Friday, March 1, 2024

Tactics Column: Shortcomings exposed in Watford defeat

The self-sabotage has become all-too familiar, yet the most maddening aspect of it is that you never know exactly when it’ll come – just that it eventually will happen.

At half-time against Watford, Arsenal were relatively comfortable and it felt, after creating two good chances, that it was a matter of time till their dominance would pay. Except the Gunners lost focus from a throw-in, and the second-goal was a stunner, coming after a counter-attack as Arsenal desperately tried to claw a goal-back. When Danny Welbeck finished on 88 minutes, it felt almost too late but there was still time for more self-sabotage, the striker missed a near-open goal in the closing stages.

After the game, Arsene Wenger offered familiar analysis for the goals they let in: The Gunners lost a bit of focus, the opponent scored with their only chances. The same thing he said after defeats Swansea and Manchester United, and perhaps there’s truth in there somewhere. Look at the minutes where Arsenal concede: generally midway through either half when a foothold or pattern has been established before it suddenly goes to kaput.

The key, it seems to when Arsenal concede, hinges on detecting the undetectable change in the collective mentality; when the team relaxes they are actually the most vulnerable; and when they’re angry, they are probably going to throw it away. Alexis seemed to corroborate that idea when he said Arsenal are not entering the field with the correct mentality.

Of course, I’m probably talking through my arse here just like the lazy assertions that Arsenal don’t have the leaders or mental courage to compete with the best that will inevitably dominate the airwaves post-match. However, what that detracts from is a proper discussion of Arsenal’s real problem: the lack of technical quality to really play the game Wenger wants. As such, culpability is more Wenger’s – which is sadly the same conclusion the fanbase is coming round to as well. Below, using examples from Arsenal 1-2 Watford, I try to highlight what I feel are the three main shortcomings of the squad.

Shortcoming no.1: Structure

Against Watford, Arsenal started with a 4-2-3-1 which was not unexpected. However, due to the unavailability of an attacking midfielder like Aaron Ramsey, who could also cover the wings, (or Santi Cazorla, who has been out since November), it was the perfect opportunity for Wenger to make a change to the structure that this team so desperately needs. As it happened, in the first-half, the players performed close to the ideal that I would recommend anyway – most probably as a response to the way Watford packed the midfield and made it hard for Arsenal to pass through – with Mesut Ozil tending to drop deep or to the sides of the two wingers to pick up the ball, whilst Mohamed Elneny pushed up in between the lines to make the formation close to a 4-1-4-1 when Arsenal attacked.

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You can say that this organic interpretation is the triumph of Wenger’s ideals as he grants his players autonomy to react according to changing pattern of the contest. Of course, the pass-and-move style he preaches is rigorously rehearsed, and there are specific instructions about how Arsenal build play from the back, but a lot of the times, it is off the cuff – sometimes to the point that the players can lack a fallback when things are not going their way.

Thankfully this didn’t happen much against Watford because the approach play was actually quite encouraging – far more than it has been recently – with the team getting the ball to byline on numerous occasions by doubling-up, and then using their individuality to cut open the defence. Unfortunately, the crosses were often played agonisingly behind their target or the Watford defenders were quick to snuff out the danger.

There were other times, also, where Arsenal lacked the optimal spacing breadth-wise to benefit from these situations, as Alexis or Joel Campbell would cut inside but would have no one to combine with. For the most part, though, it must be said Ozil and Elneny tried to support the men on the flanks but usually ran out of space to open Watford up.

They relied mostly on Ozil for the incision and it was the number 10 who created the best openings for Arsenal in the first-half, one chance seeing Campbell unable to control his shot after fizzing-in a superb reverse-pass. Previously he had also found Elneny at the edge of the box but his shot was placed wide. In the main, the combination play on that side was very good with Calum Chambers ably supplying support on the overlap.

On the left, Alexis was busy, creating the ‘goal’ for Olivier Giroud that was chalked off for offside and side-stepping away from his man frequently. In the second-half, he actually switched to the right prior to Campbell’s substitution, functioning more as a playmaker, an option that might be worth considering in the future.

However, for all the good play, there was a feeling that with a more robust plan, they might have profited from these scenarios. Certainly, by opening the pitch, Watford were stretched and that forced the manager, Quique Sanchez Flores, to move Capoue out wide to help track the runs of Chambers and Campbell. Perhaps with a permanent 4-1-4-1 shape (or 4-3-3), the spacing across the pitch would have been more conducive to the type of combination play Arsenal like to pull-off by giving the wide man an inside option. Certainly, Alexis desperate needs one as he so often is forced to drive inside due to the absence of such a player.

Of course, the responsibility to provide support generally falls on the shoulders of Ozil, who once again had a fantastic game. Eventually he created the goal for Arsenal, moving to “halfspace” on the left flank, and then combining with Welbeck to put the striker through on goal. This is what he does so well and what Arsenal rely on, drifting to the flanks to create overloads and then playing passes around the corner for runs in behind.

