As a new season is almost upon us, wwelcome to a new feature on Arseblog, The Tactics Column from Anam Hassan, better known on his blog and Twitter as Arsenal Column. Each week he’ll provide a tactical view of what Arsenal are doing, or not doing, and he starts this week with a look at how we’ve been shaping up during pre-season.
Reports of Arsenal’s training ground being hijacked by the “Happy Wanderers” are simply not true. Rather, it’s the signing of Santi Cazorla which has lifted the spirits of an already “buzzing” group (as one ITK friend of mine has told me who himself has been told by a friend, who knows a friend, who knows a friend’s cousin). The Spaniard wears an almost perpetual smile and watching clips of the players knock it about in training, it’s infectious. That glee was evident on Mikel Arteta’s face when he gate-crashed Cazorla’s photoshoot just to welcome his new team-mate.
Nevertheless, the pair must be considered Arsenal’s two most important signings in recent seasons, putting Arsenal back on a technical plane that they were at when Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri were at the club.
That’s important because it must be remembered, that Arsenal played some of their best football in the final year Fàbregas and Nasri spent at the club – playing a dynamic and integrated brand of football which was supposed to be the benchmark for coming seasons – culminating in the famous 2-1 win over Barcelona. Wenger was adamant that his two star midfielders would stay – nay, he somewhat naively convinced himself that they would stay – so when they did decide to leave, he was suddenly forced to scavenge the market for world class players who could replace them.
It was too late in the transfer window to realistically do that thus the rebuilding has effectively started this season. The transfer of Santi Cazorla is crucial because he’s not replacing Fàbregas directly per se but the ideology/philosophy he represented – Arsenal can now get back to the technical level that Wenger always wanted. Now all he needs is Jack Wilshere to return from injury.
Team-mates will enjoy Cazorla
Back to Cazorla and it’s likely that he will play in the attacking midfield role just behind the forward, important not just for picking out the key passes but setting the benchmark for the pressing. In the little snippet we got of him against FC Koln, Cazorla was superb, knitting up play and keeping the ball expertly with his two wonderful feet. One movement in particular that we saw he loves is the angled pass to the wide forwards. And given that he likes to drop deep to pick up possession – Wenger wants his playmaker to do so, so that one of the other midfielders can occupy his position, making it harder to mark – that creates a natural vantage point to spray the passes to meet their runs.
Pass and move
As Lukas Podolski hit his second in the 4-0 win over FC Koln, he showed that he can play the balancing winger role in Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1. (Wenger usually prefers a creative winger on one side and a direct one on the other side). German national team coach, Joachim Löw, says Podolski’s speciality is off the ball runs and he displayed that when he scored, running on to Kieran Gibbs pass from a move he started. Podolski too, fits the profile this season which has placed once again, the onus back on quick one-touch passing. Cazorla, unsurprisingly, is one of the best while Abou Diaby’s biggest positive from the tour of Asia was probably his preference for give-and-goes. And Laurent Koscielny praised the link-up play of Olivier Giroud, saying; “He is tall, like Marouane Chamakh, and is also good with his back to goal. I think if we play with technical guys he will be happy.”
One shouldn’t expect Steve Bould’s imprint (and for that matter, Neil Banfield’s too) on the defence to be instantaneous. In the tour of Asia, the lack of time to gel showed as too often, as was the problem last season, the high-line was seen as a panacea for whenever they got into trouble. That issue was partly solved when Per Mertesacker took to the backline in the final match of pre-season and marshalled the defence well.
But it seems the biggest issue might be the protection in front, rather the gaps that Arsenal leave when they go for the press. Against Koln, their opponents found it too easy to get into the space between the midfield and defence and as a result, had most of their chances from that area. In the 2-1 win over Malaysia XI, the goal they conceded came from such casualness in midfield.
Arsenal’s defensive strategy this season, is to press high up initially but if they can’t force a turnover, drop back to make a compact block. The issue arises when that block doesn’t press aggressively and instead, it invites opponents to make passes in between-the-lines. Bould and Banfield will need to improve the co-ordination between defence and midfield?
Back to zonal-marking
The more obvious adjustment that Steve Bould brings this season is the reversion back to zonal-marking from corner-kicks. Bould, of course, used zonal-marking under George Graham as part of the famous back-four and his belief is that defending aerial balls is as much a concentration and anticipation issue. As such, picking up your man in a man-marking system becomes a bit of a muddle so it may be better to do away with the needless jostling for space and concentrate on what matters most: winning the ball. Zonal-marking was dumped last season after a promising deployment of it at the beginning. But with clearer plans and expert hands to guide them, Arsenal will be hoping their Achilles heel will not be such a problem this season.
Song should be allowed to dance
What’s an Arsenal summer without a long-drawn out transfer saga? Typically it’s a load of nothing. Robin van Persie grabbed the captain armband instantly upon coming on against FC Koln to put an end to everything and nothing; and Alex Song has done the same thing. Stating that Barcelona are “the best team in the world” but he’s happy at Arsenal is not quite commitment to the club fans wanted to hear. And they should want to hear it to because Song has made himself an indispensable member of the starting line-up. He was apportioned a lot of the blame last season for not stopping enough goals (although considering Arsenal conceded the least amount of shots, it signals at a team problem. Also, Arsenal’s lack of creativity meant more often than not, he was needed up the pitch).
Yet why shouldn’t Song be allowed to do all these things? 7amKickOff puts it perfectly when he says: “he’s not a defensive midfielder; he’s the most defensive of midfielders in a not at all defensive system. Song could stand around and do nothing but shield the back two but that’s not what Arsene wants him to do. What he wants him to do is complete 90% of his passes, play through balls, get assists off wonderful chips, tackle, intercept, and shield the back two sometimes.”
Perhaps a degree of specialisation in midfield might help but what must be noted is that there aren’t many players who attempt to stop the ball as much as Song does. And considering Arsenal’s work on defensive shape this season, it shouldn’t be him that is most culpable; increasingly, it’s all about the team.
Full-back ever so slightly
Arsenal had two major problems last season: the absence of Jack Wilshere and the lack of cover in the full-back positions. Considering that the former was expertly filled by Mikel Arteta and the latter clumsily by centre-backs, its obvious which area needs most improving. Both. But while Arsenal are set to add Nuri Sahin in central midfield and can add Diaby and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to that position, they still remain relatively bare in defence. Most specifically at right-back where the absence of Bacary Sagna means either Carl Jenkinson or Nico Yennaris must start. Against Manchester City, Jenkinson was good going forward but very suspect positionally. As such Yennaris might be a better option despite being less robust; tactically, he has looked the more impressive.
It’s going to be an interesting tussle for the left-back slot between Andre Santos and Kieran Gibbs. Both offer slightly different strengths but it might be the partnerships with whoever plays to the side of them rather than in front which might give them the nod. The left-back often has to tuck in as Arsenal tend to favour the right-side when attacking. (38% as opposed to 30% down the left). And considering Arsenal’s vulnerability to the counter, whoever plays there will have a mighty task at hand.
Place your hopes on Gervinho; you won’t be disappointed
Gervinho has already set expectations high for next season with a virtuoso pre-season. Without sounding too harsh, the relative lack of pressure in the friendly matches seems to get the best out of him but if he can get past his inhibitions, there’s a deadly weapon inside for Arsenal to use. He played as a striker against Man City and looked an interesting option, particularly on the break. Otherwise, here’s hoping to a breakthrough season on the flanks.