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|
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.