The undoubtedly most common condemnation of Arsène Wenger over the last few years has been his seeming naivety and inability to properly adapt to the weaknesses of the opposition. For whatever reason, as perfectly epitomised by the heavy defeats suffered away to the other members of the top four last season, the focus has always been orientated around what his own team can do best – whether it’s suitable in the bigger picture of things or not.
So although it was a relatively one-off display at the time (it could be argued that there were some very small but poorly executed signs of it in the 2-2 draw away to Liverpool however), the 2-0 victory away to Man City in the middle of January demonstrated what could be looked upon as a potential turning point for both Wenger’s mind-set and the Gunners in general. Rather than exposing themselves by being open and looking to dominate the game from the off, there was for once a much more pragmatic approach to things. Unsurprisingly, as the scoreline shows, it was much more effective than their usual showings.
The defensive shape that was employed was much more akin to a 4-1-4-1 than usual, operating in a low and tight block which would limit space both between the lines and behind the Arsenal defence. Alexis Sánchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the two wide players, were instructed to get behind the ball very quickly, Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey marshalled the space in the midfield well and Francis Coquelin performed brilliantly as the sole pivot in the side; a combination which severely limited the amount of room which David Silva, Man City’s most intelligent instigator in attack, had to laterally drift into.
A lack of threat and impetus from deeper midfield areas without Yaya Touré and Sergio Agüero’s lack of match fitness were certainly beneficial for Arsenal on the day too, but it was mostly their own structure which restricted the amount of dangerous passing combinations that Man City could play – stopping last season’s Champions from attacking the half-spaces (where they can play intricately in the gaps between defenders) in particular which they normally do so well.
The 35% of possession which Arsenal had, their lowest ever figure recorded for them in the league since 2003, demonstrated the change of emphasis perfectly and it worked a treat for the majority of the game. At times a failure to be clinical on the counter-attack left them exposed as they committed too many men on what were ultimately failed breaks forward, but it was a significant improvement to how they normally play in this sort of match. At last there was a truly intelligent set up by Wenger in a big game to silence his (deserved) critics.
Next up for Arsenal was a rather less daunting prospect on paper as they hosted Aston Villa at The Emirates, and it seemed entirely likely that they’d revert to their normal style of trying to grab the initiative and forcing the opposition back through control of the ball. Taking an early lead through Olivier Giroud backed up that thought process in the opening stages, but the 5-0 victory was – despite how it appears when seeing the scoreline – very different to usual. It was a kind of dominance which you wouldn’t at all associate with Arsenal. Wenger’s side were, instead, much cleverer in how they looked to exploit Villa’s weaknesses.
Like with the Man City game, Arsenal focused around controlling space rather than the ball. Given Villa’s inadequacies in attack and failure to break teams down on a weekly basis, them having more possession (53%) would not be a problem for Arsenal to be wary of; something which also nullified the potential of a counter-attack – a significant threat for a team who do have a lot of pace – coming back to bite Wenger as it has done on countless occasions in the past. It also invited Villa to push up and their (rather strangely) high defensive line was broken through on numerous occasions by the speed and incisiveness of Arsenal’s attacking group.
Maybe the result wasn’t massively eye-grabbing like the Man City one, as most people expected a comfortable win for the home side (although they did score five goals against what was at the time the drawn fifth-best defensive unit in the league), but the manner it was achieved in was certainly worth taking note of. For two consecutive but very different games, Wenger’s tactics orientated around the actual game itself rather than simply what his team does best: and the results followed. But would that run extend into the North London Derby, a game synonymous with free-flowing football and defensive absurdities?
Well, yes and no. The style of the performance was, very much correctly, consistent with the last two matches. The execution and the result however, a 2-1 loss at White Hart Lane which puts Spurs ahead of Arsenal in the race for the Champions League, was a poor one.
Whilst the Aston Villa match was a great demonstration of how effective Arsenal can be on the counter-attack, this was the complete opposite. Their combination play was lacklustre and wasteful after going 1-0 up through Özil, both through their own faults and the high intensity ruthlessness of Spurs’ pressing – hugely contrasting to Arsenal’s complete lack of closing down – disrupting their build-up, leaving them with no outlet for the vast majority of the game; inviting extended pressure upon themselves continuously.
They got away with somewhat similar faults and mistakes on the ball (though to a lesser extent) against Man City because there was very little wrong with their defensive structure on the day, but at Spurs there were systematic and individual errors which cost them throughout. There was less urgency from the wide players to get behind the ball and Danny Welbeck (who is normally very good at such things) in particular was poor in his own half, failing to cope with the attacking threat which Danny Rose constantly offered from left-back. This led to Rose getting a load of space on the wing and a need for Ramsey to drift over to try and limit it – leaving space centrally which could be exposed next to Coquelin by Christian Eriksen cutting inside, Mousa Dembéle, and Harry Kane when he dropped slightly deeper.
A comparable problem occurred on Arsenal’s left which meant Cazorla had to try and cover for Mesut Özil, and although this was less significant than the threat on the other side it again helps to demonstrate how having just one or two players not functioning within the system properly can lead to problems emerging so easily. With more and more spaces opening up for Spurs to attack because of this, Arsenal were forced incredibly deep and couldn’t break out. Positional indiscipline, as it so often has, contributed to Arsenal’s downfall.
And yet, for all the errors that there were, from their inability to sustain the shape properly to the absence of any pressing (though normally it is, bar one or two players, somewhat half-hearted and not coordinated particularly well anyway), the set up was right – or at least the intention of it was anyway. It’s far too easy to look at the scoreline of the latest game and ignore all the positives that have happened just before it.
When playing away from home against a team who have been playing with great intensity and cutting edge, trying to fight fire with fire isn’t a smart move. Having been repeatedly caught out in these sorts of games before as a result of leaving themselves open, and given how well setting up more astutely in their previous two matches worked for them, the approach Arsenal adopted made complete sense.
Whether playing deeper truly maximises Wenger’s squad is a difficult question to answer (although it certainly doesn’t if they play with a low block to the sheer extremes that they did at White Hart Line), but the adaption of their mentality towards a team who doesn’t just have an incessant want to control the ball is, though in its early stages, promising.
They’ve been one-dimensional in their approach under Wenger for far too long. Again, it’s important not to read too much into a small selection of games, but continuing to build on these newly laid foundations is undoubtedly how this team needs to develop if they truly want to compete with the best clubs in England and Europe. The execution is far from perfect, and there are certainly improvements to make, but it’s a big step in the right direction for Arsenal and Arsène Wenger.