A Tactical Analysis of how Wenger reverting to his tired Old system left us Out Muscled and Out Numbered

Wenger reflects on his own failure post Chelsea

Good day everybody, I hope Saturday’s nightmare is slowly receding out of view and mind. I’ve watched the replays over & over again to understand how such a promising first ten minutes ended up being so humiliating, and the following two issues troubled me most:

  • Our midfield did not defend its back four
  • I can’t understand why the boss persists with a formation when player availabilities don’t allow for it

Outnumbered, outmuscled

There is no “tactical” reason Alonso scored that first goal, other than plain sloppiness. At the 12 minute mark Chelsea weren’t on a counterattack but well settled in our half, with 9 outfield Arsenal players around or behind the ball. Moses received the ball on our left, yet neither Mesut nor Ox (I believe) felt the need to press or contain him. This forced Nacho out of position, which broke the back four’s shape.

Even then, it was not too late for our midfield to sprint back into the box and make themselves useful. Although Pedro’s rapid cross to Costa could not be stopped, the rebound off the crossbar would have been up for grabs had anyone felt any sense of urgency. Incredibly, neither Theo nor Coq tried to muscle their way to the rebound. It’s like our midfield was under the impression that only the back four are required to defend.

Anybody for a rebound?

To recap: whereas we had 9 (nine!) players behind the ball when Moses received his pass, we somehow contrived to end up matched in numbers and outmuscled in our own box.

The lads evidently had instructions to sit back, otherwise why would so many have been behind the ball at that 12 minute mark? If so, presumably they were also asked to press for it once it got within 30-40m of Cech’s goal. It would make sense, and I doubt at any rate that the boss or Bouldie would have told them to resist defending. Moses had actually fired a warning shot on 9 minutes sprinting down his right wing, which should have alerted our midfield to close the channels. Unfortunately the same player was allowed to comfortably receive a Hazard pass three minutes later, drag Nacho out of position to then find Pedro on our left, leaving two of our back four outside the box. This wasn’t “tactical”; it was just plain embarrassing.

 The obstinacy to our system:

We started the game with a surprising 4-3-3 and the boss’ boldness was rightly rewarded with a decent first ten minutes. Then we conceded and Gabriel replaced Bellerin. In the process, we also reverted to our 4-2-3-1 formation (which I call the “Santi” formation).

4231 needs Cazorla

This is one of my principal gripes against the Boss: like a comfort blanket, we keep reverting to formations and tactics despite them not playing to our players’ strengths. It has cost us dearly over the years, and we doubled down on the mistake on Saturday. The mere fact we tried playing the Santi without Santi is a mistake for me. It’s a shape that craves someone with nifty feet to resist pressure and ping balls from one wing to the other, notably in pursuit of Theo and overlapping wingbacks. Every time we try to reproduce this with Ramsey, Coq or the Ox we are lukewarm at best. To reproduce it with neither Santi nor Hector is very risky; when 1-0 down to Chelsea away? Simply incomprehensible.

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Now don’t get me wrong as I really rate Gabriel and he was probably a better alternative to either Jenko or Debuchy; likewise I understand that we were chasing the score and had to take chances up front. Nonetheless, asking anyone other than Hector to do a Hector, a goal down, playing away to Chelsea, is a very tall order indeed. Sure enough, Gabriel regularly got caught in the Chelsea half and Hazard and Pedro were allowed to rampage through our right wing virtually unopposed.

Predictably, when we did have possession we played our typically stale left-to-right passing that completely lacked percussion or penetration and opened us to counterattacks. Over and over again we saw the lads surrounding the Chelsea box, statically watching Alexis try his tricks before losing the ball or passing it back to Kos or Coq. Useless.


Chelsea thrive on their speedsters and have a habit of trying to outnumber back four lines with their wave of five attackers. We got a warning shot on 9 minutes through Moses on his right wing, and that should have signaled a need to change tack. Mesut and Alexis are both capable of excellent defensive work when they get their minds round to it, and we have the pace and intelligence to hit any team on the counter. Chelsea’s relentless pressing between the 10th-35th minutes visibly tired them, as we saw in the last seven minutes of the first half when we had two clear goal-scoring chances. I think a solid defensive display in the first half could have awakened doubts in Chelsea’s minds, especially after our 3-0 win and their draw to Liverpool, thus opening up spaces later in the second half. Alas it was not to be, and we ended up chasing them for almost 80 minutes.

I’ve been loyal fan of Wenger’s for a number of years and refuse to blame him for his players’ faults, although I do apportion blame to him for recruiting and coaching them. Moreover, beyond any question of loyalty, I am very wary of what happened at Man Utd when they lost Sir Alex: I would only change the boss if a carefully thought-out alternative plan was formulated. Unfortunately, I have no faith that this Board, incapable of merely addressing the present, could seriously be capable of planning a succession. Whatever our precise failings are, we have repeated them for a number of years and Wenger is significantly (if only partly) responsible for them. If not before, it is definitely now beyond high time Stan Kroenke and his Board to formulate a clear diagnostic of our weaknesses as well as a cogent strategy in response, as they share a portion of the blame for our current predicament. The last year of the Boss’ contract is as good a time as any to begin this process, and I hope we will use it wisely.

