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Arsenal – It’s the defensive midfield position stupid! Tactical Analysis

It’s been a difficult season for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal. Actually, it’s been eight difficult seasons for the Frenchman and the Gunners.

High points this season? There have been a few. The return to first team action of Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott signing a contract extension, maybe even the away win at Bayern Munich in the Champions League but that had a hollow feel to it. The damage was done in the first leg leaving a “too little, too late” feeling.

The last time silverware found its way back to the trophy cabinet, the UK was still in the midst of an economic boom. How times change. With the UK floundering in recession, the country stuck in a period of austerity, the Gunners find themselves financially stronger off the pitch yet significantly weaker on it.

Based upon a simple points per game ratio, the Gunners are on course to finish the season with 65 points, a tally which would have been good enough to secure 4th place outright in five of the last nine seasons. The race for 4th place has the potential to gather pace before a climatic finish on the final day of the season, producing the sort of drama that TV loves to hype even though it requires no hype. This season it will probably be justified. Securing the final Champions League spot could have repercussions beyond this season for Arsenal and North London rivals Tottenham.

If Spurs obtain 4th place, Arsenal will compete in the Europa League next season with a significant loss of revenue as a consequence. More important than the initial financial pain though is the possibility of players becoming more reluctant to join a club that cannot guarantee participation in the elite European competition. And now, more than anytime in the recent past, Arsenal need to strengthen their side.

The Run In

The battle for 4th place potentially has a greater rivalry than in recent times with North London adversaries Arsenal and Spurs competing. Arsenal possibly has the kinder run in to their league campaign in comparison to Spurs, who also have additional Europa League fixtures to contend with. Does Villa-Boas sacrifice the league for an opportunity to grasp a trophy in his debut season? The remaining fixtures are shown below:-

Remaining League Fixtures
Remaining League Fixtures

This, of course, assumes that Everton will not make a sufficient push for 4th place themselves.  The men from Goodison find themselves six points adrift of 4th place but with a game in hand.  And Everton must still visit both the Emirates and White Hart Lane before the season is out. Could Moyes really achieve another 4th place finish with the Toffees? Would this be the perfect leaving present?

Securing fourth place for the 16th consecutive season may be the extent of Arsenal’s ambition for the remainder of this season but it must surely become the bare minimum, the very least the club expects in forthcoming seasons.

In order to do so, this summer has to become the pivotal close season period of Wenger’s reign. It’s no longer sufficient to talk about progress and belief in the quality of the squad. He’s delivered before and it’s time for Wenger to deliver again. If he fails to secure a trophy yet again next season, what will his legacy be? A manager who brought success during his first seven seasons then was unable to reinvent his team sufficiently thereafter? The outstanding work during the early part of his tenure will become forgotten amongst the recriminations over the wilderness years.

The bulk of the required work will come to fruition in the close season but the foundations will already be in place. There are two areas that Arsenal need to consider in an effort to improve ahead: The system and the playing squad.

The Present Set Up

The graphic below (via The EPL Index Tactics Board) shows what could be considered Wenger’s strongest starting line up. That there may be some element of discussion around certain positions and individuals only serves to highlight the strengths and consequently, the weaknesses of the side. There is versatility, can an excess of such a quality be detrimental, leading to uncertainty of position:-

Arsenal Starting Line Up
Arsenal Starting Line Up

Although the side begins with a broad 4-2-3-1, there are some important deviations from the standard, ubiquitous 4-2-3-1.

Firstly, Arsenal appears to deploy a double pivot but given the skill sets of the players who are positioned there, they are clearly not functioning in that role either directly or indirectly. Arteta operates more like a deep lying regista whilst his partner pushes higher, more like a box to box midfielder. There is also conjecture over who his partner should be; Ramsey, Diaby or Wilshere?

The wingers tend to be inverted although Walcott can provide width on the right but increasingly he cuts inside satisfying his desire to be considered as a central striker. His lack of effectiveness against a low block is likely to limit his appearances in a central role. The development of his relationship with Giroud can compensate for his invertedness to a degree with the Frenchman happy to drop deeper or drift to the right on occasion allowing Walcott to break into space. There is an area that could bear fruit and contains a remarkable similarity to Athletic Bilbao under Bielsa last season. Llorente would move to the right linking with the right winger, Susaeta, and the right full back, Iraola, who would drive diagonally in. With the development of Jenkinson this season, there is much potential here.

