Tactics Column: Arsenal out-Arsenal Swansea but settle for draw

Arsenal tactics

The last time Swansea faced Arsenal, they comprehensively out-played The Gunners in a way which damaged the credibility of the “Arsenal way.” The Welsh side prevailed 2-0 at the Emirates and displayed football which was once synonymous with the red and white. The passing was slick, they moved the ball about confidently and their play featured lots of quick switches of play, the type of which, which regularly once got the Arsenal faithful off their seats to applaud. With memory of that game fresh in the mind – and indeed, last season’s 3-2 defeat at the Liberty Stadium – the prospect of a giant-killing, if that’s the word, seemed very probable.

Arsène Wenger’s selection seemed determined not to let that happen and indeed, that was mirrored by his tactics. Wenger has often been criticised for not adjusting his tactics to suit his opponents (that’s sometimes unfair as he does it in a more subtle way) but this time, his side’s approach looked to address the flaws in their previous encounter with Swansea. More pertinently perhaps, it’s also been a flaw in their last two outings, against both Newcastle (which my match report serves to highlight, wasn’t as good as the scoreline suggested) and Southampton. In those games, Arsenal dropped too deep – one theory is that it’s a compromise for letting Theo Walcott play up front, and another is that the striker himself, doesn’t work hard enough closing down defenders – and allowed their opponents to play. That proved fatal last time around against Swansea too so this time, Arsenal pressed up the pitch, determined not to let the Swans get any rhythm. For the most part it worked and the first-half proceeded to be an interesting one if not an exciting one.

Essentially, both teams traded tactics.Swansea, the team who like to close down high up the pitch, instead opted to defend deep, looking to create the platform for Michu to come on in the second-half and provide the sucker punch. On the other hand, Arsenal pressed and tried to stop Swansea’€™s midfielders getting the ball off the centre-backs. At this point, it may be worth taking the time out to explain quickly, the subtle differences in the way two seemingly quintessentially similar sides, like to pass the ball out from the back.

Arsenal’s is more position-based and as such, it’s easy to identify the typical passing lanes. The centre-backs pick up the ball and looks to feed one of the midfielders, usually Mikel Arteta, who in turn has the option of passing it to a myriad of attacking players who have committed forward in front of him. With this approach, Arsenal look to have as much of the play in the opponents half as possible.Swansea, on the other hand, have the majority of their play at the back and are happy for it. Instead, they look to work space patiently by stretching the pitch as wide as possible and eventually, this will create a bit of space for one of the midfielders in the 4-3-3 to find a killer pass. Arsenal acknowledged that and quickly looked to close down the ball whenever one of those midfielders received possession. But what Swansea do well is to spread the centre-backs across the pitch to allow them a bit of time and then play a searching diagonal to one of the three forwards. In the first-half, that was their most fruitful passage to Arsenal’s goal and they had their best chance when Danny Graham was found with a long ball from Kyle Bartley (see below).

Swansea 2-2 Arsenal: Arsenal pressed Swansea up the pitch but while on the whole it worked, Swansea could counteract with one long ball to bypass the press. They create one such good chance on 13 minutes when Bartley’s pass found Graham. (What’s also interesting about Swansea’s tactic is that it forces teams, if they want the ball, to push up, creating that space to exploit behind).

The first-half continued in that cat-and-mouse fashion, with both sides finding most space when they forced a turnover. Thankfully, Wenger realised to break from this pattern of play, his side had to move the ball about faster and in the second-half, they came out with a much higher tempo. Suddenly,S wansea weren’t so assured with the ball and continued giving away cheap possession. The two goals Arsenal conceded might get all the attention for all the wrong reasons and indeed, Arsenal should be criticised for letting in two soft-ish , certainly avoidable goals, with a bit more decisiveness. But it should not detract from the fact that the second period was one of Arsenal’s best spells of football for a while as they sent attack after attack at Swansea’s goal. The passing was crisp and the tempo was urgent with Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere’s drive the catalyst. The latter may have tired when Arsenal eventually turned the scoreline around but Gibbs continued marauding forward down the left and got his reward with a fantastically struck goal. (Indeed, the full-backs should get a mention here for important contributions in two totally different ways. Gibbs was the attacking thrust down the left while Bacary Sagna was Arsenal’s Mr. Dependable once again, protecting the whole of the right-flank as Wenger allowed Walcott to play with freedom drifting off the touchline).

When teams play like Arsenal against Arsenal, the recent trend is that they out-Arsenal them (wins against Newcastle and Wigan saw The Gunners accrue less possession). But if it’s a positive this time round, we were back to our normal, mercurial self. That’s a good thing, right?

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