Talking Tactics: Analyzing Arsenal’s Possession Stats
In yesterday’s tactical analysis of Arsenal’s 6-1 victory over Southampton, I briefly made the point that the possession stats did not bear out the Gunners’ dominance of the game. Over 90 minutes, the Saints managed a very respectable 49.5% possession rate.
It’s a strange statistic not only because Arsenal were by far the better side on the day but also because it came in a home game against a newly promoted side languishing pointless at the bottom of the league table.
Just to put things in perspective, during the entire 2011-12 season, only two teams managed to outdo Arsenal in the possession stakes in a Premier League game at the Emirates. Liverpool managed 51% in their 2-0 victory in August, during that horrendous start to the season when Arsenal were trying to cope with Fabregas’ loss and Nasri was eyeing a move to City. Manchester United saw 53% of the ball in January when they won 2-1, at a time when Arsenal were without their ball-retainer-par-excellence, Mikel Arteta and fielded four central defenders across the back-line.
In recent years, Arsenal have relied heavily on possession football to beat teams into submission. Sometimes, it has led to frustrating draws or even shock defeats especially against well-drilled, organised and defensively minded teams. And last season, the Gunners’ all too often lost shape going forward and “we attack, they score” became a recurring theme in post-match analysis.
Back in April, Michael Cox of Zonal Marking wrote an insightful piece in the Guardian discussing how different teams approach the battle for possession. He used two games to highlight the different approaches of teams that fight for the ball and teams that are content to work without it.
Of course, there’s no mystery about why teams want to dominate the ball. With more technical players able to complete passes with a higher level of consistency and with intense pressing becoming a common defensive tactic, most top teams seek to keep hold of the ball in order to maintain sustained spells of pressure on the opposition. Arsenal were top of the possession pile last season and four games into 2012-13, only Manchester City have a better ball retention percentage than the Gunners.
So why is the discussion relevant at this time? It’s relevant because on Saturday, Arsenal seemed content to allow Southampton to keep the ball for long periods of time. Or in Michael Cox’s words, the Gunners did not actively contest the possession battle. Certainly not always. And certainly not with any amount of vigour. Perhaps the early goal allowed Arsenal a little luxury but leading 1-0 at home, the Gunners would have been expected to keep most of the ball themselves.
In the opening two matches, Sunderland and Stoke rarely showed any attacking intent themselves so the Gunners’ enjoyed plenty of the ball. And away at Anfield, Arsenal’s tactics were justified as the visitors waited for Liverpool to commit players forward and exploit space on counter attacks. But against Southampton, against a team with the worst defensive record in the league, Arsenal’s willingness to be patient without the ball is a significant change from the Gunners’ tactics in recent seasons.
That’s not to say there was no pressure on the ball. There was, but the pressing didn’t always take place high up the pitch. Although Cazorla and Gervinho worked hard to shut down the ball carrier in Southampton’s half, most times they were only supported by one midfielder making a dash from a deeper position. The other three midfielders remained deep, looking to pick up the opposing full-back or a runner from the Saints’ midfield.
Only when Southampton carried the ball midway into the Gunners’ half did we see Arsenal players snapping at their heels. This led to the visitors seeing a lot of the ball in their own half and around the centre circle. But without genuine quality to go past players, the Saints didn’t get much joy in the final third.
Interestingly, even at 1-0 up and with the game very much in the balance, the Gunners didn’t try overly hard to win the ball back. Between Arsenal’s first goal in the 11th minute and just prior to the second in the 31st minute, Southampton completed the same number of passes as the Gunners.
It’s a marked change from the high-line high-intensity pressing game pursued last season. It’s also a more mature approach which makes Arsenal dangerous on counter attacks. On the flip side, it’s a tactic that could backfire against certain sides. Ceding ball control against creative, skillful and attack-minded teams can pile pressure on the defense.
But if it is a conscious strategy, it complements the formation Arsene Wenger has used so far this season. While Cazorla started as a central attacking midfielder in the first game, he’s since played almost as a second striker further up the pitch.
For some time now, blogger Dave Seager has urged going back to the 4-4-2 that was so successful in Arsene Wenger’s early years at Arsenal. It’s fair to say that a variation of that system has been evident already, Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 morphs into 4-2-1-3 with the ball and 4-4-1-1 without it. With the attributes of the new signings and Gervinho’s Henryesque transformation underway, many elements of Arsenal’s title-winning seasons now seem to be in place.
Of course, four games is not a big enough spread to assess whether this is a tactical shift in Arsenal’s game plan or just how the games have panned out. City away and Chelsea at home should provide more answers.