There are less than two weeks before the start of the new season and Arsenal are yet to make the big signing their fans have been waiting for. As the Suarez saga rages on, Arsenal have only signed forward Yaya Sanago from French club Auxerre on a free transfer. Sanago made his debut at the weekend in the Emirates Cup, which was won by Galatasaray. Arsenal’s pre-season had been going well, swotting teams aside on their Asian tour. On Saturday and Sunday they faced two fellow Champions League sides and were unable to come away with a win, drawing against Napoli and losing to Galatasaray. Now, it goes without saying that pre-season is not the greatest reflection of how a team’s season will pan out. Pre-season is for gaining match fitness, but it can also build confidence going into a new season. Arsenal’s performances at the weekend have seen more calls for big signings to be made, but as well as this; the performance showed that tactically Arsenal need to take another approach.
Arsenal have been a successful club, albeit without trophies of late. Some would question how Arsenal’s tactics could need changing when they finished the season so strongly. Despite this, Arsenal’s way of playing is not as productive as it could be. Arsenal operate in a 4-3-3 formation. Usually in a 4-3-3, the wingers, either side of the main striker, stretch the defence by pulling out wide. Arsenal play their 4-3-3 in a way akin to Barcelona where the two wider forwards play narrower when attacking. This allows the full backs to overlap and get into a crossing or pull back position. We can say that Arsenal like to attack with both full backs getting forward as an outlet.
So what is the problem with Arsenal’s approach? Firstly there’s a defensive problem. Looking at Figure 2 we can see the typical position of Arsenal players at the Emirates when attacking. Often Arsenal find themselves in this position, and a break down in play means they are easy to hit on the counter-attack, particularly at home. The problem for Arsenal is that they’re not as good in possession as they once were. Barcelona are able to send both Jordi Alba and Dani Alves flying forward as their control of the ball and patient approach means against the majority opposition they are in command of most of the possession. The high intensity pressure Barca employ when not in possession also aids this. The current Arsenal team are not as good with possession and when countered there is often only 3 or 4 players back. This is a regular occurrence at the Emirates and Michu’s double last season is a good example of this.
Now we can look at the offensive problems that this formation gives Arsenal. There is no doubt that Arsenal are a team that scores goals. The formation can be very effective for them when their wider forwards come from out to in to be put in on goal. The problem comes at the Emirates when a team sits back to absorb pressure and the out to in movement of the forwards cannot be utilised. Arsenal often stroke the ball around the edge of the box attempting to find an opening. The difficulty with this is that their forwards are often tucked in and don’t offer anything out wide. This means that Gibbs and Sagna are the only outlets the Gunners have.
We cannot suggest that full backs are not effective attacking options as they can be very useful in the modern game. Arsenal’s full backs are not as effective for two reasons. Firstly, and particularly with Bacary Sagna, the final ball is often a poor one. Sagna delivered 106 crosses last season and provided no assists. Gibbs fared slightly better delivering 96 crosses and providing 3 assists. Secondly, Arsenal do not get enough bodies into the box. The Gunners often only have only Olivier Giroud in the box, who is usually on his lonesome. This reflects badly on Sagna and Gibbs as their crossing accuracy figures are at 16% and 18% respectively. This is not always down to the quality of their final ball, but the lack of players in the box attacking key areas. Everton’s Leighton Baines has a crossing accuracy of 30% and gained 5 assists, which shows the difference a quality final a ball and bodies in the box can make. If Arsenal are to continue play in this way, both of these areas need to be worked on for their tactics to become even more efficient.
The question remains whether Arsenal are good enough to continue to play in this manner. Barcelona are able to play in this way as Lionel Messi is deadly in and around the box, and the final ball of Jordi Alba, Dani Alves, etc. is usually a good one. Last season we saw Barcelona struggle in the Champions League against Bayern as they were often left short at the back against a team with devastating counter attacking power. It begs the question that if Barcelona are now beginning to struggle playing in this way, what does that mean for Arsenal. Whether Arsenal will continue to play in this way remains to be seen. If Arsenal manage to sign Luis Suarez, they may have to switch to a style which suits him more. Whipping the ball into the box would not make the best use Suarez’s skill set. At present the Gunners’ front man is not involved in much of their play, if Suarez joins this will have to change. Suarez or not, a change in approach in certain games and situations would help Arsenal to be more competitive in the coming season.