Morning, the week of introspection continues and we’ll start this morning with a fantastic piece from Michael Cox (of Zonal Marking), who asks the obvious, but until yesterday, un-uttered question – What are Arsenal good at?
Using Sunderland’s last two games against us he highlights how they modified their approach to render Arsenal pretty much ineffectual in the FA Cup tie. It also ties in nicely with another couple of observations made recently. On the Arsecast last Friday Philippe Auclair bemoaned the fact that our passing, so crisp and pacy in the past, lacked the speed to make it effective. Michael Cox points out that we move to the ball too slowly to wide areas, allowing defences to get men behind the ball and deny us the space we want to exploit.
We know we struggle when teams sit back, ‘park the bus’ if you will, and obviously Arsene Wenger saw that and tried to bring in something of a Plan B with Marouane Chamakh. A target man who was good in the air and held the ball up well with his back to goal seemed like the ideal purchase at the time, but I doubt anybody could have foreseen the transformation when our Moroccan butterfly decided to become a caterpillar again.
His continued deployment of Nicklas Bendtner, another player who despite his flaws was most effective through the middle and capable of an aerial and physical threat, on the right hand side of a forward three was always confusing. I know he had van Persie down the middle but when did we ever see him do what he did on Saturday, putting another ‘striker’ on and dropping Robin slightly deeper? It was always Bendtner throwing in crosses he should have been trying to get on the end of.
The other issue we have when teams play like that against us is our tendency to concede from the oppositions few chances on goal. If our conversion rate is high then theirs is remarkably low. Amy Lawrence pointed out that Arsenal are a team set up to play counter-attacking football but who fall prey to counter-attacks time and time again.
In his piece in So Paddy Got Up, which looks at Wenger’s tactical approach throughout his Arsenal career, Michael talks about how the signing of Gervinho, combined with Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and the departures of Fabregas and Nasri suggested a more ‘vertical’ game in possession But he’s also right to point out the fact that players like Arshavin, Hleb, Rosicky and Nasri became much less direct under Wenger, ‘ball hoarders’, he calls them. And how often have we bemoaned the backwards pass when a shot was on, allowing the opposition more time to get back and regroup?
If you look at the Invincibles side – and we have to take on board this was a once in a lifetime side that we were so lucky to have enjoyed – it seemed to have everything. Pace, power, speed of thought, lightning on the counter and built on a decent, if not outstanding, defensive platform. Yet this team that swept all before them in the Premier League struggled in Europe. Perhaps this was why Wenger decided to modify things, and it’s a curiosity that some of our most effective European campaigns have dovetailed with the lack of domestic success.
Now, Arsenal are a team that have defensive issues, whose midfield lacks the creativity to pick tight defences apart and to move the ball quickly enough when we do counter, and two first choice wingers whose decision making in the final third is, for the most part, pretty poor. But for one of the best strikers in the world right now, it’s hard to see where the goals would come from on a consistent basis.
So what’s the solution? I know Arsene references ‘internal’ solutions all the time but some of them are there. A consistent back four would be a good start. I don’t see too much wrong with Szczesny – Sagna – Koscielny – Vermaelen/Mertesacker + left back, whoever that might be. Ensuring we’ve got a left back fit enough to start most games would be a real fillip.
Jack Wilshere’s absence this season has been keenly felt. I know a player’s quality increases exponentially with the amount of time he’s out injured, but his tigerish drive has certainly been a big miss. And up front, well, this where we’ve all had our say in recent times, where we all wanted him to buy in January yet the cheque-book remained closed aside from the few glorious weeks we got to spoon with Thierry again.
Yet now there’s little point of talking about what we should have done in January. There is nothing we can do now to augment the squad. What we have, we hold, and maybe the solution can be found from the article and the two games at the Stadium of Light. Is there any particular reason why Arsenal couldn’t do what Sunderland did? Not so much in terms of parking the bus, because I don’t think we have the defensive confidence to do that, but in terms of pressing other teams?
When we’ve seen Arsenal do this – and the 3-1 at home to Chelsea last season comes to mind almost immediately – it appears obvious that it ought to the blueprint for the way we should play. Contrast it to the way we played in Milan, stand-offish and passive to the point where it almost looked a deliberate ploy to allow them so much time on the ball, and it’s hard to understand why there isn’t more focus on what we do when we don’t have the ball.
Clearly Arsene’s focus is on how we play our own game. It has always been this way, there are no dossiers on the opposition, but it seems we lack a consistent approach when it comes to opposition possession. Do we actively try and win it back? Do we put pressure on them in midfield? At times it seems we’re content to let them play until such time as they give it back to us, when maybe we should be more proactive.
It takes a lot of work and you need to be very fit to play a pressing game but these are professional athletes with the best facilities in the world at their disposal. People often point to the way Barcelona play but surely it’s not an unrealistic expectation for them to be able to work as hard as Sunderland did in both games against us – and let’s not forget that while we might have had heavy legs last Saturday, so did they the week before after 120 minutes in the FA Cup.
In the absence of a transfer window, without the ability to bring in new players, then the only option we have left is to work harder on the pitch and try and exploit the strengths we do have. There’s little point chucking on Walcott as a central striker against a team who are sitting deep, and while lack of options may be an issue, perhaps we need to use the squad more efficiently.
What’s slightly ironic is the fact that this new ‘vertical’ approach would be far more effective with somebody who had the passing ability of Fabregas in midfield, again maybe Wilshere is the missing component here, but again we can only work with what we have. And if what we have is somewhat lacking in quality then it can be made up with application.
In other news the AST met last night to provide some analysis of Arsenal’s upcoming financial results. The profit is expected to be in the region of £40m but seems to come mostly from player trading, without that we’re breaking even. Which is still a lot better than many other clubs. For me the key point is the efficiency of the wage bill and the obvious financial impact lack of Champions League football would have next season. None of this information should be of any great surprise to anyone and we’re not treading new ground in any way.
On the other hand, I do have to wonder why the statement asked questions that the AST, who surely know the club as well as anyone, can have no realistic expectation of being answered. Regardless of who’s in charge, be it Kroenke, Usmanov or anyone else, the inner workings of how and why certain decisions are made won’t be for public consumption, and perhaps by focusing on things they cannot influence or have explained it takes away from the issues they can. Day to day – but crucial – ones like ticket prices, for example.
Right, that’s yer lot. Till tomorrow.