“We didn’t play well in the first half at all. We lacked urgency, pace, drive. In the second half, we rectified that.” – Arsene Wenger on why Arsenal played better in the 2nd half against Stoke.
I hate this answer because it infantilizes the supporters, reducing the complexities of a game like football to a simple game of “heart.” It’s not. If it was just about “geeing” players up for a match then why would we need a manager at all?
I blame the reporters. No one pressed Wenger on this question, they just let him get away with saying that Arsenal needed more heart, probably because it was partly true.
Arsenal did lack work rate off the ball from many of the players but more importantly, also lacked a tactical plan and cohesion. Let me show you what I mean.
Elneny collects the ball and I hope you can already see that the team is set up weird. Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey are both high up the pitch and Mesut Ozil has dropped into the space where one of those two would normally occupy. Jack should drop into the space where the referee is but really doesn’t move much throughout this passage of play.
Wilshere and Ramsey are both in no-man’s land. Ozil is looking exactly where he’d like a player to be but there will never be a player there. So, he makes a terrible pass to Ramsey instead.
Wilshere still hasn’t budged. Ramsey has the ball tackled away (or makes the pass) to Mustafi. Look at Bellerin’s position as well. In theory he’s “pegging his man back” but in reality he’s a fullback who is simply standing around in the forward’s space and not helping out in midfield at all.
Mustafi passes to Elneny and we restart play. Wilshere, Ramsey, and Bellerin haven’t moved more than a few yards combined in this play.
With no help, Elneny passes to Ozil. This is awful. This is a team not occupying space the way that they should, not helping each other out, and making things easy for the defense.
Bellerin breaks out of the treacle he’s been standing in, Ramsey makes a fake run to occupy the space that Aubameyang vacated. Auba has been moving up front the whole time but because Elneny can’t make those kinds of attacking passes and because Ozil doesn’t have any attacking support, no one can get him the ball. It’s crazy that Auba had to be the one to fill the space that Ramsey should have been in but that’s Arsenal.
Ozil, probably fed up with his teammates lack of movement and tactical ineptitude dribbles across three players. This could have been a disastrous dribble. If he loses the ball there, Stoke have just Elneny to beat before they can slice right through Arsenal’s defense. It’s crazy but he dribbles across that line and then just passes to Wilshere.
The pass is also a bad pass. Jack has the ball tackled away from him and is fortunate that the ball goes to Ramsey. If you’re counting, that’s two passes by Ozil, each to the midfielders who should have been in midfield, both putting them in trouble. I almost wonder if Ozil is sending them a message. What’s crazy is that Stoke are so bad defensively that Arsenal actually get a good shot off on this play. It’s the shot where Ramsey loops the ball onto the top of the goal.
Here’s a screen from the second half. Ramsey has taken up a more CM role and collects in space. This is beter positioning by the Arsenal. Wilshere is still static but he’s in a good space to either attack or defend. Elneny is also in a better place here.
Ramsey passes to Ozil who now has a number of options: Lacazette in the point, Auba on the left and Wilshere running in to space. He also has support behind him with Ramsey. But all the hard work of this good positioning is about to be undone by everyone running into the box.
Ozil runs, passes to Lacazette, who barely manages to hold the ball up.
Now this is a cluster. Ramsey’s still running forward. He sees that Lacazette is in trouble and just bombs into the box anyway. So does Wilshere. Here’s where a player like Cazorla would drop off and occupy space at the top of the box but Arsenal’s CMs all just bomb into the box all the time. It’s reminiscent of a pickup game.
Lacazette goes down in a heap and Ozil is in serious trouble now. Also note that
Lacazette Aubameyang is basically out of the picture, playing on the wing, left. What manager would take a guy who has scored 199 career goals and stick him on the wing? Ozil beats the four guys around him and then gets fouled.
The point of all this is that it isn’t just “pace, urgency, and drive”. Even with more of that stuff in the second half, Arsenal continue to take up ridiculous positions on the pitch and fail to really help each other out. Ozil wins a penalty through his own sheer brilliance and Arsenal go on to win the match because Stoke are a broken team.
But Arsenal have massive structural problems which were papered over by the scoreline. Either Wenger is telling Jack and Ramsey to abandon midfield, or the players are doing it on their own and Wenger isn’t telling them not to. Ramsey and Wilshere – and to an extent Elneny – all seem to lack a basic understanding of spacing and spacial awareness. They take up positions that are antithetical to team play but are very beneficial to their own individual play.
I want to be clear that I don’t hate Wilshere and Ramsey. I think they are terrific players. Ramsey in particular could be an amazing CM. But this kind of play from the team is frustrating and difficult to watch.
There’s a thing that everyone says whenever I criticize a player – “I’d like to see how he does under a different manager” – and I am 100% on board with that philosophical approach. The argument being that if Fabian Delph could have his career resurrected under Pep, then all these Arsenal players could be doing better under a better manager.
Unfortunately, we won’t see that until Ramsey is almost 29 years old and his career is coming to a close.