Thursday, February 29, 2024

Tactics Column: Arsenal’s illusionary domination

It was Didier Deschamps, in a conversation with Jean-Claude Suaudeau, who said that in today’s game, there are “two zones of truth…if you’ve got a great keeper and a great striker, you’re not that far from victory.” Naturally, Suaudeau, a former coach of Nantes and someone who is from the same philosophical bloodline as Arsene Wenger, disagreed. However, after Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester United on Saturday, it was hard not to side with Deschamps – in the short term at least. Up front, Robin van Persie was the difference – as he was for Arsenal for much of last season – while Vito Mannone pulled off a string of good saves to keep the scoreline respectable.

But it’s Suaudeau’s words, ultimately, which ring loudest. He said to Deschamps that “a game is won in midfield. Only the midfielders are able to find the right way to play. They are the animators. They are the inspiration. The more players of that kind you’ve got, the more you can hope to win in the long term.”

Arsenal had four midfielders in their front six – Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla – and one, Andre Santos, in their back four. With some of the best passers in the Premier League, you would have expected domination filled with rhythm and verve – joie de vivre. Except we got inexplicable nervousness, uncertainty and loss of possession. The opening period was one of the strangest I’ve ever seen watching Arsenal. They looked like they’ve never played with each other before – which is almost true – but they played much better at the start of the season when they actually never played with each other.

The Arsenal midfielders were inhibited by something. Whether it was Manchester United’s shape – which resembled a lot like their own this season, compact and disciplined: one of their few successes in a sobering start so far – they didn’t know what to do. It’s almost as if they didn’t expect United to play this way but more likely, was that Arsenal were perhaps too familiar with such an approach. Norwich City, QPR and Schalke – not to mention the goalless draws at the beginning of the season – played the same way. The Gunners failed to create many chances then; imagine now doing it against the best team in the Premier League. Impossible. So what we got was, as Wenger called it, ‘illusionary domination’; Arsenal passed as if it looked like they knew what they were doing, but in fact, had no clue how to break down this United side.

There were some damning statistics (check 7am Kick-Off’s Numbers Column) but none more so than this: Arsenal attempted only 6 take-ons (dribbles that attempt to beat a man) and were only successful with one. The game was built for Abou Diaby or Jack Wilshere – a player that could break between the lines and carry the ball forward. Indeed, it seems much of Arsenal’s strategy this season hinges on those two players staying fit – an extraordinary risk to take – more so Diaby who gives physical balance. So far, though, Arsenal have got next to nothing from that crucial position in between Arteta and Santi Cazorla.

That was all the more important in this game because United marked Arteta by dropping Wayne Rooney and/or Van Persie when Arsenal had the ball deep (and as such, Per Mertesacker attempted the most passes in the match with over a hundred!). And it almost seems no coincidence that Cazorla has had his quietest games when that supply line is cut off to him. To be fair, Wilshere had a fairly solid game until his red card although it still looked too early for him to partake in a game of this intensity. Arsenal’s troubles in this position were summed up when Ramsey – starting on the right – was forced off injured and Arsenal had no like-for-like replacement to bring on for Wilshere without substituting on a more defensive player (Francis Coquelin). Tom Cleverley, similarly walking on a disciplinary tightrope for United, was taken off only a few minutes before. His replacement Anderson, then proceeded to get booked – almost taking the hit for his team-mate Cleverley.

It was little wonder Olivier Giroud got no service. He was left isolated up front and increasingly had to drop deep to get possession, something he’s not so comfortable with. Indeed, what is overlooked about Robin van Persie’s impact last season was that he was also almost an extension of the midfield, getting into good positions to not only score but to create chances. On Saturday afternoon, he pressed brilliantly just as he did for Arsenal as the spearhead in the first line of defence while his movement was deadly. Wenger talked about his “speed of analysing those little pockets around the box” and such is his intelligence, he’s already stoked up a partnership with Wayne Rooney that Olivier Giroud can only envy. To be fair to Giroud, he did get through a lot of ground but while he looked better whenever he got the ball around United’s box, his link-up play – splayed with flicks and deft touches – often fell short of finding team-mates.

At the end of match, Wenger bemoaned the mistakes that led to the goals, especially for the first. It came from a loss of possession in midfield and that inability to move the ball effectively surely is the reason why the team looks “more vulnerable defensively than we did at the start of the season.” Possession is a form of defence as it is an attack  but even Wenger doesn’t believe in passing it for passing’s sake. For all of Arsenal’s keeping of the ball sideways, there was very little depth to their play and urgency. Theo Walcott would have helped stretch play but Arsenal have failed to get the different components of the team to work as a whole that it seems a little futile to suggest it would have solved their problems in penetration. There were no distinguishable periods of pass and move as there was at beginning of the season – just pass.

Arsenal are certainly going through a confidence crisis. Defeat to Norwich could be written off as a one-off; performances against Schalke and QPR as just a brief aberration of form but lose so meekly to Manchester United and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it highlighted a gulf in quality.

It seems a truism to say games are won and lost in midfield, especially when individual errors directly caused Arsenal to lose to Manchester United. But Arsenal’s game is set up in such a way that they must win the midfield battle to have a chance of winning the game. That they failed on that count meant that there was always no way back even before one of those midfielders had to leave the pitch.

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