Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Tactics Column: Plans fail to take shape against Middlesbrough

There’s only so much you can write about a goalless draw. In the end, 0-0 was accepted as a fair result mainly because Middlesbrough had many good chances and Arsenal were flat. But as the match wore on, perhaps a dose of reality washed over the fans. The team has been in good form, however, this draw felt very much like the performances against Southampton and Burnley which Arsenal just about won. And then there was the 3-2 win against Swansea, which the Gunners contrived to nearly throw away when they were cruising.

Matches like these are part of the oscillating norm of Arsenal Football Club, where wins like the 3-0 over Chelsea become, not necessarily false hopes, but often-unattainable benchmarks. The 6-0 win over Ludogorets just last week was impressive for how clinical it was but it was also a counter-attacking performance which, at points, papered over the cracks of Arsenal’s defensive system.

If this feels like an overly-critical and pessimistic view of the start of the season, perhaps I’m just using it as a tool to understand Arsenal. The team is second in the league and the positive thing is that certain themes have carried over through all of these matches – this season there feels like a plan – which makes it a good time, using the Middlesbrough game, to review those tactical nuances that we have seen so far this season..

Francis Coquelin as “false 6”

The key change to Arsenal’s line-up against Middlesbrough was the absence of Santi Cazorla who picked up a knock in the previous game against Ludogorets. The decision with who to replace him with was simple because Granit Xhaka was suspended, but in practice his absence was felt. That was partly because Arsene Wenger was forced to start with two central midfielders who generally perform similar functions in team.

At this point it might be best to split up the styles of the five central midfielders in this squad into two categories: the box-to-box midfielders, which consist of Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny, and the deep-lying midfielders – Xhaka and Cazorla. Aaron Ramsey probably straddles both spheres, and whilet Xhaka and Cazorla has worked well in the games they have played together though it doesn’t seem at this moment to be a partnership that the manager favours. He likes to complement one with the other, but as you can see, Elneny and Coquelin fall under the same bracket.

So, against Boro the playmaking duties fell to Elneny, but he failed to transplant the same tempo that Cazorla does with his passing. Often, he was forced to go sideways – this was as much a problem of the team as it was his as I’ll explain later – whilst attempts to speed up the game with give-and-goes were met by a wall of Middlesbrough shirts. Wenger’s comments at the end of the game highlight why the team missed Cazorla, saying that “at home he is from deep midfield into the final third, his pass is always quick and accurate.”

It’s a quote that is loaded with subtlety which hints a lot about Arsenal’s strategy. Firstly, note the emphasis on “home”; Arsene Wenger knows that teams like to visit the Emirates and “park the bus” so he has designed a game to break them down. Cazorla is key to that, but also important is the way he tries to bring him in the game.

Usually, he asks him not to come to the ball early so that when he eventually receives the pass, he will be free. This, Wenger feels, can be achieved by tasking the centre-backs with the responsibility to play out, so when the opponents press, that’s when the spaces open up in front for Cazorla to drop deep and receive the ball. Coquelin’s role is crucial in this in that he moves up the pitch to act as a decoy so that markers follow him, leaving Cazorla unattended.

In the most recent games, this tactic has been exaggerated in that Coquelin has been moving even higher up the pitch once Cazorla gets the ball, often occupying the spaces between-the-lines. The effect is two fold; he’s there dragging markers around creating space for others, whilst if the ball is lost, he’s in an advanced position to win the ball back quickly.

Against Middlesbrough, those movements were less profound. Maybe it was something Wenger has adjusted to shore up Arsenal’s defence, though in any case, Elneny and Coquelin generally played in a line, as an orthodox midfield two. If Coquelin did push up, he tended to hover in the spaces between Elneny and the attacking midfielders, but never quite committing to the next line, with Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil and Alex Iwobi.

The effect was thus: in the absence of one less midfielder in the final third, the wingers were even quicker to narrow than usual. The play became predictable, lacking the same urgency and fluidity that the Gunners have generally played with this season.

Inside wingers and Alexis as creative forward

The other feature this season has been the way Wenger has used the wingers, generally asking them to start wide, before coming inside between-the-lines to combine. At the same time, that’s complemented by Coquelin pushing into those spaces, as we’ve said already (or Cazorla arriving from to deliver key passes) and Alexis dropping off the front.

