In the immediate afterglow that came from thrashing Manchester United, it was a sense of duty that made me bite my tongue and not say what I was thinking.
There was no reason to bring any negativity to a fan base that was revelling in seeing their team put one of their biggest rivals to the sword, and in spectacular fashion. It was a result to be savoured, to be stored away in the memory banks for use when times are bad.
Yet amongst all the cheering and the bragging, it was impossible to shake a nagging thought from my head. Every time a replay was shown of Mesut Özil picking the ball up in space and quickly opening up United’s defence, or of Theo Walcott chasing defenders as if they owed him money, or of Alexis Sanchez proving to Matteo Darmian that the boogeyman is real and that he should run for his life, the same question emerged;
‘Why can’t they play like this every week?’
Now, I’m not expecting that we tear teams to shreds with thrilling football at every opportunity, that would be totally unrealistic. But is it harsh to suggest that the way we were set up to play United is a far better usage of the players we have than the way we’ve played since Francis Coquelin returned in January?
For ages, we’ve persisted with playing Aaron Ramsey on the wing, in a desperate attempt to fit a very square peg into a even more round hole. When we play 4-2-3-1, Özil is ensconced as the central attacking midfielder, Santi Cazorla is just as immovable beside Coquelin, and Alexis has a second home built on the left wing because he loves being there so much. Ramsey has been too good over the last 18 months to be dropped, so he has to play, hence his plugging in on the right.
But against United, we changed it up a bit. Instead of persisting with 4-2-3-1, Arsenal went with a formation that’s become the staple of the elite in Europe over the last few years; 4-1-2-best players up front where they can run around at will and cause as much havoc as possible whilst staying high up the pitch to prevent the opposition from pushing too far forward themselves for fear of being counter-attacked.
Yes, I know it’s a bit wordy, but have a look at how Barcelona have played since Luis Suarez arrived, or Real Madrid when Gareth Bale showed up, and you’ll see the same pattern. Four defenders, one holding midfielder, two central midfielders capable of being good on the ball and press the opposition, and three fantastic attacking players who can create a goal out of nothing.
It’s not rocket science. The fewer players you have to commit to scoring goals, the better defensively you will be. If you have three attackers who can create two or three clear chances every game, you don’t need much more to win. So instead of throwing numbers forward to help them, the focus should be on keeping numbers back and getting out of their way.
And that’s what happened last Sunday. Instead of sitting out on the right wing watching the game go by him, like a sad child who’s looking out through a window at a playground whilst it’s raining, Ramsey was 15-20 yards further infield, playing more as a right central midfielder as opposed to just a right midfielder.
The result? Ramsey playing more central gave Cazorla the license to move around more, knowing that he had two midfielders behind him instead of one. That in turn meant that Özil had more time to find pockets of space to receive a pass and then kick on, as opposed to dropping deep and playing longer balls. That in turn meant that there was one more outlet for a quick counter-attack to use, and thus made countering more viable and quicker to utilise.
All of the above gave Walcott and Alexis all the room in the world to run in, which they took full advantage of. Unhindered by having teammates in the way, they could use their exceptional movement to drag the opposition defence out of position, making more room for Özil to work in, which gave Cazorla more room……..etc etc.
However, the crucial thing to do now is not assume it was a one-off. Yes, Manchester United didn’t play well, and yes, the way they set up left themselves open to pace up front. But Arsenal didn’t win because the opposition had a weakness that we could exploit. Arsenal won because we had a strength that we exploited to the max.
This change to our formation, the 4-3-SÖW as I’m calling it from now on, is the future. It’s by far the best way of utilising the talent we have at the club. Our starting 11 is suited to playing that way, and our best squad players are just as capable of fitting when needed. Can Jack Wilshere fill in for Cazorla? Yep. Can Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain remain a threat on the right wing when playing in Ramsey’s role? Yep.
If we play like this, with the same tempo that we played against United, then we have a chance at the league title. It really is as simple as that.