Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in the Premier League on Sunday was a lot of things. Disappointing? Yes. Inevitable? Yes. A setback? You betcha. What it wasn’t, was Arsenal being Arsenal, as so many have claimed it was.
The game was billed as a contest between two sides whose managers liked to play football ‘the correct’ way (if there is such a thing), and would be another amazing game like some of the others between Premier League heavyweights this season. Except only one manager got the memo. Arsenal set their stall out early on and tried to display a side to them that is rarely seen. It did not go well.
The set up
Although Arsene Wenger picked a strong, attacking side, the game plan was clear from minute one: soak up pressure, and hit City on the counter. The manager clearly had Leicester City in mind, directing the team to invite the opponents onto them, steal the ball, and then send a long pass to one of the wingers, who should be in space and able to cause maximum havoc.
Except, that didn’t happen: when either Laurent Koscielny or Gabriel got the ball, they sent it forward, but not to anyone in particular. Walcott drifted inside between Clichy and Kolarov, and Iwobi spent most of his time doubling up on De Bruyne.
The key difference between Arsenal and Leicester City was that the balls from the back were pinpoint. Whoever sprayed the ball out wide knew exactly where Mahrez would be, and put the ball exactly on the winger’s feet. Arsenal’s, by comparison, generally didn’t go anywhere near their intended target and when they were headed towards Alexis Sanchez, it required the Chilean to challenge in the air. Alexis is a fine header of the ball, but couldn’t cope with the pressure put on him.
As Leicester demonstrated, the long pass out is only effective if the wingers stay wide and the ball lands at their feet, in space. Alexis was smothered and the wingers weren’t where they needed to be. I lost count of the number of balls that Koscielny, Gabriel or Cech launched forward, only for it to come straight back.
It was ironic that the opening goal came from a play that contradicted the way the team was set up.
The inability to change
I don’t buy the criticism of Mesut Ozil for not pressing on the half way line; that wasn’t the tactic. The tactic was to sit as far back as comfortable in an attempt to make City over-commit, and then hit them on the break. Rightly or wrongly, the front four were there to be an attacking force only, not to apply too much pressure on the City rear guard. City’s back four were there for the taking, and were exposed by the opening goal, but the Gunners actively chose not to capitalise on that by conceding possession.
Once City equalised and were in the ascendancy, they were all over Arsenal like a rash. Every time an Arsenal player got the ball, it was hoofed forward only for City to get it and send it back. This was the time to change tactic and go back to Plan A: get the ball on the floor, pass it around and try to take the sting out of the game. Arsenal completely failed to adapt, sat further and further back, and couldn’t get a moment’s rest.
Conceding possession to a team smelling blood is a recipe for disaster, and City didn’t allow Arsenal to try out anything different. The successful tactic from the first half became the desperate move of a team seeking a break while they recalibrated and tried to work out what to do next. The players who usually had the freedom of the park were suddenly being drawn closer and closer to each other, meaning that playing the ball out wasn’t an option – no matter how many passes were strung together, only about 5 yards’ progress would be made, and a City player would have stolen the ball.
While the wingers and Alexis drifted further and further back, Arsenal didn’t have a viable outlet. The ball kept being sent out, and kept coming back, which naturally sapped the players of their energy.
To play a game with long passes, the front players need to stay high up the pitch. While Alexis did that in the first half, he struggled to get into the game in the second and subsequently drifted further and further back in an effort to help. While admirable, it left Arsenal with no real outlet when the ball was sent forward. He also struggled in the air and in trying to hold up the play for his teammates to join him.
Arsenal already have a player who can compete in the air and effectively hold up play: Olivier Giroud came on when the game was already lost and Arsenal were really struggling to even get out of their own third. Had the Frenchman started, the tactic would have made more sense – Giroud by his nature stays as high as he can, and is one of the best in the league at bringing others into play.
The team’s set up did not help Ozil at all. The German is most effective when the play is going through him, not when he is a runner in behind a non-existent target-man. Ozil drifts around the pitch and finds pockets of space in which to buy an extra second and lay on his pass; when the team are inviting pressure onto them and playing long aimless balls, the opposition eat up all the space Ozil likes to operate in, leaving him with nowhere to operate and having the game simply pass him by. If he’s not the creative hub, he can’t offer a lot to this team.
Alexis stopped directing
In the first half, every time Alexis was in shot he could be seen telling his teammates exactly where he wanted them. Perhaps a victim of the side being unable to get any foothold on the game, he was no longer able to tell the rest of them how he wanted the pressure applied, and had to do most of the work himself whenever the ball was anywhere near him.
Without Alexis’ directions, none of the front four applied the pressure that was required to allow those behind them to take a breather. All four suddenly disappeared from the game, unable to influence it in any meaningful way, and were left to chase down aimless balls – if it even got that far.
The way it played out, the players were understandably tired after spending most of the game chasing shadows and practically begging for time to catch their breaths. It’s no wonder that, come the final period of the game, they were unable to muster up the sort of energy required to soak up pressure and exploit the counter.
All in all, a bad night for Arsenal. A tactic which could have worked well was not executed nearly as well as it could have been, which in turn affected the performances of a number of players who needed it to be perfect to work.
All that being said, one side issue: In the aftermath, I saw a tweet taking a pop at Ozil for a lack of effort in a ‘title decider’. It’s December. We’re only just half way through the season. This may be a setback, but a title decider it definitely is not. Stop being so overdramatic.
By Raj Devandran – Arsenal fan – @