It wasn’t very long ago that a team could come to the Emirates, expect something in the region of 35% of the possession, muster one, possibly two shots on target and find that that was enough to get them a point or three. Teams didn’t need much of an attacking strategy. Just kick the ball into Arsenal’s half and there’s a good chance they’d wrestle the gun from your grip, clean your fingerprints off of the offending firearm and hold the trigger to their own temple.
It wasn’t uncommon for defensive midfielders, defenders and even goalkeepers, to be pictured wandering in a state of defensive bewilderment as a rare opposition attack unfolded. Meanwhile the phrase “sterile domination” became a regular undesirable in Arsene Wenger’s lexicon. The transformation in Arsenal’s defensive third has been obvious to anybody that has watched us regularly since March, even if it’s taken the press and wider public a little while longer to catch on. To some degree this is understandable, they don’t watch Arsenal with the same regularity that Arsenal fans do.
This piece from @statszone nicely drills down into that improvement and quantifies it in the Southampton game. The visitors actually had more possession than Arsenal and, in the second half, were allowed 58% of the ball. The Saints registered a 78% pass completion rate, which isn’t too shabby for an away team at Arsenal. However, that number becomes less impressive when you realise where and how Southampton were using the ball – or rather where they were allowed to use the ball.
In the final third of the field, Southampton only completed 60% of their passes (compared to Arsenal, who completed 73% in Southampton’s danger zone). In their defensive third, the Saints went back to goalkeeper Artur Boruc an amazing 29 times – nearly once every three minutes. Boruc only enjoyed a 50% success rate from his 40 kicks. A lot of this was good old fashioned incompetence, as displayed hilariously for Arsenal’s opening goal. But much of it was down to Arsenal’s hard work and shape, as Anam pointed out in his column on Monday.
Boruc’s options were constantly limited by the hard work of Arsenal’s forward players, closing off his short passing options. Boruc gave us a gift, no doubt, but it was once we at least partially forced him into giving. In this respect, Mesut Özil isn’t as languid as he sometimes appears. He does an excellent job of sitting between the opposition’s defence and midfield. The occasions where Boruc and Southampton went long were not as fruitful either. As the FourFourTwo piece I linked above states, the Gunners won 28 of the 32 aerial duels in the match with Per Mertesacker winning all 5 of his aerial challenges. Szczesny, by comparison, found an Arsenal teammate with 65% of his kicks.
In short, leaving aside the numberese, we learn that Arsenal are spoiling opponents much in the same manner that opponents used to spoil them. Southampton substituted one of the league’s in form attacking midfielders in Adam Lallana because of the defensive job performed on him by Arsenal’s defensive midfielder. The suffocatees have become the suffocaters. Marseilles’ 2nd and 3rd attempts on goal on Tuesday night were over 40 minutes apart. It seems we’re more than happy for teams to have the ball in the middle third. But 30 yards away from either goal, we’re much more persistent.
Though those of you that feel a vague stirring in the loins for more in-depth analysis might enjoy this piece from earlier this month looking at the sort of angles Arsenal’s opponents are shooting from, or rather, where they are being allowed to shoot from. Fielding a settled back 5 on a regular basis has assisted our defensive consciousness, but so too has having an excellent goalkeeper enjoying the best form of his career to date.
Whilst Arsenal fans are recognising Szczesny’s form, I think it’s still taking the wider public a while to catch up. As I said earlier, this is in part because professional football journalists have to cover myriad teams and aren’t able to scrutinise and dissect Arsenal in the same feverish regularity as Arsenal fans. I would expect that Manchester United supporters picked up on David de Gea’s upturn in form a long time before I did. However, I think there may be other factors at play.
Narratives are difficult to shake off and that Arsenal required a new goalkeeper was a common recital that persisted. I also think the British press have a troubled relationship with players that they regard as cocky or self assured. I genuinely think there’s a subconscious reluctance to afford credit to players or characters that are regarded as cocksure. That’s an entirely un-evidenced (and probably un-evidenceable) impression on my part that delves further into the British psyche than I am qualified to probe.
Of course Arsenal’s attack has been functioning rather effectively too. The return of Theo Walcott, theoretically, ought to be a further boon for our offensive play. Walcott’s return offers the tantalising prospect for a partnership of sorts with Özil and Giroud. The German likes to start from the centre and drift over to the right touchline. He has already built a relationship with Bacary Sagna. They traded passes 16 times against Southampton, the most frequent passing combination in the match.
Özil likes to start centrally and drift to the right flank. Walcott starts on the right flank and likes to drift into the centre. The possibility for the two to interchange is an exciting prospect. Good players don’t just play as individuals, but they look to build relationships. Özil and Sagna already have one, with Sagna willing to overlap and provide an out ball for his colleague. Özil also likes to use Giroud as a sounding board for one twos in and around the area. You don’t have to be a footballing mogul to see how Walcott could turn this love triangle into a quartet.
With Cazorla starting wide and wandering in diagonally from the left and Özil going “outside in” from centre to right, Walcott need not worry about Arsenal’s build up play so much. He potentially has service from every angle. (Aaron Ramsey tried three lofted through balls against Marseilles too). He’s not a centre forward but he’s a step closer to being a striker in this attacking set up. I would like to think he will be itching to boost his tally too.
This time last year he was Arsenal’s top scorer and though I don’t think he is quite a central striker, I have the impression he thinks like one. He speaks a lot of setting himself scoring targets and I think he aspires to be Arsenal’s top scorer. With Wilshere, Ramsey, Giroud and Özil in on the goalscoring act, he has some catching up to do, which I think he will relish. Arsenal just need to be watchful that, when and if Özil and Walcott are merrily swapping positions, that they are mindful of their defensive roles too.
Like I said earlier in the piece, Özil becomes a second striker for Arsenal in terms of our defensive shape when we don’t have the ball. He breaks the lines between the opposition’s defence and midfield. Obviously our right back needs protection too. Those roles will need to be safeguarded if an attack breaks down. But Walcott should be as excited by his return as we are. LD.
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