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Thursday 07 November 2013

Talking tactics: The reasons behind Arsenal's renaissance

Adrian Clarke looks ahead to Sunday's clash between Manchester United and Arsenal

  • Pic 1: Arsenal tackles v Liverpool in 2012 (left) and in 2013

  • Pic 2: Playing counterattacking football Arsenal produced 19 shots on goal at Fulham

  • Pic 3: Arsene Wenger's system has been tweaked regularly this season

  • Pic 4: Arsenal's tactical shape has become more flexible

They may be five points clear at the top of the Barclays Premier League but some would question whether they are able to hold on to their lead and become champions for the first time since 2004.

Given the club's eight-year run without silverware that is perhaps understandable. Even so, there can be no doubting Arsene Wenger’s men are in a fabulous groove right now; a fact illustrated by their barnstorming 2-0 victory over in-form Liverpool last weekend.

With a pivotal clash away to Manchester United approaching this Sunday, it is the ideal time to study how and why the Gunners are making such positive strides…

Defensive misconceptions

Many assumptions are made about the way the Gunners defend and they tend to be historical and misguided. Descriptions of their off the ball work in the media continue to regularly include phrases such as 'easy to play against', 'defensive frailties' and 'vulnerability'. Yet the truth is Arsenal have worked incredibly hard to successfully eradicate that perceived aspect of their play.

Last season Arsenal boasted the division's best defensive record away from home - shipping a measly 14 goals - and they finished second only to Manchester City when it came to goals conceded over the course of the season. In 2011/12 it was different; they were eighth-best.

How has this improvement occurred? Well, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have formed a central defensive partnership of real quality that should be beyond reproach. As shown in Table 1 below they have tasted defeat just once in the 22 Barclays Premier League matches they have started alongside one another since the start of the 2012/13 campaign, and it really is not a coincidence. With the giant German reading the game expertly and Koscielny being one of the best man-markers around, the duo click perfectly and possess natural chemistry. Either side of them, full-backs Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna have been the model of consistency too.

As a team Arsenal now play with far greater aggression and discipline than in previous years. Where possible they will press high up the pitch - Mesut Ozil has turned the ball over 18 times already in the opponents' half - but the side are also equally content to funnel back into solid positions behind the ball. Here, they will block spaces and crunch into more tackles than they used to, and an example of this more thoughtful and combative approach is outlined in Image 1 above.

Accusing the Gunners of lacking leadership in the middle of the park is also outdated. Aaron Ramsey has made 47 tackles this season, more than anyone else in the league, while defensive midfielders Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini both have tremendous records when it comes to winning duels (58.2% & 56.4%), tackles and interceptions. Strong characters are not in short supply.

Arsenal may have been caught out by the occasional counterattack this season but that is the exception rather than the rule. From the goalkeeper to the centre forward, Arsene Wenger's men are as well-drilled without the ball as they have been in years.

  Premier League
matches together

Draws Losses Average goals
5 0 0.71
1 1 0.875

The away-day formula

It has been more than seven months since Arsenal experienced the pain of defeat on their travels. In fact since the turn of the year their Barclays Premier League record away from home stands at 10 wins, two draws and just two defeats conceding on average just 0.71 goals per game.

There are several factors behind this success. The first is their new-found rigidity and shape without possession. Comfortable sitting back and handling pressure, the Gunners have a side that is tailor-made to exploit gaps on the counterattack which makes them highly dangerous opponents. At Fulham earlier this season, as displayed in Image 2 above, this deliberate ploy created one goal and helped produce an impressive 19 shots in total.

The absence of Theo Walcott in recent weeks has dented the threat somewhat (he registers four successful crosses and 4.5 shots per match away from home) but throughout the team Arsene Wenger has individuals who are well-suited to playing with freedom and confidence on the road, as proved in Table 2 below.

Having the confidence to monopolise the ball helps Arsenal too. With an away day pass-success rate of 86.5% they are the second-most efficient side in this area, and because Olivier Giroud has improved his hold-up play, a plethora of attacking midfield runners around him have enjoyed great success with their bursts into the box.

Under Wenger, the Gunners have always had the talent to score goals and win matches, but they have rarely approached away games with as much individual and collective confidence.


(Away matches only) Players in the Premier
League's Top 10

Goals Ramsey (3), Giroud (3)
Joint 2nd
Ramsey (3), Giroud (2)
Joint 1st, joint 2nd
Shots per match Walcott (4.5)
Dribbled past opponent per match Cazorla (3.5)
Accurate crosses per match
Walcott (4)
Accurate through balls per match
Giroud (0.6), Ozil (0.5)
Joint 3rd, joint 4th
Pass success %
Mertesacker (93.2), Flamini (92.8), Arteta (92.6) 7th, 9th, 10th
Key passes per match Cazorla (3), Ozil (2.8) 2nd, 3rd
Passes per match
Ramsey (74.8), Ozil (70.5)
4th, 7th
Aerial duels won per match
Giroud (5.6)
Interceptions per match
Koscielny (3.3)

Greater adaptability

Critics of Arsene Wenger have often claimed the Frenchman 'does not do tactics' but they are wrong.

While the Gunners' preferred formation still remains a fluid 4-2-3-1, an unfortunate injury list and a greater emphasis shown to opposition plans has influenced the manager to change his pattern and shape, from game to game.

As shown in Image 3 and 4 above, rival teams can longer be sure of which way they will line up or approach the match tactically. We have witnessed the Gunners start with two holding midfielders and narrow inverted wingers against Norwich City and Crystal Palace, utilise a lop-sided system at Sunderland, as well as asking five attack-minded midfielders to drop deep and hit sides like Spurs and Fulham on the counter. In addition, the Arsenal manager has also frequently brought on extra defenders late on in a bid to secure the points.

Is Wenger more tactically flexible than in the past? Yes, no doubt about it.

When the fabled Invincibles won the title in 2003/04 a total of 22 players were used, with 12 of them scoring Premier League goals, and a similar pattern is developing this term. So far 24 players have been involved, and as highlighted in Table 3 below, many of them have already contributed with goals and assists.

Having that variety of creative talents and goalscoring threats certainly makes the Gunners harder to defend against than some of their top six rivals.


TABLE 3: number of players who have scored or created a goal
Man City
Man Utd
Liverpool Spurs
4 4
Assist makers
8 4

Final thought

Arsenal have opened the scoring in nine of their Barclays Premier League matches this season, and having lost on eight of their last 10 visits to Old Trafford they will be looking for another fast start on Sunday.

No one knows if they have the strength in depth or mental staying power to maintain their outstanding start, but the Gunners have definitely proved they are good enough to lead the pack at this stage.

It will not be easy but if they can preserve their current formula over a whole season it would be foolish to write off Arsenal's prospects. And a win at Old Trafford might, just might, mean they are finally taken seriously as title contenders.

Arsenal travel to Manchester United in the Barclays Premier League on 10 November. For more details about that match, just click on this Matchday Live link.

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Key Points

  • Adrian Clarke is a former professional footballer who has played at all levels from Premier League down to non-League
  • Since retiring he has become a written and broadcast journalist for magazines, TV shows and for Arsenal
  • In his regular Talking Tactics column, this week he looks at Arsenal's improvement this season