BEIJING, CHINA - JULY 26: (NO SALES) In this handout image provided by Arsenal FC, Abou Diaby of Arsenal FC plays football with children as they attend the Miaopu Huanghuang School which is funded by Save the Children and Arsenal FC on July 26, 2012 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
Arsene Wenger's football philosophy was heavily influenced by Ajax's total football style of the 1970s, and, as a disciple of that style of play, Wenger heavily favours universality and positional rotation and movement in his players. When the team is unbalanced, though, Arsenal can be very easy to play against, hence the Wenger-era record concession of 49 goals last season. Arsenal, at times, had a very gung-ho attitude, and while said intensity can be hard to defend against, the amount of times Arsenal were undone on the counter attack shows they don't always have the balance between attack and defence right.
Hazzaboy, in an excellent post, goes over how to marry Arsenal's two different approaches in the midfield, between a single holder and a double pivot; now I'm going to briefly look at how Arsenal approached Malaysia. Before exploring how Arsenal approached Malaysia and what it might mean for next season, there are two things to consider. Firstly, despite the fact that Malaysia were holding their own, Arsenal did not throw numbers forward as one might expect, instead showing that the emphasis was on fitness and shape, irrespective of the result. Secondly, Wenger wasn't fully pleased with the tactical performance, saying that Arsenal still needed some work, tactically.
Generally, you want your team to have a spare man at the back when your team is attacking so that there's enough cover on a counter attack. With a 3-man midfield, that usually means that the deeper holding midfielder will drop in with the two centre backs, giving the attacking team three players at the back, which should be enough to deal with an opposition attack. That, though, is complicated by the fact that Arsenal don't really have a designated holding midfielder; instead, in Mikel Arteta and Alex Song, there's a double pivot, which means the holding duties are split between the pair, relieving the pressure that there'd be on a solitary holder.
Wenger also wants his midfield to rotate roles and be all-round players, something that looks set to continue based on the amount of time Francis Coquelin was Arsenal's most advanced midfielder. Furthermore, Arsenal's rotation in the second half between Alex Song, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chuks Aneke was superb, and also created space, space that was exploited by Aneke for the winning goal. This movement, though, can mean that Arsenal are left with one midfielder defending against the break, or, if both members of the double pivot go forward, as they did on quite a few occasions last year when Alex Song went walkabout, not a single midfielder defending in deeper areas, meaning that Arsenal can be dreadfully thin on cover, which is something Arsene Wenger will want his side to improve on.
One way, of course, is for Song or Arteta to sit deeper, which does occur quite regularly. Both though, can be needed in Arsenal's attack; Arteta for his ball retention and Song for his through-passes, something that has featured regularly in Arsenal's attacking play. And while Song can still play through passes from deeper areas, Arsenal will, on occasion, need his ability to thread passes in higher areas up the pitch without becoming very susceptible to counter attacks. One way is to not commit one of the fullbacks, and against Malaysia, Carl Jenkinson didn't get as forward as one might expect.
Instead, Jenkinson stayed deeper, allowing all three of Arsenal's midfielders to get involved, with width coming from the natural movement of the players and from Gervinho on the right hand side, with Kieran Gibbs' attacking forways maintaining Arsenal's balance. Meanwhile, Jenkinson can slide over and form a back three, ensuring that Arsenal have enough cover. If Arsenal are facing one striker and one attacking midfielder, someone like Thomas Vermaelen can push up and take up a holding midfield position. In the second half, Ignasi Miquel didn't get as forward, but when he did, Nico Yennaris stayed deeper, showing that Arsenal are aware of the need for balance between attack and defence.
Based on the showing thus far in pre-season, Arsene Wenger still wants all of his midfielders to contribute to the attacking side of the game and the defensive side. If he wants his team to be better when defending against the counter, though, they will have to get the balance between attack and defence correct; this can be done in a variety of ways, either by not having one of the fullbacks go forward, or keeping one of the midfielders deeper. Either way, pre-season is a time to work on different tactics for the upcoming season and it's good to see Arsenal try to address the defensive issues from last season that saw them concede 49 goals. The manner of pressing is still a cause of concern; there were some large gaps against Malaysia on Tuesday, and that is something Wenger will want to address. But for a man who is often accused of being rigid, it's good to see Wenger trying different options to maintain Arsenal's balance.