Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Tactics Column: Analysing Arsenal’s performances over the festive period

By design or by accident, Arsenal stronger down the right

Arsenal’s first two fixtures of the festive period were predicted to be comfortable 6-pointers, though we all know it’s not as simple as that. And sure enough, Arsenal were pushed hard in both matches, but against QPR at home, much of it was their own doing.

The Gunners were utterly dominant in the first-period of the 2-1 win, stroking the ball comfortably, and were patient in waiting for gaps to form. Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty early on but soon gave Arsenal a lead when he headed home a Kieran Gibbs cross. Tomas Rosicky later gave them a two-goal cushion when he finished off a fine counter-attack but that was sandwiched by a needless red-card for Olivier Giroud. For the rest of the game, Arsenal had to hold on and despite a penalty converted by Charlie Austin, they defended resolutely enough.

Arsene Wenger opted to start, due to injuries to key midfielders, an all striker front-line consisting of Danny Welbeck, Giroud and Alexis. It’s something which he has done previously and while it has not always led to fluent performances – they’ve generally had to grind out results when these three strikers have been selected in the league – it perfectly suited the game-plan QPR chose. That’s because Harry Redknapp opted to play three at the back to match up to Arsenal’s three strikers, but by ensuring a numerical parity in one part of the pitch, it meant he had to cede it on another part and that led to Arsenal comfortably dominating.

Arsenal’s joy came primarily down the right with QPR unable to handle the runs of Alexis. The Chilean typically floated around the pitch, looking for pockets in which to unsettle QPR’s backline. But in the end, he was most of a threat when he stuck to the right due to the way a) Arsenal’s play was invariably drawn to him and b) because QPR had a dud of a left-back in Armand Traore. Arsenal’s first goal came from a run in which Alexis got in between Traore who was dozing, and he earned a penalty when he was fouled by the same player. While the second similarly came from that side as this time Steven Caulker, playing left-back now in Traore’s place, let Rosicky free.

In the 2-1 win over West Ham, it was much of the same story in that wherever Alexis went, Arsenal’s play followed. Switched to the left this time, though sometimes also playing in the middle, the balance of play shifted to the other side – with 41% of attacks coming down the left, whereas the majority of attacks against QPR came down the right (39%). But, because of West Ham’s structural imbalance in midfield, Arsenal were strongest down the right-hand side through the direct dribbling of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

arsenal chalkboards

His ability to quickly change the emphasis of attacks meant that West Ham, playing a diamond formation which widened to their right and narrowed to the left, couldn’t adequately get back into shape to cover for him. He was constant thorn in their backsides, picking up the ball and then running from deep. So much of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s play has improved; knowing when to drop deep, to turn with the ball or hug the touchline. With that extra space, he had the opportunity to be the key man but he was a bit wasteful with his shooting – to be a more decisive player is surely the next step.

Coquelin hurls spanner in the works

Up until the last minutes of the 2-0 win over Hull City, Francis Coquelin had timed every one of his challenges just right. That is to say his challenges, teetering precariously on the edge of ankle-breaker, hadn’t as of yet, been called up by the referee in the three-and-a-bit matches he featured in over the festive period. He was booked once late on against QPR though that was for a tactical foul when Arsenal were holding on.

However, close to the end of the Hull game, Coquelin launched himself into a tackle that saw him booked. He got the ball in the end, it must be said, but the way he propelled himself, studs showing, was deemed illegal. On the face of it, the tackle was a minor aberration in what was a solid performance from Arsenal, however, since he has been recalled from loan, everybody has been keenly running the rule on Francis Coquelin.

He caught the eye initially against West Ham when he started alongside fellow scrapper, Mathieu Flamini, in a double pivot and quickly outshone him, launching himself into tackles yet emerging with the ball with the clinicality of a hit-man. His passing was also crisp and accurate, with Wenger praising the way he passed “through the lines.” Against Southampton, Coquelin was rather less impressive – despite a bright start he was found wanting against such technical-savvy opponents (though to be fair, he did start alongside the inexperienced Calum Chambers).

His performance against Hull went someway to restoring his reputation, but it was that tackle which stuck in the mind because in those three games Coquelin has played, you sensed that at some moment, he would be penalised for a challenge that the referee would deem excessive. To be fair to Coquelin, he has generally executed them with clinical efficiency and certainly, there is a particular joy in seeing him propel himself with a shark-like muscular ripple because tacklers these days are rare.

But that precisely is also the point: Sam Allardyce says you can’t train players to tackle anymore, rather it’s about having the awareness to intercept, because “most tackles are fouls now”. And up till now we’ve been waiting to see if Coquelin has substance to his game and that he’s not, forgive me for putting it bluntly, just another Flamini.

On the plus side, Coqeulin has shown he has enough awareness to his game to suggest he can go another level: he tracks runners, plays with intensity and is a clean passer of the ball. For a long time, that final point has stuck in the craw of some Arsenal fans; sometimes we’re too guilty of over-intellectualising positions and players – even if the player who plays in front of the defence needs to play 50-70 passes per game. Coquelin has enough in his game to polish into a finer footballer: it’s just whether his particular strengths off the ball can transform Arsenal’s game in the short-term.

