Dixon wonders why Arsenal don’t press

Some of you who have been reading my writing for a few years are already probably tired of this story but I need to repeat it for the one new person in the comments. When I first saw Alexis play for Arsenal, the way he ran around, pressing the opposition, I said “either Wenger will change him, or he will change Arsenal and I hope it’s the latter.” My point being that you can’t have a forward haring around pressing indiscriminately and that you are also going to struggle to keep a player like Alexis happy if he’s begging his teammates to press and the team aren’t behind him.

Wenger sort of tried the press out – it lasted about a half a year and there were serious growing pains at first. I remember Jack Wilshere pointing to spaces that Cazorla needed to fill, only for the opponents to fill them first. I also remember Flamini waving his arms around like an air traffic controller parking a 747, again, only for the opposition to fill the spaces first. But for a six-month period, Arsenal actually pressed – with Cazorla and Coquelin in midfield – and it worked wonders. Arsenal were the best team in the League in that time. But then Cazorla’s ankle got infected and he couldn’t play anymore and since then Arsenal have struggled to play the press.

Arsenal legend Lee Dixon added his name to the pot of “former players that Wenger, Ozil, and the others don’t listen to” when he leveled a savage analysis of Arsene Wenger’s failure to install a press at Arsenal. Speaking to the BBC he said:

“It’s quite simple – when I watch them I think ‘they could beat anyone on their day going forward, but they could lose to anyone defensively’. The Lacazette thing is another issue, as to why he’s not playing, but you play Sanchez up front, who is a chaser of the ball; if he loses the ball then he’ll chase to win it back.

If you’ve got that, as a manager, you have to have the players to go and back that up, and he didn’t have that. He hasn’t got that because they don’t know how to do that on a regular basis – they are not a pressing side.

They do it now and again – they did it against Chelsea, they got it right against Chelsea in the cup final and in the league, and you think ‘wow, they’re back’. And then the fall again like they did against Watford, and then you see them trying to press Man City, one of the best passing sides in the league. How is that allowed to happen?”

Dixon continued his rant, describing the reason why Arsenal probably don’t press is because they don’t practice it:

“If you’re not a pressing side, then you have to press for months and years at a time in order to get it right, it’s really difficult. It’s not just a case of ‘you all just rush to the ball’. There have to be triggers, and you need to know when to press – which is just as hard as knowing when not to press if you’re a pressing side, because sometimes you have to unpress, if you like, and just sit where you are. Just running willy-nilly at the ball is a disaster, especially against City.”

It has always been weird to me why Arsenal don’t press more often. During the Fabregas/possession era it was often pointed out that Arsene Wenger got half of the Barcelona-possession-based football right but that his team failed to pick up the other important component – that when Barcelona lost the ball, they fought like hell to win it back, especially in the opponent’s half.

Arsenal’s attacking players would benefit immensely from the high press. The player I think would be a revelation in a high press is Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey is custom built for this tactic. His extraordinary lung capacity and work rate are exactly what you need from a player, he also tackles well and his nose for goal would easily put him on par with Champions League winner* Dele Alli.

Lacazette is another player who has already shown that he likes to press: how many tackles can you remember where he won the ball back high up the pitch and turned it immediately into an attack? I can think of three and we’ve only seen him play a handful of games.

And even Ozil would benefit. He’s not going to put in crunching tackles but he runs more than any player on the pitch, his spacial awareness is probably unparalleled in world football, and a hugh part of pressing is literally filling space (passing lanes) and closing down space to make it more difficult for the opponent to make the long outlet pass. Not only that but a high press means lots of set plays and corners and those are one of Ozil’s many specialities.

I think even players like Iwobi and Wilshere would benefit: they are close control types (needle) who are super dangerous in a chaotic high pressing system because they are going to get close to the opponent and dish to a teammate for a goal.

