Friday, June 2, 2023

Tactics column: Arsenal need to rediscover their sense of fun

It’s beyond comprehension that a Mikel Arteta-Jack Wilshere-Santi Cazorla triumvirate might not work. But early displays between the midfield trio haven’t yet yielded glowing results. They’ve looked unknowing of each other in the eight matches in all competitions they have started together since the 1-0 win over QPR and progression has been slow.

If anything, Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla’s form has regressed in the past two months and that’s reflected in the stats: In the first 8 league matches (without Wilshere in the line-up), the pair combined 250 times. If you take the next seven league matches (and Wilshere only missed one of those games), they have only found each other 146 times. Of course, one might say Wilshere has done his bit by bridging the gap between the two but more likely, it highlights the idea that he hasn’t quite struck the balance we’d all thought his return would bring to the side. Abou Diaby, an effective ball-carrier from deep, probably suited the team more.

Result Arteta to Santi












Man City






West Ham






31.25 passes p.g




Man United









Aston Villa









20.9 passes p.g

It’d be unfair to say this lack of fluency is down to Wilshere, and we’re not, and rather, his return has merely coincided with a tripe run of form. But somehow, Arsenal need to get their two most influential men combining again. Certainly, there have been other factors as to why Arteta and Cazorla haven’t found the same success that they did earlier in the season.

Teams have pressed Arsenal higher up the pitch and especially, marked either one of the two – or both. The Gunners have also been poor passing out from the back. Again this might be down to teams adapting their tactics to suit Arsenal (and in the case of Norwich and Aston Villa, their performances against Arsenal have been the basis to turn their seasons around). Wenger has cited tiredness too and certainly, there are members of this squad who haven’t experienced playing a match every three days.

Another issue is psychological but Wenger is not particularly willing to dwell much on it. He feels the confidence will return once they rediscover the “quality of our game”. Indeed, his thinking, according to Mikel Arteta is that “with a little organisation, simple instruction and faith in playing the game his way, their [Arsenal’s] talent will see them through.”

In other words, if they display those attributes that Wenger holds so dear – technique, pace, skill, creativity etc. – victory should come naturally: as a direct consequence of their supposed superiority. As a result, losing is not contemplated so it catches everyone by surprise; leaving them almost dumbfounded. Uncertainty invades the group, resulting in a collective trauma of which there is no fallback position of which to regroup. Unless, of course, they are winning convincingly again.

Arsenal are in the course of another one of these unconvincing runs. Their last league illustrated just how the fun in their game has dissipated. Against Swansea, a 2-0 home defeat, their performance was laboured. The slick passing that they’re renowned for was rather, performed by their opponents, giving an exhibition of confident one-touch passing that rightfully, certain sections of the Emirates crowd applauded at the final whistle. Partly they did so because there’s a thought that it’s something that has slowly eroded from Arsenal’s game in recent years, making watching The Gunners even harder to endure.

On the face of it, the difference seemed psychological but watching it again, and it might be heretical to say this, there might also have been a subtle tactical element at play for the difference between the two sides. Because the way Swansea play, such as stretching the pitch and making it wide as possible when in ownership of the ball, is the fundamentals of possession football. It’s textbook stuff.

Arsenal’s is more positional-based, adapted to give the players freedom of expression. (Arsenal practice a drill called “through-play” whereby a team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively). Arsenal’s approach isn’t wrong; teams such as Manchester City and Chelsea do it although perhaps a big difference is that they value possession as a consequence of their dominance. For Arsenal, it’s a means to dominate.

When Swansea run out of ideas, they have the textbook to fall back on. They simply continue  what they were previously doing: pushing high and wide up the pitch, rotating the central midfielders and getting options on the ball. I won’t go as far as to say it’s a tried and tested formula because it depends on the mental strength of the players to continue playing the same way but this is the way top-level possession football tends to be coached.

When Arsenal run out of ideas, they look to each other for inspiration. The wide men couldn’t really push up against Swansea because Swansea had continued to commit their full-backs up the pitch all game. As such, Gervinho, starting up front, moved to the left and Lukas Podolski central, to track Angel Rangel’s runs. The Arteta-Wilshere-Cazorla barely rotated. When Arteta pushed forward, he generally did it out of desperation (and his chipped pass, which took a heavy deflection, created Arsenal’s best chance).

It’s not that they don’t practice these things (although the Wenger way is to stretch the field vertically in the build up to avoid the press, and then drop a midfielder to pick up the ball in the extra space. Other teams such as Swansea, stretch it horizontally first, splitting the centre-backs and then drop a midfielder in):  The midfield of last season rotated heavily that the deepest midfielder, Alex Song, ended up as the most penetrative passer. The player who Arteta is supposed to emulate in role, Andrea Pirlo, often ends up doing the same, finishing the season with assists in double-figures.

That Jack Wilshere and Alex Song rotated so effectively in season 2010/11 indicates there is still much more to come from Arsenal’s trio. Then, Wenger let the pair find a mechanic that works, so when one attacked, the other instinctively dropped back. More work on the training ground should see Wilshere and Arteta work the same way.

Indeed, there’s an interesting statistic which highlights the lack synchronicity between Arsenal’s midfield three. According to Opta, Mikel Arteta has completed 1,228 passes this season – the most in the league – but only 21.5% have been forward passes (796 of those went sideways and 168 went backwards).

It seems finding harmony in Arsenal’s midfield will go a long way in rediscovering their sense of fun again.

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