Mertesacker has spoken of the importance of keeping things tight in the opening 15-20 minutes in a couple of his press conferences. Those were before Champions League ties but it seems obvious the Gunners have applied the same principle to tricky domestic fixtures.
Swansea away was the first of Arsenal’s domestic wins last season following the morale-boosting triumph in Munich. This game followed patterns established in that one. Keep things simple early on – Don’t concede first – have patience – wait for your chance – score first – add to it if possible – stay solid at the back when sitting on the lead.
It seems overly simplistic. Probably is. But look back at the results and the pattern is hard to refute. The importance of the first goal is cited so often it’s become a cliché. But now the Gunners have shown that not conceding the first goal is just as important. It wasn’t for fun that they used to concede leads. Nor was it a case of players not caring enough as some people suggested. It was simply a case of players trying to play a style that wasn’t suited to the individual qualities. They were too gung-ho with their approach and wanted to score first, but tended to leave the door open for the opponents without realizing it.
Nowadays, Wenger’s side is very patient in possession. Players don’t rush forward at every opportunity. They still want to score first but only when they get the chance. There is a knowledge that chances will come and the belief that they can take them when they arise. It gives confidence.
This game followed the same pattern. Laudrup showed great respect for the Gunners by picking Michu at the head of his attack with 5 midfielders behind him.
The Spaniard is at his best when playing behind a striker. By putting him as the focal point Laudrup limited the impact he could make. It was a sacrifice the manager made for achieving the midfield balance he thought necessary to counter Arsenal’s attacking qualities.
It worked to an extent. Swansea saw more of the ball than the Gunners. But Arsenal were also being cautious and minimized the territorial advantage the hosts could gain. Most of their possession was passive, i.e. in their own half or in relatively harmless wider areas. They created one or two half-chances but the visiting central defenders dealt with those. Szczesny was largely untroubled in the first period.
In fairness, Laudrup’s side were also defensively solid. Arsenal played fewer passes and very little in that vital creative area just in front of the penalty box. The only noteworthy chance they created came deep in injury time when Gnabry’s run put Giroud in a great scoring position. The striker missed the mark.
The difference between the sides was that Arsenal had an extra gear or two, which would give them much greater attacking impetus. We saw it engaged early in the second half.
According to numbers on StatZone, the Gunners attempted a total of 126 passes into the final third of the pitch completing 85 of those for a success rate of just over 67 percent. In the first half they completed 32 of 49 attempts (65 percent) and in the second it was 53 of 77 (69 percent). The success rates are comparable but the total passes attempted is higher in the second half, which demonstrates greater attacking intent.
But the picture comes to life when we focus on a ten minutes period from the 53rd and 62nd minutes. The Gunners completed 33 of their 37 passes in the attacking third during that period for a success rate of 89 percent. Most teams can’t hit 89 percent passing accuracy over all leave alone the attacking third where it’s always harder to make passes. In fact, at this moment there is no team with average pass success rate of 89 percent!
This is when Arsenal hit top gear. The first goal was scored after a spell of pressure with many intricate passes strung together. This video captures them all. A Swansea player got a touch of the ball so technically the goal wasn’t built with 20 plus passes but for all practical purposes it was.
In the same period, Arsenal also created a great chance for Özil and the second goal scored by Ramsey. Again it was a move that involved many players all of whom played a vital part.
Arsenal’s 33 successful passes in that period was more than the accurate final third passes in the whole of the first half. This could not happen without quick ball circulation, which in turn indicates excellent movement and, of course, technically excellent passing. It stretches the defence and creates openings.
The thing with these kinds of goals is that there are many potential points of failures. That’s why most teams that try to score such goals don’t succeed! As a result they provide an excellent benchmark for the attacking quality of a team including the understanding between players, their decision making, and technical qualities like final ball accuracy, first touch, and finishing ability.
After scoring the two goals the Gunners sat back again. Laudrup had by then introduced Bony and his side went all out on the offensive because they had nothing further to lose. They were able to advance territorially and played in threatening areas from Arsenal’s point of view.
The Swans made as many attacking third passes in the final half-hour as they did in the hour than went before it. While they did get up the pitch and central, it’s worth noting that their passing accuracy didn’t go up as it did for the visitors during their short but decisive burst of pressure.
The hosts weren’t able to pulls the Gunners apart. Arsenal defended resolutely as a team barring a couple of mistakes. Wilshere’s ill-advised and poor executed back pass to Bony could have been costly. The striker let Arsenal off the hook with a tame shot from a narrow angle. The second one led to the goal.
It came shortly after Gnabry was taken off and it seemed to me that it wasn’t clear who was picking Davies up. Take another look at the passes comparison in the first half and it’s clear Davies didn’t make that many forward bursts in the opening half. But now that Swansea were in a desperate situation he was stationed high and wide. He received the ball in space and cut inside. That might not have been a problem in itself, but for once in this game Koscielny let Bony drift into the hole in front of the defence without going with him. The full-back and the striker played a delightful one-two. Neither Mertesacker nor Szczesny could do much about it. It was a wonderfully crafted goal and Swansea deserve credit for it. They were in ascendancy after that but the Gunners sorted out that space on the right and in front of the box. There were few clear chances created by Swansea after their goal.