Even most of the Arsenal defenders are custom made for the high press: Koscielny offers speed and awareness, Monreal is one of the best defensive passers in the League, Bellerin’s pace would allow him to recover defensively. And even some of the youngsters like Ainsley Maitland-Niles have speed to burn and could play in the DM role mopping up the occasional counter attack that would inevitably happen.

The problem is, and the reason why I think Wenger doesn’t, is that there are a lot of players on this team who wouldn’t benefit from a high press. Xhaka would be nullified. His main strength is the long pass and he lacks the speed to recover against a counter. He also seems to be almost oblivious to opposition attacking threats. In a high press team, he becomes almost useless.

The same for Theo Walcott, who is built for counter attacking and for Giroud who is a hold-up forward. Coquelin would be fine, but only if he has a superlative midfielder beside him like Cazorla. Without that, he ends up being exposed as Arsenal struggle to get the ball forward.

And even Ozil (who I said would benefit a minute ago) is actually more attuned to counter attacking than he is to high pressing. His long, quick outlet passes on counters are breathtaking.

So, the answer to Lee Dixon’s question, and mine, is that Wenger didn’t build the team that way and hasn’t bothered training them that way. He tried it for a little bit and then abandoned it.

Actually, it’s kind of difficult to tell what Wenger built the team to do, because there doesn’t seem to be any one personality trait to this team. Some might suggest that this is good because we don’t just want to play one way but you can’t really have a plan B unless you have a clear plan A and I have yet to figure out what Arsenal’s plan A is.

Over the last three years what we have seen from Wenger is actually a man who emulates whatever the last champions did. Conte wins the League with a back three? Better try that out. Leicester win the League with a counter attacking team? Let’s build a countering team by trying to buy Vardy and Mahrez, when that fails we’ll get Xhaka and Lucas Perez. The year before that was the pressing season, which was all the rage because Brendan Rodgers nearly won the League with a pressing style.

Arsenal look a lot like a team that was built from whatever (best) parts they could buy at the time rather than a team which was purpose built for a specific style of play. And Dixon is spot on that Wenger’s teams don’t seem to know what to do when they don’t have the ball. It’s because Wenger doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what he wants this team to be.

Qq

*That’s how you win the Champions League, right? You beat the team who last one it?

30 comments

  1. We can press with Xhaka but we need to switch to a 4-3-3. Busquets is perhaps even slower than Xhaka but Barca pressed as a team, stayed compact and Xavi or Iniesta were always nearby to help out. To keep their shape, they played a very high line which meant that once in a while they got caught with a ball over the top. However, they played the high press and possession game so well that it was a risk well worth taking. Plus they have Messi.

    I guess the other problem is that Xhaka doesn’t read the game well, as you mentioned, but that’s going to be a problem in any system. He is a very limited player. He spreads the ball well and can shoot from distance. If you surround him with two complete midfielders (like Ramsey) then you can cover his shortcomings. If you leave him on an island (which he usually is especially with Ramsey playing the false no.8 role), then you expose his weaknesses which in turn leads to the defense being exposed.

    Our problems aren’t unfixable. We just need one more mid-fielder and some direction in how we want to play but as long as Wenger is in charge, we will always be found lacking in one thing or the other. Sometimes the issues are in defense, sometimes it’s mid-field, we have gone long periods with a proper striker, sometimes it’s our attitude, sometimes it’s our player selection or formation. There are always issues with this team that could/should have been solved by the manager but he doesn’t do it until it’s too late and some new problem has surfaced. So sick of this sh*t.

    1. Completely agree. As I say below, Xabi Alonso is probably an even better example than Busquets, in that, to me anyway, he’s more similar in style.
      Both are obviously superior players to Xhaka at this stage of his career, but that’s just it: you’re right he doesn’t read the game well, but presumably a lot of that can be taught with good coaching. Therein lies the problem with Xhaka at Arsenal…

      You’re also right that one more (versatile and really, really good) midfielder, and a switch to a 4-3-3, could work wonders for us. Provided we also have a discernible style (preferably involving pressing at least at times), of course.

