It’s widely accepted that there are two ways of playing against Arsenal: by closing them down high up the pitch or dropping deep. “By far, the best option is the former,” says ex-midfielder, Stewart Robson. In the last two games, we saw those two contrasting approaches against Arsenal; firstly when Manchester City won 2-1, and then, on Boxing Day, in The Gunners’ 1-0 victory over West Brom.
Of course, it was Manchester City who utilised the high press to emerge victorious against Arsenal. However, it was in the second-half where the damage was done – Arsenal conceded a goal early after the restart and then they proceeded to withdraw ever deeper in the face of increased Man City pressure.
“We became more and more aggressive and we dominated in the second half. The tactics and desire was there after the break,” said Yaya Toure.
It was the opposite story on Monday against West Brom. Arsenal almost exclusively played the game in the opponent’s half, but had to wait until the last five minutes to get the winner, when Olivier Giroud headed in a cross from Mesut Ozil.
It’s accepted that these two styles, at differing ends of the spectrum, work because it provokes Arsenal to find solutions that they may not have. For a long time, defending in a deep-block was the go-to strategy, coupled with a smidgen of roughing-up, because it frustrated The Gunners to the point they wound themselves up, often too ready to accept their role as beautiful martyrs, highlighting the negativity of their opponents and bad refereeing as causes of their downfall, rather than a lack of ideas.
Arsenal might have fallen into that same trap against WBA because after the game both Giroud and Arsene Wenger bemoaned how Tony Pulis’ side essentially played with “six at the back.” However, Arsenal have more solutions now, and that was highlighted when the decision to start Giroud paid off when he scored the winner.
“Most of the time I will have to make the decision considering the opponent we play,” said Wenger. “Like today, I knew it would be deep and that in the air could be a solution. So I have to make the right decisions.”
For a long time though, Arsenal did the right things, even if West Brom provoked them to play mainly in a u-shape outside the box. Playing in a 4-5-1, with the wingers dropping in as full-backs when needed, it stopped Arsenal combining in the halfspaces (the space between the full-back and centre-back).
“We have little pockets where you usually get in but we found it difficult,” said Wenger. Still, that’s how Arsenal scored in the end, even if they were forced to go more direct than usual. Ozil was generally shunted to the inside-wing positions in the game, as the deep third midfielder at times, and also for the goal, he picks up the ball from Hector Bellerin in that position. And instead of going back inside, as the team usually did, he was afforded the luxury of a bit of space and time to find Giroud.
It’s hard to say how much of Arsenal’s approach changed in the second-half, though they seemed to enter the pitch with a bit more urgency. However, if you look back at the first 15 minutes of the game after the restart, you’ll see that actually, the speed of Arsenal’s attacks actually owed somewhat to West Brom getting the ball forward more.
Usually these attacks broke down very quickly so it wasn’t easily noticeable at the time, but when Arsenal got the ball back, there was a bit more space to attack. Hector Bellerin’s runs thus became a key factor after break, as he was able to get forward unmarked, whilst at the same time, the winger that was marking him, dropped ever deeper.
Indeed, that’s often the overlooked point when people analyse why Arsenal sometimes struggle to find a way through a deep-block. Many times, it depends on the concentration of the opponents, and if you can, seizing on the gaps they leave behind when they decide to have a rare forage forward. That’s what Wenger sought to take advantage of last season when Arsenal beat Stoke City 2-0 at home, saying that he used Walcott up front, because of the rare moments to counter that might present itself. Walcott vindicated the decision when he ran onto a ball over the top from the halfway line to open the scoring.
It also depends on the team being focused themselves because they know if they lose it, there’s the risk that they could be countered by West Brom. That’s also one of the reasons Francis Coquelin continues to start and watching first-hand at the Emirates, for my first game of the season, you can see just what he tries to achieve with his movements in possession, constantly darting into spaces to try create room for others.
He was actually one of the key players in the first-half to prise open the WBA defence, ending the game third place for final third passes at 43 out of 46. However, he still leaves something to be desired, because he’s apprehensive from that position to dart into the box as he won’t be there to stop the counter-attacks if the team loses it, and that’s why the demand for Aaron Ramsey to start persists.
