There is a temptation to pinpoint individual players not signed, departed or trusted as the reasons that we have fallen so far behind the big five and yet I would argue tactical superiority is the reason Guardiola, Mourinho, Klopp, Pochettino and Conte have boasted higher performing teams.
For many years, our sole strategy has been ball retention and combination play (without making concessions for our rival’s style of play), in the belief that our game will better the oppositions on the day. My issue is that the aforementioned managers have proved that tactical enhancements (in certain games) are critical to success in the modern game. They have this season alone, between them, employed six man midfields, high presses and defensive 5-3-2 formations, all with the intention of achieving success in an abnormal way. Arsenal’s examples of crucial adjustments are sorely lacking.
Innovations around ball retrieval are the latest fad whether it’s Klopp/Pochettino’s high press or Conte’s compactness to trap the opposition into giving the ball away. Arsenal’s strategy often seems confused, appearing as a half-hearted, disjointed and ultimately ineffectual high press whilst we lack compactness (probably our single biggest flaw) with high and wide full backs combined with advanced midfielders that ultimately acts as a recipe for disaster with gaps opening up across the board.
Variety of play is another issue with our sole game-plan often becoming unstuck when we are out of form or the opposition stifles us, examples include our defence continuing to play out from the back and our reliance on threading passes through the eye of a needle to break teams down. Different strategies such as playing into the channels or in an offensive sense, using crosses or counter attacks and/or balls in behind are rarely considered. If you look at Mourinho, (like him or not) as an example, he will revert to an ugly plan B whenever he needs to, often much publicized long balls up to Fellaini.
Approaching every game in the same way is by its very nature, the definition of tactical naivety. Whilst some fans may point to the odd tweak here or there, we have to ask whether we are actually fundamentally changing our approach in reaction to our opposition. Deliberate deeper positioning, holding midfielders and the use of hard-working wide midfielders are all options available to Arsenal, likewise switching to a long ball or a counter attack approach. I would argue that Arsenal make token gestures, like a player in an unfamiliar position or employing a 3-5-2 but our true intentions towards the game unchanged, evidenced by the same amount of players committed forwards and the high lines of our defence, midfield and attack.
Ultimately, good data analysis is the establishing themes and trends. It is not coincidence that the big five regularly are regularly lauded for being tactically innovative whilst concurrently are moving further ahead of us. Perhaps before any multi-million pound signings are made, decisions around when and how to press and the shape employed to retrieve the ball should be prioritized. In addition, we cannot expect to compete at the top level without a plan B and willingness to adapt to the opposition when its needed.
It no longer feels as straightforward as the right personnel, a tactical overhaul is needed.