It’s been obvious to everybody watching the Premier League over the last few years that Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal have tried to emulate the way Barcelona dominate games with the ball. The acrimonious departure of Cesc Fabregas and some unsavory Champions League ties may have soured the relationship between the clubs but Wenger in days of yore has gone on record stating that Barcelona are the best side in the world. Year after year it seemed that the Frenchman repeatedly tried to mold his side based on the Catalan’s template; small, technically-adept players that don’t need very much time or space to damage the opposition. Last season Arsenal had the most possession in the Premiership at 59% according to WhoScored, with a pass success rate of 85%. Barcelona’s respective statistics were 69% and 88%, but then they have the best midfield in the world and took Arsenal’s best player.
The 2010-11 season was probably when Arsenal got closest to their Spanish counterparts. In addition to the stylish passing game Arsenal had been playing already, Wenger’s 4-2-3-1 allowed for advanced playmakers to flood the center and play killer balls. Barcelona plays in a similar way, with most of their dangerous playmakers looking to move into the middle of their attacking third. Fabregas was the stated number 10 behind Van Persie but Nasri often moved in from his position on the left as well. Jack Wilshere and Alex Song reliably recycled possession and screened the defense. The fluid formation was coupled with a higher line and harder pressing than any Arsenal used before. Using the Champions League home leg against Barcelona for example, the previous year Arsenal had been passive and was lucky to withstand a flurry in the opening minutes, however in 2010-11 Arsenal was the one pressing and causing Barcelona giveaways. They had more shots than the Spaniards as well as more attempts on target.
Of course in that same year all the good work at the Emirates was undone when Arsenal’s famed passing approach was negated by their inability to deal with Barcelona’s pressing. Whereas in the first leg at least Theo Walcott gave them an outlet with his pace, at the Camp Nou Arsenal never stretched the pitch. Barcelona hunted in packs and prevented the Gunners from stringing any threatening passes together. It wasn’t until Nicklas Bendtner came on late and held the ball up did Arsenal look like having a plan B.
No one can say for sure that the Champions League exit affected Wenger’s mentality but that season was frustrating in many ways. The loss in the Carling Cup final and the end of season collapse that saw Arsenal fall to fourth may also have had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, since then Wenger has become a tad more pragmatic. Now Barcelona and Spain’s tiki-taka are thought of as “sterile dominance”, oddly enough a phrase that would have probably fit better applied to Arsenal than the serial trophy winners.
The first indication of Wenger’s slightly more rounded playing philosophy came in the summer of 2011. Although Arsenal lost their two most gifted playmakers in Nasri and Fabregas, their replacements were not twinkle-toed doppelgangers. Rather, Wenger’s offensive transfers in 2011 were: Park Chu-Young, Mikel Arteta, Gervinho, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Disregarding Chu-Young who didn’t get many chances to make an impression, the others were all a far more direct style of player. Arteta is an energetic box-to-box midfielder that’s tidy in possession, strong in the tackle and with a fierce shot from distance. However, Fabregas managed the same amount of assists in his last season with Arsenal (15) that Arteta managed in his last five seasons all together. Clearly the former Everton man was brought in for a little more drive from the center of the park.
Gervinho and the Southampton prodigy Oxlade-Chamberlain were brought in to play mainly on the wing and some combination of the duo along with Theo Walcott played in the majority of Arsenal’s games last season. The reason they were brought in was so that when short, intricate passing wouldn’t work Arsenal could take on opposition defenders in individual matchups and score goals in slightly cruder ways. Not that these players couldn’t play the short passes Arsenal would idealistically like, but Wenger was recognizing a defect in his side and trying to correct it. In times past if pretty passing couldn’t break down a stubborn opponent then Arsenal would look stumped, now the side had options and a little bit of unpredictability.
How did it work? Well, Arsenal didn’t really contend for the title, however instead of limping towards the finish line this season they stormed to the end, overhauling their neighbors and finishing with an automatic Champions League spot. In said tournament, they were outclassed in Italy but almost made a memorable comeback in London. That game against Milan perfectly encapsulated Wenger’s more balanced Arsenal. They pressed like Barcelona but attacked with pace and vertically, using Walcott’s pace to set up Rosicky’s goal and using Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dribbling to win a penalty. Gervinho also played in a side that had only 46% possession but dominated in the chances created.
This summer, Wenger seems set to continue the recent trend. Van Persie may leave, but already brought in are Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud. Podolski has long been one of the more direct members of Joachim Low’s Germany, and tries to dribble at a similar amount to Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain while Giroud scored 21 goals for a side that tied for the most shots per game but only had 51.4% of possession. Arsene Wenger has already commented about Giroud’s “physical presence” and the different dimension that he’ll add to the side.
Supporters who have grown used to Arsenal’s stylish game need not worry however; there is a difference between playing slightly more directly and becoming Stoke City. As stated above the Gunners still had the most possession in the English top flight last season and even when they were slightly more forward-thinking, like in the 5-3 win against Chelsea, played quite attractively. In modern times, when top teams are involved in three or four competitions against a variety of teams from anywhere, even sides like Barcelona use multiple strategies. The 3-4-3 employed by Pep Guardiola was all about breaking down sides Barcelona found difficult to beat and giving his team more options in possession. It will be difficult for Arsenal to challenge for trophies this year with Chelsea’s transfer splurge and both Manchester Clubs not reluctant to open their wallet, but Arsene Wenger is trying to give his side the best possible chance.