12 Reflections on Arsenal's 3-0 Victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers
A sizzling beginning from off the blocks from Arsenal saw the North Londoners two goals up with just 11 minutes of the match played. A quick one-two exchange with Robin van Persie saw Theo Walcott clean through on goal, only to be bundled over by Sebastien Bassong.
Referee Neil Swarbrick had little choice than to point to the spot and send off Bassong.
Up stepped Robin van Persie for the resultant penalty kick and then cheekily dinged it over the sprawling Wayne Hennessey, the goalkeeper, who, in the first leg in December, had frustrated Arsenal's attempt to get a winner in a match that ended with one goal apiece.
On this day, though, Hennessey was helpless against Arsenal's in form Theo Walcott, who again exchanged passes with Robin van Persie to get behind Wolves defense for the second goal, which he coolly drove low into the far right corner of Hennessey's goal.
At this point, the match seemed headed to a heavy goal harvest for the Gunners.
It wasn't to be, however, as Arsenal decided to ease up on the gas, content simply to knock the ball around, an approach that continued in the second half.
Arsenal managed a third goal in the 69th minute through a fierce strike from Yossi Benayoun on the edge of Wolves' penalty area. This proved the final goal even though Arsenal tried for more and Wolves threatened to score one themselves.
I parse the rest of the match through the following 12 talking points.
Five Points Ahead
Tottenham Hotspurs surprising 2-1 defeat to Norwich City at home on Saturday left Arsenal with an opportunity to extend their two-point advantage to five.
Ahead of the match, Arsene Wenger had warned his players against complacency. Predictions, he said, are for the pundits not for the players, whose duty is to get the job done on the field.
Given what Wenger says, I'm happy I'm not in the habit of predictions, at least not frequently—I should add LOL, the text-message junkie's favorite word.
For some people, these predictions are their job. Believe me, they don't know much better than you or me and the result of every game is just a consequence of your performance on the day.
Nobody can really predict that because your performance on the day depends on you, but also depends on the other team as well. To predict both is nearly impossible. You can have an idea but football has surprised us so many times, especially recently in the last two or three months.
We have all been surprised by many results and predictions. What would be interesting is to make a championship of the predictors and see who comes out on top at the end.
Let's not anticipate, that is something else that is important. When it gets to the last sprint, the focus on the next game becomes the most important part because you are always tempted to anticipate. We have the experience to know just to deal with the next one and that is the only important thing.
With five matches left to be played in the season, and with 15 points left for the taking, a five-point advantage over their nearest rival isn't going to hurt Arsenal's chances. And with Wigan Athletic, who have found a new lease of life, waiting in the wings, Arsenal's next match is sure to be no walk in the park.
Wigan, the reader would note, defeated Manchester United (the crowned prince of the season) by a lone goal at the DW Stadium, a feat they could have equaled at Stamford Bridge had the match officials not rob them of victory.
Arsenal will have a determined opponent next Monday when the two sides lock horns at the Emirates Stadium. Five points thus come in handy.
Now Spurs are really "quacking" in their boots with fourth-place finish not even assured at this point. But like I have said before, Gooners will celebrate at their own peril. Fifteen points means it could all crumble away, even if that seems unlikely at this point.
Theo as Enigmatic as Ever
This heading is cliche.
I should thus offer some advice to the reader. Try switching off your TV commentary (when you're not chanced to watch the match live at the Emirates) from time to time. The commentators can be exasperatingly annoying (tautology employed for maximum effect).
Whenever a team or a player does not play according to their set expectation, they proceed to put blinders on and see only what their imagination feeds them.
Thus, for one commentator, dung could be the apt description for Walcott after the player's early heroics. He didn't use "dung," though, the sentiment however said as much.
Theo Walcott did just fine.
If you can watch the match again, suspend your own misconception and watch his movement within and out of the incessant triangles Arsenal formed and you'd see that he was playing purposefully.
Some people expect dribbling runs all the time or headlong charging at the opposition defense, and when this doesn't happen, when he appears unable to get behind the opposition defense, then they resurrect the little song again: Walcott is this or that...or isn't.
Three goals in four matches. That's an excellent statistic.
