It’s February, and following their 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich Arsenal look set to exit the Champions League in the Round of 16, and their chances of winning the Premier League look marginal at best. This is not an unfamiliar position for Arsenal fans. Pundits and fans alike circle to slate Arsenal’s lack of leadership, fight and aggression. Whilst this is an issue, there are tactical problems which are detrimental to their big game performances, and haven’t received as much attention. Chief among these has been their lack of midfield presence.
Arsenal have a disjointed midfield, which is struggling to both build attacks and protect their defence. Whilst against weaker opposition they are usually good enough to get by, in games against other ‘big sides’ their midfield is unable to compete- in the 3-2 loss to United that effectively ended their title run last season, in their recent 3-1 loss to Chelsea and in their 5-1 loss to Bayern to name a few, Arsenal’s midfield failed to progress the ball whilst also leaving their defence exposed, and the opposition took full advantage.
In contrast to the stricter, more meticulous approach of Premier League novices Guardiola and Conte, Wenger allows his players much more freedom in their movement and positioning when in possession. Wenger is known for letting his players express themselves, more so than other managers who want to ensure certain spaces are filled to ensure options are always available. Arsenal’s fluidity can be unpredictable, and lead to breath-taking improvisational play, allowing talents such as Özil and Sanchez to produce seemingly unstoppable moves in the final third.
This lack of structure also causes issues as Arsenal try to progress the ball forward. Usually in a 4-2-3-1 shape, Wenger encourages his midfielders to take positions higher up the pitch. With the exception of Xhaka and Cazorla, Arsenal’s midfielders struggle to find positions where they can receive the ball from the defence, and if they do, they are often isolated from the rest of the midfield. It is not uncommon to see Koscielny or Mustafi on the ball with the central areas in front of them vacant, as the defensive midfielders don’t offer for the ball in good spaces.
This makes it easier for the opposition to press and prevent Arsenal from bringing the ball forward- in the second half of City’s 2-1 win in December, and during Liverpool’s opening day win over Arsenal, well-organised and intense pressing systems blocked Arsenals passing options from deep, forcing them into safe wide areas and then turning-over possession. If their defensive midfielders were able to offer shorter passing options in central areas, they might find it easier to move the ball effectively. Instead, the large spaces between players makes it possible to press Arsenal and nullify their threat.
It’s not just in possession that Arsenal’s midfield causes problems. It has been long stated that Arsenal need a solid midfield presence, and this isn’t just a cliché. Francis Coquelin is usually the designated ‘destroyer’, but in big games he consistently fails to provide protection to his defence. In the loss to Bayern he was virtually a spectator – he made 6 passes, 2 tackles and 1 interception. The first half performance of Koscielny and Mustafi had kept Arsenal in the game, but after Koscielny’s injury a second string defence was left vulnerable.
It’s unfair to blame Coquelin alone- he might not be of the quality needed in big games, but Arsenal’s system does him no favours. With their free positioning, it can take Arsenal longer to get into a structured shape when they lose possession, and if opposition teams can get the ball forward quickly they can bypass Arsenal’s midfield without much pressure. With Özil often given less defensive responsibility and many Premier League sides moving away from having a player in a ‘free-role’, Arsenal can become outnumbered in the middle, with the opposition finding space to move the ball through the centre of the pitch.
Whilst in some big games they may adopt a stricter style, Arsenal don’t have the midfield presence to compete with elite teams. Add in their lack of aggression and leadership, and you can see why Arsenal struggle against the other big sides.
This article doesn’t aim to provide a damning verdict on Arsène Wenger. With Arsenal paying less wages than Chelsea, Manchester United & City domestically, as well as many of the elite clubs in Europe, it’s unfair to demand he returns the title or Champions League. His achievement in retaining top 4 football whilst moving to the Emirates stadium and unable to compete financially remains under-appreciated by large sections of the Arsenal support, and to say he has under-achieved ever since the invincible season is an unfair assessment. Only in recent years has he had the opportunity to attract top-class players.
However, now Arsenal have more talent and supposedly greater finances, their expectations must also rise. Their midfield spacing, organisation and presence has been burdening them in vital matches, and whilst players also need to take responsibility, it is hard to dispute that Wenger’s system has been continually overcome in big games. If they are to meet their new expectations, they must improve the way they progress the ball and protect their backline- if not, the Arsenal fan base will continue to feud over their iconic manager.