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Arsenal’s well documented problems against the big teams were finally addressed last season which led many to believe that the North London giants were finally ready for a sustained title challenge. However, Wenger’s men have flattered to deceive this season with disappointing results. Andrew Thompson has a look at the problems the Gunners have in attack.
Three goals in Arsenal’s opening four Premier League fixtures are not the numbers you’d normally associate with a club of our traditional attacking pedigree. A shock 2-0 home defeat against West Ham on opening day and further questionable displays against Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Newcastle United has many a Gooner wondering just what is making us so impotent in the final third. Harsh criticisms have been levied at main striker Olivier Giroud, but it must be said that the big Frenchman certainly cannot shoulder the lion’s share of the blame (which we will dig deeper into later). For me, our problem is tactical, and it will make or break our season if we continue to get them wrong.
By the numbers (which can only tell so much but can be used in support of an argument), you’d think Arsenal were at or near the top when it comes to the goal scoring charts. At current, the Gunners boast an average 65.1% possession this season (best in the Premier League), while their 20.8 shots per match and 87.2% passing accuracy rate as first and second respectively. What’s more is that key players Alexis Sanchez and the aforementioned Giroud average five and four shots per match respectively, while the creative engine of Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla provide 3.78 and 4 key passes per ninety minutes respectively, as well as 4.12 and 4 chances created in the same statistical matrix. So…just what exactly is wrong, when all the numbers point to dominance? The answer can be found in the lack of real quality being created.
It’s worth coming to the realization, if you already have not, that Arsenal’s focus in the final third is very much about the attacking collective…team goals. Unlike many other sides whose focus is to target specific players and generate chances for them, Arsenal’s is about bringing as many players into the attack as possible and generating chances for whomever is free. While this has worked in the past quite well, the problem has now become that our opponents are privy to what we bring to the table week in and week out.
Currently, Arsenal’s tactical structure calls for slow build up through possession, either playing out of the back or getting the ball to Giroud who then settles it and distributes to the creative engines who slow the pace down to allow time for everyone else to move forward. The moves usually begin from Özil or Cazorla, who begin the intricate passing combinations we have become so well known for. Thirty passes later, we try to look for an opening into the box and hope that the defense has been drawn out – the problem, is that no one moves off the ball to draw a member of the opposition away from a critical part of their defensive line.
Years of Arsenal playing one brand of intricate and technically gifted football have worked against the club in the long run. While no one can pass us off the park or play in a manner as aesthetically pleasing as we can, the problem is it doesn’t have as much substance as it should. What’s the point of having possession yet not doing enough with it? The numbers mentioned earlier suggest we are, but the truth of the matter is how many of the chances we create are ones of true quality? The West Ham result is a prime example, with Slaven Bilic’s men happy to sit back and defend deep in layers and allow us possession on top of the box – but there was never a real way in through their lines. With a lack of movement in the final third and no one apart from Giroud and maybe Aaron Ramsey making runs into the box, Arsenal’s attack at the moment is Simba as a cub rather than Scar ruthlessly killing Mufasa.
Despite having the right players to fit the right roles, Arsene Wenger has opted this season to field a side that is bent on possession. Ramsey on the right rather than a traditional winger in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Theo Walcott suggests that our Alsatian headmaster prefers Ramsey’s contributions on the ball and engine, rather than the pace and direct nature of Ox and Theo. The problem from a tactical standpoint is that Ramsey playing on the right actually takes space away from others rather than opening up the opposition defense. Given license to come centrally, Ramsey spends the balance of his time on the pitch either through the middle or popping up on the left. Overloading certain areas in the final third sometimes makes it easier for a single player to mark multiple players out of the match – Reece Oxford’s performance comes to mind. He did very well for a player as young as he is, but the fact remains that anyone who ventured into the space he was tasked with patrolling was stagnant off the ball and when on the ball only passed it 15 feet to the nearest player.
Truthfully, and bluntly, there is little to no invention in the Arsenal attack despite having some excellent puppet masters. People will say that the likes of Özil and Cazorla should be doing more, but it’s difficult to create high quality chances when all your passing options are stagnant and not creating space for others. This is not a problem with our personnel, this is a fundamental issue with our tactics and that comes down to the manager. No this is not a Wenger Out moment, but it certainly is a moment where I expect far more from someone who singlehandedly changed the landscape of attacking football in the country in the early years of his tenure.
You would certainly be very hard pressed to find a single Arsenal supporter that would not agree that we need a tactical rethink at the club – not a permanent change, but another option. Even though our XI against Newcastle last weekend on paper indicated a change (though it was facilitated by a lack of fitness of Özil), everyone got their wish when it was released that both Walcott and Chamberlain would start from the off. In theory it was wonderful to see, in practice however, not one thing changed. Despite deploying the pair of pacey England internationals, our tactics did not truly change at all, and certainly once Aleksandar Mitrovic received his marching orders, we were more than happy to insist on doing things our usual way rather than hitting Newcastle direct and hard and using the pace we had available in abundance. Square pegs in tactical round holes.
What truly has to change at the club is not the addition of further “world class” players or even being more ruthless about player performances, it’s about using the players in the right tactical set up and thus getting the best out of them. What’s the point if playing pacey players when you’re not being direct or attacking at pace? What must change moving forward is that Arsene Wenger finally re-adopts our incisive counter attacking style…not to replace our current style, but to add it to our repertoire. At home against opponents more likely to defend deeper, by all means recycle possession and try to sniff them out, but on the road when the opposition is more likely to attack, then maybe we should yet again be the ones to draw them in deeper and hit them on the break like the days of old.
If there is one major criticism you can throw in the direction of Arsene Wenger, it’s his stubbornness and rigidity when it comes to how he wants his football to be played. Such stubbornness has seen recent results such as the Swansea and Sunderland results at the back end of last season boil over to the West Ham result in the current campaign. Something has to change and despite adding quality to our side in the last two years, we still underwhelm far more frequently than one would deem acceptable given the talent on offer.
I may not be his biggest fan, but if there is anything that can be learned from Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea last season, it’s that an ability to shake up your tactics remains a key component to having a successful season. Ferguson’s United is another example to be cited, and with other managers in the league such as Garry Monk, Ronald Koeman, and others showing an ability to play two different brands of football depending on the day, perhaps it time that Arsene stands up and take notice that tactics are not a prescription drug handed to you by your general practitioner.
At the end of the day, none of us are at a level that Arsene Wenger has achieved and surely we will never get there, but the truth of the matter remains that our opponents have us pegged when it comes to our brand of football. Unless something changes and we re-institute old tactical customs, we’ll never be able to truly play anyone off the pitch and any challenge at the top will have to be forfeit.
Written by Andrew Thompson