Arsene Wenger has been without a doubt one of, if not the, greatest manager Arsenal and English football has ever seen. He revolutionized player diets and fitness regimes, was one of the first to develop an extensive scouting network and unearthed dozens of gems that lit up the Barclays Premier League. He remains the only manager to mastermind an undefeated season in this league and did this all on a budget far below what others were spending even back then – I’d like to see what the likes of United, Chelsea and City would achieve if their record signing was still £15m.
Despite all these achievements, one of the prevailing criticisms Wenger still faces is that he is tactically naive and doesn’t have the same nous as say a Ferguson or a Mancini. I can see how this can come about – Tuesday’s game against Reading aside, when was the last time you saw a Wenger substitution change the game? There are no risky changes like the likes of Mancini make; he manages to turn replacing Tevez with Gareth Barry into a tactical masterstroke by moving Yaya Toure up the pitch, and he never alters his system according to opposition, which Ferguson often does against the bigger teams.
However, the problem with Wenger is not that he is tactically unaware, but rather that his system is entirely dependent of having certain types of players available.
I’m going to structure this by splitting the system into five different areas: the centre backs, left wing (left back and left winger), right wing (right back and right winger), central midfield and the front three.
First up, the centre backs. We all know Wenger likes to play with a high line and likes his defenders being on the front foot – if you can intercept a pass you are instantly at an advantage because the opposition is still going the other way expecting the pass to get through and, naturally, the further up the pitch you pick up the ball the quicker it is the get it forward. This is especially vital when playing against teams that like to counter attack, which when you’re Arsenal is pretty much everyone. If the opposition pack the defence it’s hard to get through and if you throw the kitchen sink at them then you’re very vulnerable to the counter. Front foot defending is a very effective way of countering that when done right. First of all, when the counter attack starts it’s very likely that, even if you have few defenders back, the opposition has equally few attackers. They’re relying on some of their team flooding forward to support the attack faster than Arsenal can get back and defend. If you nick the ball of the opposition attackers before the counter attack even starts, you not only prevent them receiving that support but also have the chance to get the ball forward again just as the previously packed defence is all rushing forward to support their attack – countering the counter is a lethal tactic in modern football. On those occasions where the opposition attackers outnumber the defence, front foot defending is even more important – the quicker you get the ball of them, the less time they have to exploit the space they have going forward, for example by picking out the spare man. This means that anticipation and quick movement is vital as there are a few seconds difference between cleaning the ball up comfortably and letting the opposition through on goal. So, whilst effective for Arsenal’s style of play, front foot defending is a highly risky enterprise. This makes it important to have two distinct types of centre back – the front foot defender that can quickly nick the ball and start an attack, and the more composed centre back that can cover for their mistakes. In essence, the covering centreback does exactly the same as the one further forward, just in a deeper position – Vermaelen charges out to nick the ball and, if it goes past him, Mertsacker collects it before the attack has time to develop.
However, the problem lies when you have two of the same centre backs – e.g. the Koscielny/Vermaelen partnership many, myself included, had high hopes for. In theory it should work, their two mobile, ball-playing defenders, one left footed and one right, who are both experts at stopping attacks before they begin. The problem is that neither of them – particularly Vermaelen – are disciplined enough to make it work. The number of times one of them has launched himself forward to intercept a pass, only to leave a yawning chasm in behind them is unbelievable. Normally, Metresacker would be there to mop up, but if he’s not there than the gap is left gaping. It’s the same regarding the high line Wenger like to play to lend to their pressing game – without a calm, composed head to organize the defence the back four is often out of line and lets players slip through easily. The personnel used in this system is far more important than in the deeper defences utilized by the likes of City, lending itself to the idea of ‘balance’ which will be a key part of this article. An aggressive defender needs a more passive partner to complement him well, simple really. Although it has to be said that personnel are not the only problem – the system does not really work when the game is tight or when the opposition is going through a long spell of possession. A defence designed almost entirely upon the quick taking and releasing of the ball cannot easily withstand long, probing periods of attack and is so high risk that, when the opposition has prolonged control of the ball they are almost guaranteed chances simply due to the nature of the game – a single second’s hesitation and you have a striker through on goal. Bould attempted to rectify this by having the defence sitting deeper and it appeared to have worked, only for the same faults to reassert themselves a few weeks into the season. Not that I think it is a lost cause, it’s a slow process and miracles won’t be worked overnight.
