by Naveen Maliakkal
After looking at the nature of controlling football matches in Part 1, and a possible narrative of Fabregas era being, in part, an effort to maximize European success, that came at the cost of domestic success, in Part 2, this piece looks at what Arsenal may need to do if they wish to evolve into a side that can simultaneously compete at the highest level, in Europe and England.
Arsenal in Progress: The Long Road to Controlling Space and the Ball
Despite all the tinkering he has done with his teams over the years, Wenger has yet to find the right style of play to give him the success he wants in England and in Europe. Looking at this season’s changes, it seems he is trying to push further in the direction he went towards during the Fabregas era. It seems he wants to build an Arsenal side that control matches in possession and out of possession.
This season Arsenal have shown some signs of high pressing and occasionally counter-pressed, although both have looked rather sloppy and uncoordinated. They have defended higher up the pitch and have shown more of a willingness to dominate possession, curbing their tendency to push the ball forward, compared to last season, which has helped them outshoot their opponents by margins not seen probably since the Fabregas years.
However, the evolution of Arsenal still has a long way to go, both in defense and in attack. They still play in and out of possession with a lack of compactness. The lack of compactness in possession has problems associated with it: it lowers the ability for players to interact, and makes counter-pressing too difficult to potently execute. The lack of compactness out of possession, combined with a lack of ball-orientation of the defensive shape, hinders Arsenal’s ability to control space out of possession.
They also need to commit themselves to pressing, both high up the pitch, and immediately when possession is lost. Essentially, Arsenal have to morph into a side that they have never been under Wenger—an efficient pressing machine. And pressing has as much to do with coordinating actions, intelligence, and decision-making as it does with effort, tenacity, physical presence, etc. if not more. They also need to determine how they want to press as a team and when to stop pressing to retreat to a deeper defensive position. This transition to becoming a pressing side also puts a different onus on specific positions.
For example, take the holding midfielder. The number of options this player can chose from is much larger for a team like this than it is for a simple destroyer playing in a deep-defending side. He needs to understand how to keep the play flowing and draw out the defense to create space for others to receive the ball, while balancing that with his ability to control space if the ball is lost. He has to understand how to position himself when his team has the ball, to both give his teammates a passing option and simultaneously increase his ability to win possession as high up the pitch as possible, if his team losses the ball. He also has to have the quickness in thought to rapidly identify situations where he needs to retreat rather than make a vain attempt at winning the ball. Finally, he must have the ability to execute the plan of action he chooses, but that is the final step in the process of effectively playing the position.
When defending in a deeper position, Arsenal must understand how to move in all four directions, based on the nature of the play. The team moves with the ball, not only horizontally, but vertically as well. The unit must orient itself to the ball. If the opponent makes a backwards pass, then Arsenal need to push their defensive lines higher up the pitch, pushing their opponent’s possession away from their goal, and improving their ability to win the ball closer to the opponent’s goal1. This includes the back line, which means that Arsenal need to have players comfortable with playing a high defensive line. Therefore, a side that wishes to defend higher up the pitch must know how and when to press, how to defend high up the pitch, how to defend in deeper areas when they must, and how and when take the initiative to move their defensive lines up the pitch.
In possession, again, Arsenal need players with excellent decision-making, intelligence, technique, and familiarity with both the set-up of the unit and the individual players. The familiarity comes with time and engaging in more trial-error-feedback loops; however, players with the combination of the first three seem quite rare at Arsenal. With this style of play, requiring players to constantly interact with one another one the pitch, allowing them to dynamically specialize over the course of the match, Arsenal need players who better understand the game situation, their location, the location and roles of their teammates, the location of the ball at any particular moment in the match, etc.; they need players who, can effectively extract information from their environment. Then, given that information, choose the appropriate role for that moment, in time and space, to maximize the team’s ability to control space and the ball. Finally, they need to have the technical ability and the physical ability to properly execute the appropriate role they have determined.
For example, going back to the position of holding midfielder, this player needs to identify how he needs to operate in possession to maximize the team’s ability to control space and possession, at any moment during the match. For example, he needs to understand how his actions to help his team control possession and control space in possession, at the moment in time and space, balance with the goals of maximizing the team’s ability to control space and win control of the ball, in the event of a turnover. He needs to know what action he needs to take: if he should pass or dribble, the type of pass he should play, how quickly to release the ball, how to move with the ball, how to move once he has passed it, etc. He must then have the ability to execute the pass, dribble, movement, etc. needed in that moment in space. When considering the massive amount of game understanding, reading, and thinking, it is not a surprise that the holding midfielders for these kinds of sides are often the most intelligent players on the pitch, along with having immense ability on the ball.
