Talking tactics with Aidan Gibson
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.