Has Steve Bould failed at his role as the defense expert at Arsenal?
The defensive errors that have cost Arsenal big games this season have led some to question Bould’s impact, the person whose arrival was expected to transform Arsenal’s defensive fortunes.
Part of the problem with Arsenal’s defending stems from the team’s tactical imbalance, an imbalance resulting from at least two factors.
I examine this in the following.
Later on, I examine the issue of Arsenal’s high line, an issue analyzed earlier in the week by Gary Neville, who focused on the errors that occurred at the Arsenal-Spur match over the weekend.
I begin by looking at the tactical system that Arsenal use, the problems this system poses and the attempt to eliminate them by the coaching staff.
The Big Hole
Playing with two defensively-minded midfielders and one attack-minded one in a 4-2-1-3 application of the system (or a 4-2-1-2-1, if you like), the result was a big hole in the middle, caused by the team’s tendency to play with the defensive midfielders (Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong) sitting tightly near the back-four.
And since the attacking midfielder (Wesley Sneijder) sat near the offensive players, the result was a hole in the midfield that allowed the opposition to operate. This also meant that the Dutch could not build decisive attacks from the back, since they found it difficult to play out from there.
When they did manage to play the ball forward and it was lost, they found themselves dangerously exposed.
Analyzing the situation, I suggested that the Dutch play with a bridging or transition midfielder—the so-called box-to-box midfielder—a player who would sit in the exposed hole in the middle, just in front of the defensive (or holding) midfielder and just behind the creative (or attacking) midfielder, acting as a pivot between defense and attack.
When defending, he pivots back and becomes the second defender just in front of the back-four as the 4-2-1-3 formation implies.
This player is often required to carry the ball forward when the team seeks to transition from defense to attack. He also rotates with the holding midfielder when the latter is required by the elapsing play to carry the ball forward.
When the team attacks in a wave he becomes the fifth offensive player, combining with the three most advanced offensive players and the attack-minded midfielder.
I supplied the following diagrams in the articles cited above to illustrate the foregoing points.
Arsenal and the Dutch Problem
Just before the Euros, Arsenal had faced a similar problem in the just-concluded season in a number of matches, notably against Swansea City away, Sunderland away, Manchester United at home and against Wigan Athletic at home.
Arsenal lost all these matches. In all of them Mikel Arteta was absent. In the Wigan match, his injury, early in the match, led to two quick goals that the home side could not recover from.
At Swansea City, the on-loan Yossi Benayoun was charged with the Mikel Arteta role. But he failed at executing it—not because he was a bad player or because he played necessarily badly, but because he was not well-suited to the role.
Against Manchester United at home, the problem of “the hole” was so glaring in the first half it caused Arsenal all kinds of problems and led to a concession of a goal.
The team adjusted in the second half by pushing their defensive line higher, compressing the space in the middle. A defensive lapse on Arsenal’s left, however, cost them the match eventually.
In all these matches the problem was exactly like the one analyzed in the case of the Dutch. In the 2011-12 season, Mikel Arteta played the bridging role for Arsenal and this afforded the team balance in midfield.
With him in the team, Arsenal did not play a flat two at the base of the midfield, although Arteta often adjusted to a more defensive position when the team defended.
Instead of a flat two at the base of the midfield, Arsenal played a more fluid 4-3-3, with Mikel Arteta sitting in the hole, pivoting and snuffing out the opposition's attacks. When he was absent from the team, an immediate imbalance resulted, leading to defensive and offensive problems.
The Problem of the Hole
In both these examples, what the reader would note is the problem of "the hole" and how to deal with it.
This problem of the hole is the big weakness of the 4-2-1-3 (or the 4-2-3-1) system. Whereas the “2” in front of the back-four bespeaks defensive security, that isn’t often the case in reality.
Essentially, it is playing with what is fundamentally a flat six at the back that admits this problem.
The presence of the hole means that any decent team can exploit it with devastating effect. In light of this, the 4-2-3-1 system, unless properly applied, is an overrated system that causes problems in the midfield instead of solving them.
On the one hand, it is supposed to enable a team to dominate the midfield, but in reality it often means that the team holds possession harmlessly at the back, unable to do anything potent with it.
This is caused by the redundancy that occurs at the back when the flat two at the base of the midfield is applied to the letter.
