Monday, November 28, 2022

Tactics Column: Arsenal fail to take advantage of wide areas at Norwich

One would hope defeat to Norwich City is a wake-up call for Arsenal even if it is an unwanted one. But we’ve been in this position before; Arsène Wenger warning his team pre-match of complacency and his side falling to just that. One must praise Norwich City however; this one of the best defensive displays you will see this season, as they remained fantastically disciplined and moved up and down as a unit. They too, will hope this is a turning point for their season but it’s unlikely they’ll play the same way against “lesser” opponents.

Because here, they realised any defensive mistake might go punished. Against opponents supposedly at their level, they’d surely have periods where they break through the shackles of their manager’s instructions and play with a bit more abandon.

For Arsenal, their problem centred on what was a lack of penetration and creativity beyond Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla. Indeed, Arteta said after the defeat that Arsenal needed “more patience sometimes,” which might touch a raw nerve with those fans who watched the game but he might not be far off. The idea was to keep moving Norwich around, trying to create space for Arsenal’s midfield runners by dragging the defence out. As it was, attacks broke down even before they gained momentum because the right movements weren’t made – the right decisions.

That can be highlighted by the build up patterns of the two Arsenal sides. On the left, The Gunners were more intricate, more precise. Down the right, however, there was a lack of… well, anything. It’s true that Carl Jenkinson attempted more crosses than Andre Santos, but Arsenal just didn’t offer much from that side.

Arsenal's pass charts show how The Gunners failed to make more out of the combination play down the right. Indeed, even the more adventurous passes - the misplaced ones - came from the left with crossing the usual way Arsenal looked to attack down the right.

With Norwich clogging up the centre, they conceded the flanks – perhaps, you could argue then, Arsenal should have created more crossing opportunities but then again, Norwich wanted Arsenal to cross – and Arsenal attacked 46% from the left but only 30% from the right. Which makes all the more baffling that Wenger replaced Lukas Podolski, thereby weakening Arsenal’s stronger side. That he’s only completed one full ninety-minute probably indicates he’s carrying a knock or that Wenger’s sophisticated analysis is telling us Podolski’s intensity dramatically drops as the game nears its conclusion.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with favouring one side over another – Arsenal slanted towards the right last season. But with Norwich conceding the flanks, Arsenal should  have made more out of the space on offer. The combination play between Jenkinson and Gervinho was non-existent, as was the latter’s movement to try and get in behind. With Bacary Sagna nearing a return, Jenkinson might feel unlikely to lose out but Sagna offers more adventure going forward.

Arsenal attack sides v Norwich

Remaining on the topic of what side Arsenal like to attack from, last match we talked about how Aaron Ramsey was liberated, in a sense, moving from the right of centre-midfield to the left. This week, he was moved back to the right hand side and Arteta to the left. This was slightly strange but maybe Wenger realised the right side offers less intricacy therefore by putting Ramsey there, Arsenal could use some of his drive, running as Abou Diaby would.

It’s as Dunga once said when England played Brazil (and this could be applied to the way Norwich defended against Arsenal): “You need to learn how to dribble [through us]. That’s what you have to do. Teams are more compact these days.” Martin Keown adds: “We read so much about the virtues of passing the ball these days but there has been an emergence of players carrying the ball long distances to either score themselves or provide for others.

“Yaya Toure, Gareth Bale, Abou Diaby and Aaron Lennon are just a few of those who are doing it, surging through the midfield. It gets you out of your seat and shows that even in these days of football being all about a team passing game, there is room for these high-speed ball carriers.”

The role just in between Arteta and Cazorla is one Arsenal have yet to pin down. Diaby’s form can vary from the brilliant to the downright  sodden but his dynamic gives balance to the side. His dribbling, in particular, can get Arsenal out of tight spots (he’s in the top 10 for dribbles per game in the league) which is very important in his position.

Gervinho or Giroud

Wenger has stated that Arsenal’s approach is dictated by his choice of striker. This time, he went for Olivier Giroud, but Gervinho did play. Except, he was used on the right. It’s becoming clearer that he’s more suited as a centre-forward and it showed against Norwich where he lacked effectiveness as a winger. He was unwilling to cut in as Podolski does on the other side and while he was more dangerous on the left, taking on defenders, it’s hard to look past the assertion that Gervinho should be considered mainly as a centre-forward.

Against Schalke 04 on Wednesday, expect Gervinho to start up front. Expect a slight shift, too, on the way Arsenal play. This time, though, one hopes Arsenal are more successful playing their striker through than they were against Norwich.

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