It’s all in the mind

Ultimately, while two massive defensive errors cost Arsenal in their 2-0 defeat to Southampton, the most galling thing might be more the way they couldn’t a find semblance of fluency in their passing game against organised opponents but supposedly inferior opponents. To tell the truth, it’s not the first time Arsenal’s passing game has stuttered these last few seasons, leading some fans to question whether Arsenal’s play is beautiful anymore. However, that’s missing part of the point.

Tim Stillman has the right of it when he writes in his column that labels stick, and Arsenal’s reputation as beautiful martyrs tends to be perpetuated by often glorious failures in the big matches that neutrals only tend to see, or bitesize highlights packages. But Tim is also right when he says that Arsenal don’t play as crisply as they used to because they are a team still searching for the perfect understanding.

Looking at the side and it’s a mishmash of players: that’s not to say it in a disparaging way but there are short, technical players and then there are those that like to be more explosive, which goes a little way in explaining the disjointed performances. Arsenal have been a little like this for more than a few seasons now with Wenger claiming that the team with the most potential were his 2010-11 side of Nasri, Van Persie, Adebayor and Fabregas.

But Arsenal’s game is also fragile, and much depends on the abilities of the players Wenger has at his disposal to read situations. Lee Dixon in a way explains this in Amy Lawrence’s Innvicible, saying that “basically his [Wenger’s] foundation of coaching is based on that – the intelligence of the player, and the willingness of the player. How he picks his players is that he goes for the type of person who can almost educate themselves from their surroundings. He puts players in environments that are conducive with success in his opinion, and he expects the player to learn from the players around him and the tools he has available.”

I’ve been reading a book called “Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life” by Massimo Pigliucci and there is a fantastic chapter about the science of intuition; the part of thinking which helps explain how, through certain practice the Arsenal players can find each other on the pitch almost instinctively.

The word intuition comes from the Latin intuir, which appropriately means ‘knowledge from within.’… These days cognitive scientists think of intuition as a set of non-conscious cognitive and affective processes; the outcome of these processes is often difficult to articulate and is not based on deliberate thinking, but it’s real and (sometimes) effective nonetheless. Intuition works in an associative manner: it feels effortless (even though it does use a significant amount of brain power), and it’s fast. Rational thinking, on the contrary, is analytical, requires effort, and is slow.

[…]

“One of the first things that modern research on intuition has clearly shown is that there is no such thing as an intuitive person tout court. Intuition is a domain-specific ability, so that people can be very intuitive about one thing (say, medical practice, or chess playing) and just as clueless as the average person about pretty much everything else. Moreover, intuitions get better with practice — especially with a lot of practice — because at bottom intuition is about the brain’s ability to pick up on certain recurring patterns; the more we are exposed to a particular domain of activity the more familiar we become with the relevant patterns (medical charts, positions of chess pieces), and the more and faster our brains generate heuristic solutions to the problem we happen to be facing within that domain.”

One of the ways Wenger does is by practicing 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, and create overloads on one side of the pitch to overwhelm opponents. That means it requires a certain type of player, as Lee Dixon alludes to, and repetitive practice. Though, as we saw against Southampton, Wenger adds a caveat and that is the way Arsenal play is fragile.

“Our game is [about] psychology and the mental aspect. In the final part of the game when the result is not settled, it’s always very important.” In Invincible, there is a whole section dedicated to the way Jens Lehmann transformed Arsenal’s mentality in one season when he came in, Even in Answers for Aristotle, Pigliucci says “intuition isn’t infallible.” Sometimes you need a player with skills, expertise from a certain sector to add what’s missing.

Alexis takes centre stage

Arsenal’s reliance on Alexis has reached almost Thierry Henry levels. That’s natural, as Wenger says that invariably, the “game goes through the team’s strong points.” Indeed, it looks unlikely that that reliance will lessen with Wenger unsure about giving Alexis a rest. The Chilean started all four games over the festive period, and in his final two games, started up front – arguably the position he was brought in for initially. Against Southampton, he wasn’t able to affect the game, often dropping deep to try and give some spark to Arsenal. Against Hull however, he was much better, balancing all parts of his game, sometimes dropping deep or pulling wide, and when the goal came, playing close to the shoulder of the last defender.

On the other hand, perhaps the improved performance came about as Wenger recognised that the selection he made for the Southampton game – playing all ball-players behind Alexis – didn’t suit his style. Against Hull, Sanchez was flanked both sides by Walcott and Joel Campbell and his creative abilities were able to come to the fore. Still, it was the way he scored his goal which gave a glimpse of how good he be up front. Because you don’t really want Alexis constantly dropping deep: ideally you want him higher up the pitch, picking up the ball close to the defender and then turning. But like the great strikers – Henry, Messi, Van Persie – sometimes there’s no need to put restrictions on them: you just let them do everything.

At the moment, Alexis is just a fantastic individual in Arsenal’s system: the next step is to transform it.

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