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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.

AFC v SFC – Total Passes

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.

AFC v SFC – Passes 11-30 mins

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.

Until tomorrow.

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10 thoughts on “Talking Tactics: Analyzing Arsenal’s Possession Stats

  1. This is simply bs. The one game Arsenal found it’s scoring boots and scored more than any team this season is the one that you draw negatives from. Would you rather we lost and then had 95%. Jeez! Wenger is sure going through hell. Critics even success. Absolute bs

    • Calm down mate and get those knickers untwisted. There is nothing negative about this piece, merely my observations which you have a right to debate and disagree with. But for god’s sake don’t give yourself a heart attack doing it. Jeez, some Arsenal fans!

  2. Lawson of Lagos state university on said:

    I also begin to worry recently that our passing game has changed and much has not been seen of it since the season began.

    • Not necessarily anything to worry about, possession football isn’t the only way to win a football match. In fact against the more defensive teams last season where we had 70% possession yet failed to score, seeing less of the ball would have been better imo. Of course we need to see how Arsenal will go against City and Chelsea.

  3. Very interesting analysis. Man City will exploit the extra space in midfield but they still need to break down the defense. It will be a real test for the defense and for Steve Bould tactically to give City possession and prevent them from scoring. The alternative is to leave a vast gap behind the back line and if your opponent gets behind that line you are in a lot of trouble. Arsenal can win at the Etihad if the team puts in an heroic defensive performance because City are vulnerable at the back and will concede to this Arsenal attack.

    • An away game against the champions is ideally suited to our present gameplan of two banks of four in defense combined with quick counter attacks. More interesting will be to see our approach against Chelsea at home, whether we continue to be as proactive as previous years.

  4. Good article mate. Can’t understand how anyone could perceive this as negative! I think it’s very refreshing to see this Arsenal side willing to experiment with different approaches. I’ve read lots of material that says Wenger famously gives little attention to who we are playing, and focuses solely on his own side. Good to see more diversity in the way he prepares for games. Alternatively, it could all be unintentional and we just got a bit complacent when we realised it was going to be an easy game!

  5. we can do it again!

  6. Phalarys on said:

    I was quite disappointed to see Arsenal letting the Saints keep possession of the ball. I immediatly thought that it was a change of style, in the continuity of the fixture against Liverpool. I hate when Arsenal don’t dominate possession; according to me, there is one way to succeed in football: having the ball.
    It is almost a shame that Southampton managed to keep the ball, especially in the second half, at the Emirates.
    I sincerely hope that it is not a change of style because it does not match with our philosophy and “tiki taka” football.

    However, I can’t delude myself anymore, we will not have the ball against Manchester City…

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