Possession without a purpose? Arsenal’s approach demands more than simplistic analyses.




By Tony Attwood

There is a headline in an email article posted by Canon Stats in relation to the Chelsea v Arsenal game that runs “Possession without a purpose”.   It reminded me at once of the comments that I heard around me at Arsenal Stadium at halftime in the match against Manchester City, and these comments worry me somewhat since they seem to reflect not just a complete misunderstanding of Arsenal’s gameplan, but a feeling that one can’t comment on Arsenal or a match without being critical and negative.

Now of course I know where this comes from – it is what the media do all day long.  But these commentaries ignore as a starting point that at least at the moment that I write this, Arsenal are second in the league, equal on points with Manchester City and just two goals behind them in the goal difference chart.   Something which two years ago, would have had most people shaking their heads in disbelief at the notion that this could be achieved with the same manager still at the helm. 

And just to remind you let me publish the league table from that moment, once again.  It is taken from 24 October 2021, just two years ago, and the moment at which all the clubs had played nine games, as now.


Team P W D L F A GD Pts
1 Chelsea 9 7 1 1 23 3 20 22
2 Liverpool 9 6 3 0 27 6 21 21
3 Manchester City 9 6 2 1 20 4 16 20
4 West Ham United 9 5 2 2 16 10 6 17
5 Brighton and Hove Albion 9 4 3 2 9 9 0 15
6 Tottenham Hotspur 9 5 0 4 9 13 -4 15
7 Manchester United 9 4 2 3 16 15 1 14
8 Everton 9 4 2 3 15 14 1 14
9 Leicester City 9 4 2 3 15 15 0 14
10 Arsenal 9 4 2 3 10 13 -3 14


Now Arsenal’s move from that disappointing mid-table position to one in which they are challenging at the top of the league is surely something to be celebrated.  But no, what we get is the comment, “Arsenal super sloppy,” with no thought what Arsenal were playing at.

But if they were super sloppy was it because they didn’t care, or because Chelsea went 110% at them, without thought of how they might be able to sustain that approach, or because Arsenal players were under instruction from Arteta to take it easy, let Chelsea rush at it, and await for the chances that will emerge as they eventually tire?   Or maybe some other tactical decision.

Such matters are rarely if ever considered.  Instead, there is this simplistic notion that football can be understood simply by watching individual moments and drawing conclusions from them, rather than looking at the broader perspectives.

But more oddly the commentary then says that the game later “followed what has become the pretty usual pattern that we have grown to expect from games…”

And yet, as surely everyone who was there (and quite possibly some who simply just watched highlights on TV) would have seen, the “usual pattern” if there was one, was most certainly not present in the first half of the game against Manchester City.

Indeed more and more I am reaching the conclusion that there is no “usual pattern” with Arsenal, but rather a set of different patterns that are as much about misleading the opposition so that they change from their own fairly set pattern, into a more gung-ho approach, thus leaving Arsenal the chance to score.

To explore this further, take a look at what the league table would look like if it only included matches up to half time.


    P W D L F A GD Pts
1 West Ham United 8 5 3 0 8 2 +6 18
2 Manchester City 9 5 2 2 9 3 +6 17
3 Brentford 9 4 5 0 8 4 +4 17
4 Newcastle United 9 5 1 3 10 4 +6 16
5 Chelsea 9 3 6 0 7 3 +4 15
6 Liverpool 9 3 4 2 9 7 +2 13
7 Brighton & Hove 9 4 1 4 6 9 -3 13
8 Aston Villa 8 3 3 2 8 4 +4 12
9 Tottenham Hotspur 8 2 6 0 7 5 +2 12
10 Arsenal 9 2 5 2 6 4 +2 11


Now seeing that you could argue that this proves the point – that if Arsenal only went for the jugular in the first half they would be way out in front after 100 minutes (which is now how long the 90-minute games usually take).

But that assumes teams can play at 100% for 100 minutes – yet I think all the evidence is they cannot.  So what most teams do is go at it like mad from the start, take it easier in the second half and if need be play on adrenaline alone at the end.   Arsenal have in fact inverted that, removed the “adrenaline style” and time and again the result is catching teams by surprise.

However so central to many commentators’ viewpoint is the notion that Arsenal could be so much better if only the commentator were listened to, we get statements such as “At times it looked like the players had never played together before.”

Now just think about that.  Arsenal were second in the league last season, and this season are currently sitting second once again.   And this is just two years after these same commentators were generally calling for Arteta to be sacked.