Furthermore, a flat two at the base of the midfield means that the team cannot really dominate proceedings where it really matters—in the middle of the field.
Dealing with the Hole
There are three ways to deal with the hole.
The first is to use a bridging midfielder, the so-called box-to-box. (I have described this above.) This is the role Mikel Arteta played for Arsenal in the 2011-12 season with remarkable efficiency.
The second is to play the base midfielders as a double pivot. This, of course, turns the 4-2-3-1 to a fluid 4-3-3 (or, if you will, a 4-1-1-1-3).
Arteta and Alex Song often played this double pivot system in matches. This enabled Song to carry the ball forward more frequently than would be expected of a strict holding midfielder.
I believe it was this double pivoting that most Arsenal fans misunderstood, leading to unnecessary criticism of Alex Song.
The third way is to push the defensive line very high. This compresses the space in the middle, bridging the defense and the attack. If this is done, the flat two at the base of the midfield must be maintained to screen the back-four.
When this is done, the hole shifts to a space further forward and close to the opposition’s back-four. This allows the attacking midfielder to roam therein, making sure that the opposition does not control the hole.
Arsenal and This Season's Imbalance
Arsenal began the current season (2012-13) tightly organized both in midfield and at the back. This led to high praise of the new assistant to Arsene Wenger, Steve Bould.
In the first two matches, Arsenal tended to collapse to a 4-4-2 (or 4-5-1) when defending, and they tended to push their defensive line deep when doing so.
In essence this Arsenal was more defensive-minded, playing cautiously and waiting for a quick counter-attacking opportunity.
This tight defensive approach made it difficult for Arsenal to be scored against, but it yielded an imbalance up front, the reason why Arsenal could not score in their first two matches.
This was also because the team was being rebuilt on the fly: Alex Song had been sold and Mikel Arteta had been pushed back into the holding role; Robin van Persie was no longer in the team and Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Gervinho were being experimented with to take over his role.
At the head of the midfield, Santi Cazorla had replaced the injured Tomas Rosicky: too many new pieces, come to think of it.
Because of this fact, one can appreciate the wisdom of this defensive approach by Arsenal early in the season.
Arsenal's breakthrough came in the next two matches against Liverpool and Manchester City. At Liverpool, Arsenal still operated a tight ship defensively, but Abou Diaby had grown into his role as the bridging midfielder.
Essentially, Arsenal had solved the problem of the hole through the first of the solutions advanced above—the use of a box-to-box or a bridging midfielder. Abou Diaby sat in the hole, pivoting between Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla.
It was a neat balance, with Abou Diaby adjusting and carrying the ball forward when Arsenal won the ball back or when Arsenal built from the back.
Meanwhile, the defined role of each player meant that Abou Diaby easily tucked back to become the second shield in front of the back-four when Arsenal were defending.
This balance meant Liverpool could not find a breakthrough against Arsenal, and Arsenal's quick transition, owing to Diaby's position in the hole, meant they could go very quickly from defense to attack. This fact led to Arsenal's two goals against their host.
At Manchester City, Arsenal were similarly well-organized. But for their lack of clinical finishing in front of goal, they could have led Manchester City by as much as two goals at halftime.
Abou Diaby's injury disrupted this new balance that Arsenal had found, a balance that led pundits to think Arsenal could challenge for the title this season.
When Jack Wilshere returned to the team from his one-year absence with injury, he brought strength to Arsenal's midfield. But instead of solving Arsenal's problem, his return yielded a different sort of imbalance.
The manner of Wilshere's game means Arsenal have been playing with what essentially is a 4-1-2-3, meaning that there's just one shield in front of the defense because of Wilshere’s tendency to go forward.
This readmits the hole just in front of Arsenal's back-four, with the only person remotely in the hole being Mikel Arteta. But we should be mindful of the fact that at heart, Arteta is an offensive player, not your typical holding player.
When Wilshere has been pushed further forward with Cazorla on the left and Aaron Ramsey brought in, the Arsenal system has become a 4-2-1-3 proper. Because Arsenal have tended not to play a high line (in first half of matches, at least), the problem of the hole—as analyzed in the case of the Dutch team above—has been readmitted.
