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.

WFI Tactics podcast w/ segment on Arsenal's approach this season and why Spurs employed 3-5-2 in derby

The excellent Stevie Grieve explains the difference between tactics (a more overarching philosophy that dictates how sides approach football regardless of opponent) and strategy (how within your tactical set up you plan on exploiting the weaknesses of a given opponent) on a recent World Football Index Tactics podcast. Most interestingly he discusses the tactics we've seen employed by each of the top 5 sides this season and how their strategies have changed based on game-specific circumstances.

He talks in depth in the first 12 or so minutes about how Ozil's role has changed with Alexis playing as our number 9 as opposed to Giroud. As we've discussed here at Soccermetrica, Grives points out that Sanchez drops into deeper positions and floats into the channels which encourages Ozil to make those runs in behind the defense in the space vacated by Alexis. Alternatively, when Giroud plays up front he stays central and higher up the pitch which encourages Ozil to move into deeper positions to get on the ball and create. It's no surprise then that we see Ozil with more goals and fewer assists than he had at the same point last season. Importantly, both strategies can be effective and allow Arsenal to be flexible in how they approach individual games based on the opposition and changing scenarios over the course of a match.

Around 18 minutes Grieve puts forth his thoughts on why Spurs went with a 3-5-2 against us (it allowed Son and Kane to press our two center backs, the wing backs to press our full backs and still left them with 3 v. 3 in midfield). It's a fascinating podcast and I highly recommend all of the WFI Tactics pods. Grieve delves deeper into game analysis than you'll get from just about any other source and does so in a way that's easy to follow and understand.

A word on Arsenal's transfer inactivity

To date Arsenal have made three summer signings. Japanese striker Takuma Asano and center back Rob Holding are ones for the future and aren’t expected to feature in the first team (though Holding may get his chance sooner than expected). Xhaka, signed from Borussia Monchengladbach for around 30m, is the only signing thus far that will feature in the first team.

While Xhaka has the potential to immediately be a brilliant signing it doesn’t mask the fact everyone knew we had two key problems areas that needed to be addressed, center back and striker. Three long months later neither has been addressed and injuries at center back mean we’re nearing full brown crisis in defense. Wenger suggests he’ll only buy players that will improve on the ones he already has but that’s starting to sound like nonsense.

Mertesacker suffered his knee injury over two weeks ago. If the higher ups at the club somehow hadn’t realized how in need of a center back we were before then, Mert’s injury should have jolted them into action.  Instead they did nothing. Almost inevitably Gabriel went down with a serious injury a week before the opening league fixture.

If Shkrodan Mustafi was our guy why have we waited so long to go get him? We have the money, the need for the player is clearly there- what are we waiting on? Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City have all addressed weaknesses in their respective squads prior to the opening fixture. Yet again it seems we’re waiting until the season starts before even thinking about addressing obvious shortcomings.

Yes the market is madness at the moment but it is what it is. You either pay the market rate or risk getting left behind. Sit on piles of cash long enough after announcing how much of it you have and sellers will be looking to get as much out of you as they can. Wait until injuries mount up at center back and sellers know you’re desperate and you’re not going to have a strong negotiating position.

We can’t compete for the title without a better center back than Gabriel or Mertesacker to partner Koscielny and someone who at the very least provides a different option to Giroud up front. That much has been obvious to everyone since the second half of last season. Not going balls out to sign a striker and center back when they are so obviously required shows a disheartening but too unsurprising lack of ambition from the club.

Time hasn’t run out. I’m still hopeful we’ll land Mustafi and a striker and that I’ll be left eating my words. If not we’re in for another predictable season. 

Arsenal vs. Tottenham Preview

Sunday marks the first North London Derby of the Premier League season with Arsenal having eliminated Tottenham in the league cup 2-1 at White Hart Lane in September. Given that league cup games tend to be more open and less tactical than Premier League games and feature fewer first teamers in early rounds, that result offers few clues as to how Sunday will go. After all, Mathieu Flamini won the match with the first brace of his career.

Both sides enter Sunday's contest in excellent form in the Premier League. Spurs haven't been beaten since the opening day of the season at Old Trafford on an own goal in a game in which they were the better side for much of the 90 minutes. Arsenal's last loss was the controversial 2-0 defeat at Chelsea in mid September.

