Was the Napoli performance a one-off or did we see the first signs of the “new Arsenal”? That was the question on many Gooner minds and I did mention my reservations in the match preview.
Wenger went with the expected line-up, making two changes to the side that won the midweek Champions League tie. They started the game slowly, kind of handbrake-ish, and it was evident within minutes that we were again going to see a cautious first half from the Gunners.
West Brom were very good at sitting on the edge of their box with their two lines right on top of each other. There was just no space in the vital central creative areas. But this wasn’t a surprise, it was something to be expected as meticulous organization is one of the core strengths of Steve Clarke.
The fragmented nature of Arsenal’s play was the unexpected bit. This season, even when the Gunners have not played as flamboyantly as they did against Napoli, most of the times the attacking players have shown good mobility and understanding in interchanging positions. In the first half on Sunday, when the ball went out to either flank, it seemed as if the players there were cut off from the centre and the opposite side. The full-back, wide midfielder, and either Özil or Giroud played a few passes between themselves in the wider areas of the attacking third but lost possession the moment they tried coming inside. That or they were just forced into going back and building again.
It’s interesting to note that Arsenal actually completed more final third passes in the first half and had 87 percent accuracy in that period. In contrast, the second period saw the success rate drop to 75 percent.
The difference was in the clusters and the direction of passes. In the opening period there are two clusters in the wide areas with a lot of arrows criss-crossing each other. This indicates a lot of short passes were exchanged by players in those zones. They are relatively harmless areas from the defensive side’s point of view as long as they prevent anything dangerous coming in.
The passes that do come into central areas in front of the penalty box are mostly either square or going backwards. That usually means they were played back away from the defensive players or square in front of the second line of defence.
The second half passing was a lot more vertical in that zone. As spaces between the lines opened up Arsenal were able to ping balls into that zone even from deeper areas. And the clusters in the wider areas thin out as there is limited close passing interchange in those areas. The assist for the goal was actually a back pass but the space available to Wilshere just wasn’t there in the opening period with Yacob and Mulumbu sitting in front of the defence and wide players helping out consistently. The goal came after a quick break forward by the Gunners and the hosts just weren’t able to transition to the safety of their two lines of defence.
Rosicky’s presence on the defensive line also made a big difference. When a team sits as deep and compact as West Brom did, there is virtually no space between the lines. The way to counter this is to have more players along the defensive line alonside the striker so that vertical passes can be played towards them bypassing the first line of defence when the opportunity arises. In the first period neither Wilshere nor Ramsey provided this vertical depth to the attack. And Özil is not a player who should be expected to go up close to the striker because his game is best when looking at such players and finding them rather than being highest up the pitch and looking back towards his own goal.
Rosicky’s introduction was, therefore, the logical choice because the Czech star provides two very useful qualities. He can drive at the defence and combine with the striker who is playing with his back to goal and he can join up as an auxiliary striker. It was the second role that got him the assist. Like most fans I guess, I was expecting Wilshere to make way but Wenger took Ramsey off, probably simply because of the Englishman’s fresher legs after a bit of a breather in the previous game.
It was good to see Wilshere on the right side, a flank I think he can thrive at from an offensive point of view because there’s greater scope for dribbling, and with a more open body position on his favoured foot he has better passing and shooting options. This was exemplified by the shot for the goal and the pass for Giroud, both of which would have been harder to execute for him when cutting in from the left. If he has to play on the flank, I’d rather he played on the right.
At the other end West Brom did create a few chances but the most noteworthy ones came in the second half. Given how deep they were defending, Arsenal should really have had them pinned back with coordinated pressing, but the Gunners simply did not have any cohesion to press high up the pitch. This allowed the hosts to move forward repeatedly and they did create some promising moments in the wide areas which resulted in corners, set-pieces, and crosses. They looked threatening on many but, as stated often, it was still an inefficient approach.
Szczesny’s biggest save of the first half was one from a deflection rather than a great chance. The nature of the goal conceded must have disappointed Wenger and Bould. It was way too soft.
But their bigger concerns must surely come from the opportunities conceded in the second half as Anelka twice had the goal handed to him on a plate. It’s worth noting that even with all the recent hype around Flamini and the proven defensive work of Arteta, Arsenal were not able to prevent some genuinely threatening counter-attacks from materializing.