Even when Diaby has come in, the early balance has not been recovered. What is needed, I believe, is a fit Diaby.
Gary Neville's Analysis
Gary Neville's analysis of the Arsenal-Spurs match identified quite incisively the problems in the Arsenal defense that led to the two goals.
He pointed to two things. First, there was what to him appeared to be Spurs' and Arsenal's ridiculous high lines. He wondered whether this wasn't living too dangerously.
Secondly, he identified quite correctly the defensive errors themselves that led to the goals. In essence, it was Arsenal's attempt to play the offside trap. He felt that the Arsenal defense needed to have retreated from their high line in both instances of the goals.
Retreating (as Neville advised in his analysis) is one way of solving the problem, but what his analysis failed to account for is the problem of the hole. That is, although Neville could point to the errors themselves, he focused on the symptom rather than on the problem itself.
In other words, although, indeed, individual errors by Thomas Vermaelen and Nacho Monreal and a more collective error by the back-four through their attempt to spring the offside trap led to the goals, the root of the problem itself didn't reside in the back-four or in the high defensive line per se.
A close study of both goals shows that both goals developed from the hole in the midfield. Now, since Arsenal were playing a high line, the problem of the hole ought to have been solved. In fact it was solved, by and large, bar the lapses that led to the goals.
In both instances of the goal, the problem wasn't Gareth Bale lurking within the Arsenal defensive line as such, nor was it Aaron Lennon making his run (although this was part of the problem).
The problem lay rather with "the pass." Without the opportunity and the ability to make the two passes that led to the two goals, neither Bale nor Lennon would have caused the resulting havoc.
Here's the golden rule:
If you play with such a high line and with such compressed space, which allows the opposition's attacker to lurk within your defensive line (as both teams did), the midfield, that is "the hole," must be tightly marshaled.
To reiterate the point, the problem isn't the high line itself—in fact the high line is a sound tactical strategy that works both defensively and offensively. Nor does it lie in the lurking attackers. It lies rather with loose marking in the hole, a looseness that allows incisive passes to be made.
More concretely, Arsenal's goals came about because possession was lost in the hole with no immediate adjustment being made to snuff out the resultant danger.
Practically, since Arsenal played with three midfielders and since the space of skirmish was tightly compressed, Arsenal ought to have played with two shields in front of the back-four acting as a screen at all times.
This means that only Wilshere should have had license to roam in the hole, which, owing to the fact of the two base midfielders, is shifted forward and away from the back-four and more toward the opposition's back-four.
The fact that both Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey tended to be more adventurous in this tightly and dangerously compressed space of skirmish means that Arsenal's defense was constantly exposed.
It is this exposure that led to the errors that caused Arsenal defeat. So, yes, there was error in the defense, but if the shield had been there, or if the midfielders had stopped "the pass," these errors wouldn't have occurred.
To repeat, if you play with such a high line and with such a compressed space of skirmish, two of the three midfielders must play as defenders primarily and they must recover quickly when the ball is lost.
Now the recovery can happen, as Neville suggested, with the defensive line falling deep, allowing the midfielders time to recover.
Or if no foul is involved in the turnover and one of the midfielders isn't rolling on the ground temporarily neutralized, the recovery can happen through immediate harrying of the player who would (or could) make "the pass."
Both of these recovery strategies can only happen if the midfielders are alert at all times.
For me, then, the failure that led to Arsenal's defeat at Spurs didn't occur in the defense, even though the errors themselves manifested there. Instead they came about by failures in the midfield.
Arsenal’s defensive errors this season have led many to question the impact of Steve Bould, who came in ostensibly as a defensive expert whose knowledge would do Arsenal’s defending a world of good.
Gone is the early praise of his impact, to be replaced by questions, even rumors of a rift between him and the head coach.
I should like to say a few things in this regard.
First, there’s no reason to doubt that Arsenal’s early defensive tightness may owe to Bould’s coaching. We should realize though that both he and Arsene Wenger had the task of retooling a team on the fly.
Anyone with any experience either in sports or with team-building and performance of any sort knows that this is a difficult thing to do; training requires time to mature.
Coaching is a lot about drilling.
It doesn’t help to have players come in and go out when the process of rebuilding is taking place as happened to Arsenal, when Diaby was just getting his feet planted on the ground and when Wilshere came in and necessitated a new experimentation with balance.