    2. NYC, me being anal. You’re one of my favourite posters here, but I feel that, like putting pineapple on pizza, hyphenating “midfielders” and “midfield” should be a red card offence. Don’t know why it yells and screams at me and bugs me, but it does.

      1. Lol. I dont know why I did it. I usually don’t. I didn’t do it in the paragraph above. I’m having trouble finding consistency much like our “midfield”.

  2. “Pressuring high limits the amount of running players must do. When you win back the ball, there are 30 metres to goal rather than 80” – Cruyff.

    High pressing as a tactic has a direct lineage back to Rinus Michels and the 1974 Holland teams, down through Cruyff and his modern disciples, Guardiola, Pocchetino, Bielsa, De Boer and to a lesser extend Klopp. I know this will sound strange, but I always thought Wenger was more indirectly in the lineage of Arigo Sacchi.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is Wenger doesn’t believe in pressing and he’s certainly not constructed a roster to support pressing. Again it speaks to a disconnect between recruitment, player development and tactical direction. Back 4, back 3? 3-4-3 or 3-1-4-2? Long ball counter attack masters with front line speed (Xhaka, Ozil, Walcott) or high pressing Cruyffian 6-second rule guys (Sanchez, Welbeck, Ramsey)?

      1. Yes, but I don’t remember them pressing to the extent that Cruyff and later Guardiola had them pressing. It was more situational. When I say Wenger is derivative of Sacchi I am more thinking of the forward vertical passing game, which is a key component of a good counter-attacking team. Sacchi also did not employ the pivote the way Cruyff did. Sacchi was a 4-4-2 stalwart as well whereas Cruyff was 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 even.

        For my money, the Invincibles were a counter-attacking team. I know some might object to that but if you think about it, they’d win the ball and within seconds be up the field in the opponents third. They played to space and used long balls if needed. That’s Sacchi’s Milan teams.

  3. Excellent post. I often get the sense the players don’t know what they’re supposed to do against tough opponents. They all look confused and lost. It’s because Wenger hasn’t really chosen a style, and built the team around the vision. He tinkers with lots of strategies, buys surplus players and puts them in weird combinations and postions. We get by against lesser competition, but good teams that have a clear identity and roles pick us apart.

  4. Our players would have no problem pressing because pressing is about team shape more than it is about personnel since the team shape has to be tight and together. Certainly some players will aid in the shape better than others but finding the balance in any team selection at any level is always the trick; the team is not always your 11 best players, it rarely is in fact, it is the 11 players that give you the best team balance to win. The only thing you couldn’t do is play a BFG in back, but in theory you could if it is a back 3 and the other two were high motor guys like Mustafi and Koscielny. Again I return to team shape and balance in the team sheet being King to any system. The Busquets comment above is spot on and so is the Cruyff quote. I coach and teach high pressing to players and have been very successful at the youth level with technical, yet physically slow, holding midfielders albeit at a youth level. So the idea that Xhaka can’t fill this roll defensively is false. You teach queues and rules of thumb that apply to moments in the game. Things like “one goes we all go” (the players know that is the phrase and they understand how to define it together situationally) and “10×10=30” as players fill their own 10×10 yard box with the idea to own theirs as they help their friend own his as 30 is vertical compactness counted from your deepest central defender to the ball which is the first line of defense or confrontation. Like any system it needs to be trained and that is true.

    I think Wenger doesn’t like pressing because of his philosophy of verticality, the principle being if he wins the ball deeper there is more space to build up behind the defenders between the lines with vertical runs going to goal. This is also a false assumption because the modern game has changed. Most every successful team buys players and a manager who will make them best in quick transitions because the current trend is all about who is faster between attack to defense and defense to attach. Klopp for example deploys a counter pressing method that is very keen on setting midfield traps and then controlling the game with quick transitions to goal. The point being the closer to goal your attack goes the more verticality you have, football then is about territory.

