Wenger Out: Why It's Time For Arsenal To Chase Jurgen Klopp
Arsenal embarrassed by Dortmund’s strategy and energy. Opens questions once again about Wenger's tactics and preparation.
From the opening seconds Dortmund were hungry, energetic and determined to put serious pressure on Arsenal, pressure which continued all half and game and which left Arsenal looking lost, confused and a very scared. It was a relentless onslaught of pressure from Jurgen Klopp’s side, a near perfect example of the effectiveness of counter-pressing (gegenpressing) and a sign once more that Wenger not only has failed to address his sides vulnerabilities, but seemingly fails to understand how to approach away games in the Champions League. As this blog will address, Arsenal look further away from winning Europe’s top prize than ever before.
The rise and dominance of counter-pressing
This blog was somewhat surprised to hear a fair few pundits/experts express their puzzlement over the term ‘counter-pressing’. Surprising considering German football has embraced this tactic for the past several years, it was this which ripped England and Argentina apart in the 2010 World Cup. And in the 2012/13 season both Bayern and Dortmund perfected this defensive transitional strategy to perfection on their way to the Champions League final.
And while I understand that not every new tactical trend is common knowledge, this one does surprise me, only because it has defined the modern game in recent seasons. Dortmund under Klopp have excelled using gegenpressing, the high tempo pressing defensive tactic where Dortmund seek to draw the opposition into the mid-third, often setting traps/triggers for the team to aggressively press to win the ball back and then counter with ruthless speed and precision.
Bayern embraced this tactic under Heynckes in 12/13 and became the ‘most complete side’ because of it. Adding this defensive strategy to their armoury made them a frightening force, and the 7-0 defeat to Barca in the semi-finals of that season was proof of how effective this tactic can be, especially against possession based sides.
Other examples can be seen with Simeone’s Atletico Madrid who excelled last season particularly playing a counter-pressing style. Jose Mourinho is one of the best at this type of defensive strategy, looking for a mid/deep-block to deny the opposition space to penetrate, then punish them on the counter attack. This was his style against Barcelona in the great theatre which was Jose vs Pep in El Clasico, and what took Inter to Champions League success in 2010. Against Guardiola and van Gaal it was the battle between counter-pressing and tiki-taka.
And then there was Real Madrid under Ancelotti last season who used counter-pressing to add balance to his side, make his team hard to penetrate and then look to unleash the speed of Bale, Ronaldo and Di Maria on the counter attack.
What is clear is that counter-pressing has seemingly dominated recent seasons, especially in Europe, highlighting the importance of a strong compact defensive block, aggressive team pressure and the value in being ruthless from counter attacks. And while there are some who believe that keeping possession is akin to controlling games, the new breed of counter-pressing coaches have learnt how to control games without the ball, seemingly happy for the opposition to keep possession as long as the ball is in front of their defensive block.
This modern trend has been evident for several years, so it makes me wonder why people aren’t aware of it, and more importantly, why Arsene Wenger has not attempted to counter it, deal with it, or even embrace it himself?
Definition of insanity? A failure to learn, time and time again
In the 12/13 season Arsenal faced Bayern in the knockout stages and were schooled by Heynckes side in the 1st leg. It was embarrassing to be honest. Bayern were stronger, worked more as a team, defended as a unit, understood their tactical objectives, and implemented them perfectly. Arsenal were the opposite. It was, as this blog wrote, a masterclass from Bayern.
Regardless of the second leg in which Arsenal fans/players hold on to like they achieved something that night (were still knocked out even if they won the game). What happened in that first leg was that Arsenal, after facing their better twin in Barcelona so many times, had now found a new enemy; German football and counter-pressing. Would Wenger see where the game was moving and seek to embrace the new German style? In some ways yes, his signings of Mertesacker, Podolski and Ozil pointed to a move towards embracing the German style.
However, those three players (yes even Ozil) are symbols of the past of German football. The modern types; Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Kroos, Gotze, Reus, Hummels and the modern version of the German model. Athletic, aggressive, versatile. Wenger’s signings were more rigid in their approach, German had evolved to become more fluid and universal, yet his signings were more akin to the rigidity of the past. As we have witnessed this summer German football has changed and evolved once more. Where once it seemed that Wenger led the way with innovation, he now appears to be playing catch up and falling behind the rest.
Last night highlighted all the problems about Arsenal’s ability to compete in Europe. Firstly, Wenger approached the game without any sense of it being an away game against one of Europe’s best sides. It showed a certain arrogance to think he could bring the 4-3-3 to the Westfalenstadion and compete.
Perhaps he was confident after the past two visits which had brought wins, yet in the game last year it was as perfect an example of ‘snatch and grab’ as you’ll see. Perhaps it was arrogance and self-confidence but I would say it was naïve and ignorant. There’s no way Mourinho, Simeone, Ancelotti or even Guardiola would approach this game with such an open formation and line-up. And what ensued was what we have gotten used to in recent seasons, Arsenal exposed away from home.
There have been too many battering’s in recent seasons for it not to be coincidence. There is clearly a problem with how Arsenal approach away games against top sides. Wenger apparently doesn’t concern himself with the opposition and prefers to focus on his own side and how they’ll play. This is just naïve and wrong.
