Arsenal need to implement “Defending with the ball”

SWANSEA, WALES - JANUARY 30: Shkodran Mustafi of Arsenal looks dejected after the Premier League match between Swansea City and Arsenal at Liberty Stadium on January 30, 2018 in Swansea, Wales. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
SWANSEA, WALES - JANUARY 30: Shkodran Mustafi of Arsenal looks dejected after the Premier League match between Swansea City and Arsenal at Liberty Stadium on January 30, 2018 in Swansea, Wales. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images) /

Arsenal’s attack is characterized by patient possession, committing players forward, and pretty passing. But it leaves gaping holes for the opponent to attack.

Much of Arsenal’s defeat to Swansea can be chalked up to what Arsene Wenger called “unusual, massive mistakes”. There’s no shying away from the direct impact of individual errors in all three of Swansea’s goals. Yet, to highlight individual lapses as the primary concern is to blindly ignore the larger issue at hand.

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Arsenal are a top-heavy, attack-minded group of players that are always going to gravitate towards the attacking phase of play. But the unbalanced personnel is not as much an issue as the instruction the players are given, with apparently no regard for the defensive side of the game.

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In their build-up play, Arsenal regularly commit as many as seven players ahead of the ball. This leaves only the two centre-backs, one midfielder, and the goalkeeper behind the ball. What’s worse is how the seven players ahead of the ball are positioned. Take a look at the “positional report” from the Swansea game.

Arsenal spent most of the game with five players on the same, high, horizontal line. They were never going to trouble Swansea with five players flat across the pitch. And rather than vertically spacing themselves to drag the opponents out of position and create angles to play through, the midfielders crowded the forward line, making it easy for Swansea defenders to keep everything in front of them.

Rather than focus on the crowded, uninventive, sluggish nature of Arsenal’s attack, I’d like to highlight what this setup does upon losing the ball. One forward pass from the opposition can, and does, eliminate as many as seven or eight Arsenal players instantly. A good counter-attacking team, like Swansea on Tuesday, will commit players forward at speed and gain a dangerous numerical advantage.

This was seen time after time, with Jordan Ayew’s 6th minute break that required a save from Petr Cech, the 13th minute through pass broken up by Mohamed Elneny’s last stitch tackle, the 30th minute 4v3 break led by Ayew’s 50-yard dribble, or the 39th minute 2v1 shot block by Laurent Koscielny after Aaron Ramsey had been dispossessed at midfield.

As bad as the goals were, I would argue the frequency and severity to which Arsenal were exposed on counter-attacks, those that didn’t result in goals, are much more of a long-term concern. Horrific, individual blunders won’t happen every game, but without addressing the squad’s propensity to over commit to the attack, giving up quality chances on counter-attacks, will.

The point here is, Arsenal need to keep more players behind the ball in attack, or “defend with the ball”. The idea is to take up spaces, while in possession, so that even upon losing the ball, you are able to break up a potential counter-attack. Manchester City execute this as well as anyone.

City play with as many attacking players as the Gunners, and commit just as many to the attack, but they implement two key principles that negate the risk of being hit on the counter. The first is in their well-documented counter pressing system, where they immediately swarm the ball carrier and attempt to force a mistake or low percentage ball. But the second, less-covered principle is in their positioning behind the ball in possession.

Pep Guardiola has moved away from having both of his fullbacks attack at all times. Now, you’ll often see one of the two stay more connected to the two centre-backs to form a 3-1 shape with Fernandinho, or step up into the midfield to form a 2-2 defensive structure behind the ball. This approach, with one extra player behind the ball to break up or at least delay the counter-attack, has greatly reduced the number of chances they concede.

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This approach may be the key to accommodating the numerous attacking threats Wenger now has at his disposal. With all things considered, keeping one fullback and a midfielder behind the ball is a small price to pay. It’s certainly a more optimistic option than hoping Granit Xhaka will magically become a true defensive force overnight.