I promised you all a new columnist for the new season, and that’s exactly what you get. Aidan Gibson will be analysing the tactical side of Arsenal every Friday, so look out for his weekly column. Here’s his appraisal of how Arsenal looked tactically in pre-season.
Arsenal’s preseason concluded yesterday with a fairly disappointing 2-1 defeat to Benfica. While the second half was a dreadful performance, the first half was fairly promising, and as it contained a majority of the team that can be expected to start in a weeks time against Newcastle. The split between halves can be said for performances against Red Bulls, Boca Juniors, Koln and Hangzhou Greentown, and so we will analyse the different halves separately.
One thing that the difference in performance tells us is that Arsenal’s squad, collectively, is not very strong. The first XI (assuming no injuries and no one leaves) is quite strong, and has shown, especially last year, that they can beat almost any team. However, past that group of players (Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Song, Wilshere, Fabregas, Walcott, van Persie, Nasri), the rest of the squad weakens. Only Andrey Arshavin, Aaron Ramsey and Gervinho are real contenders for spots in the first team, and that is why there’s quite a drop off between the first XI and second XI. With a squad as injury-prone as Arsenal, that is something that should’ve been addressed this transfer window, but so far hasn’t.
When Arsene Wenger has played his first team, or as close as possible (Szczesny, Jenkinson, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Gibbs; Song, Ramsey, Wilshere; Walcott, Chamakh, Gervinho/Miyaichi), Arsenal have looked a lot better. With Aaron Ramsey as the playmaker rather than Samir Nasri, the midfield play has been more creative, the tempo has been higher and Arsenal have created more chances. The pressing has been more coordinated, and sustained for longer periods. For Arsenal to be successful defensively, they must press. Without pressure, it is too easy for teams to beat the high defensive line, and too big of a gap is created between the midfield and defence.
That gap happened in the second half of the Arsenal-Boca match, and the second half of yesterday’s match. Not coincidentally, Sebastien Squillaci was involved in both. Because of his lack of pace, he forces the Arsenal defensive line to drop deeper, creating more space for players, like Juan Roman Riquelme did, to flourish.
When Arsenal did press, though, and closed the gaps between midfield and defence, they were much stronger defensively, and it is telling that when Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen played together, Arsenal did not concede a goal (excluding Carl Jenkinson’s extraordinary own goal).
This preseason did, however, expose two serious weaknesses. First of all, when Arsenal become tired, and stop pressing, as they did in the Emirates Cup, it becomes likelier that Arsenal will concede goals, because more space opens up, and, without pressure on the ball it becomes easier to break through Arsenal’s offside line.
Secondly, Arsenal’s squad, beyond the first XI, Aaron Ramsey, Andrey Arshavin, Gervinho and Johan Djourou are weak. Emmanuel Frimpong and Carl Jenkinson are young and inexperienced; Tomas Rosicky could be a useful player but is worse against teams that put pressure on Arsenal’s midfield.
Marouane Chamakh, unfortunately, is in the worst form of his life, which is concerning because his style of dropping deep, allowing Arsenal’s wide forwards to take up central positions (see Gervinho’s goals against Koln), best replicates Robin van Persie. Without our stronger players, Arsenal struggle more than the other top 4, because our squad isn’t as balanced or able to cope with injuries.
It’s not entirely negative, though. Our first XI looks, as ever, a very capable and dangerous side, and competent defensively. Another centre back to supplement Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen, though, is needed. Gervinho looks to be an excellent purchase, able to cut in and take up central roles or give Arsenal a wider threat. If Arsenal get off to a good start and remain relatively injury free, a better season than many are expecting is not in the realm of fantasy.
Thought I’d get the first cliché out of the way early…
All in all it was a disappointing result against a team we should have beaten, yes, even in pre-season. Two very encouraging goals scored, and two very worrying goals conceded. In the first half we were solid at the back and looked good going forward, while in the second half we were our old shaky selves in defence and barely offered anything in attack, with the exception of our goal 50 seconds in.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. Our back-up defenders are very, very worrying. Actually, scrap that. Squillaci playing in defence is very, very worrying. The problem seems to be is that he doesn’t suit Koscielny or Djourou as a defensive partner. Koscielny seems to need someone athletic, more focussed on the physical side of things – Djourou does that well, and I think Vermaelen will alongside him too. Djourou seems to need a defender with good positioning and pace who can read the game and rescue him when he gets in trouble.
Squillaci fills neither of those job descriptions. So we definitely need a defender – not a first choice defender like Jagielka or Cahill, because Koscielny looks ready to be our first choice indefinitely. Alex of Chelsea was suggested, and I think he’d probably fit the bill – relatively cheap, Premier League experience and not demanding of a place. However, it’s hard to tell whether he’d be able to pander to both Koscielny and Djourou’s needs if asked to play alongside them. If Bartley was perhaps a bit older, I don’t think we’d have this problem. However, he still doesn’t quite seem ready for our first team, although I could be wrong.
Next on the list of negatives is the performance of one Samir Nasri. I was disappointed to see that he was occupying the central role, although there didn’t seem to be anyone else on the pitch capable either. But he went missing for practically the entire half – in fact, in the entire game he didn’t make a single thing happen. That’s why I’ve been saying he needs to play on the wing, and not centrally, because you cannot have a playmaker who only shows flashes of occasional genius. They need to be constantly on the ball, making their team tick.
I think that was about it for the negatives. As for the positives, I was impressed with Frimpong and surprisingly Traore. They both did their jobs well, and to their credit seeing as they had to overcome some difficulties created by other team mates, or maybe some new tactics - for one, Jack was pushing up quite far, which left Frimpong screening the defence on his own. I think as Jack gets older he’ll move further forward, just like Cesc. While this will see him score and assist more goals, it’ll leave the defence more open while he’s still playing in this position, so his pivotal partner will need to stay disciplined. What do you know, I wasn’t done with the negatives!
Continuing (sort of) with the positives, Laurent Koscielny was superb at the back. He intercepted everything that came his way (as usual) and I was also really impressed with his range of passing. As well as doing his usual short passes out of defence to begin attacks, he also pinged some impressive balls out to the wings, which worked well. He was also a vital part of our new tactic from corners, which seems to be zonal marking. Countless times he attacked the ball fearlessly (at least I think it was him most times) and managed to get a good head on the ball. This helped us start counter attacks quickly, like the one that led to our first goal.
Speaking of which, it was great to see us scoring from a swashbuckling counter-attack. Gervinho galloping down the left was reminiscent of – dare I say it – Thierry Henry. It was a superb break courtesy of that man, and a good cross converted well by RVP. Gervinho was impressive overall - good link up play, good dribbling and intelligent all-round play.
Ramsey’s goal was excellently taken after a great run from Vela, although I suspect Carlos was only slightly impressive because it was pre-season and we were leading. He’s good in those situations, but when we need a goal, he’s rarely the man you want to come on. As for Ramsey, I thought he played well – it was difficult for him to share the central attacking role with Nasri, but he did well filling Cesc’s shoes.
Conclusions are we need another centre back and Nasri is a winger. Nothing new to most then.