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Arsenal's Rambo-esque start of the season analysed

It wasn’t exactly the scenario the fans expected for the return of the Arsenal. The club has been facing hard times throughout the years and this summer is surely one of them. There is divergence among the fans on whether Wenger has come to the end of his spell, and the team didn't start the season brilliantly. However, the season may have really started after that result: Arsenal was defeated 3-1 at the Emirates but gave the perfect reaction against Fernerbahce in the Champions League and on Saturday against Fulham. In both games the Gunners scored three goals on the road and only conceded once – which can be seen as a real performance considering the serious squad issue the club is facing.

Against the expectation set for fans by Gazidis' comments in June, the club hasn’t spent a penny on the transfer market, which closes its doors on the September 2nd, or brought in any players except poor old Sanogo who definitely isn’t ready to be a first team challenger.

However, after a long period without any tactical analysis [simultaneous to the “non-football” period] "Captain Fan-Tactique" is back on Goonersphere. To avoid any conflict, I will only concentrate on the current squad and our current capabilities. My point is not to criticize the structure of the club, the board, the manager or the players for the gesturing of the club. Therefore, I will deal with the players but exclusively on the sport aspect.

And trust me, there’s already enough to say! Arsenal have played three games. All of them were quite different and showed an evolution in the behavior of the players on the pitch. Throughout this piece, I will highlight what I believe have been the tactical flaws and the good points… which for some haven’t changed from the past years.

I’ve organized my piece chronologically hence you’ll find the conclusion at the end. The aim is to point out what I believe has improved and what remains to amend.

Arsenal v Aston Villa

tactical analysis arsenal vs villa

In this situation Arsenal suffer from a lack of width which consequently contains any build-up. Cazorla has drifted in to the center while Giroud is triggering a call. But Aston Villa have set three players just in front of the ball holder who in this example is Ramsey.

The latter is going a bit too high on the pitch: he should be sitting deeper and covering the area to prevent his team from any counter attacks. Therefore the bloc is disorganized. Ramsey isn’t a playmaker and with the Welshman sitting slightly deeper, the team should gain width as Rosicky and Wilshere move aside and drag with them a Villain or two.

Ramsey may have improved heaps in the last months but there is a huge difference between a double pivot made of Arteta and the Welshman than a partnership with him and any other player. Basically, he can’t do Arteta’s job yet. He is not a playmaker nor a defensive midfielder. He went great alongside Arteta when the Spaniard was in charge of lying deep and controlling the majority of the defensive tasks. So he has to do it his way, the “Ramsey” way – which is a pretty good solution when you have no other solution.

On the above image you can easily see the disorganization among the Arsenal players. Rosicky and Ramsey are on the same line. It would be interesting and I guess, possible to see Ramsey play as high if the other players asked intelligently for the ball but the fact is that is very rare.

Cazorla is drifting in way too much plus there is no real cover at the back except from the back four. It is worrying especially when three players are facing the ball holder and that there are no other options for Ramsey. His choices are limited; he will have to play backwards or sideways – or lose the ball.

Chamberlain, playing on the left, in the first half stuck much more to the side line whereas Cazorla, when in the same position, wanders around a lot more. It is something you can do sometimes throughout a short period of a game but it can be dangerous to do it all the time. Given that Cazorla wasn’t in his best shape – and everybody knew it – Wenger maybe should have played Lukas Podolski. I’m not a big fan of the German striker but he would’ve probably served the team better against Aston Villa at the Emirates.

Arsenal vs villa

Here is another illustration of this version of the double pivot that didn’t work very well in the Villa game. Here, Wilshere is holding the DM role while Ramsey is running higher hoping to get the ball and… run? Aaron was the one alongside Arteta last year, the one dealing with the defensive tasks before that, the one helping Arteta, the one running everywhere to defend… Ramsey and not Jack Wilshere who is even less suited to the DM role.

I genuinely didn’t understand Ramsey’s behavior against Aston Villa. Especially in the second half. He was playing much higher than he should have. I also believe the Welshman’s passing quality is better than Wilshere’s and therefore, it would’ve been more convenient to let the former deal with the first pass. Let Wilshere mainly deal with transitions.

