Alright, lets get this over with, Arsenal again went to the home of another big team and were unprepared to defend. Once again they went with no game plan and were taken apa– wait, you’re saying Arsenal won this game? That’s right Arsenal went to the home of the champions and came away with a 2-0 win. Arsenal put in a masterclass in defending as well as being clinical in front of goal (I can’t believe I just wrote this sentence).
Fans and pundits alike have been waxing lyrical about Arsenal’s performance over the last few days. This was a very “un-Arsenal” performance. Arsenal were fantastic defensively showing a discipline many did not think they had. Arsene Wenger has been praised for finally finding that “plan B” that everyone have said he hasn’t had for the past few years. On commentary, Gary Neville said, “Hallelujah,” that Arsene Wenger had finally changed his tactics for big away games. Many have asked since the end of the match why Arsene Wenger made this sudden change and why haven’t seen it before. Actually, we have seen this in other Arsenal matches this season, this is just the best job they have done in executing the tactics.
In his post match interview, Arsene Wenger was asked why we haven’t seen the team play like this before. Wenger replied saying that they have done this before. Many have laughed that comment off, but there are a few matches this season where they have played similarly where they looked to defend and counter away from home. Arsenal had a similar tactical set up to the one they had on Sunday in the 2-0 loss away to Chelsea, the 2-2 draw and Anfield, and their 2-1 win at Upton Park. The difference was they executed these tactics to perfection against Manchester City.
Arsenal have been rightfully criticized in the past for their unwillingness to change their tactics when going away from home. In these performances they have made noticeable changes to their tactics. Compared to performances away from home in past years, they have defended deeper, they have changed the formation, and they have been more willing to cede possession to the opposition. Arsene Wenger has decided to go with a 4-1-4-1 in these games away from home as opposed to the more attacking 4-2-3-1. Arsenal have often allowed teams to get in behind them because their defensive line has been too high up the pitch (see the 5-1 at Anfield, 6-3 at the Etihad, 6-0 at Stamford Bridge, the 3-0 at Goodison Park last season, and the first half of the 2-2 at Goodison Park this season). The Arsenal defence seems to have made a conscious decision to defend a little bit deeper and have the midfield sit off a little more when facing tougher opposition. Much has been made of the above graphic from Sky Sports and that Arsenal had their least amount of possession since Opta started collecting stats 11 years ago. Also in that graphic are the numbers from the games at Anfield and Upton Park in December where Arsenal only had 37% and 42% possession respectively. Those two matches along with the Manchester City match all within the last month show that Arsenal have become more willing to cede possession of the ball to their opponents and work on the counter.
The match against Chelsea seemed to be the beginning of this tactical shift from Arsene Wenger. As the average position maps show, Arsenal focused on having a better defensive shape, although it is difficult to have a worse shape than the Gunners had when the two sides met in March. This time, Arsenal made an effort to have less space in between the midfield and defence and they attempted to clog the midfield to get Chelsea to play down the wings. The problem in this game was Arsenal conceded the early goal due to Eden Hazard’s moment of brilliance winning Chelsea a penalty. This meant Arsenal had to come out and attack Chelsea more and it allowed Chelsea to attempt to catch Arsenal with too many men forward instead. This eventually happened in the second half giving Chelsea a 2-0 lead and the three points. Chelsea was always the least likely team for this tactic to work against because of the Blues’ defensive solidity and discipline. This match was one where the Gunners were outplayed, but were not torn apart. That doesn’t sound great, but when you were beaten 6-0 the last time you played a team, it’s an improvement and it seemed like the first time Arsene Wenger decided to bend his tactics in a more defensive fashion.
Just a month ago, Arsenal visited Anfield, the venue where their league title challenge really started unraveling last season. The match last season at Anfield was typical “bad Arsenal.” They had their full-backs far too far up the pitch, they played too high of a defensive line, there was too much space between the midfield and defence, they didn’t have a discernible midfield shape, they were giving the ball away far too easily and they were out of that game within 20 minutes. This time they went in with more intent to defend. They had only 37% possession and allowed Liverpool to have the ball. The two big problems were that they were uncharacteristically terrible with the ball and that, while they were willing to defend, they didn’t actually defend very well. The two big problems for the defending were that they were missing their best defender, Laurent Koscielny, and their midfield wasn’t exactly suited to defend. For as well as he defended yesterday, Santi Cazorla isn’t great defensively, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn’t possess a great deal of defensive awareness, and, for all his pointing and shouting, Mathieu Flamini isn’t a great defensive midfielder. As mentioned, Arsenal were terrible when in possession of the ball that day which hurt their ability to relieve pressure and counter attack. That day they looked more scared than composed and ready to defend.
The performance against West Ham was a recognition of the improvement of the Hammers as opposed to reacting to a defeat from last season. Arsenal allowed the Hammers to play their football for the first 20 minutes then started growing into the match. The Gunners hit the Hammers with two quick fire goals at the end of the first half. In the second half, Arsenal set up to attack on the counter and had three or four chances to put the game to bed. In the end, they defended well enough to get the 2-1 win against their London rivals.
Their latest performance against Manchester City was an example of exactly how these new more defensive tactics are supposed to work. There isn’t a lot to be said about this performance that hasn’t already been said. It was a masterclass and there are few holes to poke in this Arsenal performance. This is Arsenal and Arsene Wenger’s plan B and this was it working to perfection. Whether or not this was the first time it was used, Arsenal fans can only hope it’s not the last. If they can put in performances like this away from home more often Arsenal will be able to make huge strides both domestically and in Europe.