From this position Arsenal have generally caused havoc, with that line of maybe four or five players bouncing off each other, making runs and trading quick passes. Wenger said that the team wasn’t quite sharp enough on the day against Middlesbrough in their combination play. It’s hard to pinpoint why because those movements are guided by a sense of intuition and understanding that comes with just playing with each other. Certainly Arsenal started well, with Iwobi featuring a lot then fading, and Walcott generally being the outlet.

It was Alexis who was the key player, constantly dropping off into spaces just in front of the centre-backs before trying the lofted pass over the top. In the face of a defensive Middlesbrough, Alexis was Arsenal’s most likely means of scoring – though his style is still very individualistic at the moment. Wenger says he’s a “completely different type of player to Giroud … he’s more dribbler, a guy who comes to the ball, a guy who runs at people.” It’s a way of breaking down a deep block, and certainly to take on opponents was something that was missing vs Middlesbrough. Theo Walcott was the one who attempted the most dribbles, perhaps highlighting the lack of spark in the team.

Walcott generally played just inside of the left full-back and perhaps on another day could have delivered the much needed finishing touch. His role has adjusted a little bit, still a forward but he is picking up the ball less wide than he might have in the past alongside Bacary Sagna. That’s given space for Hector Bellerin to move forward, and the pace on that side is a key weapon for Arsenal, especially following the switch from the left. From that side, Iwobi more or less starts on the same line, but narrows quickly to provide the overloads in the middle whilst Walcott moves high up.

Wenger has stated in the past that this is his ideal set up, of having “one behind the striker, and one or two on the flanks who come inside. I always feel that if you have players who can deliver the decisive ball in all areas of the pitch, you have many more chances of being creative. If it’s only focused on one central part, where it’s usually more concentrated, you have more space on the flanks to create.” Gedion Zelalem also confirmed this in an interview for Arsenal Player, saying that the youth team is trying to replicate the senior side by having the “wingers coming into the midfield and connecting, playing one-twos – that’s what Arsenal is all about.”

Arsenal were perhaps guilty of being too predicable on Saturday. Coquelin didn’t push up as much into the final third than he has been recently, instead forming a double shield behind with Elneny. Perhaps without that one extra player combining it forced the wingers to narrow too early. Of course, that’s not the main reason why Arsenal failed to score against Middlesbrough, but it could explain some of the lack of cohesion.

Ozil has taste for goals

It’s amazing that Mesut Ozil has yet to register an assist in the league this season. His role hasn’t refined much, but for those players around him it has. That’s enough to force him to adjust his game a little bit, mainly because his areas of occupation are being occupied. Ozil is known for drifting to the flanks to find space but now those wingers are playing in the “half spaces” he thrives on. Not to mention also, his partner in crime, Alexis, has moved away from the left and that, as we anticipated has altered his game.

The relationship is still there, but now they’re attracted going vertically up the pitch, rather than combining in the left-channel. Alexis has become the creator and Ozil, not so much the finisher in the partnership, but finally beginning to use his ghosting runs to greater effect for Arsenal. That’s also where the space is if Arsenal continue to try and get as many players between-the-lines as possible because somebody has to make those runs, and Ozil is taking responsibility. Wenger, though, explains it best, speaking of the psychological shift involved in Ozil scoring more goals than simply player higher.

“He works quite well on finishing in training,” Wenger said. I believe that every player gets in a habit of having a vision of his game, and sometimes he doesn’t get out of the boundaries he has fixed for himself. He experienced his game as a provider and slowly I think he’s getting the taste to think, ‘oh, maybe I can finish as well.’ That’s what you want him to do, to add that to his game. There’s no reason that he should not finish and score. Hopefully the fact that he scored again on Wednesday night (against Ludogorets) will give him that taste and desire.”

As it happened, Ozil couldn’t quite find the finishing touch against Middlesbrough, though at times, he was the most advanced player. He thought he had found the winner when he deflected Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s shot in, and though it was disallowed, the jubilation initially on his face, showed he has a taste for goals now.

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