What unfortunate luck that Gabriel was struck by injury in the last minutes of Arsenal’s last pre-season game. Before that, things had gone swimmingly for Arsenal, and the 3-2 defeat of Manchester City confirmed some good progress on the pitch. But Gabriel’s injury, coupled with that of Per Mertesacker’s, means that Arsenal are pressed into a transfer market which has been a great source of frustration for Arsene Wenger. It seems as if he’s unwilling to accept the reality of the market and the ludicrous prices that accompany it, whilst Ivan Gazidis says that Arsenal can’t compete with the big boys financially.
What that does do, however, is deflect attention back onto the manager, and his work on the training pitch, because now he needs to show that he can be inventive to narrow the gap. Certainly, that’s been the crux of the issue in the recent years following the break up of The Invincibles: that the coaching hasn’t been good enough to elevate the team to genuine title contenders, and that an idiosyncratic system ridden with flaws holds Arsenal back.
Wenger is ready to accept that challenge, as he revealed last season, commenting on the contrasting styles between Arsenal and Leicester City, and how it forces Arsenal to be better at what they do, not adopt other tactics. He said:
“The physical levels of teams has gone up and tactical knowledge of defending has gone up. Players who do not contribute to team work are kicked out everywhere.
“Then you go two ways: you say ‘look that doesn’t work any more so we have to change our style, and I wish you good luck when you kick the ball anywhere after people have seen good football for 10-15 years’, or you say ‘we have analysed well where we are not efficient enough and we do better with the style we play’.
“We have to go that way. Our passing has to be quicker, our movement has to be sharper and our efficiency in the final third has to be better. We don’t have anybody with 20 goals in the league, so that is a handicap.”
Alexis in roving striker role
What better place to start than the striker position where, as of writing this piece, Arsenal have yet to add anyone, – and may not do so until closer to the end of the transfer window – especially judging by Alexis’ upfront impact in the 3-2 win over Manchester City. Yes, it’s one game, and his effectiveness seems affected by the presence off-the-ball runners like Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott, yet suddenly it opens up another option Wenger hasn’t explored yet.
He still has the option of using a mobile striker like Walcott as an alternative to Giroud, but Alexis offers the kind of all-round skill-set that No 9s in Wenger’s teams have had in the past. He can drop off and create (as he did in many instances against City), go past players and hold the ball up, while his energy in the press is arguably better suited centrally where he can coordinate the closing down up the pitch. Indeed, with Wenger saying the winger is the hardest job in the modern game; it might be a bit restrictive to keep asking Alexis to chug back, when he can use his energy higher up the pitch.
The issue is whether or not Alexis is coachable. He’s explosive over 10-15 yards, and he showed last season on the right of midfield that he can make the type of runs behind the defence that Wenger wants up front. It’s whether his predilection to dropping deep might take over, especially in games it’s demanded he plays further forward. You might remember Robin van Persie had the some problem being convinced that he can play the number no.9 role. Perhaps with age, Alexis will inherit that kind of selflessness and focus that the Dutchman later showed in his career.
A vertical Arsenal?
In Granit Xhaka, Arsenal have signed one of the best midfielders at passing the ball through-the-lines, while Mesut Ozil is the best at receiving the ball in those spaces. Those are the findings of former Germany midfielder Stefan Reinartz and his friend Jens Hegeler, who developed a tool which measures verticality called “Packing”. That is how many opponents a player typically takes out with pass or dribble in a game. Xhaka was assigned the second-highest value in the Bundesliga behind Xabi Alonso (and fifth in Euro 2016) while Ozil receives the ball in areas which dissects the most players.
This is promising, especially where the improvement of Arsenal’s style is concerned, but the absence of a world-class striker to finish the chances off is still an issue. Still, that’s not to dismiss the exponential affect that can occur on the thing afterwards if the thing before improves, and Arsenal last season too often allowed defences to set before taking a shot. The problem was that Arsenal too often passed the ball in a U-shape before it got to the attacking players to combine (READ HERE). That made it harder for Arsenal to pick off defences though they remain one of the best sides at doing that.
Wenger probably realised the need to be more vertical and indeed, it’s feasible that the club’s in-house analytics team developed a similar metric to identify the need of a player like Xhaka in midfield.
In the absence of a bona fide controlling midfielder in recent seasons, Arsene Wenger developed a novel approach whereby the two central midfielders would move up and down the pitch to cover each others weaknesses. Usually it was Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin, and I’ve written about their partnership extensively. But to recap, Coquelin generally moves up the pitch in the build-up to allow Cazorla to get on the ball unmarked, and then, when Arsenal are high up the field, Coquelin is able to hang back a bit to survey the play and then make crucial tackles. The problem Arsenal faced last season was that when one of them was out, the midfield configuration was imbalanced: Aaron Ramsey preferred to play high up the pitch, creating a massive distance between himself and his partner Matheiu Flamini (with whom he played for much of the winter period), while the latter rarely tended to press.
With the signing of Granit Xhaka, it is expected that Wenger will do away with this mechanic – except that in the pre-season games so far, he’s persisted with the ploy. And it has worked, mainly because he has a more rounded variety of options.
