Sunday, April 21, 2024

Tactics Column: Arsenal show adaptability despite bad run

The relief on Alexis Sanchez’s face summed up what Arsenal’s initially tight, but ultimately comfortable 5-0 win over Lincoln City meant to the club. As he wheeled away to celebrate after scoring, he briefly tilted his head and looked to the sky as if to say “finally.” Finally, that he can move on from these tumultuous few weeks for the club where his commitment has been questioned. And finally for Arsene Wenger, to be able to look forward at least for the remainder of the season, after a few weeks where he has been heavily questioned.

In the end, victory over Lincoln City became an exercise to restore some of Arsenal’s swagger. It took almost all of first half to find it when Theo Walcott guided a shot past a crowd of bodies after trading delicate passes with Kieran Gibbs to get him in the position to do so. It was a similar type of goal to Olivier Giroud’s second, which came from the other side through Hector Bellerin. Alexis then took over, involved in the final three goals, including one for himself, an own goal and a goal for Aaron Ramsey.

For Wenger, to finish in that style was a timely reminder of what added value he brings to a football club. Yet, at the same time, the stutters in the first-half, which he attributed to “nerves”, underline why Arsenal have really failed to compete with the top sides. For one thing, Lincoln’s initially competitiveness owes to the way they, and other teams, have been allowed to be overly physical against the Gunners thus getting away with fouls, so Wenger, partly as a response, has developed a style which bypasses the middle of the pitch. He once said this of the tactic which, with the use of Francis Coquelin in a sort-of false-six final-third ball-winning role, he has further exaggerated this season:

“The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle. I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure. I am comfortable with that; although sometimes it 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.”

However, this also shows how Wenger’s idealism has also held Arsenal back against the best. The top teams have all implemented advanced mechanisms that allow them to bring the ball out cleanly to negate the high press that most teams employ in one way or another. Thus it’s important these days more than ever that you pass the ball out well because players are fitter. They run more, therefore if there is a trend that highlights this era of football, its pressing from the front.

Certainly, if there is a player that embodies this trend best, it’s probably N’Golo Kante who forced Claudio Ranieri in his first few training seasons at the Leicester City last season, to eschew the “Italian tactics” that he planned when he came in, and only ask that “they all ran hard.” Guardiola espouses something similar in Pep Confidential, at the opposite end of the tactical spectrum, when he says that “we enjoy our work when we play well and we run and run and run. In order to enjoy our best play, we need to run a lot.”

Arsenal, though, rely on an improvised structure which places responsibility on the centre-backs finding gaps, and this makes them, conversely, susceptible to the press. Wenger has an idiosyncratic way of building from the back which means there is no fallback for the players, a guide so to speak, which they can refer to help them get up the pitch. Improvisation and spontaneity is king. In any case, usually, that “guide” would come in the form of a player; Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Cesc Fabregas from the past, and maybe even Granit Xhaka soon – somebody who is a master at taking the ball from the back

By contrast, coaches at the highest level tend to prepare their teams so that nothing is left to chance. They’re spaced in a way that is based more on science than intuition. Take Pep Guardiola’s approach. Players must see the pitch as a grid, each occupying a “square” and making sure each one is filled. He says moving the ball is more important than the man moving as that’s the best way to work opponents.

Thomas Muller explains: “It isn’t about having possession just for the sake of it, that’s not the concept. It’s about using possession to position the team in the opposition’s half in a way that makes us less liable to be hit on the break.”

When Arsenal attack, it’s not uncommon to see just two central defenders back defending the counter-attack. In recent matches, however, with Mesut Ozil unavailable, Wenger has been forced to change systems. Against Lincoln, he went with a 4-3-3 formation with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey either side of Granit Xhaka in the middle. Alexis, Walcott and Giroud made the front three ahead. It was also the same selection that Wenger used at home to Bayern Munich which saw them play the first 50 minutes so well until Laurent Koscielny’s sending-off.

