Arsenal FC are known for their technical ability when it comes to attacking football. However, their extreme faith in that technique has contributed to a few devastating results against title rivals. If Arsenal wish to better compete for honors, it may behoove them to take a more pragmatic approach against their title rivals, and find ways to get the outcomes they want with less reliance on their technical ability.

Defeats Against the Top 4

Outside of their win against Liverpool and their draw to Chelsea, Arsenal have utilized naA?ve tactics, putting themselves in quite a bit of danger in their matches against the Top 4 sides. The matches away to Chelsea and Liverpool were effectively over after 20 minutes, and the recent match against Manchester City could have been out of sight in the first half. The 6-3 defeat at the Etihad was another poor performance, though that game was not put to bed as quickly.

What stands out in these matches is the manner in which the goals were scored. Often it was an Arsenal player that started the move by hitting a poor pass, turning straight into a pressing defender, taking a heavy touch, etc. to set the opponent away. Teams like Chelsea, City, and Liverpool with their combination of athleticism, players with individual skill, prefer a counterattacking style that suits them well. What made their counterattacking even more potent was the fact that Arsenal had kept both full backs high up the pitch to provide passing options out wide.

There is nothing inherently wrong with playing both full backs high up the pitch. In doing this a team is changing a distribution of expected values. For a side in possession, they play a key role in spreading out the pitch, and giving their teammates a passing option. For example, Chelsea perform better, in matches where they are the proactive side, when Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic are allow take up advanced positions. However, when a side loses possession, and especially if the opponent can transition quickly, it can leave them vulnerable to overloads on the counterattack. In Arsenalai??i??s case, they were often left 2-1 (two CBs and the deep-lying midfielder) against three, four, or five attackers. So, one can observe that this tactic certainly increased the variance in expected outcomes.

Liverpool-vs-Arsenal

The match against Liverpool saw Arsenal constantly lose possession and have the space behind the fullbacks and in front of the center backs exposed.

However, the risk associated with such a tactic can be of such a high leverage (goals) that one must have great technical ability to avoid losing possession, have players with fantastic athleticism, endurance, and desire to recover to their defensive positions, after finding themselves caught up-field, have a system of pressing once the ball is lost, or some combination of the three.

Barcelona and Bayern Munich: Teams to Admire, Not Models to Follow

Barcelona, at their peak from 2009-2011, were maybe the greatest example of mitigating the risk of attacking tactics by maintaining possession, along with a tenacity in hunting down their opponents when they lostAi??possession. Bayern Munich, in these past two seasons, while not as potent as the 2011 Barcelona at those two aspects of the game, are amazingly flexible as they have the ability to use all three methods to mitigate the risk of their attacking tactics, like having full backs high up the pitch.

However, it makes sense for other sides to consider Barcelona and Bayern Munich as anomalies rather than models to follow. Both sides have a set philosophical foundation and they instill that into their youth players at a young age so they fit into the style the first team wishes to play. It may not be a coincidence that Louis Van Gaal managed both clubs before they started to produce the players that have defined these great teams of the past six seasons.

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Much like Phil Jackson in the NBA, Pep Guardiola has a style that has dominated the landscape of football, but that style may require an extremely high quality squad to pull off.

In addition to that, and this is particularly true for Barcelona, both teams have just gotten lucky with the amount of super elite players they have produced at one time. It seem that Barcelona are finding some difficulty in adapting to a declining Xavi and one wonders how they will be able to cope when Andres Iniesta inevitably declines. Given the extremely high level of ability Barcelona (and Bayern) require to play their style, it may prove too difficult to replace these players and keep playing the same style of football, with the same level of success.

Finally, and this applies more to Barcelona, the combination of the high requisite level of talent and the need to instill these principles early and continuously in development can increase the difficulty of integrating players from other systems and cultures. Players like Alexis Sanchez, Cesc Fabregas, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are all fantastically talented players, but all have struggled to fit into the Barcelona side. Instead, players like Pedro have shown and players like Thiago Alcantara have shown a greater ability to integrate into the squad.

Pragmatism is Not Foreign to Arsenal Under Arsene Wenger

Given that Arsenal are not at the level of a Bayern Munich or Barcelona with respect to the combination of technique and cohesion, Arsene Wenger should not have such a high level of faith in his sideai??i??s ability to retain possession as he showed in their defeats to teams in the Top 4 and the first half of the draw to City at the Emirates. Given the injuries to Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil, Arsene Wenger had even less reason to believe that Arsenalai??i??s technical ability. Given the marginal benefit for Arsenal, in making Chelsea and Liverpool play a possession-based game rather than a reactive game, one could argue that Wenger not only misplaced his trust in his players, but also failed in having the correct strategy in those matches, against those particular opponents.