Formations and Lineups

Both sides will line up in a 4-2-3-1. Injuries have become a major conern for Arsene Wenger. Arsenal are without left back Hector Bellerin and Laurent Koscielny is also doubtful. Mathieu Debuchy will replace Bellerin, Gabriel will partner Per Mertesacker at center back if Koscielny doesn't recover. Those omissions in defense could pose a significant problem for the Gunners. The Mertesacker-Gabriel partnership was carved apart in a woefully disorganized performance in a 5-1 defeat at Bayern midweek and Debuchy has been unconvincing in his performances since returning from long term injury last season. Joel Campbell will start at the right of midfield with Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all still out through injury.

Mauricio Pochettino has nearly his complete squad to choose from- his only major absence is Nacer Chadli. The Argentinians major concern will be the freshness of his players. He played a near first choice squad in Spurs' 2-1 win over Anderlecht in the Europa League Thursday with Aderweireld, Vertonghen, Alli, Dier, Lamela, Eriksen and Kane all starting.

Tottenham left versus Arsenal right

Wenger should be concerned about his team's right side. Ramsey and Bellerin formed a solid partnership down that side defensively and were key to how Arsenal attacked. Ramsey tucks inside from a wide starting position, opening up space for the blisteringly pacey Bellerin to overlap in the channel and cut passes back across the face of goal. Debuchey doesn't have that level of pace that allows him to get in behind his marker. Campbell's positioning isn't as fluid as Ramsey- he'll cut inside from the right but will maintain a starting wider position than we'd see from Ramsey. Arsenal will therefore be a bit more rigid and predictable down that side.

Spurs will likely look to attack down that same channel through Eriksen and Danny Rose. Eriksen is Spurs most creative attacking player and will take up dangerous positions in the space between Debuchy, Mertesacker and Francis Coquelin. His movement inside will force Debuchy into narrow positions opening up space for Rose on the overlap. Rose rarely needs a second invitation to take the space and bomb forward so Campbell will have to be diligent tracking back. Ramsey is a tremendously fit player and typically does a decent job providing protection for his fullback while still possessing the engine to transition into attack quickly when Arsenal win the ball back. Campbell has played sparingly over the last few seasons and is therefore short on match fitness. He worked hard tracking back to protect Bellerin at Swansea last weekend but at times looked completely exhausted. It will be interesting to see how his fitness holds up as he plays his third game in nine days.

Eriksen tucks into the space between Debuchy, Mertesacker and Coquelin which forces Debuchy to tuck inside and opens up space in the channel for Rose to run into. Campbell must therefore track the runs of Rose or the fullback will have the time and space to pick his head up and pick out a pass in the penalty area.

Eriksen tucks into the space between Debuchy, Mertesacker and Coquelin which forces Debuchy to tuck inside and opens up space in the channel for Rose to run into. Campbell must therefore track the runs of Rose or the fullback will have the time and space to pick his head up and pick out a pass in the penalty area.

Eric Dier versus Mesut Ozil

Tottenham's formation operates as more of a 4-3-3 when they are in possession with Alli pushing forward into advanced positions and Dier sitting just in front of the center backs at the base of midfield. This gives Pochettino's side plenty of vertical passing options as they build attacks form the back. Alli and Dembele's positioning in front of Dier when Tottenham have the ball means both Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla will have a direct opponent in the center midfield zone rather than enjoying a two against matchup on a lone #10.

The advanced positioning also has the potential to leave Spurs vulnerable to the counter attack however. When Spurs concede possession with Alli high up the pitch it leaves Dier to defend the entire midfield zone on his own against quick opposition transitions. In Mesut Ozil, Arsenal have the league's in form playmaker who will have no problems moving into spaces either side of Dier to collect outlet passes to start the counter. With a remarkable 9 assists already this campaign Ozil is deadly with the final pass. Arsenal are without Walcott, whose pace running in behind the opposition defense offers the ideal outlet when Arsenal player on the break, but in Alexis Sanchez they have a player who will break forward at pace and join Ozil and Giroud on the counter. Dier will have to be mindful of where Ozil is even when Spurs are in possession and get tight to him when the ball turns over.

Graphic shows positioning the moment Spurs lose possession in the attacking third. Ozil will look to float into the space either side of Dier to receive outlet passes to start the counter. Sanchez will look to break out quickly into the space behind an advanced Kyle Walker.

