It’s actually happening! The season hasn’t even started but Arsenal have already bought four players for over £50 million, and there might be more coming. It’s somewhat uncharted territory for Arsenal and it has obviously raised hopes and expectations from the clubs fan base about the clubs prospects next season. However; the transfer market may not be the difference maker for Arsenal next season. If certain issues aren’t addressed no arrival of any international stars will help Arsenal overcome them; but if dealt with properly, the current first team may be good enough to win the league and go deep in the Champions League.
It’s worth remembering, amid the horror of the early spring in the league campaign, that Arsenal topped the Premier League for far longer than anyone else last season and despite having to scrap for fourth in the final weeks, finished only seven points behind Manchester City, a significant improvement on the 16 points they trailed United the year before. They weren’t far off. What hit them so hard was injuries and the big games.
Long term injuries to Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podoslki were big as were smaller injuries to the majority of the first team squad. What makes it so frustrating is that it’s nothing new for Arsenal. Arsenal fans have been counting the what if’s when it comes to injuries for years, perhaps most notably with Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie in the 2009/10. It’s becoming increasingly hard to use it as a legitimate excuse as the validity of Arsenal simply being among the most unlucky sides with injuries every year reduces with each passing season.
In early June Arsenal signed the head German physio Shad Forsythe in a bid to try and reduce the clubs injury problems. This is a significantly important move and brings hope that the club will stop simply ruing their luck with the players health and instead take a more proactive approach to evaluate their approaches to fitness, training, match preparation and existing injuries – Aaron Ramsey seemed to have at least three setbacks last season and was ‘a couple of weeks away’ for about a month, which simply isn’t good enough – in order to keep a healthy, deep squad next season.
The other, obvious, issues for Arsenal from last season is their performance in the big games. The results were catastrophic and humiliating and ruined any chances the club had of keeping up their title challenge. The 20-4 aggregate loss to the other four of the top five away from home speaks volumes of the ineptitude of the side in the toughest games. It was particularly strange and disappointing given the consistency and quality the team showed in the rest of the games. So what was different about the big games? Was the greater opposition quality simply too much for a good quality team that potentially lacked world class players who could grab the game by the scruff of the neck? Maybe, but I prefer to look at it from a more specific tactical point of view. What do the top clubs do against Arsenal that others don’t? They press.
Everybody knows Arsenal like to have good possession and dominate the midfield region. The natural response from weaker sides is to sit back, let them donate the ball, then try to hit them on the break when the opportunity arrives. But recently Arsenal have shown an increasing ability to cope with this. Their defensive is more resilient and is better equipped to deal with the counters, and the side is dictated around breaking down teams, with a striker who links up with the midfield, wide number 10’s in the form of Cazorla, Rosicky and Wilshere and a good passer at defensive midfield in Mikel Arteta.
However, any strong club with great aspirations won’t look to play like that, particularly in their own backyard, and are thus more prone to go at Arsenal in the form of pressing. Arsenal are so used to sides sitting against them, that it may have hampered their ability to handle a side that presses and looks to break away quickly, both in the form of players themselves not being used to the press and their tactics against sides that might use the method. Arsene Wenger has admitted as much, saying he prefers not to focus on other sides and instead focus on his strength. It’s a nice philosophy in practice, but it has meant Arsenal have severely suffered at the hands of sides that don’t play in a way they’re used to.
While they’re usually used to time on the ball and space to play passes, they’re not granted that when pressed and can be caught out. An early warning sign was in the home match against Borussia Dortmund where Aaron Ramsey was hurried by Marco Reus and disposed 20 yards from his own goal. The tendency of the fullbacks to push forward means that if and when an opposition attacker wins the ball there is immense space out wide. This is something Andre Schürrle and Samuel Eto’o, as well as the Liverpool attacking trio of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Rahem Sterling exploited brilliantly in the respective thrashings in February and March. Attacking fullbacks is something Arsenal are somewhat reliant on due to the lack of pace in their front line, which additionally, has the duel deterrent of giving the opposition licence to press and an ability to play a high line. One of the main arguments against pressing is that if it fails it allows sides to potentially break away fast beyond the midfield. But a lack of pace means such fast breaks are usually far less effective. The potentially higher line, due to less threat of balls through or over the defence for the attack to run onto, manages to cramp the midfield, and give them far less time and space, making pressing them much easier.
Arguably no one typifies Arsenal as much as Giroud. Against everyday run of the mil Premier League sides where Arsenal dominate the game Giroud is a great player, who scores goals, bags assists and makes his midfield play better. At his worst against the big sides he’s a player who can’t seem to run, dribble or strike a ball effectively from distance, meaning Arsenal have no real means of attacking and allows the opposition to push higher up and press aggressively. This is why – although somewhat ridiculed by many – playing Yaya Sanogo as the main striker against Bayern Munich and Liverpool and Everton in the cup was the right move.