  5. Tim,
    Great article, once again. You’re on fire of late.

    Only thing I would say is that the reasons you, very generously, try to give Wenger for not pressing (rather than just saying “he’s clueless,” not in the usual sense meaning that he’s stupid, but in the sense that he quite literally doesn’t have a clue what to do with this squad of players to get them playing to their potential), don’t entirely hold up to scrutiny.
    If the main reason that Wenger’s decided not to adopt a press on a regular basis is the personnel, then (aside from the fact that it’s up to Wenger to change the personnel) it seems to me he’s underestimated the potential of his squad. Let’s look at the players you mention:
    1. Xhaka: if Xabi Alonso in his mid-thirties can be a key part of a pressing side at Pep’s Barcelona, then surely Xhaka, another deep lying passer who’s neither fast nor covers a ton of ground can do it for us, provided we surround him with the right teammates (of course whether he’s worth keeping in the side is another matter; my opinion is still that an in-form Xhaka (which he hasn’t been of late) is worth it).
    2. Giroud, and especially Theo, should be fringe players at best for us. But if we’re going to keep him around, it’s worth pointing out that Theo looked pretty good at defending from the front in the first few months of last season.
    3. What you say about Coquelin (he’d be alright, but only provided he has a superlative midfielder next to him to make up for his technical weaknesses) would be true regardless of what style we play. It’s true now, with our no-discernible-style style. And arguably staying on the front foot with an effective press would cover over his deficiencies in possession, as it does with, e.g. Spurs’s and Liverpool’s midfielders, and as it surely would with the more talented Ramsey (completely agree that Ramsey would be a revelation in a pressing side).
    4. You’re right that Ozil is probably best in a counterattacking side, e.g. Real Madrid under Mourinho, but it’s worth emphasizing that the best pressing sides are often also very effective on the counterattack. Being primarily a pressing side doesn’t mean you can’t adapt to play slightly differently in different games, or even within a single game (e.g. sitting back after you go ahead). So it’s not like adopting the press would mean we negate the advantages that Ozil potentially gives you on the break (a more serious obstacle to getting the best from Ozil on the counterattack has been playing without a top quality centre forward, and making due with a leaden-footed Giroud, for the past four years).

    1. I’m sure you meant Xabi was part of Pep’s Bayern team. And I agree, Xhaka’s best comparison point is Xabi Alonso. That’s who we could be molding him into becoming.

        1. “Could be molding,” *if* Arsene rediscovered his ability to mold players.
          Currently the Swiss is just drifting…

      1. Xabi was a much more intelligent footballer than Xhaka. Being smart makes up for deficiencies in speed or size. That was how Pep made a career (according to Pep).

        1. Agreed, but how much of those smarts are innate, and how much coachable? I’m certainly someone who has an inordinately high opinion of my own natural intelligence, both on and off the soccer pitch, but when it comes right down to it I suspect most of what Xhaka would need to learn is coachable (it’s not like someone who can see the passes he sees could be stupid).

          1. I agree, Xhaka doesn’t strike me as a “dumb” player – you can’t be that good a passer and be unintelligent. His failings are all tactical and situational errors in judgment – a Guardiola for example would coach this out of him within a season.

          2. I think you can definitely teach someone to read the game better. You can’t teach speed or vision (and by that I mean being able to see a pass before others), but reading the game requires a more tactical knowledge of the game (and thus, positioning). I don’t think Wenger can teach him that.

  6. Usually I’m not too interested in being overly critical of Arsenal/Arsenal, but you’re mention of the press and how we don’t really do it anymore is one of those things that does bug me.

    Almost every season, usually about the half way point, we seem to hit on a system that works and gets results and we go on a good run. And you think that once we start the new season with the new system in place we’ll be in business.

