Category Archives: Arsenal


Monday morning quarterback: Arsenal go back to basics, for now

Normally after a 2-0 win over a top four rival fans would be happy, but Arsenal fans are never happy. Arsenal could win the League, Champions League, and FA Cup and people would complain that Arsène didn’t take the League Cup seriously enough. Then Adrian Durham would write a book about how Arsenal’s treble-winning team wasn’t nearly as good as some other treble-winner, probably United. And some new anti-Arsène meme would pop up on the internet. That is just the way things are in sports.

But Arsenal supporters might have a bit of a case for a grumble this morning. The manner of the loss to Monaco is still a fresh wound and while Arsenal did get a 2-0 win, a well deserved 2-0 win, over Everton I’m left with the distinct impression that I don’t know who my Arsenal are. Are they the ball-dominant, all hands-to-the pump, both fullbacks in the opposition 18 yard box team that got opened up like a tin of beans against Monaco or are they the “back to basics” defense first team that beat Everton 2-0? Or are they something different entirely?

The first 10 minutes of the match against Everton yesterday was one of the strangest matches in a season of strange matches. Everton started the match playing in their shell, probably expecting an Arsenal onslaught for the first 10 minutes, but it was quickly obviously that Arsenal didn’t really want the ball.

It’s not that Arsenal weren’t attacking, they were just attacking in a very direct way; straight balls down the sidelines rather than the tiki-taka-lite (pass pass pass) that we became accustomed to in the last 10 years. And it was clear from the start that Arsenal weren’t going to extend themselves too deep, weren’t going to send all the fullbacks forward as they had done so suicidally in the loss to Monaco. Wenger touched on this in his post-Everton interview:

I believe that we wanted to make the difference too much in the first game [against Monaco] and forgot our basics to defend as a unit. Today we came back to our basics and that was very important to find our confidence back.

Despite Wenger “going back to basics” and conceding possession too Everton it’s not at all clear that this change in Arsenal’s playing style is something that Wenger adopted or something that has been thrust upon the group through injury. Arsenal’s total passes per game are down from last season by almost 50 passes, but the playing style¹ (preferring short passes over long) is still the same:

Passes % Long Rank: Passes/Match
2014/15 517 9% 4th
2013/14 576 9% 1st
2012/13 563 9% 1st
2011/12 550 9% 3rd

I also compiled the passes per match that Arsenal have attempted in League play since the start of the season and all signs seem to indicate that since Arteta’s last match (Man U), the Gunners have had a sharp drop-off in passes per game.


Before the Man U match, there were just 3 games where Arsenal dropped below their season average for passes per game and they were all against top quality opposition. Since then there have been 12 (Man U inclusive)² and they have been against teams like West Ham and Palace.

In fact, the difference between Everton in the second match of the season and Everton yesterday is that Arsenal attempted 129 fewer passes on Sunday than they did back in August. That fact, along with my watching the match, is all the evidence I need to draw the conclusion that Arsenal have adopted a new playing style. The question isn’t whether they have but rather whether the change is permanent or if its just something to get us through this season.

I suspect this isn’t a permanent change. Arteta signed a new deal with Arsenal and as far as I can tell, Wenger is still targeting a long-term replacement for him. A player who is a “pass master”. One-time Wenger target, Luiz Gustavo is an 87% passer in the Bundesliga making him the most reliable midfield passer who doesn’t play for Bayern Munich. Schneiderlin was also an Arsenal target and he is the 11th most reliable passer in the Premier League. And with technically gifted players like Cazorla and Özil at Arsenal it would be a real surprise if Wenger suddenly wanted to play a West Ham lump and hope style of match. Clearly, Wenger has a type of player he wants at Arsenal and with those players all under long term deals, he’s going to build around that core.

And despite ceding possession to Everton on Sunday, Wenger himself stated that Arsenal will look to control the ball more in the future. After the match he said:

Our defensive concentration was at a much higher level than on Wednesday night. We know that we can do better with the ball (emphasis mine) but overall what was important for us was to respond with a win. We got it and not everybody can produce that after such a disappointment. It was vital for us, for the rest of the season, to win the game today.