This would be the typical Arsenal set up last season, seen here in the mauling against Chelsea. The fullbacks high, creating space for Schürrle and Hazard to run into.The wide men drift in and offer few forward runs, with Olivier Giroud looking to get the ball into feet and hold it up. It’s easy to press.
Southampton v Arsenal
Arsenal’s late January trip to Southampton was the first game where they showed a real vulnerability to a pressing method in the league and, even though they got back into the game, wh
ere lucky to get a point. As shown in the graphic below Southampton attempted and successfully won the ball high up the field several times and Arsenal were unable to cope with the energy of Southampton, failing to find their rhythm in the early stages. Southampton didn’t manage to make use of their early chances and only managed a couple of goals but it was a strong warning sign for what would come at Anfield et al.
Ironically this game was the original date set for Aaron Ramsey’s return, more than two months before his actual return, emphasising the poor handling and estimations of his injury. This would prove to be significant as Ramsey helps reduce the effect of the press through his energy, bursting forward runs and defensive work rate. In his absence the midfield paring of Arteta and Flamini, a much older and slower paring, was overrun by a young energetic Southampton side. Ramsey would also miss the Liverpool and Chelsea games, where the less disciplined Wilshere and Chamberlain struggled.
Liverpool v Arsenal
If the Southampton game had shown Arsenal to be vulnerable to pressing, then the game against Liverpool showed that they were capable of getting destroyed against a good pressing side who excelled at fast breaks. Liverpool harassed Arsenal, making 35 tackles to Arsenal’s 16, and many of them occurred high up the field in the opening exchanges in the lead up to Liverpool goals. Philip Coutinho was the main architect of the attacking players, notching up an astonishing 6 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 through balls (a seasonal through ball rate of 0.5 per game is elite levels). He regularly won the ball high up the field and exploited the space Arsenal exposed with lethal passing and the match was over after 20 minutes.
After the first two goals Arsenal arguably panicked and as a result sent the fullbacks even higher up the field than usual, in search of quick goals to try and restore parity to the game. But this only contributed in making Arsenal even more vulnerable to the fast breaks Liverpool orchestrated upon wining the ball.
The third goal is the best example of Liverpool’s intense pressing and the space left to exploit. Özil dribbles and gets closed off by Jordan Henderson.
Henderson then wins the ball and is left with multiple options out wide due to the space left by the advanced fullbacks. While Laurent Koscielny is fast for a centre back, the defensive trio of he, Mertesacker and Arteta is no match for the pace of Liverpool’s front three and Henderson is left with an easy pass to Suarez who squares the ball to Sterling for Liverpool’s 3rd goal with Sagna unable to get back in time.
This angle shows just how high up the pitch Arsenal’s fullbacks are with Monreal on the left and Sagna on the right highlighted.
The third goal wasn’t the only example though. Liverpool’s goal glut could’ve been even more severe given the chances that came about. Here a poor Özil pass is intercepted by Coutinho.
Again the Liverpool midfielder has options out wide, as Suarez drifts into the space left vacant by Monreal.
This stretches the Arsenal centre back paring which leaves space for Sturridge to exploit and he nearly scores.
The fourth goal again came via Coutinho who anticipated Özil’s pass, got there ahead of Wilshere and exposed Arsenal’s high line with a brilliant through ball onto the onrushing Sturridge.
Of course, one also has to appreciate how well Liverpool played. They showed brilliant energy and their quick, accurate passing meant that a vulnerable Arsenal defence were put to the sword viciously. Liverpool only needed one or two passes to get in and that’s a credit to both their passing and Arsenal’s defensive systems.
But Arsenal would continue to show a vulnerability to the press, even against sides without the same levels of pace in the attack and passing ability in the midfield.
Chelsea v Arsenal
At the Emirates earlier in the season Mourinho had approached the match very defensively, choosing to sit back and try to hit on the break. This worked to the extent that they didn’t lose, but at home they needed something more than just a point. Mourinho is obviously a very wise tactical coach, and seeing the success Liverpool and the like got against Arsenal through pressing systems it was little surprise he deployed one against Arsenal at the bridge. Chelsea pressed slightly deeper than Liverpool, choosing to focus on the attacking midfielders of Arsenal with David Luiz and Nemanja Matic performing the midfield enforcers role from deep.
For the first goal Andre Schürrle intercepts a stray pass from Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and, upon playing a quick one-two with Oscar, is away.
