Arsenal under Arsène Wenger are known worldwide for their exciting brand of free-flowing passing football. It has seen them acquire multiple admirers over the years and this has meant a constant flow of fans through the gates at both Highbury and more recently the Emirates. Fans who, on the whole, have witnessed the boys in Red and White follow their manager’s philosophy by dominating games keeping the ball on the floor. Maximise possession and the rest will follow is the mantra.
Possession can be such a powerful tool and has been treated accordingly for many years. Before England played Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, Sir Alf Ramsey told his team to “treat the ball like it is made of gold and never let it go.” He realised the very simple fact that the less the opposition have of the ball the less chance they’ll have of scoring. This is central to the defensive element of possession.
Spain and Barcelona are more recent examples of teams with possession at the heart of their ethos and have taken the ‘keep-ball’ style of play or ‘tiki-taka’ to a level not seen before by many. When games are won they are the experts at taking the sting out of a game, closing out games with ease by doing what they love – keeping the ball.
Maintain control of the ball and you can also ‘pass teams to death’ – keep them chasing until they tire and be ready to capitalise later on in games. This is the attacking element of possession. We’ve seen this quite a lot in recent years with Wenger keen for his teams to be ultra-fit so as to take advantage in the dying moments. Something that often gets overlooked in teams who aim to monopolise possession is the amount of running they do off-the-ball simply to find pockets of space to give their teammates more passing options and thus create a higher chance of keeping hold of the ball.
Nigel Winterburn described how “Arsène Wenger’s training is all about possession of the football, movement of the football and support of one another.” This will be nothing new to you and is illustrated by the fact we were the side with the highest average percentage possession last season (61%) and the side with the best passing accuracy with 84%*. However over the last few years our performances on occasion have made me wonder – should we be better on the ball than we are?
Many teams use the same tactic when they come up against us. Concede possession of the ball without a fight, park the bus and ask us to break them down. So many teams have implemented this over the years that I’ve wondered whether it might be an idea if the groundsman might paint double yellow lines on the opposition’s goal line each half.
However, on the odd occasion that a team does ‘have a go’ at us and press higher up the pitch we often seem ponderous and sloppy in possession. It may be because we’re not used to facing this tactic that often but forgive me for hoping a team known worldwide for their passing football might do better. Take last year’s visit of Barcelona for instance – A brilliant win and arguably the greatest night at the Emirates. Despite this the majority of our play that night was very inaccurate. Barça are arguably the best pressing team in the world but I would still have expected us to keep the ball better. We ended the game with 39%** possession so there’s certainly room for improvement.
Possession isn’t everything of course. Football is a results business and nobody will preach that more than José Mourinho. His Inter Milan side famously only had a remarkable 16%** of the ball when they faced Barcelona in the second leg of their Champions League Semi Final in the 09/10 season. Inter may have lost that leg 1-0 and were lucky on a few occasions not to concede a second which would have meant elimination from the competition but ultimately they stood firm to reach the final and eventually win the trophy.
So how can we, a team that aims to possess the majority of the ball, beat these teams that set out with a defensive mentality? I addressed this to a degree in Part 2 of the 3 P’s (Penetration) but would further like to add to that the speed of ball circulation. Former Racing Santander coach and Real Madrid sporting director Miguel-Ángel Portugal hits the nail on the head when speaking on the matter:
“The faster you move the ball, the harder it is for the opposition to cover all the gaps because they get pulled from side to side.”
Possession, in an attacking sense at least, is nothing without pace or a sudden change of it. Reserve team coach Neil Banfield mentioned in preseason that this was one of the things the coaches were encouraging the youngsters to improve on and this is being continued in the first team set-up. After Sunderland’s visit to the Emirates earlier this season, midfielder Jack Colback explained that the expanse and speed of our play was a real eye-opener:
“Obviously we played Chelsea at home but I don’t think they move it around as quick as Arsenal. They make the pitch really big and they’re constantly rotating so you don’t really get a chance to have a breather.”
