Arsenal are doing well in their search for creative and scoring sources following the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie in recent summers. But is it enough? Should Arsene Wenger be pushing his side to play at a much higher tempo and really force their clear superiority on many games?
Arsenal appear to be one of those teams who play phenomenal and winning football only when they fancy it. Every player has to be on form and in the mood to inflict heavy damage on their opponent. We saw it against Southampton earlier in the league as well as against Manchester City. With better finishing in the Arsenal side, there could be little doubt that they’d have taken all three points from the Etihad Stadium. But sometimes their game is slow, rigid and lacking in the high tempo that needs to be married with the type of football they want to advocate.
Real Madrid and Barcelona use a high tempo to their games but in different manners. Jose Mourinho’s side launch quick counter attacks and stun their opponents by getting the ball from back to front at great pace. Their aggressive manner sometimes sees a total of just four or five passes before the ball is in the back of the net. They’ve taken advantage of this ability and notably stunned Barcelona last season with Cristiano Ronaldo’s winning goal at the Nou Camp. Barcelona, on the other hand, use their midfield technicians to ping the ball around a small area of the pitch, sometimes with dizzying effects. They know how to move the ball at pace and still retain possession. They can’t play a counter attacking game similar to Real Madrid because they see so much of the ball.
Arsenal don’t really follow either of these to the letter, and certainly not to the level and impact of the two Spanish clubs. But is there also a point that Arsenal don’t have all the personnel to pull off these attacks?
Arsene Wenger’s side do have players who can launch the ball across the field in the manner that Xabi Alonso does for Real Madrid, but the players on the receiving end are not equal to Ronaldo or Karim Benzema. Gervinho doesn’t play with his head up as much as he should, often wasting good counter attacking opportunities and slowing the pace down. Abou Diaby is the same: for all his abilities with the ball, he dwells on it too often and fails to find a pass quickly.
The necessary high level of technical ability to retain the ball also doesn’t run through the side. Zipping the ball around the pitch is a characteristic that should be part of Arsenal’s game, but Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski seem the only attackers who are most reliable in this sense. They can’t move the ball around at similar pace to Barcelona without the personnel to make the attack effective, meaning opposition defences have plenty of time to organise themselves. This is also a problem with counter attacks, the moves are sometimes too slow and costly.
The attack away to Liverpool which resulted in Lukas Podolski’s goal was an excellent example of how quick the team can be, but that was a combination of two players who know how to counter attack with pace and precision. Players like Gervinho are often too indecisive and guilty of losing control and possession.
The team’s attacks have been much more promising this season, but that’s also arguably because of Theo Walcott’s absence from the starting XI. The forward’s ball control is simply too unpredictable and often not good enough. How much would he hamper the good attacking play of others in the team if he were part of the build up rather than the finisher?
Arsenal don’t close down their opposition well enough either. It’s a trait that we’ve seen in Barcelona’s play and with Borussia Dortmund as well. They’re well drilled in getting the ball back quickly and putting incredible pressure on their opponents when they have the ball. Like I said, there are some occasions where Arsenal do this equally well—the home win against Chelsea in 2010 is a fine example—but it’s not often enough.
I doubt Arsene Wenger is forcing his players to play at a slower tempo, but I do believe that more needs to be done to ensure they’re consistently aggressive with and without the ball. The club don’t want to play route one football, they don’t want to use a big central figure as their only outlet. But they simply must perfect the style of football they want to use. A half baked version is not always good enough.