So on we move to the left flank. For the first half of the season we saw a huge improvement there as Podolski and Gibbs formed a quality partnership and our left became a potent weapon. The reason for this, I feel, has been Kieran Gibbs. The young Englishman was in incredible form before injury struck and I believe had a huge effect on Podolski’s attacking threat – how many times since Gibbs was injured has Podolski actually had a noticeably ‘good’ game? Everyone’s agreed that Podolski is our best finisher by a long shot but he’s rarely got into the box recently, whereas with Gibbs bombing down the outside his inside runs were a feature of our play and one of the reasons the Podolski-Cazorla partnership blossomed so fruitfully. Gibbs bombing down the left provided Arsenal with width and gave us an extra supply line, whether it was a cross from out wide or a cut back from the by-line, and also saw us get a fair share of own goals from him thundering cross/shots from the left. Gibbs terrified defences and in turn brought more freedom for Podolski to cut inside – with no fear of losing width, Podolski could freely drift into his preferred left-hand channel, allowing him to drive into the box where he is most lethal and combine both with Gibbs outside him and Cazorla inside. The one-twos with Gibbs actually served to drive the German onwards as well, giving him an outlet to play the ball forward and run on to meet the return, or return the ball to Gibbs after a one-two and cut inside to receive the cut-back from out wide. With Santos these combinations just don’t happen. Like Podolski, Santos likes to drift inside, restricting space for the German and forcing him out wide rather than in the box, wasting his finishing abilities. Santos is also less dynamic than Gibbs; he lacks that burst of pace that needed to drive past defenders with or without the ball, meaning one-twos are less effective. Santos’ inside runs also block off the Podolski/Cazorla partnership and breaks that link they were starting to develop – as a left back Santos doesn’t have the same attacking prowess as the others, despite being a far more offensive option than Gibbs, and so doesn’t have the vision or the technical ability to participate in the interplay that anyone in the channels need to have. Finally, Santos is less disciplined defensively and thereby requires more cover, forcing Podolski to spend more time heading back towards his own goal, again wasting that attacking prowess.
This all sounds like I am wholly against Santos as a left back – far from it. I love the cuddly maverick and think he adds an extra weapon to our arsenal, if you’ll pardon the pun. His tackling style is different but does get results and sets us up well for the counter attack, although his positioning does make him suspect when against more dangerous opposition. However, it cannot be argued that a Santos/Podolski partnership just doesn’t work; they both cut inside and so don’t provide that balance or variety needed to forge a good partnership. One alternative that has been suggested is to place Gervinho on that left wing –it is after all his favoured position – as he would provide width and allow Santos to cut inside. The theory itself has merit, but the idea of a Santos/Gervinho partnership is so defensively vulnerable it makes me go a bit dizzy – neither of them are disciplined enough positionally to make it work. Plus there’s the fact that Gervinho himself is a right footer that likes to cut inside, thereby potentially causing the same problems with congestion, although the fact that he tends to get to the byline before driving back inside may alleviate that. The lack of a player to partner Santos is worrying to say the least – I like him as a player, although many don’t share that opinion, but he just doesn’t fit into Wenger’s system as a left back, at least not with our current wingers, and I can’t see Wenger buying a straight left footer that will bomb down the wings and get the cross in. The only player of that mould I can think of anyway is Stuart Downing, and no one’s stupid enough to try that again, even Liverpool have given up. It certainly is a problem, but unfortunately one that can’t be resolved at this time.
