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