Sunday, December 4, 2022

Tactics column: Cazorla steps up as Wilshere’s influence grows

In the end, Arsenal were indebted to their “Happy Wanderer” for securing the three points against Fulham. Starting on the left flank but never truly sticking there, it was the ever-smiling Santi Cazorla whose two goals gave Arsenal the win at a time when they were not so much beginning to look desperate, but were starting to look around for somebody to step forward and make their dominance count. Cazorla did.

His two goals, coming within four minutes of each other, arrived at a time in the second-half when Arsenal’s attacks at the Fulham goal were almost relentless. Which is not to say it was always like that because there were periods in the first-half when Arsenal were inexplicably passive, allowing Fulham’s two Brobdingagian centre-backs, not noted for their ability to pass incisively, to play the ball at will into the midfield. Arsenal’s attacks were no more incisive although they passed the ball diligently and accurately, they suffered due to a combination of disciplined defending by Fulham and the handbrake being well and truly left on.

It was obvious in the second-half Arsenal needed a change – although not in the conventional sense. Because while other managers might bring on another forward – a luxury The Gunners don’t have – or persistently lump the ball forward, Arsene Wenger’s answer is for the team to move up a gear and pass the ball faster when it seems impossible. When the first goal came, it came exactly how Wenger would have wanted it: quick one-touch football around the box with runners making runs off the totem-pole pivot of Olivier Giroud. They tried it in the first-half but their game was splayed with inhibition, as highlighted by the marked improvement of Serge Gnabry in the second-half who instead of going backwards, ferreted and funneled towards the goal.

It was, though, Santi Cazorla who made the difference, who was able to elevate Arsenal’s passing game to another level. Nominally the furthermost left-sided of Arsenal’s attacking players, he requires 360° movement to take advantage of his two-footedness as opponents don’t know which way he’s going to turn. (It was notable that a couple of turnovers in the first-half came when he was forced towards the touchline).

Wenger gives freedom to his wide players to go inside and out because he knows the touchline is more of a debilitating influence on his creative players’ ability to affect the game than a full-back breathing closely down your neck. And when Arsenal pass well, that freedom of movement can be devastating, allowing the creative players to feed off each other and move into the spaces the other vacates.

The opener was a wonderful Arsenal goal. Jack Wilshere ran into a space to the left of Fulham’s goal, creating the space for Cazorla to find Giroud, and he played a sumptuous pass to Wilshere. When Wilshere picked his head up, he found there were three options he could have passed it to and with each making differing movements, it fell nicely onto the run of Cazorla. The Spaniard’s wonderful balance meant that although he had to stretch, he could still find the bottom corner. When Cazorla scored his second – also into the same bottom corner – he started on the right-hand side and cutting on to his left, was able to fire the ball pass Maarten Stekelenberg,

After the two goals, the pitch opened up as if it was the end of festival season, the revellers packing up and driving away in their RVs for another year. Suddenly Fulham couldn’t camp in their own half and had to show more ambition. In that moment, it all began to make sense why Arsenal were happy to defend for periods in the first-half. Because now they have become masters at winning late – or late-ish. 70% of Arsenal’s goals have come in the second-half, and 22 out of their 39 goals in the league coming after the 60 minute mark. Their opener against Fulham came a bit earlier, on 58 minutes, but they’re managing matches better now, more willing and able to sit back and soak pressure, to hold an opponent at arm’s length.

Wenger explains the approach: “We were a bit one-paced in the first half and we needed to go up a gear to create the chances, which we did,” he said. “We needed to be stable defensively, that gives you confidence. The players don’t become nervous, the crowd doesn’t become nervous as long as it is 0-0 because you know that at some stage you have the capacity to score.

“It is massive because how many times have we played at home running after the goals we have conceded. That makes it much more difficult and on the nervy side. That [defensive] stability gives confidence to the team.”

One player who is playing with confidence is Jack Wilshere who was once again influential in starting many of Arsenal’s attacks. There is no magic formula for his upturn in form; he’s simply playing more regularly in his favoured position. Of course, his performances mean Arsene Wenger faces that nice dilemma of who to start in central midfield when Aaron Ramsey returns. One guesses, with Theo Walcott out, Wenger will be more willing to go “wingerless” and that probably means Wilshere out wide in a way to placate both talents.

Either way, Wenger would love to keep Wilshere in the team because it’s no coincidence that the three of the best teams goals have Arsenal scored have featured him (linking up with Cazorla/Giroud not to mention (v Swansea, Norwich and the first against Fulham). He’s grown up with the “Arsenal Way,” frequently name drops it in interviews as if it’s a sponsored fast-food joint; as if it’s the only way he knows.

In a subtler way to how Wilshere’s drive has become crucial to Arsenal’s play, Mesut Ozil’s importance to the side has gained another layer, with Wenger saying “the quality of his passing slowly drains the opponent as he passes always the ball when you do not want him to do it. That slowly allows us to take over.” So Ozil’s not just an attacking weapon then; nor a controlling one, but also a defensive one, allowing Arsenal to keep opponents at arm’s length, and luring them into a sense of comfort that is also complacent.

It’s for that reason that I always say Ozil has an influential, if not excellent game for Arsenal. Because, even when he’s not producing assists or key passes, there are other ways to affect the game and Ozil’s game is about slipping unnoticed, doing damage gradually with each pass that the opponent allows him to make.

As Ed Smith writes for Intelligent Life, even in a harmonious game such as football, “a winning team does not, in fact, require everyone to play well all the time—or even any of the time.” In it, he writes Sir Alex Ferguson used to say he only eight players to perform well to win. Instead, Smith argues, “a subtler kind of majority is also needed for long-term victory: a core of team-spirited players.” Ozil fits in perfectly with that description; a technical leader who, not only has lifted the team purely for being who he is and the way he sees the game, but also somebody who has adopted the spirit of the collective.

If you watch his positioning in the defensive phase, see how he’s always hustling and bustling, making sure he’s there to slow the opposition down so that the other attacking players can get back into position. As it turned out, Ozil wasn’t able to decide the game with a direct contribution but no matter when others step up: Ozil’s effort lies in the way he makes the whole team play better.

NB: I couldn’t find a way to fit it in, but how good was Wojciech Szczesny in the first-half? He showed brilliant anticipation on two or three occasions, in particular when diving at Kacaniclic’s feet, to sweep up the danger. In the second-half he fumbled one difficult chance at Darren Bent’s feet but it’s comforting to know that even when a pass beats the defence, the goalkeeper is more alert than anyone to remove the danger.

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