Arsenal: Why Swansea Troubles Them and Why Spurs Will Beat Them Next Sunday

H Andel@Gol Iath @gol_iathAnalyst IIIFebruary 24, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 17:  Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Arsenal is challenged by Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham Hotspur during the Barclays Premier league match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at Emirates Stadium on November 17, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images,)
Clive Rose/Getty Images

John Motson of BBC's Match of the Day exclaimed after Arsenal's match against Aston Villa at the Emirates Stadium, a match Arsenal won 2-1. See the clip below.

I do not really agree with Mr. Motson.

Consider that but for the horror show (again) by Wojciech Szczęsny that allowed a 22-yard shot to get past him for Villa's goal (their rare shot on goal in the second half), the result of the match would likely have been a two-nil victory for Arsenal.

Yes, Villa created some goal-scoring opportunities for themselves in the first half of the match, but that was about it. In the second half, Arsenal controlled both possession and territory. In that half, they rarely looked (if at all) like they were not in control of the match.

Had Carl Jenkinson directed his clearing header better, Villa's attempted counterattack, which eventually led to the goal, would have been snuffed out, much like the others they had attempted in the second half.

If anyone, like Mr. Motson is intent on doing here, wants to blame Arsenal's defense (again), they should isolate the problem and address it rather than make generalized insinuations, such as "unconvincing victory."

On account of their recent matches, Villa are a good team, although their position on the table does not seem to support that. They are not a team to be simply swept aside. Arsenal's victory is commendable, even if there were still some lapses in the team's performance, but what team doesn't have lapses in its performances?

Here's my point.

We found, again, Arsenal imposing themselves better (territory and possession wise) in the second half of a match, hardly allowing their opponent a sniff at goal. Although, of course, just like in the FA Cup loss to Blackburn Rovers, the first time the opponent had a shot on goal, it resulted in a goal.

The discrepancy between Arsenal's first- and second-half performances is the subject of this article and it continues the discussion from earlier articles in this series. See here and here.

A Summary

I should recapitulate the points I have made so far.

In the first article, I put down Arsenal's loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League to the difference in class. Although, I did say that in midfield Arsenal are not bad at all. I identified central defense, holding midfield and striking position as places Arsenal might need to reinforce.

Goalkeeping and right full-back (if Sagna moves) might be two other areas to reinforce as well.

In the second article, I began the discussion that this portion of the article addresses: the discrepancy between Arsenal's performances in the two halves of a match.

There, I said that collective approach to defending (rather than individual mistakes by the Arsenal back four) is the major reason why Arsenal concede cheap goals, not just in first-half performances this season but in general.

I contrasted Arsenal's approach to collective defending to Barcelona's, a team who, like Arsenal, play an offensive system. I observed that whereas Barcelona players take individual responsibility for losing the ball, a number of Arsenal players don't, and this puts undue pressure on the back four.

I will address a different aspect of this problem with defending here.

Two Systems

There are two approaches to football, defensive and offensive. Both have a great deal to do with the control of territory.

We all now are too familiar with the two banks of four sitting deep and tightly in front of a team's penalty area.

Jose Mourinho unwittingly christened this "parking the bus." A good example of parking the bus is what Chelsea did to both Barcelona and Bayern Munich in last season's Champions League.

Here, the territory is constricted, based on the understanding that the more compact the space around the goal mouth is, the more difficult it is for goal-scoring penetration to happen.

Certainly, even if you can thread the ball through the sea of bodies, it is very difficult for anyone to receive the pass, since constricted spaces means offensive players can easily be blocked off.

The result of this, of course, is the sight we've now been too familiar with—an offensive team such as Arsenal or Barcelona hovering around the opposition's penalty area, exchanging short passes around and around, hoping for a breakthrough that all too often does not come, much to the chagrin of everyone, players, coaches and fans.

(Witness Barcelona against AC Milan in midweek.)

Such an aggressive defensive approach works by deliberately ceding the ball and territory up field. In other words, owing to the need to maintain shape, it serves such a team better to yield possession and territory, hence the reason such a team sits deep.

Sitting deep means blocking up spaces such that there cannot be entrance to score goals. This backfires sometimes, of course, but what system does not have its own weaknesses?

When such a defensive system works, the opposition's possession becomes useless possession. In fact the mere fact of that possession is a form of mockery or defiance. "Yes, do have the ball, but what can you do with it?"

