It’s the biggish one.
With the North London Derby imminent and our approach to games looking more and more conservative now seems as good a time as any to look at the same fixture in 2013, and how it has led to the Arsenal team that we are seeing now.
It may be easy to dismiss some of these ideas seeing as we’ve suffered some pretty terrible losses since March 2013, but it was the defeat in N17 that has ultimately culminated in this Arsenal team in it’s current guise.
That day we were caught out after taking risks; with the level of opposition we face almost every week it was (and still is) a suicidal approach to squeeze high up the pitch without having a great pressing game.
Without huge pressure on the ball opponents can easily find darting runs into the acres of space behind the back four.
This was one of Arsenal’s major shortcomings in big games last season too.
The 2-1 defeat to Sp*rs two seasons ago was not the start of a negative spiral – quite the opposite, Mr Villas-Boas (hope you’re having fun in Russia!)
That defeat was followed by a highly professional 2-0 victory at the Allianz Arena against soon-to-be treble winners Bayern Munich.
Thomas Vermaelen was dropped for Laurent Koscielny and Aaron Ramsey began his (brilliantly timed, as ever) run of form to become an integral part of the side next to Mikel Arteta.
We muscled our way to fourth place by virtue of being disciplined, sensible, and hard to beat.
We also managed to nick a goal in almost every game along the way – not without a little luck.
This new and less expansive Arsenal machine added Mesut Özil to the squad but was just as sensible as a title-charge emerged in 2013/14.
Still playing a 4-2-3-1 but with Ramsey maintaining his discipline alongside Arteta, we formed one of the best defences in the country.
So this new defensive approach isn’t completely new, conjured by Arsène Wenger in the summer.
Born out of Bavaria
But the shape is, isn’t it?
No. In fact, this Arsenal squad used this shape last season with Özil out wide and Santi Cazorla playing centrally. Arsenal came away from the Allianz Arena with a 1-1 draw last time around.
Injuries arguably forced the shape but between the visits to N17 and Munich in 2013 and again in 2014 I imagine that is what has led to this ‘new’ approach we are seeing now.
In Munich last season Özil started wide (before being subbed off injured at half-time) while Oxlade-Chamberlain played the exact role we saw from Cazorla in Manchester in January.
Playing so deep against such a talented and intelligent team requires at least one player capable of working out of tight spaces and driving forward.
Otherwise you are left with a completely isolated forward, as well as constant pressure on the defence when the ball is instantly lost. That’s where the individual brilliance: close control, discipline, and acceleration of players like Oxlade-Chamberlain and Cazorla is vital.
The same midfield three started in last season’s North London Derby up the Seven Sisters Road, just five days after the draw in Munich.
Once again Cazorla was played to the left (covering Lukas Podolski’s languid approach to defensive duties) while Oxlade-Chamberlain drove on from the middle.
Just like in the win over Manchester City, we took the lead and, despite conceding a lot of possession, remained organised behind the ball and allowing the opposition very few chances.
We actually – again – had the better chances, attacking a wide-open Sp*rs on the break, much to the dismay of Tim Sherwood.
*Angrily discards gillet*
Why change now?
All this is what made the reaction to the win at Manchester City so odd.
“Why hasn’t Wenger done this before? Why not change this earlier?”
“Hallelujah!” exclaimed Gary Neville on Sky.
This was not novel.
In fact, we had played a bit like this at the beginning of the season, not always sacrificing possession but with one midfielder deeper than the four ahead of him.
I was amongst those to bemoan it; the change in system was failing to get the best of out of Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere often played far too far from the man behind them, there was little cohesion offensively, especially in hugely disorganised pressing which left huge spaces.
Simply the players didn’t seem to ‘get’ their duties in a new system.
That’s changed now, and the change is embodied in the style of a certain Spaniard.
A blessing in disguise
Eventually, injuries to Wilshere and Özil offered Santi Cazorla an extended run in the team.
Sometimes you get lucky and stumble upon something, and I think it’s fair to say we did here.
Cazorla’s inclination isn’t to join in on the edge of the box but to collect the ball far deeper.
He favours a more direct style than many of our players with his sweeping cross-field balls, and his ability in tight spaces is perfectly designed to break free on the edge of our own box.
Defensively Cazorla is diligent and deceptively strong – defending is mostly about the timing of a challenge and he has superb timing. He also waits for the right moment to pounce upon an error, rather than forcing one – he isn’t built for pressing like Jack Wilshere, Alexis Sánchez, or Danny Welbeck.
With Wilshere and Welbeck out we seem to have understood that we do not need to put crazy pressure on the ball to win it back, that a whirlwind approach like that is high-risk and it doesn’t really suit our players or our manager.
Since Cazorla has stepped into the middle we have managed to play a high tempo game with far less risks – recent weeks and performances have provided the most enjoyable and fluid football Arsenal have played in a number of years.
Smash and grab
Which brings me to where Arsenal really have changed, and where we truly were exciting.
The weekend’s 5-0 win over Aston Villa (a terrible, terrible team – that high line!) was straightforward. But how often have Arsenal ever played against an inferior side with less possession? At home! While having the lead!
With the vision of Cazorla and Mesut Özil, the strength and intelligence of Olivier Giroud, and the pace of Messrs Walcott, Sánchez, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck, and Chuba Akpom this team is now built to destroy the opposition on the counter-attack.
The shape of the team allows for more space when attacking but this wouldn’t be possible without a feeling of defensive stability. That doesn’t come from disorganised pressing, but from being narrow and not being pulled out of your shape.
As Adrian Clarke pointed out on ‘The Breakdown’ Arsenal conceded just four fouls in Manchester – none near our own box – and made a huge number of interceptions.
This patient approach to defending, sitting off to nullify counter-attacks, is effective – especially with the players at our disposal.
They are intelligent and can read the game but have to curb their instincts in order to not leave our goal exposed.
Arsène Wenger relies heavily on the intuition and technical ability of his players.
He always has faith in them to know what to do when they’ve crossed the white line. And they do.
We have too many talented individuals to have a team drilled into aggressive defensive actions on the front foot, like Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid and the Borussia Dortmund side that Jürgen Klopp led to consecutive league titles.
Having said that, our players aren’t individualistic.
Sacrificing themselves for the team when we don’t have the ball allows them more space and opportunity to be dangerous and decisive when we are in possession.
Whether it’s completely planned or something we’ve stumbled across a little matters not; it’s the best way for us to play.
It should prove an interesting match at the weekend; juxtaposing our approach with the high-tempo game that Mauricio Pochettino seems to finally be getting out of his Sp*rs players.
Personally I think it could play into our hands.
A fast start like last season would set up a brilliant game of football, one which could induce heart-attacks for fans of both sides.
Actually, I think that’s pretty much guaranteed anyway.