The right flank is a lot more straight forward. With Jenkinson and Sagna we have too largely similar players; a bit more defensive and with slightly better deliveries, at least in my opinion. This means that it’s not massively important who’s in front of them as they both have the ability to either push on around the outside of their winger, which is useful when the likes of Walcott and Gervinho cut inside, or to sit a little deeper and provide a safe outlet for when their winger is isolated by the corner flag. Their crossing abilities also mean that they can put in a decent ball from deep as well, meaning their not completely ineffective from an attacking sense. The only problems that I can see are the lack of right wing options, which is something I’ll cover more in the ‘front three’ section, and the fact that Walcott and Jenkinson don’t seem to have gelled. Maybe it stems from *that* game against United last season but they just don’t have the same connection that Walcott does with Sagna, which is something to worry about. As it goes though, our right hand side is fairly secure if not particularly threatening, although again that is something I’ll be looking at as we move further forward as it has nothing particularly to do with the fullback.
Central midfield is when it starts to get complicated; with three players involved rather than two it is bound to be and it being such an influential part of the pitch merely compounds that. Arsenal’s midfield at the moment is split into three ‘roles’, attacking, defensive and transition. The defensive role is, of course, completely owned by Mikel Arteta. His composure both on and off the ball, coupled with great technical ability and even greater defensive discipline give us a far more stable base than Alex Song ever provided. By moving Arteta back rather than bringing in a new acquisition like M’Vila, Wenger has revolutionized the holding role in England by moving onto the far more modern European model; whilst Chelsea still employ John Obi Mikel, the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid have Sergio Busquetes and Xabi Alonso as their deepest lying midfielder, although Alonso is still occasionally supported by the more traditional Khedira. This means that Arsenal keep possession more and can build from the back better. It also means Arsenal don’t have to ‘waste’ their support/transition role in midfield with another midfield metronome and can include a more dynamic player without compromising possession.
This leads on to the support role which, at the moment, is by far the most important part of Arsenal’s midfield. At the start of the campaign Arsenal utilized Abou Diaby in this role and, against Liverpool in particular, he was stunning. The reason for this is that he provides that dynamism Arsenal sometimes lack – with a largely possession based team it is easy for Arsenal to play too slowly, passing the ball sideways in the middle third waiting for a penetrating run and pass that may never come. Diaby’s dribbling gave Arsenal an alternative to this slow, probing approach by single-handedly increasing the tempo. A key part of his game against Liverpool was his movement upon receiving the ball; with a quick turn and swivel he was past the player marking him and driving into space, opening up the game completely. Opposition midfielders and defenders are unable to deal with this as they don’t know whether to go to the player or stay with their man – if they go to the player they leave a second player open, which in many cases is a certain Santi Cazorla that no team want to give time or space to, but if they stay with their man then the oncoming player has pretty much a free run through midfield, giving him ample time to pick out a pass, shoot, or even keep driving right through the team. Diaby’s runs also turned the midfield as instead of watching countless sideways passes in front of them they were suddenly running towards their own goal, as well as overloading the pack four as the entire midfield of both sides were now running at them at pace. Players like Diaby and, with his return, Wilshere, who can accomplish pretty much the same thing, provide that dynamism that can spark games into life and open up the tightest of games, as well as providing some variety from the normal short-passing routine. With Ramsey or Coquelin taking that third spot there was no balance in midfield as no one had that turn of pace to increase the tempo of the game to a level where Arsenal are actually dangerous. It has long been said that Arsenal need to play at pace to be effective and that means far more than a couple of quick wingers; it revolves around quick passing and supply from midfield.
