Arsenal’s fluidity returns
For a while now, Arsenal have been rigid – the layout of their team has been rigid, their general play has been rigid and because of this, results have suffered. On Sunday, we saw the complete opposite.
One of the main reasons for this was the fact that Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs are both back and getting closer to full fitness. With centre-backs at full back, Arsenal suffered – their 4-3-3 never shifted shape, and therefore the Gunners were quite predictable. The wingers had to stay wide to give width in attack, which saw Robin van Persie isolated and the midfielders outnumbered many times.
With specialist full backs, who became wing backs in attack, all of that changed. The knock-on effect of Sagna and Gibbs being back cannot be understated. Instead of sticking to a rigid 4-3-3, Arsenal’s formation evolved on the attack into something resembling a 3-4-2-1.
Alex Song, the anchorman, dropped in front of the centre backs, at times playing between them for security in case Tottenham countered. The full backs became wing backs, and even wide midfielders at times, with the two central midfielders (in this case Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta, who both had excellent games) in between. The wingers – Yossi Benayoun and two-goal hero Theo Walcott – could then come inside and offer support to Robin van Persie, who was by no means isolated.
It was vital that the full backs offered width for a few reasons. Firstly, it meant that the wide players – most notably Walcott, although Benayoun had a great chance by virtue of this – could come closer to Robin van Persie, and offer him support. As the full backs were available to put crosses into the box, the wide players were free to get into the box and it was a big help for Arsenal to have more numbers inside the area, instead of just van Persie.
Alex Song was another player who particularly saw the effects of having the full backs in the team again. With Gibbs and Sagna offering support, there was much less need for Song to bomb forward to make up the numbers in attack. This gave Arsenal some much needed security, with Rosicky and Arteta free to help in attack with Song sitting – although one of Rosicky and Arteta usually was more reserved while the other was the higher midfielder.
The role of Yossi Benayoun compared to the alternative of Gervinho cannot be understated, and it was clear that Arsene Wenger got that decision absolutely spot on. Rather than hugging the line, as Gervinho would have, he came inside to support van Persie and pressed relentlessly with Arteta and Rosicky in particular.
The full backs were vital in so many ways, and Sagna was a massive help in attack too. As well as his goal, he did superbly to charge forward and to assist Tomas Rosicky for the third Arsenal goal. Kieran Gibbs helped Alex Song build up the move with a neat one-two early on, before Sagna bombed on on the other flank as Arsenal scored a thrilling team goal. Make no mistake – this was how Arsenal should be playing.
Returning to the role of Alex Song, it was interesting to notice his roles in four out of the five goals. While he did sit between or in front of the centre backs when Arsenal were on the attack, he helped to really turn the screw when Arsenal needed to up the pressure on their rivals. Although Song did venture forward at those times, crucially, he did not foray past Rosicky and Arteta, and this discipline was important. Song instead did what he’s best at – bringing the ball out of defence, playing balls into the box, and with more players around the area Arsenal were able to thrive on those balls.
It was Song’s pass, flicked on by Walcott, which led to van Persie striking the post, before Sagna (again in support) headed home. Song then, after some neat footwork, played the ball into the Spurs area for it to be cleared to van Persie, who of course turned and finished with aplomb. Song, as mentioned earlier, combined with Kieran Gibbs to get the ball into the captain and out of trouble for the third goal, before sprinting forward to make up the numbers in place of Benayoun. And then the fifth and final goal, a direct assist – more sumptuous, dancing footwork before an excellent ball for Walcott, who again was running through the middle as he does best.
Robin van Persie also reaped the rewards of the change. With Arsenal’s full backs overlapping, the wingers could come inside. Van Persie could then drop deep while the wingers made runs and occupied the centre backs. This was very difficult for Tottenham to handle, shown by Theo Walcott’s second goal especially.