It always was going to fail. Wilshere was left alone, without any proper solution to give the ball away. And that was eased by Ramsey being too far from Wilshere. The gap between both players could only handicap the team. Provided both players stayed close to each other, moving in an organized manner it could’ve worked but this situation pushed Wilshere to try complicated stuff to get out of difficult situations that he often faced. On Delph’s shot on the post, Wilshere suffered from isolation and lost the ball whilst trying to do too much.

Arsenal Villa Tactical Analysis

There is way too much space between Wilshere and Ramsey. The most intriguing thing in this game was Ramsey seeming uninterested in helping his teammate with Wilshere sometimes struggling on his own. The double pivot is supposed to solidify the midfield by setting two players alongside one another who can count on each other for defensive and attacking tasks. Whilst one of them goes forward, the other covers the area deeper. Well in theory that it is how it is supposed to work. Except the space between both players is not meant to be huge and create danger; a longer pass is riskier. Besides, the player can come sideways to support the ball holder.

Arsenal vs Villa Emirates Stadium

This is the “What the hell?!” image. The team looks cut in two. 2 defenders (?!) and 5 players running like hell to catch the adversary who probably himself wonders how come he has so much freedom. The first thing is, none of the two players from the double pivot are in a good position. One should be in front of the back four to contain the opponents. Then, nobody really knows why Sagna is not on his left flank defending – a bit like Jenkinson on the other side.

Fenerbahce v Arsenal

Arsenal vs Fenerbahce. Arsenal pressing system

Our pressing system hasn’t always been the best. But against the Turks it looked pretty efficient. It worked out quite well; depending on which side the ball was, the winger (Walcott or Cazorla) stepped up in front of the opposition putting them under pressure. Rosicky slid on all the width of the pitch and blocked the connection with the opposing midfield's while Giroud had a mission to annihilate the link with the center backs. When the ball-holder was in the center (for example one of the center backs) Olivier Giroud and Tomas Rosicky were on duty. It wasn’t a surprised to notice that Walcott didn’t always respect his duties forcing Wilshere to compensate.

Fenerbahce vs Arsenal - Arsenal Theo Drifting

As it very often happens, Walcott drifted centrally to put himself alongside Giroud. I think that is one of the things which annoys me the most about Theo and I can literally get mad at him for such things. Walcott is going to have to understand that he has to move and play with defenders to help Sagna. Bacary remains alone most of the time and has to play sideways. We are a team which suffers from lack of width and Walcott can fix that but he prefers playing centrally. We need to stretch the opponent’s block and Walcott can do it by taking the overlap.

Fenerbahce vs Arsenal - Arsenal triangle passing

In this image we face another type of situation. Arsenal have three players in a 10 meter perimeter. Therefore it is hard to bother the opposition that just has to block the links with any other player and force Arsenal to play backwards. First of all, Cazorla has to stick on his left in this type of position; he can drive the ball in when he actually is in possession of the ball. Besides Wilshere and Ramsey who form the double pivot aren’t supposed to be so close. Basically one of them has to contain himself to a “control-pass” [Ramsey] mode while the other proposes a solution higher [Wilshere]. 

Fenerbahce vs Arsenal - Arsenal throughballs

During the game, on several occasions Cazorla and Rosicky switched positions. It guaranteed better defensive coverage from the Spaniard as he didn’t need to track back to his wing to press and help the full back. Especially given that Santi loves driving the ball around and often finishes far from his initial left flank position. Hence Rosicky instinctively took his position on the left and Cazorla stuck in the center to press directly on the player once the ball was given away.

For example in this situation, Cazorla is coming in from the right. We can see Rosicky on the left, a bit further along. However, the main point of this image is not really that. This is a very common situation to Arsenal. The Spaniard dribbles very well, often manages to cut the defense up. There’s a huge hole here on the left flank eased by Giroud’s movement. The Frenchman likes to drag away defenders from their initial position and disorganize the opposition. That’s exactly what he is doing here: moving sideways so the player marking him has to follow. And so space is created on the flank - [if the image was in fact a video you’d be able to see Gibbs flying down the pitch after Cazorla triggered a superb through ball].