Now, if Arsenal make this transition to this kind of playing style, then this guides how they fill out the rest of the roster. As I specified above, the type of holding midfielder required in this system greatly differs from the type of holding midfielder Arsenal could sign if they wanted to play as a deeper defending side. For example, Lars Bender’s more destructive box-to-box style may not fit with a position based more on being an intellectual and technical leader rather than a physically-imposing player. A player like Lars Bender seems like a good fit for last year’s Arsenal, playing in a role beside Aaron Ramsey, in a deeper defending double pivot. In that system, Bender has someone at his vertical level to control space out of possession, can rely on the other pivot to perform the various aspects of his job, and does not face as complex a decision-making process when it comes to his positioning and actions. However, in a side employing a single pivot, that player must have the ability to perform the tasks of the double pivot. More is asked of this kind of player. Therefore, before Arsenal can decide on who will they want to sign as a holding midfielder, they probably need to determine their playing style first, as it will dictate who is a viable candidate.
This change in system also impacts how they would go about finding a left center back for the future. While plenty of defenders look good in deep defending sides, where they can rely more on size, strength, aerial ability, and focusing on the space in front of them, moving them into higher defending sides puts a premium on decision-making, understanding how to defend 360 degrees of space, quickness in thought, and quickness in action, in addition to a need for the player to cover larger distances. A player like John Terry is quite good when playing in a deep-defending side. However, play him in a team that uses a high offside line, and he provides much less value to his side. The center back also has to be skilled with the ball at his feet and have comfort playing in wide areas, allowing his side to split the center backs quite wide, increasing the size of the pitch horizontally, in which possession occurs, making it easier to control possession and space at the back. This helps to facilitate the interaction present in the side in possession. It also plays a key role in drawing out opposition defenders, aiding the side in possession to control more valuable spaces, higher up the pitch. Ideally, they would find one with a genuine left-foot as well, allowing for the center back to move the ball more rapidly after winning it. That wide positioning calls upon the center back to defend in wide areas, as well as central ones.
With English sides lacking center backs who operate high up the pitch and play a key role in helping the team control space and possession with the ball, Arsenal would probably have to look abroad for a left center back. So while the rumor seems odd, given that Athletic Bilbao only sell at the value of the buy-out clause (€36m) and given the presence of the value-added tax on such transfers, Aymeric Laporte seemingly represents an ideal long-term solution for Arsenal. To fill the role more cheaply, Wenger could look to purchase a left-back that he believes could make the transition to center-back. Like the position of holding midfielder, the needs of Arsenal, at center back, and therefore the viable candidates, change dramatically based on the playing style Arsenal choose.
Also, some important decisions need to be made about quite a few of the players currently on the squad. Three players stand out as ones who could provide significantly less value to an Arsenal side trying to adopt this new playing style.
The first is Per Mertesacker. While a fine defender, he seems like a player who has much more comfort defending in sides that concede relatively less “offside space”, as his lack of speed prevents him from covering the distance required of him. Also, this system tends to place a premium on center backs who can play and defend in wide areas. While it seems unwise to place Mertesacker in that kind of role, Calum Chambers seems to have the attributes to play the role of right center back in this system. He has the technical ability, athleticism, intelligence, and composure to play the position, and his time at right-back for Southampton means that he is not unfamiliar with operating in wide areas. So while Per Metresacker may no longer fit the club, if Arsenal move in this direction, it seems like Chambers would be an ideal long-term replacement for Mertesacker.
The second is Jack Wilshere. While he has shown an ability to put together some good performances, when the ball is constantly at his feet, he seems like a player that focuses too much on playing an “English” game. He always wants to be on the ball, fling himself into tackles, and run around the pitch. Too much of his game involves doing what can be easily observed. Too little of his game focuses on the 95% or so he spends without the ball at his feet. Not enough of his game revolves around intelligence, decision-making, and understanding the whole game, understanding the bigger picture of his role in conjunction with 10 other players at any particular moment in time. So for all of his talent on the ball, if he does not become more intelligent, and improve immensely off the ball, both when his team has the ball and when they do not, his time at Arsenal will consist of him holding the team back or riding the bench.
