The selection was almost un-Arsenal like. Two holding midfielders – even having factored Arséne Wenger’s loose description of the role – and two wingers, this was an Arsenal side sent out to play with the circumstances. In truth, the selection was determined more by the spate of injuries the side has suffered since the start of the season but following the departures of Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri, it can be no coincidence that there is a slight change of emphasis. Gone is the over-elaborate passing in the centre and more emphasis is being placed on the dynamism of the forward three.
However, after a promising start, Arsenal soon found themselves in a bit of trouble, falling behind to an Antonio Di Natale header and generally sleep-inducing with their possession. They broke well but with he proliferation of athletic players in the line-up, it meant they couldn’t pass the ball at speed and that allowed Udinese to break quickly through the gaps that were opening. Diagonals between the full-backs and centre-backs were a common occurrence and the livewire Natale eventually made Arsenal pay, heading in a Giampero Pinzi dink after peeling off Johan Djourou before the break.
Arsenal needed control, defensively yes, but also on the ball because possession is much a form of defence for The Gunners. Wenger brought on Tomáš Rosický much to ITV pundit, Gareth Southgate’s surprise who could only muster a “possibly” to Matt Smith’s interrogative questioning; “Quick one, tactical or enforced?” The introduction of the Little Mozart gave Arsenal a direction, a bit technical quality that they lacked in the first-half and a composure in possession to effectively kill the game. If Arsenal want to transplant andynamic approach this season – of which they are doing – they cannot neglect the need for technical accuracy as Wenger so often preaches and last night he would have found out just how important it is from the performance of a vintage player. “I felt that we attacked and Udinese played on the counter-attack,” Wenger said in reference to the Rosicky substitution. “I felt that we lacked a little bit of creativity in the middle of the park and needed to be a little bit more creative. Tomas had a big influence in the second half.”
Rosický’s impact can be qualified by the statistics provided by UEFA. Although Arsenal had more possession in the first-half in terms of minutes on the ball, they held on to it longer and as a result, it let Udinese settle and then break quickly. In the second-half, however, Arsenal made 300 passes at a completion rate of 79%, a marked rise from the first period where they only made 230 passes with an accuracy of 69%. He gave the side a balance, affording Aaron Ramsey a bit of freedom to nit play higher up and allowing Alex Song to drop back to his natural position. In the first-half, Emmanuel Frimpong was at times overwhelmed by his duties as the sole holder and Song also looked uncomfortable as the shuttling central midfielder on the right. Udinese looked to free Pablo Armero and Mauricio Isla at every opportunity and Frimpong’s inexperience in the cover, not to mention the inefficiencies of Arsenal’s system, showed. The Italians fell by the wayside a bit in the second-half. There’s no doubt that the outstanding save by Wojciech Szczesny was the turning point and seemed to sap any morale out of them. However, it may also be of no coincidence that they disappeared in the last third over both legs as their style depends greatly on speed and athleticism and in the second-half, when they were asked to create, they failed to answer.
While this was a morale-boosting win for The Gunners and a great way to answer critics, there are still improvements to be made. The return of Jack Wilshere, as hinted by Rosicky’s impact, cannot come soon enough as their main source of attacks has come mainly through the wings. Gervinho was brilliant and Robin van Persie much improved but there’s still a huge reliance on the front three while their potency marks the fact that the creativity thus far from the middle has been non-existent in the three matches prior to this. Arsenal’s pressing also leaves much to be desired this season; it’s less intense and only really comes into effect in their own half. The intention is to make sure Arsenal keep a compact block when defending however the drawback to this approach is that it invites the opposition forward. Note that for Udinese’s goal, the centre-back, Mehdi Benatia is allowed to stride forward from the back before playing the pass to the midfield with little pressure whatsoever. As a result, Arsenal’s midfield narrows as they’re inevitably drawn into the man they’ve allowed time on the ball while around them, the opposition can make runs unopposed. For the goal, The Gunners allow three men to break through in between the lines forcing the defence to drop off. Pinzi picks up the ball with acres of time and space, finding the head of Di Natale with aplomb. The Gunners did press better in the second period and they are visibly better with their shape when they press higher as it allows them to man-mark earlier and cover the zones.
Nevertheless, it was a fine game of football Arsenal were involved in and more than anything else perhaps, they seem to have got their mojo back in possession. The win was more than the £25million Peter Drury exclaimed on ITV at the end of the game before adding ubiquitous advice of “spend it.” This was a win that confirmed Arsenal’s character; their ability to fightback following a tumultuous summer and a tough first-half. Seasons have turned on less; equally, there have been brighter false dawns. But this was a result to savour for Arsenal and it rightly puts them back to the place where they belong; as one of biggest clubs in Europe going straight into Pot One for the Champions League draw.