Well. You’ve got your Arsenal back.
It’s only one game but this was much more like The Arsenal we’re all very used to under Arsène Wenger.
After two troublesome fixtures over the past week it was nice to watch something far more comfortable and – in terms of style – familiar.
Sunday’s 2-0 win over Middlesbrough quietly saw Arsenal into an FA Cup quarter-final.
One step closer to retaining the greatest cup competition in the world, Wenger’s men are taking it seriously yet again.
Middlesbrough lined up to frustrate in a disciplined 4-4-1-1 shape.
They never really escaped their own half in the opening stages and, like recent games against Stoke, Aston Villa, and Brighton, we started with an excellent pace.
Without Coquelin in the team we recycled possession much better. The Frenchman is good defensively, disciplined and sensible, but he takes too long in possession and isn’t anywhere near the technical level of your average Arsenal midfielder and the much-maligned Mathieu Flamini came in for him.
Flamini lacks discipline in the defensive midfield role and isn’t particularly intelligent, but does move the ball quicker and more sensibly than Coquelin. For a home game where we are never likely to have our backs to the wall, the more seasoned Flamini is probably a better option than his compatriot.
Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil
Alongside Flamini was Santi Cazorla.
Playing deeper than usual (Cazorla only generally plays so deep in a three-man midfield, not a double pivot) he was superb yet again.
Orchestrating Arsenal from the back all the way into the final third, he dovetails with Mesut Özil wonderfully.
Özil himself was restored to a more central position.
Wenger recently said he prefers him there and he was, once more, a joy to watch against Boro.
His special ability allows him to dictate the flow of the game from such an advanced position and it actually suited him to have three ‘strikers’, as space was created out wide for him to drift into.
(For the record, Özil created SEVEN chances for his teammates from the free role he occupied today. SEVEN. He’s our best player and I won’t have anyone tell me otherwise.)
The three-striker system
The three-striker system is an interesting one.
It isn’t the first time we’ve deployed all of Alexis Sánchez, Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck and it almost certainly won’t be the last.
Games against West Brom, Liverpool, and QPR have seen the trio show decent moments but fail to click – the positives of those games were largely individual and isolated incidents.
Against Middlesbrough, however, Özil knitted them together.
The German occupies wide spaces, floating around. That could suit having three forwards, none of which like staying wide.
Alexis drifts into attack all the time while Welbeck does the same (and scored in that West Brom game when doing so). Welbeck starting wide fits nicely with Giroud. The big and slow Frenchman likes to hold the ball up, dropping deep, and Welbeck’s darting runs inside allow him to do so.
Kieran Gibbs got some joy in the first half on Sunday from overlapping whenever Welbeck did join or go beyond Giroud in more central positions.
Wenger loves this kind of fluidity and it will only improve in time – Özil and his predilection for spaces in the channels may be the key to getting all of Alexis, Giroud, Welbeck on the pitch at the same time.
Giroud himself has (as recently spoken about by @Stillberto and @ArsenalColumn) developed his game to take up more wide spaces, occupying more defenders and allowing more runners in behind him from wide positions. This was evident again with Welbeck wanting to share the central position with Giroud.
In games where we are likely to be on the front foot for long periods this front three is also great because of their work rate.
Three of the hardest working players we have, when we are putting teams under the cosh – as we did with Boro – the combination of strength, pace, and desire that the three strikers have can really help us pen the opposition back. Boro struggled with this and, although our whole team isn’t designed for a strong pressing game, we shouldn’t just sit off sides.
Reverting to a 4-2-3-1 was hopefully a sign of things to come for Arsenal.
Last season (and before) we haven’t had issues with breaking down teams, only keeping them out. The recent change in formation has made us solid but all season we haven’t been able to penetrate teams who have no intention to attack us.
Using a ‘number 10’ again adds another player to the final third, occupying space between the lines. It ensures Giroud won’t be isolated.
Lastly a quick mention for Gabriel Paulista, making his debut.
He was composed in possession, and more than adequate – some difficult forward passes found midfielders, not just simple balls to Laurent Koscielny, Calum Chambers, Mathieu Flamini.
Before the game I expressed some concern that he was billed as a player similar to Koscielny. Great for our squad depth, but Koscielny has often struggled when paired with a partner with a style akin to his own (notably Thomas Vermaelen, also Nacho Monreal at Brighton in the previous round).
However, Gabriel seemed very calm throughout – standing off slightly and allowing Koscielny to win the ball. He looked strong in the air, and made on great tackle in the 76th minute.
He was booked and made to look flat-footed in the process, but after initially not managing to balance himself too well the foul was actually a good one to make. I’m looking forward to seeing him more often.
We are good enough to be dominating teams with inferior players by keeping the ball, not just by aiming to stifle them. The performance against Middlesbrough saw the return of a possession-based game with an extra offensive player but also, promisingly, showed that we don’t have to sacrifice counter-attacking for that.
Once we were ahead we had a number of opportunities on the break. Most notably in the 76th minute Giroud waited for Tomas Rosicky, who cut it back for the onrushing Cazorla to shoot over – even with Welbeck and Alexis Sánchez off the pitch in the dying stages we had enough pace and fleet-footedness about us to really put a good defence to the sword with a counter-attack.
We shouldn’t be settling for one system, it isn’t a case of 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1.
Different games require different approaches.
Today the manager got it right and we saw a very offensive XI, which suited the game.
Hopefully this guides him to alter the system depending on the fixture; it would be a shame not to play a style that clearly works just because we want a different approach to bigger fixtures.
For this weekend at least, I saw an Arsenal which I prefer.
An Arsenal which keeps the ball and probes, using Mesut Özil as the key cog in a well-oiled machine.
Let’s hope for more of the same.