From a purely entertainment perspective, that was the perfect start to the season, wasn’t it? Early goal by the new striker, second goal created by another new signing, show of character to come back from behind and equalise, display of dogged determination to push for the late winner, both late goals by substitutes. Who doesn’t love a high-scoring, see-sawing, rollercoaster of a game?
Well, actually, all of us shouldn’t. Not like this anyway. Because as entertaining as our 4-3 opening day victory against Leicester was, the game exposed some serious deficiencies in Arsenal’s play, which, if not corrected, will leave us in the same hole as we were last season. And the season before. And the season before. And the season before.
This is not to take away from the stirring comeback, or to ignore the fact that Arsenal did play some excellent attacking football, taking 27 shots, 10 of which were on target (without counting shots blocked), and dominating possession. But as fans, we also need to take the longer view, and The Inquest is here to be the boring pedant that helps you do that.
1. Don’t worry about the defence (yet)
To begin with, this game did not actually demonstrate tactical problems with our defence. Yes, I am aware that we shipped 3 goals. Yes, I am aware that our interpretation of the concept of defending seemed tenuous at best, especially at corners.
But at the end of the day, we were playing a rather dubious backline, thanks to injuries, and Laurent Koscielny’s daft foul on the final day of last season. Nacho Monreal cannot be the man anchoring a back 3. Rob Holding is a great prospect but still incredibly young and inexperienced and needs a more experienced head alongside him to guide him. Sead Kolasinac is capable of playing in a back 3, but as I said last week, he needs to be given a more advanced role where his tank-like abilities are of better use.
It would be lovely if we could manage to defend well even without all our first-choice centre-backs, but that isn’t practically possible, so perhaps we can give the defence a bit of a pass on this one – provided they pull their socks up when at least one of Koscielny, Mustafi or Mertesacker is playing. Positionally, they generally did alright – the one moment which can properly be pinpointed as a positional failure was when Kolasinac popped up in the Leicester box to set up Welbeck’s goal at the end of the first half, but mostly, their positioning wasn’t a problem, though greater strength and composure would have been welcome at some moments, particularly from Holding. They will need to prepare themselves for these kind of contingencies, but there’s no need to panic just yet.
2. Cech needs to cech himself before he wrechs himself
During the Community Shield game, Petr Cech made some terrible decisions trying to come out and act as a sweeper-keeper, leaving his line dangerously, and only just about avoiding giving away silly goals. Against Leicester, while he did restrain himself a bit more, there were still flashes of this slightly panicky play, which saw him unnecessarily leave his line and flap at Albrighton’s cross in the buildup to the first Leicester goal.
It wasn’t all bad, of course, with his decision to come forward a lifesaver when Vardy made it behind the defence on the break. But there was a lot of uncharacteristically poor decision-making on display throughout the game from the veteran goalkeeper, which becomes even more dangerous given the depleted state of our defence (a state of affairs which will return at some point after the annual injury problems hit).
The problem with this kind of play is that it then creates doubts in the keeper’s mind which make him indecisive, such as for Leicester’s second when he could have cut out Albrighton’s early cross, and this then affects the other defenders, especially when they are already having a tough game like Holding was.
It’s important for Cech to calm down, not get caught making rash decisions, and use all his experience to help the team when in tricky situations like the one we found ourselves in during the first half. As an example, when he could see the Leicester high press was affecting our players, he should have looked for the longer ball to Welbeck, rather than play the short passes to the defenders. He was brought here for that kind of nous, but he’s currently looking like a third choice goalkeeper who’s got no faith in himself. This needs to be addressed, hopefully by Jens Lehmann who joined the coaching staff this season (a slightly ironic thought, that).
3. The midfield needs direction
This is the big one, really. Ever since the departure of Vieira, Wenger tried to build the team into a passing outfit that could control games through possession, rather than power. While we lost the lynchpin of that gameplan, Cesc Fabregas, six years ago, we have never truly replaced him, even though our gameplan remains that possession-based game.
While Santi Cazorla has on occasion managed to act as a midfield conductor good enough to fulfil that gameplan, it’s safe to say that we’ve not really utilised possession in the way this plan requires over the last few seasons.
This used to be particularly apparent in the default 4-2-3-1 formation we used to play, and has continued to be a problem in the 3-4-2-1 as well. The primary issues are:
- Lack of dynamism in some central midfield options
- Lack of forward-thinking passing triangles in the centre of the park
- Lack of intelligent distribution through the middle
The Leicester game perfectly demonstrated the dynamism issue, which was a direct result of the team selection. Mohamed Elneny had a pretty decent game, all things said, creating Lacazette’s opener with a lovely first time aerial ball, successfully completing 90.3% of his 72 passes, and making 4 tackles. Unfortunately, Elneny doesn’t really play that many forward passes in attacking positions, preferring to pass the ball to the wingbacks on the flanks, or to the inside forwards in safe positions, and doesn’t ever drive into the box.
Since Granit Xhaka also plays a similar role (though he does look for more forward passes), the play stagnates in the final third, with both holding players shuttling the ball around on the edge of the box, which means that a well organised opposing defence can sit back and predict what they’re going to do. And that’s exactly what Leicester were able to do for most of the game, sitting deep and preventing Arsenal from creating enough clear-cut chances, and forcing them into predictable patterns of play .
