It would be convenient if football matches could be explained by the mere arrangements of players, like pieces moving on a chessboard. Instead, tactics and formations act as a guidance and it’s the players who interpret the movements around them.
Still, football matches can be changed by rather innocuous factors at times, as a result of circumstance. Take two of the goals in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Stoke on Saturday. Stoke initially took the lead following a change in Arsenal’s backline, with Shkodran Mustafi having to depart with injury and Gabriel moving in to fill his place. As a result, Arsenal’s were perhaps a little disorientated and Stoke scored only minutes after.
The Gunners too benefited from a bit of luck and happenstance when they eventually took the lead, because it happened when they had a man advantage on the field, with the Stoke left wing-back, Erik Pieters, having to have treatment off the pitch. As play continued, he was unable to get back into position in time, and Mesut Ozil took advantage of that space to head in for 2-1.
Yet, if there was a clear theme that emerged during the game, that roughly explained the tactical battle between the two sides, it can be displayed by Arsenal’s opening goal, scored by Theo Walcott. Because the move highlighted the emphasis that Arsenal have placed this season on the wingers taking up positions centrally, and Stoke perhaps set up to play into Arsenal’s hands by opting to play with a 3-4-2-1. That meant that Arsenal always had a numerical advantage on the flanks but for the most part, they left it open for the full-backs to run forward, and the wingers would join Alexis in the front three.
All the little partnerships come together for Arsenal's 1st goal; Xhaka,Alexis crucial/wingers move inside/Bellerin https://t.co/d70C2gkhUD
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) December 11, 2016
In the build up to the goal, both Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain took up positions inside to open up space for the full-backs to bomb forward. In that regard, the enforced change that saw Hector Bellerin come in was pivotal because he provided the thrust that Arsenal were lacking early on. His impact was immediate, not just because of the effect his searing pace has on opposition defences, but how he forced his teammates to react.
Walcott was now able to play inside more permanently with Bellerin making up the width, while Ozil, who began the game playing mainly in the inside right channel, began drifting to the other side soon after. In the previous games, against West Ham and Basel the late thrust was generally provided from left-back, from Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs respectively.
In previous fixtures Arsenal’s play was a bit ponderous so Bellerin’s return is very welcome. That also highlights the balancing job Arsene Wenger has had to make in Bellerin’s absence, so in that sense, he has done well to bring Oxlade-Chamberlain in to add extra dynamism to the attack.
You can argue then, Hector Bellerin has become one of Arsenal’s most important players, and it’s not just his partnership with Walcott that has been key; encouragingly there are relationships all over the field. Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to come inside not only because of the support from Monreal, but also when Alexis tended to drift into the wide positions.
When that happened, Oxlade-Chamberlain tended to occupy the central striker position as he did for the first goal. He didn’t always get the ball when he made those movements, but by making sure all key areas are occupied, it hints at a sort of positional play from Wenger which can only improve the combination play and way they break down opposition.
With Alexis dropping deep, Ozil is also able to break beyond and indeed, it was he and Oxlade-Chamberlain who combined for the second goal, a looped ball over the top which Ozil headed in. Alexis is almost the chain reaction for such movements to happen, the trigger for where teammates should take positions on the pitch. That kind of relationship is important to Ozil who thrives on assuming spaces that other players vacate and that has resulted in his improved goalscoring form this season.
Thierry Henry explains this point:
“When you have a guy who as a number 9, the way he puts pressure, the way he moves, his vision for the ball, that creates a lot of holes for (Mesut) Ozil. That’s why Ozil is scoring a lot of goals off the movement of Alexis Sanchez.”
“Ozil can now go and make those runs as a number 10. Theo (Walcott) is scoring a lot of goals also because there is a lot of movement. I think Arsene (Wenger) did it pretty well and I think the reason why Arsenal is doing well so far during this season is because Alexis is playing up there and making all those movements to create a lot of space for others.”
Alexis was crucial once again for the third goal when he drifted into the left channel to combine with Alex Iwobi, and the finish from the Nigerian was superb. He recently said in an interview with Amy Lawrence in the Guardian that he’s often teased by Alexis for not scoring in training. Surely that kind of kinship can allow him to raise his game.
The other important player on the day was Granit Xhaka who is growing in stature with each game. His presence was evident without the ball, always alive to the loose balls in front of the defence but it’s in possession where he’s proving most valuable, helping Arsenal go from deep to high midfield with his passing.
That importance was evident in the first goal where he was a ticking metronome, moving the ball from side to side in the attempts to find an opening. Some people may describe that as low value passing, although as Wenger likes Xhaka’s ability to “kick the longer ball gives us a chance to get some oxygen and some space. He likes to sit, give good long balls and be available for the centre-backs. He has a good mixture of short and long balls, and in midfield it is important for us to sometimes stretch defenders.”
That’s what Xhaka displayed in his contribution to the first goal as his constant probing opened the door to finally break the opposition down. In the goal, we saw all the little partnerships come together; Alexis was the trigger coming short the first time, allowing Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott to move into the striker positions, and then, he showed great control and vision to suck three players towards him before finding Bellerin unmarked. The cross and the finish were clinical, coming at just the right time.
Xhaka’s partnership with Coquelin is also coming on nicely, with the latter seemingly liberated once again after looking like a loose cog in Santi Cazorla’s absence. With Xhaka assuming responsibility to take the ball, it allows Coquelin to concentrate more on positioning himself to anticipate where the ball might go loose and fill in the spaces. For that first goal, we saw Xhaka able to progress upfield as a result of Coquelin dropping back to survey the play.
Wenger probably sees Coquelin as now the most important midfielder, as his function as a ball-winner is unparalleled in this side. His role also sums up the increased focus on front foot depending, though there’s still a lot left to be desired when the team funnels back into a deep block in their own half.
Sometimes they’re exposed after the high press, which is not always properly synchronised, but more so, they’re too passive when they drop back in front of their own box. Stoke were granted a few chances from such occasions and it seems, whilst a sort of perfection is demanded these days that’s unattainable, the Gunners are perhaps more susceptible to bouts of messiness and muddled thinking in their defensive plans.
At the end of the game, though, Stoke manager Mark Hughes, had few complaints. He said they were beaten by a good side who were simply more clinical.