Sunday, April 21, 2024

Tactics column: Ozil’s absence makes Xhaka redundant

“Even a chameleon has a default colour and Emery appeared to have one in mind when he arrived at the club. Over the course of the season it escaped him. The boss will need to be able to define Arsenal’s style early on in 2019/20 if he is to earn the chance to stay on and deliver the project he has spoken about.”

Admittedly, opening an article by quoting yourself isn’t necessarily a good look, but my summary at the end of 2019/20 seems an appropriate place to start when looking back on the opening couple of months of the new season.

Generally speaking, a few things are true when looking at how Arsenal approached games so far in 2019/20:

  • Arsenal don’t tend to press high
  • Arsenal don’t consistently probe and put pressure on a set opposition defence
  • Arsenal aren’t very good at sitting back and soaking up pressure

There seems to be an emphasis on playing in space in the final third but even that has fallen by the wayside somewhat, and without any of these principles consistently delivered, it can be hard to see what the team is trying to do and whether or not they can continue picking up points.

Early on there was a certain emphasis on playing out from the back. The signing of David Luiz only served to add to that – an ability to play out from defence with confidence and decisiveness is arguably the Brazilian’s biggest strength.

Arsenal started the season with an insistence on playing out from the back. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno completed over 75% of his passes in the season’s first three games, included an eyebrow raising 86% pass completion at Anfield against press-happy Liverpool. Slowly, though, the ploy has been abandoned. Short goal kicks cost the Gunners goals against Watford and Aston Villa and Leno, having completed 69% of his passes across those games, has since had his pass completion drop to 55% and 46% in games against Man Utd and Bournemouth.

Sokratis in particular struggled with playing out from the back – rewatch the game at Old Trafford and you will see that, while he completed most of his passes, the Greek often put a team-mate under pressure with a loose ball into them. With mistakes creeping in, patience has worn thin and the approach has largely been ditched. This is a problem as Emery saw patient build up play as Arsenal’s best way of getting their forwards in space to attack.

“Our game plan was the same, like at the beginning, to break their pressing – if they decided to do that – and if we break that pressing we can connect with our midfielders, with our team’s players and after have space to continue imposing our game plan,” the head coach said after the 2-2 draw at Watford.

The approach hasn’t been worth the risk, though. As per Opta on 1 October, Arsenal had lost possession from high turnovers more than any other team in the Premier League.

The problem with abandoning the approach is that Arsenal loosen their grip on the game. More long balls means less possession, which invariably means less time trying to score and more time trying to keep the opposition out.

It also means Arsenal, when they do attack, will not have the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Nicolas Pepe moving forward with as much space to work with. Under Emery, this has caused issues because Arsenal’s attacks are funneled wide more easily than they were under Arsene Wenger, when the team was notorious for packing the middle of the pitch and attempting quick combinations. Note the difference between where across the pitch Emery’s Arsenal attack compared to the team in Wenger’s final seasons.

Attacking moves in the centre of the pitch (per Whoscored)

2016-17: 32% (most in the PL)
2017-18: 32% (most in the PL)
2018-19: 24% (15th most in the PL)
2019-20: 24% (joint 10th most in the PL)

Under Emery we tend to be pushed wide, either reluctantly or through choice, and don’t play with the patience of Arsene Wenger’s teams.

Possession and passes per game (per Whoscored)

2016-17: 56.5% , 563 ppg
2017-18: 58.5% , 619 ppg
2018-19: 56.1%, 548 ppg
2019-20: 53.3%, 482 ppg

That’s fine – it’s a choice you can make. The last two seasons under Wenger weren’t good, so that shouldn’t necessarily be a template for the current team. However, it’s still an interesting change and one worth discussing. The move away from Mesut Ozil seems a crucial part of the change in style. Note that last season, when the German still played semi-regularly, the numbers weren’t so different. The same can’t be said now. The lack of Ozil is part of the reason Arsenal are being forced to attack wider.

