Over the last years the story with Arsenal was always the same. They play good and sometimes beautiful football, have a squad with great offensive talent like Ramsey, Özil or Alexis, but within February they constantly disappear from the title race and get knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern or Barcelona.
Normally they lose games to smaller opponents like last Saturday when they lost to Stoke City. While watching the game for me it becomes obvious why the struggle so often against teams who just want that one counter attack or that one set piece to kill Arsenal. The main reason why Arsenal has so many issues against smaller opponents is their bad structured possession game.
Arsene Wenger loves the short passing game, but their inability to break lines and move the opponent makes it hard to be constantly successful with this style of play. If Arsenal wants to improve, they maybe should take a glimpse to Pep Guardiolas project in Manchester. Wenger and Guardiola have a similar but simultaneously complete different approach. Both want to dominate the game. While their approach to reach that goal is completely different. Wenger on the one hand relays on the talent of his group, Guardiola on the other hand wants to give his players the chance to show their talent in a structured system which should help to bring the players in those situations where they can fulfil their full potential.
Arsenals struggle with pace
With Wengers new system the halfspaces are automatically covered by the offensive players. Normally Xhaka is responsible for the build-up, supported by the back three and Aaron Ramsey who often shifts forward. Additionally, Mesut Özil gives passing options and playmaking between the lines. The German is one of the best when it comes to playing in tight spaces. Furthermore, the arriving of Lacazette gives them an option as a target for throughballs and long passes behind the last defending line. Compounded with Alexis Sanchez they could build a strong partnership up front.
But that’s the issue, Arsenal has big problems with breaking lines of pressure and find their best players between the lines. Mostly because of their slow pace, the inaccuracy in positioning on the pitch and the lack of movements to open up passing lanes. Playing with such a low pace it is almost impossible to get the opposition out of position. The open space which leaves a team when shifting to one site is only exploitable if you can quickly switch the play.
Bad positioning, no triangles. If Arsenal plays like this they are easy to press and can´t put pressure on the opponents defense.
Despite the low pace another point makes it nearly impossible to quickly use the open space. Being so shapeless can give a lot of players the freedom to create some kind of their magic, in the case of Arsenal it leads to switches within the back free. Rarely, Arsenal is capable of switching sides through midfield. Frequently their missing players in central midfield to reach the opposite halfspace.
When freedom does not help
Regardless of their problems with actually reaching the space in the oppositions formation, they then can´t use their advantages. In the match against Stoke, Özil sometimes gets the ball behind the midfield line of Stoke but then has no one to play with. Neither someone offers a passing option nor makes a run in deep. As a consequence, Özil has to turn around and the whole attack stars from zero. In the end those attacking plays lead to long ball or shoots from outside the box.
Furthermore, the squad offers not that many options. If Alexis plays up front they lack a good winger who is skilled enough to beat a defender one-on-one. Those players are required to use the open space which Arsenal could create with quick switches. Guardiolas Bayern Munich for instance used this tool to beat the opponents defensive line. Consequently, Arsenal has to play through the middle which makes it easy for the opponent to tighten up the space.
This article is only a quick analysis of Arsenals problems. It should only point up Arsenals issues in possession. Arsenal has a squad with a lot of talent which can be exploit by giving the team a more structured shape. If Wenger is capable of doing this transition Arsenal can participate in the title race. If not it will be a season like the last seasons.