Graphic shows positioning the moment Spurs lose possession in the attacking third. Ozil will look to float into the space either side of Dier to receive outlet passes to start the counter. Sanchez will look to break out quickly into the space behind an advanced Kyle Walker.

Stats to consider

-Spurs have the third highest shots per game average and the third highest shots on target per game average; Arsenal have the highest shots per game and second highest shots on target per game behind Manchester City.

-Arsenal's 21 goals for is fourth in the Premier League, Spurs' 19 goals for is fifth.

-Arsenal are tied with Manchester United with the best defensive record having conceded just 8. Spurs have conceded just 9. All these stats suggest two well balanced teams so it's difficult to predict how this one will go.

-Spurs have scored 7 goals from set pieces this season, two more than any other side in the Premier League. With Arsenal missing Koscielny, set plays could present a good opportunity for Tottenham.

Match Analysis: Arsenal 0-0 Liverpool

Arsenal and Liverpool played out an entertaining goalless draw at the Emirates this evening. Arsenal had an early Aaron Ramsey goal wrongly disallowed for offsides but the visitors were by far the better side in the first half.

Brendan Rodgers said prior to the game that he had studied Arsenal's most recent defeats and realized Arsene Wenger's side bossed possession in them but struggled to break down compact defenses. Arsenal also control possession in the overwhelming majority of home wins as well so I'm not sure how much can be learned by simply comparing possession figures and results. However, it's easy to understand what Rodgers was getting at- Arsenal are a technical and slick passing side and if you try to beat them at their own game in their own stadium it likely won't end well for you.

With that in mind Rodgers set his side out in a 4-3-3 with three center midfielders adept at the defensive side of the game. Lucas Leiva, who had failed to even make the matchday squad in Liverpool's first two games, sat just in front of the back four with Emre Can to his left and James Milner to his right.

Liverpool defended in a 4-1-4-1 shape with Leiva sitting in between the defensive and midfield banks of four. Leiva tracked the movement of Mesut Ozil between the lines. Can picked up Francis Coquelin, who was the right sided holding midfielder, Milner picked up Cazorla, the left sided holding midfielder.

In the first half Liverpool would look for opportunities to press Arsenal high up the pitch. The home side were forced into employing a makeshift center back partnership of Gabriel and Calum Chambers (Laurent Koscielny had a back injury, Per Mertesacker was ill) and Liverpool looked to take advantage of a nervous Arsenal back four. Coutinho rattled the crossbar inside of 4 minutes with the Arsenal defense at sixes and sevens.

Chambers in particular endured a torrid first half. Twice he gave away possession deep in Arsenal's defensive third, leading to Liverpool chances. Arsenal fans were holding their collective breath every time he got on the ball. On a separate occasion he tried to dribble out of defense but was dispossessed at the halfway line, leaving him hopelessly out of position and forcing the much better Gabriel to bail out his partner. The left side of the graphic below shows Gabriel's successful tackles during the 90 minutes. He was the left-sided center back- the two tackles he made in the box occurred when he was forced to provide cover for Chambers. In fact Gabriel made more tackles in Chambers' zone than Chambers made all game.

Arsenal improved in the second half. Liverpool sat deeper and deeper and attacked with fewer numbers. Because Liverpool were getting fewer numbers forward when they were in possession, they didn't have the opportunities to press high up the pitch they had in the first half and therefore forced fewer of the bad giveaways Arsenal were guilty of in the opening 45 minutes.

Arsenal kept sustained pressure on the visitors but there was very little space for them to operate in the final third. Liverpool set up their defensive lines at the edge of their own penalty area and challenged Wenger's side unlock them. Arsenal provided a few of their vintage quick passing combinations to open up the defense and had two good opportunities to open the score, the first Sanchez put into the side netting after being put through on goal, on the second Giroud couldn't get enough contact to beat Mignolet as he reached to get a shot away.

Liverpool were simply too deep and too compact for Arsenal to break down. All of Arsenal's possession was happening in front of the Liverpool back four. Liverpool were rarely made to turn around and face their own goal. Against a side defending that deep, you're not going to be able to get in behind them through the middle of the pitch- there simply isn't enough space between the center backs and goalkeeper. Theo Walcott's introduction for Giroud was therefore never likely to have a huge impact; he's at his most effective in the striker role when he has the space to run behind the center backs.

