Arsenal’s issues in possession against a defensive team were evident once again in the 0-0 draw against Hull City on Saturday

I had intended to write this week’s column talking about Barcelona and how fun the home games were in 2010 and 2011, but watching Saturday’s game annoyed me. I wasn’t angry, we’re still in the cup and had won 14 consecutive FA Cup games beforehand, but I was annoyed that our style of football is reliant on a couple of players being excellent.

Without Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil to get us out of a sticky situation, our fundamental flaws were more prevalent than ever. Those flaws are generally related to trying to break teams down and not knowing how to progress possession through the pitch in dangerous areas. With 75% of the ball against a heavily rotated Hull City side, you’d expect the Gunners to pick their way through the opposition defence, but we were restricted to half-chances. Eldin Jakupovic made two excellent saves, but the other nine stops were straightforward for any respectable professional goalkeeper. Talk of a superb performance was odd to say the least.

Since the start of the season West Ham, Liverpool, Olympiacos, Chelsea and Southampton have all avoided defeat (and in some cases won) at the Emirates Stadium while ceding possession and ground, knowing they had a good chance of keeping Arsenal out. In the second half of last season AS Monaco, Sunderland, Chelsea (again) and Swansea City all successfully did exactly the same thing. There will, of course, always be games where you are unlucky or shy of your best, but Arsenal have lost five and drawn four of their last 27 home matches in all competitions. Home is supposed to be a fortress, but it doesn’t feel like teams visit us with fear anymore.

Failing to create the right structure to break down stubborn or compact defences, we don’t look good when the onus is on us. To progress the ball and find yourself in dangerous areas you need to stagger the midfield, allowing access between opposition lines. Instead, Arsenal lack structure. The midfield collapses upon itself forming a rigid straight line, which in turn means there’s rarely more than one option for a pass. It also means there’s no movement, allowing the opposition to stay in a fairly compact shape without even thinking twice.

 

The excellent Tom Payne wrote in-depth about the recent Leicester City match, and here’s one interesting scene (on the left) he picked out:

Arsenal 11 Leicester
Arsenal don’t even challenge Leicester’s ability to control the space in front of their box, the most dangerous area on the pitch. If the ball goes wide there’s no option to move it forward and Arsenal have to come back and start again.

Few options to the passer, nobody trying to infiltrate the most dangerous part of the pitch to ask Leicester’s defence questions. The result is you get stuck passing from right, to the middle, to the left and back again. Sterile and unthreatening possession.

The same issue appears way too often, and it stops the Gunners from implementing a pressing game. Barcelona are the best example of this style in recent years, so here are a couple of examples from their last away game against us.

Barca triangles
Barcelona were at their best under Pep Guardiola, creating countless triangles to constantly circulate and progress possession. The man on the ball always had a number of options.

The key in possession is to form triangles or boxes, isolating and outnumbering the opposition before bypassing them with quick passing and smart movement. Incidentally, this way of playing is also huge for the now famous idea of counterpressing. If possession was surrendered in one of those triangles, three men could instantly rush to the ball and force an error.

When encountering good defensive lines (or any defence) this is the way to work around them. You can even see that Barcelona would try to play this way in their own third or as they began build up, breaking an initial phase of pressure and getting into dangerous situations.

Barca create space
Lionel Messi (tip of the triangle) doesn’t even want the ball, but he moves out to drag Alex Song with him, allowing Sergio Busquets to advance the ball to Andres Iniesta behind the Arsenal midfield.

But how do Arsenal look in this part of the pitch? Giving few (if any) close options to the man in possession, the Gunners allow the opposition to sit off and keep their shape, not even attempting to force errors.

For some weird reason, when up against a deep defence, Arsenal play with players involved a the very high end on the pitch and defenders. It is seriously like watching children. Some of them stand up front and wait for the ball, some of them stand at the back. There’s no connection between the two.

Arsenal were at it on Boxing Day and again against Hull City on Saturday.

Hull DIsconnnect
With nobody in the middle of the field, how do Arsenal expect to move the ball forward?

