Under Pressure

Following the defeat to Watford on Saturday, many a statistic started to circulate about the Gunners’ poor away form. They have taken 1 point and scored only 1 goal in their first 4 matches on the road this season. But the legacy of poor away results predates the 2017-18 campaign. In 2017, Arsenal have taken 14 points from 42 away from the Emirates and only Crystal Palace’s defence has been breached with greater regularity in that time period.

The team’s fortunes turned after a pair of damaging away defeats last December. In the space of four days, Arsenal led Everton and Manchester City 1-0 away from home at half-time. Both Ronald Koeman and Pep Guardiola changed tack during the interval, upping the intensity of their approach and were able to turn the table on Arsene Wenger’s men with 2-1 wins.

That four day spell hurt the team’s confidence, but more pertinently, it offered others a blueprint for playing against Arsenal on their own grounds. Both Everton and City found that sitting off of Arsenal and remaining compact was a pretty useless tactic. Once they looked to impose their game and raised the tempo, the Gunners looked beleaguered. You might have noticed that Watford had the same lightbulb moment in the final 20 minutes on Saturday evening.

It is likely that Marco Silva deliberately waited for the final furlong of the game to up the ante. Watford did not have a single player on international duty and Arsenal, shorn of Ramsey, Özil and Alexis, waved goodbye to half of their squad. It would stand to reason for Silva to believe that his team might have the physical edge in the final 20 minutes.

Arsene opted for a half fit Kolasinac and Welbeck but left Özil, also lacking match fitness, on the bench. He had Watford’s physical potential in mind. Özil’s cameo neatly encapsulated why Arsene cannot live with the German, but cannot live without him away from home. He created two golden chances within minutes of his arrival, but Arsenal’s physical potential dropped markedly.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Wenger’s reticence to play Alexis and Özil in the same team. Arsenal lose structure with the pair of them in free roles, but without them, the team loses so much of its cutting edge. One or both have been absent for a surprising number of the team’s away matches this year and that has taken its toll on Arsenal’s ability to be dangerous in the final third.

The lack of firepower has been exacerbated further by the move to three centre halves. This has taken a body away from a midfield that already contributes little in terms of scoring and creating goals. Andrew and James had an interesting discussion on this week’s Arsecast Extra about what sort of team Arsenal are and what their identity is.

A team is usually a graven image of its central midfield and Arsenal’s central midfield perfectly establishes the tone. It is average going forward (Ramsey does not score nearly enough for the amount of forward running he does) and too reliant on the ability of Alexis and Özil to pick up the slack in that department. Off the ball it is less than average, to the point that Arsene has had to play an extra centre half to try and mask its deficiencies.

Yet Arsenal’s home form in 2017 is pretty impressive by contrast, so why the disparity? Well, the number one issue, in my opinion, is that Arsenal are below the required standard when it comes to transitions. Football’s tectonic plates have shifted away from possession based football in recent years and is now far more geared towards dominating transitions.

Tottenham have followed this approach. They have struggled this season in games where they have dominated possession, but they tore Borussia Dortmund limb from limb with less than 40% of the ball in September. Their game is to pen their opponents deep into their own half and force them into errors. Lots of teams play like this now, especially when they play at home and Arsenal do not have the attributes to properly handle it.

At the Emirates, teams sit off of Arsenal and the Gunners have few issues in picking them off. Given time in front of his own defence, Granit Xhaka is a wonderful exponent of “the moderate value pass” from midfield to attack. Aaron Ramsey’s ability to plough forward is far more of a virtue against a team that have sacrificed a midfield for a few extra bodies in defence.

Özil is less susceptible to one of his heavy colds or slight knee injuries when Arsenal play at home, which means the extra creativity to break teams down is present and correct. Away from home, teams are far more likely to put the Gunners under pressure in midfield and they don’t really have the players to get themselves out of trouble.

Even when Santi Cazorla was a regular fixture in Arsenal’s engine room, they struggled with teams that pressed high. Klopp’s Dortmund obliterated them in September 2014, Pochettino’s Spurs and Southampton sides have suffocated Wenger’s side on several occasions, Koeman has done something similar too. But transitions don’t just originate from a high press.

West Brom and Stoke both sat off of Arsenal at home and ran away victors. Arsenal’s failure to deal with the Baggies’ setpiece threat did for them in March, but Özil did not play in that match and Alexis had to be substituted due to injury, which impacted on the Gunners’ ability to hurt West Brom’s packed defence.

