Arsenal’s tactical Evolution – Has Wenger finally adapted?

Arsenal’s Tactical Evolution by TJ

Both Wenger and Guardiola are believers/disciples of the Rinus Michels school of total football. Both Wenger and Guardiola build teams which are distinguishable by 3 characteristics – skill, speed and intelligence.

Both managers crave creativity in all players – not just the attacking players. Both managers do not believe in specialists. Arrigo Saachi (another disciple of the Michels school) once remarked about the Makelele role “In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makélélé, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball.”

The pressing game was built on team cohesion, understanding and sacrifice. Each player had to buy in to their role and work for the team. Guardiola replicated this high pressing game for Barca, a tactic which was essential in their success. The possession based style, with speed in transition was the hallmark of all three of the sides. Skill, speed and intelligence ran through all coach’s beliefs.

Wenger’s attempts to build successful teams steeped in balance (between attack and defense), with creative players strewn through the team would be deemed a failure through the lack of trophies. Guardiola though made this philosophy a success.

While we could point to the difference in quality of players on the field, but the one area where Wenger differed from Guardiola and Saachi was in Team Preparation. Wenger once said “Football is not a chess game. It belongs to the players. We prepare the team to do well but don’t forget that the main heroes are on the pitch, not on the bench.” Guardiola though, plans every game to the tiniest detail – he is obsessed with the detail.

Wenger’s approach is (was?) about allowing the players to express themselves on the pitch, giving them the latitude & responsibility to make their own decisions. This is why he speaks a lot about belief, togetherness and confidence. The system works when players believe in each other, they make the right decisions and work hard for each other.

Wenger is/was about being a facilitator for the players whereas Guardiola is about being the general directing his troops. It’s been argued that Wenger gives his players far too much freedom on the pitch where a planned tactical approach would have better served them. Can Wenger change and adapt? I think there are positive signs that he can and has…

Arsenal’s performance in the 1st half of the season were in stark contrast to the 2nd half (better). Yes we got players back and a healthier/fitter squad, but there was a distinct change in tactics. Well, in fact, there appeared to be tactics! At times the team didn’t obsess with possession and were happy to sit deeper, at times we pressed high and quick, the counter attacking improved significantly and we recycled the ball far more decisively. Missed passes, missed tackles and missed shots on goal are not systematic issues – this is human error.

We got a whole lot better at transition. Transition is probably the most critical aspect of the game…as Mourinho so obviously put it “When you lose the ball, you are most vulnerable, when you win it, you have your best chance to score.” The tactic most teams used against Arsenal in the 1st half of the year was to sit deep and invite us to attack, then hit us on the counter-attack as we were unbalanced (too many men forward) and they had plenty of space to exploit. We couldn’t and didn’t “counter the counter” against the better teams.

Fast forward to the 2nd half of the year. What a difference when you look at the number of players around the ball and most importantly behind the ball (not behind the centre line but the ball!). When the ball was lost we had players ready to press and transition – to defend the counter. Pressing quickly doesn’t allow the opposition time to think or set up. Mourinho prefers 6 players behind the ball to defend any counters and Guardiola prefers 5. Wenger, from the 2nd half of the season appears to be swayed towards 5 but I think he changes this depending on the threat he perceives the opposition to pose from a counter-attacking perspective.

And this is where discipline, sharpness and intelligence comes into it. Players have to understand and carry out the instructions for their role. Breaking the rules puts the team in jeopardy – and the rules can be broken as a result of the player “switching off” for a moment, perhaps not being match sharp or just wasn’t disciplined enough.

There is no doubt the emergence of Coquelin has enabled this tactical change to become effective quite dramatically, but there were very clear changes in the disciplined performances of Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey, Monreal, Sanchez, etc.

Improvement is certainly required in terms of game-intelligence – when to be compact at the back and when to press high-up. More importantly it’s the team cohesion and synchronization in terms of the press – too often we saw the disconnect in the team. Wenger has said pressing isn’t about covering distances, it’s about doing it together. They are learning this.

The playbook had changed, it isn’t the polished article just yet but I expect Arsenal to improve in-game intelligence, to be more synchronized, and to be much better at countering and defending the counter next season.

This then segues into the transfers Wenger will look at – the type of player and the number of players. When you hear the rumours consider the tactics and system Arsenal plays, consider the attributes players need to have and you’ll soon be able to discern between the “possibles and never likely”. Speed, intelligence, skill, work ethic, selflessness rank very high. And also consider, that it will take time for the player to become match functional within the system.

Which of our transfer targets matches that description?


Tags Guardiola Michele Mourinho Wenger


    1. We need a DM and a striker…I’m sick and tired of saying this.we need to improve our starting eleven to work well tactically. Wenger needs to spend the fkin cash asap, get cheaper players like kondogbia and Martinez if were not getting Vidal and cavani. We need two players before the pre season.cech would be the icing on the cake

  1. If a team turns up to try and defend and get a draw, tactically there’s not much you can really do except pass around and try and create an opening to shoot. It’s just a test of whether or not the quality to do make and score those chances exists in the team. Every team does it to Barcelona and Bayern, they very rarely lose because they have top quality players in their team.