He wasn’t, Arsenal came second last season, are second on goal difference now, and yet these people who have never managed a professional football team in their lives, and quite possibly not managed any organisation, are telling us how it should be done.

(And just in case you want to throw that one back at me, no of course I have not managed a football team myself, but at least I was chair of a plc for 20 odd years before I retired, so I have managed something, and if it taught me anything, it was that management decisions are fiendishly complex, although there is never a shortage of people around with no managerial experience who were wanting to tell me how to do my job).

So to return to my chosen commentator on yesterday’s game he added, “This was supposed to be the game where the hope of the attack clicking comes back with the starting front three from last season starting for the first time. Well it didn’t work today with passes not finding their destination and no dangerous shots happening at all.”

Was it supposed to be that?  How do you know it was supposed to be like that?  Oh I know.  It was because the media said so.  

OK you can believe that Arsenal were hopelessly prepared and performed hopelessly because, “They didn’t have their first shot until the 20th minute and managed just three shots in the first half.”   And then one can say, “It was dismal,” or one can say, “Arsenal utilised the approach that we are now getting used to seeing, of misleading the opposition while exploring how their opponents want to play, so that Aretea’s micromanagement can then be used to change Arsenal’s approach and catch the opposition unaware.”

That, for me at least, far better describes what we are seeing this season.

10 Replies to “Possession without a purpose? Arsenal’s approach demands more than simplistic analyses.”

  1. I do not disagree with your theme that commentators often talk for the sake of talking, much of what they say is incorrect and due to some commentators having played for other clubs they are also biased against Arsenal.

    What I do think you have got wrong is that Arsenal did not play well yesterday although one of the goals against was cheating/bias from VAR and the referee and the other was a fluke with a bit of help from the goalkeeper being out of position. Jesus was inefective, Odergaard was not as good as he normally is, Saka was well managed by the defence and Zinchenko was poor.

    The Chelsea midfield played well but they were helped by the referee and VAR also not giving a blatent penalty when Sanchez charged into Jesus. If Arsenal had been treated fairly and honestly by the referee and VAR what we would have been saying is that we won despite not being at our best.

  2. Philip

    Have to agree 100%

    Even with us not at our best, basically it took the assistance of a cheating b’std on VAR to hold us to a draw.

  3. Aston Villa’s Nicolo Zaniolo is free to take his place in the match against the Irons despite having been questioned over the illegal betting scandal in Italian football.

    Zaniolo and Newcastle star Sandro Tonali – like West Ham’s Lucas Paqueta – are involved in the large scale probe currently being conducted.

  4. Well I think we need to be honest with ourselves & admit that Chelski is starting to find their combos, which will move them up the table too. Pigmob is a headache, but unless the FA does something about them, nothing is going to change. VAR is just an opportunity for Pigmob to have selective vision & influence matches with their narrative. So I believe Arsenal must find ways to minimize their impact on the outcomes while working to get better results for the team. The most important about the game is that it was a draw, which is a pity, but there will be another chance next week to get 1 over the dastardly pigmob….

  5. The commentator of the Barcelona vs. Athletic Bilbao match tonight made in interesting comment when discussing the referee:-

    “I don’t think there’s been any favouritism”.

    It’s out in the open.

  6. After the Manchester United Wolves penalty farce Webb said “things would change” but, of course, they haven’t. Expect another worthless apology. Will Kavanagh and Gillett receive the pathetic “standing down” for next weekend’s fixtures? Don’t bank on it. Kavanagh’s position was ideal to see that Jesus was wiped out. It was, incidentally, Kavanagh who gave the penalty against Saliba at Leeds last season or am I seeing things that aren’t there?

  7. PGMOL is an insult to the word “Professional”. In any industry you would be receiving your P45.

  8. So had VAR and the scumbag ref not intervened we would likely have won 3-1? I’m so glad I was not watching the game.

  9. No, that would be a simplistic analysis, of the type to which I was referring with the title “Arsenal’s approach demands more than simplistic analyses”

  10. Tottenham’s goalkeeper (Vicario) gave the ball away by kicking it straight to a Fulham player tonight. Fortunately for Tottenham, Fulham failed to capitalise on the error. The commentator (Seb “quite the” Hutchinson) did not mention it again. Contrast this with the commentator’s outpouring of bile when Raya did the same on Saturday.

    So the media are biased. I think there is a very strong likelihood that the referees are too. Look at Spain. Look at Italy. Look at Greece. Why would it be any different here, where this is more money at stake?

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