I don’t want to disappoint anyone but I don’t think we are seeing a huge change in Arsène Wenger’s football philosophy. He is still the same man who wants to turn life into art. But what I think we are seeing is a man who is showing his more pragmatic side. Injuries to Arteta, Ramsey, Ozil, Ox, and the loss of one of his most reliable-passing wide midfielders, Sagna³, have forced Arsène to adopt a more “basic” approach to the game in the second half of this season.

Given the prognosis for Arteta and Ramsey I suspect that we will see more basic football in the coming weeks, with the Gunners opening up toward the end of the season as they get Arteta back and get some time in practice together. Either way, this ability to mix up plating styles throughout the season shows Arsène Wenger to be more flexible than critics claim and shows that his team have the ability to play a variety of playing styles.

This season, injuries and the inability to land a top quality backup for Arteta once again left Arsenal threadbare. And once again Arsene Wenger responded with changes to his team which give them a real shot at finishing the season with another trophy (the FA Cup) and in the all-important Champions League places.

Not bad for a manager who supposedly ran out of ideas in November.


¹My strength is my weakness: every team has an identity, a way that they want to play. Some teams, like Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, have a main identity and a subordinate identity. But if you look at the great teams of the last 50 years they have all had a single way they wanted to play football. This is both a source of their weakness and their strength. For example, in simplest terms, a counter-attacking team is susceptible to being forced to have possession (either they get scored on first or the opponent simply doesn’t want the ball), a possession dominant team is susceptible to quick counter attacks, and so on.
²You could go ahead and compile those same stats based on game state, cross referenced with Arteta’s availability, Ramsey’s health-o-meter, and Ozil’s availability, if you wanted to. I think this tells a compelling story on its own: after Arteta went down, Arsenal were forced to change playing style.
³Sagna was more wing-back than defender. He was Arsenal’s wide outlet in midfield, was Szczesny’s main target on free kicks, and worked very hard getting up and down the pitch to provide an outlet for Arteta and others.

Count the mustaches - Everton v. Arsenal

Naveen’s Tactics Preview: Everton v. Arsenal – what is Arsenal’s identity?

By Naveen Maliakkal

Everton will likely continue with a version of 4-2-3-1 they have played for most of this season, though Roberto Martinez has gone to a 4-3-1-2 against Arsenal. What is unknown, going into Sunday’s match, is how Martinez’s side will go about the game. Under the Spaniard, Everton have sought greater control of space through possession than they did with David Moyes. However, this season, such an approach has not proven as effective as it did last season.

Some of this may come down to aging players at key positions. Gareth Barry, Sylvain Distin, and Phil Jagielka all seem to have age catch up with them. In addition to the aging of some key players, Everton have yet to turn their possession into domination of the center of the pitch. They still rely on moving the play to wide areas. However, the pair of Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines on the left, and Kevin Mirallas and Seamus Coleman on the right, have played less this season than they did last season. These combinations played a key role in Everton’s potency in possession. However, without these pairings, Everton have struggled to have the necessary quality they need to make their possession strategy, relying on playing in wide areas, effective. This has helped lead to Everton taking 52% of their shots, in EPL matches, from outside of the box.

This lack of familiarity and the aging of key players, may have contributed to a drop in the performances of other key contributors. The quality of Tim Howard’s performance has precipitously dropped, and this may have to do with the aging of two of Everton’s center backs and one of their holding midfielders, in addition to the error-prone nature of Mohammed Besic’s play. It may be that this lower quality and familiarity has driven Howard’s desire to come out of his comfort zone as Paul Riley’s excellent work shows.1

However, most concerning for Everton, is the lack of development Romelu Lukaku has shown. While their purchase of the Belgian was probably the right move2, the value of that transaction depended on Lukaku’s progression as a player. Specifically, Lukaku needed to show progression from just being a physically/athletically imposing player, to one who could provide more value with his technical ability, and more importantly with his mental understanding of the game. Given his lack of progression and Everton’s general desire to play a possession-based game, his current ability to produce value seems reliant his opportunities to exert his physical dominance, such as aerial duels and long distance runs. Given the limitations of Lukaku, it would not shock anyone if Everton looked to sit back, attempt to control pressure, in an effort to increase Lukaku’s ability to produce value, solely with his physical gifts.

