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HomeSportsArsenal have an Arsène Wenger Problem

Arsenal have an Arsène Wenger Problem

While short-passing teams need their players closely linked, they also need them to be staggered. A 4–4–2 defensive shape has three banks of players, while a 4–2–3–1 has four or even five, if the two midfielders are staggered. As a result, the latter has one or two extra lines in the gaps of space between the 4–4–2. The way to progress the ball up the field, then, is by finding players in those gaps.

Pep Guardiola’s teams are typically intelligent in their positioning, and his Manchester City side have already shown signs of significant improvementafter a disappointing end to previous manager Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure. The Catalan coach follows a philosophy of juego de posición — or positional play — which gives his team a guideline of how to structure themselves in support of whoever has the ball. Through a detailed scheme, they have consistent spacing that establishes many links between the players, enabling the short passing that his Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams were known for.

Without a clear and explicit guideline for their positioning, though, Arsenal’s shape often becomes disconnected. The problems appear as soon as they start bringing the ball out of defense. Despite playing with three central midfielders, without any positional directive, only one of them typically drops back to receive a pass from the center backs.

This creates two problems: (1) the defenders don’t have as many options to advance the ball to, and (2) if the central midfielder does get the ball, he’s then disconnected from the other two midfielders, which then makes it harder for him to advance the ball. Although Xhaka can sometimes make these longer passes, the disconnect makes Arsenal’s build-up play unnecessarily difficult.

Having highly positioned midfielders during build-up can be beneficial, especially for a direct team. The increased numbers farther up the pitch equate to more targets for a long-ball and, if that isn’t successful, more players to try and win the ball back. But Arsenal aren’t West Brom, and the disconnect does more harm than good.

Plus, it’s fairly easy for any smart pressing team to cover the gaps between the Arsenal midfield. Liverpool, coached by pressing-mastermind Jurgen Klopp, demonstrated this in the season-opener when they restricted the home side to just 0.6 expected goals (and a penalty). With the dropping midfielder alone in deep positions, Arsenal’s opponents can block his few passing lanes easily while also covering the two Arsenal midfielders higher up.

In their 0–0 draw with Leicester in the second week of this season, the host’s compact defense highlighted Arsenal’s structural inadequacies in the final third. The Gunners couldn’t create triangles, and the attack carried little threat as a result.

Even with such a critical deficiency in their football, Arsenal can often rely on their individual talents to get by. Highly technical players like Ozil and Alexis Sánchez can combine despite the disconnection. If Arsenal’s play is slow and unthreatening, Ozil has the ability to create something out of nothing, whether it be in a close-quarters dribble or defense-splitting pass.

Now, despite the tactical inefficiencies, Wenger’s team finished last year withthe best expected-goals numbers. Although they’ve been unable to lift the Premier League trophy since 2004, statistics suggest their drought would be over had the Shot-Conversion Gods been on their side.

But if there was any year for Arsenal to win the Premier League, it was the one in which all of their closest rivals imploded. Without either Manchester club or Chelsea putting up much of a fight last year, they were good enough to win the league — but not good enough to guarantee they’d be lifting the trophy. After beating eventual champions Leicester in February, Arsenal’s attackground to a halt amidst their lack of cohesive spacing.

In the open and fast-paced Premier League, the rarity of defensive compactness has suited Arsenal’s attackers, who can find space more easily and create the kinds of high-quality chances that expected goals loves. But part of the reason they haven’t advanced beyond the Round of 16 in the Champions League since 2010 is that continental teams don’t allow the same kind of space at the back.

However, with the arrival of tactical minds such as Klopp, Guardiola, and Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, we can expect an evolution in the Premier League. Through imitation of the tactical developments of the top teams (as well as the inspirational success of Leicester), we may see tighter defenses and more controlled pressing across the league, and there might not be as many gaps to mask the deficiencies in Wenger’s team. His Arsenal side have previously showed an inability to evolve and keep up with the trends; if they don’t do so this time around, then their 20-year streak of top-four finishes could be in jeopardy.

After a decade without clear evolution, will Wenger ever change? Although Arsenal have made good additions over the summer, they have not addressed their biggest issue. The likes of Xhaka and Pérez will undoubtedly improve their play, but Wenger’s free-form attacking structure will not get the most out of them. It hasn’t got the most out of anyone in a long time.

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