Tactical and performance analysis – the long read by Sean M
Like many of you, I’m feeling particularly deflated today. After a few months of what has felt like progress, yesterday’s loss has left a strong, bitter taste, and those impossibly lofty ambitions we all had at the start of the season feel like they’re fading from the realms of possibility. And so, what’s the remedy for such a feeling? An unnecessarily deep inspection of what went wrong, of course. So here is my In-depth Tactical and Performance Analysis of Last night’s game.
The cracks that MA’s tactical nous has recently been papering over were exposed yesterday. Hector Bellerin is not just ‘lacking match fitness’ but has been shorn of the few attributes that allowed him to not look too out-of-place in recent years. Not only has his pace withered, but his self-confidence is shot. He dithers, makes bad decisions in tight areas, offers Pepe little support going forward, and can neither pass or cross to an acceptable standard. Going forward, Pepe is often outnumbered, and coming back, Bellerin has little support from the winger, which, as he’s already a bang average defender, means he is beaten for fun by any winger with a decent turn of pace.
David Luiz, as we all know, just isn’t consistent enough and doesn’t really think like a defender. His distribution is either fantastic or way off, most often the latter, and I don’t think I need to talk about his decision-making at the back.
While Saka is given the freedom to bomb forward, Bellerin isn’t offered the same cover by the RCM (Ceballos/Torreira), which leaves the right side of defence as a huge weakness that was exposed yesterday and especially by Saint-Maxim. On the plus side, the CBs aren’t exposed as much as they were under Emery meaning we seldom see those breaks through the centre that caused so much sphincter-tightening. The rejuvenation of Mustafi has, of course, also been a huge positive. His positioning is excellent; he has been mercurial in the air. Watching the highlights of the Everton came really brought home how excellent a defender he can be. It’s nice to know that we only need one solid centre back in the summer.
Let’s start with Xhaka. In any performance analysis, his weaknesses have been much-discussed, especially during the fan stand-off, but to recap: a lack of mobility, an inability to press without giving away cheap fouls, generally poor discipline and zero penetration and a preoccupation with sideways and backwards passing. I mention these again because, in Arteta’s tactical set-up, Xhaka is irreplaceable. No other defender can be groomed for the CM cum LB spot with a special focus on distribution. What this means is that the other CM is always withdrawn in order to maintain the extra threat down the left and defensive balance.
But in a game like yesterday’s, where the opposition sit deep, it would be useful to formulate a plan B that would sacrifice Xhaka’s role instead of the creative/driving component of the squad. I hope we can all understand that MA is only able to maximise the quality of the squad he has at his disposal, but we’ll all be watching carefully in the summer to see how new recruits can shift the balance and bring a bit more energy to the centre.
On another note, as the commentator mentioned yesterday, Arsenal adopted the slow, immobile pace of play that Olympiakos set. Something we all noticed towards the end of Unai’s reign was the lack of movement up top, along with a lack of imagination in the centre of midfield. Yesterday’s game demonstrated that when you have someone like Xhaka in the centre setting a slow tempo, the rest of the team adopt the same flow. Any one player darting around making space learns quickly that he will never be rewarded and will instead see the ball head back towards the keeper. Without a good pair of tempo-setters, the rot sets in and we become very easy to play against.
Whether you have Ceballos, Guendouzi or Torreira pairing Xhaka, the lack of (or inability to make) risky passes severely diminishes the capacity of the more creative and proactive midfield players to attack with any real potency. In a sense, improving one area (the defence) has come at the cost of damaging another (CM).
Couple this effect with Ozil’s one-dimensional style of play and the midfield become predictably blunt. In the modern game, where defences are compact and organised, creative midfielders need to both create space and find the perfect pass, a combination of attributes best embodied by de Bruyne or perhaps Utd’s Bruno Fernandes. Ozil has become less consistent with his passing accuracy and doesn’t seem to be able to make space like he used to. He has always had enormous quality, but also lacks the mental fortitude to fight until the last minutes (or fifth). In an ideal world, he would still be a great squad player, but looking at his performance analysis when he’s played week in week out, teams find it very easy to prepare for his style of play.