Cut Them in Two

If Everton do decide to go with a 4-2-3-1 with two holding players, Arsenal should look to exploit the inherent problem of the potential lack of connection between the midfield and the trio behind Lukaku. If Arsenal wish to control possession or Everton wish to concede possession, then these are the spaces that Arsenal need to control with their counter-pressing (yes, hoping Arsenal effectively counter-press anyone is rather fanciful). With Everton lacking the technical ability to play in tight spaces, in addition to a lack of ball-carriers to individually break the press, a possession-based game, along with a counter-press preventing Everton from getting the ball into the front three would allow Arsenal to force the game to stay in Everton’s half3.

Even if Everton want to control possession or Arsenal wish to cede possession (take away Everton’s ability to play in space) a similar approach works, just in a different area of the pitch. With a compact midfield quartet, and the first line of defense dropping into the midfield zone, Arsenal can create a numerical advantage in the center of the pitch. However, such an approach requires an understanding of how to allocate resources to deal with dynamic threats. This means that when Arsenal apply pressure to Everton’s holders, they must not allow them a cheap way out of the pressure4. For example, passing lanes, particularly to the fullbacks, need to be shut down. This means that pressing must occur when it is most opportune, when the passing lanes can be easily shut down, thus allowing pressure to be applied with greater success. Yes, another fanciful hope about Arsenal’s ability to and willingness to rely on defending as a unit, rather than relying on defending in a bunch of individual matchups.

Problems in Possession

When looking at the approach of controlling space with the ball, one should question whether Arsenal have the ability to do so. Obviously, having Francis Coquelin instead of Mikel Arteta hurts Arsenal’s ability to control possession. While Arteta’s superior passing ability helps, it is his superior understanding of how to position himself, compared to Coquelin, which allows him to provide more value to Arsenal possession play. Arteta does a better job of creating a spare man. This spare man could be him, making him an option to the player on the ball. Moving into the back line to create a situational back-three, in the face of a defensive front two is an example of this. The spare man could be another player. In this case, Arteta’s movement and positioning work to draw the attention of defenders, giving Arsenal a numerical advantage elsewhere on the pitch, into which the man on the ball can pass. With Coquelin’s poorer understanding of on-pitch resource allocation, Arsenal have less of an ability to create that spare man.

In addition to the lack of a holding midfielder who can assist their positional play, like Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s desire for verticality in their build-up play hurts their ability to effectively control possession. Instead of flooding the area around the ball, looking to maximize the number and proximity of options available to the man in possession, Arsenal tend to look to stretch the pitch vertically. When it comes off, Arsenal can more quickly move the ball into the final third. If their touches and passes are completely on point, then they can quickly bypass a pressing opponent, move the ball into the final third, and look to create chances against fewer and less organized defenders. Yet, when the touches and the passes decrease in quality, the lack of support for the man on the ball can lead to problems. Players often become isolated and if they cannot escape their defender, there is a high risk that they lose the ball. With a lack of options available to the man on the ball, even slightly errant passes can turn into catalysts for counter-attacks.

What Do Arsenal Do Well?

Going back to a look at Arsenal earlier in the season, there was an optimism, particularly earlier in the season, that Arsenal had moved out of the post-Cesc era, into one with a clear philosophy of play. However, as the season has gone on, Arsenal have opted to be strategically flexible to the point that it is difficult to determine what they ultimately want to be. They are not the masters of attacking transitions and athleticism that the 98-04 Arsenal sides were. They were not the potent possessors of the football that the Cesc-era Arsenal sides were. If anything, they seem headed down a path where they become a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none.

