Sunday, 14 June 2015

Arsenal season review 2014-15

When I wrote my season preview back in August, I suggested that Arsenal would need to improve markedly this season just to stay still. It was oddly prescient of a debate which has been playing out over the last few weeks over whether Arsenal did indeed improve over the course of 2014-15, compared to the previous season.

The argument that Arsenal didn’t improve runs something like this: in both seasons Arsenal won the FA Cup, reached the last 16 of the Champions League and were knocked out early in the League Cup. In 2013-14, Arsenal challenged for the League (at least until the end of March) and finished on 79 points, only nine points back from the Champions. In contrast, 2014-15 saw no title challenge, the team accruing only 75 points and finishing twelve points back from the League leaders.

Let me make one thing clear: the area where Arsenal definitely regressed was in the Champions League. Although it had an element of tragi-comedy about it, the 3-3 draw at home to Anderlecht was a throwback to the worst of Arsenal a few years back, and losing 3-1 to Monaco at the Emirates (despite bad luck) was, under the circumstances, the worst result in a very long time. Bizarrely though, that’s not the claim peddled by those who say Arsenal regressed. If it were, I’d have a lot more time for it - the Champions League is supposed to test Arsenal against the best teams in Europe and despite not playing anybody particularly good, the team struggled except for against Galatasaray. I’ll come back to this later when I look at how the team could improve.

In the FA Cup, there was no Hull-style early collapse in the cup final and there was an impressive win away at Old Trafford but the overall standard of teams beaten was lower. Call it scratch.

And so to the League campaign. The pure maths is somewhat misleading. It was notable to me how the team seemed to be playing with less intensity after the 0-0 draw against Chelsea, only beating a Hull team which was saving itself for a huge weekend game against Burnley and a disinterested West Brom on the final day of the season. This contrasts hugely with spring 2014, where only the last game was a dead rubber. Certainly, the dropped points against Sunderland and Swansea pushed the club down from 2nd to 3rd, but given neither of those involves a Champions League qualifier, there is little tangible difference in finishing a place higher.

That’s important insofar as had there been more on the line, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Arsenal would have beaten Swansea and Sunderland and improved on both points and distance to the champions compared to 2013/14.

So the final area where Arsenal might be said to have regressed was a lack of a title challenge. As I wrote in my season preview, for years the club has struggled when playing away after a Champions League game. Of ten Champions League games this season, eight were followed by away League games. In those eight games, Arsenal won just four (away to Villa, West Brom, Sunderland and Newcastle) and dropped some very disappointing points away to Leicester, Everton and Swansea.

First, this wasn’t a problem posed the previous season where far more Champions League games were followed by home games which is just a tangible benefit and a quirk of this year’s fixture list. But in addition - and this is why finishing third is so important and such an improvement - not only is the qualifier bad in of itself, it also has knock on effects on League form. One of the key reasons the club struggled to build momentum in the first half of the season compared to 2013/14 was this problem of playing away after Champions League games, something which was compounded by a lack of options to rotate, as a result of injuries.

The great irony is that the explosion in interest in tactics around 2010 coincided with what those in the stats community call the ‘enlightened era’: teams are generally better organised and more focused on retaining possession, leading to marked drop-off in shots per game, shots on target per game and this season, goals. In effect, since interest in tactics increased, stamina has become more important: it’s become less likely that a player is in a bad position because of organisation, and so being able to run more late in the game has a significant effect.

While it’s fashionable to talk about systems and formations, in reality, Arsenal’s lack of effective options to rotate into the team (particularly when playing twice a week, compared to opponents who had a full seven days to prepare) was something which had a significant effect, a problem exacerbated by a lack of a full pre-season for the World Cup stars.

In addition, and I appreciate this isn’t something which most people who go to matches care about, the start of 2013-14 was marked by unsustainable conversion rates from very few shots. In that sense, the drop-off in the second half of the season was simply regression to the mean. In contrast, the first three or four months of 2014-15 saw a freakishly high number of opposition shots going in, and it was always likely results would improve given the team was playing pretty well.