The best teams don't play square lines anymore. The teams to dominate in the future at the ones finding ways to shape playing space to their advantage. Marcelo Bielsa, one of the world's finest managers, is a master at this.
Pep Guardiola has taken the fine foundation of Johann Cruyff to a new level.
Many years ago, in the 1930s, Arsenal's outspoken and innovative manager created a revolution in team formation by devising a way to maximize the strength of his squad. The result was the W M formation, which lived for many years as a very popular formation, much like the 4-4-2 formation became in the 1990s.
Here, Wenger decided to push the formation button again to see what comes out. Here's how Arsenal formation looked like before the two goals.
Let me point out a few things from the formation.
- Arsenal lined up with a quasi-back three, having pushed Bacary Sagna very far forward to be in touching distance of Theo Walcott, a strategy that neutralized the space Wolves' Matt Jarvis, and Stephen Ward would normally exploit down their left flank.
- Alex Song was pushed in advance of Mikel Arteta, a move I believe was spawned by Wenger's desire to explore Song's playmaking ability. Put the rationale in the form of a question, and you'd see the merit of the experiment: How do you know what potential lies dormant in a player if you never explore it? If Song can be a playmaker, this will affect what Wenger buys in the coming transfer market.
- The yellow solid lines highlight the implication of this formation, which practically was a 3-2-3-2 formation, with Song advancing in field diagonally from left in search of Walcott and Robin van Persie. The major implication of this formation, though, was its attempt to shrink the playing space for Wolves. Notice how strategic positioning reigns in Wolves players.
- With Andre Santos tucked in at the back early on, it meant that Yossi Benayoun positioned as Santos normally would. In possession, he would drift inward while Santos pushed forward to contain the space Benayoun's movement opened up.
- Instead of playmaking, Aaron Ramsey was the central pivot around which the formation revolved, with Song taking up the playmaking role from a deep position. Arteta, thus, was the enforcer/influencer here.
- Having pushed Sagna so far forward to be very close to Walcott, and with Ramsey hovering close by, it meant that Theo Walcott could drift inward—and very quickly—to link up with Robin van Persie. The strategy worked. It produced the match's early two goals.
- Bold white-line triangle illustrates Van Persie's and Walcott's neat exchanges that led to Arsenal's early goals. Purple lines indicates the same in the case of Walcott and Sagna. The reader can interpolate the various triangles this formation yields.
Arsene Wenger did not only explore Alex Song's playmaking ability in this match, he went further with the experiment also in the case of Robin van Persie, who dropped frequently deep to pick up the ball and create chances.
This adds dimension to Van Persie's game, who—if the reader has been paying attention in the last few weeks—is functioning more than the apex of the team. I suspect Wenger is exploring using him in the Messi role, that of a playmaking goalscorer.
This means that Arsenal had two quasi playmaker on the pitch today. The involvement of both yielded all of Arsenal's goals.
If Wenger decides to use Van Persie in this role in the coming season (considering, of course, that Van Persie stays), it will, again, affect the types of players Wenger buys in the coming transfer window.
Holder and Pivot
As noted above, Mikel Arteta wasn't just a box-to-box today; he, in fact, sat very deep in the first half, only pushing up in the second half.
He was rather the holding player today, a situation that allowed Song to try out his new role.
Meanwhile, Aaron Ramsey was given a much more specific role—sitting in the hole normally occupied by the advanced playmaker and being the pivot upon which the formation revolved.
In the second half, Ramsey grew more confident and started enjoying himself. He also started pushing forward more in the quasi supporting striker role.
Benayoun Stuck to Task
I was surprised to see Yossi Benayoun back in the formation. I thought Wenger would opt for a more direct approach in this match, a decision that would have required starting either Gervinho or Alex Oxlade-chamberlain.
Wenger decided instead to stick with the false-11 role, a role Benayoun faithfully executed—making sure his default positioning was always on the left, but constantly drifting inward to stop Wolves second band of four men from playing out in any cogent manner.
Little Triangles Top Left and One Big One Down Right
Here's an experiment for the reader.
Scroll up and locate the above diagram. Tilt rightward and view the diagram from the right as though the rightward end of the diagram were the bottom part of the diagram and leftward end the top; what do you see?