The final player I will consider is Wojciech Szczesny. In a deep-defending side shot-stopping, aerial ability, and other traits that a goalkeeper needs to operate as a successful penalty box keeper take priority over other traits. Move the offside line higher up the pitch, and the need for other skills emerge to both better cover the “offside space” and deal with the instances where the opponent breaks the offside line. That is not to say that shot-stopping, aerial ability, etc. skills that can be cast aside. It is just that more is being asked of the player’s all-around game. Again, we can think of the change to this system causing more of an emphasis to be placed on extracting information from the environment, understanding what to do with that information, and then executing the plan. The goalkeeper now must be able to read the state of play, even from a great distance, to determine how he should cover the 25-35 meters in front of his goal. He must quickly identify whether he should come out and sweep, or sit deep. If he does sweep, he needs to know how to best clear the ball, with a pass to a teammate, driving it up the field, booting it out of play, etc. If he does sit deep, then he must understand how to defend a potential 1-on-1 situation. In possession, he must provide sure feet to allow his teammates to play the ball back to him, allowing him to contribute to the team’s ability to control the ball. Ideally, his ability on the ball can help to draw the opposition’s defenders toward him, opening up space elsewhere. He must also have the vision to pick the right pass and the technical ability to execute the right pass, so to contribute to his team’s ability to control space and the ball. Therefore, in this playing style, even the goalkeeper has to operate less as a specialist, but one who can dynamically specialize. Fortunately, Szczesny is only 24 years old, which means the potential still exists for him to improve, especially with his decision-making.
Now if it looks like Arsenal have quite a ways to go to reach the highest level of football, it is because that is probably the case. And given the difficulty of acquiring and integrating a bunch of high level transfer signings to try to accelerate the process, it may take some time before Arsenal can reach the top tier of European football. However, given the importance of familiarity among the individuals and with the playing style, a major change that needs to occur is an overhauling of Arsenal’s youth system.
With the desire to control space and the ball in the dynamic environment that is a football match, a side needs to increase the number of options that a player has available to him. One wants to increase the choices available to players. However, players need to be able to identify the options available to them at any moment in time. Also, when one increases the number of choices available to an individual, it can become more difficult to make a choice quickly and makes it more difficult to pick the best option out of the ones presented. This applies to both the defensive and possession phases of the game.
Therefore, in order to become even more dynamic and more robust to changes in the state of a match, both in possession and out of possession, Arsenal need to produce more players with that ability to think the game through, to better understand all the elements in play throughout the match, to identify the options available to them, and to know which option to choose to best help their team. It does not seem surprising that Arsenal’s current best fits for this new playing style, either offensively, defensively, or both, all come from outside of Arsenal (Mesut Ozil (offensively), Alexis Sanchez (both), Calum Chambers at CB (both), Danny Welbeck (both), Laurent Koscielny (both), and a healthy Mikel Arteta (both). Given that Arsenal have to work with mostly English talent, such a youth system must also overcome the aspects of English football culture, which can serve as obstacles to development of the kind of players Arsenal need. They need to be a cultural oddity in English football.
In that sense Andries Jonker could prove to be the most important signing that Arsenal have made for some time. If he can help to change the football culture at Arsenal and turn Arsenal’s youth system into one of the best in the world, one that consistently produces the scarce qualities that Arsenal need to thrive, to create thinkers who can play football, then his arrival at the club should be looked upon as one of the key turning points in the history of Arsenal.
Is Arsene Wenger the Right Man To Lead The Transition?
A lot of words to describe what Arsene Wenger possibly wants to do/what I think Arsenal need to do to reach the top of the mountain in European football, and that is because it will take something bordering on a football revolution at Arsenal to achieve this change.
Now there is the other question of whether Arsenal should focus on maximizing success in England rather than Europe, due to the relative ease of the task, but I want to focus on the question of whether Wenger is the right man to overhaul the club’s approach to football to allow them to consistently compete for honors in Europe and in England.
To be clear, I do not know the answer.
To me, Wenger seems like a deep-defending 4-4-2 savant, whose sides excel at executing swift attacking transitions. He was, and somewhere inside him still is, a manager well-suited to English football. To turn into Arsenal into some kind of Guardiola-type 4-3-3 side with an emphasis on controlling space defensively through high pressing, counter pressing, situational retreating, and situational pushing up of defensive lines, and have the ability control matches through possession, even if that means sacrificing his desire to always push possession forward, seems like quite the ask.