Fenerbahce vs Arsenal - Arsenal playing very narrow

Here Arsenal have their entire midfield and attacking lines grouped in very small premises. We tend to face this type of situation quite often to be honest. A few reasons to that: first of all, all our players are basically central players. Secondly, nobody is providing a good solution for the ball-holder therefore the bloc is static. Wilshere is forced to play sideways and afterwards Rosicky will play towards the center backs. That’s where Theo Walcott needs to sort Arsenal out: when he is static and not preparing a run he is useless to Arsenal and can even easily become a handicap. He needs to make his runs at this moment – make ball calls, but intelligent ones. It might not even be to actually receive the ball but just to stretch the opposition’s bloc, get the midfield to move backwards and consequently space and options present themselves.

The higher the pace of the game is, the better it is for the Gunners who stick to their high tempo style of play. Especially for players like Rosicky, Wilshere and Cazorla who can definitely be dangerous when driving the ball around.

Unlike the Villa game, Ramsey stuck to the role he was asked to hold: not really a defensive midfielder, but the most defensive of the two double-pivot players. Pure logic: he was with Arteta in charge of most of the defensive tasks last year and besides that, Wilshere is not the type of player that you want to put in charge of such things. So Aaron was our man at the back.

Against Villa, he didn’t really convince anyone. Instead of being perfectly disciplined he kind of lost his mind and decided to basically act like Alex Song: fly up the field, drive the ball god knows how and maybe get myself involved in a goal. We all know he can’t do that with his defensive responsibilities, and Ramsey knows it too. That’s why he decided to be more disciplined against Fenerbahce. And what was the result of his discipline? A man of the match award.

Fenerbahce vs Arsenal - Champions League - Arsenal passing triangle midfield

On this image, Ramsey was the first player the defenders were looking for. The player that Arteta usually is. Ramsey played with a lot of composure, he played simply, easily and cleverly. The double pivot with Wilshere functioned way better than against Aston Villa – probably due to the weakness of Fenerbahce’s midfield – but it’s encouraging. Ramsey didn’t lay deep all game, he had a few opportunities to move forward and help the team build up the attack. That’s how he scored actually. I feel it might be Aaron Ramsey’s season. Especially if Wenger goes for a pure DM which would allow Ramsey to be a sort of box to box between the defense and the attack without having to worry for the space he leaves behind him.

Fulham v Arsenal

On to the Fulham game now. Rosicky replaced Wilshere in the double pivot alongside Ramsey. I was worried before the game, you can’t change a player’s role at that point as easily and as quickly. Rosicky is a playmaker, he was going to be asked to defend a lot more and play deeper.

Fulham vs Arsenal - Premier League - Ramsey Rosicky Double Pivot

On this image Cazorla replaced Rosicky as the latter is higher on the pitch. Hence the team was disorganized quite rapidly. It wasn’t very obvious at first because Fulham weren’t efficient but the more the game went on, the more we were able to see the cracks in our midfield. It forced Wenger to react and he did, using the only first team substitute available: Jack Wilshere.

Overall Rosicky dealt with his new tasks at first. I reckon he managed the first thirty minutes. Afterwards he looked tired and didn’t always respect what he was asked to do. Although, it was a very interesting combination of players: it might happen again, for example if Arsenal purchase a proper defensive midfielder. Both players had a couple of quick phases of which layoffs were predominant.

Fulham Arsenal Premier League - Ramsey Wilshere

Rosicky looked very tired and unsure tactically, forcing Wenger to react. He decided to bring Jack Wilshere on, despite the tough challenges from Martin Jol’s players and the slippery pitch which could’ve been harmful for Jack’s recovery. The double-pivot reformed itself. Ramsey and Wilshere were alongside and Cazorla was clearly the playmaker. You can’t blame Rosicky, it isn’t his position and he did what he could. Considering it was [I hope!] only temporary there’s no reason to worry. The Czech won’t play there  much more but… that means Cazorla’s role will change too.

Cazorla was outstanding against Fulham. He was set in a central position, the position he prefers. It guarantees him much more freedom than on the left flank. Besides, he is the only Arsenal player who can consistently cut defences apart. When he plays on the left he tends to drift center and like with Walcott and Sagna, Arsenal’s left flank is only filled by Gibbs who can’t do everything on his own. Defensively the Spaniard is not efficient and forgets his duties at times.

