Sometimes in football, radical change is needed to ensure that a team gets positive results.
In other instances, the change needs to be rather more subtle in order to get the most out of a team.
For the first few games of the season, I was afraid that Arsenal needed the former.
Francis Coquelin wasn’t adding enough in possession to justify selection, Alexis Sanchez was ploughing a lone furrow up front, everything was static in front of Mesut Özil. It appeared we were digging the same hole we had dug for ourselves in previous seasons, with too many square pegs being forced into round holes.
I was wrong.
Over the last couple of weeks, there has been a very subtle shift in how we attack teams, but it has been incredibly effective. In essence, one player’s change in running has opened up a whole world of attacking options for this team, and we are capitalising fully on them at the moment.
Cast your minds back to when Arsenal were at their peak attacking force under Arsene Wenger, 2002-2004.
What was our methods in breaking down teams back then? It was probe and jab down the right wing with Lauren and Ljungberg, then once defences tried to cover the attacks over there, we would blitz them down the left with Cole, Pires and Henry, whilst Bergkamp and Vieira would keep everything ticking over in the middle.
For the last couple of years, we haven’t been able to replicate this, primarily because our striker was never mobile enough to drag a defence out of position so that our runners out wide had room to run into. Our wingers would have to hug the touch-line in order to give the likes of Özil, Cazorla or Ramsey the space they needed in the middle, which would limit how much our full-backs could overlap……etc etc.
Now, with a far more mobile centre-forward in Alexis leading the line, you would think that clearing the logjam in the middle of the park would solve our problems, but as long as defenders keep everyone in front of them, then Arsenal will still run into the same old problem of not being able to attack with the pace that they want to.
This is where a subtle change in how Bellerin helps attacking moves has transformed Arsenal’s attacks in recent weeks from methodical passing moves into clinical counter-attacks. It’s something that Ashley Cole perfected when he had Pires and Henry around him; underlapping.
When Alexis drops deep to get the ball, Theo Walcott embraces his inner striker and fills in down the middle. It would appear obvious then that Bellerin would be best served to fill Theo’s space on the wing, right? But why do Arsenal, with all their passing ability, need an outlet pass on the right wing that would invariably end up in a cross aimed at two blokes no taller than 5’9?
The answer is, they don’t.
What they need are runs that cause the defence as much confusion as possible, runs made in between the centre-back and full back. If it’s only the striker that makes that run, the defence can handle it with ease. If the striker and winger both do it, then as long as the centre-back and full back communicate well, then it’s not a problem.
But if the striker, winger AND full-back all do it?
And if they do it with lightning pace?
It’s almost unstoppable, when done right.
It worked for years with Cole, Pires and Henry because defences had no idea who was the player that was going to run behind them next. A moment’s indecision was more than enough for Pires or Henry to create and opening for a shot on goal, but it was only possible if Cole was also in the vicinity, even if he was only a decoy most of the time.
On multiple occasions during both the Chelsea and Basel games, Bellerin was a huge threat to the defence, primarily because he ran inside from right-back instead of outside. Instead of trying to beat a full-back with a cross out wide, he’s already behind him when the ball gets to him.
It might seem like a small detail, but the knock-on effects are massive.
Because Theo now doesn’t feel isolated on the right, he’s less likely to drift out of games like he has in recent years. With Bellerin beside him more often, he’s more inclined to stick a foot in on defence, seeing that his right-back is beside him doing the same thing.
The more he sees of the ball, the more confident he gets, and the more he is willing to run for the team.
All of this extra running through the centre is running that Alexis now doesn’t have to do, so he can either come deep and get the ball, or take a breather. Plus, with Theo now more engaged defensively, he can press as high up the pitch as he likes, with the knowledge that Walcott and others are cutting off passing lanes behind him.
All of this pressure high up the field, and all of the runners dragging defences out of position, and all of this chaos that is created on the right, gives Mesut Özil all the opportunities he needs in order to pick a defence apart.
And with so much going on out on the right, all Alex Iwobi has to do on the left is keep his head up and make sure moves don’t break down when the ball comes his way. If and when the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck return from injury, they could be lethal if given the time Iwobi has of late.
One can only wonder what this means for Nacho Monreal at left-back.
We’ve seen Kieran Gibbs come on as a sub in recent games, and whilst Monreal is by far the better defender, the superb form of Koscielny and Mustafi must be tempting Wenger into playing two speedsters at full-back instead of one, and just blitzing defences from all angles.
It appears as if Arsenal have found a formula that works.
The next seven games will be perfect for fine-tuning things for when the schedule turns nasty in November.
Certainly makes a change from worrying about where the next win is coming from!