Monday, March 2, 2009

Arsenal strangling the game? Or: The new defensive offense

Arsenal seem to be taking a whole new tactical approach to the game right now. I'd been getting increasingly frustrated lately with the draws, the scoreless draws, but after the fourth in a row, I've realized something I was fairly surprised by. 

It's intentional.

While manager Arsene Wenger is surely unwilling to simply roll over and NOT score all together, I do think that he's willing risk to just that right now with this renewed defensive approach they're taking. Or rather, a new (for the Arsenal) offensive approach that is so cautious that it can only be looked at as a grand "cover your ass" philosophy. He sees that he's better off collecting the points he can while he can then by risking dropping even more points from here to the end of the calendar. In other words it's bad, but let's not make it worse before we get key pieces back and have a go at making it better. Savvy?

The manager is very smart. Stubborn, yes, but he's also damn smart. And that's why I'll have trouble sitting back and accepting that this team simply can't manage a goal right now. Again, this is a fine line. It's not like Arsene doesn't want to score. He is not setting out to achieve nil-nil results. But what I do think is happening is that he realizes his team is not good enough, at the moment, to play the type of football he'd normally demand across the pitch as an 11 man unit while defending at the same time. We've witnessed it all year. Arsenal pour forward, moving the ball, inter-changing their positions and probe for that wonderful goal, and all the while the opposition never looks far from scoring. They are always just as ready to challenge and come forward themselves. Even the lowest of the competition are picking up several goals against the team.

So what does it mean? I think that Arsene has finally come around to recognize that, in the fight for his life to remain relevant in the league and hold onto that important Champions League berth, he has needed to adjust his tactics - and his expectations - to start collecting the points the team needs. And all this before they fall too far out of sorts.

So what are they doing? Arsenal under Arsene Wenger haven't traditionally been a crossing team. They haven't played the wing position as others have done over the years. Whether it was Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Jose Antonio Reyes, even Sylvain Wiltord or in the fall of 2008 Samir Nasri, Arsene's wingers have played themselves to the middle with the fulcrum of the striker and midfielder allowing them to move so fluidly. The striker would come wide, he would drop deeper to the middle then move wider still, all in an effort to provide the winger with the space and the eventual fulcrum off of which they could play the ball, and then move into the new space for a shot for themselves or, preferably, a sharp one-touch pass back to the striker, allowing them to do their job. My kingdom for a diagram right here and now! All of that, as difficult as it is to describe in words, would be supported by an anchor in the middle of the park. And that anchor would ride high, folks. Picture it: Pires down the wing, Henry drops deep allowing Pires to get the ball ever-so-slightly inside and deeper yet, Henry falls farther to the touchline on the left, Vieira pushes up into the space that Henry vacated and receives the ball from Pires, Henry turns himself to the middle and accepts the pass from Vieira out wide, Henry probes and pokes his way past the defender, now confused as to just whom he's supposed to defend as Bergkamp comes toward him and Pires drops back and to the left for Henry to come across the middle to either finish with aplomb himself or slot it to Dennis Bergkamp for the easy finish. Done and dusted ... 1-nil to the Arsenal.

Now try that with this team. Arsenal have the capability at the wing, surely, but where are they lacking to match that progression? One, when healthy, Adebayor is not in the same mold as Thierry Henry. Of course he's not as good as Henry, no one is, but the point is that he's a much different player. He won't come out and left as described above. What else? The massive piece that's missing right now is the player of Patrick Vieira's quality. And the counterpart in the middle to do the same on the opposite side, along with charging up and down and back again. Alex Song and Denilson are not of the quality to move the ball like that and create those traditional Arsene Wenger goals. Nicolas Bendtner is not good enough to move in and out like that, nor (if you've watched him try to play with Arshavin in the last two weeks) does he appear to have the mental capacity to actually see the game in that manner, to speak football at that level. This current Arsenal side may be able to string it together from time to time, but on a whole, they are unable to drive such football with mastery, while maintaining attention to the rest of the pitch and the opposition. That is where they are getting beaten.

So what are we getting? We're getting a team that has rooted its strikers to the forward middle of the park. We're getting a team that expects an awful lot of running out of its wings as they push the ball down the middle to cross to the awaiting strikers. Did you see Robin Van Persie rise to meet the ball with his head on Saturday? Not what you hope for from him. It's like Shakespeare clutching for a cliche. (Ahem.) We're getting midfielders, so lacking in their quality, that the manager has changed the entire approach for his team. We're getting midfielders who drift and stay anchored so low on the pitch that the fulcrum they provide is ever closer to the center of the park. And that means they themselves are rooted deeper. The wing will take the ball from the back four, carry along at width and then play it inside near the halfway line - only to have it kicked back for them to push it upfield in a vain attempt at a cross, and in the vain hopes that a striker will latch onto it. Did you see how exhausted Samir Nasri was last week?

What's the bottom line? Arsene has the team playing in a formation that is more akin to a U formation, with not just the back four weighing down the bottom of it, but the central midfielders anchored deeply as well. Then, the wings push up and down the pitch and those strikers just hang out with, in truth, very little to do. It's a thankless job, playing as a striker in this formation. It's also a thankless job for the wing as the rest of the team is so locked down that the wings are unable to find and exploit the open spaces on the pitch. If indeed there are any.

He knows what he's playing with, what he's putting out on the pitch. The only problem is that it may have taken him a little too long to recognize the faults and the stakes as well. Could that inability to see the inadequacies in his team be down to his well documented stubbornness? Could be. No sense in second guessing now though. What counts is that, with 11 games to play, the race is ON between Arsenal and Aston Villa for that fourth spot in the league and the final Champions League berth. Villa will not go down without a fight, and that might just be to Arsenal's advantage right now. They've scraped and scraped all year and may well find themselves a step too far by the end of it, in spite of the fantastic football they've given us. But Arsene seems to have a technical edge here. Arsenal are dropping points with too many draws, yet so are Aston Villa. But in the end, what Arsene Wenger is doing is holding the line. And waiting to pounce. And he's built a stronger team because of it. They'll be better for the push, more considerate of their defensive responsibilities, more considerate of each other, and more understanding of the complete job that needs to be done.

And it's just in time to add the missing (injuries) pieces he's got in his pocket to play that evolved football we know and love. 

1 comment:

Jamie said...

mmmhm, yes... i wont comment on the formation, as i've not noticed it.

a good read, all the same. a fulcrum read at that. i used to work in a building called Fulcrum House funnily enough.

I used fulcrum twice... i'm no match for you, sire!

a good read, interesting view. it is not beyond our associate AW to make a drastic change in order to shape up our ship. trying to bring back boring boring arsenal FORWARD SLASH one-nil to the arsenal. short term basis... right!? short term, though yeah!?

however, after this summer, we will need the scoring scoring arsenal back! with a... holding... defensive... mid... midfi... anyone... anyone...?