Tactics Column: Second-half improvement enough to sink Swans

It’s said that champions must be able to “win ugly”. That is not, as it is commonly misconceived, to win while playing badly, but rather, it means arriving at some sort of compromise stylistically in order to secure the win. Mikel Arteta expands in an interview in 2012: “We need to learn to win ugly sometimes. There are parts in the game that you cannot dominate for a number of reasons — you are a man down, you are playing against a good team, physically they overpower you, for whatever reason. But you get through that and you are still winning. And that’s a good habit. Winning.”

This season, you could say that Arsenal are doing that, with Saturday’s 3-0 away win over Swansea City highlighting their resolve. The Gunners had less possession than their opponents – 46% to 54% – whilst wins over Manchester United and Bayern Munich also saw Arsenal more willing to see the game played out in front of them. You can call it “winning ugly”, although a better explanation might be that Arsenal are approaching games more on their merit now.

The players and the formations are the same, as are broadly the tactics, yet the team realises that there are periods where they’ll be forced to dig in and stay focused, thus they are able to switch between mentalities seamlessly. That explains why, after the 2-0 win against Bayern Munich, Arsene Wenger said they didn’t plan to concede that much possession. They quickly realised their high-press wasn’t as effective when Bayern were fully energised so they dropped back, and later in the second-half when they sensed the kill, did they revive the press.

Against Swansea, you could argue that the situation was slightly different. The Gunners didn’t consciously want to let their opponents have the ball, but in the face of Swansea’s aggression, they were unable to keep it. The first period was frustrating and error-strewn as Swansea ruffled Arsenal whenever they tried to play through them, tackling forcefully when the ball was passed into midfield, and then attacked menacingly when possession was won. Olivier Giroud’s header early in the second-half changed things completely as Arsenal could now afford to sit back and play mainly on the break.

Before the game, Wenger said he wanted a good defensive performance and that’s probably the overriding mentality the players took into it. Yet the passing was so inaccurate in the first-half that the co-commentator on the official Premier League feed, Dean Sturridge, said it was the worst Arsenal had played this season. Thankfully the opening goal came when it did and we saw the other side of Arsenal after the break.

Problems in the build-up

Part of the problem early on was that Arsenal were unable to create “numerical superiorities” ahead of the ball. This is a bit of a clunky term – basically it means how a team goes about creating free men between-the-lines (read here). Wenger’s approach to this is novel, as he instructs his deep midfielders to push up the pitch in an attempt to lure their opponents forward to press the centre-backs. The intention  is that it creates a large hole in the middle – in between the first and second line of press, or bypassing even both – in which the attacking players can rotate into and progress up the pitch.

However, Swansea didn’t rise to the bait but instead sat deep in their half to win the ball back quickly when the ball entered the midfield. As a result, Arsenal were constantly hassled and harried for time on the ball, and especially when they tried to turn and face the goal, were stopped by quite aggressive marking.

Santi Cazorla, playing as the deep-lying midfielder had trouble influencing proceedings, as did Ozil who was roughed-up every time he received the ball back to goal. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say it’s the main criticism I have of the German who, in the first-half, frequently lost the 50-50 physical duel, but was close to flawless in the second-half when space opened.

Thus Arsenal tried to play across the pitch more with Santi Cazorla tending to move to the sides of the centre-backs to attempt to pick up possession. Arsenal often get away with this because they’re good at creating 2v1s and have the superior dribbling ability to get out of tight situations. Here, it didn’t really work because the touchline forces you to play the ball infield most of the time and this is where Swansea were most organised.

It’s notable though, that the three best chances that Arsenal created in the first-half saw them find numerical superiorities ahead of the ball, with the example I use below show how Arsenal got it wrong the first time, but from the resulting free-kick (aiding the move because it was taken quickly), get it right by freeing Alexis between-the-lines to feed Giroud. The other chances, both to Joel Campbell, first saw Coquelin play a piercing through-the-lines pass to Giroud and then Alexis picking the ball deep and having three runners beyond to choose from.

