Saturday’s performance in the 0-4 win at Swansea was Arsenal’s most aesthetically pleasing display in the league since the win over Chelsea back in September.
More intriguingly, it was an entirely other way of winning to the swashbuckling counterpressing performance that took apart the current league leaders.
Some will argue ‘it was only Swansea’ but you can only play what’s in front of you.
Arsenal have looked largely uninspiring for the most part of matches against what’s been in front of them throughout this season. Saturday’s performance was a breath of fresh air and it owed a lot to Arsene Wenger’s team selection and adoption of somewhat throwback tactics.
For many, the last time Arsenal were consistently fun to watch on a week-to-week basis was in the first third of the 2013/14 season, between Mesut Özil’s arrival and Aaron Ramsey’s injury.
The front 6 of that side featured Mikel Arteta at the base of midfield distributing from deep, Özil in the number 10 role, and Ramsey linking the two and doing a little bit of everything you’d want a central midfielder to do, at a very high standard. This trio was supplemented by Santi Cazorla, who would drift in from one of the flanks to aid ball circulation. Olivier Giroud would play ahead of them, offering a focal point who would also lay the ball of to teammates running beyond the opposition’s back line. Opposite Cazorla would be a chaos factor who would operate independent to the core unit.
At Swansea on Saturday, Granit Xhaka came in and played the Arteta role, with Alex Iwobi offering a more dynamic version of what Cazorla offered from his drifting wide role, and Alexis Sanchez providing the chaos factor free to do his own thing and operate independent of the core unit. Some observers were dissatisfied with the lack of a breakthrough made in the opening half hour of the match, but that should be viewed in the context of the season as a whole and not as an indictment on Saturday’s tactics in isolation.
On Saturday, as in the aforementioned section of the 2013/14 season, Arsenal approached an away game looking to maintain a good shape for the opening half hour and play primarily on the counter, where they would sweeping forward in waves, or through forcing and capitalising on fractured situations in the Swansea half. In possession, the midfield trio manoeuvred the ball around intelligently, evading Swansea pressure.
At half time, Wenger instructed his players to turn the screw.
As Liverpool did so well at the Emirates on the opening day of the season, Arsenal themselves upped their intensity and blew Swansea away in the first 20 minutes of the second half by playing at a level the hosts just could not keep up with. This owed a lot to the midfield’s performance and the fluency and speed at which they moved the ball. Some of the link-up play was sublime.
It was full Wengerball and it was glorious to watch.
One big criticism of some of the midfield combinations used by Arsenal this season is that they have merely compensated for one another’s shortcomings, as opposed to combining to build a formidable unit greater than the sum of its parts.
Rather than breaking even and just about getting by, Saturday’s midfield trio enriched one another’s natural games and Arsenal profited greatly.
Xhaka was superb at breaking up play and quickly launching counterattacks with intelligent passes, while Ramsey and Özil provided willing runners. They were in tune with one another and able to slice through the retreating Swansea players with one-twos and other more elaborate forms of associative play with consummate ease. It was only going to be a matter of time until this combination on the counter yielded a goal.
Eventually, two goals came about in this way.
While Arsenal looked far more of a threat on the counter than they have done in recent weeks, it would be wrong to argue that they showed little attacking intent and were fully reliant on the counter attack. This is demonstrated by the amount of turnovers forced by the pressure Ramsey applied on the ball in the opposition half.
Better than Coq
Ramsey was all doing the high energy front foot defensive work that Coquelin has deservedly been praised for this season, while also doing things that are frankly beyond Coquelin’s skillset when Arsenal had the ball.
He was central to everything good Arsenal did and the glue that held the team together.
Unlike last week at Preston, Ramsey didn’t get on the scoresheet himself, but arguably turned in a more complete performance. His runs created more space in the middle third of the pitch and gave Arsenal another viable body in the opposition box.
With Ramsey dropping deeper to help Xhaka build from deep and also breaking forward accordingly when the match situation dictated, Özil spent more time dropping into space in midfield. He played much more like part of the midfield unit than he has at times this season, when Wenger’s instructions have dictated he supplement the forward line instead.
A fit and firing well-oiled midfield is even more important with Giroud upfront than when Alexis plays through the middle.
While the Frenchman is good at bringing teammates into play with flicks and lay-offs, he is less capable than his Chilean teammate of producing something from nothing and his natural game requires support and service. If the midfield unit isn’t working, you wouldn’t fancy Giroud to skip past two defenders with a bit of skill and stick it in the top corner from 20 yards as much as you would Alexis.
However, that’s not to say that Saturday’s midfield won’t work in Arsenal’s preferred system with Alexis up front.
The chemistry between the three of them is developing nicely and it should lend itself to meshing well with Wenger’s preferred front three of Iwobi, Alexis, and Theo Walcott when fit.
This front six has the capacity to fire Arsenal well clear of the other challenges for Champions League football and perhaps even apply enough pressure on leaders Chelsea to make them slip up and get back into a title race that they seemed out of after the manner of the defeats at Everton and Manchester City.