At the end of a season, in which a club like Arsenal do not win the league or the Champions League, these is a desire to keep those competitions in mind by asking whether the club has made progress over the season. While one could determine the nature of progress through the results obtained over the season, such analysis underestimates the randomness that occurs over the course of a season¹. Instead, it seems more appropriate to look at how a side progresses in how they play. Has an identity emerged? How well has the club executed their style of play? Have they improved in their ability to control matches? Based on performance over the course of the season, Arsenal have progressed as a side, particularly in how they control matches out of possession.
It is important to remember that Arsenal started the season looking to improve their ability to control matches with their possession. In 2013-14, Arsenal relied rather heavily on sitting back, hoping to keep the opponent out of dangerous areas, rather than proactively controlling their opponents, like Atletico Madrid, and looking to take advantage of English clubs poverty of quality in counter-pressing and tendency for overly-expansive attacking shapes. These characteristics of the English game made counter-attacking quite profitable, and it showed in Arsenal’s efficiency against the bottom 16 clubs in the first half of the season.
However, such an approach had significant problems. Against teams with positional play that allowed them to control matches with their possession against Arsenal’s passive nature, it became too easy for an opponent to create quality chances. Specifically, it proved too easy for a side like Manchester City, to disorganize Arsenal and to break their defensive lines.
Looking at the second goal that Arsenal conceded in the 6-3 loss last season, one can see a complete defensive breakdown by Arsenal, while defending in a deep position. Off of a throw-in, Arsenal try to flood the ball-side with defenders. However, Ramsey moved into the back line to man mark Aguero, even though Koscielny is free to deal with the Argentinean, depriving Arsenal of a man in the midfield zone. Mathieu Flamini, who has a central role in Arsenal’s first defensive line of four, is closest to the right touchline.
Theo Walcott seems content to just occupy a space in a right-sided midfield position. Mesut Ozil is stuck in between defending the pass into the interior or the pass back to Fernandinho, and ends up failing to shut off either passing lane. While keeping Giroud high up the pitch may have been strategic, his positioning, leading to the unit’s lack of vertical compactness, makes Arsenal less able to deny a pass into the center of the pitch. This leaves Yaya Toure in plenty of space to receive a pass, and Fernandinho finds him. With that inability to control the center of the pitch, any ball-orientation by Arsenal becomes useless, as City can quickly move the ball from one side of the pitch to another, before Arsenal could reorient, allowing City to move the ball into more advantageous spaces. Toure receives the ball, with plenty of time to turn, see the run of Zabaleta, pick him out, and Zabaleta picks out Negredo to put City up 2-1.
The 4-1-4-1 sought to give Arsenal to better control matches against bigger sides. With a more expansive shape, greater ability to form passing triangles, and greater potential for positional rotation, the player on the ball tended to have more options available to him, compared to last season. With this increased control came the response from their opponents. If they could not access the ball higher up the pitch as easily, then the plan became to defend deeper, ceding territory to Arsenal. This contributed to Arsenal posting some of their best shooting ratio numbers for some time, as they operated in the opponent’s final third with greater regularity. It also led to more dribbles and through-balls, as Arsenal spent more of a match looking to break down their opponents.
The 4-1-4-1 did have problems in possession. However, the proportion of their shots that would qualify as big chances seemed to decrease, when compared to the first half of 2013-14. While part of this had to do with opponents defending in a deep block, the lack of time to gain familiarity with one another and the system, due to the World Cup and injuries, led to less than ideal coordination in positioning, dynamic role-adopting, and execution.
Also, Mesut Ozil starting from the left, in a Ricardian specialization-inspired effort to fit all of these players into an XI, and have someone balance Arsenal’s shape, while playing both Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey in central midfield, limited the ability for Arsenal to dynamically allocate resources in possession to create the appropriate superiorities. This limited Arsenal’s ability to create higher-probability goal-scoring opportunities.
However, the greatest problem Arsenal had with their possession-based approach involved their treatment of losses of possession. Too often, Arsenal’s shape in possession became too expansive and made it too difficult for them to control the space around the ball, when they lost it. While expansiveness in the horizontal dimension proved problematic, so did expansiveness in the vertical dimension. This made their opponent’s more potent on the counter. This became apparent, particularly when Arsenal chased matches, as their response to falling behind, particularly without Mikel Arteta, was to push men forward, make the game more chaotic, rather than trying to achieve greater control over their opponent. The defeat away to Stoke contained examples of this.
