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Arsenal’s possession play a cause for concern

Arsenal are really, really bad at this.

Leicester City v Arsenal - Premier League
Our only hope.
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

For the second week in a row, the takes were easy. Following Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Leicester, it was still all about transfers, with the lack of a striker signing drawing the ire of the Arsenal support, including a sizable amount of the away contingent. And yet, talk of signings allow for Arsène Wenger to escape criticism of more serious issues: no matter who they sign, Arsenal do not put themselves in a position to create lots of chances through constructive team play. In Alexis Sánchez, Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla, Arsenal started three players who have scored above 10 goals in a Premier League season. Cazorla is the best creator of goals in the Premier League since he joined in the summer of 2012; on Saturday, he did not create a single chance. Alexis, a scorer of 42 goals over the past two seasons, did not have a shot on target. Some of that can be explained by unfamiliarity with roles; more of that can be explained by bad structure and spacing, contributing to poor possession play. Arsenal at least had Granit Xhaka, so possession play was not as bad as last week, in that Arsenal were actually able to build through the middle. Yet, as the graphic shows, two thirds of Arsenal’s midfield linked poorly with the rest of the team: Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla.

Now some of this is down to the suitability of players: Francis Coquelin was effectively playing a box to box role, for which his only correct attribute is energy. He is not an intelligent player off the ball; he does not make good runs, he does not show for the ball, and he is below average on the ball. For someone who is scarcely tolerable as a #6, subjecting us to more Coquelin at a position he is wholly unsuited for is rank incompetence from the manager. Nor is Santi Cazorla seemingly a #10 anymore, and the difference between him and Mesut Özil was palpable; it is Özil alone who masks Arsenal’s structural deficiencies, and gives some fluency to their play, rather than make it dependable on individual moments of quality and spontaneity, which is why Özil is so undervalued by those outside of Arsenal. He literally makes everything better.

But this is also, again, down to tactics, and how Arsène Wenger sets up his Arsenal side. In this sense, it is more than just formation; it is about the instructions each player gets, and how they are supposed to react to the ball being in certain positions. Pep Guardiola, who builds teams around the concept of position play, divides the training ground into a grid, and instructs his players to move to certain grids based on the location of the ball and other players, and here, one can see the influence of chess on Guardiola’s thinking, with his side trying to manipulate space to create an opening of attack. Such thinking is lacking at Arsenal, and there are two passages of play from Saturday that exemplify the lack of structure in possession.

After 20 minutes of play, Rob Holding gained possession, and with few passing options, drove forward with the ball. He continued to drive forward into space, and eventually overhit a pass aimed somewhere for a cluster of Arsenal players on the right hand side. Not a single Leicester player closed Holding down until he was over the halfway line, because they were confident they could win the ball back once he passed, and then counter attack into space he vacated. And why were they confident they could do that? Because the positions taken up by Arsenal’s midfield and forward players were poor.

Holding moving into space. The white box is where Arsenal should have a midfielder moving into.

Instead of taking up a position where he can show for the ball, Francis Coquelin makes a run forward—into the cluster of Leicester players and where Alexis and Theo Walcott have already taken up positions. Granit Xhaka is too close to Holding, and is being watched by Jamie Vardy. Whereas Holding should have two or three passing options from centre back, he has one: Héctor Bellerín, who he does not use.

The white box is again where Arsenal should have someone in.

Once Holding has crossed the halfway line, Shinji Okazaki snaps into action. Holding has to play the ball, and a pass to Xhaka is difficult. He has to go backwards to play to Bellerín, and there are three Arsenal players bunched on the right side: Theo Walcott, Alexis and Francis Coquelin. If they were spaced correctly, with one in the white box of space, and one looking to run behind, offering a ball over the top, Holding would have more passing options, and that would also force Leicester’s midfield to follow, rather than sit comfortably with four across in midfield. Ultimately, the possession ends with Holding losing the ball.

This didn’t only happen when Arsenal lost the ball; the best attack of the first half, ending with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s curled effort, also came after bad spacing in possession. The technical ability of Arsenal’s players allowed them to overcome their own bad structure, which is what Arsenal are often reduced to: hope that their very good players do something to overcome a bad set-up.

Ox shot build up

Here, Nacho Monreal has possession in the centre circle. He has one real passing option in space, Héctor Bellerín, who he uses. The positions taken up by Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott are good, and Xhaka was involved in a defensive action. But Coquelin has again taken a poor position, being too far from Monreal, and Cazorla too has made it so he is not involved in the build-up of play—a poor decision from Arsenal’s main creator.

Ox shot

After Bellerín works the ball back out to Monreal, Monreal plays it to Oxlade-Chamberlain, who drives forward. Because of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace and trickery, he is able to get away from the Leicester defence and take a shot; but again, Arsenal’s attacking players have taken up poor positions. No one makes a late run to take up space at the top of the penalty area, either as a decoy to open up space for Oxlade-Chamberlain, or to receive possession to either shoot or continue the attack.

The concept of positional play is that in the build up, each player should have two or three passing options. In most cases, the Arsenal players in possession have one, with a second option requiring a more difficult pass. This means Arsenal must slow down their attack, and work the ball around slowly, which many teams, defending deeply against Arsenal, are happy for them to do. While the players selected on Saturday are not the best for these roles—Coquelin is not a box to box midfielder, Cazorla is no longer really a #10—they are the players selected by the manager, who can take better care in instructing them the positions to take up, rather than giving creative freedom to players who do not have the intelligence to find solutions (which again shows the important of Mesut Özil, one of the few players who has this intelligence).

Arsenal’s struggles in possession are not new; they have had similar problems for a number of seasons, with a number of different players in key positions. This is not something a new signing will solve, for the problem is not the quality of player, but rather, that Arsène Wenger is no longer getting the most of the quality players already at the club.