Friday, February 27, 2015

Arsenal's Pressing Problem

In Arsenal's last two Premier League matches away from home, Tottenham and Crystal Palace pressed the Gunners aggressively. This activity stymied Arsenal's flow in midfield, the foundation of its offense, and put its defense under pressure.

Many statistics from these games show just how effective this tactic proved. Arsenal were outshot in both matches, but more telling was how much Arsenal struggled to move the ball. The team completed just 72 percent of its passes against Palace and 70 percent against Tottenham. Those figures fall far below Arsenal's season average of 83 percent, which ranks fifth in the Premier League. (Stats from OptaSports via

The risk-reward tradeoff favors opponents

Meanwhile, the major risk of a pressing approach did not materialize. It's thought that a team might succeed in pressing Arsenal for a limited period of time; when the opposition's legs and concentration weaken, Arsenal can profit.

But neither Palace nor Spurs exhausted itself by pressing. On the contrary, the tactic seemed to wear Arsenal down, creating late lapses that led to goals. 

The successes of these two opponents, and those earlier in the season of Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, could encourage others to take a similar approach when they host Arsenal. (Listen to this week's Arsecast Extra Episode 56 for an apprehensive discussion of this possibility.)

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger won't be surprised by this development. After all, aggressive pressing damaged his side in several high-profile away matches of the 2013-14 campaign. Partially in response, he and his staff installed a 4-1-4-1 setup to relieve the pressure on the midfield, focus on covering space, and enable greater flexibility. (See "A Look at Arsenal's Move to the 4-1-4-1.")

Given that Arsenal haven't been able to enjoy these advantages consistently, it's worth exploring other solutions to the bedevilling pressing tactics.

Going airborne

There seem to be two general answers to the assertive press: 1. Go over it; 2. Go through it.
One way to go over the press more effectively would be to return Wojciech Szczesny to the starting goalkeeper spot. Although Szczesny has made some questionable decisions distributing the ball against the high press, notably leading to Tottenham's opening goal at the Emirates in September's 1-1 draw, he varies his passing more than does current first-choice David Ospina.

As Tim Stillman observes in his recent Arseblog column "Ospina and Szczesny Keep the Debate Going," Szczesny has relied on the long ball much less than Ospina has. The Polish keeper has averaged 4.9 long balls and 23.3 passes per match over his 17 Premier League appearances this season, while his Colombian teammate has made, on average, 14 long balls and 28.8 passes per match in seven league appearances.

Granted, Szczesny has often played without center forward Olivier Giroud, while Giroud has provided a target for Ospina in six of his seven League appearances. That may explain some of the discrepancy, as Stillman admits. Ospina seems to aim most of his kicks at the striker, making it simpler for the opposition to defend. And those kicks haven't been especially long, meaning that the opponents' pressing midfield can swarm Giroud and his midfield passing outlets.

This points to another adjustment to bypass the press--offer a different aerial outlet. We saw this alternative at Palace, as Mesut Özil occupied an advanced position, received some long passes, and controlled the ball to relieve pressure. Arsenal could also move Danny Welbeck up the pitch for goal kicks, giving the goalkeeper another target and dividing defenders' attention. A third option might appear when right back Mathieu Debuchy returns from injury; he's an effective relief valve and long-ball target, much as his predecessor Bacary Sagna was.

Arsenal could also vary the source of the long ball, launching from one of the defenders or a deep-lying midfielder. Mikel Arteta's absence makes this choice less appealing. He attempted, on average, 5.7 long passes per game over the 2012-13 and 2013-14 Premier League campaigns, completing an average of 5.0. Contrast Arteta's work in that regard to the passing of Francis Coquelin, who has attempted just two long passes and completed 1.2, on average, during his 11 Premier League appearances this season.

The land route

The downsides of the aerial approach are the sacrifices of possession and control as well as the invitation of more pressure on the midfield. If the long pass doesn't stick or isn't long enough, the opposition can close down Arsenal quickly. That's why the second approach -- going through the press, is appealing.

The problem is that the best personnel to provide that response were not available at Tottenham or Palace. Arteta's calmness on the ball and passing efficiency would have helped this terrestrial approach. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain'a speed and power may have allowed him to elude and out-muscle aggressive opponents. (See "The Ox Rocks Arsenal 3.0.") Even Jack Wilshere, using ball control and quick surges, might have succeeded in getting through the perilous midfield.

Staying the course

Wenger may weigh these options and decide, based on the personnel at his disposal, to maintain the team's tactics against pressing sides. That would not be an unreasonable decision, especially given the requirement that pressing be precise, tireless, and comprehensive or risk leaving gaps that Arsenal's quick movement, thought, and passing can exploit.

Arsenal's depth also serves the existing approach because it allows the manager to introduce a high-energy substitute like Tomas Rosicky or a high-speed sub like Theo Walcott just as the opponents' energies wane.

The experiences at Tottenham and Palace do suggest, though, that Arsenal's play cannot be passive. The lesson is that even if the Gunners concede possession and look to counter-attack, they need to engage actively for the full period of play.

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