Arsenal found that they couldn’t also fling the ball into the box, despite the goal coming that way, for the same reason of potentially being countered. Having committed so many men to the attack, they couldn’t risk losing the ball in that position, therefore attacks were built with a meticulousness that sometimes frustrated. You could see the hesitation in someone like Alex Iwobi, who felt under-pressure to make the right decisions.
Overall, Iwobi had a good game, and was one of the few players, along with Alexis Sanchez who provoke opponents to come out. In one of my recent blogs, I used a Pep Guardiola quote that explained the importance of players who dribble at the central defenders. Alexis started on the left, but even then, it was often he and Iwobi in crowded areas who found a bit of space. Wenger has found success in using Alexis centrally, but generally, he likes to have two creative players wide because he says “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.”
In the end, that’s where Ozil ended up to deliver the killer pass for the goal.
In the first-half, Granit Xhaka was the other key player, spraying some lovely passes to either flank. As Andre Villas-Boas explains, one of the solutions to breaking down deep-defences is to have a defensive midfielder who can “introduce a surprise factor in a match. Let’s say, first he passes horizontally and then, suddenly, vertical penetration.”
Xhaka brings that in the absence of Cazorla, a different way of stretching defences as Wenger says. “His ability to kick the longer ball gives us a chance to get some oxygen and some space. He likes to sit, give good long balls and be available for the centre-backs. He has a good mixture of short and long balls, and in midfield it is important for us to sometimes stretch defenders.”
Xhaka had a difficult game against Manchester City the week previously, and suffered because of the unique build-up style that Wenger prefers. Sometimes he can be left isolated but the main problem is the lack of options he’s afforded in deep midfield. To go back to the thought I began at the start of the piece, and you can paraphrase it to ask; who do Arsenal prefer to play – teams that press high, or drop deep?
The answer overwhelmingly is the latter, because there’s a certain apprehension that consumes Wenger when his team is in his own half. He likes the play as much as possible in the opponents’ final third, so he’s devised a way of playing out from the back that asks the midfielders ahead of Xhaka (though sometimes including him) to push up the pitch.
The aim therefore, is that the centre of the pitch is opened up, and that affords the central defenders space to thread the ball through the gaps that are created. Wenger says he does encourage the press, so that space opens up behind so that one of the creative midfielders can drop into receive the ball.
The problem is that there is still largely an element of randomness about how this goes about happening. For one thing, there is massive onus on the centre-backs to be audacious to find a way through. Secondly, the full-backs don’t push up the pitch until later in the build-up because they’re also used to move the opponents round, therefore you will often see the centre-backs play one-twos, particularly with Bellerin, to get the team up the pitch.
In deep midfield, Santi Cazorla was crucial because he dribbled his way out of tight gaps. Xhaka offers a more conventional solution, as he takes the ball off the centre-backs, but of course he can’t always do that because he’s at a risk of being isolated. Thankfully, his long passing often offers a way out of compromising situations but in this set-up, he knows he can’t drop as deep as he did with his previous club side (or national team).
I’ve also described extensively Francis Coquelin’s role in previous blogs, which is essentially a “decoy”, as he looks to move into spaces to drag markers away with him, so that more talented ball-players like Ozil, or Alexis can drop into pockets undisturbed.
When teams drop as deep as WBA did, then the tactic is not as much of a factor, and that’s where the deep-midfielder’s passing range becomes crucial. However, we saw against Manchester City, how the tactic can make Arsenal easy to press.
Actually, the overall issue might not have been about tactics per se against City, and more about mentality, because once Arsenal went ahead, they probably thought too much about defending, and not enough about playing. In other words, the gameplan which broadly served them well up until the second half, to stand-off, soak up pressure and keep the opponent roughly at hands length, became self-pervading. That meant when Arsenal got the ball, possession became almost an anomaly – unnatural to the overall pattern of the game – and the players were almost dumbfounded with what to do with it. They were often so far deep that they were unable to play the ball out – whilst City’s counter-press confounded the misery.
Still, we saw how tame Arsenal’s reaction was when they went 2-1 down and they were unable to even string a sequence of passes together. There was a complete lack of know-how to progress the ball so each time the ball went into City’s half, it was easily gobbled up by the midfield. The free-form manner in which Arsenal build came back to bite them in the back. Which is at complete odds to the way they feel when they face teams that allow them to play.
West Brom did that, and it was when Arsenal eschewed the ground route, and went aerial, that their luck finally ran out.