I’ve been working for over a year to figure out what is wrong with Arsenal. Why doesn’t this team generate shots like it used to? And why aren’t they just better? They used to be better. As I’ve said in the past, part of it is talent – Arsenal bled a lot of incredible players over the last five years or so. But plenty of managers have had lesser talent and done more, including Wenger himself. It’s so rare that you see systemic outputs change this much without the approach changing as well.
Yesterday while watching the match, it finally came to me.
Remember what Arsenal were like 4 or 5 years ago? They were Barcelona-lite. They would have huge possession, set up camp outside the 18, and eventually, after teasing their fans to death, shoot high percentage shots. It was glorious to watch, but they had two weaknesses.
The first was against teams that managed to figure out how to press them in the 40-20 yard area, which was fairly rare back then. Traditional English management says you bunker your defense in and around the box, and hope for the best.
And the second weakness was against teams that could counter attack with good attacking talent.
Think of how many times it looked like Arsenal dominated a match against Manchester United, except for the fact that they lost. Think of how many [expletive deleted] times Park and Rooney would race down the pitch and score a goal or two in the second half that finished a match.
Now think about the “death of tiki-taka.” Super possession teams have had the exact same problems in Europe (and often in their own leagues) that Arsenal had during that era. Strong, physical teams with good talent that know how to disrupt outside the 18 yard box, and then counter attack like lightning have utterly dominated the last two years against high possession teams. The same thing happened to Spain at the World Cup. At some point Ferguson figured out that tactical matchup. So did Mourinho at Real, and no one during that era had better talent overall than Barcelona. Heynckes solved it as well, and lead Bayern to an incredible season.
Basically, Arsenal have sustained splash damage from their gorgeous attacking approach when it comes to facing talented teams. This has left Wenger with a dilemma. He either has to stratify his tactical approach into two buckets – possession against the lesser teams (and they always mow down lesser teams), and “something else that hopefully works” against good teams, or he has to adapt the possession approach to handle this new challenge.
The problem here is that not even Pep Guardiola has figured out how to fix the problem his system has with hyper-physical counterattacking teams. The other issue is that even if Wenger were willing, Arsenal can’t go for a full change and switch to a physical, counter-attacking approach themselves for a very clear reason.
They are tiny.
Smallest average height in a side? Arsenal. Lightest average weight in the side? Arsenal. Arsenal can’t play physical against teams with the same talent, because they just get shrugged off.
So watching Everton pick apart Arsenal on the break in the exact same fashion they did last year made me realize it’s actually the same systemic flaw we’ve been seeing for most of the last decade. Arsene’s been trying to figure out how to fix it, and he can’t. If you rock a standard high possession plan, you leave yourself vulnerable to counters. If you try to control more for counters, you generate fewer shots, and lower shot differential, and lower possession, which in turn gives your opponents more of the ball and more shots. Sound familiar?
The best Wenger has been able to do while keeping his system is turn games to mud against good teams, or hope the good teams want to dominate possession, and then allow his team to counter-attack or nick a set piece or two.
Can the system be fixed? Obviously better minds than mine have been working on this and haven’t solved it.
One thing I would definitely do though is look at bigger, faster, better personnel in midfield, especially in the DM role. Arsenal’s potential selections here are Flamini (tiny), Arteta (older and tiny) and uh, Wilshere? I know Wenger wants top passers in that role, but there have to be guys who are both physical and capable distributors. This is even more true when Mertesacker is in the side. Mert is a great game reader, but him plus the DM selection, plus Monreal and Debuchy mean there is almost no pace in the back line. Compare that to what Arsenal once had in Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, or even William Gallas before he totally lost his legs, and you can see the shift.
Want to play a higher line while still trying to keep counters in check? Maybe you need to compensate with more pace and physicality in your defenders?
All of this leads to other questions like, is Wenger too old to truly change and adapt to a system that can win the league these days? Or does Arsenal just have to spend enough money to recruit the top talent to compete with Chelsea and City, at which point Wenger’s classic system will be fine again?
I personally do not know, but I have watched enough of these battles to feel that Arsenal are caught in a spot where they want to fix a flaw, don’t know how to do it comprehensively (either through personnel or tactical changes), and bleed points because of it.
Bayer Leverkusen or Europe’s New Most Exciting Team
I made Dortmund fans angry at me on Sunday morning when I proclaimed Leverkusen to (likely) be Europe’s most exciting team this season. The reason wasn’t because of the 0-2 win in Dortmund, though that was impressive. The actual reason is because this offseason, Leverkusen hired Roger Schmidt from Red Bull Salzburg to replace the departing Sami Hyyppia, and the change in philosophy is incredible.
If you aren’t familiar with Red Bull’s work, they were insane pressers. Think of what a healthy Dortmund on methamphetamines with a chaser of speedball would look like and you have the idea. This marriage resulted in the fastest Bundesliga goal of all time, and just an entirely new way of playing football that will be delightful to watch, both for Leverkusen fans and neutrals.
