Dan weighs in on Arsenal’s title chances after Liverpool exposed their flaws at Anfield…
Any Arsenal supporter who watched Saturday’s 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Liverpool would have felt a terrible sense of familiarity. Goals were too easily conceded and defeat far too easily accepted. The most recent example of such a story unfolding was the 6-3 defeat suffered away to Manchester City in December. The argument advanced by commentators since the beginning of the season is so recognisable it barely needs re-stating: Arsenal will not win the title because they won’t beat the big teams. It appears that this hypothesis might soon be proved correct. After all, it is difficult to remember championship winning teams who have endured such heavy defeats to close rivals.
Nevertheless, winning the title remains a mathematical reality for Arsenal. They defeated Liverpool at the Emirates earlier this season, thus negating yesterday’s defeat in direct terms. They have the chance to neutralise away defeats to the two Manchester clubs in two crucial upcoming return fixtures at home. Yet there is a palpable fear that such defeats might have undermined Arsenal’s belief, confidence and conviction to such an extent that they won’t be able to recover. I’ve always thought it dangerous for observers to try their hand at amateur psychoanalysis. It’s not as easy to judge a team’s mental state as one might think. Therefore, a focus on the technical and the tactical might give one a greater insight into Arsenal’s problems against stronger opposition.
Nevertheless, winning the title remains a mathematical reality for Arsenal.
It’s perhaps Arsène Wenger’s greatest strength, and perhaps his biggest weakness, that he devotes his attention unequivocally to his own team. Wenger has a vision of how he wants the team to be structured and, at least this season, has not seem inclined to change it for anyone. Arsenal set up every week with the same 4-2-3-1 formation and against most teams it has worked extremely well. However, I think one problem re-occurred in the defeats at Liverpool and Manchester City and it concerns the wide areas, particularly the left hand side.
Arsenal started at Anfield with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla in the offensive midfield three. At Man City it was Theo Walcott, Özil and Jack Wilshere. Cazorla and Wilshere are fine players, but neither would be considered an orthodox wide player and neither gives much protection to their left-back. In both games that left-back was Nacho Monreal, who probably needs greater protection than the pacier Kieran Gibbs. This lack of protection is not due to a lack of work rate or desire but simply because both players like to drift inside to get involved in inter-play and aren’t in the right position to track back if play breaks down. Manchester City’s second goal at the Etihad against Arsenal was a perfect example. Jack Wilshere was far too narrow to close down the overlapping Pablo Zabaleta. Liverpool had obviously noted this area as a weakness due to the fact they moved Luis Suárez from his favoured position towards the right hand side, assisted by the overlapping Jon Flanagan. That side of the pitch was a constant source of productivity for Liverpool in the first half.
A new problem Arsenal have had to deal with this season is how to play against teams who press them high up the pitch. New because for years it was the orthodoxy for teams to sit back against Arsenal, concede a lot of possession and try to hit them on the counter attack. Both Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho employed such tactics against them. However this year Everton at the Emirates, Man City at the Etihad, Southampton at St Mary’s and most recently Liverpool at Anfield have made it a real struggle for Arsenal to build from the back. Quite frankly, Arsenal struggled to get out of their half for much of those matches, particularly in the first half of those games.
A new problem Arsenal have had to deal with this season is how to play against teams who press them high up the pitch.
To combat this pressing you need pace. It needs to be quicker. First, in the traditional sense of pure foot speed, the loss of Theo Walcott is doubtlessly a factor. Strangely for a Wenger side this Arsenal team is quite slow. Olivier Giroud up front has done a sterling job for Arsenal and is a good link up player but doesn’t offer for a ball over the top. None of Arteta, Flamini, Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere and Özil could be described as quick. This by no means implies they shouldn’t be in the team. Indeed when Arsenal are on top and playing in the opposition’s half then they are as good a midfield as any in the league. However, the lack of pace in this Arsenal side is exemplified when playing against team who press high. There are very few ‘out balls’ for players on the ball. Compare this to successful Arsenal sides to the past containing Overmars and Anelka or Henry and Ljungberg.
The second issue regarding pace is that with which Arsenal move the ball. Cazorla, Wilshere and Özil, in general, like to take several touches when on the ball, often delaying the pass until the last minute. This, again, can be risky against oppositions who press well. Indeed, Liverpool’s third goal came from Özil being dispossessed after taking too many touches. In my view, the re-introduction of Tomáš Rosický to the team would be welcomed. He helps to speed up Arsenal’s play by looking for those one touch passes around the corner that could help beat the press. He also is always Arsenal’s most effective presser and sets the tempo by closing down with his relentless energy. Arsenal need to get in the habit of starting matches in a more forceful way. Rosický could be the man to help them do this.