Samir Nasri’s delightful brace helped Arsenal on their way to a 3-0 win notable for the side’s continued progress on their defensive strategy.
It was close to this time last season when Arsene Wenger hurriedly paced the touch-line against third-place Hungarian outfit Szombathelyi Haladás, anxiously trying to knit together his changing plan for the coming season. “The team we have now gets there,” he told Martin Samuel of the The Times last season. “At 22 or 23 I think a team is mature enough to deliver and it is a massively important year for our club. I am conscious of that. I know people have no patience anymore.” A year on and there is a much calmer looking Wenger on the Arsenal bench this time, more confident that his troops have the added experience to back up their infinite technical ability.
There are slight changes afoot as well as the 4-3-3 as played out at the end of last season looks set to be the likely formation against Liverpool on the first day of the season. Here Jack Wilshere once again resumed his dual midfield role alongside Emmanuel Frimpong – ahead in the pecking order due to Denilson’s injury and his greater athleticism over Craig Eastmond. Samir Nasri was pushed a bit higher – Wenger conscious that the modern game dictates the need to play in between-the-lines and in bands so Nasri pushes closer to Chamakh in the attacking phase. Wilshere – or the left-sided central midfielder in any case – drops back to make a two in front of the back four.
Initially there were a few problems caused by Sturm Graz. The imbalance in the midfield meant Arsenal’s back line had to push up to squeeze the space in front but that also afforded the Strum Graz lone forward the opportunity to break past the offside trap. Last season we highlighted the problem in distances in Arsenal’s had in their implementation of the pressing game and for it to work, space must be squeezed for the side to remain compact. Of course, it can be a suicidal tactic to push up as high as Arsenal did as the Austrain opponents looked to exploit the space behind at every opportunity. Johan Djourou in particularly, looked uncomfortable early on.
Essentially, in the defensive phase, the Gunners made a 4-1-4-1 and that left Frimpong isolated at times so the defence knew they had to push up to remain compact. That is why Wenger feels it is important for the forwards to press better and the central midfielders to remain wary of the defensive assignments; Jack Wilshere dropping back is key to the style as it allows the side to maintain their shape. Another weakness was the side being vulnerable to the long diagonal across the left-flank because the of lopsidedness of the system meaning the formation tends to slant towards the right hand side. Arshavin’s lack of defensive discipline and Traore’s tactical awareness was continually sought to be tested by Sturm Graz’s forwards who switched sides also to exploit this gap.
Fortunately for Arsenal, their domination meant such occurrences were not as frequent as they could have been and despite issues to be ironed out, there remains much promise, especially from attack as a form of defence viewpoint. Wilshere and Arshavin showed their growing understanding on the left and their link up play created many openings especially the space for Walcott to work on on the right. As it was, Nasri opened the scoring with the type of burst and clinical finishing that will be expected of much next season. Jack Wilshere was again in the action as for the second goal he won a free-kick on the edge of the box which Nasri delightfully dinked into the top-corner to give Arsenal space to relax.
Relax they didn’t however as many of the youngsters, ready to stake their claim for next season put in a perhaps more impressive performance than the first half as they hardly allowed Sturm Graz a sniff a goal. Henri Lansbury was energetic in the box-to-box role and he finished off a good move set-up by Jay Emmanuel Thomas. Thomas, playing as the lone stiker, was clever in his movement and although relying massively on his beastly stature, continued to create space for his team-mates. Theo Walcott particularly enjoyed the opportunities presented to him to roam inside and Wenger will be hoping that the same ploy will add greater unpredictability to the side (an article on that later on in the season). In central-midfield Eastmond had a sightly error-strewn half but the assurances he provides to the back four is almost Sergio Busquets-like despite his limitations on the ball and he reads the game very well. Havard Nordtviet was one of the three players to play a full game and was very astute and mobile at right-back – and it must be said his his long-passing, developed playing in defensive midfield for FC Nuremberg, were unerringly accurate.
Overall it was a promising performance for the Gunners who, thankfully it must be said, are ready to give greater attention to the defensive side of their game and despite a couple of niggles, the side did come away with a clean sheet. The goalkeeping position is still yet to be decided and while it is an issue that needs to be sorted, it’s still quite a simplistic view that the goalkeepers are to blame for the number of goals shipped in last season – it requires a collective effort first and foremost to deny those chances. And that is what Arsene Wenger is looking to work on for the coming campaign.