Baffling lack of tactical preparedness will continue to doom Arsenal

Arsenal’s failings as a club have been examined from all angles following their crushing 4-0 defeat at Anfield Sunday. From the apparent lack of effort from the players, to the culture of comfort and complacency created by majority shareholder Stan Kroenke and Arsene Wenger, to the bizarre situation that has left 8 players in the final year of their contracts including Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, there’s been no shortage of contributing factors to Arsenal’s decline (and no, success in a knockout tournament is not a valuable gauge of the direction a football club is heading in). Other folks can speak on those factors more eloquently than I ever could- Amy Lawrence’s piece for the Guardian on the stasis at the club was especially fascinating and Andrew Mangan’s Arseblog column Monday was typically compelling.

What I was most struck by Sunday were the relative levels of tactical preparedness between the two sides. Arsenal had a full week to prepare for this fixture, Klopp and Liverpool had a midweek Champions League qualifying fixture Wednesday and therefore had just three days to prepare. Yet Arsenal looked like a team of strangers that had been assembled moments before kickoff.

A team’s strategic approach to football matches can be broken down into two related but distinct factors. One of those factors is the team’s broad footballing philosophy- are they a side that look to monopolize possession and patiently build play (Barcelona under Guardiola), one that looks to defend deeper and play on the counter (Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone), or one that looks to press and break quickly after regaining possession (Borussia Dortmund and now Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp). This broad footballing philosophy dictates the style a team is identified with over the course of an extended period of time despite coming up against opponents with different strengths and weaknesses each week.

The second factor has to do with how teams prepare for individual opponents- how they make subtle tweaks to their broader tactical system in order to gain an advantage against an upcoming opponent. For instance when coming up against a side you know plays a very deep defensive line you wouldn’t start Striker A who’s poor at holding the ball up and linking play but very good at sprinting in behind the opposition defensive line and scoring breakaways. You just aren’t likely to have many opportunities where that player can excel at what he’s good at. You’d be more likely to start Striker B who is capable of playing with his back to goal and getting involved in linking play forward.

Arsenal under Arsene Wenger have had a relatively clear footballing philosophy over his tenure. They play a brand of fluid attacking football, generally look to play on the front foot and have more of the ball than their opponents (in recent seasons there have been several occasions where they’ve defended deeper and played on the break but you’d still describe Arsenal as a free flowing attacking side).

However, under Wenger they seem to place less emphasis on preparing for individual opponents than other sides. It would probably be oversimplistic to say Wenger doesn’t consider opponents at all during weekly training sessions but his attitude is quite different from a Jose Mourinho who tends to set his sides out in big matches to pragmatically stop the opposition and wait for them to make a mistake.

In 2010 while on international duty with Spain at the World Cup, Cesc Fabregas said of Wenger, “At Arsenal we don’t really look at anything from the other team, we look for ourselves and that’s it. Here [with the Spanish national team], maybe two three days before the game, we start looking at some videos, we know more or less the starting 11 that is going to play… we know nearly everything about them.”

That quote highlights a massive problem at Arsenal that was on full display Sunday afternoon. Liverpool’s huge Champions League qualification fixture Wednesday evening meant they only had three days to prepare for Arsenal. With no midweek fixtures Arsenal had an entire week to get themselves ready for an opponent that put 7 goals past them in the two league matches they played last season. Liverpool don’t really spring any surprises on you tactically. You know they’re going to press and break at great speed down the channels through Salah and Mane. You know Firmino is going to move into the channels and drop into deeper midfield positions to move your defenders around and try to create space for Salah and Mane. Arsenal employ crews of scouts and data analysts whose job it is to find out what opponents do well and don’t do well. And yet somehow Wenger’s side looked completely baffled by what they were up against.

Make no mistake the players were woeful. But Arsenal have been getting battered in these big fixtures for years now with different playing personnel on the pitch. The constant has been Wenger. Even setting aside Wenger’s bizarre lineup (you can listen to this most recent Arsecast for poignant commentary on that), the shape of the side was baffling.

At one point in the first half Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ozil were stood directly on top of one another within a couple yards of Mane. The winger made a rather obvious run in behind the two Arsenal players. Both stood still, allowing Mane to be played in behind.

There’s been plenty of discussion from pundits about the positioning of Aaron Ramsey over the course of the 90 minutes. For Liverpool’s first goal he was on the right side of the pitch apparently speaking with someone on the sideline with his back to play when Granit Xhaka conceded possession. For the second he was the highest man up the pitch when possession was conceded and Liverpool were able to easily play through a midfield that consisted only of Xhaka. You can assume one of three things about Ramsey’s tactical performance: 1) that he was given a fairly free role alongside Xhaka by Wenger, 2) that he ignored Wenger’s instructions and took it upon himself to play a free role or 3) that he wasn’t given any tactical instruction at all by Wenger. Either way it’s an indictment of Wenger as a manager. Ramsey doesn’t seem like the type of player to blatantly disregard the manager so you have to assume it was either the first or third factor.

Soccermetrica’s other contributor Daniel sent me two really interesting interviews that I thought were eye opening when considering how Wenger conveys his tactical ideas to the squad in preparation for matches.

In the first interview Jose Mourinho, while in his second tenure at Chelsea, discusses how modern managers must take vast amounts of information available to them and filter that information and operationalize it in a way that can be clearly conveyed to players so they’re fully aware of their most important responsibilities on the pitch in a given match.  Mourinho may not always use the most complex tactical systems in the world but his players tend to know exactly what their roles are. By comparison, Wenger’s Arsenal at times seem genuinely confused about what their roles should be.

Wenger has always been on the cutting edge of technology and the use of new forms of information to help improve the side, evidenced by the more enlightened views on nutrition and fitness he brought to England early in his tenure at Arsenal and the club’s purchase of the football data analytics company StatDNA in 2012. However, whereas Alex Ferguson was willing to delegate the weekly tasks that go into the training and preparation for matches, Wenger is a notoriously hands on manager that likes to be involved in all key decisions at the club. It’s easy to speculate that he’s become overwhelmed by the breadth of what it takes to prepare a football club and is losing his ability to identify important information and convey that information to the players in a way that gives them the best chance to win matches.

In a John Cross article that appeared in the Daily Mirror yesterday, former Arsenal captain and current NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira compared the approaches of Mourinho and Wenger.

“Arsene always gives freedom to his players. To have that freedom is good but if you can give them the freedom and respect the tactical aspect of the game it will be even better.

“They all had something I loved and something I’ll take with me. When you talk about Jose that I had in Inter, he was always focused on the details; giving players information that allows them to go on the field and respecting the tactical game.

“Then you have Arsene who is always positive and always giving confidence to the players no matter what. His approach and relationship with players I find really interesting.

“I would like to be the balance of both. I would like my teams to have the discipline that Jose has but also allow players to express themselves into that discipline like Arsene.”

The trust Wenger puts in his players is laudable and when Arsenal are at the top of their game it makes for some brilliant football. However, Vieira’s quotes sound like he’s suggesting Wenger more or less ignores strategic preparation for individual opponents. As a result under an organized manager like Mourinho teams can still win matches when they aren’t at their best. Under Wenger Arsenal have to be clicking on all cylinders to win matches and struggle to get results when they aren’t playing well. That was certainly on display at Liverpool Sunday.