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.