‘TheHardTackle Whiteboard’ is a semi-regular column which anatomises the tactical development/non-development in the game. So if chalkboard, formations, FM series and Herbert Chapman arouse you, then you are looking at the right page. Today we focus on how Arsenal have sacrificed symmetry to obtain balance and how their deep line is affecting Olivier Giroud. We might be witnessing the 5th tactical evolution under Arsene Wenger.
Arsenal has been the talk of the town lately. A team that was expected to wither away since the departures of Robin van Persie and Alex Song, two of the most influential players in the squad last season, has conjured up an almost phoenix like rise. Arsene Wenger has made some small, but apparently significant, changes to the structure of the team and the results are there for everyone to see. Today at Whiteboard, we will try and decipher these changes by Monsieur Wenger.
Arsenal have tactically evolved a lot since Arsene Wenger took over the reins from Bruce Rioch in 1996. Categorically, there has been four clear evolutions until last season. First was the pre-‘Invincibles’ era when Wenger used a rigid 4-4-2, then the ‘Invincibles’ era where the team adopted an extremely fluid 4-4-2, followed by the post-‘Invincibles’ era when Wenger evolved his 4-4-2 to 4-2-2-2 and eventually to 4-3-3, and finally the last season when 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation gradually changed to 4-2-3-1.
This season, although there hasn’t been any significant change in the tactical formation, yet the functionality of the system has changed; ever so slightly but effectively.
The Defense – Balance In Place Of Symmetry
For many, the most significant signing of the season made by Wenger was Steve Bould. The former Arsenal defender, who was part of perhaps the most famous defense in the club’s history, has replaced Arsenal’s most loyal servant Pat Rice as the assistant manager. It is hard to speculate how much say Bould really has in running the team, but either way, his arrival has coincided with Wenger putting out perhaps the most organized defense since 2004.
In recent seasons, two of the most common goals that Arsenal have conceded has been through set pieces and being hit on the break. Arsenal’s defending from corners and free kicks has been atrocious in last few seasons while the other problem arrived from the team pushing high up the pitch and once caught in possession, there was plenty of room for the opponents’ attackers to run in-behind the defense, especially behind the fullbacks.
Arsenal, as a team, has dropped deep this season making them less vulnerable to counter attacks. This has also helped settling in Per Mertesacker in the team, who is certainly not the quickest of defenders on the ground. The German is adept at dealing anything infront of him, but is vulnerable while defending anything behind him.
There has also been a change in how the fullbacks attack. Both Jenkinson and Gibbs have different roles this season. Gibbs has been given more freedom to attack than Jenkinson, hence most of the Arsenal’s attack is built down their left. When Gibbs moves forward, Jenkinson drops back and forms a three-man defense with Mertesacker and Vermaelen. This helps in covering the space left behind by Gibbs.
The roles of the fullbacks has also got much to do with the wide-men in the team. Along with his directness in attack, Podolski has brought another dimension to the team which it lacked in previous seasons. The German is excellent in tracking back and helping out in defense. Hence, having Podolski on the left has helped out in covering for Gibbs, who is more vulnerable in being caught out of position while defending. On the other hand, Jenkinson balances the defensively weaker Gervinho/Walcott/Chamberlain on the right hand side by staying back most of the time, while Podolski balances the more adventurous Gibbs by tracking back and helping him out. Evidently, Arsenal have sacrificed symmetry for balance.
Another significant change is the way Arsenal defend when they don’t have the possession. When the opponent has the ball in front of the backline, the defense closes together to form a very narrow back four, while the two wide men in attack drop deep to play almost as wingbacks. This helps in closing out the spaces in-between the center backs and the full backs, which the midfield runners could exploit.
