Sunday, February 5, 2023

Smashing Pockets

I have consistently been moved to write about Arsenal’s attack this season because it is, to my mind, the most intriguing area of the squad. The forward line contains a lot of top class players but it is not straightforward to envisage how they fit together- this is not just a mathematical conundrum either, it’s a question of tactical balance.

I have written about it so often that we are past the point of embedding links neatly into the text. It’s now a link farm and every week it hatches new eggs. On Sunday, Arsenal started Danny Welbeck, Alex Lacazette, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi together. Arsenal’s three big ticket attackers- Mesut Özil, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Aaron Ramsey, missed out for various reasons.

Yet the link between Iwobi, Mkhitaryan, Welbeck and Lacazette looked far more natural than the uneasy sight of Mesut Özil starved of oxygen on the right, Aaron Ramsey struggling to connect play in an advanced role and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang too often asked to become involved in the build-up on the left hand side.

Alex Iwobi has been the focus of a lot of attention in recent weeks as his performances have, rightly, impressed. Physically he looks in very good condition, which could be a symptom of Unai Emery and Darren Burgess’ more intense training sessions, or it could be a natural physical progression for a 22 year old athlete. He is also certainly playing with greater confidence.

But I don’t think he has become a drastically different player. He still does all of the things he has always done, he scuttles across the pitch looking for short ‘give and go’ passes. He spreads Arsenal’s play horizontally too. The Gunners can get bogged down on their left hand side, Iwobi has that ability to sashay from left to right with the ball like a crab cradling its shell as it scurries across the sand.

This means that Arsenal’s right hand side gets a bit of water and light. But I don’t necessarily think Iwobi is transformed, it’s just that his attributes are better suited to Emery’s idea of attack. While many of us clamoured for the Gunners to sign a natural wide player this summer, it didn’t ever appear to be on the club’s radar.

I would imagine that Emery didn’t share our urgency for such a player because he doesn’t really have much of a history of playing with wingers. (See how quickly he isolated Lucas Moura at PSG). He likes for his wide players to come in-field and play in the half space, with a full-back creating an overload just wide of him. This suits Iwobi’s style perfectly.

Last season, the Nigerian suffered something of an identity crisis in Arsene’s muddled team. He wasn’t quite asked to be a 10 or an 8 or a winger, but assumed a fudged role where he was all and none of those things. Emery’s idea for attack is a little more structured, but crucially, the quasi-wide forward role is tailor-made for Iwobi, it asks him to be neither a winger nor a central attacker, but to play definitely in the space between those two poles.

He enjoyed an excellent spell of form at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, when played as a kind of butler to the left of Sanchez and Walcott. His job was to take the ball from the left and move it towards his more assertive attacking partners. Almost like a kind of creative water carrier. In Emery’s system, he has license to drop into the half space to collect the ball.

Crucially, this role does not demand a final ball or a finish from him either, it just asks that he oils the wheels of the attack by finding what Adrian Clarke described as “smashing pockets” of space. For much the same reason, Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been a potent creative force during his appearances this season. Like Iwobi, he sometimes suffers from identity crisis.

He is not quite a winger, wide forward or a number 10. Emery’s structure means he can operate somewhere between the right wing and the centre. I wrote something similar about Danny Welbeck a few weeks ago. He is a tactically flexible player capable of following instruction, but again, he doesn’t seem to be lethal enough to lead the line and not quite cute enough to be a productive wide forward.

What he is is a great foil- an ideal second striker and he was able to play a hybrid role against Fulham on Sunday. He was the key to the team moving between 442 and 4222, he has the physical and mental qualities to play this kind of servicing role. That was the striking aspect of the Fulham match, that, talent wise, this was very much a second string attack yet it seemed to function more comfortably than Arsenal’s A list.

This isn’t because Ramsey, Aubameyang and Özil have become bad footballers, or that they are selfish or any such thing. They are just less suited to the roles they have been asked to perform. They don’t really want to operate so clearly in the half spaces, it’s not their game, they are all more suited to being played centrally, so they want to move to the middle of the pitch. The roles they have been assigned are more comfortable for Welbeck, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan and Lacazette involves himself with the triangle behind him to combine more naturally than Aubameyang does.

Ramsey, Özil and Aubameyang are also more instinctive footballers than the quartet that started on Sunday. They all operate a little bit outside of the system, they improvise. Every team needs this quality in their attack, every team needs a maverick for well-schooled defences (Fulham’s is not) and for days when the sun does not always shine.

Accommodating three players of this ilk may prove a challenge too far, but one mustn’t fall into the trap of recency bias, just because that attacking four clicked on Sunday, it does not mean they always will. Also, Ramsey came off the bench with a goal and an assist and Aubameyang with two goals and an assist. Obviously the context was a little different with Fulham chasing the game, but the score was only 2-1 when they came on.

The Arsenal narrative is very much a moving feast at the moment, all of the ‘data’ we are accumulating from games is totally new and therefore, it feels like a stream of constant Eureka moments (and, well, whatever the opposite of a ‘Eureka moment’ is too). The goal posts are shifting constantly, which is probably exacerbated by Emery’s ‘horses for courses’ approach where the game plan and sometimes even the formation, is geared towards the opponent.

But at this point, I think it’s fair to say that Lacazette, Iwobi and Welbeck (and maybe Mkhitaryan too) have seen their accounts credited a little more than Özil, Ramsey and Aubameyang this season. There is a slightly more mechanic approach to attacking, whereas Mesut, Aaron and Pierre were probably more comfortable in Arsene’s space jazz orchestra.

The front four that started on Sunday are more malleable players, but they could still do with a little more devil in their detail over a longer time period. It is also not to say, at this stage, that the ‘A List’ cannot learn to groove to Emery’s tune- it’s just quite unlikely that all three of them can do it together. Ramsey’s contract situation probably makes that dilemma a short term one.

When a new manager comes in- a change the majority of fans and pundits thirsted for- it is easy to understand why there is a lot of “post-hoc” analysis about revitalised players, changed personalities and the fact that Arsenal’s winning run is entirely down to Emery banning fruit juice at London Colney.

I think the truth is that the players are largely doing the same things they’ve always done, but some are more suited to the manager’s structure than others and some are playing roles they are comfortable in, while others are not.

Andy Kelly, Mark Andrews and myself will be doing some promotional events in London for our book ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ in the run-up to Christmas, with book signing events featuring the likes of Liam Brady, Bob Wilson and Brian Talbot. You can find out more about those events here and you can buy a copy of the book here.

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