The one way to get in behind a side defending that deep is in wider areas. If you can channel the ball wide and get the opposition fullback in a position where he has to defend 1 v. 1, opportunities open up to get to the endline and cut it back across the face of goal if you have a player capable of beating the opposition fullback off the dribble. Ramsey is a very gifted player and had a good game but almost always takes up an extremely narrow position when he plays on the right. His positioning therefore can pose difficulties tactically for the opposing fullback but he rarely picks up the ball in wide areas and asks questions of their 1 v. 1 defending ability by running at them. The graphic below shows Ramsey's average position- quite narrow. Ramsey's interior positioning can often overload the opposition center midfielders but that wasn't likely to happen today with Liverpool employing three deeper center mids in their 4-1-4-1 set up. Normally those overloads will occur when the opposition is defending in banks of four and leaving two further up the pitch. Liverpool had ample numbers in the center of the pitch to deal with Ramsey moving into narrow zones.

It's easy to say in hindsight but I thought Wenger should have perhaps introduced Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right earlier. His directness and raw pace may have provided an outlet for Arsenal when they couldn't find the little gaps of space to play their quick combinations. In Joe Gomez he'd have been up against a left back making just his third Premier League appearance. Gomez has been excellent thus far, a far more focused and poised option than Alberto Moreno, but his direct opponents in his first two starts were Stoke's John Walters and Bournemouth's Matt Ritchie. Both are decent enough players but neither have the same ability to run past defenders that Oxlade-Chamberlain possesses. His introduction would have presented Gomez with a challenge he hasn't faced yet in his young career. If he could have beaten Gomez to the endline once or twice and provided cutbacks it would have forced the likes of Skrtel and Lovren to perform the difficult task of clearing the danger while facing their own goal.

Pressure on Coquelin immense for such an inexperienced player

Francis Coquelin was a revelation last season when injuries forced Arsene Wenger to bring the French midfielder back from his loan spell at Charlton in December. He was in large part the catalyst for Arsenal's excellent run of form in the second half of the season. Arsenal won 17, drew 2 and lost 4 of the 23 matches Coquelin started in all competitions including a win at Manchester City, a heavy defeat of Liverpool and an FA Cup triumph in which Coquelin was sensational in the final. He brought an energy, physicality and discipline at the base of midfield that Wenger's side had been sorely lacking. Over the course of those 23 starts he rarely seemed to put a foot wrong.

There was plenty of debate among Arsenal fans over the summer months over what positions most needed strengthening. After Petr Cech signed from Chelsea the consensus among those that felt they were still a signing or two to short of a title challenge was that Wenger needed either an upgrade on Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck at striker or cover for Coquelin at defensive midfield. Given Coquelin's near flawless half season and a lack of available deeper lying midfielders in the market following Morgan Schneiderlin's move to Manchester United and William Carvalho's unfortunate leg break, transfer rumors have centered around a new striker.

But to put so much pressure on Coquelin to be the main man anchoring Arsenal's midfield is a giant ask of a 24 year old in his first complete season in top flight English football and a risk for the club. While he made no indications that he wasn't up for the challenge last season, a 38 match league campaign requires a level of fitness and, most importantly, concentration that Coquelin hasn't had to show thus far in his young career. One of the defining features of Chelsea's title winning side was the vast experience of every one of their normal starting XI. They'd all played in big matches and all had an understanding of the consistent level of concentration required to win a title. Over the course of their careers they'd been in nearly every imaginable situation on a football pitch and were able to use that experience in tough circumstances.

While Coquelin has proven to have the attitude and physical tools to be a fantastic Premier League midfielder, he can't have developed that ruthless professionalism and ability to read game situations that only comes with playing in a large number of matches. Players of his experience level will inevitably make mistakes and become better players by learning from them. The experience he's gaining now is invaluable and should make his future a bright one at the Emirates but if Arsenal's goal is to win a title this season, it's ambitious to rely so heavily on a player with half a league season under his belt. While Alexis Sanchez is certainly Arsenal's best player, Coquelin is currently the least replaceable. That is a compliment to just how quickly he's adapted and proved his worth in top flight football but it can also be viewed as a critique of Wenger's lack of depth deep in midfield. Mikel Arteta's return is valuable- the calmness and ability to dictate play he brings will be useful in certain matches- but he struggles to provide the necessary cover for the back four in big games.