And yet, there remains a strong bias toward the left side of the team within Arsenal’s play albeit the team does often attack more on the right. With the balance pulling to the left, there is space for crossfield passes to the right. It forces the opponent to reshuffle defensively but it’s an advantage that is often overlooked.

Arsenal attempt to impose themselves on the opposition with an attacking mentality complemented with short passing and movement. Like all proactive teams who will take the game to their opponents, Arsenal encounter problems against more reactive sides particularly during transitions when they are weak positionally.

With the team prepared to be patient at time, the central area can become clogged with a plethora of players trying to operate within a condensed area of the pitch. There is not enough width to stretch the opponent fully with Arsenal often relying upon their full backs to provide this quality within their play. To take advantage of the players at their disposal, Arsenal could be more vertical and direct on occasion. It’s not about long ball, it’s about pace and exploiting your opponent quickly. They have the skill set for this and have shown it this season.

The average positions of Arsenal are shown in the four graphics below (via WhoScored.com). In two of the games, Arsenal lost whilst winning the other two games:-

Arsenal Positions vs Chelsea 290912
Arsenal Positions vs Chelsea 290912


Arsenal Positions vs Swansea 011212
Arsenal Positions vs Swansea 011212


Arsenal  Positions vs Stoke 020213
Arsenal Positions vs Stoke 020213


Arsenal Positions vs Sunderland 090213
Arsenal Positions vs Sunderland 090213

With the exception of the Chelsea game, the two central defenders are cut adrift from the midfield area. The tendency to use inverted wingers and rely upon full backs for width is also apparent as is the dominance of the left side as highlighted above when attacking with Jenkinson often on the right alone unless Walcott is given the explicit instruction to remain wide. The team is overly narrow and yet also not compact enough.

The biggest issue to contend with is the gap which exists between the deepest midfielder, usually Mikel Arteta, to the central defence. Simply, it’s too big. It leaves the team vulnerable. The balance in the midfield area is not right which leads to a lack of defensive cover during transitions. The team is not well connected.  Arteta lacks the mobility to cover either side properly and there are also questions over his defensive awareness. This is hardly surprising as this differs from the initial role he was supposed to perform when Arsenal bought him. He finds himself in a deep position but crucially, following the departure of Song, without a partner with the defensive positional sense to assist him.  Since Barcelona acquired the Cameroonian, it’s an area that Arsenal has failed to address properly. Diaby, Ramsay, Wilshere and Rosicky. None can offer the depth to the midfield area Arsenal need.

But defence is not just the sole job of a specific element of the team. It’s a team job and requires a work ethic. The issue of pressing also needs to be addressed. Arsenal have shown fleeting glimpses of a highly coordinated team pressing as a unit but equally have dropped off opponents sometimes too much. Arsenal’s pressing fluctuates too greatly. Is this something which must also be considered? The failings here hinder the team. With a desire to control the centre leaving the team weak during transitions. The full backs are exposed, caught high upfield and the centre of the pitch lacks cover.

If the system in its present guise is not functioning correctly, Arsenal has two options: You either improve the system or you change the personnel.

Improve the System

The question that must be considered here is whether or not Wenger is reluctant to instigate variation in his tactical set up? This is not a demand for the Plan B which is banded around so often.  Arsenal have many options, even possessing that tall, robust target man which seems to be the quintessential part of any team according to some observers. When the short passing game fails to reap reward, go long is the cry. Arsenal can do that. Strange though, that when going long does not work, more direct teams don’t alter things and start passing short. That particular circle is yet to be squared.

And that’s the conundrum that Wenger faces.

It’s not about overthrowing the current system. It’s about the subtle tactical nuances which help overcome problems. You don’t simply abandon your principles in order to gain short term results.  Accept the parts which work and revise the others. Wenger clearly believes in the present system but there are tweaks required to fine tune it.

Assuming that the present 4-2-3-1 will remain, what are the options for improvement?

Whilst the Frenchman is unlikely to ever shift to a permanent back three, could the present system offer greater flexibility when operating currently? Should the side adapt and become a back three when in possession? The centre backs could push higher and the defensive midfielder would drop deeper to form a nominal three. The centre is solidified and there is greater lateral coverage too. With a nominal third centre back in position as the spare man, Mertesacker can push higher, comforted by additional cover if he gets exposed by pace.