As much as Arsenal would have to change to successfully make the transition to this playing style, it would call for a remarkable shift in Wenger’s playing philosophy or the emergence of preferences that Wenger has yet to exhibit. Greater emphasis must be placed on playing a compact game, both out of possession and in possession. There must be more of an emphasis on the coordination of all eleven players to control space out of possession. This involves, in part, more of a focus on ball-orientation as a unit and on coordination in pressing to cover space properly when the team looks to gain control of the space the ball occupies/wants to force the ball into a space they control. This calls for Wenger to further sacrifice his desire for verticality in possession. Instead of looking to push the ball forward, more effort must be placed in helping to construct a playing shape that expands the number of options immediately and easily available to the man on the ball, allowing the team to have greater control of the ball and to more slowly, and probably more effectively, control space. The amount of change needed seems like quite a lot to ask of Wenger.
It may be that Arsenal need a new manager for them to accomplish such a transition. But who could that manager be? Do Arsenal have a chance at landing a Pep Guardiola in a couple or a few years’ time? If Guardiola wants to manage in England, why would he not go to someone like Manchester United or Manchester City? If Arsenal want to have a chance to reel in a big fish, like Guardiola, to guide the club during such a transition, then it seems that they would need quite a bit of luck with respect to the timing of them having an opening, someone like Guardiola being available, and other, more attractive competitors not having an opening at the position2
Outside of that, Arsenal may have to take a risk going after someone less proven, but with the potential to guide the club where it needs to go. Someone like Frank De Boer, with his ties to Ajax and their philosophy of play, could prove to be a fantastic choice of manager.3 However, he is not Guardiola. There exists uncertainty as to whether he has the quality to mold Arsenal into the side they probably need to become, especially given the challenges that English football presents. Therefore, hiring a manager of less proven quality poses more of a risk that this crucial transition fails. Also even if the manager would eventually be successful, given enough time, can Arsenal Football Club have the patience to let a smaller name take the time and incur the losses to change the club’s way of playing?
So while I have my doubts about Arsene Wenger’s ability to change the club that he already made into his image, I do not know if Arsenal could find the right man to lead them through this seemingly needed transition. And if they cannot, then the question of whether Arsenal should invest more heavily in domestic success, and shun the Champions League, probably needs to be asked.
Arsenal occupy a strange position in the current world of football. Given the state of their resources relative to the elite clubs of Europe and England, and the way the English Premier League rewards a style of play that does not work in Europe, trying to develop a side that consistently competes for the Champions League and for the English Premier League seems like a monumental task. The most efficient way to accumulate points in England comes at the cost of European success, as was described in Part 2. Without a massive resource advantage over their domestic competition for the title, Arsenal cannot focus on building a squad for Europe while not facing much of a threat to their ability to win in England. They would need to become a team that could control space and the ball, something the club has never achieved to the level that the elite clubs of Europe have done over the past five seasons. And yet, despite the long road Arsenal have in front of them, it is a journey they probably need to make. Because if they do not, it is likely that Arsenal’s attempts to achieve simultaneous achieve in Europe and England will lead to a sustained lack of success in both.4
1.Bayern serve as a good example of how a team needs to work defensively in this kind of playing style, in their preseason match against Barcelona, back in 2013. Adin Osmanbasic made a great video explaining what happened in some passages that you can watch here: http://vimeo.com/71062176. Follow this guy on Twitter if you do not already.↩
2.I understand football through an economics-based perspective. And the more I have applied my normal perspective on the world to the game, the more I come to adore Guardiola as a manager.↩
3.Unless Dennis Bergkamp overcomes his fear of flying, it seems unlikely that he could ever manage Arsenal, given the need to travel, both in season and pre-season.↩
4.I admit, maybe this era of super-clubs that operate with this ability to control matches will end, leading to European football returning to the time in between Louis van Gaal’s Ajax and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. This gives Arsenal a smaller mountain to climb for European success, allowing less of a trade-off between English and European success. However, I think that this era has a greater chance of promoting the development of sides, players, and managers who can help their sides exert control matches, which would only put English clubs further behind, if they stick with their more primitive approach.↩