Arsenal’s season so far may be summed up by the quibbles in agreeing a contract with Theo Walcott. Last night, though, it was another striker converted to a winger who made the difference. Jefferson Farfan, playing on Schalke’s right, created the goal that secured 2-0 victory and was a constant menace with his running. The Peruvian showed great promise as a youngster playing as a striker, attracting the attentions of Arsene Wenger, but coach Huub Stevens, who managed him at PSV Eindhoven, took him with him and has since used him mainly as a dangerous winger. Together with Atsuto Uchida, they were a thorn in the side of Arsenal.
Schalke overload the right
Schalke’s success mainly came from the right-hand side where they could double up and at times, even triple up on Andre Santos who had a bad game. It wasn’t necessarily all his fault; he was left suicidally isolated from much of the game and had to contend with the late runs of Uchida – who should normally be picked up by the left-winger – and Farfan’s touchline-hugging.
So strong were Schalke on that side that 50% of their attacks came from the right. It probably wasn’t a predetermined tactic to exploit Santos but it was most certainly a concious one – they just have better players on that side.
Focusing down the right-hand side wasn’t just an attacking move; it was also a defensive one as Schalke knew Arsenal are also best when combining down their left. Therefore, whenever Arsenal picked up the ball on that side, Marco Höger shuffled towards his right to close the Gunners down. Indeed, he isn’t necessarily Schalke’s first-choice midfielder – that’s spot goes to Jermaine Jones – but considering hisgood performance in the weekend against Borussia Dortmund, Huub Stevens made a deal with his two midfielder that he will give both players a half each. Höger would begin the first and set the tempo of high pressing and Jones would simply pick up where he left off in the second-half. It’s probably fair to say Höger didn’t all succeed; Stevens was unhappy at the “passive” start Schalke made (although he praised the organisation) but after 30 minutes, the Germans finally got into the game and imposed their true style. When Serge Gnabry lost the ball in the lead up to Schalke’s second, it was Roman Neustädter who nipped in with the interception and Jermaine Jones who lead the charge for the counter-attack.
If Schalke are clearly stronger attacking down their right, then Arsenal have their most fruitless passages of play when attacking down their left-hand side. However, that was also part of their problem at The Emirates.
If anything, Arsenal tried to get too much out of the Cazorla-Podolski dynamic that has been the most visible feature of their play this season. That they persisted, though last night, was quite baffling considering Schalke were constantly marauding down that flank while Arsenal seemed more preoccupied getting correct certain idiosyncrasies of their game.
The key to Santi Cazorla’s game is that he plays with freedom, gliding across the final third and making clever, vertical runs to get into space. Podolski on the other hand, thrives whenever Cazorla gets near him, attempting to use his quick passing and low centre of gravity to play little give-and-goes. The problem was, Cazorla too often started wider than Podolski an as such, it became a case of the two players getting too close to each other. And instead of Podolski making runs in the channels inside of left, he was only really able to get through on the outside.
There might have been two reasons that contributed towards this: 1) Schalke defended so well around their box that Arsenal’s joy could only come from the wide-areas but just as Norwich denied them, so did they. 2) With Aaron Ramsey drifting inside anyway, areas on the right side that Cazorla usually likes to operate were already occupied. However, this point is slightly a moot one. Because, like the dynamic with Podolski, Cazorla could still have drifted wide. Indeed, on a couple of instances he did link-up with Ramsey, it looked promising. It might be, though, that Cazorla prefers to pick up the ball with his body angled to play hence his predilection to slanting to the left.
It was defensively, though, that the Cazorla-Podolski dynamic affected the team the most. With Podolski given freedom of sort to drift inside and then Cazorla take up his position out wide, it often left no one getting back to help Santos. Indeed, Santi Cazorla was asked increasingly to drop back as the two interchanged in the attacking phase yet neither really wanted to get back to defend. At one point, Cazorla threw up his arms at the absence of a player filling in while Thomas Vermaelen seemed to signal to Francis Coquelin to cover. The young midfielder often did but with Steve Bould’s creed defending in two banks of four, he was perhaps unwilling to sacrifice the base that two central-midfielders give, therefore the onus was on one of Podolski or Cazorla to get back. It often left Arsenal a mess positionally down the left flank.
Arsenal’s problems are well documented; it seems like everyone has an opinion. Except, Arsenal’s AGM this morning shed little light on the problems with playing staff beyond the need for a new striker. At various points against Schalke, Arsenal tried three players different players up front with Podolski often interchanging to take up the second striker or centre-forward position. It was though, Gervinho, who played the role for most of the match with little impact. His movement was uncertain and jerky while his take-ons were often unsuccessful. The Ivorian looks better as a forward when drifting in between the left centre-back and the left-back as he did v Manchester City and he started that way until Arsenal began to play more down their left.
It might be worth a punt now for Wenger to go back to what was his Plan A and use Lukas Podolski as a number 9. Certain they could do with his individuality and spontaneity around the box which is lacking throughout the team, let alone up front. Indeed, that touches on the wider issues of what really is Arsenal’s problem. That their play is too predictable at times and that was summed up by the way they tried to force Cazorla to interact more with Podolski. It might be that Cazorla tried to force it on himself. But that may be futile because the relative freedom that the team played with at the start of the season stemmed from the unfamiliarity they had with each other and thus, established patterns were still yet to be formed. It’s dangerous for Arsenal to fall into habits that are too obvious.
It’s probably too early to expect too much out of Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky and even Theo Walcott considering he has one foot on the way out. But the fact it, they give Arsenal something different to break out of the passive passing. Against Schalke, that was the problem; because they lacked penetration, that drive (perhaps a chance now for Ramsey to play in the middle given that he made some good runs?) they needed to pass the ball even better than they are now and hope that that may open up space (indeed, after the Norwich defeat, Mikel Arteta preached more “patience” with the ball). In the meantime, though, Arsenal will have to find the resolve within themselves to get out of this period of impotency.