“It’s Gibbs on the left. He passes inside to Song who searches out Sagna with a long, raking pass out to the right. Sagna looks up and delivers a cross into the box…which is easily collected under minimal pressure by the opposition goalkeeper.”
This is a sequence of events that has been borne out many times in recent years. As good as having the majority of possession is to dictating a game it’s useless without effective penetration. As we’ve seen most recently in the North London derby we have yet again been able to rack up more than 60% possession and have still contrived to lose the game. This is partly due to our inadequacies in defence but if a team monopolises the ball so much it should not be possible to lose such a match.
Last season it was observed by many that we simply weren’t quick enough. Quick in body, not necessarily mind. Nasri would often slow our counter-attacks by taking too many touches and Arshavin developed the rather irritating ‘skill’ of stopping them dead with errant passing. Whilst in possession they would come inside into their more natural positions and try to pick a pass amongst the crowd they then found themselves in. Our summer’s recruitment was very much haphazard with countless first choice targets seemingly being missed. However, one common theme in the majority of our attacking signings was pace.
It is clear that over the last year or so Wenger has been looking to add more fleet-footed players to the squad in the hope of producing a team more proficient at the counter-attack. This can be seen in the signings of Ryo Miyaichi, Wellington Silva, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho who are more suited to being played out wide on the flanks. It is commonly stated that there is no replacement for raw pace. Yes, defenders can compensate by anticipating play well or using expert positioning. Managers can also detail a couple of players to ‘double up’ on speedy opponents. Put a quick player up against a slower player in a one-on-one situation, though, and there will be only one outcome. Put that into a match situation and it could be the equivalent of beating a fullback on the outside before putting a dangerous cross in for a teammate to finish.
As well as pace, one of the most desirable attributes of the likes of Walcott and Gervinho is their off-the-ball movement. Both were originally strikers and thus naturally show a tendency to make out-to-in runs behind the opposition defence from their respective flanks. This is in stark contrast to the movement of Arshavin and Nasri who, on the whole, preferred to come towards the ball rather than make penetrative runs which prompted these comments on Samir from Arsène last season:
“Like every player that is good on the ball he was too much attracted by the ball. We wanted him to do more runs off the ball, going in behind [the defence] without the ball because we have many players who can give him the ball.”
During our better spells last season Nasri was showing a propensity to making these types of runs but as a natural playmaker in his youth he often showed the tendency to revert to his instinctive game.
So, we now possess more pace and the ability to perform dangerous runs on a regular basis. “Brilliant!” I hear you cry, “But why are there still issues in our attacking game?” Well, Theo and Gervinho are great on the counter but can struggle at times when faced with a diligent team skilled at parking the proverbial bus. Walcott especially is often loath to try to beat his man in a one-on-one situation which is odd considering his outstanding pace. He very much prefers a safety first approach of passing back to a supporting midfielder or fullback. This in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it enables more ball circulation and less chance of him losing possession but it does detract slightly from the team’s penetrative potential.
(At this stage I feel it necessary to add that this shouldn’t be used as a stick with which to beat Theo with but is simply an observation of his skill-set in that particular position. If anything I prefer a player aware of their limitations to one who tries ridiculous tricks they are not capable of. The calls for Walcott to finally be given a run upfront in a 4-4-2, a position where he’s perhaps more suited, are increasing from both fans and Theo himself but that’s a debate for another day.)
Another reason for our issues lies with the role of Robin van Persie. He is adept at playing as a ‘false 9’ and in theory his dropping deep, thus bringing a centre back with him away from their natural habitat, should create space which can be exploited by the runs of either wide man. This is where the problems begin however as this season and in the latter stages of last Robin has played much more as an orthodox no.9. This has meant he’s become less involved in our build-up play and while it has led to an increase in his goals column it has meant that the strengths of those around him aren’t necessarily being exploited as much as they could be.
Another problem is that when van Persie does occasionally drop deep we are left with the issue of supplying the ball into the space he has created. When Cesc Fàbregas departed for Barcelona in the summer it was clear that his incisive passing would be missed. This is the man who over the previous five seasons had assisted more goals than anyone in the top 5 leagues in Europe (60)*. Last season where he was blighted by injury, therefore missing several months, Cesc was still able to provide more successful through-balls than any other player in the Barclay’s Premier League (apologies, it appears I’ve contracted Coyleitis) with a total of 38*. Without him we are left with players not as prolific at finding those in attack with unerring accuracy.
Despite this change towards a more direct style of play Wenger has still expressed the need and desire to keep parts of our “tiki-taka” style. Around the end of the transfer window Arsène frequently mentioned the need of a balance between pace and technique and following the earlier signings of Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain he bought Mikel Arteta on a stressful deadline day with the reasoning that “Arteta will give us some technical security that this team needs…” Despite not seemingly being a first choice target, Mikel appears to have the necessary qualities to aid our transition in style while adding vast Premier League experience to boot.
Arsène is aiming to produce a team that can possess the technical quality to maintain possession at a high tempo over large periods of a match while still posing a threat to the opposition’s goal. Combine this with the ability to perform counter-attacks at breakneck speeds like we used to do earlier in his reign and we’re onto a real winner in an attacking sense. In theory at least, the return from injury of Wilshere and the continuing development of Aaron Ramsey should aid the former while I feel van Persie mixing up his game a bit more and allowing Gervinho et al. to gel with their fellow teammates in time should help the latter.
Whether we are able to achieve this is another matter. One can’t help feeling that a real no.10 is missing; someone who can provide that real accurate thrust in the final third. We’ve made improvements going forward this season, noticeably at left back where within the first couple of months both Gibbs and Santos have already equalled Gael Clichy’s goal tally in his entire Arsenal career. All we can do is hope that the new personnel in more advanced positions can integrate quickly and adapt to our new ‘direct’ style.
Possession is nice, penetration is even better.
*Opta Stats (@OptaJoe)
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