Arsenal Need To Return To A Pressing Game

Clive Rose

They may have conceded the fewest amount of goals in the Premier League before Saturday's match against Fulham, but the defensive leak that had been becoming more and more apparent was fully sprung.

Arsene Wenger will be doubly angry; not only has his side again failed to win in the Premier League, taking it to two wins in their last seven matches, but, having scored three goals for the third time this season, and having displayed some of the quick combination play typical of Arsenal's style, defensive errors and a general frailty in the defensive phase meant that Arsenal conceded a two-goal lead. Such frailties have been apparent for quite some time; since Arsenal beat West Ham 3-1 in the beginning of October, they have conceded 15 goals in their last 8 games. They concede far too many shots, and have been passed around far too easily for long passages of play, especially today.

It's easy to look at Arsenal's goals conceded tally last season, and come to the conclusion that they weren't a very good defensive side, but with Mikel Arteta and the fullbacks in the team, they were actually a fairly solid unit that seemed to concede more goals as a result of counter-attacks than from a build-up of pressure. This season, Arsenal looked to have solved the counter-attacking issue by keeping three players back at almost all times when in possession, but, having cut out the pressing game that was so vital to Arsenal's run of form towards the end of last year, Arsenal have looked far more vulnerable.

Forming two solid banks of four can work for some teams; it worked for Arsenal when they beat Liverpool at Anfield, and it worked for Chelsea in last season's Champions League, and it works for a various number of teams that play against Arsenal. Most of those teams, though, are better drilled than Arsenal are; Norwich, for example, spent the two weeks leading up to the last month's match working on defensive shape, and Chelsea were drilled for the Champions League tie with Barcelona, and had had such a mentality drilled into them by the era of Jose Mourinho.

Arsenal aren't built for that style of play; they're an attacking side that wants to have the ball, which makes the idea of standing-off so odd. When they beat Liverpool, they had the right balance between closing down when a player was immediately in possession, before dropping off to form the compact double bank of four. It wasn't something terribly different from what Barcelona employ, as Simon Kuper described:

If Barça haven't won the ball back within five seconds of losing it, they then retreat and build a compact ten-man wall. The distance between the front man in the wall (typically Messi) and their last defender (say, Carles Puyol) is only 25 to 30 metres. It's hard for any opponent to pass their way through such a small space. The Rome final was a perfect demonstration of Barcelona's wall: whenever United won the ball and kept it, they faced eleven precisely positioned opponents, who stood there and said, in effect: "Try and get through this."

That worked; and it enabled space to be opened up so Arsenal could play on the counter attack. But today, and for the past few games, Arsenal's counter-attack hasn't worked, as the front players have been too isolated because the midfield is too deep, as is the back four. But instead of a compact shape, and pressing before dropping off, there's been none of that, and as a result, teams, like Fulham today, have been able to easily control possession. With the shape messed up, space has been opened up for crossing positions, and Arsenal have been needlessly inviting pressure. With so much pressure being incurred, simple errors, such as Laurent Koscielny's missed clearance at 2-0 today, or Per Mertesacker and Bacary Sagna pushing up as Klass Jan-Huntelaar spun in behind, become magnified and usually lead to goals, as they did today. Fulham held possession well, and Dimitar Berbatov was excellent, but he had far too much space to do what he wanted with the ball.

When Arsenal did press Fulham, particularly the two midfielders, Chris Baird and Steve Sidwell, neither of whom are very good passers of the ball, they gave the ball away. Arsenal's best spell came in the second half when they pressed, and when they won the ball back in the midfield. Arsenal's tempo has been slow in recent weeks because their attacks are invariably slowed down because of winning the ball back in deeper positions; by pressing, and by winning the ball back in areas further up the pitch, the tempo increases, and Arsenal look a far more threatening team.

Arsene Wenger seemed to acknowledge that in his post-match press conference, saying that his team lacked "defensive urgency", something that can only be related to how quickly they win the ball back. Urgency is one of Wenger's favourite terms; when his side has urgency in attack, and, by extension, in defence, they are at their best. Hopefully, by acknowledging the lack of such urgency, he'll have his team return to a structured pressing game, instead of the broken, passive shape of recent weeks. They'll need to if Arsenal are going to recover from this run of terrible form.

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