There are those who argue that this is a problem of mentality and that the players can only do it when there’s no pressure on. But this is counter-intuitive given that when you’re a team expected to challenge and you’re 6th or 7th at Christmas, that actually puts more pressure on.

Regardless of all this data-crunching (as I always say, it’s supposed to be fun following a football team), in terms of transitions and movement off the ball, the team is playing far better now, with several individuals hugely improved (Olivier Giroud especially) and more players who you think can ‘make something happen’ when a game seems tight. Perhaps some of the issues of the first half of the season were systemic, but more broadly it was a question of a (im)perfect storm of a tough fixture list, bad injury list (particularly defensively) and bad luck.

Moreover, the team seems more balanced, with a more sensible approach to big away games which has yielded much improved results. And yet, in terms of where the team goes next season, I have to disagree with my friend @RoamingLibero.

He says the problem against Monaco was one of panicking when going a goal behind, and that proper on-pitch management would be sufficient to fix this.

While clearly this would go a long way to counteracting the issue, it overlooks the root cause of the problem, that the specific players being picked make Arsenal play in a certain way. It was definitely an issue in the first leg that the team was overcommitted in attack after going behind; but it was a much more telling issue because of the personnel in the team lacking the mobility to play a higher line, leaving huge gaps for the opposition to exploit on the counter-attack, or alternatively, leaving Per Mertesacker engaged in a pace battle he could never win and therefore committing to a tackle.

But it also affects how the team attacks. Go back to the second leg against Monaco, a game which most observers thought Arsenal were very good in, and the problems were still on show there.

When Arsenal were attacking, the team had to sit far too deep to counteract a lack of pace of both Per Mertesacker and David Ospina. Had it been possible to push the centre backs up, so that Francis Coquelin could win the first ball out of the opposition box, rather than midfielders like Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil challenging for it, there would have been far greater attacking impetus, and the stronger Coquelin is also more likely to win these duels.

To me, it’s self-evident that not pushing the team up the pitch is a result of Mertesacker (and to a lesser extent) Ospina’s lack of pace. Not only that, but this also has a knock-on effect on the shape of the rest of the team: quite a few times, Hector Bellerin received the ball with Nacho Monreal quite advanced on the left. He didn’t want to pass to Coquelin because of Coquelin’s limitations on the ball; he didn’t want to pass to Cazorla because Cazorla was too far left for him to safely reach; and so, because of the positions Mertesacker necessarily must take up, when Bellerin passes to him the ball goes a long way back.

Given Mertesacker’s fondness for passing laterally to Laurent Koscielny, this means Koscielny has to sprint back to get the ball, and Monreal tries to cover for him in case he doesn’t get it easily and to offer a passing option by also dropping back.

The effect of this is to create a sort of split in the team which hampers the attacking harmony, allows Monaco to regain their shape and makes breaking them down significantly harder. And while needing to win 3-0 away is an anomaly, struggling to break down well-organised opponents is hardly something particularly rare for Arsenal.

Clearly, the organisation Mertesacker lends the team is enormously beneficial and he is an exceptionally good centre back. But he does require the team to play in a certain way to mitigate his weaknesses.

The problem with changing this next season is that Koscielny definitely cannot organise effectively, and it’s unlikely that Gabriel Paulista can, particularly while he’s still picking up the language. Definitely, part of the problem is mitigated by picking a goalkeeper like Wojciech Szczesny who isn’t afraid to come off his line, particularly when the alternative is Ospina. In addition, a better defensive midfielder than Coquelin would do a lot more to help organise the team effectively, lessening the chance of an effective opposition counter-attack and allowing the team to push up a bit more, even with Mertesacker. That’s where I’d prioritise improving the team over the summer and it should leave the team strong enough to challenge for the League title.

But there’s a part of me which is dubious that despite having an exceptionally high quality attack, Arsenal can challenge for the Champions League with Mertesacker at centre back. At any rate, an exciting summer awaits.

Keep the faith.