Obviously playing this way places extreme demands on players’ physical fitness, and Leverkusen probably aren’t quite there yet. It’s also extremely risky to play in this fashion all the time, and in the game in Dortmund, Bayer got away with a level of tactical fouling that will likely be clamped down on more as the season progresses.
So yeah, the header on this section is a bit of hyperbole. Leverkusen certainly aren’t the best or most talented team in Europe right now, but they are one of the most unique. They also give the Bundesliga three different teams in the Champions League that will be hugely problematic the first time opponents see them in person. Even if it probably won’t be as successful for the rest of the season, Leverkusen games are now appointment television for the tactics geeks and football hipsters. Oh, and in case you missed it, here is the fastest goal in Bundesliga history.
Is Midfield Control Out of Vogue?
Liverpool finished second last season with Steven Gerrard as their deepest-lying midfielder. Arsenal have had serious issues keeping control in the center of the pitch for years, and it’s becoming more apparent as Mikel Arteta ages that he was an important player. Manchester United drug Paul Scholes out of retirement to help with this issue, and then had no semblance whatsoever of midfield control after he (and Alex Ferguson) left the club.
Even Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea had huge issues in the center of the park right up until they bought Nemanja Matic, who appears to be the perfect sized peg to fill that hole. The only two teams who had really strong midfields for the entirety of last season were Everton (who admittedly have other issues in the talent department), and Manchester City, who were completely dominant aside from errors at the back letting them down.
Obviously Chelsea have fixed their problems from last season, and have dominated against a soft early schedule, but those other clubs are still up in the air.
Will shifting Lucas Leiva to Napoli and playing Emre Can and Joe Allen let Liverpool continue to score tons of goals while giving up far less?
Can Arsenal find someone that fits Wenger’s extremely finicky profile of what he wants in a defensive midfielder who also isn’t an older, inferior club retread (see also: Flamini, and *gulp* Alex Song).
And can Louis van Gaal fix a personnel issue that has actually been a problem at United for years, but was papered over with magic and chewing gum?
Or, in a totally different perspective, am I making too big an issue out of something that doesn’t really matter that much in football any more?
Seeing how the two best clubs in England are structured as well as looking at Real, and the problems both Bayern (Thiago, Schweinsteiger) and Dortmund have had when their best midfielders have been out (Sahin, Gundo), I don’t think I am. We’ll know more in a few months.
Spurs Will Challenge For Top 4
A couple of days ago, I tweeted what I thought the final standings would look like, saying something like “City and Chelsea too close to call, Liverpool 3rd, Arsenal 4th, United 5th.” I also followed that up explaining that I might be underestimating Spurs – if they pick up Pochettino’s press quickly and stay healthy, they have the firepower to keep up with almost anyone.
This Sunday against lowly QPR (welcome back, ‘Arry!), Spurs looked awesome. Now granted, many teams will look awesome if QPR continue to be that disorganized, but even so, everything clicked and Spurs looked amazing. Erik Lamela looked exactly like the player who was bought from Roma, not the guy who was completely mismanaged and injured all last season. Capoue looked like the physical destroyer Baldini brought in from Ligue 1 last summer – the same guy who finished right behind Zlatan in the WhoScored player ratings. And perhaps most shockingly, Nacer Chadli transformed from looking slow and out of place last season, into a real scoring threat.
It’s very early in the season, but if Pochettino manages to harvest the talent that is already at Spurs, they will be very, very good. To the point that I would not be shocked to see them right in the mix for that fourth Champions League spot all the way to the end of the season.
Finally, Some PSV...
I turned on the Ajax – PSV match mostly to watch Memphis Depay, the guy I tabbed as one of the best young prospects in Europe this summer. I was also excited to look at Davy Klaassen, Daley Blind, and a number of other Eredivisie players who are among the best in their league.
Funnily enough, the entire show was stolen by a forgotten “future star” in Luciano Narsingh. Last May, in response to a piece I had done about assists being a strong predictor of future success, Simon Gleave of Infostrada too a look at young Eredivisie players who managed to chalk up a ton of assists in that league. In Simon’s piece are a lot of guys who started in the Eredivisie and went on to become future stars, including Luis Suarez, Robben, Sneijder, and van der Vart. Also included were young kids who were still in the Eredivisie at the time like Christian Eriksen, Dusan Tadic, Kevin Strootman, and with the highest total of all – a 20 assist season! – Luciano Narsingh.
Unfortunately, for everyone, Narsingh suffered some serious knee trouble over the last 18 months that curtailed a ridiculous start to his career, but yesterday he looked to be well and truly back. The first PSV goal was completely created by him, and he delivered a great final ball to Depay for the simplest of tap-ins. The second goal was another break that saw Narsingh flying along the right side and putting a perfect shot into the far 90 to put PSV up 1-2.
Some Eredivisie experts aren’t sure how good Cocu is as a manager, but if he sets his team to allow Depay and Narsingh to terrorize opposing defenses on the break with Wijnaldum and Maher for support, he might not have to do much else for PSV to win the league. Depay is a bonafide future star, but if Narsingh is truly healthy again, he could be too. Even after 18 months of injury issues, he’s still just 23.