However, Arsenal’s most significant problems had to do with a lack of coordination. With the World Cup eating a significant portion of the off-season, and possibly a lack of the requisite fitness to completely invest in a pressing game, Arsenal’s players seemed lost when they attempted to press. So, in addition to Arsenal having problems with their initial shape, when they lost of the ball, they failed to work together to respond to their opponent’s actions on the counter. This sabotaged both their attempts, albeit inconsistent attempts, at high-pressing and counter-pressing.
An obvious example came in the first match against Hull City, in which Santi Cazorla failed to push up, while Jack Wilshere did. Arsenal failed to cover the central spaces at the appropriate vertical levels, leading to Hull slicing through them with ease. Too many times, Arsenal wasted Alexis Sanchez’s exuberance, intensity, and skill in applying pressure through a lack of coordination. Too often, the player Sanchez closed down had options to relieve the distress the Chilean caused him, which meant Sanchez’s work represented wasted energy and not effective control of space.
The loss of Mikel Arteta hurt as well. Arteta does well to push up to either make interceptions or challenge the ball, as he showed in Arsenal’s 3-3 draw to Anderlecht. However, failure of the players in front of him to adequately limit available options/stop the play with the ball led to the opposition having multiple available options in Arteta’s space. If they picked the right one, then they could exploit Arteta’s limited ability to sprint back into position.
With Mathieu Flamini at the back, Arsenal experienced worse problems. Unlike Arteta, Mathieu Flamini lacks the intelligence and the willingness to push forward to cover the space left behind by his teammates, which led to a large open space in Arsenal’s shape. This gave the opponent a safe area into which they can advance the play, and sprint towards Arsenal’s goal. So while some of Arsenal’s early season woes had to do with a lack of familiarity and cohesion, it seemed they did not have the right players, in the right positions, to allow for enough organic coordination as well.
Conceding Possession to Gain Control
In the past, Arsene Wenger has willingly conceded possession, if it led to greater control over the match. Often, this style of football becomes his go-to when Arsenal have had a difficult stretch of fixtures or experienced a patch of difficulty during a season. With the loss of Mikel Arteta, a key component of Arsenal trying to play a game focused on controlling matches in possession, in the short term, Arsenal seemed best suited to seeking control matches with less of the ball.
Now, this did not work out all the time. Often, problems Arsenal previously experienced with this style of play manifested themselves. Against Liverpool, when they attempted to protect a 2-1 lead by sitting in a deep defensive block, Arsenal struggled to get access to the ball, which allowed Liverpool to create numerical superiorities wherever they wished, allowing them to pull Arsenal’s shape apart. This persisted, even when Liverpool went down to ten men. Their passivity also aided in Liverpool’s increased ability to control proceedings, as the lack of pressure helped Liverpool maintain possession and it gave their numerous ball-players the time and space to make incisive passes. When Arsenal won possession, they lacked the ability to support the man on the ball, due to their lack of compactness and coordination out of possession. Instead, when Arsenal won possession, the man on the ball found himself isolated. This helped to explain why Cazorla had the most success at transitioning the side from defense to attack, as he could evade the pressure, and given his positioning in central midfield, had options ahead of him to whom he could make forward passes.
While poor execution of such an approach let them down against Liverpool, and would later let them down in the second North London Derby of the 2014-15 season, against Manchester City, Arsenal effectively controlled a match out of possession. In this match, Arsenal sat deep in a 4-1-4-1 shape, and it was crucial that Francis Coquelin did not have to pull himself out of position to deal with the David Silva, which would have opened up central spaces for others. Arsenal played with a tight shape. Arsenal also showed a greater understanding of how they should react, as a unit, to the positioning of Manchester City’s players and the position of the ball. This meant that Arsenal, in an effort to prevent the ball from moving into the space between the midfield line and back line, had to adapt their positioning, in a coordinated manner, to the dynamic nature of positions City players occupied and the space the ball occupied. Arsenal did well to block City’s entry into dangerous areas, and even when City did, Arsenal often had a numerical superiority around the ball, due to their compact and coordinated nature, which allowed them to snuff out the potential danger (Arsenal were by no means perfect in their execution, as they lost control of the match for the first 15 minutes of the second half).
When they did win the ball back, they could better support the man on the ball due to their compact shape and coordination out of possession. Since Arsenal had superior numbers around the ball, the man on the ball had options to which he could play the ball. This helped prevent Arsenal avoid being pinned in their final third, with little chance of them causing City problems on the counter. Overall, this performance showed Arsenal progressing in their ability to control space when they did not have the ball.
