By Naveen Maliakkal
While Sunderland have attempted to exert greater control on their matches through possession earlier this season their loss to Southampton may help to push them towards a much less ambitious approach in their match against Arsenal. They may play in their same 4-1-4-1 formation, but the system will probably be one more similar to those used by quite a few of Arsenal’s opponents.
Instead of looking to control the game with the ball, Sunderland will look to control the 30 meters in front of their goal. This deep-defending approach will probably involve a physical trio of midfielders. This means that more technically-gifted players like Sebastian Larsson and Jordi Gomez will probably not play in central midfield. Instead, it seems more likely that Lee Clattermole will play the deepest midfield position with Jack Rodwell and Liam Birdcutt not too far ahead of him. The trio in midfield will probably stay tight and rough up Arsenal’s midfielders, hoping to win the ball and setting their side on the counter-attack.
With Steven Fletcher at center forward, Sunderland have a player who has won 5.4 aerial duels per 90 minutes, according to Whoscored.com, with a success rate of about 43%. With their willingness to use Fletcher as an aerial threat, Sunderland have some choices to make out wide. On the right, they could choose to play Sebastian Larsson. While he may not provide the speed of Adam Johnson or the volume of dribbling of William Buckley, he can create chances with his technical ability, both on set-pieces and in open play. Given Arsenal’s propensity to push both fullbacks up to create width in attack¹ Larsson could find himself in plenty of space on Sunderland’s counter-attacks, free to play long diagonal passes to Fletcher or Johnson on the left. In this sense, Sunderland could use Larsson much the way Netherlands used Danny Blind at left-back during the 2014 World Cup, particularly in their demolition of Spain, as a kind of wide playmaker. Combine this potential for devastation in open-play and his ability on set-pieces, and he represents the greatest danger to Arsenal with the ball.
Arsenal Need to Defend Better as a Unit
Some may focus on Arsenal’s defensive issues as problems at the position of holding midfielder and the nature of fullback usage in attack; however, I would like to highlight some of the problems Arsenal have defensively further up the pitch.
Focusing on last week’s debacle against Hull City, we will join the game at around the 15:24 mark, as Hull’s goalkeeper throws the ball out to a teammate. Jack Wilshere pushes up, forcing a pass and then chases after the pass. While ball-chasing is a terrible way to defend² Wilshere does force a pass towards the sideline and then the ball moves to Elmohamady.
Elmohamady moves the ball back to the right center back. From this point on, Arsenal make what seems like quite a few errors. Pausing the play at the 15:34 mark, we see that Arsenal have the makings of a pressing trap with Alexis Sanchez (up top), Jack Wilshere, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in position to collapse on the ball while keeping the players unavailable to the man on the ball, by running at the ball in such a fashion that the passing lane remains closed/rather small (keeping their opponents in their shadows). With the sideline providing another defender, Arsenal should look to pounce on this opportunity to force a turnover.
At the 15:37 mark, Sanchez finds himself behind the Hull’s deepest midfielder. If a pass is made into the midfielder, Sanchez can quickly attack the man on the ball. Since Sanchez has that player covered, Wilshere should attack the ball, with Oxlade-Chamberlain joining him, bending his run to keep Elmohamady in his shadow, so to deny the pass to the wingback. Now the man on the ball could play the ball across the field, but Welbeck, playing a free safety role, appears in position to challenge a pass to the far-side center back or the far-side wingback. Such a press, if executed properly, at worst, leads to a back pass to the keeper.
Not all of the positioning is proper, though. Santi Cazorla has made an odd choice during this passage of play. With Arsenal playing a 4-1-4-1 defensively, Cazorla plays far too deep, looking to stay between Diame and the Arsenal goal. This caution seems like something some want to see from Arsenal. The problem with this particular kind of caution is that it leads to Arsenal having fewer resources to attack the ball. If Cazorla was further up the pitch, as he should be in a 4-1-4-1, Oxlade-Chamberlain and he could go press the ball, leaving Elmohamady and Diame in their shadows. Wilshere could mark Hull’s deepest midfielder, and Sanchez could put himself in position to intercept a pass to the central center back or to the goalkeeper. Unless the center back can dink a ball over Cazorla or Oxlade-Chamberlain without it going out of play or too far, allowing the holding midfielder to make a play on the ball, the center back’s safest play seems to be a pass back to his keeper, allowing Arsenal to push their defensive shape deeper into Hull territory, or to kick it out of play.
Instead, the center back takes a few touches, lets Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain take a bad angle at him, and passes the ball to Elmohamady. Elmohamady evades a Cazorla tackle and plays the ball to Diame. Fortunately for Arsenal, Diame does not realize that Wilshere is behind him, allowing him to make the tackle from behind. Now I may be too harsh on Cazorla for his caution. Given that Mathieu Flamini is playing at holding midfielder, and would rather sit deep than push up, Cazorla may be justified in taking the approach he did, even if it potentially cost Arsenal a good opportunity to win the ball high up the pitch. Maybe if Arsenal had a better holding midfielder, one who would and could effectively push up to make interceptions, like Arteta from the 2012-13 season, Cazorla would have more confidence in defending high up the pitch. However, this reluctance to push forward proved rather costly for Arsenal about one minute later.
