The Arsenal Column

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

The Mailbag: The King returns, Wenger’s tactical acumen and Arsenal’s pressing issue.

Some people say this feature only serves to massage my oversized ego but I say it allows me to talk about Arsenal’s most current issues in one post. We’re hoping this can be a regular feature so please feel free to debate below and I’ll likely join in below the line too. Thanks!

Q: Where will Thierry Henry play (off the bench)? And what will be his likely impact? Will he simply replace Gervinho in his now famous left to centre role, or is there something else in stall for Thierry? @Sleepy_Nik

A: Firstly, we must start with a caveat; we musn’t expect too much from Thierry Henry. Moreover, how on earth can anyone displace Robin van Persie right now in the form he’s in? Also, I expect Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain to be given more of a chance and the upcoming game against Leeds United might indicate whether he’s ready. But Thierry Henry comes in when Arsenal require more quality and he still has that. (It must be remembered that it’s more than a year now since he’s been almost injury-free and free of the pain of the Achilles injury that dogged his last year at Arsenal and subsequently affected some of his impact at Barcelona.)

Henry has been brought in to essentially replace two players – Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho – which indicate that an additional attacking signing may still be a possibility. It’s unlikely, though, that he’ll walk into the team because Arsène Wenger has complete trust in the recently maligned Andrei Arshavin having played him in the most games for Arsenal last season. Rather, Henry will be involved mainly in rotation but most importantly perhaps, he’ll be the inspirational figure that Arsenal have so desperately needed in the past.

With Henry, what’s important is not where he’ll play – Wenger envisaged Henry doing more creating had he stayed on at Arsenal rather than relying on pace. (Incidentally threading passes to Jose Antonio Reyes with whom he had a great rapport with on the pitch). He has the chance to do that now in either a “false9”role or as that famous left to centre role instead of in a 442. Henry’s legacy won’t be tainted just because he has come back after his peak for a two month spell. Robbie Fowler returned toLiverpoolin 2006 and although he was not the same player as he once was, the little bit of quality that evokes old memories are the ones that shine through greatest. Besides, it’s not often you get to see your heroes return and that should bring great joy to Arsenal and football fans.

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/#!/arse2mouse/status/152380575246856192"]

Q: For reasons I have never grasped, many people consider Arsène Wenger as slightly tactically inept. Why? And is there some truth to it? @Anserine

A: That myth seems to have originated from his “pre-Invincibles” years and in particular, his unwillingness to make substitutions for tactical reasons. It’s true, his changes are primarily scientific, taking off players like Dennis Bergkamp on 70 minutes because he knew his intensity wouldn’t last beyond that and usually making like-for-like substitutions. But theirin lies the misunderstanding of Wenger because it’s not that he’s tactical inept or incapable of making radical decisions, it’s that his management style is about trusting the expressionism of his players and  the ability to find solutions themselves. That was particularly the case when in charge in his early years and especially of the legendary unit in 03/04 (although the argument is also valid that he could have done more in Europe, tactically). Nowadays, you’ll see more tactical decisions from Wenger and that usually happens when you have a team who’s still learning and still not so confident in their abilities to find solutions as the team is now/has been after the break up of the Invincibles. (Indeed, you have to look back at the Champions League run of 2005/06 to see the beginning of a more hands on approach from Wenger).

When Wenger first stated coaching, he was more meticulous until he gradually realised the players were, indeed, the real game-changers. As Youri Djorkaef once noted at Monaco, Wenger was always about “tactic, tactic, tactic,” although he added: “He would only say two or three things. Positive things, tactical things. He was the only coach in France who worked this way,” highlighting the scope the manager left for players to innovate. Perhaps, though, it’s best to end on Robert Pires’ tweet on Wenger: “Tactically you work a lot. And Wenger makes you work on your qualities. He is perfect.”

Q: It seems like Arsenal struggle more with scoring than conceding. Do you agree and how can they fix it? @MalcolmSouth

What a refreshing thought! Although it’s probably true that Arsenal should be judged more on their attacking play. In terms of whether Arsenal “struggle more with scoring than conceding”, I think it boils down to the type of chances they have and consequently allow opponents to have. Because Arsenal attack with such fervour, they leave more spaces at the back and thus the chances that they concede tend to be of higher quality i.e. more space, time, attacking with speed. (Although their big weakness still remains aerially). In comparison, Arsenal’s chances often have to be manufactured or squeezed therefore their chances tend to be closed down more quickly, need to be processed quicker etc. However, in saying that, Arsenal could be more clinical.