Arsenal were undone at Stoke by their inability to deal with a fairly simple transition. Granit Xhaka did not need to be pressed vigorously by Stoke when he turned the ball over in the centre circle (his pass completion average for the season currently sits below 80%, which is a microcosm of the team’s travails away from home).

From here, Özil and Xhaka chased in vain as Stoke powered forward for Jese to score the winner. Leicester had success capitalising on Arsenal turning the ball over in their defensive third at the Emirates back in August too. It was only when the Foxes sat back and tried to defend their lead that they came unstuck.

Kitchen sink football is something Arsenal can do – unstructured teams often thrive on chaos. See Arsenal’s comeback from 3-0 down at Bournemouth in January for further evidence. The Cherries’ high octane approach had Arsenal reeling, but the home side eventually ceded this advantage in the final 20 minutes, as their legs tired and they dropped back to the edge of their area.

When a succession of moon faced Arsenal players bemoan that the opposition “wanted it more” in their post match interviews, this is probably what they mean. Teams that impose themselves and asphyxiate Arsenal’s midfield early in the build-up phase tend to prosper. It is probably a little more nuanced than mere elbow grease (though that forms a part of it).

Whether or not Troy Deeney’s triumphant post match remarks over simplify the issue is, therefore, a moot point. The perception exists that Arsenal are vulnerable to being pressured in this way and that is enough to give opponents an extra 5% worth of motivation. After a while, a diseconomy of scale effect begins to arise. If Arsenal keep bleeding, opponents will keep smelling blood.

Navel gazing into Geoff Shreeves’ microphone has merely fed the likes of Deeney his lines. It might not be as simple as “cojones”, but smarter managers have read between those lines. Arsene Wenger’s midfield does not have the physical or technical presence to cope with being pressured on the ball and once you have seized possession from them, they are uniformly not going to take it back from you. (You may have noticed that Petr Cech has been pretty busy this year).

The schism between Arsenal’s home and away form can be distilled pretty simply. On the ball, Arsenal can cope. In Alexis and Özil they have enough individual quality to make the difference (Lacazette’s goals have added the armoury this season too). Off the ball, the Gunners are pretty woeful and away from home, they are often forced to deal with transitions which they are mightily uncomfortable with.

In an attempt to address this, Arsene often sacrifices Mesut Özil for someone like Danny Welbeck or Alex Iwobi, which gives the forward line greater structure, but lacks creative potential. Stiffening up the forward line can only go so far in helping the midfield when it is pressured closer to its own goal. Arsenal crumble under that examination technically as much as they do psychologically. If Arsenal solve the technical issue, the psychological issue will fix itself in concert.

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  1. The result against Real last night illustrates just how far Spurs have come and how far Arsenal have fallen.
    Its wasn’t because we were unlucky against Watford it was simply a case that they are a better side than us and better managed.
    Arsenal are just slipping further and further behind.
    As long as he remains in charge and Kroenke is still involved we will slip further still each season..

    • And it doesn’t help that Pochettino is miles better as a manager today than Wenger is.

      I believe Wenger would be in a relegation fight if he managed any of the non-Top 6 teams

    • We are in a bad way right now, no question, but the Harry Kane team has yet to win anything so let’s not get ahead of ourselves in joining the English press in a lovefest for Spurs. Getting a draw in Madrid is noteworthy, but it isn’t a win. Poch’s teams are incredibly well-organized and defend immensely well as a unit, and boy can those horses run here and there and here and there, but the total sum of their football had yet to equal a trophy. They are creating a lot of good feeling over there, but we all know where that gets you.

      • Sp*rs do NOT have better units than us! They are better organized, motivated, adaptable and they play more attractive football than us for more than 2 years.

        • The Harry Kane team play more attractive football than us right now (but so does the majority of the league as we aren’t getting much done right these days) but that claim doesn’t hold water even going back through last season. I’ve been forced to watch Spurs on several occasions and am amazed at the adoration they receive when many of their “moves” are stunted by their inability to control and pass the football. Spurs play great high press football, and have a field day when opposing teams give them the channels to run (cause that team runs and runs and runs), but unlike a Liverpool, for example, they don’t have the creativity (beyond Eriksen and Kane) or skillset to be rewarded with “attractive” (I mean that in the “beautiful” kind of sense, not in the “not necessarily ugly” way you sometimes use “attractive” as a euphemism).

