As I settled on the sofa to watch my beloved Arsenal take on the mighty PSG I scrolled through my twitter feed to check Wenger’s starting lineup and see what the mood was like amongst Gunners fans. To say I was surprised with the selection was an understatement. I had spent the past couple of days defending Wenger’s team selection on Saturday purely on the basis that he was resting players for the Champions League clash in Paris.
So you can imagine my shock when summer acquisition Granit Xhaka and Arsenal’s only recognized centre forward Olivier Giroud were left out for the second time in less than a week. Wenger opted to go with David Ospina between the sticks despite the backlash that same decision brought in last season’s Champions League campaign. The Colombian stopper justified his managers show of faith with a solid performance and he made a number of very smart saves – its clearer than ever that Arsenal do really have two top class goalkeepers in the ranks.
Even the most pessimistic of Gooner’s couldn’t have foreseen a worse start, Laurent Koscielny was caught too high up the pitch with Francis Coquelin chasing shadows and once Serge Aurier broke free down their right hand side there was no catching him. A pinpoint delivery and an instinctive finish from Edinson Cavani gave PSG the lead and that all too familiar thought of ‘here we go again’ sprung to mind.
Despite having a fair share of the possession in the first half (49% to be precise) we failed to create any chances and PSG were cutting through us like a knife through butter. Edinson Cavani squandered two fantastic chances, most notably the one where he took the ball around Ospina and shot wide. Just imagine what we’d all be saying if that was Giroud!
The second half started somewhat more positively and Arsenal were keeping the ball for long periods but there was still no cutting edge. It was only a matter of time before PSG began pulling us apart and by-passing our non-existent midfield, but for a host of smart saves from David Ospina it would have been Goodnight for the Gunners in Paris.
Thankfully, in what was probably our first meaningful attack of the game Mesut Ozil picked out Alex Iwobi in the penalty area, the Nigerian’s shot was blocked and Alexis was right on cue to rifle it into the bottom left corner. 1-1! It was a strange feeling, a mixture of joy at the equalizer but also frustration as to why it had taken 78 minutes for Arsenal to carry any sort of meaningful threat.
Arsene Wenger will be pretty pleased with himself, the introduction of Giroud was vital in creating the space for Iwobi and like I mentioned in my last post – just having a forward to occupy the centre halves can make all the difference. The Frenchman coming on and Alexis Sanchez being able to move back into his familiar role of wide left ultimately made the difference.
The decision not to play a striker was a strange one but I don’t think this is the last time we will see Wenger adopt this approach in the so called bigger games. Here’s why…
In all my years of watching the Arsenal that wasn’t the first time I’ve been scratching my head over the boss’ selection and it certainly won’t be the last. At first, I just thought it was another poor selection and I couldn’t see the vision or indeed the idea behind his selection. Before I continue, I am not suggesting that this approach worked and it’s important to note we were very fortunate to leave the Parc Des Princes with a point. However, despite all of that it was clear that Arsene had at least tried to adapt his approach to this particular game – something that we’ve often criticized him for failing to do.
There were a number of differences to our set up. Most of them, I struggled to make sense of, in particular early on in the game.
Usually the anchor in our midfield, patrolling left to right in front of the back four and putting out fires. Francis Coquelin was found pressing further up the pitch than normal and on occasions was further forward than even Mesut Ozil! I can’t for a moment believe that a player who is usually so disciplined would be pressing in the last third unless instructed by the manager to do so. This had a negative impact on our defensive shape because every time PSG won possession and broke on us the midfield was nowhere to be seen.
Under Arsene Wenger we have been known to play a high line where possible, pushing up to the half way line and squeezing our opponents in – you could say a good way of sustaining pressure. While we try to do this as often as possible the fact that Mustafi is playing rather than Per Mertesacker seems to have encouraged us to push that little bit further up the pitch, there is no longer a clear lack of pace in the central defensive department to cause major concern.
However, this issue should be approached with caution. As happy as I am with the signing of Mustafi its clear for all to see that his understanding with Koscielny will need time to develop and I just feel that playing such a high line leaves no margin for error. You only need to look at the amount of times PSG broke through the middle of our defence last night to see exactly what I mean.
I am firm believer that in order to have a strong central defensive partnership you require two different styles of centre halve that compliment each other’s games. Koscielny tends to play on the front foot, often stepping out of the back four to close space and going toe to toe with his opponent. Over recent seasons he has usually been the one to man-mark the opponents striker. One of the reason’s he developed such a strong partnership with Per Mertesacker was because their styles did exactly that, compliment each other. Per will take a calmer approach, dropping off as the spare man and often reading the danger early from his ‘withdrawn’ position allowing him to get his starting position right and move across to deal with it.
It’s not that I don’t like Mustafi but during his first two games for the Arsenal something about the way he plays just reminds me of Thomas Vermaelen – that all action style. I don’t believe you can get away with having two centre halves wanting to play on the front foot, both constantly committing themselves and stepping out of the back four to make challenges, it leaves you far too exposed and the better teams will pick you off. Some of you may disagree and I am hopeful they will develop a strong central defensive partnership together but one of them will certainly have to adapt their game for the benefit of the team.
No recognized striker on the pitch is something we are beginning to see more and more of in football. To use a Premier League example, Jurgen Klopp has had plenty of success in the ‘bigger games’ by refusing to play a recognized centre forward. I feel this can be successful for a number of reasons…
- It allows you to dominate possession, when necessary the midfield becomes a six and you end up simply over running your opponents in the midfield area.
- It allows freedom of movement – as long as a couple of your midfielders are disciplined enough and sit in front of the back four it pretty much allows your more advanced players to be able to interchange positions and makes it almost impossible for your opponents to man mark and keep tabs on them.
- There are no passengers in this system (when played correctly!) – When you haven’t got possession of the ball you can fill up the midfield with bodies and the numbers allow you to close more of the spaces and press your opponents effectively.
As I mentioned in my last blog entry we never seem to carry enough of a threat when Sanchez or Walcott for example play as the striker. Teams tend to load the middle and without a physical presence or focal point in attack we just don’t seem to create very much.
I feel Giroud’s presence and physical strength occupies the central defenders, giving them something to worry about and therefore creating spaces for others to exploit – last night’s goal was a perfect example. It’s as clear as day for all to see that were not getting any joy playing that way.
Is Arsene Wenger silly enough to persist with something that clearly isn’t working or are we seeing a transition as a result of him trying to implement something new? A plan B perhaps?
I think and I hope it’s the latter – it’s clearly something that requires a lot more work but a small part of me was glad to see us trying to adapt ourselves to better cope with our opponent’s strengths.
Time will tell whether it’s something Arsenal decide to persist with and despite the questionable performance I woke up with a smile on my face. A big European result and let’s hope we can make it past the last 16 this time!
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