The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Dortmund press Arsenal’s full-backs and the problem with Wenger’s defensive strategy

Pat Rice cannot wait for the return of Arséne Wenger to the dugouts – the manager still has one game remaining in his touchline ban from UEFA – and it’s easy to see why having put through a stern examination of his coaching credentials that he didn’t want. While against Udinese the comfort of the early goal dictated the encounter, he got no such assistance away to Borussia Dortmund as Jürgen Klopp sought to impose his style as quickly as possible. And they did, creating an overwhelming swirl of yellow and black around Arsenal in possession. It was a strategy that earned them many plaudits last season and while they haven’t made the best of starts this year, they aimed to put that right against Arsenal, the team that in the past, have been the model of the tireless, high-intensity and rapid passing game they displayed on Match Day 1.

The players were turbo-charged from the off; indeed the popular image of Borussia Dortmund today is that of the “Duracell Bunny”, the wind-up rabbits that front the promotion of the battery manufacturer’s products and Dortmund certainly lived up to their metaphor. They hounded Arsenal on the ball at the back so much so you could see the gears in The Gunners mechanics clicking and stuttering into place, trying to find a solution. Should the midfielders drop back or push forward to counter/negate the press? Or should the centre-backs risk Arsenal’s philosophical game and pass the ball long? Because, as magnificently as Dortmund did press, it’s been a ongoing problem that Arsenal have had to contend with.

Tuesday night’s troubles were indicated in pre-season when SL Benfica did well to stop Arsenal playing in part although The Gunners reacted well when Alex Song tried to evade the attentions of his marker by moving left and right, allowing his partners to pick the ball from deep instead. Unfortunately Arsenal didn’t do that enough at Signal Iduna Park, with Mikel Arteta only receiving 23 passes. Contrast that to Song, Arsenal’s main outlet from deep, who received 33 passes. Arséne Wenger’s answer usually is to push his midfielders up the pitch when opponents close down but that was similarly problematic as all it did was lessen the options the defenders can pass to so they were forced to pass it amongst each.

“The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

Dortmund know Arsenal won’t play very long; indeed, perhaps therein lied another issue. The Gunners stretch the play length-wise, up the pitch but don’t laterally. We know how Barcelona stretch their two centre-backs across the pitch at the start of attacks so that it increases the distance that the opponents can get compact. As a result, a midfielder can then drop in as they’ll have more space now. Manchester United did that well against Benfica last night and the fact that their play is naturally wide made it difficult for the Portuguese side to squeeze the play.

Pressing of full-backs

With all the talk about how well Dortmund played, Arsenal actually had more possession in the first-half. The selection, Benayoun ahead of Frimpong suggested Wenger would try and dominate through possession. Klopp realised this too so he set up his side to work very hard off the ball and when they got it, work the channels to try and get in behind. In fact, Dortmund were content with letting Arsenal’s centre-backs pass the ball, especially Per Mertasacker, who they thought may have more chance fumbling with time on his hands while the more competent passer, Laurent Koscielny was afforded less due to Mario Götze’s tendencies to drift in. As a result, there was a slant towards the left-hand side and Bakary Sagna, the right back, found it was him who was put under the most pressure.

Dortmund’s pressing usually starts when the ball moves towards midfield or out-wide to the full-backs although the two forwards created an initial barrier that stops the easy pass going through. BVB did this very well, creating a line and getting tight when the centre-backs had the ball but when the ball reached the full-backs, ramped up their efforts to close down thus making it hard to start moves off. And certainly, with the success that they had, you wonder why more teams don’t do the same particularly because of the way the game has developed, the full-back has most time on the ball and often start moves off. At the end of the game, both Sagna and Kieran Gibbs made the most passes for Arsenal but by denying them time on the ball, they were unable to influence and spread play wide effectively – their main avenue of attack this season. (Alan McInally, co-commentating for Sky, observed how often Arsenal were forced to play the ball back to their defenders).

<Figure 1> Bakary Sagna was targeted by Dortmud’s pressing, particlarly early on. Whenever the ball reached the wide areas, he was instantly surrounded and making it difficult to find a pass through. The tactic was very effective in the first-half when Arsenal tried to get on the offensive so much so, it’s a wonderment more teams don’t do it more often. Full-backs have such a prominent role in a building attacks and the fact that they stopped him getting forward, affected Arsenal’s game. The knock on feature in pressing a full-back is that it then limits the angles he can pass the ball. Here, Sagna is not offered a 360 degree vision as the side to his stronger foot is closed off due to the touchline. He is thus compelled to pass it back or to the congested centre or else, to try and find a way past Grosskreutz who gets tight.