Again, a team’s shape is what make this works, where each individual player know exactly where to be. Teams that take this approach often give up goals when they "accidentally" lose shape. Of course, such teams’ own strategy is to get a goal through a set piece or through a counterattack.

But I should let the reader see where I'm going with this.

Offense Versus Defense

The point of the foregoing lies in strength. That is, the strength of this ultra-defensive system is not to have the ball but to make sure that the ball does not pass through the door at which the entire team is stationed.

In contrast, the very point of an offensive system is to have the ball. And the very fact that this is an offensive system means that approach to territory is different as well.

Whereas the defensive system sits deep in the team's own territory, the offensive team sits high in the opponent's territory.

This simple distinction will serve to highlight the first of the problems that make the current Arsenal team lose to good sides.

Let me state this by way of an illustration.


Barcelona's defensive strength lies in the definition of territory, which the team constricts rather high and away from its own area. This makes the spaces between its defense, midfield and attack quite compact.

It means that Barcelona players are always in close proximity. This does not only make it easy for them to play their passing game, but more importantly, it makes them able to recover the ball very quickly.

Furthermore, it means that a possessing player always have cover. The players play with calm, since they know that if they lose the ball, a teammate is close at hand not only as cover but also to help recover it.

The Barcelona system (or any such system at all that tries to play this kind of offensive game) cannot work without a compact area of skirmish.

When Barcelona lose the ball, the whole system remains compact, but it doesn't do so by reverting to two banks of four and retreating deep. Instead, the aggressive territorial control remains in place. Barcelona sometime push up as a unit to press the ball high up so that they can win it away from their area.

At other times, if their opponent is between their lines (in midfield), the forward players constrict the space backward while the defensive players constrict the space forward. That is, Barcelona tries to trap the possessing players of the offensive team in the midfield.

Even where the battle shifts to Barcelona's side of the pitch, Barcelona never react the way that lesser teams do. They make sure to cast a net of players around the area the ball is in possession, in a bid to trap it.

I should like to apply this to Arsenal now.

Arsenal in the Second Half

The reason Arsenal have been better and even successful in second-half performances is because of their definition and use of territory.

Whereas in most first halves (even in the Villa match), Arsenal tend to stand off the ball, with their defensive line deep in their own area, in the second half, they press the opponent quite high, with the result that the territorial skirmish occurs in the opponent's half.

They do this, much like Barcelona, by playing an inverted 4-4-1-1, which becomes 1-1-4-4. In most cases, Per Mertesacker plays the sweeping role in a staggered back two, with Thomas Vermaelen sitting just in front of him.

This aggressive pressing is sometimes a 1-1-3-5.

If the reader reviews Arsenal's big and successful matches last season, he or she will find this aggressive approach in place (against Spurs at the Emirates, against Newcastle United at Emirates, against AC Milan at the Emirates, against Manchester City at the Emirates, etc).

When Arsenal play this way, they are at their best, with the result that their opponents are pinned back in their own half.

This is Arsenal playing to their strength: a very high line, with the last defender positioned almost at the halfway line, while aggressive press is maintained at the front with four or five men.

The danger of this kind of approach lies, of course, in the danger of a breakaway, but how many times have Arsenal conceded this way? And is this more often than the other approach of sitting too deep?

The answer is no, and this is borne out by statistics. On second-half performances alone, where Arsenal play the aggressive system, Arsenal would be leading the Premiership at the moment.

If one focuses on the danger of the system alone, it would be like saying Barcelona never concede. Of course, they do, but are they successful with this system?  Indeed.

For the fearful, I should like to ask, what system is there that does not concede? What matters is that a team plays to its strength, but even the best teams concede.

The famous Invincible didn't go unbeaten because they did not concede goals. They did because the played to their strength, their incessant attacking bent.

Arsenal in the First Half

Arsenal's problem in first-half performances lies in being indecisive. On the one hand, they want to play attacking football, and on the other, they behave like they are a defensive system by standing off the ball and retreating deep.

This results in the opponents pressing them, and because Arsenal are not really a defensive team and are not well-drilled as such, it is no wonder that they end up conceding quick goals, especially against top sides.

Against Tottenham Hotspur earlier this season, Arsenal began in their peevish, defensive manner. It was Spurs who were pressing high. Bar the fact that Emmanuel Adebayor got himself sent off, I do not see that Arsenal would have escaped a hiding that day.

That dismissal saved Arsenal. Without it, Arsenal would even be further behind Spurs than the current four points (or two and one, depending on the outcome of Spurs match on Monday).

