Arsenal fans should probably remember the 2006 season with the defeat in Champion League final against FC Barcelona. It is probably since this season that we really talk about the “passing game of Arsenal”: the team included players like Cesc Fabregas, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Robin Van Persie, Gilberto Silva and Jose Antonio Reyes. It was wonderful for the fan even if there had not been a trophy at the end because the team played in the way that, whatever the score, supporters were happy to see the beautiful game.
The following seasons were still poor (the departures of the big players did not help), but the arrival of players like Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Samir Nasri or Andrei Arshavin allowed Arsene’s Wenger’s team to practice a rhythmic passing game with fast and destructive sequences.
Even though this spirit is mitigated today, Arsenal still have the players to practice this kind of game. Sure, injuries and increased competition with rising mid-table teams did not help but fans are waiting for trophies and the pressure of results is now more important than the game. Nevertheless, Arsenal are still part of the teams that prefer the passing game to the kick & rush classic plan.
Passing game this season
This season, Arsenal finished with an overall possession of 57 % and a pass success that reach 84%. But we all know that possession is not a goal and a good metric to see the influence of passes in the game is the number of attack’s that reach more than a three pass combination.
Arsenal is on the top with an average of 197 gameplan with more than three pass combinations, compare with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp teams (which are well known for their passes game spirit) Arsenal is very good.
However, Manchester City and Liverpool, in a different way, are far from the Gunners game in terms of intensity and passing combination.
Looking at players best combination with team mates show that there is maybe a problem in the pass routes.
The important fact in these graphs is the importance of Santi Cazorla. Even though he only played seven games this season, he is one of the players, in the entire season, who has the best combination with his team mates. When he’s on the field he has a great influence on those around him. Furthermore, the longest winning run of the season was when Santi Cazorla was fit and playing (6 wins in a row).
Granit Xhaka’s influence is also very impressive for his first season. Like Mezut Özil, he is not the player the most visable on the pitch but he participates fully in the teams play.
Alexis Sanchez case is very interesting. Although he is the most important player in the team he doesn’t play with his team mates as much.
An interesting number is the rate of short passes. 87%. We do not see a lot of crossing despite the passes capabilities from the midfield. The lack of a real wing player explains this kind of game, focusing too much on the center of the field and lacking rhythm in transitions.
So, to summarise, the lack of Santi Cazorla plus Alexis Sanchez teamplay and maybe a lack of intensity in pressing can explain the relative bad shape of Arsenal’s game.
Tactical changes and transfer outcome
This end of season allowed us to see some changes in the tactical approach of Arsene Wenger as he moved from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-2-1.
Like Chelsea or Tottenham, Wenger tried to change his mind and chose to flood the midfield.
The big question with these three defenders line-ups is the choice of the player that you put on wings. Sead Kolasinac joined the club in the summer and this transfer is like Marcos Alonso to Chelsea last year, a player who is a bit rough with a good strike capable both in defense and attack. Question now is how Wenger will use him. As a left winger with a hard role or in three-player defense, letting Nacho Monreal take the wing.
On the other hand, the right wing is also a question. Hector Bellerin or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? The two players who have different qualities but a turnover could be a good idea.
The arrival of Alexandre Lacazette will pose the question of the pivot game that we could see with Olivier Giroud. More technical and faster, Lacazette could take the role of a Sergio Aguero, making moves behind the defenses or playing in combination with Alexis Sanchez and Mezut Ozil.
However, it’s in the midfield that game begin and good passing routes come only with good relation in the midfield : the return of Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere (if he is in the plan) could be a massive advance if they do not injure themselves. Next season we could see a midfield rotation composed by combination of Santi Cazorla, Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere for technique and Francis Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny in more defensive roles. The potential is here to see a flamboyant and solid passing game next season.