Actually at this point, it might be best to start with why Wenger uses this strategy. Because, it’s not really about how Coquelin and Cazorla function together, though the ball-winning ability of Coquelin gave extra emphasis to the strategy, but about bringing the ball out of the back and playing the game higher up the pitch. Thus he hopes by pushing his central midfielders up the pitch, the opposition central midfielders will follow them back, or press up the pitch.
Either way, space is created, and then one of them can come towards the ball free and in space. It’s a bit complicated, yes, like a game-within-a-game, but that’s Wenger for you; he doesn’t build up play like other teams would, by nominating a midfielder to stay deep and pick up the ball in between the centre-backs. Instead, the centre-backs must be good enough at passing the ball to them (that’s why he likes Bielik in that position). In an interview with L’Equipe, Koscielny expanded on the tactic, saying that he prefers the midfielders to play higher because if they come deep, it allows the opponents to “gain ground on us.” In pre-season, Gabriel struggled whilst Holding and Chambers might not be experienced enough to cope with the responsibility.
Midfield rotation has been good so far this pre-season. Xhaka (and Elneny) have stepped forward and passed well. https://t.co/3DFsSE3yT9
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) August 1, 2016
Against Manchester City, Arsenal had less of the ball; therefore we didn’t get to see Xhaka step up the pitch as much as he did against Chivas Guadalajara, where he played some glorious passes through-the-lines (see 1:30 and 2:18 in the video above). Still, we saw enough of his ability under pressure to come to the conclusion that he will be a quality addition to Arsenal – a commanding deep-playmaker who’s good in the tackle.
Against Chivas, the rotation we saw was in some ways facilitated by Cazorla, who played as Ozil would at no.10, and that allowed Xhaka to take up the positions he left behind. In the City game, Xhaka mainly stayed deeper, though he created a good chance for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain by winning possession high up the pitch. Generally though, that role fell to Coquelin, who looked uncomfortable with the ball in advanced positions. Indeed, that’s the drawback of the strategy when he’s involved because he doesn’t have the all-round ability of the other midfielders in the squad, so it was a relief when Elneny came on, using his energy to be an influence in both parts of the pitch.
Elneny’s performance against Viking FC was even more impressive, often picking up the ball deep, but then able to burst forward to get into shooting positions. Certainly, he and Xhaka have the ability to balance both parts of their game so it was disappointing to see them play together for only 20 minutes in pre-season as they look the best pairing to start against Liverpool. They should work together because they’re both comfortable in both areas of the pitch, making the rotation work smoothly. Once Mesut Ozil returns, Ramsey should come into contention in the box-to-box role, which Wenger says is his best position – although stressig that he needs to take extra “tactical responsibility”. Either way, with those three, and Cazorla, Coquelin and Wilshere to offer different options, Arsenal have an abundance of quality in the middle.
Not a lot has changed from corner-kicks from last season, though it did undergo a number of subtle tweaks to eventually settle on this layout. It’ll be clearer who goes where when Arsenal have their first team, but the remit is essentially simple: four men zonal mark in a line (this usually consists of Giroud, Coquelin, Koscielny and Bellerin) with three blocking, making the runs as hard as possible (something Bayern did under Pep Guardiola too). One of those blockers tends to be the other centre-back, in most cases Per Mertesacker but this pre-season it was Gabriel. It will be interesting who assumes their roles in their absence. The left-back has a detached role just in front of the near post, whilst two spread some what, marking the spare men close to the edge of the boxes, ready for the loose ball.
At the other end of the pitch, it was interesting to see Elneny making late runs into the box, possibly to disrupt the zonal-marking but also, aware that though he may be picked up by one of the man-markers at the edge of the box, they’re likely to be the weaker defenders. Against Viking FC, he helped set up the first goal with such a run, while he tried the same thing against Manchester City.
Arsenal tried to press high against Manchester City, which went against the default strategy they used in the other pre-season matches, which was to sit back and close down sporadically. Though City caused a few problems when they switched play wide, with the profile of players in the line-up, the press was generally well co-ordinated with Arsenal creating a number of chances by winning the ball high up the pitch.
Alexis was the one setting the tempo, constantly cajoling and gesticulating to his team-mates to move up with him. Still, it wasn’t perfect, and when City scored, the team lost their discipline somewhat, with the two wingers, Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain going high to press the two centre-backs, even though the rest of the team had seemingly opted to hold their positions. As a consequence, City moved the ball down the right flank very quickly forcing both Xhaka and Gabriel to vacate their positions to cover. Arsenal weren’t able to stop the cross and Sergio Aguero was on hand to finish.
In the other four games, against middling opposition, the press was meek and half-hearted. It evokes the set-up last season, which was often muddled, with half the team moving up the pitch to press, and the other, standing around looking puzzled. Arsenal conceded the 8th most long-range shots last season, exposing Petr Cech in this area. It’s sometimes a case of moving to quickly or too late, and not recognising the traps, therefore it’s up to Wenger to create a fully synchronized press, something he’s failed to do convincingly in his time in charge of Arsenal.