Tactics Column: Alexis comes infield to wreak havoc in cup final

Looking back on the season, perception is invariably skewed to the now; things that happened at the start of the season seem an impossibly long time ago. So what better reminder of Alexis Sanchez’s consistent brilliance than his scorcher in the FA Cup final, a wicked, swerving shot that deceived the goalkeeper in Arsenal’s 4-0 win over Aston Villa. That sums up the talent of Alexis; he’s an intrepid footballer, fearless like a leader of a street gang, cooking up ideas behind his angular forehead that you wouldn’t expect.

For a while this season, it seemed like Alexis’ form had dipped a bit, though more pertinently others raised theirs. He dragged Arsenal through an insipid first part of the season with his awesomefuckingbrilliance, and looking back now, his goals and assists, appear more crucial to sealing third place. The journey twists and turns, thus in turn, contorts our perception, but Alexis was the maverick that always contributed.

There are other candidates for player of the season though perhaps only Santi Cazorla matches Alexis for consistency. Laurent Koscielny and Francis Coquelin only really featured for half of the season, while Nacho Monreal is unique in that he got better as the season went on. Mesut Ozil was the visceral treat, still somewhat otherworldly in his presence in the team, and beginning now to shoulder the burden of responsibility. Arsenal’s performance level in the FA Cup final seemed to go up a notch once they could get him on the ball, because before that they stuttered to find their fluency though they were the team very much in the ascendancy.

Arsenal created three or four good chances in the first twenty-minutes before Ozil flickered to life, poking the ball past Tom Cleverly’s legs then squeezing a pass forward to Aaron Ramsey which he slashed over. The next chance he created saw Walcott’s shot blocked off the line. By then the crowd sensed the goal and they grew acutely aware that Ozil would be the one to provide it (he didn’t), at this point each touch audibly accompanied by a thrum from the fans closest.

It took a while longer to come, and it needed a switch from Arsene Wenger to force the goal, though as noted by @TheSquidBoyLike, perhaps the players had a part to play in the reshuffle. Because just before the goal, it was said Wojciech Szczesny raced out to have a word with Theo Walcott. In any case, Walcott switched to the left and Alexis moved up front, giving Arsenal a more obvious focal point.

It was a much needed move because although The Gunners created openings, they weren’t entirely fluent in open play. With possession at the back, the centre-backs had time on the ball, but in looking for a pass forward, they often resorted to playing it long. They had some joy with it, as Walcott stretched Aston Villa’s defence and forced them backwards, but it felt as if they were expecting Olivier Giroud to be at the end of them, hoping that the ball will stick and in turn, bring others in to play.

Indeed, that emphasises the responsibility the centre-backs have in the build up, because often it’s their job to find the attacking players like Ozil and Sanchez. With Giroud up top, they have an outlet to eschew the risky pass and bypass the opposition press altogether if they find him.

Walcott did a solid enough job – and once the first goal went in it made it much easier – because his pace frightened the Villa defence, forcing them retreat backwards. That meant that if Arsenal could get the ball through, there was space to be exploited in front of the backline. This is where Tim Sherwood got his tactics wrong because for all his talk before the game of not allowing Arsenal to play, the lack of synchronisation between the back four and the midfield continually allowed Arsenal to get runners beyond. Sherwood naively said that he would allow his defenders to assess the situation before dropping off instead of rigorously practicing on the training ground.

That Arsenal couldn’t really take advantage of the space earlier was perhaps down to the curious way they bring the ball out from the back, pushing Coquelin up the pitch so that the centre-backs have more time in which to pass the ball. For most teams, Coquelin would be the instigator but for Arsenal’s he’s the decoy, pulling opposition midfielders back towards their own goal to discourage them from pressing up the pitch. At times it feels counter-productive as Coquelin is clearly good enough on the ball to create openings as he showed throughout the game, using his dexterity to get away from players in tight spaces. But it’s the Arsene Way, emphasising on verticality, getting the ball into the opposing half and looking to play from there.

When Arsenal scored the opener, it started from a long-kick from a long kick towards Ramsey and was instigated, ironically, by a fantastic switch-pass from Coquelin to Walcott on the left-flank. When the ball was floated into the box, Alexis produced a fantastic leap to head the ball back for Walcott to coolly guide home.

Alexis then provided the moment of the game, a firecracker of a shot that spit violently off his boot and twanged in off the crossbar. By this point Villa were deflated, and had no response to Arsenal’s football. The Gunners attacked in waves, with overlapping full-backs and quick, penetrative midfielders breaking forward to support Walcott.

The two final goals were relatively rudimentary finishes, a semi-header from Mertesacker and a deft Olivier Giroud tap-in, to put gloss an outstanding team performance. Indeed, it seemed fitting that Arsenal’s end of season form would be rewarded, the league’s form team since late-winter not coming away with the league, but the next best prize. The aim of course next season, is to push on, to add the most precious of silverware, the Premier League title, the culmination of a full-year’s worth of good form. Arsenal will need Alexis in this form, and the rest of the players to rise to it as well.

@ArsenalColumn Top 5 Players of the season

1) Alexis Sanchez: It was a joy to see him ferret and furrow this season, running up and down the pitch as if seeing the pitch as elaborate tunnels. He’s a curious team player, one that operates outside of the team at times, but every team needs one. The understanding between him and Ozil is one to look forward to.

2) Santi Cazorla: The epitome of consistency this season, having adjusted his game to the centre of the field. It’s not just his ball-playing skills or his deep-dribbling that have stood out; he’s tenacious as well, winning the ball back in front of the defence if need be. Perhaps there’s scope for improvement, or perhaps Jack Wilshere will assume his role. But modern footballer is increasingly about transitions, and centre-midfield suits him and the team well.

3) Laurent Koscielny: Even in the easy victories, Wenger goes out of his way to praise Koscielny, even in passing. He makes him feel safer. Per Mertesacker has had a solid season, but his concentrations levels seem to increase when his partner is by him. Koscielny cleans up the mistakes, even his own, and then bring the ball out with effortless class. It’s not rare to see him mop up the danger and then pop the ball over the attacker’s head with a “sombrero”. With a full season, he might have been the player of the campaign.

4) Francis Coquelin: Perhaps Arsenal could do with a better passer. But by concentrating on the defensive side of the game, Coquelin makes Arsenal play. Sometimes you can’t compensate on that selflessness to sacrifice yourself for the good of the team. Ultimately, that’s what Wenger looks for in his defensive midfielder.

5) Nacho Monreal: It’s been delightful watching Monreal this season because the improvement has been visibly, culminating in a fantastically reliable full-back, hardened by his spell at centre-back, who is more and more effective going forward, as shown by his delivery before Arsenal’s opener in the FA Cup.

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