To press or not to press: the Arsenal conundrum

The world of football has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. The new era of football comes from pressing. Modern day teams are highly drilled both physically and mentally on this art and every team has their own style of pressing.

The question is why can’t Arsenal find their style? I’m sure my blog title is a question asked by a lot of fans while watching Arsenal of late; it even seems to be a question asked by our own players during games.

This past weekend versus Preston you could visibly see Giroud ushering players up the pitch to press the opposition backline, the exact same thing has happened numerous times with Alexis and Özil trying to get players up the pitch previously this season. It’s worrying that we’re halfway through the season and still seemingly unsure of when we want to press and when we want to sit back.

Lack of control

We go into games with the intention of controlling the play and pinning the opposition back into their defensive third but there’s a clear disjointed theme to our play in this aspect and because we expect to control games it causes countless moments where players need to track back with high intensity sprints to get back into positions because of nothing more than poor ball circulation. This leads to greater fatigue, lesser quality offensive play and gaps for opposition teams to counter into. Certain players in our team are obviously targeted more through their consistent lack of support than specific weaknesses and that’s because of our system.

Yet to find our best team

You’d expect us to know what are preferred first 11 would be by now but we seem nowhere near knowing what this is. You can attribute that to injuries but you can also attribute it to players not playing to their expected quality. Monreal looks more and more vulnerable with each game which is exacerbated by a lack of consistent and effective protection from the left winger. Gibbs looked to come in and get a run before his injury but now we’re left with a real conundrum.

The absence of Santi Cazorla has proven an even bigger blow than expected and that’s highlighted by the plethora of attempted centre midfield partnerships that have been attempted in the Spaniards absence.

The consistent problem is that whatever combination we use needs a very specific and effective winger role alongside it to make up for varied and consistent weaknesses. While combinations like Coquelin/Elneny have mobility and genuine defensive intent they lack the creative and technical prowess to keep and use the ball well enough.

Xhaka comes into the equation as a playmaker with defensive steel and in him we have a player who we’ve been searching for years to find but he has his weaknesses too. Xhaka’s lack of mobility would be far less noticeable if one of the wingers sat narrower to make it a midfield three and give Xhaka less space to have to cover to defend.

Due to injuries and Elneny leaving for the African Cup of Nations, it seems like Xhaka is likely to be partnered by Ramsey for the near future at least. This is a partnership many people have been hoping to see for a while and even though it didn’t have the best debut against Preston it’s worth keeping our minds open over the next few games to see how it develops.

It should also be mentioned that Granit Xhaka got his rave reviews at Borussia Monchengladbach in a centre midfield partnership with a young German box to box midfielder called Mahmoud Dahoud. The reason this partnership was effective was largely because Dahoud consistently looked to receive the ball in-between Xhaka (the #6) and Lars Stindl (the #10). This has been a problem in our system since Cazorla’s injury and we’ve lacked a player that can effectively take up these positions in-between Xhaka and Özil. Ramsey is potentially more suited to this role than any other centre midfielder in our entire roster and has the engine to replicate what Dahoud gave Xhaka last season although to achieve this Ramsey will require more disciplined tactical instruction.

Ramsey accumulates a lot of criticism but he still has many pluses that are perhaps overlooked because he’s yet to regain the form he was enjoying in 2013. Ramsey has a supreme engine and uses it to overload all over the pitch. He also has a preference to start from deep and move up the pitch finding pockets between lines; this helps both Xhaka and Özil because it would create a clear chain in the spine.

Lack of clarity in phases of play

One thing Arsène Wenger has pointed out a lot in Cazorla’s absence has been that we miss the “pass from deep midfield to high midfield” yet when we played Manchester United with the pivot of Coquelin/Elneny (players that lack this attribute hugely) we didn’t alter our style of play to support them more at all.

This season we’ve looked dangerous as ever on the counter attack but when it comes to structure and clarity in what players should be doing in different phases and moments in game management, we’ve looked clueless on countless occasions.

In the first half horror show against Preston we showcased and vindicated every fear that’s been accused of Arsenal this season and in the first minute of the next half we saw the immediate difference that can be made when Wenger takes more control and gives detailed guidance.

It only took that opening minute for Aaron Ramsey to rifle the ball right footed from the edge of the Preston penalty area to bring us level, a goal that was followed by a mutual thumbs up from player and manager – they had a plan and that plan had paid off immediately.

This begs the question of why should a team of our quality need a half time refresher in the first place? Why can’t we be ready from the kickoff?

My theory on the matter is that although Wenger creates a tactical structure for us to work within and gives players roles within that structure he wants to afford them the ability to perceive things naturally. You could call this the bravest form of coaching there is because he’s leading them to develop their own problem solving skills, these are skills that you could attribute to the 3 goal come back vs Bournemouth, for instance. The argument against it, however, would be that it gives too much leeway for us to be put on the back foot.

Why can’t we cope with being pressed?

One of our greatest frustrations has always been teams parking the bus against us to prevent us room to play the free-flowing football we’ve become famous for but what seems an even bigger worry now is that we can’t handle organised pressing. Theoretically we should thrive on teams trying to force us to play football, it should open up space for us to play between them but the reality is very different and we consistently struggle, again this comes down to poor ball circulation in central areas especially.

Change shape to change our fortunes

We obviously lack options that fit our current system in wide areas. The bulk of our quality comes from our central players and we should take advantage of that.

If we switched to a midfield 3 we solve numerous problems we’re currently suffering:

  • Xhaka is protected by 2 interior midfielders, limiting the space he has to cover to defend and allowing us more bodies in the areas where we normally lose the ball.
  • Wingbacks can more naturally add to defensive and offensive balance because as the sitting midfielder Xhaka can drop in-between the centre backs, creating more passing lanes and giving the wingbacks more licence to get higher up the pitch.
  • Özil can still be given the freedom to drop central and play closely to Alexis because with Coquelin as the left of the 3 he can cover the space on that flank and the 3 of them combined can cover space to stop Monreal getting caught in 1 vs 1’s.
  • With Xhaka and Coquelin playing as the deeper midfielder we could finally see Aaron Ramsey playing as the 3rd midfielder with the freedom to break structure and truly use his engine and technical ability to the levels that we saw with Wales in Euro 2016.
  • Özil and Alexis can concentrate on roaming dangerous areas at will with the knowledge that Walcott will take up the striker spaces they vacate but with a much safer structure behind them.

In Wenger we must trust

For the rest of the season at least, we must put our trust and faith into Wenger. It’s no mystery that the aura of discontent around the club is tentative to say the least. Lack of knowledge into the contract situations for Wenger, Özil and Alexis have increased the feeling of uncertainty around the cub which makes every game seem like it could bring us one step closer to a crisis. Wenger is now tasked with rejuvenating a team bereft of confidence and finding a new balance to save our season – Saturday’s match against struggling Swansea definitely wouldn’t be a bad place to start!

Luke (@LukeisPremium) is one of our regular bloggers and loves talking tactics – go give him a follow.

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