Tactics column: Arsenal intelligence

Have Arsenal acquired a certain game intelligence over the last few months? That’s the impression that they gave last night having, for a large period of the game, been forced on the back foot by Wigan Athletic, but responded magnificently in a devastating eight-minute spell to score three goals and eventually prevail 4-1.

Actually, Arsenal were probably at their best for the first 20 minutes of the match as they sent wave after wave of attacks at the Wigan goal but only had a Lukas Podolski header to tell for it. It’s tempting to say that the handbrake was well and truly up for the next forty minutes yet this is part of Arsenal’s game which has developed over these last months, for they remained resilient despite coming under immense pressure and they chose the right moments to pick Wigan off.

It’s an important distinction to make because when Arsenal were playing poorly, they actually did the opposite, as Thomas Vermaelen explains: “We’re looking at how the opposition has set up and reacting to it, rather than playing our own game,” he said in December.

Now, as Theo Walcott reveals below, the tempo is set at the beginning of the match so that Arsenal are better placed to react and that then Arsenal to use his pace to hit teams on the counter-attack. “Every game is tight and everyone is fighting for their lives,” says Walcott. “We know teams will have to come at us, but we have great strength on the counter-attack and hopefully we can utilise that.”

Of course, it was nervy watching Arsenal hang on and you might argue it was partly their own doing. Because their strategy of pressing in their own half, unless the opponent is forced all the way back, invited Wigan on to them as much as it gave them extra space on the counter-attack. It’s the correct idea, although the use of it can become self-perpetuating at times as it gives Arsenal an excuse to drop deep. Had Arsenal not scored when they did, it might have led to an even nervier finish so perhaps it was apt that it was Santi Cazorla – a class above everyone on the pitch – who made the difference, delivering all four assists.

On the note on Santi Cazorla, the way Wigan defended, with only the wing-backs defending the flanks (as they left their two wide forwards up the pitch), it gave Arsenal freedom of the flanks and as such, the two wingers were the key players.

Theo Walcott constantly terrorised his opposing full-back, Roger Espinoza, and actually, because of the way Wigan’s back three denied him space behind to make those runs he so frequently makes, it made him more effective. Because that mean instead he had alter his game and play like a classical winger. That was okay because Wigan effectively handed him the freedom of the right touchline and as Espinoza hardly got any help from his winger – who in this case was Aruna Kone – it forced a centre-back to be dragged wide to try and cover.

On the left flank, Santi Cazorla played wider than he usually does nevertheless, that still didn’t stop him ending up on the right flank to set up Arsenal’s second (and then behind the striker for Arsenal’s third). Actually, the second goal was almost a work of art, sculpted in the image of Arsene Wenger because it saw all three strikers end up in a different position to where they started. Podolski moved wide left, Cazorla drifted all the way to the right and Walcott went central and for the goal, the England striker was able to connect with Cazorla’s cross.

For the final goal, it was Aaron Ramsey who Cazorla set up and the Welshman showed great composure to give Podolski “the eyes”, especially as the German was on his hat-trick, before firing past Joel Robles’s near post. It was a welcome goal because it also finally put to bed the unenviable distinction that Ramsey had of being the worst shooter in the Premier League having attempted before the match, 41 shots without scoring.

Goalscoring is an obvious area to improve on for next season nevertheless, it’s been a campaign where Ramsey has improved massively in all areas of his game. Most recently, it’s been notable how intelligent his runs have become, often drifting wide to become the extra man, or pushing beyond the opponents first line of press so that his team-mates can find him unmarked.

It’s this energy that Ramsey brings that has made his presence in the line-up deceptively vital. There are no figures for how much he runs but I bet it’s lots (actually last season, he covered the most ground on average of all Premier League players). Indeed, there is almost a filibustering quality to his guided hustle, granting a sense of control that is essential to this team.

Mikel Arteta must be grateful for his presence because it’s liberated him as well. Yet, Ramsey remains a divided figure among fans. He’s set the tempo for the way Arsenal have played in the last months and it’d be just reward should he help Arsenal get the final Champions League place.

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