For many, the switch to a 4-3-3 has been a long time coming because simply put, it allows an even distribution across the field. However, formations are neutral; it’s the application and personnel that decides their successes and failures, and we saw in the first-half against Liverpool, how ultimately the wrong selection led to a 3-1 defeat to Arsenal. In that game, Wenger baffingly decided to drop Alexis to the bench and started both Danny Welbeck and Giroud ahead of him in order “to be a bit more direct and strong in the air.” That was compounded by a rigid central midfield trio of Coquelin Alex Iwobi and Granit Xhaka to either side of him.

When Alexis came on at the start of the second-half, he made – as you would expect – an instant impact and it was his through-ball that set up Welbeck for his goal. Arsenal’s approach suddenly became a bit more dynamic which begged the question once again why Alexis didn’t start. Petr Cech admitted though, after the game, that the tactics didn’t alter much – the team tried to play direct still; they just executed it better – but the structure and the personnel was a clear improvement.

After the break, the team moved from a deep 4-3-3 from the first-half – which in any case, was more a 4-1-4-1 shape because Welbeck dropped in with the same line as the midfield with Francis Coquelin deepest – to a system which was much more fluid, sometimes less easy to define when going forward – a 4-3-3 that transformed to a 4-4-2 at times, especially with Iwobi drifting to the right-flank when Welbeck came inside to support Giroud. Indeed, that’s how Arsenal got their only goal in the game, with Welbeck moving all the way to the opposite flank to latch onto Alexis’s pass before lifting the ball over the goalkeeper.

However, if Arsenal looked on the other side, they would have seen that Liverpool had already established a system just like that, and used the little technical players within it to punish Arsenal. Indeed, that’s probably the other galling aspect of Wenger’s reign in recent times. That Mane, Coutinho, Firminho, Lallana et all seem distinctly Arsenalish players from maybe even as close to five years ago: technical, pacy, mobile, and versatile, mixed with a little vulnerability. Teams have taken Arsenal’s USP and have improved upon it. And it was those players that put Arsenal to the sword.

Against Lincoln City, injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – the epitome of that Arsenalish type of player now that he is also performing in central midfield – didn’t scupper the formation change. In fact when Ozil came on for him, he was used in a left-sided central midfield role. This worked very well against such weak opposition as Lincoln but as Johan Cruyff wrote not long before his death for Dutch newspaper ‘De Telegraaf’, playing a no.10 in the 4-3-3 is ‘risky’:

“With a ’10’ you will play 4-2-1-3 and with a ‘6’ it will be 4-1-2-3. Taking a good look at the two numbers in the middle, you can see that with a ’10’ two players are behind the ball and one is set up offensively, as with a ‘6’ three (1+2) players are behind the ball of which two are offensive. This is how you kill two birds with one stone: both defensively as offensively you will have an extra player.

“By choosing the ’10’ anyway, you will get yourself in trouble as soon as the opponents are pushing forward. In this case, there will be only two midfielders behind the ball, who are also required to give 60 metre passes. This is impossible to do.”

We’ll see how this develops in the next few matches if, indeed, Wenger continues to use Ozil there. In any case, Ozil looked very comfortable, at least from a play-making viewpoint, and indeed, this might give him a new lease of life. From a deeper position, he was able to survey play away from the congested areas and deliver clever passes. He constantly interchanged with Ramsey who played to the right of the midfield trio, and often found himself in that inside right position he is so fond of, especially with Walcott also tending to move inside.

It might even be the solution to the Ozil problem. Not many possession-based teams use a no.10 (if Arsenal are a possession team). Instead, you will see, populating the midfields of most top sides, players who are capable of switching between going forwards and backwards easily. These players might not be the most imposing physically. Indeed, they might be former no.10s, usually small, scuttling, scurrying types, but because of their nimble footwork and glide on the ball, have been pushed back into a deeper role so that defence can be turned into attack in the blink of an eye.

Perhaps, we’ll see this final transformation in Ozil’s game. Certainly, Arsenal need to show more adaptability if the season is to draw to a thrilling close.

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