A metric called ‘Packing’ (explainer here) created by former German international and current Bayer Leverkusen sporting director Simon Rolfes measures how many players are ‘beaten’ by passes or dribbles in an individual match. The scores correlate impressively with the actual result of a game. When Packing was revealed, it showed Ozil stood head and shoulders above his counterparts in having the ability to find space to receive the ball behind defenders – the German receives more passes behind opposition players than anyone else in the game.

“Passes to the German playmaker took out 63 players per game on average,” during Euro 2016, Ralph Honigstein wrote in the article linked above. Intriguingly, Arsenal signed Granit Xhaka that summer, and the Swiss ranked incredibly highly both in the Bundesliga and at that summer tournament as a player who found team-mates with passes that beat opposition players.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Xhaka consistently used to find Ozil with flat, vertical passes. Under Wenger, Xhaka to Ozil was almost always one of Arsenal’s highest pass combinations on the pitch and a crucial method of advancing possession from back to front.

But now Ozil isn’t playing and Emery wants a more energetic Arsenal, an Arsenal that works hard and makes life difficult for the opposition. But by taking away Ozil, Xhaka is now also redundant in the team. So why has the Swiss been made captain and turned into an ever present if he can’t even help Arsenal progress the ball through the middle of the pitch anymore?

Without the duo helping the team move upfield, there has been a hefty dip in passes completed within 20 yards of the opposition goal. At the same time, Arsenal are keeping the ball less and opposition sides are having more completed passes near our goal than they did under the previous manager.

Deep completions for/against per game

2016-17: 12.6 / 5.2
2017-18: 12.8 / 5.3
2018-19: 10.5 / 6.7
2019-20: 9.1 / 6.5

The fallout from here is obvious: Arsenal are not taking enough shots and conceding far too many.

Emery needs to find a way to rectify that – shooting more means scoring more, conceding fewer shots means conceding fewer goals. Arsenal have to get better at these things. And there may even be some hope.

Arsenal’s pressing has generally been poor, when they have attempted to press this season. But there are some green shoots. The team’s most dominant periods of play (in the league) this season arguably came in the final 55 minutes against Spurs and the first half against Bournemouth, both at home. And in both games, there was much more of an effort to press the opposition.

Arsenal rank eighth in the Premier League with 9.92 Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) in the opposition half. But that was down to around 7 passes against Bournemouth and 6.79 against Spurs. If Arsenal aren’t going to dominate possession and probe the opposition defence regularly with the ball, they have to at least improve at gaining the upper hand by suffocating the opposition. To do so at home in two games against sides that wouldn’t be considered among the weakest in the league is certainly something to build on.

Considering the lack of meaningful passing he is now providing, it could be worth moving Xhaka out of the side and leaning fully into an energetic midfield three. Without Ozil, Arsenal don’t have a natural number 10 and despite attempts to play Dani Ceballos or Joe Willock there, both are better driving forward from midfield – Ceballos with the ball, Willock both with it and by making runs into space.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Arsenal’s vibrant cup performances have all included both Lucas Torreira and Joe Willock in the starting XI. Given the form of Matteo Guendouzi, who has become crucial in providing impetus on the ball, it may be worthwhile to see how that midfield trio would fare.

Playing higher up the pitch and pressing with intensity and organisation is the most likely path to us seeing a consistent and impressive Arsenal this season. Given we have seen it work at times already, it seems to be the easiest way for Arsenal to improve quickly and in a sustainable way. The plan would suit many of the players, as well Unai Emery’s preference to restrict the opposition, but does so while still maintaining focus on ourselves. There are obvious issues – Arsenal will still have to break defences down at times and pressing could, ultimately, exhaust the team, causing the wheels to fall off.

On the other hand, the returns of Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin should help and could even open up our attacking options – either by being effective themselves or stretching the opposition and allowing Arsenal to finally play successfully through the middle. The return of Alexandre Lacazette, though, may only leave more question marks: can Arsenal afford to move Aubameyang away from the centre of the park?

For now, though, Emery still has to figure out and implement how exactly he wants this Arsenal team to play and make sure they become more dominant both with and without the ball.

Until that happens, the team’s performances will continue to be riddled with inconsistency and doubts around the head coach and his approach are unlikely to abate.

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