We’ve heard the phrase time and time again: “Arsene Wenger doesn’t do tactics.” If you have been watching Arsenal for any length of time, you know this over-generalization is simply not true. A manager of his pedigree with 34 years of experience does indeed tailor specific game plans for specific opponents. The above phrase needs to be adjusted to read: “Arsene Wenger doesn’t do tactics very well”.
The match vs Tottenham at Wembley saw us adopt a counter-attacking approach that, generally speaking, saw us adopt a 4-1-4-1 shape off the ball with Elneny shielding the back 4 and a 4-3-3 when in possession. The tactic was obvious: stay compact in midfield, cut off Tottenham’s creative supply lines, and get Aubameyang in-behind in transition when we win the ball. Arsene alluded to this after the match saying:
“We missed opportunities on counter-attacks that are not missable at our level.”
Our struggle to maintain a defensive shape and our counter-attacking priority immediately made me think of our match away vs Manchester City last December, which we were defeated 2-1. We looked to transition quickly on the counter attack with Theo Walcott as the primary threat in-behind.
Like against Tottenham, we executed well enough in the first half, bringing a 1-0 lead to the locker room, and capitulated in the second eventually succumbing to a barrage of City chances.
Below are other games over the last 3 seasons that represent a deviation from the norm in regards to Arsenal’s tactical approach. Circumstantial evidence that Arsene does try different tactics. Some were good, some bad, and some ugly.
October 4, 2015 – Manchester United (h) – 3-0
Tactical Variation: The High Press
Quick Summary: Arsenal would never be identified as a “pressing team” but they do like to do so intermittently, oftentimes based on game flow. This game was so unique due to the intensity, urgency, and coordination behind the high press. Three goals in 13 minutes in the first half meant we could take our foot off the gas in the second half.
January 10, 2017 – Chelsea (a) – 0-0 (EFL Cup 1st Leg)
Tactical Variation: Tight In The Back
Quick Summary: A lineup devoid of top choice options (Ozil, Sanchez, Kos, Monreal, Ramsey, etc.) and being the first of two legs meant a defensive approach was necessary. The performance put in was well and truly disciplined with tucked in fullbacks, Welbeck solidifying the left side in one of the dual number 10 positions, and a team of midfielders aware of their distances and covering the back line. It was great to see us limit Chelsea to half-chances and not force our defense to defend on islands.
Other Notable Good Examples:
- Barca 0-2 (h) (2/23/2016) – We held Barca in check for the majority of the game until Messi broke through in the 70’ and 82’.
- Tottenham 2-0 (h) (11/18/2017) – Any emphasis on direct balls, bypassing the midfield and attacking down the flanks helped us beat our North London foes earlier this season.
- Chelsea (h) 2-1 (1/24/2018) – Elneny utilized as a hybrid CM/CB as we beat Chelsea and advanced to the finals of the EFL Cup.
December 18, 2016 – Manchester City (a) – 1-2
Tactical Variation: Counter Attack
Quick Summary: Almost the same first half we played at Tottenham during the weekend, but we were able to grab a 1-0 lead in this one. The onslaught from City was relentless in the second half as we eventually conceded two and began to sit deeper and deeper in our own third.
February 24th, 2017 – Chelsea (a) – 1-3
Tactical Variation: Defense First with a Midfield Three
Quick Summary: For the better part of a year many Arsenal fans were crying out for Wenger to use a midfield 3 in big away games. Arsene decided to do so with Iwobi, Coquelin and Ox as the personnel. After a good first 15 minutes we conceded in the 17’ in large part due to an Alonso elbow on Bellerin. Wenger immediately switched to a more aggressive set of tactics and formation.
Other Notable Bad Examples:
- Chelsea 0-1 (h) (1/24/2016) – We fell to Chelsea who were close to the relegation zone at the time. An early Mertesacker red card meant withdrawing Giroud and playing Ozil as a false 9.
- Tottenham 0-1 (a) (2/10/2018) – A close to even first half playing on the counter, but we were overran in the center on the pitch in the 2nd and unable to sustain a defensive shape.
February 15th, 2017 – Bayern (a) – 1-5
Tactical Variation: Defense First
Quick Summary: The plan was evident from the start: be solid in defense with a 4-4-1-1 shape and look to hit Bayern in transition with Alexis and Ozil as the catalysts going forward. Despite a 1-1 scoreline at the half, it was clear we would have trouble staying resolute in defense. Coquelin allowing Robben to come inside on his left and the lack of defensive help is symbolic of the “off-the-ball” shortcomings of the last decade under Wenger.\
March 4th, 2017 – Liverpool (a) – 1-3
Tactical Variation: Compact Shape with Intent to Play Direct
Quick Summary: We decided to discipline Alexis in this one and go with Giroud as a direct outlet. The issue? We rarely tried to play through our big Frenchmen and we seemed lost in our plan to get the ball into our attacking third. Alexis provided a boost in the second half, but the damage had already been done.
Other Notable Ugly Example:
- Bayern 1-5 (h) (3/7/2017) – This scoreline and 10-2 on aggregate. Enough said.
Based on the above evidence, it’s pretty clear that Arsene believes in a variation of tactical approach dependent upon certain situations. Against top Premier League or Champions League sides, he believes he needs a different set up. A commonality amongst the results that resonate with me is that almost any time he needs a team to keep a sustained defensive shape, it eventually goes wrong. Is it so entrenched into our ethos under Wenger that ingrained “on-the-ball” automatisms will trump any differing tactical plan put into place? Let’s sure hope not.
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31 year old based in the U.S. I am an elementary school teacher by day whose passion for teaching is only rivaled by a love for the Arsenal. I release a weekly piece each Tuesday that is oftentimes analytical but sometimes eccentric. Founder of the U.S. supporters group Syracuse Gooners (www.cusegooners.com). I enjoy interacting with any and all Arsenal-based opinions on Twitter. Have a younger brother who chose to support Spurs. Fielding suggestions for ways to disown him.