Why do none of the midfielders think to occupy space higher up so everything isn’t sideways? Why don’t any of the four(!) players standing up front waiting for the ball think to drop into midfield and move it forward with a few quick passes?

READ MORE:
Why three at the back suits Arsenal's aggressive defenders

Ultimately the buck lies with the manager, other teams train these specific principles (read about Juego de Posición here) to ensure this doesn’t happen.

“Stay in your position, trust your team-mate on the ball, and wait for the ball,” Thierry Henry says he was instructed by Pep Guardiola during his time at the Nou Camp.

“[Guardiola] used to call it the ‘three Ps’ – play, possession and position. And the most important one was position.

“He used to say to us the first time he took the team, ‘my job is to take you up to the last third, your job is to finish it’.”

Under Wenger right now, Arsenal seem to be expected to work their way through each third with little guidance and no real plan. No doubt the players need to take responsibility too, because passes like this just shouldn’t ever be made if common sense is in order:

Hull Gibbs long pass
Arsenal’s entire midfield is in no rush to support Kieran Gibbs and give us a central presence. Olivier Giroud is usually good at this but with no midfield to combine with he doesn’t come short. Meanwhile, Gibbs doesn’t even wait for an easy option and plays a flat long ball down the line for Alexis. Result? Hull City throw-in.

It is, to be frank, a pretty thoughtless way of playing football. I don’t know what Gibbs expected, even if the pass came off. Alexis would’ve been on the touchline with no Arsenal player close to him and at least two Hull City defenders in tow.

This is the issue though, isn’t it? The system doesn’t thrust responsibility upon players, so it’s easy to hide from the ball. Arsenal only seem to play well when the opposition play into our hands or when our best players like Mesut Özil perform incredibly well.

Clearly if you can’t progress possession and don’t occupy the middle of the pitch you won’t create much. Mesut Özil finds those gaps intuitively and Aaron Ramsey’s movement is excellent, but even with both of them on the pitch Arsenal can struggle. Ramsey came off the bench to change the tempo of the third round win against Sunderland, immediately giving us impetus and drive from the middle of the park. That’s what was lacking on Saturday, particularly when Arsenal tried to play from the back.

Without that pair it almost always looks poor, the players don’t seem aware of how they should position themselves, the gaps between them are too long and way too horizontal. Arsène Wenger gives his players a lot of freedom in possession, but is it too loose? It seems they need more instruction.

Against a compact defence it makes sense to stretch them across the pitch, and there were complaints that Arsenal didn’t do this enough, but I don’t really agree. 33 crosses were hopelessly thrown in by Wenger’s men on Saturday, and almost all were dealt with. Crossing is relatively harmless and width should be used as a decoy or a way into the box before a dangerous cutback, little more.

There was enough width on Saturday. The last time the Gunners faced a back five was against Sunderland in the Premier League, a game which saw us create plenty with fewer touches of the ball out wide than we saw from our wide players against Hull.

A touch map for Arsenal's wide players against Sunderland in December (L) and Hull City on Saturday (R).
A touch map for Arsenal’s wide players against Sunderland in December (L) and Hull City on Saturday (R).

Arsenal naturally focused on the wing which had the player more comfortable on the ball in each game, meaning Nacho Monreal was utilised more than Héctor Bellerín against Sunderland and Calum Chambers more than Kieran Gibbs against Hull City. As you can see, Arsenal had plenty of the ball on the flanks on Saturday, more than against Sunderland’s five-man defence, but that brought no success.

No, the issue was a lack of central presence, no players pulling Hull’s central midfielders out of position or tempting the centre-halves to vacate their own line. No combination play in the centre as we tried to play out from the back, nobody getting into halfspaces between markers and very few attempts to play incisive diagonal balls. Our positioning, movement and intelligence in possession was poor.

This won’t necessarily be an issue this Tuesday, with Barcelona expected to dominate the play, but if Arsenal are to consistently win the games we should win, things will have to change soon. Otherwise everyone will figure us out.

Possession of the ball isn’t control of the game without incisive play which pulls apart the opposition. Right now, and for quite a while, the Gunners simply look out of ideas in games they should be dominating.