Coquelin put in what was probably his poorest performance for Arsenal in the opening day defeat to West Ham. To suggest this is an indicator of some kind of sophomore slump rather than simply a one off bad day at the office would be deeply unfair. Every player has a bad match from time to time and Coquelin has had shockingly few since returning to Arsenal. He certainly wasn't the only Arsenal player not at his best. But it will be interesting to see how he picks himself up after a poor performance. When he returned from Charlton last season less was expected of him and therefore the pressure to perform wasn't as heightened. This season the expectations are high and the pressure immense. It's a lot to put on the shoulders of such an unseasoned player but for Arsenal to have a crack at the title he'll have to continue to perform like the tested professional he looked last season.

Man City, Dortmund matches highlight Arsenal's glaring weakness at base of midfield

That Arsenal are in need of a strong, tough tackling holding midfielder has been repeated enough by pundits and journalists over the last couple of seasons that it has become something of a banal argument. Unfortunately for Arsenal supporters such an oft-repeated argument is likely to have some truth to it and over the club's last two games the lack of a midfielder capable of protecting the back four has been glaringly obvious. 

At the weekend Mathieu Flamini played the holding role and failed to track Sergio Aguero's run from deep in midfield leading to Manchester City's opener. Today, Arsenal stuck with the same 4-3-3 (or 4-1-4-1 if you prefer) formation as the City game. This time it was Mikel Arteta at the base of midfield with Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey on either side of him further up the pitch. The number of times the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ciro Immobile were able to get on the ball for Dortmund in behind the Arsenal midfield and run at the two center backs was staggering. Those three players are pacey and direct. Arteta has never been especially quick and at 33 it's a massive ask of him to be responsible for slowing down the counters of a side that breaks with the exceptional speed and directness of Dortmund.

It's easy to second guess Wenger after the fact but it's puzzling that he hasn't seemed to address just how much defensive pressure his new 4-1-4-1 formation, with Ramsey taking on a role higher up the pitch than last season, puts on the holding midfielder- either Flamini or Arteta, both of whom are not mobile enough to fulfill that role. Against opposition that likes to patiently build from the back and have a lot of possession I think it'll work fine- Arsenal will have the time to get numbers behind the ball and the holding midfielder won't be left as exposed- but against sides that can break forward as quickly as Man City and Dortmund it leaves Arsenal vulnerable on the counter. The shape looks decent defensively when Arsenal have the time to get players behind the ball. They're actually defending with three in the middle of midfield and leaving just Welbeck up front, rather than defending with banks of four and leaving both Ozil and the striker high as they did last season. That extra body in the midfield bank of five allows Wilshere and Ramsey to press the ball and Arteta to sit in the hole behind them, denying the opposition space between the lines. However, the issues have arisen when Arsenal concede possession in the opposition's defensive half. With both Wilshere and Ramsey moving into advanced positions in the attacking third, there is space either side the holding midfielder for the opposition to play outlet passes into and break forward quickly. Once they get the ball in these spaces it's down to Mertesacker and Koscielny to come up big.

Perhaps against a side that likes to play as vertically on the break as Dortmund, the answer for Arsenal should have been to get behind the ball, allow Dortmund more possession and play a bit more on the break. Arsenal had 56% possession but as they kept the ball and advanced up the pitch they were playing into the hands of Dortmund's relentless midfield press and quick countering style.

Grading the young players at the Premier League's top clubs

I looked at the age of the 11 starting players for each of the 20 Premier League teams in match week 1 in order to get an idea of how teams were balancing the use of promising youthful players and more experienced veterans (you can see that information in the chart on the previous post). For the sake of this post I was most interested in seeing to what extent the clubs likely to contest for the league title and Champions League places over the next 5 years (I look at Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United) are using young players (which I define as younger than 25). Clubs with older squads will of course have to spend more on incoming transfers in future seasons in order to revamp their squads and remain competitive. This could be significant given that FFP should in theory restrict the ability of clubs financed by super wealthy owners like Manchester City and Chelsea to spend as they wish. The days of those clubs bringing in five or more big name transfers in a single window are likely gone. It is therefore seemingly more important for big squads to have young players that can contribute well into the future or can be sold at a premium price to finance the purchase of other players.

