After six Premier League games this season, Arsenal had experienced some trouble in front of goal.
Finishing is indeed cyclical, as Arsène Wenger reminded us, but it was more than that. The Gunners were predictable, slow in possession and – no matter what the numbers say – weren’t creating enough good opportunities. Take the loss to West Ham United or the win against Newcastle United, Arsenal didn’t look like scoring despite having a fair number of shots. Five goals from the opening six games was a concern.
In the three games since losing to Chelsea, Arsenal have netted 11 times. So what’s changed? Is it the cyclical finishing, or has Arsène Wenger made some tweaks to his team?
Surprisingly, Héctor Bellerín had more touches than anyone other than central midfielders Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin at Vicarage Road on Saturday, and Arsenal’s upturn in form is in no small part down to the use of the 20-year-old right-back.
Earlier on in the season, Arsenal looked to dominate play down the left. This was a common theme towards the end of last season too, with Aaron Ramsey moved to the right it made sense to let him drift infield and attack from the other side. Only, it was predictable.
Our most explosive player, Alexis Sánchez, can be crowded out of games that see Arsenal build down the left. When a player is so good one-on-one, why not isolate him more? The problems were already there in April and May. Chelsea, Swansea and Sunderland all came to the Emirates Stadium and all left with a clean sheet. In those respective games Arsenal launched attacks down the right just 32%, 31% and 29% of the time. Attacks down the left were more frequent, with Nacho Monreal and Alexis working in tandem and looking for a way through deep-sitting defences. Arsenal looked to Alexis in particular in the game against Chelsea, attacking down the left 40% of the time.
Indeed, as we went on a run of scoring in just one of six home games between April and September, we rarely attacked down the right-hand side of the pitch. Those figures reached an extreme against West Ham and Liverpool early on this season.
But not anymore: Arsène Wenger has altered his team to get the most out of Héctor Bellerín at right-back and, as a result, Alexis Sánchez on the left wing.
Bellerín’s acceleration is incredible, but he also has superb close control at that speed. The former winger can run at pace and beat men at the same time before getting his head up and picking an intelligent ball; he showcased all of this as he assisted for Aaron Ramsey on Saturday. His movement – on as well as off the ball – is also exceptional.
Throughout the first half he looked Arsenal’s most dangerous player, thanks to a fantastic selection of runs. Most fullbacks overlap. Bellerín attacks the space, whether it is inside or outside. With and without the ball, Bellerín is unpredictable and it makes Arsenal more dangerous.
The involvement of Nacho Monreal has lessened with Arsenal in possession as the team look to conquer games, rather than control them. With the current personnel, attacking at speed is probably a better approach than trying to pick the lock, and the players finally seem to be getting the hang of it.
With Ashley Young playing left-back for Manchester United a fortnight ago, Arsenal attacked him. Ramsey and Bellerín were looked to more often, Mesut Özil drifted to the right to cause havoc, and the game was won within 20 minutes. Two of the goals – the first and the third – came from Alexis after Arsenal built play on the right.
Alexis’ second goal came from Arsenal playing on the right and quickly switching the ball to him where he was isolated isolated against Matteo Darmian. The Chilean beat his man and fired home. That goal is a perfect example of why Arsenal have to start building on the right more often, only to switch the play to an Alexis Sánchez with more space.
Down the right, Bellerín and Ramsey are more adept at working through tight spaces than Monreal and Alexis on the other side. Bellerín’s acceleration can see him burst through tight spaces, while Ramsey’s underrated movement off the ball can be used should Arsenal still have to play through tighter spaces.
Watford were compact and very well organised, but by focusing on the right wing (and using the movement of both Bellerín and Ramsey) Arsenal gave themselves a better chance of forging opportunities.
Ramsey offers balance
Always the showman, Alexis wants the ball to feet before taking a defender on. He pushes defences back and he loves to run at his man, able to mesmerise with his quick feet. We know he’s going to cut in, and that’s easy to defend when you have the time to get men around him. Isolating him on one side and using Ramsey’s strengths on the other may just be a recipe for success.
Ramsey’s movement is underrated. Received the ball in the box 13 times against a compact defence. 2 led to goals. pic.twitter.com/5efk6rqmbK
— Oscar Wood (@Reunewal) October 17, 2015
I have criticised the use of Ramsey out wide, I think he’s an incredibly rounded central midfielder, but using Bellerín higher up and building on the right makes a lot more sense. It should get the very best out of Alexis, and it can free Ramsey to roam as he wishes. Then he can take up brilliant positions and find spaces in dangerous areas.
There are only three Premier League games this season Héctor Bellerín has had more touches than Alexis Sánchez. One doesn’t count – against Chelsea, Alexis played 74 minutes and touched the ball more than Héctor when both were on the pitch.
The other two (against Manchester United and Watford) also saw Alexis subbed off, but Bellerín was far more involved in offensive positions than beforehand. It isn’t a coincidence that a new pattern has formed, and the manager deserves credit. Arsenal have found a way to have Alexis less involved in the game, but more involved in dangerous positions.
The alteration has brought early success, but teams will recognise the pattern soon. That’s when we’ll be tested but, for now, changing the point of the attack is working wonders. Maybe Arsène does have some more nuanced tactics up his sleeve after all.