  2. You see blogs, our midfield in the past was what we made a name for ourselves from. Now its just very bad. Not fully dismissing your point on being pressed high up our own half, but you didnt mention the fact that we did well not very long ago: klopp’s Dortmund at the Iduna Park pressed us incessantly bit we managed to get a win there, My point is our midfield at least was composed of players/dribblers like santi/wilshere/rosicky who had it in their locker to pick a pass/dribble their way out. But now ugh. Thats why I say with respect to the players, we have had the worst midfield in 21/22 years.

  3. I honestly believe that if Marco Silva managed Arsenal and Wenger Watford we would have won 4-0.

    I also believe if Wenger managed a team that like Watford, some team with less than half our wages he’d get them relegated.

    • I believe what could make a positive impact would be the return of Le Coq. His high pressing to win the ball would help break up the transitions of opposing teams.

  4. When teams discover they can press high and hard every time they play Arsenal we will be in a real shitstorm. Our homeform will evaporate and we’ll be lucky if we hit the top ten.

    This is all down to the manager. He is not capable of managing a team in modern football. He is unqualified and there’s not one club in the top 50 of Europe that would want him. The rest of his team of coaches are as bad and it’s probably true that Wenger listens to no one or that everyone at the club are so comfortable they just can’t be arsed.

    Remember when we played a great game away to City and beat them 2-1? The rumours where that the players were fed up with the non tactical approach and wanted to try something new. I guess it wasn’t a rumour. The players manage themselfs better than the manager or coaching team. That’s really sad and shows how long overdue Wengers goodbuy is.a

  5. This is by far the best analysis of AFC’s on-field issues over the past 3 or 4 years that I’ve seen. Our inability to deal with the press has been a consistent weakness for us and we continually fail to deal with it. Even Cazorla, who, despite his technical brilliance, lacks size and athleticism, could be swarmed and starved for passing angles. Since his injury (and the demise of Coqzorla, which, I think, was the most cohesive unit we’ve had in the past 5 years), we’ve gotten progressively worse at coping. Xhaka, though much more physically imposing, is just as slow and lacks ball control. He’s an easy target. Elneny, while slightly quicker, rarely makes a vertical pass and isn’t a ball carrier. Could Seri have been the answer? I don’t know. Our midfield form is so bleak at this point, however, Maitland-Niles could potentially offer an improvement. Haven’t seen enough of him at top level to know if he can pick a pass, but at least we would finally have genuine athleticism in that part of the pitch.

  6. This is hard to read, because it’s very accurate, and there’s no easy fix. Wilshere could help if he can actually stay fit. Cazorla could, but unfortunately, I think he’s done. And Kosc may be on his way to a similar situation. Beyond that, we have an issue both with having the wrong players and a manager that doesn’t know how to manage them. I think this is the root of a lot of the problems…uncertainty over Wenger’s capability and status has almost certainly hurt both player retention and recruiting in the last couple years. Alexis may have some shortcomings, but there’s few teams that wouldn’t want him.

  7. Tim, should we ditch the three-centreback approach and get back to attacking football, what Arsenal (used to) do best? It won’t solve all of our problems, but I see it as our bread and butter and the team is starving right now. We are flush with forwards and attacking midfielders, and I think, for the majority of our games not against the top clubs, we need to go out with the mindset of hammering them relentlessly for 90 minutes. I know that’s the approach that got us into this mess in the first place, but hopefully we can be better pouring forward and back to take over both ends of the pitch. I see that as the only way for us, under Wenger, to get back to our best and to begin intimidating teams again.

    • I don’t know why you said that the back 4 is what got us to this point in the first place, because it’s definitely not the problem.

      The problem was definitely lack of elite players money spending that we just failed to do, and spending it right, in the areas we need to strengthen.

      The reason i’m an Arsenal fan is (or at least was…) Arsenal’s style of play. The team always tried to play creative, fast-paced attacking football, no matter who the oposition was. This lack of tactical adjustment against the big teams is what crippled us so many times in the big moments, but against the majority of teams, premier league & Champions league alike, Arsenal are the favorites and should play in their best, most attacking, and like you said, hammering football style.

      In my opinion Arsenal’s problems all come from the very wierd 3 at the back formation AW implemented since the beginning of the season. Basically, AW gave up our midfield dominance (which was our tradmark and the reason we played good football throughout the years..), and replaced it with another body in defence, which we just don’t need most of the time. This creates a situation that even when we are dominating in terms of possesion, most of this possession is between our three defenders and not between our midfield and attackers for example, thus making us far less dangourous in the final third.