Seeing the Light at the End of the Tunnel
While the performance against Manchester City represented the progress Arsenal had made as a unit, when they did not have the ball, the performances against Manchester United in the FA Cup, and against Liverpool in the EPL, may have hinted at how Arsenal want to go about controlling space out of possession in the future.
Unlike the match against City, where Arsenal relied on playing close to their own goal, these matches saw Arsenal employ high pressing schemes. This allowed Arsenal to control the match in their opponent’s half. This meant that Arsenal did a better job keeping the danger away from their goal, and, when they gained possession, they did not have to travel as far, work as hard, or take as long to move the ball into dangerous areas, allowing them to have more potent possession.
Against United, Arsenal’s pressing focused on taking Daley Blind out of the game and disrupting Manchester United’s ability to build-up possession and circulate the ball at the back of the team shape. Wenger, understanding the principles of a Louis van Gaal side, started Danny Welbeck in this match, as he possesses greater athleticism and understands how to operate in a pressing system better than Olivier Giroud. With the likes of Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo at the back, Arsenal took a man-marking heavy approach to stifling United. Such an approach has some significant risks, as a loss of an individual matchup means the man on the ball could get free, allowing the opponent to create numerical superiorities around the ball at will. However, with United lacking center backs who could effectively carry the ball forward, so to create such problems for the opponent, Arsenal could comfortably stick their man-marking assignments.
Smalling loses possession and Cazorla tees up Sanchez for a shot
This approach to pressing, while not as sophisticated as those seen in Europe, showed an ability to consistently exploit an opponent’s weakness at the back of their team. While previous Arsenal sides, if they did press high, would do so in an inefficient, and ultimately, unsustainable fashion, this Arsenal side showed a level of coordination and attention to detail that allowed them to sustainably control the match out of possession².
While the United match represented a step forward in Arsenal’s pressing game, the first half against Liverpool served as the standard Arsenal must work to consistently reach. Unlike the Manchester United match, where the pressing had a strong man-marking reliance, this pressing performance against Liverpool focused on an approach reliant on the occupying the proper spaces based on the position of the ball and Liverpool’s players.
Coquelin intercepts Lucas’ pass and restarts the attack.
One could see the progress Arsenal have made by viewing a loss of possession, less than three minutes into the match, and seeing how they counter-pressed in this situation. After switching the play to the right side, Hector Bellerin pushes forward, with the rest of the team moving over the right to support the ball. After a misplayed pass to Ramsey gives Liverpool the ball, one can see how Arsenal react to quickly regain possession. Bellerin looks to get back into position. Cazorla does not rush towards Lucas, the man with the ball, but instead moves to block a potential passing lane into Raheem Sterling. Meanwhile, Per Mertesacker has pushed up to challenge Sterling if the ball got to the young Englishman, possibly through an attempted chipped pass. Mesut Ozil focuses on closing down Lucas. However, he does not run straight at him. Instead he bends his run so to deny the pass to Henderson while simultaneously putting pressure on the ball. While Ozil may have looked to win the ball, he has a greater interest in forcing Lucas to make a decision with the ball. Ozil forces Lucas to make a forward pass, but the pass he attempts goes into a zone with one Liverpool player and two Arsenal players. A pass towards the side line would have given Nacho Monreal a chance to make a play on the ball. Lucas’ pass travels through the center of the pitch, and since Francis Coquelin focuses on control a space, and not marking a specific man, he can quickly react to the pass and make the interception. Through compactness, intelligence in movement, and coordination, Arsenal did not have to work hard to win back possession, and continue their assault on Liverpool³.
An example of Arsenal’s progression in their high-pressing game came at a little over seven minutes into the match. Here Arsenal put pressure on Liverpool , with Bellerin pushing high up the pitch, and Ramsey supporting him. Since Moreno faces the center of the pitch when he receives the ball, Arsenal do not have to worry about him launching a ball forward to the likes of Sterling, as such a ball would require Moreno to sweep the ball with his right foot, something the left back has little ability to do.
This means that Mertesacker can move up the pitch to help keep Arsenal compact. Coquelin also makes a ball-oriented shift, helping to better occupy spaces closer to the ball, and have more of an impact in his free-safety-esque role. Moreno attempt to make a pass to the interior, but Joe Allen has only one option. Cazorla positions himself to deny a passing lane into Coutinho, and Allen unable to hold the ball, as Arsenal have three men surrounding him; Arsenal have the numerical superiority around the ball.