As a matter of fact, the Gunners created 4 good chances (Giroud, Gnabry, Özil, and Ramsey) and scored 2, while the hosts got the aforementioned 2 and scored 1. The result and scoreline seems fair that way. Arsenal just had greater offensive quality and were able to create and take their opportunities in a short space of time.
Some might wonder why the visitors didn’t play in top gear straight from kick-off and shut the game off with four goals in the opening half hour if they had the quality to produce those moments in such a short duration. Others might ask why Laudrup didn’t start with Bony and put the Gunners under pressure straight from kick-off. The answer to these is linked to the understanding of the risk-reward equation associated with any game that varies with time and key events. I will try to cover that separately if I get the time.
Szczesny: I enjoyed the way he collected some of the long balls at the end. Those were routine catches for any Keeper but the young Pole hasn’t always claimed them with such comfort. Made one really big save from a shot by Dyer. Good decision making for the most part. Almost put the team in trouble in the first half when he was casual in ushering a ball out of play. He should have been focussed and determined to keep Michu away from the ball till the whistle sounded. It was too close and the assistant ref could easily have let play continue.
Sagna: Could he have tracked Davies’ run? This was similar to him letting Arnautovic go in the game against Stoke. I don’t know why he doesn’t track these runs but the tendency is not limited to the Frenchman so there has to be some sort of a policy by the coaches which involves transferring responsibility or playing off-side. This is a source of concern as it has failed more than once. Very limited attacking contribution in this game. Hard to say if it was a tactical pre-game choice or something that just happened because he lacks an understanding with Gnabry. Positioning was good and rarely left his flank open.
Mertesacker: Keeps making vital interventions in and around the penalty box as his reading of defensive situations is excellent. Won a couple of headers in the Swansea box but couldn’t direct them towards goal. That is an area of improvement for the big German.
Koscielny: Loved the way he stuck to Bony and made it impossible for the striker to have any time on the ball or an opportunity to turn. Well, except once. Also brought the ball out a few times from the defence but didn’t do anything silly. As with his partner, made a number of useful interventions in and around the box including a couple of vital blocks.
Gibbs: The move for the first goal started with Gibbs nicking the ball deep in the Arsenal half. Another full-back who made a limited offensive contribution but he was the busier of the two defensively. Mostly it was about holding position and slowing the attacks down or forcing them into hopeful crosses.
The back five had a good game considering the quality that Swansea have. They minimized the number of clear-cut chances produced and that proved as important as scoring goals at the other end. But the fact that Arsenal have kept only one clean sheet in the League despite the defence getting excellent support from the front six shows there is genuine room for improvement. The goal conceded was another good example. While someone should have gone wide and tracked Davies sooner, there is no way Arsenal should be conceding that chance with so many bodies in front of goal. The defenders have to cover for that initial mistake.
Ramsey: MotM again. Quick thinking for the assist, goal scoring form remains impressive, as is his defensive work sweeping the space in front of the back four.
This is the kind of game where the German is always likely to struggle, by his standards I must add. There wasn’t enough pace or tactical cohesion in the side for him to have opportunities to slide a ball through or create many genuine chances. His game in deeper areas with back to goal is pretty average as is his finishing. These are areas where he has to improve and that meant, all things considered, this was an average outing from the star signing. That’s not a criticism just a matter of fact observation. I’m prepared for him having a few more such games depending on how the patterns of play turn out. It’ll be interesting to see if he can show a steep learning curve of if his development stagnates.
Flamini: Another industrious effort. Keeps running into good areas to support the defence. Passing, as noted previously, has improved significantly. I think there’s more to come from him as he adapts to his new team mates.
Wilshere: Showed greater positional discipline and helped Gibbs fairly well, except the giveaway late in the second half. Restrained his attacking instincts but played a part in both goals with his commitment to win the ball in the build up to the second being particularly enjoyable.
Gnabry: Created a great chance for Giroud. Excellent touch and finish. In fact, 2 out of Arsenal’s 4 shots on target came from his boot. Good defensive work which included safe passing choices and being available for receiving a pass when a teammate needed an option around him. I have already said he’ll go past AOC if he stays fit for a year and plays regularly. Tactically he’s already ahead, physically he’s comparable, just needs to be on the pitch with the big boys for a few games and realize that he belongs and can perform. I do like the suggestion that he should play from the left at times.
The midfielders were reliable when defending and purposeful in a short spell of attacking. It’s a very unbalanced midfield but they are adapting to the needs of the game producing results even if it means sub optimal performances from class players like Wilshere and Özil.
Giroud: Arsenal’s chance creation is limited and modified at the moment and that means he gets very little service. His angles in the box are better than last season but the chance that he missed shows there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Work rate remains exceptional.
Subs: They just added numbers to the deep sitting defence.
Wenger: It’s interesting that he’s again said in the first half Arsenal lacked purpose and sharpness. It’s almost as if he expects the team to play a more expansive style but the players are being cautious on their own. I don’t fully understand this right now but do expect the team to shift to a more proactive style soon. Retaining defensive stability while playing the possession game and searching for creative options will be a massive challenge. They’re yet to prove they can do that but it will be needed if the form has to last over the duration of the season.Follow @goonerdesi