Starting at the 16:30 mark, Elmohamady has the ball with quite a bit of space. Cazorla sees this and follows Diame’s run to prevent a pass to Diame. Elmohamady passes it back to the right center back, who has plenty of time and space because Hull went with a back three and Arsenal have only Welbeck up top. Once Elmohamady makes that pass to his center back, Cazorla needs to immediately move back up the pitch into his proper defensive position. In fact, Hull do Cazorla a favor by playing the ball from the RCB, to the deepest midfielder to the central CB, and then back to the RCB. And yet, in all that time, Cazorla has still not made his way back into position, leaving a significant hole in Arsenal’s defense. In fact, you can observe that Jack Wilshere sees the hole in the defense, turns to Cazorla, and wonders what the heck is doing all the way back there.
Cazorla belatedly moves up the pitch, as the ball gets played to a wide open Jake Livermore. That belated action only exacerbates Arsenal’s problems as Livermore’s pass takes Cazorla out of the play, leading to a 2-on-1 between Hatem Ben Arfa + Diame and Flamini.
Ben Arfa spends way too much time dribbling rather than making the pass to Diame first-time, giving Arsenal a chance to stop this Hull attack, but they cannot; Hull equalize³.
So while Arsenal have yet to develop the relationships in attack to get the most out of this new system4, players seem unable, at this point to get the most out of this system defensively as well. Whether this comes down to coaching, a lack of time given the nature of a pre-season during a World Cup summer, or a lack of intelligence/drive from the players, it certainly frustrates me.
This becomes especially frustrating when you think about the work rate and the proficiency in pressing of both Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck. One of the most depressing sights during an Arsenal match is seeing one of them or both push up the pitch, looking to win the ball, only to see the rest of the team not push up with them, leading to wasted energy. Hopefully, Arsenal can move their style to fit their signings, rather than their signings become jaded about working defensively due to a lack of support.
Arsenal certainly need to eliminate the switching off that has plagued them defensively this season5. And sure, Arsenal could use a technical leader — someone who leads through technique; someone who can control the tempo and flow of a match. Someone who will slow it down when the team gets panicky, speed it up when they become lethargic, play it long when Arsenal need to be more direct, play it short when Arsenal need to show more patience. They need a technical leader rather than lump-kicker because Arsenal have struggled to consistently control matches with their possession for some time.
And ideally, that technical leader would also be the super-intelligent holding midfielder this team needs rather than some physical and powerful athlete who lacks a high-level of intelligence and technique to actually perform the role Arsenal need. However, even the perfect holding midfielder would not be enough if Arsenal do not learn how to defend, and particularly press, as a team.
With matches against Sunderland, Burnley, Anderlecht at home, Arsenal have an opportunity to develop some defensive cohesion against sides that should not cause them too many problems. If they make progress in defending as an XI, then the will set themselves up to cement their place as the third best team in England for this season and build that foundation for competing for major honors in subsequent years. However, if they fail to learn this essential aspect of football, they will likely not have a chance to reach the upper echelon of European football again next year.
¹Maybe Arsenal will finally look to create width with their forward line with the potential return of Theo Walcott in this game or the match against Burnley. I know Barcelona under Guardiola may not look like the best example to follow, given the incredible amount talent and cohesion, but that side tended to play their best when they created width due to the starting positions of the wide players in their front line. Dani Alves would bomb forward from deeper positions and that seemed more effective than parking him high up the pitch. By having him arrive from a deeper position, you increase the uncertainty that defenders on that side of the ball face. By having a player enter into an opponent’s defensive zone from outside of it, he forces the players to reassess the environment around him to make a decision (or you could simply catch him unaware). If the player parks himself high up the pitch, then he becomes a certain threat rather than an uncertain threat. A defender or a group of defenders can better plan and coordinate their actions to account for a certain threat than an uncertain one, making it less effective.
²Steven Gerrard, who may be the epitome of an all-action footballer with little intelligence or awareness of the game around them, showed this to be true on Wednesday. Watch Ronaldo’s first goal against Liverpool, and you will see him chase the ball like a dog playing fetch.
³And yes, Diame did foul Flamini. But how about playing until you hear the whistle rather than anticipating one/complaining? Watching Arsenal switch off when they think they deserve a foul is as terrifying as it is maddening.
4Injuries certainly hurt the ability for Arsenal to form the relationships needed to create an intuitive, reacting-rather-than-thinking style of flowing football that Arsenal have not consistently maintained for a season since…09/10?
5The second goal Arsenal conceded against Hull sees Tom Huddlestone find a pocket a space behind Jack Wilshere, receive the ball, and play it to Elmohamady. Huddlestone makes a run from the half-space up the field, into a wider area. Wilshere oddly decides to tell Nacho Monreal to pick up the run of Huddlestone. Maybe Wilshere thought Monreal was the left-back on the day and not the center back. Calling for Monreal to pick up Huddlestone’s run seems to have posed a dilemma for Monreal. He does not go to pick up Huddlstone nor does he put himself in position to double up on Abel Hernandez. By the time Wilshere realizes that Huddlestone is still his defensive responsibility, it is too late. Huddlestone has space to deliver the cross, and Hernandez heads it home.