As previously mentioned, the lack of movement up top characterised the Arsenal of this season. Especially last night, Laca held an incredibly small area of movement, which I suspect was an instruction. His job was to occupy the CBs to create room for Ozil and Ceballos, but as Olympiakos played so deep, he cut an isolated figure and was barely visible. We’ve seen this happen far too often this season. He’s a great poacher but he doesn’t do enough (or, to give him some credit, isn’t asked to do enough) to justify his place on the field. Set aside his lack of goal-scoring sharpness, having such a one-dimensional, static role makes life far too easy for the defence. Either a false nine, or a regular position-swapping with the forwards (or, Christ, any kind of dynamism) would surely offer more of a threat.
While Aubameyang doesn’t need much of a performance analysis – he has led by example and almost single-handedly kept us fighting for a European spot – Pepe deserves a mention. What we saw yesterday, and have started seeing more and more, is a player that is finally taking risks. He was beating his man for fun yesterday and, unlike the rest of the team, gave the backline something to think about, forced other players to double and triple team him, which is an incredibly important attribute to have, as long as there is support from RB, CM and CF, which, alas, there wasn’t yesterday. In the end, he had an average game; his passing was hit-and-miss, shooting wild and crossing inconsistent; he also still has a lot to work on defensively, but in Pepe we have a young player with excellent raw attributes who can create spaces, finish and cross. That said, hearing him speak and seeing his body language, I am often concerned about his attitude. He lacks the hard-working eagerness that, for example, we can all see in Martinelli. He needs to know that he needs to improve, and I hope MA can instil that in him.
In general, the attack looked tired and out of ideas. MA needs to work on how to deal with such situations much better than he has been, because if it’s as simple as sitting back, absorbing pressure, then countering quickly against a nervy defence, we will be far too easy to play against.
Overall, I think Arteta made a mistake with the team selection. We needed vibrancy and energy last night and he admitted after Everton that the (first) team was exhausted. However, the team lacks depth and the risks of rotation understandably forced MA’s hand. Perhaps if we’d made 5 changes and lost, fans would direct their anger towards him rather than the players (in many ways it’s a shame that fans, whose experience of football management can be calculated in terms of FIFA hours, have such loud voices). I hope others agree that that I think we really have something special in Arteta; he’s a natural leader, a world class coach and possesses great tactical depth.
It goes without saying that we are at the very beginning of a complete rebuild. We need, at a bare minimum, a CB, RB, CM and AM. The CM needs to be a strong box-to-box player with good technical abilities. The AM needs to offer both pace, vision and a strong shot; he needs to operate throughout the final third with inimitable energy, but importantly, needs the support of the front three and a CM to play one-twos and unlock the Premier League’s stubborn defences. The CB (hopefully like Saliba) needs to be strong, quick and, essentially, be comfortable carrying the ball out. For all of Mustafi’s strengths, he is unable to take advantage of opposition attempts to cut passing channels by breaking into space and launching an attack.
So, here’s my proposed discussion. Apart from disagreements with the above performance analysis, what should the role of the more defensive CM and lone striker be? Would Torreira be sufficient for the former? Henderson is no great player but provides the cover that gives the space and freedom needed for Pool’s attacking creativity. Would a false nine allow for midfielders to combine better and suck central defenders out to give space to inverted wingers?
NB I would add, with the utmost respect, that as much as it is frustrating to see our team put in a sub-par performance, let’s try to keep our criticism constructive. This is no time to attack our own team, but one to club together, as fans and as a collective, and debate how the team can improve moving forward. This means no talk about players leaving, no talk of players you wish to be sold. Negativity helps nobody so, as hard as it is, let’s keep smiling and keep fighting to regain our place among the world’s elite.