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Arsenal Have an Arsène Wenger Problem

It’s about more than just the transfer window

AP Images/Elias Stein
AP Images/Elias Stein

If you’ve listened to any Arsenal podcasts, read any fan sites, or watched any postgame punditry over the past few years, you’ve heard that Arsène Wenger’s refusal to buy a prime-age center back, an elite defensive midfielder, or a real striker is the reason why Arsenal never challenge for the Premier League title or make it beyond the Round of 16 in the Champions League.

This summer, the club fixed all of those problems. Arsenal have acquired 24-year-old Shkodran Mustafi, the center back that they’ve supposedly lacked for years. Former Borussia Monchengladbach playmaker Granit Xhaka has been brought in to add a greater passing range to the defensive midfield position, and Olivier Giroud now has greater competition in the form of a more mobile, Jamie Vardy–esque striker in Lucas Pérez.

But what if personnel wasn’t actually their biggest problem?

As José Mourinho has taunted in the past, Arsenal already have enough talent to win the Premier League trophy that’s eluded them since 2004. Last year’s squad contained many top-class creative players such as Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil and competent midfielders in Santi Cazorla and Mohamed Elneny, while Laurent Koscielny provided defensive consistency at the back. With such a talented team already, Arsenal’s main issue isn’t the players. It’s what their manager is asking them to do.

Ever since he first arrived in England in October of 1996, Wenger has wanted his team to play attractive, attacking football. “My worry is to do as well as I can with the team and to get them to play decent football so that people who come and pay for their tickets are not bored,” he said back in 2011. Last year, he added, “I believe big clubs have a responsibility to win but to win with style.”

Following what French journalist Philippe Auclair described as “collective improvisation” in his biography of legendary striker Thierry Henry, Arsenal play with an improvisational, near-positionless form in possession. The players are allowed to move freely off of the ball, often roaming between spaces in search of the next opening rather than staying in their positions and waiting for space to open.

For a team with Arsenal’s talent, this approach has some obvious benefits. Such a style gives the attack a layer of unpredictability, as the players are allowed to vary their positioning.

It can make for some beautiful football if the players link up effectively. When the midfielders are connected and spaced well in the final third, they’re able to create the alluring attacking combinations that Arsenal have become known for since Wenger’s arrival.

With excellent final-third creators such as Ozil and Ramsey, the current version of the team often moves forward in dynamic and fluid patterns. Ozil may appear in the left channel one minute, and during the next attack, he’s popping up near the right sideline. It’s extremely difficult to score goals like these without fluid positioning, but no team can reasonably expect to score 80 improvisational goals in a season — and that’s Arsenal’s problem. It often seems like they’re trying to.

As in the architectural principle of “form follows function,” a good positional structure is relative to the type of football a team plays. A direct team would benefit from narrowly positioned forwards to help them make the long passes accurately. Whereas a short-passing side, such as Arsenal, would benefit from a structure that prioritizes short distances between the teammates and retains width to stretch the opposition defense.

While short-passing teams need their players closely linked, they also need them to be staggered. A 4–4–2 defensive shape has three banks of players, while a 4–2–3–1 has four or even five, if the two midfielders are staggered. As a result, the latter has one or two extra lines in the gaps of space between the 4–4–2. The way to progress the ball up the field, then, is by finding players in those gaps.

Pep Guardiola’s teams are typically intelligent in their positioning, and his Manchester City side have already shown signs of significant improvement after a disappointing end to previous manager Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure. The Catalan coach follows a philosophy of juego de posiciónor positional play — which gives his team a guideline of how to structure themselves in support of whoever has the ball. Through a detailed scheme, they have consistent spacing that establishes many links between the players, enabling the short passing that his Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams were known for.

Without a clear and explicit guideline for their positioning, though, Arsenal’s shape often becomes disconnected. The problems appear as soon as they start bringing the ball out of defense. Despite playing with three central midfielders, without any positional directive, only one of them typically drops back to receive a pass from the center backs.

This creates two problems: (1) the defenders don’t have as many options to advance the ball to, and (2) if the central midfielder does get the ball, he’s then disconnected from the other two midfielders, which then makes it harder for him to advance the ball. Although Xhaka can sometimes make these longer passes, the disconnect makes Arsenal’s build-up play unnecessarily difficult.

