Arsenal 3-0 Wigan Athletic
Arsenal are winning over their doubters – and they are doing it in typical style. Match of the Day pundit and former Liverpool defender, Alan Hansen, has perennially shrugged off Arsenal’s title chances but now sees them as Manchester United’s closest challengers.
But beneath their impressive form lies something more substantial, something a bit un-Arsenal even about their performances. Their is a mental focus and maturity, which, in past seasons may have had a knock-on effect on consistency. Their is a resilience also – owing to their cleans sheets in the last four matches – and a tactical obduracy which perhaps we have not seen during the second-half of the decade gone by. And despite missing a hat full of good chances here in the 3-0 win over Wigan Athletic, there seems to be more sting in Arsenal’s play. Theo Walcott adds directness and Cillit Bang to Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie’s flash and dazzle while Alex Song and Jack Wilshere do the dirty work behind. The back four looks more of a unit as well and that understanding was displayed when Wigan came out of the half-time interval with greater intention. Arsenal dropped back to make two straight lines of four and if needed, the wide forwards tracked the opposition full-backs all the way back. However the test is yet to come for The Gunners.
It starts against Ipswich Town on Tuesday, where we will see if the changes can produce the same level of intensity and concentration they displayed in their last four league matches. In those quartet of games, Arsenal has settled on their preferred line-up and it has been noticeable in the domestic tournaments, that the replacements have lacked the same fluidity and structure. If injuries plague the side as they do in the ensuing part of the season and as it so fatefully did in the 2007/08 season, or indeed, just the need to rotate, Arsenal need all squad members adhering to the team’s requirements.
The blueprint to Arsenal’s form
- Pressing and structure
That such request wasn’t quite the same for Andrey Arshavin, who has often been afforded a liberty different to his team-mates. Arsène Wenger makes frequent reference to his numbers and indeed, he is often utilised as Arsenal’s impact player but at what impact on the team’s structure? His selfishness is part of his charm as you can expect him to make a key contribution given the moment however it has become obvious that the Russian can’t be relied on to put a defensive shift. This bearing in mind also, his role on the left is already highly subsidised. That is not to sound like a unnecessary attack on Arshavin but it is to highlight how a change of personnel can affect a team’s dynamic. By shifting Nasri on the left and bringing in Walcott, Gael Clichy is given protection and Arsenal are less lop-sided. They can also cover ground better, as in the past, it left a lot of work for Song and Wilshere to get through.
The other notable change is that of the centre-back pairing. Laurent Koscielny was identified by Wenger as the defender to fit in strategically to Arsenal’s plans and while Sebastian Squillaci had a place in the manager’s mind, he was brought in later in the summer transfer window. His injury enforced Djourou’s prolonged run of games at the back and has given the team more balance. Squillaci offers a first-ball/second-ball partnership but the profile perhaps doesn’t complement Arsenal’s way of playing. The two defenders must be all-rounders therefore allowing the side to push up and play a high line. Djourou’s strength is aerially and that is why he was brought in against Chelsea but he also has a technical ability and mobility that Squillaci didn’t have, that forced Arsenal to defend deeper.
The pressing from The Gunners is more structured now; more sensible and strategic than intense whereas last season, it may have looked like a flurry of shirts blindly at the ball. Arsenal follow the Dutch principle of “through marking” which means eliminating the next pass through tight-marking. For example when a midfielder, such a Cesc Fabregas pushes out and presses an opponent, his team-mate(s) must back him up by getting tight and eliminate all other passing options. Below is the graphic illustrating the use against Wigan’s 4-3-3.
<Figure 1> Arsenal’s pressing this season is more focused on stopping the pass through midfield.Against Chelsea, Arsenal did that expertly. They let the centre-backs have possession of the ball but ensured it was difficult to build out play forward. John Obi Mikel was pressed tight in the first-half and when he was taken off in the following half, Arsenal gained their two goals by intercepting Michael Essien. It was a tactical blunder by Chelsea who, by stripping themselves of the best ball circulator, made them susceptible to the press. Against Manchester City, they were less intense but similar made it difficult for them to play the ball out. Wigan had a good amount of the ball, particularly in the start of the second-half but Arsenal’s quick closing down of space, this time in defence, made it non-threatening possession.
- The universal striker
“Van Persie is a technical striker with short, sharp movements and [he] can bring other players in, said Wenger.” “In our system that is very important. He works hard for the team like all the other strikers and he is a left-footed player who gives different angles in the build up of the game. He depends on his physical sharpness.”
A key feature of the win against Wigan was the amount of times the Arsenal midfielders took up central positions despite Robin van Persie bagging all three goals. The Gunners had twenty-four shots, the front four making up the majority of them. Van Persie’s movement brings others in and he profited for his hat-trick by Walcott taking a central role. Van Persie was then able to proceed unmarked to poke in the third. Fabregas’s burst helped win the penalty and generally, Arsenal’s build up around the box was too wizardry and pacey – as Hansen noted – for Wigan to cope. The triumvirate of van Persie, Fabregas and Nasri in particular looks scintillation and with the technical excellency being backed up behind, it has put Arsenal in a good position for the second-half of the season.