Tactics Column: Arsenal’s system prone to individual errors

Tactics Column: Arsenal’s system prone to individual errors

After the final whistle on Sunday, Jack Wilshere slumped to the ground; his back turned away from the customary congratulations and commiserations from losers and victors alike, and stared motionless into the various colours of the crowd. The moment was captured brilliantly by Daily Mail’s chief photographer, Andy Hooper.

Arsenal had just lost 2-0 to Manchester City, a game they were realistically out of once Laurent Koscielny was sent-off in the tenth minute. The red-card seemed harsh but Wilshere wasn’t willing to wallow in the adversity as Arsenal so readily seem to do when injustice befalls them. Perhaps, it shows a lack of character that there wasn’t such a reaction when Koscielny was given his marching orders – he was certainly incensed – and quickly The Gunners were two goals down before half-time. Arsenal reacted in the second-half, Wilshere predictably the catalyst. He drove the team forward, broke up attacks, and was fouled a lot – 7 times, the most any player has in a single game in the Premier League this season. Understandably at the final whistle, he wanted time alone to reflect after his Herculean effort for a Sisyphean cause.

At times, Wilshere looked like the only one who cared: that’s not true as the team as a whole raised its game after half-time, but Arsenal, bereft of visible leaders; it’s easy to see why they are so vulnerable to being accused of that.

Thomas Vermaelen is not a natural captain but he has been earmarked for the role ever since he signed for the club. He’s quiet off the pitch but he leads by his example on it: steely, determined and tenacious, it’s hoped his team-mates follow his example. But Vermaelen’s game is also part of the problem at Arsenal which currently pervades the side. It’s wrought with moments of indiscipline, over-zealousness for the most part, and his impetuousness has proven to lose his team some goals in the past. When Laurent Koscielny hauled down Edin Dzeko against Manchester City, the question shouldn’t be whether it was a sending off or not, but why did Koscielny have to do that? Of course, this inexplicable nervousness and panic is not unfamiliar.

Arsène Wenger chose not to dwell on that decision in his post-match briefing, instead rather refreshingly, given that he so easily could have blamed Mike Dean, chose to concentrate on his side’s durability to weather City’s attacks to allow them later, to mount a counter-punch of their own. More interestingly though, Wenger seemed to indicate Arsenal’s “timid” start contributed indirectly to Koscielny’s moment of madness. “Overall we started too timid, with not enough authority in a game like that, and allowed them to dictate,” Wenger said. “We didn’t start with enough confidence or authority. It is frustrating because the team showed great heart and desire after that, but we were a bit too nervous to play in a serene way at home, and that is costing us. It is not anger; it is frustration that we do not see from the start what this team is capable of.”

It’s an interesting point, ignoring that perhaps Wenger is placing too much at stock on essentially ten minutes of the game. Because it reveals a much finer issue on the state of Arsenal’s game at the moment.

Jonathan Wilson writes that “the problem now is that the timorousness had become self-perpetuating. The Emirates is a nervous stadium; Arsenal fans have come to expect the worst, and their anxiety is pervasive.” That uneasiness is extended to the pitch where Arsenal, particularly at home but not limited to as some of their away performances have been horrid, are playing with very little confidence. The quick give-and-go style that we saw at the start of the season, although it yielded little goals was more fluid than what it is now, has disappeared. So perhaps the point isn’t that there is a discernible weakness at the back but the fault lies because as Wenger says, the team lacks belief. Because as Arsenal’s passing and movement play has regressed in recent games, so it has exposed the backline. Of course, Manchester City’s opener was avoidable as it came from a quick free-kick that Arsenal just seemed to switch off from. And then they were thrown off by – a brilliantly disguised pass it must be said by Carlos Tevez, but Arsenal had enough players around the box to stop the pass.

Rudimentary tactical errors seem to be Arsenal’s forte and truth be told, their game is probably inherently too risky. (They have conceded 12 goals directly from individual errors which is the most in the league). If so, Wenger has a lot to answer for. Certainly, the Koscielny/Vermaelen partnership is prone to bouts of defensive diarrhoea than it is when one of them is alongside the composed Per Mertesacker. The football statistic website, WhoScored.com, lists “avoiding individual errors” as Arsenal’s biggest weakness. Indeed, and unfortunately I can’t prove the veracity of these claims, but I think it came from the laboratories of Kyiv (in the 1960’s, around the days of Valeriy Lobanovskiy) which said that “a team that makes errors in no more than 15 to 18% of its acts is unbeatable.” Arsenal would probably fall outside the bracket and as such are punished more. The studies from the labs also state, however, that you can’t control refereeing mistakes (and although Arsenal fans might argue otherwise, the red-card was probably right for Koscielny). So as such, the best type of football is centred on minimising errors through a style which makes the pitch as large as possible when in possession and small as possible, without the ball.

This season, Arsenal started by playing in a way they had hoped would minimise errors when they didn’t have possession of the ball so they chose not to press, but instead to drop back in their own half for the most part and to try and deny opponents space in front of the back four. There’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, it probably suited this Arsenal team who were fairly new to each other but also, and it’s a bit harsh to say this, but a bit tactically naïve because of the relative youth of the squad.Brazil’s fabled 1970 team did the same thing. “We played as a block, compact, leaving only Tostao up field” said the coach Mario Zagallo. “Jairzinho, Pele, Rivelino, all tracked back to join Gerson and Clodoaldo in the midfield. I’m happy to see the team in terms of 4-5-1. We brought our team back behind the line of the ball….Our team was not characterised by strong marking.” (The Blizzard, Issue Three).

