Arsenal vs West Ham: An #ABW Tactical Breakdown

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“I want wide players to have chalk on their boots” – Neil (@ChimptheGooner)

Given the nature of this blog, I think Neil’s statement to me not less than five minutes ago perfectly sums up the feelings around the ABW dressing room in the aftermath of yesterday’s poor performance – we lacked real width and incisiveness in our attack.

Whether you are a tactical prodigy or not is inconsequential, because even the most bit-part football fan could see that our biggest problem yesterday was on the tactics board, and by extension the reason why all of our players were as ineffective as they turned out to be.

So just a few tables then (and a diagram or two) before we go a little deeper into why we were doomed from the off yesterday:

Arsenal in possession
Areas where we attacked: 45% left, 33% central, 22% right
Areas where we had shots: 23% left, 55% central, 23% right
Shots in the final third: 6% in the 6, 64% in the 18, 32% outside the box
Total passes: 598
Crosses: 34
Through Balls: 2
Long Balls: 42
Short Passes: 520

Key Player individual performancesTable August 10

WHU v Arsenal

How West Ham stacked up against Arsenal.

As the saying goes, you can only use numbers so much to prove a point, which is absolutely true, but when you use numbers as support for the breakdown of a team’s tactics, things become a little more clear. With that being said, lets dive into what went wrong on the pitch and how, at least for me, they can be addressed and adjusted.

Where the tactics went wrong

The general consensus when it comes to tactics in a footballing sense is that when your opponent sits deep and compact in their defensive third of the pitch, then you need to find a way to work your way around the opposition. If you think about it from a military stand point (the other half of how my brain operates), when a General sees that his opponent on the field has deployed his troops in layers in the center of their line, they attack the flanks which are weakened. Now, clearly Wenger is no General, but he certainly is a football manager, so it baffles my mind as to how we spent nearly the entire match on Sunday repeatedly attacking West Ham’s center rather than finding a way to stretch them at the back.

It’s no secret at all anymore how we like to play our football: possession, build-up play, short passing and patient in creating chances…waiting for the opposition to make a mistake. It’s proven to work it’s true, but it’s also proven to fail miserably when we are found out and refuse to adapt your style of play. Sometimes it’s just not enough to have faith in your tactics eventually working with time, they are not like Novocain after all. Full credit to Slaven Bilić for taking one off of Gary Monk and company on how to grind out a result against us, but the onus needed to be on us to produce quality football to get a result at home.

First and foremost, our XI on the day featured too many creative minds and not enough directness, with Ramsey, Cazorla and Özil all featuring from the off and all too willing to sit centrally for the lion’s share of the play. While it’s worth nothing that all three players did drift away into wider areas from time to time, most of their positioning came to rest around the area outside of the box. Ox in wider areas seemed to be our main outlet on the day at first glance, but even the youngster felt the need to tuck in from the right far too frequently to ever stretch the Hammers at the back.

Most of our chances were created from the left side of the pitch with Monreal and Cazorla trying their best to be more attacking on the day since Bellerín did not feature. The Spaniards did well enough to get further forward and try to provide service, but again the issue comes from the XI – we had too many creative players and not enough players willing to bust into the box. At the most, only Giroud and Ramsey tried to find space to get on the end of crosses, but almost every time it was headed away or claimed by Adrian – Giroud was double and sometimes triple marked.

Additionally, as all the bloggers discuss from time to time, there still exists our age old problem of there being no one willing to pick their head up, notice eight or nine defenders in front of them and opt to have a crack at goal rather than force a pass through two layers of their defense. It’s ironic that as I write this, Yaya Touré just opened City’s league account with a shot from outside the area that deflected and trickled past Myhill. West Brom was all too happy to sit deep and compact, and rather than try to force play through the middle, City has not been shy at shooting when they’ve been open. For all the chances and shots we registered (22) only seven were taken from outside the area.

As for our passing, out of 179 passes in the attacking third of the pitch, only 21 were attempted into the box and only 12 connected. We were more than happy to knock the ball around the edge of the area and pray that an opening would finally appear (as highlighted by the high percentage passing of our key players but smaller distance of the average pass), but when your players are too stagnate in their movement off the ball, you’ll be very hard pressed to draw out a defender or two into leaving space in behind or in an area where a high quality chance can present itself. Sometimes the best option is the simplest, and rather than trying repeatedly to be like Barcelona, why not just have a go and see what happens.

What’s the solution?

Our success as a club in the Premier League era was built on quick, incisive and free-flowing football. We do have an abundance of creative players at the club, but that does not mean that we have to accommodate to fit everyone into the XI each match – the beauty of having depth in quality is that you have options to bring into a game to change proceedings as well.

Wenger does traditionally like to possess the ball more at home, but there has to be a balance in the XI and that is certainly something we have to address. Why slot either Ramsey or Cazorla on either wing when neither of them are wingers just so we can have both of them on the pitch at once? The time has come for him to be more ruthless with his selection and drop one. I understand that Alexis was not fit enough to start and usually he would have been on the left, but once he returns there is no guarantee that Arsène won’t drop Ox in favor of Ramsey on the right. If we have players that fit positions ideally then they must be used, which is why many of us were calling for both Walcott and Ox to be used on the flanks on Sunday and either Ramsey or Cazorla central partnering Coquelin – better balance would have been provided and a wide threat on each flank would have asked more questions of West Ham at the back, forcing them to stretch their lines to deal with it.

At the end of the day, it’s not about changing your style from top to bottom but adapting your style to situations that it comes into contact with. We could have been looking at a very different result on the day if tactical adjustments were made when we realized what West Ham’s match plan was, rather than being repetitive and hoping it finally came good. Moving forward, just because something may have worked once or twice (a player being placed out of position) does not mean it should become habit, and prudence demands that it makes far more sense to use players where they are comfortable and ideally suited as much as you possibly can.

As the tricky fixture of Palace away grows closer, Wenger must prepare on the training ground properly or else we are looking at more dropped points early on in the season. None of us are asking to abandon his principles, but we are asking that he be more flexible in a league filled with too many sides that can surprise you on any given day. Unless lessons are finally learned and routinely applied, results like this weekend will become more common than any of us are willing to accept.

Drew is an #ABW Regular Columnist and can be found on Twitter as @AFCBvB1410

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