Robin van Persie has had 94 shots this season (the next top-scorer, Demba Ba has 62) but that figure is arbitrary because van Persie is still as clinical as most strikers, converting 18% of his shots (which is a respectable figure). But you’ll have to look at the type of chances he has, often creating chances himself. Of course, looking at the QPR game, he could have scored more than the one goal but then you’ll see that he created at least two chances with his dynamic dribbling and one more that was headed wide. All in spite of a lack of space. It’s not unexpected then, that the goal he scored, was the easiest; a gift from the QPR defence.

Often people ask how Arsenal can improve: the three striker system is placed so Arsenal can be more dynamic and goalscoring coming from more than one source although that is not the case yet. Nevertheless, it must be looked at the role Theo Walcott and Gervinho have in Robin van Persie’s goals. Not having full-backs as much affected Arsenal’s play as they help stretch the play while the return of Jack Wilshere is welcome as his drive and the ability to play through passes is missing. Aaron Ramsey may have improved on the later but he’s hesitant to change the emphasis of Arsenal’s attacks by running with the ball as Wilshere is due to misgivings of his pace. (Ditto Mikel Arteta thus Alex Song’s runs have been key).

As Wenger once said, “the measure of football is the ratio of chances created to to chances conceded” therefore he’ll be the harshest judge of Arsenal’s attacking play.

Q: What advice you would give Wenger to deal with the high pressure Arsenal seem to struggle with? @Darren_V_

It’s true Arsenal have often struggled with high pressure, most spectacularly in the Champions League, although how they got through with one game to spare is a wonderment! What Wenger tends to do is push his central midfielders up the pitch to give his centre-backs more time on the ball. Which is a valid tactic although it doesn’t really answer the question because if they are still pressed, the centre-backs won’t have many options. Arsenal don’t play long-balls so spreading the play laterally is not really the solution. Rather, they could learn from Barcelona and spread the play sideways although that comes with more risk.

The issue, as Backwards Gooner highlighted recently is whether you see it as a problem at the back or at the front. Wenger, against Fulham, saw it at the front so he took of his two under-performing wide players – the two players who should have gave Arsenal a speed outlet but didn’t – in favour of those who keep the ball better – Yossi Benayoun and Tomas Rosicky. It didn’t really work either way because The Gunners were unable to stem Fulham’s attacks and thus they were punished. In that situation, I would have taken a radical option and put on Marouane Chamakh so Arsenal get an out-ball. In one sense though, this Arsenal side has a tendency to be pushed back and thus, Wenger will have to find solutions to correct that problem. Arsenal have looked better when there’s rotation between the midfield to drag opponents out and that remains their most obvious and easiest to implement solution.

<Figure 1: Van Persie passes received v Fulham>Arsenal were unable to respond to Fulham’s second-half pressure and as shown by the passes to van Persie, were unable to get the ball out of the back effectively.

Filed under: Arsenal

12 Responses to “The Mailbag: The King returns, Wenger’s tactical acumen and Arsenal’s pressing issue.”

  1. YEah says:

    Good read

    Just for the record though – Henry and Reyes didn’t get on. In fact it’s widely accepted that Henry forced Reyes out of the club.
    So it’s unlikely they had some sort of ‘great rapport’ with each other.

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  2. dy says:

    definitely the problem lies in the front not at the back. Arsenal now is more solid and composed when all first team players are intact. Exactly because of this new team, the urgency and fluidity of last year’s offensive game is gone. The attack mid has to be really world class in order to replace Fabregas, we have Song and Arteta who are solid in holding formation but not exactly ideal in going forward. Perhaps Arteta is holding back a bit too much under the advice from Arsene. Seen him in more advance role at Everton.
    I would not tinker with the team selection now if Ramsey and Wilshere will come good, and Walcott and Gervinho are finding their goal scoring boots. But if I may have one season’s wish I would drop Walcott now, play 442 with RVP and Gervinho in front, mid consists of Ramsey Wilshere Arteta and Song, LeCoq as backup. The back as is. Of course, this is a wish not going to happen so my backup wish would be for Arsene to buy a real quality mid field general who has an eye to distribute.

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  3. RedCore says:

    Great Read as usual.

    BTW I think that it is absolutely essential to have atleast one of the pace merchants Theo / Gervinho / AOC on the pitch in one of the wide positions at all times. Having ball playing midfielders there worked last season only because of Cesc. Theoretically having Benayoun and Rosicky should help us kill off the games by keeping posession better. But I get the feeling that the opposition is more likely to press us when TR and YB are on the wide areas because they know that even if they get caught out they are probably going to have enough time to get back and tackle. What are your thoughts on this?

