By David Edwards
It is hard to think of any positives after the Borussia Dortmund result. If you didn’t see the game don’t be fooled by the 2-0 scoreline. We were poor and at times embarrassing – if Dortmund’s finishing had been more clinical it could have been 6 or 8.
It is not as if this was a one off aberration. The tactical flaws exposed by Dortmund have been present in the majority of Arsenal’s games against big teams over the past two seasons. There are issues about individuals, we lack quality in some positions and some players are badly out of form, but the key issues are the shape of the team and the lack of game intelligence.
With the ball, Arsenal play with a ‘W’ at the back. The full backs push up, centre backs stay deep and the holding player (Arteta usually) plays in front of the centre backs. The two centre backs play relatively deep, presumably because of Mertersacker’s lack of pace, so we don’t compress the play which leaves a lot of space for other teams when they win the ball. If the two central midfield players (Wiltshire and Ramsey) push forward, which they usually do, the holding player is left covering an area 25-30 metres wide. Neither Arteta or Flamini are quick and this system leaves them regularly exposed on the break, with two or three opponents breaking at speed into this central area. We also leave space in the channels either side of the centre backs, with Mertersacker particularly vulnerable. Borussia were ruthless in exploiting these vulnerabilities, which have been evident for the last 18 months, but which have not been addressed.
The defensive problems continue further up the pitch. None of our central midfield players are particularly disciplined defensively, and there does not seem to be any consistent system for how we defend from the front. Welbeck and Alexis are both capable of a high press but the other midfield players don’t support this. It is apparently acceptable to have at least one player – currently Ozil (and previously Arshavin) excused from any defensive responsibilities. On Tuesday Bellerin was horribly exposed by the lack of cover in front of him.
These flaws were made more evident by Dortmund’s tactical and physical superiority. When they won the ball they broke into the spaces our system leaves unoccupied. When we won the ball, Dortmund defended as a team, ruthlessly shutting off the areas we were tying to advance into. (N.B. I have seen a number of comments about our reluctance to commit ‘tactical fouls’ as a key issue underlying poor defensive performances. This is a side issue. For much of the time we aren’t in the right shape to get in any sort of challenge, legal or otherwise.)
All of the points raised above were evident in the first 15 minutes of the Dortmund game. On another day we could have been three or four goals down by this point. Dortmund were flying and the crowd were baying for blood. Given the experience now in the team, why didn’t we change our approach, pull the full backs in, sit deep and keep the ball, looking to draw Dortmund forward and attack on the break. Instead we continued to stream forward, consistently playing high risk passes and forfeiting possession.
Increasingly we don’t look able to compete on a tactical level against better teams. At the end of the day the buck stops with Wenger, and the problems have been exacerbated by the sheer incompetence of not signing adequate defensive replacements over the summer.
Short term fixes
- Change the positioning of the full backs with more emphasis on defensive positioning. John Terry is no quicker than Mertersacker but he is still very effective playing in a team with a compact back four. If we want to play Per, we need to do the same.
- Drill the team on defensive transitions – with all players understanding the system and committing to it.
- 4-1-4-1 isn’t working at present, the two central midfield players leave too much space behind them. Either insist they play deeper (difficult given the personnel in the squad) or revert to 4-2-3-1 with one player brought back and given the specific role to play alongside Arteta.
- Pick players on current form – we have a glut of attacking midfielders so there is no reason to persist with players who are underperforming (Ozil and currently Ramsey).
- Work on Welbeck’s finishing.
Longer term fixes
- Buy two quality and quick central defenders and a more mobile defensive midfielder. If we want to play the current system with attacking full backs and one holding player, we need to have the personnel to execute this.
- Depending on how things progress with Welbeck (and Walcott on his return) – buy a clinical finisher. This will be expensive, but if we don’t convert chances we will struggle to maintain our current ‘top four’ ambitions – let alone winning anything.
- And finally, and it gives me on pleasure to say this, replace Wenger. He has been a brilliant manager for us and kept us in the Champions League when money was tight, but the game has moved on, and there is no evidence that he is able or willing to address the ongoing problems with the team.