Arsenal’s (lack of) pressing invites Dortmund forward

It’d be unfair not to praise the way Arsenal defended (not to mention seriously questioning the partisanship of this blog!) because it was an atypically resilient performance with their backs-to-the-wall. Alex Song, in particular, was magnificent in front of the defence although it was he who also had the feel the full brunt of Dortmund’s high-tempo strategy. However, Arsenal’s problems were as much self-inflicted as they were thrust upon them because they simply invited the opposition at them. BVB had three good chances to score in the opening twenty minutes, exposing the kinds of weaknesses that were displayed in the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United. That it nearly happened again shows that there is a serious flaw in Wenger’s defensive strategy and cannot all be excused by unfamiliarity between the players.

Arsenal’s defensive line was all over the place but the real trouble stemmed from the non-existence of a pressing game high up the pitch. If the back four want to push up then the midfield must do so in accordance. However, Arsenal tend to sit off in their own half and that just invites the opponents at them and more crucially, the chance to spring the offside trap. As the game wore on, the midfield dropped even deeper so the chance to get behind was limited but the lack of pressing was still shown by the level of last ditch defending they did; Dortmund had 22 shots in all, 16 in the second-half and half of those were blocked efforts.

Arsenal, with the best defence in open play last season, were not in need of such a drastic overhaul to their pressing and ironically, it was when they did press up the pitch that they created the goal. They say from up the stands you can analyse the action better and you’d hope Wenger, watching from the perfect vantage point, can learn from the side he says pressed the best he’s seen this week and make the changes the side desperately needs.

<Figure 2> The lack of synchronicity between the instructions of the defenders and the midfielders is shown. While the back-four push up to play a high line, the midfield doesn’t follow suit. In fact, they are more concerned with shape – which is all well and good – but by not getting tight, they are essentially allowing the opposition at them. This makes it ripe for Dortmund to attempt the ball over because they are not under pressure to make the pass. At times on Tuesday night, the two conflicting strategies meant the positions collapsing on each other as the midfield dropped deep in their own half, pressing too late and the back-four pushing up. In the second-half, particularly that was the case as Arsenal were unable to get out of their own half.

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10 Responses to “Dortmund press Arsenal’s full-backs and the problem with Wenger’s defensive strategy”

  1. K-TR7 says:

    Brilliant.Arsene was very impressed by their pressing and i expect him to sort it out in training.

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  2. K-TR7 says:

    It may be abit off topic but am i the only one who thinks Gerv and Theo shouldn’t play together?so far both of them are losing many balls even though we are trying to be more direct.last season we played a lop sided 4-2-3-1 with nasri and fab in tandem and theo and rvp further forward.this coupled with nasri’s ability to hold the ball very well and rvp dropping deep/left ensured theo played like a conventional striker most of the time.right now so far anyway the attacking system seems broken.what do you think arsene will do?

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    Arsenal Column Reply:


    I actually though it might have finally been time to play a 4231 on Tuesday with Walcott in front of RvP on Tuesday (with Benayoun and Gervinho in lopsided flanking formation.

    But I agree with the assertion that Walcott/Gervinho shouldn’t start together in a game where it’ll be technical and quick. We may get away with it in the league however. But I think in part the personnel were forced; can’t see Frimpong and Arshavin in a technically quick game like this unfortunately. Wenger has indicated though, Benayoun will play on the right so perhaps rotating with one if those.

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    K-TR7 Reply:

    Unfortunately i don’t think rvp has the stamina required to play in the middle of the ‘3’ band like maybe rooney would also hinder arsene’s vision of having a rotating midfield may work but i have lots of reservations about it.with arteta playing deeper maybe arsene wants jack/diaby to play there once they resume fitness.diaby in my opinion can make a very good false 10 to complement rvp’s false 9.his direct running and dribbling may work there.jack on the other hand may prove to be a phenomenon there given time.thoughts?

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    Gennie Reply:

    @K-TR7, This is what I said on your earlier article on 14th September with regard to what happened in Dortmund and what is the problem of playing Gervinho and Walcott at the same time. Please have a read.

    @Brain, the analysis is good, but I would take issue with players rather than the formation. You could also say that Wenger did not choose the right combination of players. Last night, if you exclude the back four, only van Persie, Song and Arteta could be described as technical players. Benayoun, Walcott and Gervinho fall short. As a result playing tippy tappy football was not that easy. For, when Song receives the ball from defence basically he has only Arteta to look for (i.e. he has few options to pass to), van Persie is (was) too high up to offer help. Last season and the one before, Wilshere, Cesc, Denilson (despite the stick he got from fans) and Diaby were very good at opening up, finding space to receive the ball, and their technical skills and off ball movement allowed them to get away from opponents. Walcott and Gervinho (though much better than Walcott on the ball) are a bad combination. I would go as far as to say playing them both deprives the team of creativity, it is much worse if you then have Frimpong along Song as we saw against Udinese.