This is why Diaby, Wilshere and even Rosicky are so important; although Wilshere and Rosicky could feasibly play in that ‘Cazorla role’, I believe they would be so much more important playing in that transitional role alongside Arteta as they would improve the pace of the passing in midfield. The problem Cazorla has at the moment is that he is almost completely isolated, with no truly technical players around him. Arteta of course is more than capable but, as I touched on in my previous article, he is behind Cazorla; there is no one in front of or alongside him that the little Spaniard can combine with, meaning if he can’t instantly find a killer through ball – an 99% of the time there won’t be one on – he has no choice but to turn around and play it back, or to knock it sideways to a fullback or winger. Podolski is an option but, as I’ve already said, with Santos playing behind him he can’t cut inside to link up with Cazorla. Modern football is so complex that the change of a left back can prevent you’re playmaker operating as effectively. However, imagine Cazorla picking the ball up, turning to play it and having Diaby/Wilshere/Rosicky busting a gut to go past him. Not only do they open up more space by drawing defenders away, they also allow Giroud or whoever is at centre forward to run forwards as well as Cazorla now has other options to pass to, providing the Spaniard with a run into the box that he could find and giving him even more space in which to do so as the run would undoubtedly have drawn away even more defenders. And all of this is ignoring the possibilities for combination play; we all saw the effectiveness of the one-twos between Wilshere and Cazorla, imagine a season full of them, with one playmaker picking the ball up and passing it to another before receiving it back in acres of space, to either shoot or play one of the front three in. It’s a sweet, sweet, sight. The fact is that, regardless of which of the Diaby/Wilshere/Rosicky trio plays there, they’ll have the dynamism to open up that space and provide that passing option and, regarding the Brit and the Czech, the technical ability to match. Wilshere and Cazorla are so good they could play passing triangles with just the two of them. Probably.
However, whilst the central midfield is more than tactically sound once you return our injured players to the fold – I highly doubt once Rosicky and Diaby are back to join Wilshere that we’ll go through another barren run where we are absolutely forced to play Ramsey or Coquelin as the third midfielder – our front three is starting to develop some fairly obvious problems. Dynamism is less of a problem here, with the unpredictability of Gervinho and the growing talent of Chamberlain fulfilling our need for tricky dribblers, although of course it would be nice to throw in someone with the quality of Hazard to take on that role, but balance and variety are both key shortcomings in our forward line. The problem is that almost all of our front three candidates are of the same mould. Walcott and Podolski are both strikers playing as wingers, both incidentally preferring to play on the side of their stronger foot (i.e. left footer on left wing, right footer on right wing) rather than as inverted wingers as is the current trend. This means both prefer to drive inside an essentially play as strikers, albeit benefitting from the greater space allowed when you start out wide. This means if both play they tend to run into the same areas and also means that were have very little width. The fact that both are incredibly direct players is also a problem – there is little intricate play or tricky dribbling, with both simply feeding of through balls to apply a finish. This makes a front three with both players in it incredibly predictable and very unbalanced, especially when Giroud is the central striker as he is in the same mould. That is not to say that Giroud cannot play with just one of them, however, as he tends to bring the best out of them when they play together by essentially forming a striker partnership. Either Walcott or Podolski can feed off Giroud the same way any striker feeds of a target man in a 4-4-2 and it can be a very effective tactic. The problem comes when both wide men are attempting to do that as it throws the dynamic out and essentially ‘breaks’ the system; they are fighting for the same ball rather than forming an effective partnership. Having both play also prevents the same fluidity that was so typical of Arsenal in the last few seasons: Walcott doesn’t play on the right and Podolski doesn’t play on the left, whilst Giroud doesn’t drift out to the wings the way Van Persie did, meaning you can often find all three players in the same area. Wenger apparently agrees and we have rarely, if ever, seen a Podolski/Giroud/Walcott front three. Instead, he attempts to add balance by playing a more dynamic, ‘trickier’ winger such as Gervinho or Chamberlain, or both, with Gervinho at centre forward. Unfortunately, for some reason Gervinho doesn’t seem to operate well on the right and, despite his early flurry of goals, lacks the composure to play centre forward, whilst Chamberlain is still too young and inconsistent to be a first team regular for a team that should be challenging for the title.