Aaron Ramsey’s introduction changed, adding more dynamism to the play thanks to his desire to get into the box, pulling a defender or midfielder with him, and opening up the play for a forward or wide player, or just overwhelming an opponent – this was to prove crucial as we nearly doubled our shot count and created more dangerous chances after his and Olivier Giroud’s introduction in the 66th minute.
The natural reaction to the above analysis is that as long as Aaron Ramsey plays, the midfield should function fine. But even this isn’t good enough, not always at any rate. Even though Ramsey is more dynamic, his passing tends to be very functional, with the objective of laying the ball off to someone who can then play the ball into the box. This means that we never really have any passing in central midfield itself, even by our central midfielders. Almost all passes are either out to the wingbacks, who the play the ball to the inside forwards or cross into the box, or go backwards to recycle possession.
This is a genuine problem for a team which has a possession gameplan, and is relying on passing to break down teams. Moving the ball out wide gives more time for an opposing team to organise itself, and becomes more predictable, and the accuracy of the final ball is always suspect. Passing through the middle helps pull defensive midfielders and centre-backs out of position, which creates more opportunities for attackers in positions where they have a better chance of scoring, and is far less predictable.
It’s incredibly difficult to remember the last time we saw effective passing triangles in midfield on a consistent basis, not perhaps since Fabregas and Wilshere struck up combinations in the 2010-11 season. And while that is obviously no guarantee of overall success for the team, with increased stability in defence since that time, there should be some improvement. Interestingly, while Jack Wilshere’s Arsenal career seems over at this point, returning to this kind of football could also be a way for him to find a way back into the manager’s plans.
Distribution through the middle
The failure to pass in the centre of the field has also affected our ability to create chances through the middle. Most of our chances are created from the wings, requiring overlaps and then a good ball into the box, which, as discussed earlier, mostly takes place in a position where the opposition team is firmly ensconced in solid defensive positions.
We have a number of players who like to play off the shoulder of the last defender, who like to make runs in behind a defence, from Lacazette to Walcott to (when fit), Alexis, but we never play the passes to pick them out, despite having one of the best proponents of this kind of passing in Mesut Ozil. In last season’s FA Cup final, we saw the benefits of central passing play that looked to play the ball through the middle, as Ozil dropped in off his inside right position to take up central positions, linking with Xhaka and Ramsey in the middle of the park and then playing balls into Sanchez and Welbeck.
Not all of those passes were pulled off, but they created a great deal more panic in the Chelsea box than Bellerin or the Ox’s crosses, and eventually it was a ball like that that set Giroud away to set up Ramsey’s goal.
If we really want to utilise our passing ability, and to get the best out of our forwards, we need to actively plan to put all the aspects above together, to use Ramsey’s dynamism along with passing triangles in midfield to open up space for someone like Ozil to pick out our forwards. Otherwise, our midfield just looks like a bunch of Denilsons shuffling the ball sideways an hoping that the 358th cross into the box will find a target.
4. Giroud needs to play as centre-forward in the absence of Sanchez
We know that in the 3-4-2-1, Sanchez does not play as the number 9, but as the inside left forward, so this is not a matter of recommending Giroud as a number 9 in place of Sanchez. This is about recognising that in the absence of Sanchez, our front-most 3 need to play with a focal point, or risk looking like a bunch of headless chickens.
Without Giroud starting, our front 3 becomes a fluid trident, swapping positions and sides of play, with Welbeck popping up all over the final third, Ozil dropping deep, and playing reverse passes out wide after cutting infield, and Sanchez moving into the centre to play passes and shoot at goal. This works because all 3 have good movement, yes, but most importantly, it relies on the relentless pressing that Sanchez initiates, forcing misplaced passes by midfielders and defenders, which opens up spaces for our midfielders, forwards and wing-backs.
When Sanchez does not play, however, the build-up in our attacking play relies more on moves built from the back, which means they’re slower, allowing the opposition to regroup. Getting past them means often going wide, or trying to play one-twos near the edge of the box to pull defenders out of position. To some extent, midfield improvements can help with this. However, at the end of the day, picking a pass through the middle isn’t easy, and you have to look at wide options or playing the ball intricately around defenders.
For both those types of play, Giroud is by far the best forward in the team. He’s strong in the air, and loves holding up the ball and knocking it to onrushing midfielders and forwards. Unless the midfield really gets into a groove which can properly feed Lacazette, Giroud is our best option for making our play work in the absence of Sanchez.
The drawbacks with with this option are lack of pace upfront, and worries about how to bed in Lacazette, our record signing. However, Lacazette’s performance on the left of the 4-2-3-1 we switched to in the late stages of the game against Leicester has shown that the two Frenchmen can play together, to good effect. And with superfast wing-backs like Bellerin and the Ox, and fast inside forwards in Lacazette, Welbeck or Walcott, we would not really be sacrificing pace.
Whether Wenger decides to go with this option or not, it is clear that the forward line needs some cohesion. The front 3 against Leicester floundered for much of the game, notwithstanding Welbeck’s tireless efforts and some good positions taken up by Lacazette. If we are to eschew a focal point like Giroud, then the forwards need to think more about how they plan to pull opponents out of position and be more threatening to the goal.