By their peevish approach, Arsenal were digging themselves into a hole, and it is no wonder that they were soon behind.

We've witnessed this exact thing happening against Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Swansea City in the FA Cup and, most recently, against Bayern Munich.

Put succinctly, Arsenal’s problem this season lies in confusion of systems. If it is a defensive system you want to play, then hone it and stick to it. But if it is an attacking system you want to play, then go all out and play it. 

Again, statistics show that Arsenal are successful when they play to their strength by employing their aggressive, pressing system.

Why Swansea City?

One more thing is salient to the discussion.

The reason why I titled this article like this isn't because I want Arsenal to be beaten next week; it is rather because I know they will if they don't eliminate the problem I'm highlighting here.

But why bring Swansea City into the mix?

It is because coupled with the said confusion in approach, Arsenal display a very poor sense of pressing for an offensive team.

This is part of what ails them in first-half performances. The entire system is standing off, the attempt to press the ball becomes futile. Whereas in the second half, because the entire team is pushing high, winning the ball becomes easier.

But let's say Arsenal want to approach the first half more cautiously by not pushing high too much. How do they win back the ball?

Against teams that can pass the ball even half decently, Arsenal become frustrated quite quickly, unable to win back possession. This, again, is because they don't know how to press the ball to win it back.

In pressing situations, when the opposing team is trying to build at the back, there's often a three-to-one situation, where three or even four defenders gang up against an attacker who would try to press the ball. Needless to say, this becomes a futile effort.

But even with two against three or three against three, unless the pressing is employed strategically, it doesn't work. Instead, it leaves holes that the opponent can exploit to execute dangerous passes into the midfield and beyond.

I suspect that Arsenal approach their first-half performances with this danger in mind. And this is why Arsenal find Swansea City a frustrating opponent because Swansea themselves cannot only pass, they also know how to press.

Strategic Pressing

To press strategically, it has to be done in a staggered but concerted way.

The aim of the first person to press the ball isn't to win it back. Bar some mistake by the opponent, this can't be done. Instead, the first person's aim is to start a chain reaction that will result in an error.

When the person presses the possessing player, the possessing player will, of course, try to get the rid of the ball by passing it to his teammate.

If no concerted pressing is employed, the purpose of the pressing is immediately defeated.

Concerted pressing happens when the first person (in the staggered process) presses the possessing player while at the same time his teammates close down the passing options.

When done aggressively and quickly, and when the rest of the players man-mark their opponents when this concerted pressing is happening, a mistake is usually the result.

That is, the possessing player, lacking the option to pass, hurriedly tries to get rid of the ball. This achieves two things: First of all, the person cannot measure a midfield or a defense splitting pass, because he has no time to do so. (In fact, he becomes quite scared of losing the ball himself.)

Second, getting rid of the ball in a hurry means that there is a high chance that it will end up with the pressing team.

This is the exact reason why Barcelona's opponents are seldom able to keep the ball even when they win it back, because this manner of concerted pressing causes errors to happen, with the possessing player anxious to just get rid of the ball even though no viable passing option exists.

Beating Spurs

Arsenal have very important matches coming up against Spurs, Everton, Bayern Munich and Swansea City. All these are good teams.

To ensure success, Arsenal must play to their strength.

That is, abandon their tentative and peevish approach to their first-half performances, where instead of playing to their strength as a pressing offensive team the way they tend to do in the second half and the way Barcelona does throughout the 90 minutes, they stand off the ball as though they were a defensively-minded team.

Standing off, naturally, does not help, since Arsenal are not drilled that way. This leads to frustration up front because the ball can't be won back, and this invites pressure that leads to cheap and early goals against good teams.

If Arsenal do not change this, they will lose against all four of these teams.

Secondly, Arsenal must practice staggered but concerted pressing such as described above. That way, if they do decide to approach a match in a more measured fashion, they can still win back possession very quickly.

As it is, their schoolboy approach to pressing is not pressing at all. It has to be concerted. Their sitting deep leaves huge gaps in the middle, gaps that good team exploit.

Be Yourself 

My argument is that Arsenal should be as aggressive in the first half as they are in the second by playing their 1-1-3-5 or 1-1-4-4 formation, nor should they wait until they are chasing games to do so. This is what gives them success.

Think of it: When they think they are being cautious, they concede anyway! But when they play to their strength, they score goals and don't concede cheap ones.

So why don't they just start the match pressing high since the other approach has never helped?


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