By now, there is a significant body of evidence to suggest that Arsenal really struggle with opponents that set out to press them high up the pitch. Teams that harangue the Gunners in their own half and ‘get in their faces’ to adopt an old British idiom, are generally able to knock Arsenal out of their stride as they try to build from the back. This is not solely true of Arsene Wenger’s side of course. Most teams flounder when faced with this tactic. The only reason that every team does not adopt it all the time is because of the extraordinary physical toll it takes on players.
Still, ‘the high press’ has become such a widely adopted tactic in recent years, with the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola popularising its virtues. Both of these managers have since made the leap to the Premier League’s land of milk and honey, while across North London, the best Spurs side in recent memory have been guided by disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, Mauricio Pochettino. At international level, Chile won back to back Copa Américas using Bielsa’s blueprint for breakneck football under Jorge Sampaoli and Juan Antonio Pizzi.
Even Arsenal have begun to dip their toe into these waters, as slowly the team has become characterised by players like Alexis Sanchez and Francis Coquelin. Yet Arsenal are notably disturbed when the gun is turned on them. In the 2014-15 season, Rodgers’ Liverpool hounded Wenger’s side relentlessly in one of the more undeserved draws of Arsene’s reign. Klopp’s Dortmund had suffocated a bewildered Arsenal team in Germany a few months earlier. The manager has struggled to best Pochettino in his Southampton and Spurs guises.
On Sunday at Manchester City, Arsenal’s rope a dope tactic of sitting off of City and hitting them on the break was working up until half time. Not resoundingly so, but enough to give them the lead and force Pep into a rethink. In the second half, City altered shape and pressed their opponents much harder and a leggy, lethargic looking Gunners side were swept away like driftwood on a tumultuous sea.
Whilst it is true that the majority of teams are flummoxed by an energetic pressing game, this column is neither concerned nor particularly arsed with the coping mechanisms of other teams. So why do Arsenal muddle so unconvincingly when faced with the dogs of gegenpressing war? Partly, it is a personnel issue. Much opprobrium has been lobbed in the direction of Mesut Özil in the face of his impoverished showing at Eastlands on Sunday. (When the Gunners prevailed at the Etihad in January 2015, Özil was an unused substitute).
Whilst much of the criticism has been overegged to the point of hysteria, he does form a little part of the problem. Essentially, Mesut’s presence means that the team are shorthanded in the centre of the pitch, an overworked midfield duo often outnumbered by a midfield three. As such, Özil drops deeper in search of the ball whilst his midfield colleagues seek to hose down the raging inferno they are faced with. In these deeper areas, Özil’s physical frailty makes him fair game for his prowling opponents.
Though not especially intense in the press, Paris Saint Germain caused Arsenal conniptions this season because they play a tight midfield trio that progress the ball up the pitch with quick combinations. Again, defensively the team were left with a midfield duo to stave off the threat of the Parisians. Cazorla is often cast as the team’s Forest Gump figure when set against an intense pressing game, loping back towards the midfield jungle to carry his stricken soldiers away from exploding landmines.
But Arsenal have struggled against this tactic with Santi in the team on numerous occasions. The best way to beat a sustained press is to move the ball quickly between teammates. It takes a very high technical level to achieve, but if you can play two or three consecutive one touch passes inside your own half, not only do you beat the press, but all of a sudden, space opens up to counter attack too. This is why few teams dare to try and press Barcelona in their own half.
Cazorla’s method of carrying the ball with his tight close control is an effective method of getting out of pressure in isolation. The problem is, it is too reliant on one individual and it’s also not especially quick, which means you don’t quite avail yourself of the subsequent counter attacking opportunity. It beats the pressure, but it doesn’t advance you very far up the pitch and it is far easier for opponents to get back into position afterwards. Whereas a quick passing combination takes players out of the game and advances the ball swiftly.
While Özil’s presence does carry something of a tariff in this respect, so too does Francis Coquelin’s. For all of his qualities, he is not the player you really want in midfield if quick passing triangles are the order of the day. Coquelin has an inverse relationship with the high pressing game. He is a good exponent of it in Arsenal’s favour, but his technical flaws mean he is not graceful under fire on the ball and he does not really offer an out pass for a colleague that is being set upon. City were able to strangle Xhaka so convincingly on Sunday because he did not have an immediate passing lane open to him.
The ball playing centre half has been en vogue for some years now, but never has this profile of defender formed such a crucial tactical function. With the press becoming a more widely adopted tactic, defenders need to have a good technical level, but they can also help their team evade the press with incisive passing through the lines. Chelsea’s move to a back three has enabled either one of David Luiz or Cesar Azpilicueta to move into midfield behind the shield of Kante and Matic.
Their winning goal against Crystal Palace on Saturday was assisted by Azpilicueta, who had snuck away from the defensive line unnoticed to provide a pinpoint cross for Costa. Back 3s have become popular almost in correlation with the rise of the press, because they give you a potential spare pass in the midst of the melee. For Arsenal, Shkodran Mustafi has performed this function, albeit in the framework of a back four.
Gabriel has not defended particularly badly whilst deputising for Mustafi, but the team have missed the German’s provocative passing as much as his defensive attributes. He moves the ball up the field swiftly and decisively, as evidenced by his assist for Alexis at West Ham. Gabriel is nowhere near as assured on the ball and it is no coincidence that Arsenal’s top 3 passing combinations against City all involved Gabriel, as the home side sought to force the ball to the feet of the Brazilian.
Against sides that are likely to press high up the pitch, Arsenal might look at dropping Elneny into the midfield ahead of Coquelin given his superior mastery of the ball. In the long term, Cazorla and Xhaka might be a favourable combination given their respective technical levels. At White Hart Lane in February 2015, Wenger moved Özil to the left wing, opting for a midfield of Coquelin, Ramsey and Cazorla, but the Gunners were still pressed into submission. To prevent his team from wilting against intense, well choreographed harassment, Arsene might have to arrive at a more innovative, hitherto undiscovered solution.
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