Arsenal Learning to Control Games Without the Ball

Here are the possession stats from our last two Premier League games:

Arsenal 50% – 50% Southampton
Liverpool 53% – 47% Arsenal

Here are the possession stats for the first two games:

Stoke 33% – 67% Arsenal
Arsenal 70% – 30% Sunderland

There’s an obvious difference. In our first two league games, we dominated possession. In the next two, we conceded a lot more of the ball. There’s an obvious difference between the two sets of games, the fact that we never took the lead against Stoke and Sunderland, but did (and relatively early) against Liverpool and Southampton. Maybe four games is still too early to judge, but I think there is a trend developing. Arsenal are learning to sit on their leads. Not that we stopped attacking against Liverpool or Southampton, but our approach to the game shifted. We sat back, soaked up the pressure, and let our opponents hand us chances on the break. How many times have we seen teams do that to us in the past? We are now learning to do the same.

There are two ways of controlling the game – with and without the ball. Either you just play keep-ball like Barcelona, or you sit back and deny your opponents space to attack, and hit them on the counter attack. The objective of both tactics is the same – to take advantage of your lead in the best way possible. And it’s important to maintain the attacking aspect of your play. You don’t want endless, aimless possession to bog your game down, and you don’t want to hand the impetus to the opponents by parking the bus. The idea is to force them into taking more risks, doing something desperate in order to reduce the deficit, hence giving you a chance to build further on your lead.

In the past Wenger usually avoided having to alter our approach in the game at any point, even after we took a significant lead (which, sometimes, is just one goal). Late on in games we would often see a defensive winger coming on or another midfielder to kill the game off, but there was never any major changes in tactics. It was always attack, attack, attack. And while “Arsenal can never hold onto leads” was always a myth, you did wonder why we weren’t more pragmatic at times. We’ve certainly punished other teams for not adapting their approach. Back in March, Tottenham took a 0-2 lead, but they were being completely outplayed. Redknapp finally altered his team’s shape in the second half, but by then Arsenal were already level 2-2.

In theory, what Tottenham did in that game should have worked. It is exactly what we did at Anfield and protected our 2-0 lead well. It just goes to show that there’s no one-size-fits-all tactic to protecting leads, it’s all about gauging the situation and responding accordingly.

Liverpool had started the better team at Anfield, but slowly we took over and started creating chances. We ended the game with two defensive wingers and our team pretty much completely surrendering possession to Liverpool. But it was controlled, we knew what we were doing. Despite having 19 shots, only 1 was a clear cut chance. We had created 3.

The key has been our solid defensive shape. We still press the ball, but when we can’t win it back quickly, we are good at dropping back into two banks of four. It’s a tactic Barcelona have exemplified in recent years. We defended deep against Liverpool, whose quick attackers might have caused us problems if given space in behind. Similarly against Southampton, we decided to let them have the ball in deep positions, only squeezing space in our own half. And despite having 50% of the ball, and even scoring a goal, Southampton never created a proper chance.

The deep line may have been suicide at The Brittania. A team whose strength is in the air, you want to keep them as far away from goal as possible. Give them space in behind, as Crouch won’t beat anyone in a sprint, but let him get into the box and his presence there could be deadly. And a team who can hurt you with their long balls, you want to close them down high up, and keep the ball as much as possible. So in this game keeping a solid shape wasn’t as important as pressing, and it was important to defend high up. If we had taken the lead against Stoke, I wouldn’t have expected our approach to change. Maybe we would try to keep the ball even more.

Against Montpellier the sitting back approach wasn’t working either. They were causing us problems. And Steve Bould almost made the mistake Redknapp did. He stuck with the tactic of sitting back and trying to absorb pressure, when really there was too much of it. A switch to a thicker midfield would have allowed us to keep the ball better and relieve some of the pressure, but Ramsey came on too late. But it’s good to know that despite our defence facing a difficult spell, unlike the Spuds, we held on and claimed the 3 points. Another victory for our excellent defensive shape this season. 

As the above  two examples show, it’s not always possible to control the game without the ball, and that’s why the ability to keep the ball is so important. So far we’ve shown this season that when we have needed to, we have kept the ball well and pushed our opponents back. And when we needed to sit back and soak up attacks, we’ve done that well, too. It seems that this season we are showing a willingness to alter our approach and take better advantage of going ahead in a game, even if it means taking the less scenic route and conceding possession.


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