Having highly positioned midfielders during build-up can be beneficial, especially for a direct team. The increased numbers farther up the pitch equate to more targets for a long-ball and, if that isn’t successful, more players to try and win the ball back. But Arsenal aren’t West Brom, and the disconnect does more harm than good.

Plus, it’s fairly easy for any smart pressing team to cover the gaps between the Arsenal midfield. Liverpool, coached by pressing-mastermind Jurgen Klopp, demonstrated this in the season-opener when they restricted the home side to just 0.6 expected goals (and a penalty). With the dropping midfielder alone in deep positions, Arsenal’s opponents can block his few passing lanes easily while also covering the two Arsenal midfielders higher up.

A more cohesive structure than Arsenal’s helps a team to resist and then pass through an opposing press. Smaller distances between players allows them to exchange passes at a shorter length, and as the ball moves quickly between positions, it’s difficult for the defenders to get close enough to tackle their man.

As that clip shows, it’s all about triangles. A triangle of three players has one more link than a straight line of three players, and that’s another passing angle for the defenders to cover.

While each team has the same number of players, the most consistent attacking sides progress the ball by using overloads, creating superiority with a cluster of players (and triangles) that exceeds the number of defenders.

Arsenal are able to create overloads due to their fluid movement, but they’re all too often arranged in a straight line, rather than a triangle, which negates all the advantages that come from overloading. As a result of these straight lines, the number of passing options is limited and, in some cases, the attackers simply get in the way of their teammates.

In their 0–0 draw with Leicester in the second week of this season, the host’s compact defense highlighted Arsenal’s structural inadequacies in the final third. The Gunners couldn’t create triangles, and the attack carried little threat as a result.

Even with such a critical deficiency in their football, Arsenal can often rely on their individual talents to get by. Highly technical players like Ozil and Alexis Sánchez can combine despite the disconnection. If Arsenal’s play is slow and unthreatening, Ozil has the ability to create something out of nothing, whether it be in a close-quarters dribble or defense-splitting pass.

Although Arsenal can still challenge in most games through their talent, it certainly seems like the lack of structured strategy limits the team’s potential. Ramsey, Sánchez, and Ozil are all creative and gifted passers and dribblers who can be individual threats, but they’re much more potent when working as a team. Yet because of their distanced positioning on the field, they’re often too far away from each other to combine in a group.

Now, despite the tactical inefficiencies, Wenger’s team finished last year with the best expected-goals numbers. Although they’ve been unable to lift the Premier League trophy since 2004, statistics suggest their drought would be over had the Shot-Conversion Gods been on their side.

But if there was any year for Arsenal to win the Premier League, it was the one in which all of their closest rivals imploded. Without either Manchester club or Chelsea putting up much of a fight last year, they were good enough to win the league — but not good enough to guarantee they’d be lifting the trophy. After beating eventual champions Leicester in February, Arsenal’s attack ground to a halt amidst their lack of cohesive spacing.

In the open and fast-paced Premier League, the rarity of defensive compactness has suited Arsenal’s attackers, who can find space more easily and create the kinds of high-quality chances that expected goals loves. But part of the reason they haven’t advanced beyond the Round of 16 in the Champions League since 2010 is that continental teams don’t allow the same kind of space at the back.

However, with the arrival of tactical minds such as Klopp, Guardiola, and Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, we can expect an evolution in the Premier League. Through imitation of the tactical developments of the top teams (as well as the inspirational success of Leicester), we may see tighter defenses and more controlled pressing across the league, and there might not be as many gaps to mask the deficiencies in Wenger’s team. His Arsenal side have previously showed an inability to evolve and keep up with the trends; if they don’t do so this time around, then their 20-year streak of top-four finishes could be in jeopardy.

After a decade without clear evolution, will Wenger ever change? Although Arsenal have made good additions over the summer, they have not addressed their biggest issue. The likes of Xhaka and Pérez will undoubtedly improve their play, but Wenger’s free-form attacking structure will not get the most out of them. It hasn’t got the most out of anyone in a long time.

An earlier version of this story misspelled the Arsenal manager’s name. It is Arsène Wenger, not Arséne.