Arsenal All or Nothing: Tactical reliance the gaping hole in a still-sinking ship
By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)
One of my favorite sayings is "keep your eye on the ball." Regardless of the sport, as long as a ball—or puck, or disc, or egg, or sponge, or pumpkin—is involved, focusing on it is never a bad idea. Just look at this lovely shot of KT. And putting aside the rather literal ability to connect with a ball from which the saying derives, the ability to overcome pressure with laser focus works hand-in-hand with elite performance, and tends to define the stars of every generation.
It may be a handy-dandy tool for players, but for a manager, the opposite is true. I'm not claiming that a wishy-washy, spineless manager is good for any club, but an excess of concentration on any one idea, tactic, plan or thought is often placed under the category of stagnation, rather than something to be praised. Simply put, football is not meant to be a rigid game.
Flowing, free, and creative are the buzzwords most often used to describe beautiful football, and those elements are all best employed in a system designed to elevate them. That system, as a result, inherently must contain some structure, but still allow for breathing room. Different managers have different ways of eliciting that tactical style, but all the greats have managed to do it.
Conversely, the concept of being 'washed-up' often comes around when that type of adaptation and flexibility is no longer present in a manager's game. Rafa Benitez fell victim to it at Newcastle, as has Jose Mourinho in his two most recent jobs, excluding his top-notch punditry for Sky Sports. Both fantastic managers in their own right, but famously inflexible, and it is their inflexibility that has put them behind the curve. And there is no better example than our dear Arsene Wenger.
Mikel Arteta appears to be trending towards a similar trap. When he first took over from Freddie Ljungberg, the renewed freedom he granted to certain players was at the forefront of the wonder we experienced from Arteta. To those who were particularly limited—Granit Xhaka, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang—he gave specific roles to play to a purpose, augmenting a rather free-flowing structure around them. Those tactics earned Arsenal an FA Cup and a Community Shield.
However, that model has changed somewhat. The pinnacle of our tactical profile rotated to different players, and our team has grown more and more structured. Watching Arsenal now, it seems like every player has a specific series of instructions that tends to work well in possession, but hampers their individual freedom, which then scuppers the team's ability to create or move freely.
There is an excellent video of Thierry Henry describing Pep Guardiola's's tactics during their time together at Barcelona, and he details what Pep instructed the entire team to do when on the ball. The buildup through the first two phases of play was extremely structured, and involved intricate patterns of play meant to break down the opposition, against a higher press or a low block. But in the final third, ultimate freedom was given, in order to further facilitate goals, and put a premium on individual brilliance. "Trust your teammates to find you", says Thierry, "and they will."
Unlike his mentor, Arteta has attempted to seize the reigns slightly more at Arsenal. Rather than preaching freedom in the final third, his reliance on Kieran Tierney's crossing ability, the dribbling of Pepe and Saka, and the ability of Smith Rowe and Ødegaard to drop deep and create in pockets of space, has made our patterns of attack predictable, and as a result, defendable in the extreme.
Simply, you cannot coreograph every element of the buildup to a goal, simply because that eliminates all risk of a goal actually occurring. If attackers don't take chances and instead follow a script, all the defenders must do to snuff out goalscoring potential is anticipate that script and prepare to defend it. We cannot become Risk-Free FC (how many times have I said that?), and though we're not prime Barcelona either, we have the talent to compete at a much higher level than we are currently.
Though Arsenal should have scored more than we did against Norwich, they are arguably the worst team in this league. Our success did not manifest because we adapted or changed our tactics. Rather, we capitalized upon poor ball-progression from the Canaries, and large gaps of space created by errors, in order to attack the goal. And even then, we only scored the one goal. Not a recipe for success against more competitive opposition, and especially not away from home.
If Arteta is to keep his job, results be damned, he must loosen the reigns. His stubbornness is his own worst enemy at the moment. To extend the metaphor, he's kept his eye on the ball, put on a set of blinders, and then looked at it through a microscope, in order to better understand how it had been stitched together. It's all a bit too much.
With the rest earned during the international break doing nothing to sway Arteta's blind charge into his own conceptions of perfect football, I believe the last true opportunity for change to come is against Burnley. Otherwise, the North London Derby won't be pretty, and Brighton much the same. I only hope he took a step back after the win at Norwich. Perspective is key, after all.