Comparing Arsenal's Premier League and Champions League Tactics

Mr XSenior Writer IFebruary 17, 2014

Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger waits for the start of a Champions League, group F soccer match between Arsenal and Napoli, at the Naples San Paolo stadium, Italy, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

Johan Cruyff once said: "Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is." This is a credo of which Arsene Wenger is a firm believer. This season has seen Arsenal reach the summit of the Premier League and the knockout stages of the Champions League. 

Wenger has largely employed the same formation and tactical mindset to each and every game. However, there have been subtle differences between their approach domestically and in Europe. Here, we break down the tactical approach taken by the Frenchman, and compare the Premier League Gunners to the Champions League Gunners.

Arsene Wenger: Tactics Technician or Technical Tactics?
Arsene Wenger: Tactics Technician or Technical Tactics?Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

The first and most obvious place to start is with the standard of team Arsenal play in the Premier League and the Champions League. 

UEFA's top competition is of a far better standard than any domestic league, the Premier League included.

There are very few teams of quality in England's top flight. Chelsea and Manchester City stand out amongst the Gunners' domestic rivals. Then we have a group of teams including Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton and currently led by Liverpool. Each of these six teams stands out in English football.

Chelsea and City apart, the rest do not rank against the better sides in Europe, and that includes United who are also in the last 16 of the Champions League.

After the best seven teams in England, Arsenal included, the quality of teams in England becomes average to less than so, when compared to the very best in the Champions League.

Claude Paris/Associated Press

This season, Arsenal were drawn in Champions League Group F, the dreaded group of death, with Borussia Dortmund, SSC Napoli and Olympique Marseille. It is conceivable that each of these teams would finish in the top four in England.

The questions posed by these three teams across six matches were far tougher than almost every other match Arsenal played in the Premier League this term.

At home, the Gunners tend to dictate matches by overloading midfield. In 2010, just before the North London derby, the then Spurs manager Harry Redknapp drew attention to how Arsenal win matches. He told the Daily Mail:

It’s difficult against Arsenal. They overload midfield, play one up and you can get over-run in the middle of the park. They can overload you.

In simplistic terms, Wenger prefers to use a 4-2-3-1 formation that can become a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 at the flick of a switch. The key part being, in each formation, that they will always have three central midfielders. 

Arsenal's Premier League Stats
Arsenal's Premier League StatsStats via

With many teams in England using 4-4-2 variant formations, and with Arsenal's players being of such high technical quality, the Gunners overload midfield to dominate possession.

Once the high ground of central midfield has been won, Arsenal have the perfect foundation to go on and win the game. 

The Gunners are a team of highly technical and creative players. The Frenchman likes his players to have speed, skill, an eye for goal, the ability to pass, vision and above all else the intelligence to use all these skills at the same time. 

Arsenal's players are all comfortable on the ball under pressure and have a fundamental belief in their manager's philosophy.

The Gunners have been highly fluent in the Premier League this season and have created an astonishing 284 chances across 26 games. That gives an average of 10.9 goalscoring chances per game. They have also scored 48 goals which gives an average of 1.8 goals per game. 

Every single Premier League team bar Chelsea concedes one or more goals per game, so Arsenal are always in with a chance of winning their respective matches.

Tactically, their domestic dominance begins with the three central midfielders, as mentioned by Redknapp. Then the two full-backs push on to further overload the middle of the park as the wide midfielders pull further to wings to stretch their opponents even further.

By doing this, Wenger hopes to create one-on-one situations for his highly technical team to expose.

It is a very simple tactic that works to a point. Given the quality on show in the Premier League, Arsenal will always win more matches than they lose. However, if they fail to gain control of the all-important central area of the pitch, their entire philosophy can often be thrown out the window.

Two perfect examples of each point can be seen in two games against Liverpool this season. At the beginning of November, an Aaron Ramsey-led Arsenal obliterated the Reds in a one-sided game after gaining control of midfield. At the start of February, the Gunners visited Anfield for the return match and were blown away 5-1 because Liverpool won the midfield battle.

In Europe, every team looks to take this area of the pitch.

Stats via

Arsenal and Wenger not only have to contend with a higher quality of opponent on the pitch in the Champions League, they also have to contend with intelligent managers on the sidelines.