There are of course limitations with looking at just one week of games and we can't make sweeping predictions based on this data. The absence of a young player or two due to injury or fitness will skew the data if they were replaced by significantly older players. Likewise, the opposite is true- veterans who normally start but were forced to miss the opening week and were replaced by young ones (eg Calum Chambers replaced Per Mertesacker at Arsenal) will skew the data the other way.

The measure of squad youthfulness I looked at was the number of players a squad had under 25. I'll discuss the quality of those players for each club and what they suggest the future may hold for their respective clubs.

Arsenal

Arsenal started more players under 25 than any other club in match week 1 with 6- Wojciech Szczesny (24), Jack Wilshere (22), Calum Chambers (19), Aaron Ramsey (23), Kieran Gibbs (24) and Yaya Sanogo (21). This isn't terribly surprising. Arsene Wenger has always had a talent for developing young players and the faith in them to play them. Szczesny isn't always the most convincing keeper but seemed to improve his decision making and propensity for big errors last season. Wilshere was the most hyped of all of Arsenal's young players and although it would be unfair to say he's been a disappointment, he's maybe not quite as far along in his development as some would have expected by now. Injuries haven't helped but it's difficult to say whether his best position is a #10 or more of a box-to-box #8. At the moment Arsenal have more talented players in both positions. Gibbs is a solid, reliable left back. Ramsey endured a difficult spell after suffering that horrific broken leg but surprisingly emerged last season as one of the Premier League's outstanding midfielders. He's athletic enough to track back and win tackles and run past defenders with the dribble, has the vision and passing ability to provide the final ball in attacking third and a strikers finishing ability in the penalty area- a true all around midfielder. The jury is still very much out on Yaya Sanogo. He looked awkward, uncoordinated and totally out of his place in his appearances last season and although he enjoyed a solid preseason, his performance in Arsenal's opening day win over Crystal Palace suggested he's along way from being good enough to play for a side hoping to contest the title. Joel Campbell (22) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (21) were on the subs bench for Arsenal with Oxlade-Chamberlain coming on in the second half. Both players look promising. Along with this collection of players under 25. Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez are all just 25. Arsenal appear to be in fairly good shape for the future in they can retain their players.

Young player grade: A

Manchester United

Manchester United have plenty of youthful players but not enough have shown they have the quality to play at a club with such consistently high expectations. Of the five players under 25 that started their opening day defeat to Swansea, Tyler Blackett (20) and Jesse Lingard (21) were making their Manchester United debuts. Phil Jones (22) and Chris Smalling (24) are solid enough squad players but have yet to establish themselves as first team regulars and they need to step up their performances in defense after the summer departures of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. For me Jones looks the more likely to do so. Only goalkeeper David De Gea (23) has been a regular starter at the club. At 25, new midfield signing Ander Herrera is still quite young and an upgrade on Tom Cleverley (also 25) while 26 year old Juan Mata should still have several seasons remaining at his peak. Danny Welbeck's (23) energy and work rate are useful off the bench but he's never given the impression he'll be a 20 goal a season scorer. New signing Marcos Rojo (24) offers versatility at the back- he can play center back or left wing back- and has big game experience having started in 6 of Argentina's 7 World Cup games including the final. Luke Shaw (19) was excellent at Southampton last season and came with a hefty price tag. Louis Van Gaal was unimpressed with his fitness this summer and he's probably more suited to playing as a traditional fullback in a four man defense than a wing back in Van Gaal's 3-4-1-2 but LVG is tactically flexible and may well change shape in the near future. United's key big players Wayne Rooney (28), Robin Van Persie (31) and Michael Carrick (33) all have their best years behind them. Van Gaal has never been afraid to install youth players and he'll need to consider how he'll replace those three sooner rather than later.

Young player grade: B

Tottenham

Tottenham can be cautiously optimistic about [most of] their five young starters from week 1- (Christian Eriksen (22), Nabil Bentaleb (19), Eric Dier (20), Danny Rose (24) and Erik Lamela (22). Eriksen already established himself as a quality Premier League player in his first season, compiling 7 league goals and 8 assists. Bentaleb started in 3 of Algeria's 4 games at the World Cup and should continue to get opportunities to develop under Mauricio Pochettino, who showed in his time at Southampton he's more than happy to field capable youngsters. Dier's Spurs debut got off to a flying start as he picked up a stoppage time winner over Spurs and MOTM honors. Danny Rose is inconsistent and prone to errors but Spurs have just signed 21 year old Ben Davies from Swansea. Davies became a regular starter early last season under Michael Laudrup and was a surprising success- he could secure the left back position over Rose. The verdict is out on Lamela- Spurs' record signing was certainly a disappointment in his first season, struggling to get a game before succumbing to injury- but he enjoyed a strong preseason and should enjoy a stronger rapport with fellow countrymen Pochettino than with Tim Sherwood in the second half of last season. Spurs are also currently missing 24 year old right back Kyle Walker through injury. Walker is exceptionally athletic and likely would have been England's starting right back at the World Cup. Under Pochettino the young players will get their chances.

