In 2015, Arsenal have won away at Manchester City, home and away against Manchester United, and have comprehensively beaten Liverpool at home. This week, Bayern Munich’s head was gamefully poached and entered into Arsenal’s rogues’ gallery of heads on pikes. (Whether or not the simulated kill of Chelsea in the August’s Community Shield is a worthy entrant to this particular hall of fame, is up to you, dear reader). So how, if at all, has Arsenal’s approach been doctored to so-called “big games”, which were once such a stumbling block?
A partnership borne of a series of extraordinary happy accidents. Coquelin’s rise from the ashes has been well documented, but the transformation that has seen Santi Cazorla turn into one of the country’s finest deep lying playmakers has been almost as remarkable. The Spaniard’s suitability to the role really became evident during a 2-2 draw at Anfield last December. I doubt it had been intended for Cazorla to play such a deep midfield role during this game. But Liverpool’s tidal wave of pressing swept a writhing Mathieu Flamini back towards his centre halves.
The relentlessness of ‘Pool’s pressure had Flamini figuratively clinging onto rocks on the edge of his own penalty area. Arsenal were being suffocated, which meant Cazorla was left with little recourse but to grab his orange float and go wading into the red sea. Here, his tidy feet and ability to break the lines of pressure with Velcro like close control proved to be a valuable defensive weapon. Three weeks later, when the Gunners went to the Etihad, Wenger deliberately stationed Santi at the base of the midfield where his soft feet were once again an unorthodox, but incredibly precious defensive weapon.
Wenger likes for his players to be self-sufficient and figure their own solutions to tactical teasers, so it’s somewhat fitting that Cazorla’s transformation was effectively voluntary. Coquelin has added some bite and power to the base of the midfield and together, these two midfielders have dovetailed into the perfect mid-shield. This is a particularly handy combination to have in games where Arsenal are less likely to dominate the ball. Which brings me neatly onto point number two.
LEARNING TO PLAY WITHOUT THE BALL
In 2013-14, Arsenal made a conscious decision not to obsess over possession. Arsenal had Cesc Fabregas wrenched from their grip in 2011, but his shadow loomed over the team thereafter. It wasn’t until the arrival of Mesut Özil and the blossoming of Aaron Ramsey that the team were able to remove Fabregas’ arse groove from the sofa. Arsenal’s average possession stats fell by 7% in 2013-14 compared to 2012-13, as the Gunners favoured a “rope-a-dope” style, sitting deep and sucking teams in, before landing carefully constructed body blows.
Prior to this year, Arsenal’s opponents would often allow the Gunners “sterile domination” of the ball, concentrating on compactness and organisation, before delivering a well-timed uppercut. In effect, Arsenal have played the plucky loser in this script so many times that they have learned how to flip it. As @jamiedalton82 points out, Arsenal “enjoyed” 35% of the ball at the Etihad in January, 42% in the FA Cup victory at Old Trafford in March, 49% in the 4-1 demolition of Liverpool in April and only saw 31% possession against Bayern on Tuesday.
Duncan Alexander of Opta tweeted on Tuesday evening that 11 teams have lost to Arsenal in 2015 despite having more possession. Practice makes perfect, Arsenal’s emphasis shift to dominating “moments” as opposed to possession has made them much more comfortable when they are forced to surrender the ball for long periods. The Gunners have won eight away games by a single goal during this calendar year. When facing teams chasing an equaliser in front of their own supporters, Arsenal have held firm.
So when Bayern seemed to be playing with their own ball for large periods of the second half on Tuesday, Wenger’s side were much better geared to concentrate and keep discipline and shape. In the home matches against Manchester United and Liverpool, Arsenal constructed unassailable leads by half-time and were then quite happy and comfortable to sit back and allow their opponents to swing fruitlessly. In short, the team are much better and much more switched on when they don’t have the ball.
