Monday, May 20, 2024

Tactics Column: Subtle switch from Ozil changes the game

First of all the drama. Two injury time goals, both of them penalties, both shot down the middle, and two sendings-offs – one of them for the manager in his own cathedral, but crucially it was Arsenal and Alexis who held their nerve to prevail 2-1 against Burnley. In all honesty, it should never have reached such a tense conclusion, but midway through the second-half Granit Xhaka was red-carded when Arsenal were in full control. Unfortunately, his tackle was not.

For Xhaka, it’s another example of the impetuousness that characterises his game. Arsene Wenger reproached him after the game saying: “He has to control his game and not punish the team with lack of control in his tackling.”

However, in truth, Wenger probably likes a bit of that in Xhaka – balancing risk with reward is a key part of Arsenal’s game. Certainly, the need to play on the front foot is important to the way Arsenal defend, as exemplified by the performance of Laurent Koscielny against Burnley who marshalled their striker, Andre Gray, primarily by anticipating where the ball would be going and beating him to it.

Sadly for Xhaka, it was a rush to the head that saw him dismissed as he initially gave the ball away, then lunged in to correct his mistake. The tackle was dangerous although not entirely reckless – because he purposely held back and went to the side of the player – but it’s the manner in which he dived in that earned the sending-off.

Arsenal will badly miss Xhaka for the four games he will serve his suspension. He has grown in stature in the role in front of the back four, and has accepted the peculiar demands that Wenger expects from his deepest midfielder, with and without the ball. These demands can sometimes leave him exposed – at times against Burnley, it was just him and the centre-backs that were left to defend the counters, though he did that very well. And with the ball, Arsenal have this peculiar build up style which can make it seem as if he’s disconnected from the rest of the team. Thankfully, the quality of his passing and receptions allows him to navigate adverse situations.

In any case, Aaron Ramsey in front of him generally balanced his duties well against Burnley, using his runs to stretch the play, not just by moving up and down, but side to side, getting into pockets. There was still a visible disconnect in the midfield at times but that’s not to be avoided – it’s purposeful. There’s a good example of that at the start of the second-half in the move that eventually sees Ramsey scorpion kick the ball over, where Xhaka is imploring Mustafi to bring the ball with him forward up the pitch. Xhaka doesn’t come towards the ball. He steps forward too, and the player that’s marking him is unsure whether to follow, or close down Mustafi. Against teams that drop deep – or even press, it matters not – Wenger wants to try open up the middle of the pitch and then pass the ball through to one of the attackers in that empty space.

He says he’s “comfortable with the fact that it sometimes leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

There’s obvious risk in that because if Arsenal lose it with Ramsey up the pitch, then there’s a lot of space for Xhaka cover. The best way to deal with that open space is to position yourself up the pitch and anticipate when the ball comes loose in order to keep the attack moving again. That’s why Francis Coquelin is admired in the role he plays because he carries out this function almost fastidiously.

To be fair to Xhaka, he’s generally carried out his ball-winning duties well since joining and perhaps more than his attendant rashness, he’s suffered from Arsenal’s system. What’s not under question, however, is his passing and the calmness he brings; you can always count on him to pick the correct pass, quickly and smoothly. It’s probably not done enough to alleviate some of Arsenal’s build up issues. That’s likely to be impossible under Wenger (because even Cazorla can’t do it) as he’s dead set on persisting with this unorthodox approach.

A balanced midfield duo can iron out some of these kinks, and that’s why there’s such a clamour for Xhaka/Ramsey to play together. It looks the most complementary partnership, especially now the latter is playing with confidence again. It’s a shame then, that it’s been broken up as quickly as it was put together, and now Arsenal move onto their new partnership, between Ramsey and Coquelin, which seems wholly unsuited on paper. If it is to work, I envisage a bit of fine tuning between the two players roles, maybe even revert to how Coquelin played in his breakthrough season.

Back to Burnley, and for most of the match, before the sending-off, Arsenal had controlled the game in their typical stuttering style, but it took until a change in positioning from Mesut Ozil for the opening goal to come. The breakthrough, a header from Shkodran Mustafi, was actually a change in tactic in itself from Arsenal because they had gone short from corner-kicks before then but were forced to go longer this time as Burnley committed an extra man to the edge of the box. The problem was that that man was actually taken off the far post, and when Mustafi rose to meet the cross, invariably that’s where the ball headed.

In any case, Arsenal began to turn the screw as soon the second-half kicked off, with Ozil driving the team on interestingly from the right flank. He actually decided to start the half on that side, which at the time might have seemed like a tactical switch but probably more of a result of whim and the freedom that he’s granted.

If there were any halftime instructions from Wenger it would probably have been along the lines of playing with more urgency and taking the game to the opposition. So from that side, Ozil quickly realised there was more space to attack from, and by using Iwobi’s narrow positioning, was able to overload the flank. It was an important move because it allowed Arsenal to change the point of the attack, especially with the team without the thrust of Hector Bellerin. He also knew that he was up against Steven Defour, normally a central midfielder, and by doing 3v2, stretch him and Burnley’s 4-4-2 system.

In the first-half, Ozil had played mainly on the shoulder, or just ahead of the midfield, but rarely was he able to get between-the-lines to combine because Burnley were packed so tight. Attacks were therefore mainly funnelled down the left-wing, through Alexis, and chipped balls to Olivier Giroud. Ozil got onto the end of a couple of chances himself but the Gunners were unable to create enough clear-cut chances. Corner-kicks seemed to be the avenue that would bring them their most joy, and eventually it did when Mustafi headed in his compatriot’s cross.

With Ozil moving to the right, however, suddenly Alexis on the other side had opportunities to drive with the ball and went close with a couple of shots. The move seemed to put Arsenal’s two key men higher and closer to the goal. Indeed, I’ve reposted the whole of the half before the goal below, just to highlight how Ozil began affecting the game from the right.

Of course, he usually drifts to that side anyway on his own in most matches but it was interesting that he did it almost straight away after the break, ignoring the link-up with Alexis that’s usually so devastating. Instead from the right side, he could deliver his trademark in-swingers to the far post, as he did most recently against West Bromwich and then for Mustafi’s goal from the corner-kick.

Indeed, I would argue that’s why Ozil’s assists output has changed this season because he’s not really been able to drift to the flanks as he generally prefers, but is forced to play more on the edges of attack. Ozil explains his role to Kicker magazine: “I have not become more egoistic, but my running paths are a bit different. I don’t collect balls from that deep, but instead wait a bit further up the field.

“I might have five minutes without any ball contact, but more chances in front of the goal. The most important thing for me: I need to have freedom on the pitch. That’s what I need. And the coach grants me that freedom, that’s why I am on a roll.”

Against Burnley though, Ozil was allowed to move wider because Iwobi started from a deeper position and then tended to come in, opening the space for the interchange. It may be a fault of his that he took a while to realise it, but then again, that’s part of the genius of Ozil, being able to interpret where the space is so that he can change the game.

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