      Also, when we play with three at the back, we have the three attackers up front, and if ramsey playes then most of the time he joins the attack, but other than that, we are basically just outnumbered. Not to mention that when we are missing the extra body in midfield, in order that the attack would recieve the ball one of our attackers must go deep to recieve the ball, making our remaming 2 attackers left alone against our opposition defence. Look just how many times in the Watford game Ozil and giroud we’re alone against all of watfords defence… how the hell should they do something..? What do we expect..?

      In my opinion, the solution to most of Arsenal’s problems or poor football they play now is a very simple one:
      Go back to 4 at the back, focus on retaining dominance in midfield, and try to overload our lineup with attacking creative footballers. The key to this formation would be our midfield, that should be balanced with a deep lying DM (Fucking buy one already in January transfer window!!!), a box to box central midfielder (or 50/50..) and a creative playmaker, with 3 attackers up front.

      To conclude, the starting eleven should be:
      Defence: Bellerin, kos, monreal, kolasinac
      Midfield: Coq (a real deep DM, tacticly focused only on destroying the opposition game, if not fit – use el nany), whilshere (the only thing close to a real CM we have..), Ozil (yes, as part of midfield, as the main lead playmaker, not as a winger/free role like he is now…)
      Attack: alexis, lacazette & iwobi/ramsey/welbeck/nelson.

      I think that this 11 possesses enough quality to beat most teams in the league, and if we see that against the big teams we need the extra man in defence, we can switch to 3 at the back whenever we want.

      • I almost completely agree with you, and think we could even find success playing a midfield three of Xhaka, Ramsey, and Wilshere. I think the general consensus last year was that Arsenal were bombing forward way too much, and that attempt-to-hammer approach was leaving us exposed (two centrebacks and a wayward “DM”) to the easy counter-attack. That, and a brutal drop in form and confidence, put Wenger onto the three-at-the-back as there was nowhere left to turn. I think we’ve got the numbers in attack, as you suggest, and we need to go back to his 4-2-3-1 (or 4-2-1-3 or 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 … you get the picture) and allow Arsenal to be Arsenal.

  8. “Arsene Wenger’s midfield does not have the physical or technical presence to cope with being pressured on the ball and once you have seized possession from them, they are uniformly not going to take it back from you.” It has less to do with balls and more to do with the managers tactics and signings. Excellent analysis.

  9. Excellent analysis. Unfortunately it’s spot on. The big question is how to fix it. Looking at where we have had success in the area of transition in recent years, probably the Santi / Coq axis works best. Whilst the Coq has certain failings, he is a cut above our other CM’s in terms of breaking up play, hustling and causing the opposition to make mistakes. With Santi next to him we have the technical ability in abundance. Xhaka has a lot of qualities, but his ability to win the ball back is fairly poor, and Rambo’s attacking tendencies mean he is often not goal side when we do lose possession.

    Whilst it is hard to find an answer to combat this, I think it’s time we gave Jack a proper run in the team. I think he would add some of the bite and technical ability we have been looking for. And if he stays fit….

  10. I would love to hear your thoughts on what went “well” at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. Bearing in mind Iwobi and Welbeck started and Ramsey had a good game through the middle. In fairness we could easily have knicked it with Laca’s unfortunate quick reaction tap in off the post that he ended up skying.
    Do you think that result needs to be more of a template when we play away from home? Almost Mourinho-esque where we set up to take the point 0-0, very tight at the back absorb the pressure and then try work on the break the whole time making sure to keep men behind the ball?

    Good read though! Thanks for the article!

  11. Wenger quite obviously hates change , his adoption of a 3 at the back formation was done in desperation but having seen it have some success he is now just as opposed to changing back to a 4 at the back line up despite the obvious evidence that the present formation has blunted us as an attacking force and is no longer keeping the goals against column down! Playing this way routinely sees us outnumbered and overrun in midfield and when we try to press forwards we leave gaping holes at the back ! We should have gone to a back 4 after the Stoke game when the ominous signs started appearing but now Wenger will not admit he has got it wrong with either tactics or team selection so he blithely carried on which saw us get out arses handed to us by the scousers, there was still no real change after that and even though we won eminently winnable games the cracks were still visible! I fear we will see more Watford type results and a couple more outright spankings before the stubborn man is forced by nesessity to opt for change once more ! At least the Europa league is something different where we get to see youngsters trying to impress yet even they are constricted by Wenger as he plays them out of their favoured positions in his endless quest to fit square pegs in round holes! !!


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