Allen has to hit a pass back to his center back. The back pass to Sakho leads to Arsenal transitioning into the next phase of their pressing. Ramsey and Giroud go after Sakho, with Giroud’s run covering the passing lane to Kolo Toure. Ramsey’s run works to deny a clear passing lane to Moreno Ramsey makes more of an effort to close down Sakho, who, while a fine passer when he has time and space, becomes skittish under pressure. Bellerin stays high up the pitch cover the space behind the pressing duo, with Cazorla. Ozil moves closer to the ball, getting in front of Lucas, making him more likely to gain control of a ball played toward the center of the pitch. Koscielny makes a ball-oriented shift, moving up the pitch when it goes back to Sakho. Both Alexis Sanchez and Nacho Monreal have the far side options covered.
All this movement leads to Arsenal shape having a tilt, with the tip of the shape on Arsenal’s right-side and pressing lines going from front to back, along a diagonal line, allowing Arsenal to stay vertically and horizontally compact, while occupying all the important spaces. Arsenal established a numerical superiority around the ball, meaning they had access to the ball. Since Giroud and Ramsey’s pressing runs eliminated passing lanes to Toure and Moreno, Arsenal effectively defended three players with two. This allowed them to establish a numerical superiority in the space in front of the ball, while not conceding a numerical superiority to Liverpool anywhere on the pitch. Ramsey wins the ball, and had Olivier Giroud not moved into an offside position with his pressing run, Arsenal would have likely created a high-probability goal-scoring opportunity, as Ozil and Sanchez already had inside position on their nearest defenders, due to their movement/positioning during the pressing phase. This passage of play represented the peak of Arsenal’s ability to control space without the ball, and should serve as the standard Arsenal look to consistently achieve in 2015/16 and beyond4.
2015-16: Continuing the Trend of Progress
Looking at how Arsenal played in 2013-14 or even at the start of the season and comparing it to how they ended the year, especially when one considers their performance in the FA Cup Final, it seems obvious that Arsenal have progressed as a side in the truest sense. They function more as a coordinated unit, particularly out of possession, than any Arsenal side of the Emirates era. One could argue that the return to health and improvements in player fitness drove Arsenal’s improvement, and there is no doubting they helped, especially for a side looking to play a pressing game. However, as victories against Manchester City, Manchester United, and Liverpool have shown, Arsenal’s attention to detail and understanding about how to execute as a unit has certainly improved compared to past seasons.
So while Arsenal do need to improve their squad over the off-season, most importantly, Arsenal need to continue this unit-centric progression. For example, the quality of pressing Arsenal showcased in flashes, halves, and the occasional match has to become consistent and represent a key element of their playing style. With an off-season to further develop how they play in possession, and further strengthening of the squad, Arsenal should continue to progress in the organic/emergent order that defines the possession play of Wenger’s Arsenal sides, while hopefully incorporating more concepts that call for proper filling of spaces and support for the ball, to both facilitate potency in possession and the ability for Arsenal to successfully defend transitions. So while Chelsea remain the favorites for the Premier League title, and they have a long way to go before approaching the elite of Europe, 2015-16 might prove to be Arsenal’s most successful season for some time, with many of the seeds planted in 2014-15 ready to bloom.
¹A 38-game season, where a club plays all other clubs twice, is not long enough of the law of large numbers to apply. Then, when one considers leverage of the random variation, and how teams evolve over the season, such arguments that “things even out over a season” appear even more preposterous.
²Arsenal did drop into a deep defensive block when the ball moved into the final third. There, United could better use Marouane Fellaini to exploit Arsenal’s vulnerability in the air. If anything, such vulnerability made Arsenal’s efforts to control the game farther away from goal even more crucial for success against United.
³This method of counter-pressing is one favored by Pep Guardiola probably due to the lack of requisite physical effort, allowing for decreased physical attrition over the course of a season/seasons, the lack of reliance on winning 1-on-1 matchups physically, and the ability to win the ball back by an interception. Interceptions are less likely to end in fouls, compared to tackles, winning the ball occurs more cleanly, and a player can, with greater speed (sometimes instantly), pass the ball or dribble into the open space the opponent has conceded, in their efforts to launch their counter-attack.
4Arsenal did struggle to maintain this control over the match in the second half, as they failed to adapt their pressing scheme to Liverpool changing to a back four and better occupying/utilizing the half-spaces in their build-up. Part of the next step for Arsenal involves improving their ability to respond to the changing dynamics, so they can continue to accomplish their strategic goals.).