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The other top sides styles are known but Arsenal are In Desperate Need of a New Identity?

I·den·ti·ty  /īˈden(t)ədē/ (Noun) 

  1. the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.
  2. what Arsenal have lost over the past few seasons.

Arsenal are in the midst of an identity crisis. For large portions of the past few seasons, our style of football has been unrecognizable and difficult to classify. Arsenal seem like a team that is caught between styles and desperately searching for an answer. The current top 4 have a playing style that fans associate as their footballing identity. Liverpool and Tottenham have the high press to win the ball in advanced areas. Man City have their total football approach based on positional play and building from the back. Chelsea thrive in the transitional game through rapid counter attacks.

Fluid pass-and-move football that progressed through the thirds had been our ethos for the past few decades. Players looked comfortable joining in on tight, inter-connected triangles and eventually looking to feed advanced runners. We’d often struggle to break down organized defenses with an eye towards scoring that “perfect goal,” but at least it was our calling card. Furthermore, we lack the profile of player that the likes of Fabregas, Nasri, Rosicky, Wilshere, and Cazorla provided within this approach.

Santi Cazorla has masked many of this squad’s deficiencies since his arrival in 2012. His spacial awareness and quick decision making, especially in transition, was the ultimate adhesive that bound the group together. Regardless of his deployment, the #10 position, left wing, or withdrawn midfield, he ensures the unit is functioning properly. When pressed, he could both pass or dribble around the opposition. In attack, he can provide that line-splitting ball or maintain possession for the team.  

Very few teams in world football, have put the stress of binding the midfield together on one man like Arsenal has done with Santi. Real Madrid has Kroos and Modric; Barca has Busquets and Rakitic; Bayern has Alonso, Xabi, and Vidal; Juventus has Marchisio and Pjanic. Arsenal needs to find a midfield that functions as a unit rather than look for a Santi replacement. Our shortcomings and lack of being aesthetically pleasing over the last few years have mostly coincided with Santi going down. It’s time to cultivate a team that can transition us instead of relying upon an individual.

Some good wins against the Manchester teams in recent weeks have helped pave over the cracks in what has been a rough season. Against City we showed fight in midfield, played with width, and were clinical with our chances. Against United we saw the return of getting advanced midfielders in pockets of space between the lines and front-footed defending led to winning the ball in advanced areas.

Welbeck celebrates his goal against United after a pinpoint Ox cross.

In my opinion, playing three in the back should not be our base formation but a wrinkle to use when situation dictates. A way to ensure we are more solid defensively, get extra bodies in the midfield, and play with width through our fullbacks.

Context is everything in modern football; a team needs to be adaptable to oppositional tactics, personnel, game flow, a myriad of other factors. Being able to sprinkle in different looks and playing styles is essential, but the embodiment of one particular approach provides a comfort and sense of security that resonates throughout the entire squad.

Methodical build-up from the back, controlled possession, situational counter-pressing, counter-attacking and playing with width have all been offensive approaches that have been on display this season. Yet, since November, we simply haven’t showcased these capacities for any extended period of time. The inability to embrace one style and implement it well has been a big reason for our struggles this season.

What’s been most frustrating with this Arsenal squad is that there is little fluency building through the thirds. The line-breaking passes of past years have given way to a slow, methodical build-up that leads to a sideways passing progression with little incision. As a result, blame begins to spread among fans and pundits. Ozil is now marginalized due to the lack of space to operate and Sanchez is criticized for taking risks while attempting incisive actions.

Sanchez’s direct play has seen him receive a lot of criticism during the 2nd half of the year.

We are all unaware of the next identity this team will possess. Does Wenger stick with his slick passing, possessional style? Or will he go with three in the back and try to build play with ball-playing CB’s and ensure width with our wing backs? Will there be another manager in charge next season who preaches a totally different set of ideals?

Either way, first Arsenal needs to study the current Premier League landscape and then choose a style that suits our current players and caters to their strengths. Here is a simplified summary of the respective identities and secondary strengths of the current Premier League Top 4:

Chelsea’s Identity: Counter Attack

Begin with a secure defensive shape and two ball winners who shield the front 4 and break pace as the opponent loses possession. Quick counter-attacking transitions forward to the likes of Hazard, Costa, and Pedro ensure its playmakers can operate in space and wait for late-arriving midfield runners. They sprinkle in the ability to play quick pass and move football in the final third to break down packed defenses.

Tottenham’s Identity: The High Press

Press in advanced areas and crowd the midfield to ensure they win the ball back high up the pitch. Maintain a high defensive line to shorten the field and limit opponent space to operate. Secondary tactics include counter attacking and playing with width through their athletic fullbacks. Constant crosses and shooting on sight put stress on the opposition.

Liverpool’s Identity: The Team Press (Gegenpress)

The team moves together as a cohesive unit to press the man in possession and his corresponding surroundings. Everything is done fast, fluid and as a unit. Players are in opportune areas to break at pace when dispossessing the opponent. Klopp has found this blueprint successful against top sides, but not the bottom half of the Premier League. Liverpool also rely on quick passing interplay with running number 10’s (Coutinho and Lallana) to force the opposition backwards to score goals.

Manchester City’s Identity: Build From the Back with Positional Play

Currently this City team is a mix between Pep’s swarming Barca teams and his all encompassing total football Bayern teams. They blend the ability to play from the back with positional play where players are capable of slotting into a variety of positions and fluidly switching approaches mid-game. Secondary values include pressing and winning the ball in advanced positions with their advanced players in their 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 formation.

“The Arsenal Way” is slowly drifting away. What we choose to embody will rely heavily on who the manager is next season and the players that constitute the team. Regardless, it’s never too early to start pondering this question: Is it time for Arsenal to reconsider their values going forward and establish a new identity?

I have my thoughts that I will share next week. Please share your views in regards to the questions below and I will discuss your replies in my piece next week.

  1. What type of football do you wish to see Arsenal embody in future years? (identity)
  2. What secondary playing styles should Arsenal seek to also excel in? (adaptability)

-Dougie Cazorla   

Follow me on Twitter @dfresh10

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