Realize that defense was just the first step in the rebuilding process, but Arsenal had also to find a way to score. The next step therefore was to focus on offense. This, of course, affected the defense. The balance between the two is still to be found.
Second, the errors that Neville identified with such clarity in his analysis of the Arsenal-Spurs match are further proof that Steve Bould is working hard on Arsenal’s defense.
Let me explain.
In his analysis, Neville showed how Monreal was indecisive when the defensive line tried to play the offside trap.
He, however, rightly identified this indecisiveness to be caused by Thomas Vermaelen, who at first tried to retreat but then changed his mind and suddenly jumped forward, leaving Monreal no time to adjust.
One important factor comes out of all this: Monreal had his eyes on Thomas Vermaelen.
The defensive line, one realizes, was trying to coordinate as a unit as it tried to play the offside trap. Remember that the famous Arsenal back line (which included Bould) was good at this.
In this instance the drill did not work. But that’s beside the point of the issue, which is that Arsenal defense must surely be practicing this in training.
That famous back line of Arsenal took years to build. One can therefore expect that with time—and if the same personnel can be maintained for a long time—the coordination will come.
Third, Neville showed how Vermaelen jumped forward and out of the defensive line a few times to make tackles, which, had he missed, would have led to more goals for Spurs.
This fact should underscore the point I have made above: The big problem here wasn’t the defensive line’s error per se, but stemmed, instead, from lack of decisive marshaling of “the hole” just in front of the back-four.
Those tackles weren’t Vermaelen’s to make. This was a role one of the defensive midfielders ought to have been handling.
When a defensive midfielder jumps into such a tackle and misses, there’s at least one shield behind him to mop up: one of the center-backs.
When there’s need for one of the center-backs to make such a tackle, it can’t be from a flat defensive line. It must be made when the line is staggered and one of the defenders is covering, in case the tackle is missed.
Arsenal have been dealing with coaching and tactical problems since the summer ended and changes in personnel were made.
The team needed a quick balance in the defensive end, which was quickly found, with Arteta reverting to the Alex Song role and Abou Diaby taking over Arteta’s former bridging role.
Two things disrupted this as observed above: the need to go from a defensive tight ship to a team that could score goals, and Diaby’s injury.
Diaby brings to the team a perfect balance of defense and offense, whereas Wilshere is more offensive-minded. This means that with Wilshere in the hole, Arsenal are more prone to being defensively exposed.
Now that Wilshere has been pushed further forward to the tip of the midfield and Ramsey has been brought into the hole, some form of balance has resulted, but it’s not quite there yet.
Ramsey and Arteta are yet to strike the balance between defense and offense. If both are to play the double pivot system, they must find a way to balance this. There ought to always be a shield in front of the back-four.
This is the role Mikel Obi plays so well for Chelsea, although he is not appreciated either by the media or his own fans.
The ideal solution in Arsenal’s case is Abou Diaby. Were Diaby to be fit (go injury-free for a long time as has happened to Robin van Persie), Arsenal’s midfield problems would dissipate.
My conclusion therefore is that Bould is doing his job.
It is also that while it is true that Arsenal’s defense commits a number of errors, the lack of confidence that causes this is the absence of sufficient shielding for the defense from the midfield. This is a problem both Bould and Wenger should work to eliminate.
Consequently, the problem at Spurs wasn’t the high defensive line per se, it was the failure of “the shield” in “the hole.” If a balance can be found in this area, many of Arsenal’s defensive problems would be solved.
Again, I would advise that Arteta and Ramsey work on their double pivoting to find a balance between attack and defense. One of them must remain in “the hole” at all times.
Preferably, I would like to see Diaby return, fit and sound.
Finally, as many have observed, there seem to be lack of communication and leadership in the team. One of the defenders (and this includes the defensive midfielders) needs to be very vocal.
It appears that the players play too nicely with each other when a match is going, but what benefit does this yield when this causes the team to lose games it shouldn’t? Someone ought to be shouting and bruising egos; this should be seen as normal in the quest for victory.
Apologies can be offered when the game has been nursed to victory. In fact, the euphoria of victory itself would more than make up for any offense arising from a player being shouted at during a match.
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