With the end of the season around the corner, both the Arsenal and Wigan managers kept largely the same XIs as in the past few weeks. For Arsenal the only change was Gibbs coming in to play at left back as Monreal played there in the previous game against QPR. Martinez named the very same XI and bench as at Wembley a few days ago.
Although the game was hugely important for both teams, hence the excitement surrounding it, the actual clash proved to be of a little interest and offered disappointing level of technical or tactical quality throughout it. The only thing being different from what was anticipated provided the only real tactical spark in the whole match.
This season Walcott can be seen occupying much more central and goal-scoring positions during Arsenal’s games. Although he is still predominantly starting as the nominal right winger, he is cutting infield more often than the previous seasons, constantly trying to sneak diagonally off the ball and beat his markers with sheer pace in behind. As a result he is often becoming the de-facto main finisher, with the main forward (be it Giroud, Gervinho or lately Podolski) seeking to vacate that zone by floating around. Not a surprise the English winger is enjoying his most productive season in terms of goals. During the season Walcott and Giroud (as the two playing most often in these two positions) have struck a very good understanding of their roles with several goals and assists coming through the two of them based on this particular positional interplay.
Here, however, Walcott executed a different role which gave Arsenal the initial advantage. That advantage was simply based on exploiting Wigan’s principal downside of the used from them formation combined with what looked the weakest spot of their personnel.
Arsenal’s early advantage
As it became a sort of tradition in the past month or so, Arsenal started the game in a frantic tempo. The team pushed forward with clear purpose and urgency on the ball, while out of possession the players closed down with high intensity and aim to quickly regain the ball.
In theory, the way to deal with a back three defence is to stretch the centre-backs laterally and try to breach them with runners coming from deep into the channels. As soon as the match started it was clear Arsenal were geared up to exploit the space on the outside down the right flank. The first step of that strategy was to have Walcott staying high and wide on the right flank, looking to stretch the play and run into the free space on the outside. With Wigan having only one wide player on each flank, Arsenal’s fullbacks were free to bomb on and create overloads. Sagna was constantly overlapping and joining forward, with his deeper starting position enabling him to move forward that bit later. As a result he was often left completely unmarked to receive the ball and create that 2-v-1 numerical supremacy.
Wigan’s problem on that side was partly tactical (a shape using back three unit will always leave space on the outside), partly due to the players playing there. In a similar way to Liverpool’s problems in the weekend against Fulham, Wigan had arguably their two defensively weakest players over that flank. Espinoza (see Downing), as a natural winger, is defensively suspect in terms of pure anticipation and positioning. In his brief period as a starter for Wigan he showed remarkable willingness to track back oppositions’ wide players but has repeatedly been beaten by fullbacks ghosting past him or by being too slow to react and stick tight on them before they got to the ball. On top of this Scharner (see Carragher), the left sided centre-back, is lacking the required mobility to step out and quickly close down the ball or the player if his fellow wing-back is beaten. The Austrian constantly tucked infield when Arsenal had the ball, trying to ensure the backline remains compact and not gifting free space between the centre-backs. As a result Espinoza was constantly left to deal with both Walcott and Sagna – and logically largely failed in his job. When he tried to push up and mark Sagna Walcott was left unmarked and with when he received the ball he had acres of space to run into and provide dangerous balls into the box. Alternatively, when Espinoza tried to drop back and keep up the deep 5-2-3 shape intended by Martinez, Sagna was left free to create simple 2-v-1 overload that eventually again left one of Walcott or Sagna in space to threaten.
Some of the better early attacking moves and chances for goal came following Arsenal’s domination on the right flank. Not a surprise that Arsenal’s best goal-scoring chance in the opening twenty minutes came following a Walcott’s cross for the sneaking into the box Cazorla to head it just wide in the seventh minute. Four minutes later another free Walcott run and cross resulted in the corner from which the opening goal followed.
