Today's post comes from friend of the blog, Bobby. Enjoy:
In last week’s Guardian, Michael Cox asked: what are Arsenal good at? It was a fair question and one that went to the very heart of Arsenal's perceived decline. They no longer seemed to have an identity. Against Sunderland, they were moving the ball slowly; they looked heavy legged across midfield; they were making careless errors at the back; and all this with experienced personnel in almost every position. No longer were they able to hide behind a charade of ‘progress’.
In truth this lack of identity has been sniffing around for at least 6 months. The summer sales of Fabregas and Nasri, along with the injury to Wilshire has meant that, put simply, the Arsenal midfield has deteriorated in quality. This was very evident against Swansea away in January, when the Swans beat Arsenal at their own game, with Leon Britton and Joe Allen dictating the game and pace of play to the Arsenal midfield of Song, Ramsey, and Arteta.
Identity and style come from the top and Arsene Wenger has taken great criticism this season with team selections (most recently away to AC Milan) and substitutions (most notoriously at home vs. Man Utd). Wenger has also been criticised by commentators, such as Gary Neville, that during this period of transition he has not set his teams up to stifle the opposition. He hasn’t protected his young players, made Arsenal hard to beat, gone back to basics, or more generally focused on the shape and organisation of his team.
Indeed the notion that Wenger occasionally leaves his teams tactically under-cooked has been doing the rounds for a long time, with Sam Allardyce commenting in the Sky studio a couple of years back that he believed Wenger was “tactically naïve”. Admittedly Allardyce is a disgraceful person, but there are many in football who would agree with this judgement. Even Arsenal fans would probably suggest that their team are often too open, too expansive, and too easy to pick off on the counter attack. Indeed the player that is notionally included to protect the back four is Alex Song, of whom Michael Cox claims “should be a fine physical force in front of the back four, but the insistence upon midfield rotation means he often ends up ahead of his two midfield colleagues, and is in no position to help.”
So prior to the Tottenham clash, a team that has been so lethal on the counter-attack this season, it was widely held that: (1) Arsenal lacked an identity; (2) have a manager that fails to properly assess the opposition and set up his team accordingly; and (3) were easy to pick off on the counter attack.
What occurred on Sunday should give Arsenal fans huge encouragement. Not necessarily because of the win, but for the first time this season Arsenal played with an identity and a new shape. We witnessed Arsene’s plan for this ‘new’ team.
It seemed to me that for the first time in 6 years, AW ditched his 4-3-3 which has basically achieved very little – especially against the top clubs. What’s more, in doing so, it appeared that Arsene completely out-foxed Harry Redknapp from start to finish. By my reading of the game, Alex Song played much deeper than we are accustomed to seeing him play. He played in the same position as that which is most famously occupied by Sergi Busquetes of Barcelona. At times a third centre back, at times a defensive midfielder. Going back to Michael Cox’s point: how often did we see Song ahead of Arteta, Yossi, or Rosicky on Sunday? Hardly ever.
Song’s deep starting position, allowed Sagna and Gibbs to play extremely high up the pitch – as out and out Wing Backs. Now, these high starting positions caused the first Tottenham goal with Gibbs caught high up the pitch. Commentators will chastise Gibbs for not being ‘on the cover’ – but against Tottenham he wasn’t playing as a full back. His high starting position was not because he ‘fell asleep’ or was not aware of the impending danger, but because he was required to play 10m or 15m higher up the pitch than usual.
Despite this formation being to blame for the first Tottenham goal, it was also the reason for Arsenal’s first. Sagna, playing extremely high on the right flank, found himself in the penalty area and tucked away a bullet header (As an aside, Sagna’s aerial prowess is very underrated – defensively he is probably the best full back in the premiership when it comes to winning headers against oppositions strikers and wingers).
At half time, Arsenal were by far the dominant team, had drawn level, hit the post and had other chances narrowly squandered. Perhaps the thing that made this formation so interesting was how perfectly it was suited to play against Spurs. Since December, Bale has been playing increasingly narrow, most obviously against Norwich at Carrow Road, and against Stevenage last weekend. With Kranjcar playing instead of Lennon, Tottenham were set up without wingers. Wenger knew then that he needed to win the midfield battle and get the ball out quickly to the flanks – where the space had been sacrificed by Tottenham. Recently Arsenal have been slow in possession – the ball played across the midfield and then back again – but with Sagna and Gibbs so high up the pitch, and with no protection to the Tottenham full backs, Arsenal were able to spring attacks extremely quickly, with acres of room in the wider positions.
Worryingly for Tottenham (and potentially for England), at half time Harry’s changes played into the hands of Arsenal. Had Harry brought on Lennon and requested that Bale hug the touchline, the extra width and pace may well have resulted in Sagna and Gibbs being forced back defensively and Tottenham getting a grip on the game in the midfield areas. However, in bringing on two central players in RvdV and Sandro, Arsenal were able to continue to dominate in wide areas. The substitutions basically had no impact and only gave Arsenal’s two centre-backs (Koz and Verm) and one half-centre-back (Song), fewer problems, as Tottenham left only Adebayor up the pitch.
The Tottenham midfield pairing of Parker and Modric have won great acclaim this season. Again this makes me think AW won a masterful tactical battle on Sunday. In playing Arteta, Rosicky, Yossi, and Song (sitting very deep), Parker and Modric were hurried constantly. In fact the only time Modric did have anytime on the ball was when he released Bale to gallop into the penalty area and ‘win’ a penalty. That moment aside, Arteta, Rosicky, and Yossi, used the ball intelligently and really put in a good shift in the middle of the pitch which enabled Song, and Arteta in particular, to release the ball to the wing backs quickly.
Overall, I have not been more optimistic about an Arsenal performance for over a year. AW can rightly be proud of his players but I hope he gets the credit he deserves for battering Harry in the tactical game. I also genuinely believe that this shape and formation will be a sign of things to come. When Wilshere comes back from injury, and when Ramsey finds his form again, this formation could really suit Arsenal's personnel. This formation also means that Arsenal’s width does not come from the wingers (e.g. the now departed Arshavin, Gervinho, Walcott, have all disappointed this season). Walcott can play tighter to RvP (as he always insists he wants to), and AOC can play anywhere across the front 5 positions along with Yossi, Rosicky, Wilshire, Ramsey, Gervinho etc. It really is an exciting formation for Arsenal's current players. It should also mean that the attacking players play tighter to the main man and start sharing the burden of scoring goals.
If this is Arsene’s grand plan for this team, then maybe Arsene knew all along.