These are encouraging words and while we’re seeing a return to the more direct Arsenal of the early Wenger years it’s good to see opposition players are still suffering physically with our lateral play. One man who has been instrumental in this is Mikel Arteta. When he arrived on the last day of the summer transfer window he was regarded by many as a replacement for Cesc Fàbregas but his performances have been more akin to a Denilson upgrade. Robust in the tackle and positionally aware it is his intelligent passing that have really stood out. He is currently the only Premier League player in the top 10 for average passes per game from the top 5 European leagues (77.9) and has an impressive pass accuracy percentage of 90.4% (Incidentally Aaron Ramsey is 12th on the list with an average of 71.6 passes a game)***.
Arteta keeps possession, often with one or two touches, thus linking play and keeping the speed of ball circulation high. This role should not be underestimated in our system and it is also extremely useful when considering the defensive element of our possession. So far this season we have been able to close out games with more ease than in recent years and much of this may be down to the added experience in the squad. However, on a few occasions (namely Marseille away and West Brom at home) we have seen what I like to call the ‘narrow-asymmetrical-possession-domination tactic.’ Catchy name, eh?
Here we have the positions of the Arsenal players in the 2nd half of the match vs Marseille at the Stade Vélodrome.
1. We can see the players set in a 4-3-3 formation with Tomáš Rosický (7) as the most attacking midfielder. 2. Gervinho (27) has been subbed on for Theo Walcott (14). 3. This is where we adopt the possession-domination formation I mentioned earlier. Aaron Ramsey (16), brought on for Andrei Arshavin in the 78thminute, replaces Rosický in the middle, Tomáš moves a little to the left and Gervinho moves more central, closer to Robin van Persie (10) forming a compact 4-2-3-1. In practice both Ramsey and Rosický were rotating between central and left-ish roles and it was this fluidity of movement that allowed an increase in possession in the last few minutes of the game.
In the above picture we see Rosický (red dot) wide on the left with Ramsey (yellow dot) central. Gervinho (blue dot) has moved into a more central position to support van Persie.
However, in this picture we see Rosický more central with Ramsey in the left wing position making a run to get onto the end of Djourou’s cross. He receives the ball and keeps his composure to finish low past Mandanda.
In the West Brom game both our ‘runners’ (Walcott and Gervinho) were replaced by ‘ball players’ (Benayoun and Arshavin) while Rosický replaced Ramsey. These changes had the similar effect of helping us keep possession in the latter stages of the game. This is something we haven’t seen that often this season but it could become more of a regular occurrence when Jack Wilshere returns to full fitness. Walcott and Gervinho have contributed greatly to our improved penetration but the likes of Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosický, Benayoun and Arshavin could be used for occasions where more possession may be necessary.
Finally but by no means least, as Michael Cox of Zonal Marking explains, the passing ability of a team’s goalkeeper can be crucial to their overall possession. For a while now I’ve been a little riled at Wojciech Szczęsny’s distribution. While he has worked on this there have still been numerous occasions this season where our periods of pressure through possession have been lost through a Wojciech punt forward. This might be a valid tactic if we were an aerially dominant team and for all his critics the presence of Marouane Chamakh actually helps us in this regard. However, without him in the team long kicks upfield are often lost. To illustrate this below are two chalkboards from Round 10 of this season’s Premier League season where we defeated a certain team at the Bridge.
The chalkboard on the left shows Swansea’s Michael Vorm choosing to play short passes which are successful (denoted by the blue arrows) thus maintaining possession for his team. Szczęsny however opts to play several longer balls which in the main turn out to be unsuccessful (red arrows). Incidentally Swansea are the shortest team in the Premier League and so Vorm’s distribution is even more logical. Wojciech can clearly improve more in this regard.
Arsène Wenger’s philosophy in emphasis on possession is much admired and with good reason. Look all around Europe and the sides at the top of the tables will invariably have the highest average possession stats. Our new-found direct style is addressing our penetration issues but ultimately we need possession to achieve success. After all, how can you score without the ball?
* Opta Stats (@OptaJoe)
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