Who sets the tempo of Arsenal’s play?
Defensively, Alexis Sanchez is a key cog, deciding when to press and when to sit back.
This year, we are defending increasingly from the front, with an initial press upon losing the ball. As a result, we’ve turned the ball over a lot more in the final third, and on more than one occasion, Alexis has received a gift as a result.
If that initial press fails, we then drop back into a much deeper position and wait for our moment. That’s where Alexis is key. He picks the moment to pounce, waiting until the opposition have played themselves into a corner. He pushes up, inviting his teammates to do so simultaneously. Often, the opponents are then forced into a long kick upfield, a risky piece of skill which might pay off on that specific occasion – there’s a reason no one minds seeing the opposing goalkeeper trying a Cruyff turn – or best of all, a turnover.
It might not always be successful. Certainly it’s a work in progress, and when personnel rotate the effectiveness drops off. However, it’s a clear tactic, with a clear leader. It’s no surprise that when Giroud plays up front instead of Alexis, we do not employ the same level of press.
Offensively, though, things are less clear.
Possession for possession’s sake
Game management is increasingly a part of Premier League football, as every team becomes a threat. Sometimes, the best form of defence is attack.
Certainly anyone who has watched Guardiola’s sides (or even the likes of Swansea at their most boring) will be all too aware of how debilitating it is to face a possession side in need a goal but be able to get nowhere near the ball. When we need to close off a game, instead of sending Hector Bellerin up to play as an inside forward, we might occasionally be better served in keeping the ball away from the opposition.
It’s something we used to be exceptional at: passing with no intent. Certainly circa 2011 it felt like every single game at the Emirates involved watching us pass the ball out to Sagna and back again on repeat, only to see our opponents sucker-punch us on the break. Yet the 2016-17 vintage appear less capable of possession for possession’s sake than any Arsenal side in the last decade.
What about when we’re defending a 1-0 lead in the last 20 minutes, and things become a bit frantic? Who steps forward and puts their foot on the ball for a bit? Who slows the passing down, and takes the heat out of the game? When the ball goes out of play, who sits on the ground for ‘an injury’ to give the side a breather and disrupt the momentum?
And lest you think I’m being overly negative, it’s not just when we’re defending a lead that we need a leader.
Accelerate through time warp
We’ve all been there. The clock’s ticking infuriatingly. When we’re hanging onto a lead, time seems to stand still, yet when we’re chasing a goal, it seems to warp until the hands on the famous clock are a blur. And still, we’re passing it ever sideways in front of a solid 11-man block. Urgency doesn’t appear to be a word in the team’s vocabulary.
So it was against West Brom last time out. A man in the row behind me punched his fists into the plush Emirates seat in front as the 86th minute ticked around. And then blessed relief.
But too often, we don’t seem to up the tempo, crank the pressure and increase our intensity until the opposition gives in. Instead, we just pass, pass, pass, into oblivion.
CAN’T YOU SEE WE NEED A GOAL?
Method to the madness
Back in Fergie’s heyday, his teams were renowned for throwing the kitchen sink at opponents to secure a vital goal late on. It’s why “Fergie Time” became so legendary. It wouldn’t matter if they had an extra minute player if they weren’t able to take advantage of it. We have to learn to emulate it.
Some teams rely on skillful individuals to raise that tempo. In that bracket, we only really have Alexis in our starting XI. The Ox is often an effective substitute exactly because he can raise the energy levels with his direct running and intensity.
Mostly, though, we rely on speed of passing and first time offloads to pull our opponents around and get them off-kilter enough to manufacture a chance. It’s why Giroud’s goal against West Brom was so unexpected. (It could be the reason we caught them off guard with an aerial ball!) It’s also why we look so much more toothless without our first choice players in any given position. If you’re not used to playing with those teammates, the passing and offloading isn’t as sharp. It’s much less effective at opening up defences; they’re a half second slower in every movement. And if the tempo isn’t there, it simply doesn’t work.
Making the difference
We need a player who can lift that tempo, and with it, the players around him.
Granit Xhaka has been increasingly influential in recent weeks, with his range and directness of passing impressive. Against West Brom, he played 141 passes (135 successful) and only one of those unsuccessful passes as short. He consistently played balls into the channels for the likes of Gibbs and Bellerin to chase. Often his cross-field vision and ability to play those passes with pace meant that it opened up the game.
I’ve long bemoaned how we don’t play vertical passes often enough to allow the likes of Theo Walcott to flourish, and increasingly it looks as though our midfield hardman is finding his feet to start taking advantage. Gibbs was a particular beneficiary, with 15 balls finding their way from playmaker to full back. (He played just 7 to Bellerin, despite the Spaniard playing longer than his English counterpart.)
For the first few months of his Arsenal career, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Granit was playing with the proverbial handbrake on. Now, though, he is starting to blossom into the player we paid £35m for. With Santi still sidelined, and a run of eminently winnable but classic banana-skin games upcoming, his ability to drive the team forward could yet prove decisive in unlocking the deep-lying defences we are sure to face.
Fine margins are going to win the league this year. The ability to increase the tempo incrementally could yet be the difference.