Against Manchester City we were supposed to see a changed approach, as the anxiety in the team meant this more passive approach, dropping back and inviting opponents at them, wasn’t working anymore. Theo Walcott pushed too high up the field and that left space, as Thomas Vermaelen said after the 1-1 draw with Southampton but the same could also be said of their 7-3 win over Newcastle, “between the defence and our strikers.” We should have seen Arsenal press against City. We only saw a glimpse of that before Koscielny saw the red mist. It might have allowed Arsenal to stamp more authority on the game as Wenger wanted and then in turn, give them confidence to move the ball fluently, because possession really is the mechanism which the team uses to reduce errors – the more they attack, the less they have to defend. Perhaps then they might have avoided the type of recklessness that caused Koscielny to haul Dzeko to the ground and in the process, bring down Arsenal’s hopes too against Manchester City.

A morning visitor

A morning visitor

What an odd morning.

I woke up to the dog barking and somebody knocking on the back door. This is unusual for a couple of reasons because most of the time people who call knock at the front door and even if they do they don’t do so at 7am. Naturally I was suspicious.

I had a look out and saw a tall, imposing figure carrying what looked like some kind of futuristic weapon. Now I was even more suspicious and, I’ll happily admit, a bit nervous. What if I opened the door and they bashed my head in? Or what if they were coming to steal my extensive wine collection of three bottles? At this point Archer was getting quite antsy, barking and growling but the person wasn’t going away.

‘To hell with it’, I thought, ‘you only live once. If you get your head bashed in, you get your head bashed in’, so I put on a old motorbike helmet and opened the door.

“Hello,” said a voice.

“Oh, it’s you,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“It’s very simple,” said Daniel Day-Lewis, clutching his Golden Globe to his chest. “I’m here for you.”

“You’re going to bash my head in now, aren’t you?”

“No!” he laughed unhappily, “I’m a man of peace. Like Gandhi. Or Joey Barton. Violence is never the answer. Unless the question is ‘What is the best way to deal with a situation involving John Terry, four Water Sheringhams and the people who made the latest James Bond film which is overly long and probably one of the worst films ever made?’ In this circumstances ultra-laser violence is the only answer but I wouldn’t carry it out myself, I’d hire a hit squad, my hands are clean.”

Archer, having realised that Abraham Lincoln’s left foot is no threat, pottered off down the garden to perform his morning ablutions.

“So when you say you’re here for me, what do you mean?”

“I could sense a shortfall in the universe, and in preparation for my next Academy Award winning role as God in Wes Anderson’s quirky new film ‘God and a Lobster’, I am at one with every living creature, with every thing in this vast – but at the same time quite tiny – world of ours.”

“I see.”

“I could sense that you were missing something.”

“Well, I haven’t been able to find the iPad charger for a couple of days.”

“Look inside yourself.”

“It’s definitely not in there.”

“No,” he method-actedly said, “I mean search your feelings and all that. You know something is missing.”

I searched my feelings. I could only come up with the fact that I needed to wee.

“JD,” he sighed. “You’re missing JD.”

“Steady on now, Daniel,” I said, “I love a drink as much as the next man but whiskey at 7am is a dangerous road and one I’m not prepared to go down.”

He sighed.

“Not Jack Daniels. Johan. Johan Djourou.”

It hit me like a hammer blow.

“My God.”

“I’m here, my son,” said Daniel Day Lewis. “Since Djourou’s departure for Hannover you’ve known there was going to be a problem.”

“I have. It’s true.”

“After a poor result who was going to come out and tell Arsenal TV everything was going to be all right? Who would talk about the need to regroup? To focus on the next game? To keep our spirits up? Who could possibly be so in touch with the fans? Who would stress the need to keep heads upwards rather than downwards? Who would say that we have to keep looking forwards, not backwards, and remain twirling, always twirling?”

“Oh, Daniel Day Lewis, you are so wise!”

“I know, God is wise and I am God and God is me. We’re screen testing Benedict Cumberbatch for the role of the lobster, by the way. My suggestion. Wes wanted to go with Bill fucking Murray. Always with the Bill Murray. However, I digress. They took JD and what did they do?”

“Don’t make me say it.”



“Yes, yes they did. Total BS.”

“It hurts.”

“I know.”

“I love Bacary Sagna.”

“We all do, we all do.”

“How could they do this to him?”

“Life isn’t fair, you should know this by now. The bad guys never get what’s coming to them and it’s the good guys who suffer.”

“Poor Bacary.”

“There there. Dry your eyes,” he said handing me a monogrammed handkerchief.

“So, are you going to save him?”

“I’ve got lots of this God shit worked out, but saving him is beyond me just yet. I’ve simply come to you on a day between games when there’s little news simply so you don’t have to write a blog post about how Bacary says we need to keep our spirits high and show character.”

“You are a kind and benevolent God, Daniel Day Lewis.”

“God is love-”

“Baby, don’t hurt me no more!”

“Don’t interrupt.”


“Now, I must go. I have other errands to attend to, people to see right and peace to bring to this world.”

“Are you going to sort out the flag problem in Northern Ireland?”

“What am I, a miracle worker?”

And with that he turned on his heel, hopped over next door’s wall and ran through gardens into the distance. Archer came back in after doing his business.

‘What an odd thing to happen,’ I thought. ‘Perhaps I was just dreaming,’ but then I looked down and saw his cloven footprints outside the back door. Oh, and his Golden Globe which he’d forgotten. I might pawn it.

I might just pawn it.