For Arsenal it’s groundhog day with the fullback caught high up the field allowing lots of space for the Chelsea forward men to run into. Eto’o, seeing this, drifts wide and gets the pass from Schürrle in enough space to be able to get the shot away into the bottom corner.
The second goal is arguably the best illustration of what Arsenal do worst against the press. Gibbs passes the ball to Podolski before overlapping down the line.
Despite the forward run by Gibbs, Podoslki decides to play a square ball into the centre circle where Cazorla is.
Matic anticipates the pass well, and rushes Cazorla straight away. Perhaps as a consequence, Cazorla’s first touch is poor and Matic wins the ball.
Matic then breaks away and passes through to Schürrle, exploiting the space left by Gibbs before controlling and going on to fire home into the bottom corner.
The goal is illustrated wonderfully by The Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) in his piece on whether Arsenal have become easier to press.
Countering the press
So how can Arsenal set up better to make themselves less vulnerable to the press? There are a number of different possible approaches they can take. A necessary improvement has to be in the pace of the attackers. In the games against Liverpool and Chelsea the only player of any real pace was Chamberlain and even he lacks the directness that Theo Walcott has. The signing of Alexis Sanchez is therefore a major step and I would be highly tempted to start him as the number 9 in most of the big games this season. He can act as an outlet for the rest of the attacking midfielders or drop back to play balls through for onrushing midfielders. If they can get him as the #9 and Theo Walcott playing on the right then Arsenal are suddenly blessed with pace which, given Arsenal’s gulf of creative midfield passers, means through balls are a major threat.
The natural consequence of faster attackers is also that it allows a more direct form of football. One of the reasons Arsenal are easy to press is their slow build up play and tendency to pass sideways. Slower build up means greater dwelling on the ball and greater chance for a tackle and interceptions tend to be more punishing on sideways passes. If you try a failed pass down the line you’re usually in place to cover yourself, but if a ball is intercepted in between the midfielders or defenders it creates space ahead for players if they pick the ball up. This was something explained well by Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher after Chelsea v Liverpool (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdmxV-7QvJ8), where Chelsea played very few sideways passes and Liverpool obviously conceded via an intercepted sideways pass.
The fullbacks could also do with playing deeper. This can again be done by greater pace and width offensively, instead of the usual wide 10’s who prefer to cut inside and let the fullback overlap. Pressing sides tend to tire, so deeper fullbacks wouldn’t necessarily have to be a thing for whole matches, but certainly for the opening exchanges they should be considered.
This could be a potential set up for matches against the top sides next season. The starting lineup can resemble a normal Arsenal 4-2-3-1, but with Walcott pushing right up to the edge of the opposition defensive line, and preferably running in behind as much as possible. The natural consequence of the player on the right doing this would be for the number 9 (Alexis) to move slightly to the left and perform a similar role. Özil and Cazorla as the play makers would be equipped with trying to play the front two in as regularly as possible and Ramsey and Arteta can provide a direct passing game from deep. Such direct passing early on (when most vulnerable to the press) can bypass the midfield area and any pressing. Cazorla could also drift further inside, almost setting up a 4-4-2 like formation but with the strikers playing as wide men rather than traditional centre forwards. For this role a more dangerous dribbler such as Chamberlain may be a better option.
The fullbacks would also stay deeper along with the rest of the back four and Mikel Arteta, in an attempt to provide greater cover for counter attacks and to stretch the game, allowing greater space for Özil, Cazorla and Ramsey.
On top of such an approach work needs to be done on improving players composure on the ball and reducing the amount of time they dwell on the ball. For this simple training methods could seriously help the players be less susceptible to sides hurrying them and consequently lose the ball less.
One thing is for certain though. Sides, even potentially some of the smaller clubs, will start to press Arsenal more after last season. They can’t afford to show the same faults next season, nor can they afford to constantly get beat against the rest of the top 7. 13/14 was a major learning curve and the lessons need to be applied into results this year, otherwise consequences have to be felt.
This piece was meant to be done a couple of weeks ago, but procrastination. As a result we’ve got a first look at Arsenal in a big game to asses additionally to this piece. It’s hard to get a great judge of what the game meant, given it’s pre-season nature and the players missing for City. City’s midfield paring of Fernando and particularly Yaya Toure seemed completely devoid of any interest in tracking back. But the signs were encouraging. Three times in the first half an Arsenal player got beyond the City back line (twice Sanago and once Alexis) and it could’ve been more had Arsenal’s final ball been better – the return of Mesut Özil should help that. Arsenal looked dangerous on the counter.
The departure of Sanago and Alexis at half time predictably slowed things down, and Arsenal barely created a chance in the second half as the game petered out. It’s hard to say how Arsenal would do in a more intense game at Stamford Bridge or Anfield, but the early signs are positive.