Another good performance from Arsenal which will bring yet more confidence for a title challenge.
Cardiff started in what is probably best described as a 4-4-1-1, but varied throughout and was often a 4-4-2 in defence when Arsenal were in build up. Arsenal played in their usual 4-2-3-1, although formations were not the story of the match by any means.
Arsenal control first half well
The story of the first half was very much based around Arsenal’s intelligence on how to defeat Cardiff’s game plan. Cardiff played a fairly timid first half, often dropping into a low block, looking to disrupt Arsenal’s attack through shape rather than exerting pressure through closing down. In midfield they were very often guilty of not putting any pressure on the ball, which made them vulnerable behind. Arsenal frequently took advantage of this by being willing to play more direct, playing balls behind from the middle and exploiting the spaces left through the middle due to Cardiff’s passiveness in pressing.
The other main thing that allowed Arsenal to do this was their positional mobility. Their interactions in midfield in terms of movement allowed them to play with fluidity and the skill sets of their players like Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey and Wilshere meant that it was simple for them to move around into different zones of the pitch and yet maintain quality and more importantly control.
Arsenal’s first goal very much highlighted the story for much of the first half. As Ozil received the ball from Gibbs, he had so much space without any pressure on the ball. With runners behind from Giroud (who frequently made diagonal runs towards the left) and Ramsey, he exploited Cardiff’s vulnerability with a lovely ball over the top, met by an equally good header by Ramsey.
One of the other interesting sides of Arsenal’s performance was in defence. Arsene Wenger has often (unfairly) been criticised for a lack of planning defensively but this has generally been very overstated. What was interesting was how Arsenal looked to show Cardiff down the sides. This was often highlighted by the body positions the wide players took up defensively, in order to show Cardiff to particular areas of the pitch, mainly the flanks or the half spaces.
This strategy was noticeable in the areas of interception:
Although Arsenal didn’t create lots in the first half, they were clearly in control and Malky Mackay needed to adjust his tactics. Though it wasn’t immediately apparent at first, Cardiff did start to pressure slightly higher up the pitch, particularly when Arsenal looked to build up play at the back. They still got players behind the ball when Arsenal were in ‘phase 3’ and looking to create from midfield and they still had issues in those phases in terms of pressure on the ball, but at least they gradually started to show more intensity.
Arsene Wenger’s reaction was to play more defensively, dropping their block deeper, and consequently creating more space for them to counter into when the ball was regained. This is testament to their increased defensive ability this calendar year and the current balance to be able to vary their game plan and target different areas. As Cardiff began to attack with more players going forward, so the space in front of their defence increased.
The home side had a few attempts but not many genuine goalscoring opportunities. Arsenal had problems controlling the space in front of their backline on occasions – Whittingham had a couple of chances through cut backs from the wide areas – but generally they didn’t look in too much danger. Rosicky could arguably have been brought on to provide extra work rate in midfield but Wenger decided against this, trusting the players he started the game with, only bringing on Flamini after 77 minutes. Monreal came on after 81 minutes due to Cardiff’s threat on the flanks and the increasing inability of Arsenal’s ‘wingers’ to deal with this, especially when play was switched quickly.
In the end, two late goals from Flamini and Ramsey on the counter attack sealed the win.