Arsene’s way is unconventional but probably not the main reason why Arsenal were quite average in the first half. Swansea merely unsettled them with their aggressive approach and then attacked with purpose usually through Jefferson Montero crossing for Bafetimbi Gomis, and the defence-splitting passes of Jonjo Shelvey. It was the latter two that combined for Swansea’s best chance, probably the flashpoint of the first half, with Hector Bellerin showing unbelievable recovery speed to deny Gomis with the goal gaping.

Gunners improve; Ozil takes command

So what changed in the second-half? Well, it’s hard to say anything beyond the goal, which happened five minutes after the break with practically the first attack of the half. Giroud’s header killed any momentum that Swansea tried to take with them from the first-half and their focus and intensity levels slipped.

Wenger, on the other hand, says Arsenal entered the second period with more purpose and urgency, getting men between the lines. Certainly it was easier to do so once the first goal went in – and the second effectively ended the contest – because the game stretched somewhat.

Indeed, it’s arguable that the defence prefer it this way than pushing up the pitch when Arsenal “dominate” possession because then, they can drop back a bit and survey the danger better, and are probably less susceptible to the counter-attack because fewer resources are committed to the attack. Plus, it helps that Arsenal have the luxury of having some of the fastest defenders around, and therefore the recovery speed to snuff out attacks quickly.

Both parts of that argument showed in the first-half when Gomis was put through on goal, initially beginning from a lost 50-50 between Ozil and Shelvey in the middle of the pitch, and then the defence pushing up close to the halfway line.

Mesut Ozil was the standout performer in the second-half, delivering an almost faultless display. He helped get Arsenal from defence to attack quickly with his awareness, often drifting to the flanks to create 2v1s. He was unable to do that in the first-half as Swansea squeezed the space. Indeed, though Joel Campbell impressed, Arsenal’s relative troubles early on showed just how much they miss Aaron Ramsey because he plays such an all-round role, both a creative midfielder and a winger hugging the line at the same time, while being somebody who helps create numerical advantages across the pitch as well as being a runner behind.

The onus probably was then on either Santi Cazorla or Francis Coquelin to make the extra man, and indeed Arsenal were better in the second-half when Cazorla got in between-the-lines more and combined with the left-side. That’s the other understated part of in-game management; you have to give the players the freedom to play to their strengths and Arsenal are best when the triumvirate of Alexis, Cazorla and Ozil combine. The left-side bias showed just prior to the third goal, as Arsenal were able to slant their play towards that side with Ozil and Alexis producing neat interplay around Swansea’s box before Ozil picked out Campbell on the other side to finish.

Set-piece routines

It was another game where Arsenal found the breakthrough from a set-piece, with Olivier Giroud once again showing his value as an alternative option when Arsenal aren’t playing well by heading in Ozil’s corner-kick. Set-pieces are a valuable commodity in any encounter because you can almost treat it isolated to the way the rest of the game has been played out already.

The Gunners, just like against Bayern Munich and Everton, weren’t able to play with their usual fluency  but could count on a practiced routine beforehand to change the nature of the game. And it was the pre-planned routine that caught my eye rather than the opening goal itself because it’s been evident in previous games Arsenal have been trying new ideas to maximise these situations. The other interesting factor is that it only requires a select number of players rather than numbers in the box.

That showed with one of the chances in the second-half when Alexis found the ball at the back post but couldn’t convert; the rest of the players are extras and it is a bonus if they score. Otherwise, the main characters are the two centre-backs and Olivier Giroud, while the delivery has improved immeasurably from Cazorla or Ozil with more outswingers too, possibly to factor out the goalkeeper.

Mertesacker tends to be the decoy, blocking off opponent markers or looking to flick the ball on, while Giroud and Kosicelny are the main aggressors (though when Gabriel started against Everton, he had two chances from headers, showing that Arsenal can vary their threat). It’s this attention to detail that could push Arsenal towards the title.

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