    Presently, the options for playing tik-taka is to play one of Gervinho or Walcott on one wing, the other wings should be occupied by Young, Santos, Benayoun, Rosicky or AA23. In the absence of Wilshere, Coquelin (instead of Frimpong) should be behind Arteta or Rosicky or Ramsey (both in front of Arteta). If Wenger was flexible enough, he would play Santos behind Arteta / Rambo / AA23 when Wilshere is absent. The Wilshere position needs some body who has good ball skills (as Santos is) to relieve pressure from Song and defenders (that is what Wilshere and Cesc used to do last season when the opposition were pressing high). I am given to believe his driving runs, ala Diaby, would particularly be effective in drawing the opposition to him and creating space for others to receive a pass. Diaby when he comes back can also do that .

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    The Brain Reply:


    I agree. That’s one of the problems doing an analysis of a performance; making conclusions when players are missing tread on the hypothetical somewhat. As you say, Wilshere is a key part of the dynamics which Arteta may not be able to replicate. (Actually, it looks like Jack may play higher up when he returns but that’s for another day).

    I’d felt this team had enough technique in the midfield although Benayoun’s unfamiliarity offset that somewhat and Arteta hasn’t played at this level before. (I think you do disservice to Benayoun as a technical player but because he’s playing in central midfield perhaps it’d be then difficult to expect on him to adjust quickly to Dortmund’s pressing).

    I agree also Gervinho and Walcott just doesn’t work if Arsenal want to keep the ball better and I don’t think Wenger really wanted to play them together as much this season – or at least now that Wilshere is out and both Nasri and Cesc have left. He courted numerous wide forwards in the summer who were technical and at the end finished with Benayoun – who ended up playing in the centre. I think he will rotate more to play on the right this season so at least one part of the technical/direct balance may be addressed.

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  3. K-TR7 says:

    Id also like to add that after watching pato’s goal against milan i was very impressed by how pato attacked the space by using incredible acceleration which reminded me of Henry’s goal at the Bernabeu.although theo doesn’t possess the technical ability of the aforementioned 2 i think he still doesn’t utilize his pace to full effect.its frustrating to watch him at times.he has received lots of criticism this year due to this.although some is unwarranted since after cesc/nasri have left we seem to not create enough space for players like theo to run into.Arsene has lots of work to do since players like theo/gerv rely on running into pockets of space.

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  4. Daniel Wong says:

    So Cesc has written of Wenger Arsenal’s title push for the next few years.Wenger may disagree but thanks to his philosophy the gunners have just become another team.Of course nothing is cut in stone but the omens aint good.
    Unless the gunners can string a series of consecutive epl victories,it would be correct.Actually Wenger had plenty of time to bring in the experienced players but persisted with Vela,denilson,etc and this is the reward. Had he bought a couple of experienced epl campaigners,the gunners won’t have been in such straits.
    I believe the gunners can only fight for fourth place.I hope I am wrong.

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  5. Tee Song says:

    Regarding Arsenal’s inability to beat Dortmund’s pressing. I’m sure everyone know there’s two ways to do that. First, and perhaps most importantly, try to get behind the defense with a long ball over the top. Nothing shatters the confidence of a pressing team more than scoring a quick goal by getting behind the defense. If you’re going to play through the press, it takes quick passing and coordinated off the ball movement, emphasis on quick. I’m not as concerned as others with the combination of Gervhino and Theo in terms of their inability to retain possession. With a midfield trio of Song, Arteta and Benayoun combined with RvP dropping deep there should have been enough technical players on the pitch to play through the press and you need the threat of speed over the top to keep the defenders honest.

    Arsenal’s ineffectiveness, in my opinion, was simply a reflection of the players unfamiliarity with each other and Arsenal’s tactics as much as anything else. Remember, this Dortmund team basically only lost one significant player from last year, Sahin. They’ve had a season to understand their roles within Dortmund’s defensive structure. Arsenal had three players who’ve been with the team a week and a fourth for a month. Unfamiliarity with their roles and with each other caused the tempo of the passing in midfield to slow down to the point to where it was never going to beat a side as talented and well drilled as Dortmund. As for going over the top, I’m sure Mertesacker, as the new guy, was a little inhibited to do so. It’s an area which TV5 would have helped immensely because he seems to have the best passing range of the defenders, although Koz has recently impressed in that department.

    I’m sure as these players bed into the team, they’ll show the quality necessary to nullify pressure. The return of players like Jack, Rosicky and Diaby would help in that area too. My gut feeling is that Dortmund won’t be able to push us back so easily in the return match.

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  6. david seago says:

    lets wait for a while before we assess Gervinho’s ability to keep the ball, as he’s only played a handful of games, and looks like he’ll take a few months to settle.
    I think that Gervinho and Walcott can absolutely play together and are doing so pretty well at the moment.
    I do think however that Walcott needs to be pushed further and narrower up the pitch, with the width being provided by Sagna (or Gibbs/Santos on the left) but to do this we need our defensive midfielder to ‘sit in’ a bit more to provide cover. Which isn’t happening at the moment as Song is getting forward a lot and our midfield 3 are pretty fluid rather than having one designated ‘holding’ player.
    but rest assured, the attacking ‘3’ we have at the moment will score a lot of goals this season, i am convinced of that.

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