    Then the new season starts and things are changed or modified, whether it’s different players in different positions or making space for players who’ve been out through injury, or in the case of pressing, just stopping doing that was successful altogether, and I often wonder why we just didn’t stick with the things/players/formation/tactics that were working 🙁

  7. Always a good read and throught provoker.
    Rather than Arsenal’s style changing, I find what changes more than anything is the reason people give for Arsenal not winning the League.
    First it was not having a British core – been there done that
    Then it was not spending money – been there done that
    Then it was not signing “big name” signings – been there done that
    Now it is apparently because Arsenal dont press.
    I cant remember how much “pressing” did Sir Alex Ferguson teams do? Perhaps they did loads of this but I cant remember this beeing the secret for their success.
    As always though you tactical and technical analysis is spot on.
    But football has changed. Clubs being able to buy all the actual best and potentially best players for +100m and pay them infinite amounts with no ramification to club solvency whatever the outcome and repeat every summer, has moved the goal posts.

  8. Believe the Xhaka hate or displeasure is misplaced. Seen here and there he has covered more ground than any other Arsenal player and is in the top quartile in the league. That he is slow, unintelligent and a poor tackler are the usual ramblings. Both of his reds should not have been reds, he is aggressive in tackling, but that has been worked out of him, and now he is left tugging jerseys. The back 3 or 4 has been in shambles for 2-3 years. No can be an effective DM in front of a revolving door of defenders. Also, everyone needs to remember who he has behind him or in front- left me give everyone a hint- it sure as hell is not Santi! No one in the side currently can do what Jack can do, it is so obvious from just watching a few games with him in. Elneny, Coq and Ramsey do not have the explosiveness to split the trap- Ox did, but ran to nowhere and often passed to none. Put Kanti or anyone other similarplayer next to him and most would change their tune.

    1. “No can be an effective DM in front of a revolving door of defenders.”

      I completely disagree. This is exactly backwards. A revolving door of defenders (which it really isn’t that bad at Arsenal) requires an effective DM and defensive scheme in front of them.

      This is the real problem at Arsenal: that Wenger’s defensive schemes basically don’t exist or that they suck. His glowing praise for Ramsey playing in the opponent’s box is a perfect example of how Wenger prioritizes attack at all costs over creating a well balanced team.

      That’s the underlying problem –
      it’s not about all British or no British
      it’s not about spending all or nothing
      it’s not big name versus no name signings
      it’s not press or don’t press
      it’s not attack or defend

      It’s that Wenger can’t seem to get the balance of everything right.

      More on this tomorrow.

      1. Isn’t it telling though that his love of attacking doesn’t bear the same results of some of his coaching peers? Liverpool leak like a sieve, but boy can they score. Their xG For is 2.58 higher than Arsenal’s. Also, 4 goals less than at the same stage last season. It’s funny to hear things about AW like “Wenger loves attacking,” and “Wenger likes possession,” and then to compare those statements to what his teams do well and do poorly. If he cares about possession, or attacking, or whatever, his decisions, both in the areas of personnel changes and team selection, seem to indicate he has a different concept of “attack,” “possession,” and “defending” than the rest of us.

        1. Yep, exactly. Back in the day Wenger’s teams were brilliant at pretty much everything. Then for a long while they were great going forward and at possession, but terrible at defending and physically competing with bigger, stronger teams. Now, they’re just mediocre at everything. The last two years have been pretty much an unending sh*tshow for Arsenal, except for (a) the end of seasons when other teams switch off and we have no pressure on us, and (b) times when Santi was actually fit.
          It’s painfully clear now that Arsene Wenger simply isn’t very good at managing an elite level professional football team. I’d take a Jogi Low or a Tomas Tuchel now in a heartbeat, not because I think they’re the greatest managers around, but because I think they’d improve us with the ball enormously. Even if we were still awful at the back, at least we’d be fun to watch again, and have a great shot at qualifying for the CL.

  9. And I with you.
    Go back to 13-14 squad with Szcz in goal and Santi in front of a stable defensive unit. Szcz won the Golden Glove, with Sagna, BFG and Kos at the back. (Along with a FA Cup Vicotry) Since then it has been a little shop of horrors at the back, and not that fluid as the Arsenal try to pass it out the back when encountering a press.
    Most of the past EPL winners in the last 5 years have had a solid back line, think Leiester with their D and Kante.

Comments are closed.

Related articles