    Would love to see Ryo and AOC to grow up and compete with Theo and Gervinho…

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @RedCore,

    I like that. Definitely, with Walcott and Gervinho, the team has more unpredictability whether it’s their ability to get behind or their ability to frustrate us fans! Therefore, teams might feel getting tight and defending in numbers may not be enough. But the same applies with them in the team; to stop Bale you deny him space by closing him down quickly and you do the same vs Walcott.

    I actually think possession players can be more effective in breaking down defences as they shuffle the defenders around. It’s perhaps an area Arsenal lack at the start of matches thus the reliance on van Persie – an option could be to have one wide forward and one creative player on the flanks like last season. On the other, Wenger feels the possession this season should come from deeper – in the central midfield – and that allows – or rather, SHOULD – the three strikers to play with freedom.

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  4. Reckless says:

    Well,I think the main problem Arsenal seem to have is that the two “most scared to shoot” strikers in the league i.e. Gervinho and chamakh are in the same team.RvP is killer in front of goal,but these two??Oh,in case we forget,Walcott??

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    Eurazian Reply:

    @Reckless, while that’s true of Chamakh, I don’t think Gervinho is really scared to shoot at all; he’s just not very good at it.
    I think Gervinho is considerably more valuable to the team than Walcott, at the moment at least. Neither of them know how to score right now, but Gervinho can make things happen. Walcott is also very reliant on other players for through balls – the loss of Cesc and Wilshere has hurt Theo’s game in this respect. Gervinho by contrast can take players on and create opportunities without always needing someone to play him in.

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  5. Tee Song says:

    Regarding Arsenal’s perceived difficulties in scoring I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you state “the three striker system is placed so Arsenal can be more dynamic and goalscoring coming from more than one source although that is not the case yet.” This team is overly reliant on RvP’s goals and that’s down to three players poor goal scoring form at the moment–Theo, Aaron and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Arshavin. Fans seems to perceive Gervinho as being profligate in front of goal but, in the BPL, he has 4 goals in 33 shots for a 12% conversion percentage. After RvP’s 94 shots, Theo is next on the team with 45 shots followed by Ramsey with 36 and they have, respectively, two and one goal to show for their efforts. If they converted the same percentage of their shots as the supposedly profligate Gervinho, they would have an additional SEVEN goals between them. I’m not saying that Gervinho shouldn’t do better but I don’t understand why fans are criticizing him when Theo and Aaron have both been much more inefficient in front of goal. Add to that Arshavin’s woeful goal scoring form with a single goal from 24 shots and one can see why we’re so reliant on Robin. If those three converted at Gervinho’s rate we’d have nine more goals overall. If they converted at the BPL overall average conversion rate of 13%, we’d have ten more goals and if they converted at the same rate as our fellow top 6 competitors, 15%, we’d have twelve more.

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    Fall River Gooner Reply:

    Well put. When put in perspective a you’ve done, it does highlight Gevinho’s worth (scoring-wise) vs theo & aaron . I think gervinho gets stick cuz of the built up anticipation every time he’s goes on the dribble. @Tee Song,

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    Rithvik Reply:

    @Fall River Gooner, @Tee Song
    I like what you both have said about Gervinho, but I also think the statistic you cite regarding shot conversion rate is somewhat misleading. I can remember numerous occasions during the season when he has been in terrific positions, but has chosen to be unselfish and pass to someone else when he might have been better placed.

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    Eurazian Reply:

    @Tee Song, I wonder if the greater amount of stick that Gervinho gets as opposed to Walcott is that Gerv is a smarter player in terms of getting into scoring positions. He has made some great runs and popped up in the right spot constantly, only to waste the chance.
    Theo is not as clever with his off-the-ball movement (he pretty much just runs in one direction) and cannot elude his marker by dribbling like Gervinho can. So he is shooting from positions that aren’t quite as good.
    I actually think Walcott would have buried many of the chances Gervinho has missed; however Walcott doesn’t know how to get in position to have such opportunities.

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    Redcore Reply:

    @Eurazian,
    Hmmn..Agree. Gervinho is clearly a guy who can excite and frustrate at the same time. He only needs more composure in front of goal and he can be better than MU’s Nani..

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  6. novicegooner says:

    Another brilliant analysis of Arsenal’s tactic. Love to read it.

    Arsene knows every bit about his team. It is his ‘patience’ with young players that lately make us frustrated. I myself understand that he wants to give his young players chance to grow by playing them regularly, and that reason is perfectly logical. I guess we have to be ‘patient’ with him too.

    If only he signed a world-class attacking midfielder to play in Ramsey’s position, this season could’ve been so much better for us.

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