Cazorla’s figures were impressive: 63 passes, 94% passing accuracy and 6 key passes. He looked immensely lively and was involved everywhere. He also shot three times, especially in the first half when it was pouring. Santi is an intelligent player and Arsenal make the best of him in this present role, behind Giroud (or another striker).

Fulham Arsenal Premier League Santi Cazorla key passes

Three of his six key-passes came from the edge of the box and are in Walcott’s direction. Theo is efficient in his ball-calls whenever he triggers them between the left back and the center back, especially behind the left back.

Fulham Arsenal premier league santi cazorla pass choices

On counter attacks he is deadly. Thanks to Giroud’s moves, one of the center backs is dragged with Frenchman. The Spaniard can either shoot, fake a shot or pass it on the overlap for Podolski or Walcott. And that happened quite often against Fulham.

My last point concerns our crosses. Although I feel our wing-backs have improved their crossing quality another problem occurs (actually, it was an issue last year already): we lack presence in the box.

fulham arsenal premier league arsenal lacking in cross options, bad at crossing

The team would be so much more deadly if we only had one or two late runners (midfielders, obviously) who’d cut the cross in the back of the net. You need to get the best out of your team and Arsenal’s style of play is based on attacking football and therefore, goal scoring. On this situation only Giroud is running towards the center of the box, Cazorla and Podolski are staying on the edge of it. Imagine if – sometimes, it doesn’t have to be all the time as you need some cover afterwards – a player would get in the area where the ball is the most likely to fall and just bang it ruthlessly in the nets.

So, overall, I will try to sum up a few ideas:

Ramsey has become an essential piece of Arsenal’s puzzle. He is THE man of the start of the season. He didn't have the best day against Aston Villa and looked a tad lost without his mate Arteta but the Welshman hit superhero mode and decided he could be the player who could save Arsenal. Therefore he launched many runs up field just like Song used to do. If often led nowhere but the player still tried it out. But he brilliantly corrected that against Fenerbahce and Fulham.

Comparison between Ramsey’s heatmap vs Aston Villa and vs Fulham:

Arsenal aston villa premier league aaron ramsey heatmap

fulham arsenal premier league aaron ramsey heatmapThe double pivot is a solution when you don’t have a proper defensive midfielder as you need to strengthen your midfield and assure the best cover possible for your back four. It works with Ramsey and Arteta, it can function with Wilshere and Ramsey when the opposition’s midfield is weaker than ours, but those are the only possible combinations.

Let’s compare Wilshere’s heat map (1) against Aston Villa and Rosicky’s heat map (2) against Fulham:

arsenal aston villa premier league jack wilshere heatmap

fulham arsenal premier league tomas rosicky heatmap

We can easily notice Rosicky played much higher than Wilshere throughout the game. They basically held the same role: alongside Ramsey, they had to do the transitions between defense and attack but strike a balance in their positioning.

-        We should play Cazorla as much possible in the center, he is Arsenal’s playmaker and the only player with such weight on the attacks.

-        If Lukas Podolski sticks to the flank as he did against Fulham and gets involved like this, combining with Gibbs, trying to be there on Giroud’s second balls etc, he can be an essential element for Arsenal. Otherwise, he isn’t useful and it would be a pity given that he is a sensational finisher.

-        Walcott’s case is a complicated one: he tends to be decisive, a “match-winner” some say. So, should we just look at the figures and leave aside 75% of his games? I leave that one to you, I have my idea on the question.

Giroud’s partners seem to trust him this year. Therefore his performances are very encouraging: 3 goals in 3 games. But as I said, Giroud’s contribution also concerns his moves, the pressure he puts on the center backs, his positioning etc. He is going to have a fantastic season, I feel. Even if another “world class” striker arrives.

I decided to not deal with our defense but no worries, their turn will come! Captain Fan-Tactique pour vous servir, have a nice day chaps.

Don’t hesitate to challenge my opinion by posting a little comment underneath the piece.

Thanks to Squawka, WhoScored, ESPN, Россия-2 and Sky Sports for images and statistics.

Tell us what you think! If you agree, or have a different view, please leave a comment in the comments section or why not write a response or your own article on YouWrite?

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Tags: Arsenal, Arsenal FC, Podolski, Cazorla, Ramsey, Giroud, Walcott, Aston Villa, Fenerbahce, Fulham, Arsenal Tactics, Santi

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