How do you explain the drop-off in performances that saw Arsenal play well (but lose 2-1) against Borussia Dortmund, and play badly (but win 2-0) against bottom-club Crystal Palace? Well, the long grass, of course. “We expect that everywhere we go,” said manager Arsene Wenger on Palace allowing the grass to grow longer to gain some sort of edge against Arsenal. “I will soon have a pitch at home with long grass to practice for when we play away from home.”
Of course, it’s slightly spurious to suggest Arsenal played badly mainly due to the extra length of the grass but Arsenal’ style, predicated on short, quick and accurate passes, requires certain factors clicking for them to play well – including the length of the grass. Some players were tired, but that’s the balance Wenger must strike now they’re top of the league: how to rotate the squad without it leading to a harsh drop-off in performance. And there’s the tactics deployed by Crystal Palace which were in stark contrast to the ultra-compact, asphyxiatingly tight pressing that Dortmund used in midweek. Suddenly, Arsenal’s passing needed not only be quick and accurate, but penetrative, and for a long while, they failed to do that.
It took until half-time for Arsenal to make the breakthrough, Serge Gnabry getting into the box before being brought down. Before that, there were flashes of what Arsenal could do but too often play broke down. Santi Cazorla didn’t get the same joy he got in between-the-lines as he did against a tired Dortmund side, while Mesut Ozil inexplicably raised his performance after Arsenal went down to ten men (more on that later).
Instead, up stepped substitute Serge Gnabry to transplant something different to Arsenal’s play. He was involved in most of what was good about Arsenal’s approach work in the first-half, crucially running in behind the opposition full-back (something Arsenal arguably failed to do against Dortmund and most notably, without Theo Walcott). It’s important that there is this direct winger on Arsenal’s right-side because they attack most frequently down that side.
Indeed, even without Walcott, their best approach play still happens down the right (against Crystal Palace, 48% of attacks originated from the right) as Bacary Sagna is fantastic at providing support (less so with the final ball although that’s improving), playing one-twos with the right-midfielder but without Walcott’s runs behind, Arsenal can often become predictable.
When Gnabry was introduced, he was instantly dangerous, playing a good give-and-go with Aaron Ramsey to tee-up the Welshman for a shot and on a couple of occasions, getting to the byline only to see his cut-back snuffed out. In the second-half, however, his tenacity was rewarded when he was brought down for the penalty. There is an argument that Gnabry should feature more: Crystal Palace is probably the level of opponent that he can revel against although, playing with better players is enough to bolster his impact.
Arteta or Flamini? Or both? It doesn’t matter!
Against the league’s bottom club, perhaps it’s not necessary to play two holding midfielders. Especially, considering the tackling ability of Aaron Ramsey, who had a strong game when Matheiu Flamini was replaced. But, it shows Wenger’s willingness to play a game where the front four are allowed to roam and the full-backs get forward without getting punished. It’s unfortunate that Flamini picked up an injury as perhaps we might have seen a more fluid performance, but then again, Arsenal started sluggishly and the drive of Aaron Ramsey in a deeper role was probably what was required.
However, Arsenal never really got going; Mikel Arteta takes a lot of responsibility for keeping Arsenal moving, and there is an underrated hustle to his game which sees him frequently steal the ball off opponents. On the hand, when Flamini plays, his positioning off the ball is often enough to compensate for his supposed technical deficiencies. In that sense, there shouldn’t really be a debate whether Flamini or Arteta should be first choice: there hasn’t been a discernible drop-off when one or the other plays and it depends on who you feel brings more value added – and not to mention the different qualities of Arsenal’s opponents – to decide who should start.
Indeed, that’s the beauty of Arsenal’s midfield – which also extends to the attacking midfield positions: there are a variety of different combinations that Arsenal can employ depending on the situation. Flamini’s injury was unfortunate, but thankfully, Wenger had the option of dropping Ramsey back and changing the dynamic of the team’s play by bringing on Gnabry.
Mesut Ozil: technical leader
There were two individual performances which stuck out more notably that typified Arsenal’s doggedness: Bacary Sagna’s determination at both ends of the pitch and Wojciech Szczensy’s two wonder saves to keep Arsenal in front. But Mesut Ozil’s selfless display in the second-half, after Mikel Arteta was sent-off, deserves lots of credit.
It’s safe to say, he didn’t have the best of first-halves, as he was squeezed out of space and key passes in the final third went astray. And indeed, when Arsenal went down to ten-men, it seemed he was a likely candidate to depart his past reputation as a bit apathetic to the team cause. Carlo Ancelotti recently said of his reason to let Ozil go: “I decided the departure of Ozil. I prefer Di Maria for the balance of the team. It’s true, that maybe Di Maria has less quality than Ozil but on a profile of dynamism, character and help to the team I preferred Di Maria.”
Against Crystal Palace, Arsenal found out that couldn’t be more far from the truth, as Ozil was tireless in getting back in position when defending on the right flank. And when the ball landed at his feet, he was intelligent with his distribution especially in tight areas. But there was another part of his game which went unnoticed: his leadership qualities. Because in the second-half, he was very vocal towards teammates, imploring them to get back into position and closing down correctly. It’s a side we previously didn’t get to know about Ozil. Wenger talks a lot about the type of leaders a club can have: technical and personal. Ozil has given everyone a lift with the way he plays, but he has also shown he has the character to match.