Arsenal's willingness to trust in their defense rather than their technical ability played a key role in their run to end last season and has played a key role in the success they have experienced against bigger sides.

Arsenal’s willingness to trust in their defense rather than their technical ability played a key role in their run to end last season and has played a key role in the success they have experienced against bigger sides.

It is not like Arsene Wenger is completely inflexible. The 2005 FA Cup Final saw Arsenal defend for their lives and rely the performance of Jens Lehmannai??i??s career to win a match without Thierry Henry against Manchester United. The run to the 2006 Champions League Final (a match this writer believes they were robbed in) was built on a lack of confidence in a makeshift back four, forcing Arsenal to employ a much more cautious strategy. The 2007-2008 Champions League campaign was marked by Arsene Wenger employing much more cautious player selection, often favoring to overload the central midfield zone rather than playing more attack-minded wingers. Champions League matches against Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Napoli, along with league matches against Tottenham and Newcastle this season, have seen Wenger lack the blind faith he has shown in his players in their matches against the Top 4. Why Arsene Wenger does not seem to employ a similar level of caution against his title rivals is a frustrating mystery.

This naivete against the best Premier League sides has undoubtedly damaged their title run. While points obtained against the best teams do not have much more value than points obtained against the worst teams (a total of 10 points dropped to Stoke City, Swansea City, and Manchester United played a larger role in derailing Arsenalai??i??s title bid than the points dropped to the Top 4, from an expected points perspective), earning points against the best teams still has value and Arsenal should look adjust their style accordingly. One could argue that, in a vacuum, a draw against a direct title rival has significantly more value than a draw against a non-rival, as one takes two points away from a rivalai??i??s maximum points. Given that perspective, faith in oneai??i??s side to score more goals than the opposition should be reserved for matches against inferior opposition and content to draw (and the chance of a narrow win) against direct title rivals may be the best way to maximize a sideai??i??s title odds, when there is not too much to separate the title contenders.

Counter-Pressing: A Potential Path To Success

Therefore, going forward, Arsenal should look to decrease their risk exposure to their players having a poor day with their technique, especially in important matches. It could mean investing in athleticism, which Arsenal could do at right-back if Bacary Sagna does leave, in midfield, and center forward. This would allow Arsenal to recover from advanced positions with greater success. However, Arsenal need to combine an increase in athleticism with a pressing system that is employed more consistently and in a more organized fashion.

In front of the back 5, it is difficult to predict how Arsenal will defend. In some matches, they look like a well-drilled pressing side that closes down space and eliminates options for their opponents. In some matches, the pressing can be there, but it lacks organization. In those situations, Arsenal players waste energy running around, pressing in vain. When Arsenal are at their worst (and that has certainly happened this season), they defend passively, giving their opponents time and space on the ball. This passive defending allows opponents to transition quickly and overwhelm them, or it allows their opponents to enjoy themselves in possession. If Arsenal are to win the Premier League title and challenge for European glory, the largest area of improvement may come from the adoption and consistent implementation of an organized pressing system. Those models can be more easily implemented and adapted to, relative to the Barcelona or Bayern Munich models. There are also plenty of sides and managers who have already done this.

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If Jurgen Klopp is not available, maybe Arsenal should look to Thomas Tuchel when the time comes to replace Arsene Wenger.

And this brings us to an important question hovering over the clubai??i??how to replace Arsene Wenger. At some point, Wenger will step down as Arsenal manager. When that happens, Arsenal do not want to do is what Manchester United have done in their attempt to replace Sir Alex Ferguson. The next manager of Arsenal should not be someone who obtains the job just due to fact Wenger handpicked him. Instead, Arsenal should look to hire a manager who can be his own man at the club, a man with his own ideas on how to play football. Given the potential importance of Arsenal adopting and consistently utilizing an organized system of pressing, one hopes the decision makers at Arsenal look at managers who can bring that to the Emirates. Obviously, the Jurgen Klopps and the Pep Guardiolas of the world are high on anyoneai??i??s list, but even if managers of that profile are not available, there are other candidates who could bring fresh ideas, and a more consistent defensive strategy to Arsenal. Roberto Martinez has been a name some have mentioned. Managers like Thomas Tuchel or Roger Schmidt could help to turn Arsenal into a side that is less dependent on their technical skills firing on all cylinders.

Endgame

Whether Arsene Wenger stays a few more years or is replaced after this season, Arsenal need to show a bit more pragmatism in their important matches against title rivals, while finding a way to reduce their risk exposure to fluctuations in their technical ability from game to game. If the man to begin that process is Arsene Wenger, then he certainly should stay at the club. If Wenger is not that man, then Arsenal should look to find and secure someone who can begin that process, when Wenger decides to leave the club.

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