In the top levels of the game you must prepare and analyse your opponents, know their weaknesses, their strategy. By doing this you can prepare your side to be deal with the opponents approach and hopefully by working on these elements you can overcome them and counter them. This is what Mourinho in every game, especially against the top sides. It looks like a masterclass nearly every time because it is prepared as such. Mourinho is a master coach and tactician because he studies the opposition and prepares a game plan to face them. Wenger doesn’t. And that is why he continually is being out-done and embarrassed by sides around him.
Last season in the big game away from home they conceded five against Liverpool, six at Chelsea and Man City. It is just not good enough for a side with ambitions of winning the title and competing in Europe. And last night the same kind of scoreline could have happened again. To leave with a 2-0 defeat was fortunate for Arsenal as they were out-played and out-worked throughout.
Serious questions over Wenger's decision making
Two questions come up from last night. Similar questions which arise each season it appears; why didn’t Wenger buy a defensive midfielder? Why didn't he add more defensive steel to his midfield? Is it philosophy? Pride? Ignorance? How can you think Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere are good enough to compete with Europe’s best midfield’s? Now the money was available Wenger should have made Sami Khedira an Arsenal player. He should have contacted PSG and brought in Blaise Matuidi. He needed more strength, more dominance, a player who can make Arsenal strong.
Arteta is an average player anyway, and fails to offer the strength and dominance which a Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez, Sami Khedira, Arturo Vidal, Nemanja Matic, Yaya Toure (actually Fernandinho is the more important midfielder at City) type midfielder can provide. These complete midfielders resemble a player who once dominated English football, Patrick Vieira. Why, oh why has Wenger never replaced him? It was this type of player, the strength of the spine, which made Arsenal such a force a decade ago.
And yes, Barca showed a different approach can work, but look at the present day game and see the trends, German football is leading the way! The strong, athletic, physical and skilful player is the key player for team’s success (Angel Di Maria ticked these boxes last season in the central role and it is incredible how they let him go!) In Arteta, Ramsay and Wilshere Arsenal look weak and the evidence was there last night. Dortmund bullied the midfield battle and nullified the wingers (and that was without their best midfielder in İlkay Gündoğan.
And this brings me to my second point. What Wenger was thinking sending out that side last night. A 4-3-3 with Ozil on the right? What was Ozil supposed to offer? He is not rapid like Walcott to exploit counter attacks. He does not track back or defend effectively like Robben/Ribery have proven to do. Ozil is a wasted option under Wenger because he simply won’t play him centrally yet feels he has to play him because he paid £42m for him. But it’s as though he bought him to appease the fans without a thought of actually what to do with him.
Now I happen to think that Ozil’s type is becoming lessimportant, in just a matter of years we have seen players like Mata, Sneijder, Ozil, Kagawa all go from key players in the central role to becoming used wider or not at all. That ‘10’ role has become a place for a more defensive, complete midfielder. Thus we see Gotze, Modric, Oscar, Ramsey, Kroos becoming more important in this position. Therefore the question becomes, do these rigid 10’s have a place in the modern game?
Of course when you spend £42m you should use them though right? And this is where my criticism of Wenger comes in terms of being behind the rest. It’s like Moyes buying Mata. In both cases Madrid and Chelsea, they had players in Modric and Oscar who they preferred because they suited their tactics more (and remember Madrid won the Champions League and Chelsea reached the semi’s, so their coaches weren’t wrong in their decisions). Would that £42m have been better suited on Draxler? Reus? Imagine the type of midfielder you could have bought with that money? But it was desperation because it was the final day and a marquee name was needed. Once again a reflection on the transfer approach at Arsenal.
But okay, you sign a world class (at that time he was) player in Ozil. And surely after watching him play for Madrid for the past couple of years you see a player who is one of the best playmakers in the game, continually assisting for his side. The decision is simple surely, you decide he is your playmaking 10 or you don’t play him.
Tactically either play a 4-2-3-1 with him at the point, or a 4-4-1-1 with him behind the forward like Bergkamp did. But just don’t play him for the sake of it because you paid so much for him! It is a waste of his talents, it is affecting the balance of the team and ultimately it is costing the team in terms of results.
Yes Walcott is out, and without him Arsenal lack that rapid speed which he offered, but Sanchez could do that right sided role just as well I’m sure. What about Welbeck on the left like he has done for United and Ozil as the false nine? Thus you get your central playmaker and three man midfield combined?
The issue however for this blog is that Wenger seems tactical inept for the top levels of the modern game. After being schooled by the philosophy of counter-pressing before, why did he not seek to embrace the ideas of counter-pressing, actually understand and implement the tactical organisation and understanding of what this strategy requires. If he had set his side out with this strategy he could have competed with Dortmund last night and looked to use the speed of Welbeck, Sanchez and Chamberlain more effectively. Instead he set his side out without any tactical strategy except their positions and the result was a side lacking any cohesion, understanding and strategy.
For Arsenal fans it must be horrible to watch, as Dortmund looked light years ahead of Arsenal last night. Wenger promised that once the money was available again it would be a different Arsenal we would see. Unfortunately this is the same old Arsenal we have become accustomed to and the issue is evident; Wenger is not suited to the nuances of the modern game and has been left behind by the new generation of coaches and tacticians. If Arsenal wish to make strides in Europe and win the title, they will need a modern, tactical coach who can make this possible. Jurgen Klopp and his counter-pressing revolution wouldn’t be a bad option.