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.

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.

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

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

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.