Young player grade: B

Liverpool

Four of Liverpool's five starters under 25 played an integral part in the Merseyside outfit's impressive second place finish last season. Daniel Sturridge scored 21 goals, second only to then teammate Luis Suarez in the Premier League. Raheem Sterling was something of a revelation, scoring 9 goals and assisting 5. Coutinho's 7 goals and 7 assists were likewise impressive while Jordan Henderson provided 4 goals and 7 assists of his own as he improved vastly from the previous season. Those four players combined for 41 goals and 28 assists. Liverpool's fifth starter under 25 from match week 1 was right back Javier Manquillo, on loan from Atletico Madrid. Brendan Rodgers has also added 20 year old winger Lazar Markovic from Benfica, a player with high expectations after impressing in Portugal. Liverpool look poised for a bright future but like Arsenal need to do what they can to hold on to their best players.

Young player grade: A

Chelsea

Chelsea boast an outrageously talented collection of young players. Of their five starters under 25 in match week one, Cesar Azpilicueta, Oscar, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois were all regular starters at the World Cup. The fifth player, Andre Schurrle, was Germany's second leading scorer off the bench and provided the assist for Mario Gotze's winner in the final. Add in Diego Costa (25), Willian (26) and Nemanja Matic (26), it's a Chelsea side you'd expect to remain stable for quite some time. Chelsea also won the under-21 Premier League last season though few of the club's youth players end up getting a chance with the senior side. After years spent shelling out on big money signings at or just past the peak of their best, Chelsea's recent signing of younger talent bodes well for the future.

Young Player Grade: A

Manchester City

The five teams that started five or more players under 25 make up five of the six Premier League teams you'd expect to compete for a top four finish consistently. The sixth, Manchester City, have quite a different squad makeup. The defending league champions started just one player under 25 in match week one, forward Stevan Jovetic. New center back signing Eliaquim Mangala is the only other City player under 25 likely to play any sort of a prominent role this season. Jovetic and Matija Nastasic are the only City players under 25 to have appeared in more than 10 league games last season; Nastasic is certain to depart for Italy before the transfer window closes after the arrival of Mangala. The lack of young players in the squad suggests the club aren't terribly concerned with FFP compliance in the coming years since they'll need to continue to purchase players as current squad members pass their peak. City's plethora of veteran players with title winning experience certainly contributed in part to their success last season but in the near future its squad will need an overhaul.  With FFP City won't be able to make that overhaul in one transfer window. Of City's five signings last summer only Jovetic is under 25 while Fernandinho is 29, Jesus Navas is 28, Alvaro Negredo is 29 and Martin Demichelis is 33. They need to start making signings with an eye towards the future. Their U-21 side finished 4th in the U-21 Premier League last season so there are promising young players at the club but, like Chelsea, promotion to the senior squad for youth players has been all but impossible in recent years.

Young player grade: C-

Plenty of reasons for optimism at Arsenal

The mood surrounding Arsenal has changed dramatically since the same time last year when the club were coming off an 8th consecutive season without a trophy and going into their season opener having failed to make a significant summer signing. That opener ended with an embarrassing 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa. An increasingly frustrated Arsenal fan base implored Arsene Wenger to spend the sums of money required to bring in established, world class players. Wenger obliged, shattering the club's previous record signing on Mesut Ozil a day after Arsenal beat Spurs 1-0 for their 4th straight win after that opening day defeat. The Gunners went on a blistering run of form and were top of the league as late as match week 23. Key injuries and a dip in form that saw four heavy defeats to Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton derailed Arsenal's title challenge. The season ended on a high however after their FA Cup triumph over Hull, a win that has certainly had a meaningful impact on the psyche of the club this summer. Rather than the narrative heading into this campaign being focused on a poor second half of last season, another 4th place finish and a 9th trophyless season, a huge weight has been lifted off of the shoulders of Wenger and his players and they'll be approaching this season with a sense of optimism not felt at the Emirates in some time.