You might say that placing him a 4-1-4-1 restricts him to one side, or that it forces him to defend more. However, the system easily allows interchange between the midfield two and in any case, it will be staggered, quite similar to how the pair played against Watford, with Elneny starting deeper, and Ozil allowed to drop back from a no.10 position. It would certainly allow Arsenal to build play better, giving the team an extra man when the ball is played out from the back while allowing superior combination play when progressing up the pitch.

Wenger did try to recreate a similar system with Wilshere and Ramsey in the middle last season but a crucial difference is that instead of Ozil being on the flank, there are two strikers, In that sense, it’s like Barcelona’s system, with the two interiors (Iniesta and Rakitic), able to provide cover and allow the forwards to be more dynamic (not to mention, it’s a better structure for when Arsenal lose the ball). It certainly is a better balance because as I explained in my last column, it’s hard to think of a team that has been successful with two direct wingers on the flanks and a no.10 because it’s too top-heavy in the long-term to build effectively. Which brings me nicely to my next point….

Shortcoming no.2: Lack of ball-playing midfielder

However, the main sticking point in all this, and something that has been an issue all season and more, is that the deepest midfielder in that system is Francis Coquelin. That’s not a problem when the play is ahead of him because he’s a fantastic defensive player, as he showed once again against Watford, positioning himself outside the box to pick up loose balls and circulate possession, or track back to make crucial tackles.

The issue, as we know, is that he’s not a particularly adept organiser of play when the ball is at his feet or behind him. Time and again in the FA Cup quarter-final when he got the ball, he too often hesitated for a second before playing the eventual pass sideways and short. Sometimes you need penetration – a splitting pass through the lines. That’s not to say that he’s a bad passer; recently he’s been a fine exponent of the lofted pass, and late in the game he found Welbeck with a chip over the defence that the striker failed to get on target.

It is perhaps then a confidence issue because in the youth teams it is said that Coquelin was spectacular player, attempting stuff that others wouldn’t. That hesitancy was shown in the offside goal that Arsenal scored as he played the ball simply, not seeing the gap that Campbell saw such that when the winger received the ball, he seemed in a hurry to play it to Alexis before the chance was wasted.

Watford didn’t press Arsenal therefore the build-up issues weren’t present and as play increasingly began to unfold in the opponent’s half, Wenger felt that he had to keep Coquelin on in case of the counter-attack. In any case, Elneny alongside him had a solid game, giving stability to the side and making them tick over. His positioning was also smart, using his gangly frame to recover a lot of loose balls and then instigating attacks with quick, one-touch passing. He had one great chance in the first-half when he sliced over highlighting his desperation to impress – though suffice to say, he has. Elneny might not be a spectacular signing but he could provide crucial balance in this next phase of rebuilding for Arsenal, and eventually it seems, he’ll be converted to a holding midfielder.

Shortcoming no.3: Need for a quality, mobile striker

Before Welbeck came on and scored, then missed a glorious chance and ran around a bit, Olivier Giroud mainly flitted in and out of the match. He has two decent chances at the near post as Arsenal generally funnelled the flanks away from the centre, therefore he didn’t go searching for the ball as he is wont to do. Instead, he often waited, playing on the toes of the last defender though not necessarily running behind – which is what Arsenal wanted – but looking for the cross into the box.

That’s the issue with target men – they are too predictable no matter how physical the contest may be and Giroud too often didn’t quite anticipate the run he had to make. Still, he was livewire at times, and encouragingly for a target-man, he didn’t just hang back, but tried to attack the near post, which he does well anyway.

However, it’s hard to say he’s the top-level striker that Arsenal need though he is a very good forward with a fantastic mentality. When he was substituted off, it was a surprise, though it was also an acceptance from Wenger that they needed a different type of threat; somebody who is more mobile and who can attack the spaces. Welbeck offers the best of both worlds – a striker who can run the channels and fight for the ball – and it is hoped he can be the answer Arsenal are looking for.

Indeed, there was an interesting quote from Wenger pre-match, when analysing youth prospect, Chris Willock, which indicates that Welbeck might be ahead of Walcott in the pecking order. He said in the matchday programme that “we forget sometimes that the basis of team sport is to first be strong one against one.”

That is not to say, just about dribbling and take-ons, but the majority of the times, it’s about receiving the ball under pressure and being confident that you won’t lose it. It’s clear that at this moment, Walcott is far behind, held back perhaps because he was late to get involved into the game, at 13, at didn’t quite get the full education he needed. Without that, he lacks the ability to transform Arsenal’s game, something which Welbeck did when he came on, even if his chance at the end went agonisingly past the wrong side of the post.

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