Strike a balance on the flanks and always try to retain at least one traditional winger to provide width. That could mean Podolski on the left cutting inward but Walcott on the right being instructed to remain wide. He may not provide a significant input to the game but he provides tactical width. He stretches the opposition defence.

Only using one inverted winger also provides better strength on the opposite flank. If the the left side uses and inverted winger, the defence can tuck into a back three with Jenkinson as the right sided centre back. Walcott the outlet for width.

Could Gibbs and Monreal both be used on the left wing as a duo? It does, in theory, provide greater balance. One attacks and the others defends. Although Gibbs would be the more attacking, he would begin at left back with Monreal ahead of him. Why? It enables Gibbs to burst forward at speed rather than attempt to take an opponent on from a standing, static position.

It leaves questions around the positioning of Cazorla and Podolski though but it could be an answer for certain key away games where a stronger opening selection is required.

The other key issue is how Wenger prevents the space between the lines appearing. Time and time again, space opens up between the Arsenal defence and the midfield owing to the midfield players lacking the defensive nous to shut off the space to opponents. This is why Arsenal does not use a true double pivot. Arsenal are still too linear. The lines of defence are static and lack the flexibility that the side has found in attack. It should be easier to destroy than to create. For Arsenal , the reverse seems to be true.

Wenger is not entirely resistant to change. He will make changes, adapt to the situation but they are incremental changes, as they should be, and not sweeping alterations. Given the lack of alteration here, maybe Wenger believes the system is correct. It’s not the system which needs to improve, it’s the players.


If the system is to remain the same, then the personnel could be the stumbling block. Maybe there is change needed here?

Wenger repeatedly says he has faith and believes in his team. As admirable as the sentiment is, its’ wearing thin. Whilst it shelters the squad from criticism, often harsh criticism, it grates after so long.

Over the past few years, Arsenal has made a net profit in transfer dealings. There is clear justification for splashing the cash in an effort to rejuvenate the squad. Money alone cannot buy success. If it did, the Premier League would be a two horse race between Man City and Chelsea. Money is important but on the basis of salary and not purely transfer fees. In an increasingly globalised sport, it’s the ability to uncover a gem that is valued. Wenger and Arsenal used to excel at this, with an extensive scouting network in position. Times move on and others have caught up in this area eroding the advantage Arsenal once enjoyed.

Arsenal has the funds available to buy top players and pay their salaries but the wage structure at the club has previously prevented this, Ivan Gazidis commented as such:-

[quote]Can we compete at top salary levels? Yes we can, but we have an ethos at the club – the way Arsène expresses it is that it is not about individual players, it is what happens between them.[/quote]

With players all earning similar wages, mediocre and unwanted players are handsomely rewarded whilst top players must look elsewhere for a substantial salary. The re-signing of Walcott may mark a departure from this stance. If Arsenal can offer top drawer wages, they will certainly have a better chance of attracting players to the club.

Wenger needs to demonstrate his ruthlessness. Some players, no matter how well they have served, either have to accept reduced roles in the first team or move on. The squad is bloated with bit part players including those presently out on loan, the club unable to offload them. Acquisitions have not been shrewd enough.

When you examine the team, how many players would remain? How many players are genuinely good enough to stake a claim for trophies on a regular basis?

In defence, Vermaelan possesses many qualities but unless the coaching staff can eliminate his deficiencies, he’s an accident that has happened and will continue waiting to happen again. The time has come for action on the Belgian. Mertesacker reads the game excellently but his lack of pace is crudely exposed in a league where the transition is king. In attack, Arsenal have a plethora of players who could be described, positively and negatively, as Arsenal players. That’s a loose media friendly phrase for flatters to deceive. Take your pick from the likes of Arshavin, Gervinho, Bendtner etc

And then we move to the midfield area where the problem appears less vivid due to the quantity of players Arsenal possess here but the depth is staggeringly thin.

Similarity Has Bred Contempt

One of the most pressing concerns will be the lack of balance within the current crop of midfielders at the club. They are too similar in style. The balance is lop-sided towards more central / attack minded and creative players.  Who within the squad can actually play a truly defensive midfield role? POsisbly only Coquelin.

