Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Confidence confidential

The execution of ‘Wengerball’ has always relied chiefly on the confidence of the players. That elan doesn’t just manifest itself on the ball, with quick, crisp passing, but off the ball too. Wenger’s best teams have always been kinetic, prolific position swappers. At the moment, Arsenal is a team operating at the threshold of its confidence.

With the exception of Rosicky, Wilshere and Arteta, all of whom are mitigated by fitness issues, pretty much every other player is in peak form. These periods are to be imbibed, swilled around the pallet and enjoyed. Unfortunately, they never do quite last forever, even if we really wish they would.

One of the most striking features of our recent form is how efficient we have been. Cast your minds back to the matches against Sunderland, Marseilles, Swansea, Stoke and Napoli. In a purely offensive sense, Arsenal have only been an attacking force for short bursts in games. This, I believe, emanates from finally having a solid defensive base to work from.

Over the summer I wrote that Arsenal should look to marry the defensive shape work they performed at the end of last season with greater attacking verve. So far they have managed to do so. For large sections of the last 5 or 6 games, Arsenal have kept a good shape as a unit and kept their opponents at arm’s length, often happy for them to shoot from range. Only Fulham have conceded more shots on goal than Arsenal this season, but most of those attempts have been from distance.

Then, like a cobra in the grass, Arsenal strike suddenly. The thrilling counter attacking play of yesteryear has made a welcome return. Facilitated largely by the twin improvements of Ramsey, who looks to run beyond the striker when Arsenal break and Giroud, whose hold up play has turned him into the Premier League’s form striker. Mesut Ozil has of course, been the glue that has held this approach together. This blog from @jcav90 looks in depth at our counter attacking game recently.

It calls to mind some of Wenger’s best teams, who were often more dangerous defending opposition corners than they were attacking their own. In April 1998, beleaguered Newcastle manager Kenny Dalglish told the press, “Arsenal are at their most dangerous when they don’t have the ball,” after his team were defeated at Highbury. It also puts me in mind of Herbert Chapman’s famous quote from one of his Daily Express columns, “The truth is, a team can attack for too long.”

Most teams cede possession to Arsenal, so we’ve never really had an issue dominating possession. At the moment, we’re dominating the key moments of games and that’s encouraging. Last season, Wenger lugubriously used the phrase “illusory domination” in relation to some of our more listless performances. This F365 piece notes that Arsenal have averaged 53.7% possession in our first 6 league games this season. Compared with 58% last season, 60.2% in 2011-12 and 60.3% in 2010-11.

We would see plenty of the ball without ever hurting the opposition. The short, sharp, shock treatment has left opponents reeling of late, where we’ve been hung together much like a Tarantino film. By observing the basics for much of the 90 minutes, but elevating the performance with a couple of epoch making scenes. Arsenal’s goals against Napoli on Tuesday might as well have been played to the strains of Steeler’s Wheel.

Arsenal have also shown a tactical flexibility of late. Against Swansea for instance, they lined up in a kind of 4-1-3-1-1, with Flamini patrolling the width of the pitch in front of the defence and Ozil floating behind Giroud. Yet once Arsenal have the ball, Ramsey races ahead of Ozil in support of Giroud. Against Napoli, there was a slight tweak to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Arteta sitting alongside Flamini. I suspect this is an axis that Wenger will look to for games against formidable opponents.

Ramsey, Ozil and Rosicky ahead of them were a liquid blur (Ramzilsky? Rozilsey?), forever changing positions and totally flummoxing Napoli’s defence. It’s difficult not to resort to tactical cliché and refer to it as ‘total football.’ This is facilitated by maturity, familiarity and confidence. The forward players know they have that solid shape behind them and the team know they can close out a game with it if necessary.

The two potential obstacles Arsenal will have to guard against both relate to their confidence. Firstly, Wenger must guard against overconfidence. He likes his teams to enjoy the game they play and that’s certainly when they play it best. But he must ensure that they continue to observe the basics, even if they are having a gay old time out there on the field. The game must never be allowed to become too easy.

It’s a delicate balance. Because the other hurdle they’ll have to watch for is how they react to defeat when it eventually darkens our door again. Sometimes, when you’re at your most confident, you’re also at your most fragile. If you’re performing a handstand on a tightrope, the slightest gust of wind can leave you paralyzed. Overconfidence and dented pride have hurt the prospects of Wenger’s teams before.

In 2002-03, when Arsenal surrendered the title to a resurgent Manchester United, Wenger admitted that his team became complacent in the spring, when they went eight points clear at the Premier League’s summit. Yet dented confidence also did for Arsenal that year. Having lost a 30 game unbeaten run to a last minute Rooney piledriver at Everton, Arsenal lost their proceeding four games.

Nobody needs to be reminded of what a pair of last minute Birmingham goals from 2008 and 2011 did to Arsenal’s psychological welfare. Much of Wenger’s tenure is divided into a series of long unbeaten runs and heart snapping traumas. It’s a story of confidence destroyed and repaired. Hopefully the reaction to the Aston Villa defeat on the opening day will stand us in good stead for when the pinprick inevitably hits the balloon.

Arsenal also know now that they can grind out results even if they’re not making sweet love to the football. Last season showed them that. We have big engagements ahead too. In four weeks time we’re treated to a run of games that looks like this across three competitions: Chelsea (h), Liverpool (h), Borussia Dortmund (a), Manchester United (a). Then again in December, we lock horns with Everton (h), Napoli (a), Manchester City (a) and Chelsea (h) consecutively.

How we emerge from those two spells will tell us much about Arsenal’s prospects this season. As well stocked as we are in midfield with the likes of Chamberlain and Cazorla to return, we’re light upfront. Giroud has become so pivotal to the way that we play that you begin to feel that a significant injury to him could be as damaging as all those van Persie injuries were once upon a time.

In closing, I’d like to afford some space to the Arsenal Ladies, who play Lincoln City in the Continental Cup Final on Friday night at Barnet’s new ground The Hive. Arsenal didn’t beat Lincoln in either of their WSL engagements this season, so this will be far from a walkover and I’m sure the ladies would love the support. Tickets are £5 for adults and £2.50 concessions and are available here. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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