Arsenal do not have a resource advantage over the competition in Europe or in England, so it seems unlikely that a chameleon type of approach to maximize performance in both competitions, like Sir Alex Ferguson’s best sides during the last few years of Ronaldo’s time at United, will allow Arsenal to achieve any meaningful success at home or abroad. Unless Arsenal wish to remain as a side whose ceiling is a Top 4 finish and a R16/QF exit in the Champions League, this strategic flexibility probably needs to stop.

They need to adopt a playing style and stick to it. Whether that involves relying on controlling space with possession, ceding possession to control space out of possession, counter-pressing, etc. there needs to be conviction in the manner in which Arsenal approach matches. By having a strategic identity, the team can finally develop a style of play, as more resources can be allocated to the development of such a style. Such strategic stability helps to promote tactical flexibility, as such familiarity with the playing style allows for greater revelation and understanding of how to achieve the same strategic goals in different environments. By having a complete understanding the playing philosophy, it becomes easier to figure out how to deal with the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, the weather, the fitness of your players, etc. By having a dogmatism to their playing style, they can actually master a playing style, and achieve a standard of quality that allows them to sustainably challenge for the two trophies that matter.

Therefore, for Arsenal to achieve anything worth achieving, they need to figure out what they want to be. Otherwise, it seems likely that every season we will talk about Arsenal’s place in the Top 4 race and another exit, early in the knockout rounds of the Champions League.



Some more text with a footnote.

Some more text with a footnote.

Some more text with a footnote.

1. [As his look at Manuel Neuer shows, the piece does not criticize the role of the sweeper keeper, but instead seems to show that much harder it is to operate as a sweeper keeper. The expansion of the options available to such a keeper, along with the greater responsibility, requires greater mental capacity, technical ability, and physical ability to pull it off. So the failures/problems of many keepers attempting to play the role should not lead to a damnation of the style, but an investigation into the reasons for the lack of quality to play in such a manner1]

2. Those who think signing Lukaku did not make sense, probably mistakenly think that NBA players like Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler are not worth the max contract they probably should get this summer, regardless of the team for which they sign.]

3. [If Everton look to play on the counter, fielding Ross Barkley ahead of the two holders, tight enough to receive the ball and drive forward, could be Martinez’s way to deal with the potential pressure Arsenal exert, during their attacking transitions.]

4. [I will assume that an approach depending on controlling space out of possession will actually seek to control space, which requires, at some point the application of pressure before the ball moves into areas that are too dangerous to potentially concede control of. “Soaking up pressure”, as Arsenal are wont to do, is often an approach that lacks control, instead relying on positive random variation to go Arsenal’s way.]


Let’s give 110% in press conferences for the rest of the season

It’s the day after the day after a big loss and
we are disappointed, gutted, and of course the loss hurts.
But we have to put the last result behind us,
we have to prepare for the next challenge,
because we can only play the opponent in front of us.

In the next match
we will try to raise our levels,
we won’t be complacent,
we can’t take them for granted,
so we will stay on the front foot,
we will push it to the last minute,
stay switched on, and won’t let our heads drop.

Because this team has a lot of strong characters,
guys who care deeply,
who are professionals
who look forward,
who take their chances,
who show great mental strength,
don’t buckle under the pressure,
and who want to respond well.

They want to give something back to the fans
because we have such great support.
The crowd gives us something extra,
the crowd can lift us,
they create an unbelievable atmosphere,
especially the home fans,
and especially the away fans,
we want to thank them with a good performance.

The next game is going to be tough,
we are under a lot of pressure,
it’s an important game,
we have to learn our lessons,
and put in a good effort,
show a great spirit,
give 100 percent,
make things right,
show our quality,
be brave and,
never give up.
Don’t write us off,
we are still in the fight,
this is a great opportunity,
we just have to take our chances,
fight together as a team,
stay focused,
give a strong response and,
show that we deserve to win.

That’s the key for us.