At the heart of whatever midfield combination Wenger chooses, he still has to resolve the dilemma revolving around Wilshere and where he should be deployed in the team.

Aside from his technical quality, his desire and determination to succeed are visible for all to see but does he care too much? When things are not going Arsenal’s way, he chases and harries opponents drawing himself out of position in the process. Lacking positional discipline creates spaces for the opponent. Add to this is over zealous tackling and from a deeper position, he is less effective for the team. He is more like a box to box midfielder, a traditional midfielder in the British sense.

It therefore follows, if you want Wilshere in the team, he has to go as the central player in the attacking trident. It’s were his qualities are most naturally suited and it’s also where he will create the least destruction for Arsenal’s own system. Doing so means Cazorla is placed on the flanks and you return, to a degree, the existing problem. The lack of cover on the flanks during transitions but this can be dealt with if the space in midfield is closed off.

Arsenal don’t employ a purely defensive player who just sits and tackles. Given the style of game that they play, a player with a broader range of skills is required. The deepest midfielder must be able to instigate play too, laterally and vertically.

It’s the defensive midfield position stupid!

This is the central dilemma that Wenger must resolve.

Arsenal Before a Transition
Arsenal Before a Transition

Arteta is a deep lying regista but he’s not good enough to operate solely as the deepest midfielder. He either needs someone to sit alongside him, offering greater defensive awareness and responsibility or he needs to be replaced.

And during transitions, the gap between the centre backs and Arteta is too big. It’s almost inevitable though. Mertesacker lacks pace so will not push too high for fear of being exposed but Arteta is drawn to move forward. He’s another central midfielder. It’s not in his nature to just sit and protect, he wants to stride forward, to create.  If the opponent can burst through any initial Arsenal pressure, they have a clear route forward. It’s not on the flanks where the problems exist, it’s in the middle.

That only one midfield player remains deeper when Arsenal attack is not a problem. That the one player is not a defensive midfield player is a problem. This is not criticism of Arteta. He performs one aspect of his role well but is simply not able to complete the other role.

A defensive midfielder need not be the conventional type. It’s not a Makelele type that should arrive at the Emirates. Such a player would not add to the overall ability of the team. It’s a player who is aware of his defensive responsibilities and positional play above all else. A player who will complement the team. Saachi spoke of the need for generalists rather than specialists. This is what Arsenal need. Someone who is aware of the style that Arsenal try to bring to each game.

Defence Begins When Attack Ends

The defensive side is Arsenal’s biggest problem but as outlined earlier, defence commences when you lose possession. Arsenal are too slow to regain positions and too many players are seemingly unwilling to track back or are out of position during the transition. Is that the players fault or the system?

Probably, there are elements of both contained within there.

If your wingers are inverted and cut in, they are automatically out of position if your opponent breaks on the wings. Having said that, neither Podolski or Cazorla are known in their own countries for undertaking defensive duties with any real zest. The other problem with the use of inverted wingers, it clogs the centre of the pitch. Given that Arsenal seek to be proactive and influence the game, opponents will go deep and narrow. Arsenal hinder themselves. They move into a a congested area.

When Arsenal concede possession, they need to press the opponent quickly, prevent them making forward passes or at least have the ability to play an unobstructed forward pass whilst team mates regain position. That’s not a solely individual quality. It’s coaching.

Ending the Transitional Period

Whatever course of action is taken in the summer, and the construction work will have already begun, Wenger cannot afford to get it wrong.

There is finance available to make the right signings and pay them the market rate. It may not be what Wenger wants to do but it’s a necessary course of action at this stage.

The same old line about believing in the quality which Arsenal possesses and building for the future can work. For a period. The success of the current youth team in the Next Gen series may produce players for the first team squad in a few years but fans should not get over excited. The purpose of a youth team is to prepare and develop players for the first team not to win trophies. Any trophy is ultimately meaningless if your youth system has failed to bring players through. Wenger needs to buy. Not big, not small but wisely. The players and the system need addressing. Players must be acquired who can enhance the present squad and fill in the blanks that exist. It’s reached the point whereby it’s time to deliver. If you talk the talk, you need to walk the walk.

Wenger needs to put his best shoes on. It’s walking time.


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