    Most of the time we win, but quite a few times we do struggle. We need to be sharper and more brave, willing to risk losing the ball by playing difficult passes to create chances, because you can’t break a good defensive side down with simple passes. I think important to have the defensive assurity that if we do lose the ball when attacking, we aren’t likely to concede on a counterattack. Coquelin and Koscielny brought that back into the team. Before, it was the same sideways passes and a lack of will to play dangerous passes because if we did lose the ball, Flamini and Monreal weren’t going to be able to stop the counterattack.

    But away games are different, obviously the other team is unlikely to sit back when playing at home, so a better balance in attacking and defending is needed. Coquelin has brought that, though I still think on big games, like at Stamford Bridge, the Etihad or CL away games, Coquelin needs a partner. Someone bigger so that we won’t get overpowered. For me that’s why we need Krychowiak. Nice to see that we’re at least being linked with him today, even if it is the Metro.

  2. Very cool article, I like how the change in tactics was attributed (likely) to the return of some players. That could have been the issue from the beginning and in dealing with that we get showed that he has grown/adapted/learnt, Walcott wasn’t rushed neither was wilshere nor ozil and u can see the benefits unlike previous seasons. This was of course aided by the fact that we have more players with the replacements being capable to do the job. There also shows how Wenger has grown as one injury doesn’t totally decimate the squad’s form (yes we wobbled but we weren’t shameful as before). Overall this season showed we are getting there, we might have not taken leaps and bounds but we (arsenal and arsene) definitely took a step in the right direction.

  3. @TJ
    Wow this is a terrific article. Bravo. I agree that we have made so many defensive improvements. And we suffer less from counter attcks. But I do also think that we can sitill improve defensively. I think that our counter attacks break alot. I think that the manager has not utilise the pace in the team as much as he should have.
    There have been games were ozil has been the fastest player on the break because Giroud and rambo cannot sprint. rambo should not be a winger in the first place. That is something we need to improve in.

  4. Speed, intelligence, Skill, and work ethic i think will go without saying. Im sure all of our targets have these qualities within their locker. Selflessness, i reckon can be good to have and good to not have, myself, i hope the striker we sign will be a selfish bugger.

  5. No with full purpose. Wenger is prone to favorisem and it takes a lot from Arsenal to force him into changing his ways.

    Coquelin came back bec Arteta was out for long. Ospina got in bec Seza killed himself rrly bad. Ozil played in his fav poz bec Wilsher got inuried. Cazorla shipped out Ramsey ( who is Wengers fav player). Took a long time, Santi was warming the bench for way to long. He is very good and important to the team. Other players need to shup up bec he is the best in his role.

    But i give the old man my respect for doing the right thing in benching Walcott in favor of Welbeck and Ramsey. And Monreal over Gibbs.

  6. The basis of an opinion are facts not fantasy and imagination. This article would have been better if it was based on facts rather than this ridicous notion that AW does not have tactics blar blar. In making claims about AW and PG aproaches to games what was your basis apart from fantasy and imagination of how they approach games? In claiming that in the first half of the season we conceded because we pressed high resulting in us being caught on the counter what was your basis? You would have made your analysis better by showing us statistics regarding goals proportion of goals conceded from counter attacks in relation to goals conceded from other circumstances. While you are free to believe what you want if you look back at the goals, you will notice that a third of the goals were down to attacking players not putting pressure high up the pitch leading to long balls from as far as half way line into our defensive third. The opposition then relied on the strength of their strikers to rise high to connect with the ball leading to goals. It was in few games like the Dortmund, Man United and Manoco ones where we conceded because we were pressing high up the pitch.

    In essence with your expression and articulation was very excellent, your article became an also ran because of lack of supporting facts, and an attempt to perpetuate unfounded positions like, how Wenger approach games, how PG approach games, etc.

      1. Bad business for Real. It’s like throwing money away but I guess they have the money to throw away lol

        We had to sell RVP to United which was similar. RVP had one year left and we did not wantbhum to go on the free.

        So far the best transfers have been
        Khedira to Juventus
        Milner to Liverpool

  7. Excellent article, Concise and very well informed very informative and intelligent.
    there are many points there that MUST be conceded and to a massive point I agree with almost allof te points made, However I d feel that e are still missing several top notch payers and and I still feel that we are still lacking in a certain something both up front and at the back.
    I use the Chelsea and Swansea games as examples as to where we lack “something” also the United game at the end of the season. My huge concern I the players that could bring that missing elements to the team are already being snatched up by the teams we will face in various competitions next season. This is NOT to say we are rubbish quiet the contrary we are ALMOST THERE an but for two player we will be but who?? and will we get them?? at this point I feel that we may miss the chance.