To me that was evidence of gaps at the back that the Gunners still have to address in training. There are many who suggest that only one of Flamini and Arteta should play yet here we saw the goal exposed even with both in the side. They cannot afford to be picked apart with such ease when chasing a game or it won’t always end in a respectable stalemate.
In the end this seemed like a fair result. The Gunners had a bit of luck with Anelka fluffing his gilt-edged chances but Giroud repaid some of that debt. The penalty non-call for that tackle on Wilshere was unfortunate but in keeping with Lee Mason’s overly lenient approach, which did benefit the hosts more than it did the visitors.
Szczesny: Made an excellent save in the first half and another sharp one in the second. Was good to see he has learnt from some mistakes when he backtracked and got into a good position instead of charging out to tackle Anelka. One of his better performances on the whole.
Jenkinson: His crossing and decision making in attacking areas was below par. The second chance for Anelka came from a weak header by the youngster. Inconsistent with his positioning. Not one of his memorable outings.
Mertesacker: Passing was again reliable. Positioning was helpful, particularly to Jenkinson who left the right flank exposed at times. Never had the pace to catch Anelka once the striker got in behind.
Koscielny: Another one who made safe, reliable passing choices. Was busier of the two defenders in terms of need for making interceptions, clearances, etc. Was largely faultless. Not sure if he played Anelka on when the striker got in behind. If so, that would be a very avoidable and potentially game-losing error.
Gibbs: Had a tough time against Amalfitano and more so when Sessegnon moved to that side as well but he handled most of the challenges commendably. Probably some rushed passes were the only minor blemishes. Should have crossed the ball for Giroud instead of taking that shot early on.
The back four should have had an easier game but they had to work harder because Arsenal allowed the hosts to come forward time and again. They also struggled a bit in the second half when they had to push up. Mertesacker’s lack of pace will be a concern in such instances. I don’t know what the organization was supposed to be for the second ball in from the corner but it was largely the fault of the defensive players who should be taking charge of the situation.
Ramsey: Work rate was again top notch but efficiency was below his recent high standards. Wasn’t able to move into the right attacking areas. I thought this was a game where playing right up alongside Giroud every now and again would have helped him and the team.
Arteta: Getting back to his reliable self. Would have loved to see where his shot in the first half ended had it not deflected away off Giroud. It was interesting that he stayed deeper of the two defensive midfielders.
Özil: Another game that was more about graft than craft. Another display that said he’s ready for it and maybe even relishing it. The move for the goal began with his battling in midfield. Did a lot of work, some of it of the coarse variety but he had his silken moments too. That chance created for Giroud stands out but he was generally very smooth in possession.
Flamini: Often joined the more attack minded players but wasn’t really able to contribute to the creativity. Good to see he’s raised his passing standards and maintains them high on a consistent basis. Defensive work rate and energy were useful as always.
Wilshere: The foul magnet thing can be a problem when the ref is reverse polarized. Had a hard time in the first half as he rarely found space and was constantly in physical battles. Wasn’t able to move diagonally or horizontally to link with the play on the right or central areas. Much more effective in the second half. The goal was somewhat fortuitous but the power on the shot was commendable. The pass for Giroud was just sublime.
Rosicky: Brought qualities to the team that others didn’t have. Picked up a useful assist and was involved with most of Arsenal’s purposeful offensive play despite playing only the final half-hour of the game.
The midfield was a tad disjointed and lackadaisical in the first half. They upped the ante in the second period and created quite a few chances but also left the defence exposed. Probably one of their weakest displays of the season as a unit though not quite as bad as the opening day shambles.
Giroud: Work rate continues to help the team as his run and hold up play before the goal showed. Should have taken at least one of the two chances. A more instinctive scorer might have taken a first-time shot from Wilshere’s pass after opening up his body. Had more time than he realized, something that needs to improve, from the Özil pass. This was the kind of game where he comes across as an eager to learn and hard working young striker, reminding us of his late development.
Bendtner: Saw very little of the ball.
Wenger: The confidence isn’t quite up the level needed and part of it is down to the fact that Arsenal become very open at the back when they do push forward in numbers. The side is much better defensively when dropping back as a unit but they still have to show they can dominate the ball and control chances when playing in the opposition half for large periods.Follow @goonerdesi