Ockham’s razor dictates that the simplest explanation is generally the correct one. That could well be true regarding Arsenal’s poor start to the season. They moved on three defenders during the summer (Sagna, Vermaelen, Jenkinson) and only signed two (Debuchy and Chambers). This has left them extremely light on numbers at the back and forced them to play second choice left back Nacho Monreal at centre back, following injuries to Mathieu Debuchy and Laurent Koscielny. Moreover, for all of the talent that arrived at Arsenal over the summer, they failed to identify and purchase an athletic ball winner in midfield to upgrade upon their current options; Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini.
Both of those criticisms are well justified and had those two situations been dealt with its easy to imagine Arsenal sitting in a more comfortable position than they are currently. However, what many have failed to notice is that there has been a subtle change in Arsenal’s tactical approach this year to which the players are still adjusting to.
It’s often said of Arsene Wenger that he never alters his tactics. This absolutist point of view is patently untrue. He did so at Chelsea earlier this year, deploying a three in midfield. He did so when burdened by a weakened team in the 2005 FA Cup Final against Manchester United, perhaps the only occasion where Wenger could be accused of having parked the bus. He regularly changed from 4-4-2 in the Premier League to 4-5-1 in the Champions League during the run to the final in 2006.
I don’t think even Wenger’s biggest supporters would claim that tactics are his strength. He is certainly stubborn and doesn’t seem to pay that much attention to the opposition he is facing. But he has, for periods, subtly altered the playing style over the years, often out of necessity. Perhaps he’s not been as pragmatic as some would like, but there have been examples of that side to his nature.
Wenger has, for periods, subtly altered the playing style over the years, often out of necessity
You might recall the 2-1 defeat Arsenal suffered at White Hart Lane in March 2013, which left them seven points behind Spurs in the race for fourth. Andre-Villas-Boas famously observed that Arsenal were in a ‘negative spiral’. Arsenal were caught out that day trying to play a high line and press up the pitch. The following game, Bayern Munich away, saw a marked change in approach. Arsenal sat deep, denied space in behind and surrendered more possession to the opposition than Wenger would typically be happy with. This served as a blue print for the next year or so. Arsenal chased down Tottenham to claim fourth in May 2013, and sat top of the league half way through 2013/14.
Arsenal supporters will tell you that while they were delighted with the consistency of the team and the number of wins during that period, the football wasn’t great to watch. Arsenal were cautious in their defensive play, sitting deep in two banks of four even during home games (re visit the games when Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton visited the Emirates at the beginning of last season). They didn’t have anywhere near the levels of possession you would associate with Arsenal, and created fewer chances per game than in the years gone by. But it worked, even though it relied heavily upon the counter-attacking runs of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott.
Arsenal sat deep, denied space in behind and surrendered more possession to the opposition than Wenger would typically be happy with. This served as a blue print for the next year or so
This change was very much necessitated by the personnel in the team at that time. The increased depth to Arsenal’s defensive line suited Per Mertesacker, an impeccable defender when defending his 18 yard box with bodies alongside him, but a player whose lack of pace means he struggles in teams that press (look at how he struggled against Algeria during the World Cup). Mikel Arteta and/or Mathieu Flamini benefited too. They stayed close to their two centre backs and Arsenal’s more compact unit meant their lack of pace wasn’t exposed. Moreover, the employment of Olivier Giroud and Mesut Özil as the ‘front two’ meant that it was more expedient to retreat when opposition defences had the ball, as it’s not really a part of either player’s physical profile to tirelessly press.
This year things are different. With the quartet of Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain available, Arsene Wenger has seen an opportunity to turn his team into a quick, dynamic, front foot side more akin to the title winning teams of the first half of his reign. With pacier players up front there has been a concerted effort to press higher, which is suited perfectly to the natural tendencies of Alexis and Welbeck.
With the quartet of Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain available, Arsene Wenger has seen an opportunity to turn his team into a quick, dynamic, front foot side
Mathieu Flamini spoke to the club’s website a few weeks ago. He said of Sanchez’s work rate that it’s ‘very important for us because getting the ball back very quickly when the game is open makes all the difference.’ This is clearly an instruction from the manger. If you look back on the counter attack that led to Swansea’s equaliser last weekend, you see Flamini rushing forward to try and win the ball, embodying the sentiment he expressed in that interview.
Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck’s pressing gets fans applauding and it’s difficult to criticise this approach when winning the ball back early leads to chances and goals. However, the back half of Arsenal’s team is not suited to such a style. Chambers, Mertesacker, Monreal and Arteta/Flamini don’t have the pace and athleticism to adopt such tactics. While Arsenal’s front five is pressing the ball, the two centre-backs are staying deep; as is natural when you consider their lack of pace. This is leading to big distances between Arsenal’s lines and consequently, a constant vulnerability to counter attacks.
It will be fascinating over the coming weeks to see if Arsene Wenger instructs Welbeck, Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain to curb their natural instincts. Returning to a more circumspect method might prove fruitful in the short term. They certainly have the pace up front to sit deep and play on the break. Compromise with the style of play might be necessary to find the ‘defensive balance’ that Arsene Wenger has said Arsenal have been missing.
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Image courtesy of standard.co.uk