Arsène Wenger’s tactical reputation has been predicated on his insistence on playing the game one way: “his way”. But on Wednesday night against Montpellier, he showed why that perception of him may be a little misguided.
First was the use of Olivier Giroud. At his best, he was the complete striker, delivering two assists, one which was a deft chip over the defence to Lukas Podolski; the other a more routine knock-down. But there was the other side of his game which suggests Arsenal would be foolish to completely rely in Giroud to lead the attack. His distribution was erratic and when he dropped deep, he didn’t always find his team-mate. Wenger says Giroud “still has some work to do” balancing both sides of his game.
However, there is a good reason for Arsenal to stick faith with Giroud to be their focal point. In recent matches, he has been decisive, not necessarily with goals but also with assists (although he has now scored five goals in his last nine matches. His previous eight only yielded one goal). In a sense, Giroud’s goal record is a bit like Thierry Henry’s when he first signed, if you allow me to get carried a *little* away. The Arsenal legend had struck only once in his first twelve league games yet ended up at the end of the season as the team’s top-scorer with seventeen. Giroud may not end up with that many and it’s likely, the goals will be shared but there is scope for a purple patch. And like Henry, whoPhilippe Auclair chronicled in his biography Thierry Henry: Life at the Top, Wenger had little choice but to build his team’s playing style around his talismanic striker. This version of his Arsenal could thrive playing with Olivier Giroud.
Wenger wants to use Giroud as a “target man”. That may sound like a compromise of his established ideals but it’s not. Because Wenger, contrary to common belief, abhors possession for the sake of it. Rather, a team’s dominance is measured by the chances it creates to the ones it concedes. Thus, the more of the ball Arsenal has, the more chances it can create.
With Giroud pushed higher in the second-half against Montpellier and told to stop furrowing for possession deep, Arsenal proceeded to be more effective. They played the ball forward quicker with runners beyond, something which they fail to do in the first-half and that’s where we must add a caveat comes; Arsenal must find their fluency again with the ball at the back because in recent games it’s undermined their effectiveness. When they play the ball quickly, they’re deadly as Spurs with ten men found out.
“Giroud is good when he plays completely on the offside line,” said Wenger. “Sometimes when he doesn’t get the ball enough he wants to come deep. That is not his game. When he is a target man and uses his link-up play, he is fantastic because he can win in the air, he can score with his feet and can be a complete striker.”
Suddenly Giroud makes a lot of sense: in a side who pass the ball accurately in the final third and a striker who wins most of his duels, it could work really, really well.
The other facet of Wenger’s tactical acumen is one which we often take for granted as fluidity. That usually involves making subtle alterations to player’s roles as opposed to wholesale formation changes. It’s less easy to understand this say, when he uses a player typically unsuited to a certain role, such as Aaron Ramsey on the right. But the idea might be one such as what he did against Manchester City this season when Arsenal drew 1-1, where Gervinho, playing up front, was allowed to take up the positions which Ramsey vacated to try and get behind with runs from that side. In Lonely at the Top, Auclair talks about a subtle change he noticed to Arsenal’s layout in one game which he said Ray Parlour’s positioning high up the field made the system look like a skewed 4-3-3. Henry proceeded to him explain why Wenger adapted their shape on that occasion. Likewise, Ray Parlour used to drop back when playing with Marc Overmars on the other side, so the Dutchman could play close to the strikers.
Against Montpellier, we saw Wenger continue on with an experiment which he started against Schalke 04 in the previous Champions League game at the Emirates. In that encounter, Wenger was banned from the touchline and as such, the experiment lasted more than it needed to. In fact, it was a bit of a disaster. The idea was to ask Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski to switch positions at various phases of the match, in the hope that it confuses Schalke’s defence and allows the respective players to attack with a degree of unpredictability (see image). It didn’t work because The Germans defended particularly stoutly and Arsenal’s passing just failed on that day.
There was a chance to resurrect that tactic against a Montpellier side lacking in confidence and any attacking bite themselves. Wenger, though, waiting until half-time to apply the change, asking Podolski to get closer to Giroud – who had also been instructed to play higher up the pitch – and when he did, the ever-willing Cazorla would fill in. It was a success this time: Podolski was in the box for the first goal, in which the cross came from his side. And when Podolski scored his goal, Cazorla ensured he back covering.
I’m unsure to what degree you would constitute these movements as instinctive movements; as by-products of Arsenal’s fluid game. But the fact that it didn’t happen besides this 20-25 period hints that it was planned. Indeed, we’ve often seen interchange between Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski this season but not necessarily in the same vein. It’s often in-game, through quick passes between each other (and a full-back overlapping). Here, the interchanges seemed triggered by different phases of play. When the ball when out, they’d switch. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops, if indeed it does.