FLEXIBILITY / ADAPTABILITY
What’s also intriguing about these results, is that they haven’t been achieved via one set formula. The basis is similar, at home to try and set the tempo and get an early goal before playing on the break. Away from home, be compact and soak up pressure, being sure not to make a defensive error before springing the counter attack. But Arsenal have made subtle amendments to the equation on each occasion. At the Etihad and Old Trafford at the beginning of the year, they tried to counter through the flanks.
Alexis and Chamberlain played almost as orthodox wingers in a 4-5-1, with their speed and dribbling ability vital to launch counter attacks. This season, Arsenal have used Ramsey on the right hand side as opposed to Chamberlain, Walcott’s pace as a central striker is where the Gunners have hung their counter attacking hat. It’s widely reported that player meetings influenced the tactics for the win at the Etihad in January and for the mauling of Manchester United in October. Yet neither game yielded a hitherto unseen approach.
The blueprint of the United game had been set down in the mauling of Liverpool in April. Arsenal set up at the Etihad in much the same way they had at Stamford Bridge in October 2014, only the ‘marginals’ (more on that anon) contrived against Arsenal in the latter example. Though the Coqzorla double pivot at City was better suited to the setup, compared to Wilshere and Flamini against Chelsea. As I said earlier in the article, Wenger prefers for his players to configure solutions for themselves. So if the players did have as much influence as they suggest, then it can be seen as a triumph of his laissez-faire style. But I suspect, as a manager keen to engender confidence in his players, he is just happy to let them think that.
At Stamford Bridge in September, Arsenal had been happy to cede possession to Chelsea and let them dominate the ball, carefully ensuring that they created almost nothing by defending in deep blocks. We might have gotten away with it too, were it not for that meddling Mike Dean. Unusually, Wenger was forthcoming on a tactical switch he made mid game against Bayern on Tuesday. Before the match, much of the talk was of Arsenal dictating the tempo of the game from the off, as they had the last time the teams met in March 2014.
Guardiola predicted that Arsenal would seek to repeat the trick this time around, so he turned the tables. Lewandowski had the Arsenal defence on the back foot with a mazy dribble inside 30 seconds. Wenger admitted he had been forced into a rethink, and he moved Özil back to help facilitate counter attacks from deep. But he also moved him into a wider position, probably because of his superior economy in possession in that area, compared to the profligate Alexis. Arsenal’s in-game management of these matches, has improved notably.
Too often, football is analysed as an exact science. Whilst concepts such as “fate” are phooey, often the plain old run of the ball is crucial, especially where more evenly matched opponents are concerned. As I wrote back in January, the marginals were the only key difference between Arsenal’s widely feted ‘masterclass’ at the Etihad in January and the ‘predictably naïve collapse’ at Stamford Bridge three months earlier. There is an element of fortune at play here, Arsenal certainly had some against Bayern on Tuesday night (though many would argue that a goalkeeper making good saves is very much in his job description and therefore, not a symptom of felicity).
But a lot of the marginals have gone Arsenal’s way this year. Vincent Kompany’s rash challenge at the Etihad. Antonio Valencia gifting Danny Welbeck a Stevie G special in the cup win at Old Trafford. Raheem Sterling make an almighty hash of a presentable one on one with the scores at 0-0 against Liverpool in April. Lewandowski’s foot turning into spaghetti in injury time on Tuesday with the gap between the teams still at a single goal. Many marginals went against Arsenal during their impoverished run against immediate competitors prior to this year. There’s probably a small extent to which they had been a bit unlucky.
But it’s little coincidence that the best teams with the best players make the razor thin margins work for them. Put simply, the fewer boneheaded errors you make, the less likely your opponents are to benefit. Likewise, the level of Arsenal’s squad has gone up over the last two years and the better your players, the better the chances of capitalising on opposition errors. Arsenal’s defence have become used to soaking up pressure, which makes them better placed to counter attack efficiently. They have scored the first goal in all of these crucial victories, which is vital too. In summary, Arsenal are defending better and attacking more smartly.
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