Thanks to our guest writer Othman Tazi

Although he had initially been a fan of the Arsenal through his father, Othman (@bizmarock) truly fell inlove with the Gunners following Dennis Bergkamp’s arrival. He spent 5 years living in N5 but has returned back to his homeland Morocco for professional and family reasons. He regularly flies back to London for a game and catch up with friends. Arsenal notwithstanding, he is married with a 2 year old, and works in mattresses (always up for sleeping advice).

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One Response to A Tactical Analysis of how Wenger reverting to his tired Old system left us Out Muscled and Out Numbered

  1. Freddy February 7, 2017 at 2:28 pm #

    Embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t even realise we’d tried anything different with our formation. I noticed we were making a determined effort to press high first ten and that it was looking quite promising. There were four or five moments when their players looked uncomfortable on the ball, plus we got into a few decent positions.

    Even at that point,though, I was my normal nervous self and incapable of any confidence till I saw how we dealt with their breaks when they came. Alas, the first or second one came and we were simply torn to shreds.

    After that, different game. Our wins from behind against top four teams have been extremely rare for years now so the first goal always feels, or just is, astonishingly important. Too important.

    I thought the effort was there, that most of the team worked their socks off, that there were a few good opportunities to score, but ultimately it was that horrible and familiar scenario where it would always be hard for us creating against a packed organised defence, in their element with the situation; and, worse, at the other end there was hideous space to be exploited from a single mistake or one good pass (or run).

    (It’s no coincidence to me that arguably Coquelin’s best game, in which he was amazing, was away at City, when he got to be the dm in a team defending deep in numbers. Any dm will tend to look better in that setup and similarly any dm will be exposed if they have to regularly cover half a football pitch.)

    It’s a scenario which I’ve grown to loathe in the extreme : the space in which our attackers would excel as well as any in the league almost certainly won’t be there unless we can establish a lead; while if we go behind there’s even less space for them to operate in; and meanwhile, it’s the opposition who have a counter-attacking paradise available to them.

    If I’m only honest with myself, this all means that my support for truly attacking football may have flatlined a while back. Truly attacking football means being more vulnerable to sucker punches than a defensive team is; I think I’m willing to accept that ,to a degree, but not to the extent where attacking football too often looks like sucker football, where if you concede first you’re instantly transported to a desperate situation, with the odds massively favouring (if Chelsea strong) the opposition.

    Really, it is wrong not to mention the absence of key midfielders. The evidence is that any team suffers badly when that happens. The unfortunate thing is that what went wrong went wrong in the same way it has a number of times previously in those games, as well as bearing a resemblance to losses in all types of games (i.e smaller clubs who man barricades, fight and foul and frustrate, land a blow on break; man barricades again)

    My dream was for us to become the ultimate, with our improved finances : a primarily attacking team but one who could adjust and tighten up or open up at will as the occasion demanded, or within a game. For an idea: Bayern Utd a few years back. Utd have the temerity to open the scoring through Evra; Bayern go ‘it’s like that, is it’, turn it up and blast them away within ten minutes. The dream.

    There’s no good reason why we should have perfected the game like that, not anymore and above richer rivals who with near unlimited funds have never created such teams; but it was my dream anyway and I thought we could move a long way towards it.

    We should be honest with ourselves: there is absolutely no guarantee another manager will make us a better team. We will still be competing against three far wealthier rivals in a tough league. There is the distinct possibility we would become a worse team, plus the likely increased probability of some top players leaving, as well as perhaps a decreased likelihood of attracting Ozil/ Sanchez class players, depending on the incoming man’s stature.

    But…we would almost certainly concentrate on defensive play more. When we lose it will not look the same. And if refs want to screw us and pundits want to continue their hypocrisy, we’ll give them a new challenge.

    That’s a near guarantee as the vast majority of managers are defence-oriented, not to mention cynical, now. It’s the easier path, and the pressure on any manager who has different ideas must be immense and quickly cause a rethink any time they suffer the pain of countering misery, of being the sucker on the day, when strong defence and strong counters look like the only sensible way to go for smart folk.

    If you can accept those realities- all the uncertainty, the loss of the dream of being a fantastic attacking team ( who are also pretty damn strong defensively); and, of course, the loss of the dream of seeing Wenger reign supreme and lead us to glory again- then I can accept asking for a new manager, though I think only an ungrateful ignorant fool would do so in a disrespectful manner.

    I’m not quite there, or maybe i am and I just find it too painful to give up the dream.

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