a chance.” With that sort of mentality, Arsenal certainly gave themselves the best chance of coming away with the three points against West Brom.

Jack Wilshere, Jack Wilshere, Jack Wilshere

Jack Wilshere, Jack Wilshere, Jack Wilshere

Morning all,

they’re still talking about diving, I’m still not caring. As I’ve said before, it’s one of the most curious issues in football. Everyone trips over themselves to condemn a guy who is light on his feet, calling for retrospective punishment, be-headings, forced labour, Chinese water torture and exposure to the music of Phil Collins as played by Phil Collins on his own rusty trumpet, yet so many of these moral guardians condone much bigger problems in the game.

Look at the ones who defend those guilty of dangerous, violent play. Those who have previous are excused, it’s all part of the game, getting stuck in and all that. Clearly he’s not that kind of player. And while I have about as much time for Joey Barton as I do sawing off bits of my own body, a recent article urging him to come out of the closet shows exactly why any gay footballer is going to stay in there.

“A dive? Quick, to our high horses! It’s great up here.”

When you have Graham Poll, of all people, being trotted out to wax lyrical then you know it’s something you shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about. Until some bright spark – probably the same eejit who thinks people are interested in what Robbie Savage has to say – decides to put Poll and Jeff Winter together, like a footballing Statler and Waldorf, to spout about contentious, vaguely controversial decisions. Until they explode in a furious ego-off, of course.

There are ways and means of dealing with diving, video evidence could be used in-game or retrospectively, but until the authorities actually do something about it, it’s going to be part of the game. Sometimes the ref will spot them, sometimes he won’t. And the bottom line is this: Gareth Bale has been booked more times for diving than anyone else. In history. Ever. And he looks like a friend of Tarzan. Case closed.

Meanwhile, Jack Wilshere has been talking about his form and fitness since his return from injury:

When I get up to 100 per cent fitness, I can really show what I can do. Basically, it’s a totally new team from when I played before. It was always going to take some time, and it will still take some time. The more games that go past, the better I think we’ll get.

There were some encouraging signs on Saturday that he’s beginning to forge a real understanding with Cazorla and Arteta, the GIF of them flicking the ball through midfield was wonderful, and as much as I love what he brings to the team as a footballer, I double-love what he brings in terms of character. This picture, showing his squaring up to Jonas Olsson, sums it up perfectly. If you’ll excuse me for Tolkein a liberty, it’s like a hobbit having a go at an ent, but that’s Jack Wilshere for you.

When Adebayor was sent off the other week and there was some argy-bargy involving Gareth Bale (who, in case you didn’t know, has been booked more times for diving than anyone else. In history. Ever. And he looks like a friend of Tarzan), who was in the middle of it? Jack Wilshere. It might get him in trouble at some point but you need guys like him in your team, guys who have a bit of bite to them, and when you combine it with what he can do with the ball then it’s almost a complete package.

It’s also interesting to hear him talk about the physical aspects of his comeback:

I think [in] the first few games, my adrenaline got me through and I was so up for it. Then you start to realise it’s not as simple as that, and things start catching up on you.

Which is why the manager has got to be a bit cautious still and why Jack has to channel the enthusiasm he has for the game properly. He wants to play in every game and by his own admission has done so when perhaps he ought to have sat out and let a niggle recover properly, but you have to think after so long out of the game that’s a lesson he’s had to learn in a very harsh fashion. The doctors and physios can do as much as they can do but the person who knows best is Jack himself, so he’s got to be completely open about any problems he has.

Arsene Wenger says we’ve got the old Jack back, but we have to remember that the old Jack was a very new Jack. He only had one season of first team football, so he’s still got plenty of room for development and improvement. And given the way he’s performed thus far, that’s a rather exciting prospect indeed.

In other news the talk of who and how and when in terms of January is ramping up as we get closer to the opening of the transfer window, and it seems that Thierry Henry is set for another loan period, perhaps until the end of the season. While I have reservations about this (I’m not alone and I’d urge you to read the fine Q&A with Philippe Auclair on Gunnerblog), I do wonder if this is about more than what he might bring on the pitch.

He’s in good shape but he’s heading towards 36 now and the Premier League is a faster, less forgiving animal than it was. I have no doubt he can contribute something, and as I’ve said before if he does come it ought to be along with another more permanent addition to our attacking line-up, but maybe Wenger wants another lieutenant in the dressing room. Somebody with charisma and experience, who’s been there and done that, and maybe that’s a big part of this.

Anyway, we’ll have plenty of time to discuss all those things closer to the time when they actually happen. I’ll leave it there for now, we’ll have a good a look ahead to the COC tomorrow.

Until then.