Thursday, April 25, 2024

Tactics Column: Arsenal stutter to WBA defeat

Though Santi Cazorla ballooned a penalty late on to confirm a 2-1 defeat to West Bromwich Albion, Arsenal fans worst fears were realised much earlier on, when Francis Coquelin departed the game in the first-half with a knee injury. With the score goalless, Arsenal played encouragingly though not spectacularly to take the lead through Olivier Giroud, but imploded in five quick minutes to end the half behind. For the rest of the game they huffed and puffed at West Brom’s goal to no avail, seemingly lacking their usual sharpness as selection limitations made its mark on the line-up.

Therein lies Arsenal’s problems, and why Coquelin’s absence will be hard-felt, because once Arsene Wenger finds a system that wins, he grinds it to the ground to the point that any slight change to that formula becomes hard to cope with. Even before Coquelin’s injury, there was slight intrigue as to how Arsenal’s balance would be affected by switching Alexis to the right hand side of the pitch. To the other side of the pitch! Of course, it’s flippant to the finer details of team-building and cohesion to dismiss such a move but changes such as this should be treated with excitement – how it potentially evolves the dynamics of the team – not with apprehension.

As it turned out, Alexis still had a good game although he was rather more influential cutting in from the left and sidestepping infield from the right-flank. But as usual, it was about how the nine react around him and Arsenal were unable to find their typical fluency in the first-half. Kieran Gibbs was a touch rigid as a winger and looked out of place anywhere near the box. He had a couple of good openings but a seasoned attacker with a modicum of conviction might have made better of his chances. Not that Joel Campbell fared better when he came on, missing Arsenal’s best chance aside from the penalty, horribly skewing wide when put through on goal by Cazorla.

Arsenal create from left to right; Giroud underwhelms

At this point, if we’re talking about the nuances of teams and the way they combine, it should be noted that Arsenal generally created chances from two ways: a chipped pass over the top from Cazorla or Alexis (as per the penalty and Campbell miss), or through overloads on the left followed by a late run (Flamini chance here). This typically happened in the second-half when Arsenal played closer to their normal game as WBA camped on the edge of their own box.

In the first-half, movements were more rigid as Ozil found it harder to drift to the wide positions and interchange, therefore the best moments were usually from Alexis, just stepping 5-6 yards inside the touchline and committing opponents to him. This is a quite useful ploy that Arsenal could have taken advantage of better, because with most teams using two holding midfielders, it attracts the one on the near side, in this case Claudio Yacob, out towards him, as well as the full-back. With a few more runners, perhaps Arsenal could have exploited that scenario better.

Certainly, that was the main issue as to why Arsenal really failed to be penetrative in the game: Olivier Giroud was usually far too static, and in the 2nd-half, only received the ball four times (compared to 16 times in the first, usually from an early pass from Ozil). As Tim Stillman writes in his column, Alexis doesn’t really gel with Giroud and part of the reason is that he prefers to play the incisive pass or run into open space. Giroud doesn’t facilitate either, thus, as Alexis’ influence on the game grew, Giroud’s presence petered out very disappointingly.

Indeed, it raises the questions as to whether Arsenal have outgrown Giroud stylistically. Of course, he has his benefits, because he’s such a threat from set-pieces and can get Arsenal out of trouble when they’re not playing particularly well, as he did here with his header from Ozil’s free-kick, and he did v Swansea, Bayern Munich (and Everton) previously. But for much of this game he was redundant, failing to trap rudimentary passes played up to him in the first-half. His style which once endeared us to him, acting as a wall for knock downs and one-twos, is starting to wear thin and even beginning to clash with certain key players.

In the first-half, Ozil tried numerous times to slide the ball early to Giroud but too often the pass would bounce off him under pressure from a defender or Giroud would try to be too elaborate, looking for the quick pass around the corner instead of holding it up and waiting for team-mates to get close to him. Indeed, I argued at the start of the season that his influence on this side might be on the wane because it’s been like a habit: too often when team-mates see him, they’re tempted to play the early ball up to him.

Recently though, with Walcott in the side, the team has learned to hold it for 2 or 3 pass longer and wait until play develops. With Arsenal trying to grab the game by the scruff of the neck in the second-half, Giroud was nowhere to be seen, only once getting onto a low cross from Nacho Monreal. Indeed, he only received the ball four times in the second forty-five minutes. Arsenal’s main mode of chance creation thus, as noted earlier, was to try and find a runner from the right flank after a quick switch. Arsenal’s style has evolved recently, and Giroud, scoring almost exclusively from set-pieces, might see him become more marginalised.

The dilemma after Coquelin

The return of Mikel Arteta turned out to be disastrous, as he scored an own goal and committed the foul that led to West Brom’s opener. To compound his misery, he was substituted off again after coming on for Francis Coquelin. You can’t attribute blame to him fully for what proved to be West Brom’s winning goal because he managed to position himself in the danger area for the eventual cut-back but in the end, couldn’t adjust his body shape and clear the ball.

Part of why Arteta’s cameo was such a disaster was because he was expected to play much the same way Coquelin did. That means, for the time he spent on the pitch, though he made twenty passes, he played mainly as a decoy for Cazorla, constantly pushing up the pitch when the centre backs had the ball to try and create space for Cazorla get it off them – which was really strange because you’d think a player with his composure on the ball would take hold of the game therefore liberating Cazorla to play higher up the pitch.

Instead, Cazorla continued his role as Arsenal’s “guide” in possession, simultaneously the deep organiser and the one who tries to get close to Ozil and Alexis. Certainly, he has the skill and the legs still to do it, but therein lies why some fans want an evolution: Arsenal have become painfully reliant on the Cazorla-Coquelin axis such that there’s no strategic fallback. When Arteta came on there was no discernible change in tactic mainly because Wenger didn’t want to upset a dynamic which has been largely successful up to this point – even if that strategy was purposefully built to utilize Coquelin’s strengths in a way it works for the team. Using Arteta in the same way currently exposes his flaws.

Now that Coquelin is expected to spend an extended spell on the sidelines, the two realistic options to start alongside Cazorla are Mathieu Flamini or Aaron Ramsey. The former we saw, when Flamini replaced Arteta and played with his usual hustle and bustle and interpreted his role such that he also joined in the attack. However, he doesn’t look an outstanding candidate so one hopes that he can capture the form that earned him a second contract at the club.

Ramsey in the middle doesn’t seem such an unlikely strategy because he brings energy to Arsenal’s play with and without the ball but requires a fine-tuning it terms of positioning that you’d hope Wenger is capable of making.

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