The Gunners, in their current setup, find it difficult to counteract changes in tactics by opposing managers. Jamie Redknapp, analyzing Arsenal's 2-0 loss to Napoli for Sky Sports, credited Rafael Benitez with changing his tactics at half-time.

I think you have to credit Rafael Benitez because he changed it a little bit tactically, certainly in the second half when he pushed the two full-backs Maggio and Armero high up the pitch.

That forced Arsenal back and Rosicky and Cazorla then had to become more of a defensive unit.

That change is where the goals came from.

That made a big difference in the game because Napoli were a bit more passive in the first half, but they really pushed onto Arsenal in the second and gave them so many problems.

The biggest difference between domestic football and European football can be seen in the huge reduction of goals scored and chances created by the Gunners.

In six group games, Arsenal only scored six goals and conceded five. They also only create seven chances per game, down from 10.9 in domestic action.

There are a couple of reasons for this reduction in output in the Champions League when compared to the Premier League.

Champions League defenders are far more tactically aware than the average Premier League defender. Also, the overall higher quality of opposition means that you are punished more severely for losing possession of the ball.

Arsenal have tempered this by becoming less brazen in Europe.

They still tend to dominate possession, in domestic and European action they average 55 percent possession per game, but they take less chances. 

The three central midfielders that are so important from a creative point of view in England are more focused on possession and not giving the ball away as cheaply in Europe.

Arsenal: Premier League vs. Champions League
Arsenal: Premier League vs. Champions LeagueStats via

When they do make mistakes they tend to be punished. Midfield, therefore, becomes a chess-like zone where only 100 percent chances are taken from a creative point of view. If a chance to create an overload or one-on-one does not present itself, then possession is kept at all costs, unless there are no other options available.

One aspect of Arsenal's adventures in Europe that may have gone unnoticed is the fact that the Gunners are far more direct than in the Premier League.

Because midfielders and strikers are so tightly marked, options for the man on the ball become less and less present. As mentioned before, if possession can be kept, it is. However, when there are no other options available, Arsenal go long to Olivier Giroud.

In 26 Premier League matches, they have gone long over 39 times in just six times. In the Champions League they average 41 long balls per game. This is further backed up by Wojciech Szczesny's average distribution length, which is higher in Europe.

This does not mean that Arsenal have become a long-ball team. It does, however, mean that once central midfield is shut down, they find it extremely difficult to play in any other fashion. 

Going long to Giroud creates a half chance that the team can capitalize upon. It, more importantly, creates an environment for midfield and the defense to reshuffle back into their starting tactical positions.

Arsenal have lost two games in Europe this season against Borussia Dortmund and Napoli. In both games, the Gunners were marked man-for-man in midfield before the opposition pushed their full-backs on. This forced Arsenal to react in the same way that they normally force opponents in England. 

Here, the defensive attributes of their wide midfielders were put to the test, on each occasion they failed.

Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich: Tactical Battle?
Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich: Tactical Battle?Getty Images/Getty Images

When Arsenal comes face-to-face with Bayern Munich, they will be playing against, perhaps, the most complete team in world football. The defending Champions League champions are an awesome outfit across midfield and the full-back positions.

Their record this season reads as Pld:34 W:29 D:3 L:2. Only Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City have inflicted defeat upon the reigning German champions.

If there is one area where they are weak, then it is in central defense. 

Almost 10 years ago, Chelsea, under Jose Mourinho, visited Munich for a Champions League clash.

Faced with a similar problem to Arsenal, an amazing German midfield led by the irrepressible Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Ballack, Chelsea chose to bypass the midfield all together and go long to Didier Drogba.

The Blues lost the game 3-2 but only because Bayern scored two goals in injury time. The truth behind the game, however, was that Chelsea absolutely battered Munich all night by going long to Drogba, who was ably supported by Damien Duff and Eidur Gudjohnsen.

Wenger could do a lot worse than by following in Mourinho's tactical footsteps against Bayern.

Although, given the enmity between the two men, especially after recent comments, that seems highly unlikely. 

One thing is for sure, Wenger will have to tweak his Champions League system against Munich, because if he doesn't, the German's will run rampant over his team.

All statistics provided courtesy of unless otherwise stated.


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