What Arsenal need is fluidity, variety and, above all, balance. Giroud is, in my mind, a quality player and will undoubtedly come good in the near future, but he doesn’t provide the same flexibility as Van Persie – he’s good at holding up the ball and excelled at link-up play for Montpellier last season, but he isn’t someone to drift out wide to allow Podolski or Walcott to take up his position. This doesn’t matter if he’s only playing with one of them as he can simply act as a strike partner, using that excellent link-up play to lay them off like a typical target man, but if both play Arsenal need a more fluid option up top rather than the typical focus point. Gervinho doesn’t work there so, in my opinion, Arsenal need a more mobile forward who can lead the line but still play out wide. Ironically, we have one in Podolski but he’s been shunted out left and, as I haven’t seen him play up top enough to make my own decision, I’m going to have to agree with Wenger that perhaps he isn’t suitable. On the other hand, Arsenal could keep Giroud up top and simply switch out one of the wingers. We have a problem on the right as I’ve already ruled out Gervinho and Chamberlain as first-choice on that wing, but if Gervinho was switched to the left – his favoured position – then Walcott could come into play on the right as he is, in my opinion, our best right winger by far. It would mean dropping Podolski who has been excellent for us so far but might actually benefit him in the long run; apparently he has been suffering from an ankle injury and just playing through the pain, playing Gervinho on the left could give him time to recuperate and then come back and challenge once fully fit. There are some worries about the Ivorian’s defensive abilities but I’m fairly confident a returning Gibbs could deal with it. Of course Gervinho is now injured for what could be a long period of time so that plan is dead before it’s even begun. It would have been brilliant though, trust me.
The final option is something I’ve been advocating since the end of last season: buy a new winger in the Benayoun mould. The Israeli loanee revolutionized our season when he was selected to play against Tottenham and he gave us balance in midfield, allowing us to build up play through passing rather than relying on more direct traditional wing play. Such a player would also link up well with Cazorla and co in the centre as well as providing someone new to feed the other two members of the front three – at the moment we have Cazorla attempting to feed three strikers ahead of him and the supply just can’t meet the demand, the return of Wilshere and Rosicky will help this as previously mentioned but a new wide playmaker would help us immensely. Ironic that before we had too many players in the ‘Nasri’ role and were crying out for more typical wingers and now we’re in exactly the opposite situation. Before you ask who we could get, I really don’t know, I’m not one of those increasingly common twitter-scouts and I don’t have access to Wenger’s network or Rowley’s reports. We’ve been linked with Lewis Holtby because of these rather tenuous quotes and because he’s English, but there are plenty of options out there I’m sure Wenger could find. We do of course have Andrei Arshavin who could feasibly fill that role, but he is too much of a risk-taker for Arsenal’s passing game, especially out wide – he’ll either find the perfect pass or he’ll give the ball away, there’s no in between and that’s a big no-no for possession based football, which is a shame because for a smaller club he’d be really world class. He’s been linked with Fulham and I’d be loathe to send him there because the combination of him and Berbatov for a mid-table side, despite being the laziest paring in world football, has the potential to be brilliant and I’m sure we’d regret it. The other alternative would be to play Cazorla out wide like he did for Malaga last season but we’d definitely miss his influence in the middle and probably wouldn’t be able to afford a replacement of the same quality to play central.
There’s no denying Arsenal have problems tactically, but it’s more to do with the players rather than the system. Yes I know we could just change the system and I’m sure I’ll hear about it in the comments, but I don’t really see what system would really work for our players at the moment. The only real alternatives are 4-4-2 or three at the back and neither would work in my opinion. Our winger’s are too attacking-minded to play wide in 4-4-2 and Cazorla would be wasted whether he was played central or on the wing as he wouldn’t have the same freedom as he does now. And as for three at the back, we saw how it turned previously dominant Man City into Champions League whipping boys – it just takes too long to adapt to and there’s no guarantee it would work. As it stands now, however, when (if) we have a full team back we’re pretty much set centrally, the only problem lying with that fairly rigid and unbalanced front three. A mobile forward and a wide playmaker would solve it, but players of that ilk are the most expensive and, despite tentative hints Wenger will buy in January, I can’t see us splashing the cash. It’s a shame that once more we’re only two players away from areal title challenge, especially as keeping any of Van Persie, Fabregas or even Nasri would probably have been enough, but that’s the situation we’re in. Maybe next year.------------
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