Not only Arsenal enjoyed clear and massive advantage on the right flank, but the rest of the attacking players were often going that side too. In a way it was down to the lopsided nature of the home team’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
On the left flank, Cazorla was constantly drifting infield, moving across the space between the lines, ending up as a secondary Number 10 (the primary being Rosicky). With McManaman staying high and wide on the right, in an identical fashion to Walcott, Gibbs was more cautious in his forward runs as he had to ensure Wigan’s winger is not going to play so crucial role as at Wembley. This made looking Arsenal hugely biased towards the right flank, which perfectly suited their dominance there, coupled with this being the weaker side of Wigan’s defence.
Still, all of this was rather usual for Arsenal (apart of Walcott’s overly wide role) as in the past few months Cazorla has often played from the left flank, making the shape looking lopsided. What seemed unusual though, was the way the home team were not only biased to the right, but seemed determined to completely overload that area of the pitch.
With Cazorla moving into central positions, Rosicky had that increased freedom to drift wider and often ended up near the right flank. On top of this, Podolski – due to his intention to join the build-up play – also quite often dropped wider over the right flank.
However, for all the Arsenal early domination and clear area of strength down the right flank, the team actually ended up often lacking direct attacking presence to benefit from all this. The home team overloaded the right flank and packed the centre, but lacked anyone being a constant presence into dangerous attacking positions or someone making surprising runs from deep. Usually if the lone forward is dropping deep or drifting wider it’s Walcott cutting infield to spearhead the team’s attacks. And in the matches Wilshere has played between the lines, he often popped up into good goal-scoring positions in and around the box. Here, Wilshere was benched (as often recently, due to his injury troubles) and Walcott was used as a proper winger, not as an inside forward. On top of this with Cazorla and Rosicky both nominally being a playmakers, not attacking midfielders, the team lacked that midfield runner.
With so many Arsenal’s players moving towards the right flank from their default positions, the team was able to completely overload that zone. There were several passing moves creating the opening but at the time the final pass was needed to be directed to someone who will head into the space in or around Wigan’s defenders to exploit the created space, there was no one in direct attacking positions. What’s more – no one was making that final run off the ball to present himself as a potential target for that final pass. As such it could be said the whole good positional play and major advantage Arsenal enjoyed on the right flank, too often gone wasted with the team unable to top this with the required penetration, apart of couple of dangerous crosses from Walcott.
It was only Ramsey, who seemed trying to provide some form of diversity and push forward. But due to his starting position – he was part of the double pivot, stationed alongside Arteta – he had large space to gain before being able to present himself near the opposition’s penalty area. And by the time he could have done that, Arsenal’s attacks were already finished due to the frantic and direct nature to attack Wigan as quickly as possible. Only once, Ramsey managed to push forward in time to end up heading into the box to receive the ball. In the 20th minute he received a good ball from Cazorla but his angle for shoot was too small and ended easy for the ‘keeper to deal with.
That is why for all their domination, there was the impression Arsenal were not actually as threatening as it could have been. Apart these two situations (Cazorla’s and Ramsey’s), the home team failed to create proper goal-scoring chances, with the opening goal coming from a set piece and following what was an awful marking and general defending by Wigan.
In the meantime, the visitors approached the game obviously cautiously. It was logical to see them being unable to replicate the same level of energy with and without the ball as in the FA Cup final only a couple of days before. Instead, it looked like Wigan were told to drop in deep and narrow 5-2-3 shape every time they lost the ball, withdraw the expected initial attacking waves by Arsenal and take it gradually from there. In possession the visitors appeared focused to just pass the ball around (often deep in the own half) to calm the tempo and prevent Arsenal’s explosive start reach its peak and develop momentum with Wigan put under sustained pressure.
This suggested Martinez were preparing his team to face the Arsenal with Walcott heading infield off the flank and the dual Number 10 pulling the strings from between the lines. If that was the case it could be said Wigan’s approach was suitable. With Walcott (diagonally) and Cazorla (laterally) heading infield Wigan’s back three and deep-lying midfielders should have enough to cope, at least numerically, with Podolski and Walcott attacking, Cazorla and Rosicky creating. The wing-backs were to be expected to cope 1-vs-1 against Arsenal’s fullbacks with Maloney dropping on Arteta when the Spaniard was on the ball. This would have left Kone and McManaman to target the channels and prompt quick breaks forward.