While defending set pieces, Arsenal have deployed a Zonal marking system, but perhaps more significantly they have been aggressive while defending aerial balls. Prime examples of these was found in the match against Stoke City, a team which normally bullies Arsenal, but not this time. Addition of Diaby, Jenkinson and Mertesacker into the starting line-up has given them aerial advantage as well. Most significantly, they have been winning the 2nd ball, which was perhaps the one of the most regular source from where they have been conceding goals in the past.
When you consider the fact that Koscielny is available on the bench and Sagna would soon return from the injury, suddenly Arsenal’s defense has depth as well.
The Midfield – Definitive Roles
The Arsenal midfield has a wonderful shape to it this season and this is primarily down to the three midfielders finding definitive roles in the team. The match against Liverpool highlighted this even more as it was up against a midfield which lacked it.
The midfield shape of the present team has an unerring resemblance to the midfield back in 2003-04 season. Mikel Arteta plays the role of Gilberto Silva – the silent screen in front of the defense; works hard to plug gaps in the defense and keeps it simple. In Abou Diaby, Arsenal finally have a midfielder who can dominate like Patrick Vieira used to do in the past. Diaby has the ability to run with the ball from the midfield and form the link between the attack and the defense, add to that the French international also adds a physicality to the middle of the park like his predecessor. Arsenal for all their fancy midfielders in the past haven’t found anyone who could have replaced Gilberto Silva and Vieira.
Santi Cazorla plays in the role a certain Dennis Bergkamp used to play back in those days. Bergkamp, despite being lined up as a forward, used to drop deep, in behind Henry, and threaded orgasmic passes for the forwards and midfield runners like Pires and Ljunberg. Cazorla and Bergkamp although are different types of players – but they have similar effect on the team. Cazorla brings Podolski, Gervinho and Giroud into play with his movement and vision making the Gunners a potent threat going forward.
Such unequivocal purpose of each midfielder was certainly something Arsenal lacked earlier. Alex Song’s transfer to Barcelona might just end up being a good bit of business in the end. Song had a problem of mixing up roles. Although the Cameroonian was assigned the role of what Arteta is executing now, but he ended up taking the role of Abou Diaby.
Distinctness of purpose for midfielders is underrated and often overlooked.
The only part of this Arsenal side is not functioning as it should be. Given the French international is new to the league and should take time to settle down, there is something fundamentally wrong with him fitting into the team. In fact, Wenger was forced to convert Gervinho into a center forward, another master stroke, due to the immense pressure Giroud was coming under from media and fans.
But there is deeper rooted problem than just Giroud unable to find the back of the net. Yes, he has missed some glorious opportunities, but at times he has been invisible. The Frenchman had a wonderful couple of years at Montpellier before making his move to Arsenal and there is a significant change in his positioning in his new team.
During his days in France, Giroud’s USP was the fact that he was excellent in the air as a big chunk of his goals came from headers and turning in crosses. However, there is a distinct difference in the way Montpellier and Arsenal play. Arsenal’s widemen are not found hugging the touchline and bombarding in crosses as the likes of Walcott, Gervinho and now Podolski play more like wide forwards who roam inside and make their runs towards the box while the crosses mostly come from fullbacks. But Montpellier had natural wingers who provided aerial service for Giroud and the Frenchman usually obliged. Arsenal’s pass into the feet type of play is something he needs to adapt to.
Another major change is his positioning as mentioned above. Arsenal have played in much deeper line this season, which means the midfield and the forwards have to drop deep as well so that there is minimal space in front of the defense. This implies that Giroud had to drop deep as well, or else he would remain isolated upfront. But that is something Giroud didn’t do at Montpellier (Note that the above pic shows the difference in his average positioning in a game for Montpellier and Arsenal). He is someone who is most effective in and around the opponents’ penalty box, dropping deep to linking up play doesn’t comes to him naturally, something which Gervinho did wonderfully well against Southampton.
If Gervinho continues to succeed in the role and Giroud fails to adapt to it, he might soon find himself on the bench more regularly. While dropping deep has helped out in organizing the defense, it has handicapped someone like Giroud who excels higher up the pitch.