What you'd find is that Arsenal's formation becomes 3-1-4-2, with Benayoun turned to a center-half proper (what the original term actually meant) in the wrong end, of course.
Viewed this way, Sagna is the apex of this formation.
It is a splendid strategy whereby Arsenal have created space for themselves on the right, while shrinking all other spaces—especially on the left—to hamper their opponent.
Note that Arsenal's most potent attacks had gone and come up from the right in the first half. Barcelona uses a different version of this same formation.
By opening up space down right and shrinking it up left, Arsenal could create neat small triangles on the left in decoy moves and then launch longer passes down right to put the opponent off balance.
A Little Frustration
After the two goals, Arsenal served up a little dose of frustration to their fans by refusing to ruthlessly put away Wolves for good. Ruthlessness, I have always thought, is an advantage to a team, as rival teams begin to fear it.
With Wigan fighting like a wounded animal, seven goals (for example) would have sent waves of fears crashing down the River Douglas.
Moreover, with the race for top-four finish heating up, it wouldn't have harmed Arsenal's course to rack up a huge amount of goal difference.
It is a good thing the team won, because if it hadn't, the abuse would be relentless. As it is, few people will criticize the team. Not I.
The best time to criticize a team is when it is doing well. Refer accordingly to the next point.
A Bumbling Giant
After the dismissal of Sebastien Bassong and after Arsenal's second goal, which came quite quickly, Arsenal seemed like a giant in an unfamiliar environment, the environment here being two goals up too quickly and not knowing what the heck to do next.
You see, I suspect Arsenal like it when they have some impossible task to accomplish—a goal down, a fourth or third place at an almost elusive position.
It is the reason I believe the team lost at QPR, having decided the match was won even before the ball was kicked. It is also why, I suspect, Arsenal tend to fall at the hand of "lesser" teams.
Had Wolves proved a difficult nut to crack, you'd have seen a determined and relentless Arsenal.
Make no mistake, I'm not the type that always want a team to charge forward. That's a naive expectation, if you ask me. However, useless lateral and back passes such as Arsenal resorted to made little sense to me.
Of course, they kept possession, but why not turn possession into goals? Make the enemy fear you is always my mantra.
Obsession with Triangles
Subsequent to the last couple of points, Arsenal seemed not to know what to do next, having won the match prematurely and having before them a less-than-formidable opponent.
This recalls to me a charge I had labeled against Arsenal earlier in the season that they can be mono-dimensional at times. I also alluded to this when I said in a recent article that Arsenal need to expand their tactical arsenal.
Since I understand tactics to be more like a flow-chart of likely scenarios in a match, these are "what-if" questions. One such question was asked of Arsenal last night, and they didn't seem to know how to respond.
Most readers too quickly are deceived by the appearance of success. Such will not see the point of my criticism.
What I see before me is a team that is yet to fully discover its potential.
To reach that potential, it must go beyond its neat triangles to turning them into a psychological weapon that can yield goals almost at will.
It is how they can dominate their opponents, how they can be sure they'd challenge for major trophies next season.
The malleable formation, which I praise above, and the triangles are some of the good things happening in the team. Now what the team needs is to build on this and solidify herself as the best in England.
A few mistakes persisted here and there from Arsenal, like Andre Santos giving away possession or the network of passing going awry at the final moment, or Walcott not quite getting his run right or Song his pass. These are things the team can work to improve on or to eliminate.
On this point, Aaron Ramsey spurn a perfectly good chance again. However, he should have had a penalty given in his favor, but the referee seems to have turned lenient toward Wolves as the match wound down.
A Touch from Heaven
Wojciech Szczęsny got a strong finger to a Wolves goal-bound shot. That was some superb reflex reaction. Later, he made another strong save to deny Wolves. It was the period Wolves summoned courage to attack Arsenal, or put differently, the period Arsenal decided it was a good idea to concede a goal just to see how it felt like, only Szczęsny wasn't on the same page.
The team continues to grow. Wenger's experimentation with the formation is a step in the right direction. It means he is thinking beyond this season. What I'd like to see more from the team is a little bit of ruthlessness. Beside this, there's little not to like in the current team. So much for our worst team in ages.
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