The problem was that Arsenal didn’t play that way and the home team enjoyed clear advantage on Wigan’s weakest side. On paper, Martinez could have – and once it became clear what the actual match context actually is, should have – reacted to this by simply swapping Boyce and Scharner. The former is clearly the more mobile defender, so having him over Wigan’s left side might have prevented Arsenal dominating so much. Boyce would have been able to either stick tight on Walcott, or at least being quicker to close him or the ball down by drifting wider. This would have left Espinoza to focus dealing only with Sagna, increasing his chances to be defensively more useful.
Still, even with these clear downsides Wigan largely coped with Arsenal in the first twenty minutes. If it wasn’t for the soft goal they let in, Arsenal would have produced only a couple of decent chances for goal in the period they were clearly on top. So it could have been reasonably to say Wigan’s initial approach would have done the job relatively successfully.
Arsenal fade away, Wigan kick in
As expectedly, after the initial twenty minutes quickly Arsenal’s dominance faded away. There wasn’t anything tactically that forced that change, it was just the reversal role of their usual behaviour. Up to before a month or so ago, the Gunners were constantly starting matches poorly, without any spark, intensity or urgency. Only for then to storm into the second halves with majorly improved all-round performances. In the last month or so, Arsenal is showing completely the opposite. Now, they are starting the games positively, putting massive pressure on their opponents, only to then suddenly disappear after the initial burst fades away around midway through the half.
Here the same thing happened. Around the twenty minute mark, the home team quickly dropped their previous urgency on the ball and intensity off it. Gradually, this gave the visitors the chance to calm down, grown into the game and start to push forward more and more assertively. With Arsenal hugely decreasing their level of pressing, preferring to now just drop in reactive 4-4-1-1 defensive shape, Wigan got the chance to push their whole team closer to the centre of the pitch. The deep recycling process started to be more positive, with the ball quickly reaching the midfielders and distributed more often to the wing-backs higher up the pitch.
Not only this, but Maloney started to become more and more involved, constantly dropping deep and drifting wide to encourage interplay between him and Kone, who now started to come infield more often. With McManaman providing the width, McArthur, although playing as the right wing-back, often come slightly narrow to aid the build-up play with increased possession stability. That fluidity, and positional interchange enabled Wigan to
That fluidity, and positional interchange enabled Wigan to pull some attacking moves, with increased fluency in their general passing and movement. Gradually Wigan started to dominate the proceedings, with Arsenal merely limited to trying to break forward at speed. Wigan’s areas of strength were similar to Arsenal at the start of the game. Arsenal were lopsided, threatening with width on the right and passing abilities through the middle. Wigan were more or less the same with McManaman providing the threat on the right flank. Then with Wigan dominating the possession they were able to take advantage of their passing skills, with the shape spreading nicely in attack with Kone providing the attacking presence moving diagonally off the left whenever Maloney drifted wide or dropped deep. The only thing missing in the visitors’ improvement were the ability to create dangerous attacking moves that would eventually grow into clear goal-scoring opportunities. A couple of their better attacks were denied by good defensive play from the Arsenal’s defenders, with the others forced to end up as a long-range opportunities.
Still, as Arsenal in the 11th minute, Wigan got their goal following a set piece – Maloney scored a superb direct-free kick towards the end of the first half. It was a nice summing of how the first half went through with both teams having clear areas of strength in the periods they were dominating, with the opposition defending rather well to deny good goal-scoring positions; eventually both goals came following set pieces.
The start of the second half
The way Wigan started the second period so frantically, searching another goal, came out of nowhere for Arsenal. In the first five minutes or so the visitors created few good chances, following their ability to create well developed passing moves.
The way Wigan attacked with such as gung-ho approached betrayed what seemed as perfectly logical strategy. With his squad depleted, hence without the required resources to refresh it before or during the game, Martinez obviously wanted his team to go after an early goal into the second half and then sit back. The alternative approach – to be patient and go gung-ho later on – posed the risk in that were Arsenal to lead again, Wigan might not have the physical resource to chance another equalizer and then a winner (given a draw here wasn’t enough for Wigan to avoid the relegation).
On another day one of the created chances early in the second half might have come in, making the game going into a completely different path. But the overly attacking approach from Wigan, although understandable within the context of the game, had its major downsides in that it left too much space for Arsenal to break forward. With Wigan pushing even higher up than in the first half, with the defenders closer to the central line than the penalty box, there was huge space down the channels and in behind.