Important summer signings will have increased those good vibes. Alexis Sanchez is an immensely talented player that will increase Arsenal's tactical flexibility. He can play on the right of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, as the lone striker in those two formations or even alongside Olivier Giroud in more of a 4-4-2. He can dribble past defenders, provide the final ball and is a gifted finisher. His 21 goals in all competitions last season at Barcelona was second only to Messi. He provided 11 assists- tied with Messi and Pedro behind Cesc Fabregas's 14. Key to Arsenal will be his eagerness to make runs in behind the back four. After Theo Walcott's injury in January, the Gunners lacked a vertical threat in behind the defense. Giroud is a striker that links play well and plays with his back to goal but doesn't offer the pace to dart behind the defense. Sanchez will make those runs and in Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere has three midfielders that ranked in the top 6 in the Premier League in accurate through balls per game.

Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil were all in the top 6 in accurate through balls per game (stats via whoscored.com)

Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil were all in the top 6 in accurate through balls per game (stats via whoscored.com)

Sanchez's ability to rotate in as the lone center forward will also be key in providing Wenger with depth at that position. Giroud was Arsenal's only battle-tested center forward last season and was therefore forced to feature in nearly all of Arsenal's games- his 51 appearances was second only to Per Mertesacker. Unsurprisingly, his form tailed off in the back half of the season after a strong start as fatigue set in. Yaya Sanogo's strong preseason should see him feature more this campaign, providing further depth up front.

The gap in squad depth between the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea and Arsenal has shortened considerably over the last couple of years meaning the Gunners should be better able to cope with a congested fixture list with fewer injuries than in past seasons (the acquisition of renowned American fitness coach Shad Forsythe should also help). In Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, Sanchez, Walcott, Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla, Abou Diaby, Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Campbell, Arsenal have 11 strong options to play in the 5 midfield positions in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape. While Arsenal supporters maybe wouldn't be comfortable with some of those players featuring in the most difficult fixtures, they're all good enough to get results in a domestic cup and provide valuable rest for the 7 or 8 midfielders expected to play the most minutes in the league and Champions League.

The sale of Thomas Vermaelen to Barcelona means Wenger should sign an additional center back before the end of the transfer window. As of now Arsenal's only cover at center back in the senior squad is new signing Calum Chambers. While the former Southampton player has impressed in preseason in the middle of defense and appears to be one for the future, he's still just 19 and his only Premier League experience has come as a right back. It's hard to envision Arsenal challenging for the title without more defensive cover if Koscielny or Mertesacker were to miss any large spell of the season through injury.

Mathieu Debuchy is an experienced and capable replacement for Bacary Sagna at right back and was Didier Deschamps' first choice right back ahead of Sagna at the World Cup. Nacho Monreal will again provide adequate cover for Kieran Gibbs at right back.

For me Arsenal's biggest weakness will be their lack of a true defensive holding midfielder against the league's strongest sides. Mikel Arteta has served the club admirably but doesn't have the athleticism or power to slow opposition counter attacks. As much as Arsenal like to possess the ball in the opposition half, they're inevitably going to leave themselves vulnerable on the break and need a defensive midfielder that can get across the pitch to slow down quick transitions. Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool were too easily able to blow past the Arsenal midfield last season. The Gunners have been linked with Sporting holding midfielder William Carvalho, a signing that I feel would turn them into genuine title contenders.

In Ramsey Arsenal have one of the best box to box midfielders in the Premier League. The Welsh international was a revelation last season before a Boxing Day thigh injury kept him out until early April. He scored the winner in the FA Cup and has impressed this summer. He was the best player in Arsenal's convincing Charity Shield win over Manchester City and could be an outside favorite for PFA Player of the Year if he stays healthy.

In recent seasons picking Arsenal to finish outside the top 4 has been a popular trend among pundits. Significantly fewer are betting on that this time around as new signings coupled with Wenger's long term player development have made this a more talented Arsenal side than we've seen in the last several seasons. I think they're still a couple signings away from being able to challenge Manchester City and Chelsea for the title- they particularly need a defensive midfielder- but are not far off.