  8. Also, Barcelona signing Aleix Vidal is good news for us. It should hopefully keep them away from Bellerin for a good few years.

  9. It’s nice to have such an interesting article. It’s really an education in football

    Mourinho will sell Cech to united or Arsenal if he gets a player in return
    No problem Mourinho can have Flamini, Diaby, Sanogo
    Pleasure to do business hehehe 🙂

  10. Very impressive article – I just hope you are correct and that there has been a conscious decision to change tactics. I can understand “the analyzer’s” points but there is no arguing with the better results once Le Coq was introduced into the team. Pep’s Barca and indeed the Spanish national side did exceptionally well because they had incredible players at ball retention/short passing (even when closely marked) and then then quick incisive passing in the final third plus the high energy pressing game when the opposition had the ball. The current Barca team has more pace with Suarez and Neymar and are even more deadly following transition. They can play both ways. Pre Xmas sometimes our play was slow and predictable and easy to defend against and counter. We need the skills and confidence to play the possession game but also mix it with fast breaks and medium to long passes.

  11. “Wenger, from the 2nd half of the season appears to be swayed towards 5 but I think he changes this depending on the threat he perceives the opposition to pose from a counter-attacking perspective.”

    Astute piece of writing right there. Wenger is actually thinking about roles and responsibilities of how many players are in front or behind the ball now. You’ll see, across the whole team, a different dimension in this regard. Rarely are we wasting players in dead space – people are now making runs all the time to create space ahead of the ball, or slot back in behind it. We tend to favour 5 behind the ball and sometimes only 4 if we are deep in opposition territory and have them “pinned”. We have to be careful in that situation but generally we don’t do the 3 man behind the ball job that usually kills us. We rarely lose possession and only have 2 defenders between the opposition and the goal. As long as we continue playing that way then we will keep that number of goals conceded down.

    As for transfers it has to be that linchpin player. Coquelin is still too much of a makelele for my liking – I don’t trust him with starting moves. A quality DM is still what I’d like for being able to change possession gained into dangerous attacking oppurtunities. Coquelin is good…but there’s definitely more options and having backup is just as important. A striker who is both fast and can play with his back to goal is my other want…but there ain’t a huge number of them and I doubt we’ll pay beyond the odds for it. A fast player whose touch is unreal or a strong player with enough pace to beat a defender would be enough for me – the golden boy in the middle is probably too much to ask for. The other positions are Winger, LB or GK – if the right option appeared then we could buy. Our starting 11 is strong as it’ll get otherwise, we won’t buy a CB or any CMs, RB is sorted and unless it’s a versatile winger then they won’t have a fit (we really need a left footed one).

    I’m mumbling. Good article.

    1. Well said. The only thing I would say is that FC is holding out in terms of his skill-set – I am not suggesting he is the ultimate solution but he is clearly disciplining himself to death in this role with just the bare minimum of risk/flair on display. He has more in his locker. For me this discipline is the most impressive aspect of his performances over the last 6 months. There were signs in the FAC final that he had loosened up a little – probably contrary to orders, and was carrying the ball past players.

      Also need to remember has only been doing this for 6 months. Again, not suggesting he is the answer, but if he goes away this summer, has his pre-season and moves up another gear we may all be having a different discussion again next year. I don’t see anything in Matic’s game for example that FC could not attempt to emulate despite being 2 or 3 years less experienced.

  12. Good article and in my mind a highly relevant talking point 🙂

    I think AW is more than capable of changing and adapting to specific matches, how involved he is tactically, and also when to step in and tweak. The question mark for me is his desire to do this (unless he’s being slaughtered by the press for “tactical unawareness”), at least 8 or 9 times over a Premier League season when things are genuinely tough for us. He did get found wanting in those games against Swansea and Sunderland though, when Arsenal pretty much forced those teams into executing their own game-plans designed to stop us (bit ironic really, lol).

    Obviously if you can play your game and no tweaks are needed, then none should be made (we’ve all seen “tinkerman” managers screw up and destroy team shape and winning form). But in our case, we’ve seen oh-so-many screw ups down the years due to AW’s refusal to accept that sometimes, what you’re doing just ain’t working and the oppo are more than adept at dealing with it. Either that, or reacting in the 75th minute with a couple of pacey subs going on against a defence that is already defending so deep they’re practically in the crowd.

    This, for me, is why I don’t feel it can be a black and white issue, and should be down to a manager’s discretion and shrewdness. It’s about timing and knowing when change up and step in, rather than either living in the technical area or totally avoiding it altogether. Can AW handle that? I think so. Does he want to handle that? Question marks.

    RE: transfer targets. Schneiderlin + Cech + poacher up front = a ball-winning cultured passer of the ball; a league and Champions League winning goalkeeper with big game credentials and someone to grab a cheeky goal in tight spaces when we’re struggling with all other methods of creativity.

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