With Arsenal coming terms to what is happening on the pitch, following the shocking for them early five minutes of the half, the home team started to look the more threatening. There was a couple of breaks preceding the crucial second goal, signalling what’s coming. Again, Walcott played the crucial part as first one of his breaks resulted in the Cazorla chance when twice missed from within the penalty area. Few minutes later, the players swapped their roles with Cazorla, coming across from the left to receive the ball down the right flank in behind Espinoza, the provider for Walcott (who now moved infield to become the finisher) to take advantage of what seemed a miscommunication between Robles and Alcaraz who exactly to go after the cross, letting Walcott to tap in it in between them.
That goal proved crucial in that for Wigan to win the visitors now needed to score at least two goals, and not conceded another. Martinez tried to react, bringing in Watson in the place of Jordi Gomez. But the change had little time to have any impact, as only a few minutes Arsenal managed to break forward again, Wigan to mess up defensively one more time, and the score to become 3-1. It was a game over for Wigan. The fourth goal served to merely confirm the heart-breaking news of Wigan definitely going down.
After that, the final twenty minutes were played in an obviously slow-paced tempo, with neither team having the impetus to go on and actually do something with the ball. Arsenal had already secured their win, with Wigan obviously broken and without any spark to search for a miraculous comeback. The fact Wigan completed almost as twice more passes than Arsenal in that period without creating single goal-scoring opportunity, just confirmed the sad state of mind and mood that the visitors spent in the last twenty minutes of the game.
It could be argued that Martinez’ strategy throughout the game was the correct. He knew his team is unable to reproduce the same heroics efforts as against Man City, so he chose to divide the game strategically. Seemingly the aim in the first half was to stay in the game, nullify Arsenal and build platform for an early massive push in the second half to secure advantage and then sit back to protect it. If Wigan were to start flying in the first half they would have been too tired to protect an eventual lead for a half and more and being sure they will not concede an equalizer.
Tactically, the visitors were set well to execute that strategy. It’s hard to see what else Martinez could have done to approach this game differently. A potential usage of 4-1-2-3 was on paper more suitable to deal with Arsenal’s wide threat. But without a proper left fullback, the only way to play with that shape was to use Espinoza as left back and Maloney as the winger ahead of him. Still, this method would bear the same defensive gamble over the left flank with Maloney’s roaming unable to mark Sagna and Espinoza surely having troubles to stop Walcott. The only thing that Martinez could be faulted for was his lack of reaction in-game for the apparent massive advantage the home team enjoyed down their right flank, which gone to be the match-deciding aspect of the Arsenal game plan. As suggested above a potential Scharner-Boyce swapping could have gone to decrease, if not fully rectify, the threat coming on that side.
One thing Martinez’ strategy couldn’t legislate for was his players disastrous defending (although the manager should shoulder some of the blame here, given this is a re-occuring theme of his team in the past couple of seasons). Obviously, the real killer was the second Arsenal goal, which made Wigan’s job to chase two goals to turn the game around with a depleted squad almost impossible.
The main problem for Wigan was the team couldn’t replicate the efforts seen in the FA Cup final. Without that maximum concentration, high level of energy with and without the ball, Wigan were always going to be in a weaker position to deal with a fresher and man for man team with better players to pull of the required miraculous win.
For Arsenal it was a game which started well, with the team enjoying their dominance and constant overload of the right flank. Still, some persisting deficiencies (lack of diversity in their attacks to provide balanced way of attacking with different players doing different things, most notably offer reversed complementary movement to each other) robbed the team of better usage of their clear advantage. After the usual fading away (coming after the good opening) that let the opposition to come back into the game, Arsenal needed to ride their luck not to concede at the start of the second half to only then their counter-attacks to exploit the overly gung-ho approach of the opposition in chasing a much needed second goal. In a game where both teams needed to win, given the resources available to both managers and the context preceding this game, it could be said it was Wigan performing better and arguably generally deserving more of this game. But without a prolific attack and with a disastrous defence it is always hard to pull off what would have been another magical win.