Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Tactics column: Decision making

Two weeks ago, Swansea City went away to Valencia and completed a memorable victory in the Europa League. In midweek, they crashed out of the League Cup against a team in a division lower than them – as holders. And on Saturday evening, they took Arsenal to the very last minute before eventually losing 2-1, after outplaying them for large periods. It all adds to a frustrating account of Swansea. How do you explain, when they played like they did against Arsenal, why there are 12 teams better than them in the Premier League?

Against The Gunners, Swansea dominated possession, having 58% of the possession and making 537 passes to Arsenal’s 344. That’s no mean feat as Arsenal are considered to be the best passing side in the league. In some ways too, their possession philosophy is superior to Arsenal’s, having been sculpted in the same mould as the Dutch Total Football sides and more recently, Barcelona. In the first-half in particular, that showed as Swansea’s players constantly interchanged positions to get on the ball and Arsenal were forced to play more defensively than they are normally accustomed too.

They looked a little timid, showing too much respect to the challenged posed by Swansea on the ball, playing overtly cautious. Even when Arsenal regained possession of the ball, they were forced to hurry passes as, not only did the Swans snap and snarl at their feet, they played too static. Thankfully, Arsenal changed things at half-time, with Arsene Wenger saying that they “played in a more compact way … more clinical and playing with much more purpose.”

In the end, Arsenal probably got the better of Swansea because in simple terms, they just have the better players. I say this because both Arsenal and Swansea passed the ball at such a high level that on the face of it (which is a rarity in the modern game it must be said), it was difficult to determine who had the edge technically. As such, it confirmed that there is a level beyond mere technique which sets the best players apart.

It’s accepted that athletes process lots of decisions in a short space of time, but the best ones makes the correct ones more often. That was the theme for much of the game between Swansea and Arsenal before The Gunners scored two goals in quick succession. Moves would break down in the final third because players would make the wrong pass, or choose the option to shoot or cross, or just do neither. Indeed, Swansea made the more forays into the final third (182/126) but couldn’t make the difference, while Arsenal did because they knew what to do with the ball in the crucial areas better than their opponents.

On the one hand, Arsenal’s game features more purpose than Swansea’s who are content to pass it around the back while The Gunners are eager to push forward at every opportunity. Yet on the other hand, there is an inexplicable edge that Arsenal’s forward players hold. It’s as Thierry Henry says in Philippe Auclair’s biography of the striker, Lonely at the Top: “I’d say 40 per cent of my game is [based on instinct]. But I always know where my teammates are before I receive the ball. If you can win time on the pitch – have a look before you receive the ball, see things before everyone else – that’s the difference between an average player and a player who illuminates the game.”

The ability to find time on the pitch then deliver the final pass is basically what Wenger highlights as the key reason for Arsenal’s good form. “First of all that’s linked with young players who improve naturally in the final pass,” said Wenger. “We have added Ozil who can give a good ball in the final third and at the moment we have more confidence as well.”

From last season, Wengerball has improved because creativity is now plural; chances can be created all over the pitch. It’s the final step for a possession orientated side to reach – yet it’s the hardest, as the late Netherlands coach, Rinus Michels, explains in his seminal book, Teambuilding – the Road to Success: “The play-making strategy is not often seen. This style of football is risky to play and needs to have a lot of players with individual qualities. In most football cultures the coaches are scared to use it…” While Arrigo Sacchi, the legendary Milan coach expands: “In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball.”

Of course, Arsenal can get better still as this was the third game this season where they have had less possession than their opponents, while Theo Walcott’s movement has no substitute in the squad. Yet, the biggest sign that Arsenal are getting closer to Wenger’s ideals can be seen in the understanding that the players have with each other on the field, and that can’t be better illustrated than the two goals Arsenal scored.

The first was a fantastic team move which, on the 20th pass (well, it was a lucky bounce off Olivier Giroud really) the ball fell to Aaron Ramsey (who if you watch the goal again, followed into the space which the interchange between Giroud and Mesut Ozil created) who played a gorgeous reverse-pass to Serge Gnabry. The finish from the German exuded class beyond his eighteen years.

The second goal was even better though it featured one piece of good fortune when Ramsey flicked the ball instinctively to his left, and one moment of sheer bloody mindedness as Jack Wilshere won a fifty-fifty challenge cleanly to give new momentum to the attack. As Arsenal reached the box, Giroud played in Wilshere with a deft touch, he found Ramsey and the Welshman showed great composure to sidestep his marker then size up his options before shooting for the top corner.

Heavily involved in both goals was Olivier Giroud. Last season I wrote that Wenger was willing to overlook his deficiencies – namely his goalscoring – because “he makes Arsenal play”. Giroud’s touches, his neat flicks and crucially, his flick-ons, are a big part of the way the team plays, using him as a pivot to bump passes off. When the passing is crisp and the movement is incisive, Giroud becomes a crucial cog in the Arsenal machine and as such, they don’t necessarily need to worry about him scoring: goals will come from all over.

With eight goals this season, Aaron Ramsey is the one who has truly stepped up in that regard. His goal exhibited everything of a man in form. As he received Wilshere’s pass, he knew exactly what he was going to do. In the past, he might have panicked and struck his shot over. But here, he coolly sidestepped the defender and shot high beyond the goalkeeper’s reach.

That’s the difference between Ramsey two seasons ago, and the Ramsey who now illuminates the game.

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