Within minutes after Thomas Vermaelen had put Arsenal ahead in the eighth minute at Everton, David Moyes changed tactics by shifting Marouane Fellaini from the heart of the midfield to the tip of it, just to the left to pressure Arsenal's Bacary Sagna.
Thereafter, Fellaini became a focal point of long passes over the top of the midfield as Everton sought to neutralize Arsenal's obvious strength in the middle.
The tactics worked brilliantly: Sagna's marauding runs down the flanks were checked, and using his height and strength, Fellaini helped Everton to maintain possession in Arsenal's first half. Everton were more than a handful to Arsenal after that.
Marouane Fellaini celebrates a goal against Dempsey's Fulham. Alex Livesey/Getty Images.
Barring the resurgence in the final quarter of the match between Arsenal and Fulham in November, Arsenal faded in this home match after a bright start that lasted about 20 minutes. In this match Bobby Zamora used his strength to pressure and man-mark Thomas Vermaelen, also using him as point of orientation.
In most cases, Zamora had his back to the Arsenal goal shielding balls until help, often in the form of Clint Dempsey, arrived. But most telling of all was how Zamora's pressure forced errors from Vermaelen—errors that led ultimately to an own goal.
In the friendly against Italy in which the USA scored a memorable1-0 victory against the 2006 world champions, Jürgen Klinsmann used Jozy Altidore as the focal point of direct balls, with Maurice Edu playing just off him from time to time, although he frequently tucked inside to crowd the midfield in an attempt to stifle Italy in the middle.
The key to Klinsmann's tactics, though, was Clint Dempsey, who roamed the hole in the midfield, constantly pushing forward to link up with Altidore.
But above all, he was the fulcrum of USA's tactics on the day, distributing possession, looking to play that final pass, chasing down the second ball and often acting as the wrench in Italy's midfield wheels. To top it all, he scored the game’s sole goal to earn the USA a memorable victory.
Clint Dempsey celebrates his goal against Italy. Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images.
After beginning the match very well and controlling the first half through well distributed passes across the entire span of the pitch, often parsimonious in the first and second third of the pitch, Wigan Athletic switched strategy in the final two quarters of the match against Blackburn Rovers.
They went from short passing to more direct balls seeking out specific targets high up on the flanks. It meant that players like Victor Moses and Franco Di Santo had to be able to keep the ball when they received it.
Tactically, it meant that Wigan could quickly dispense with the ball from the back, relieving pressure from the defense in a period where Blackburn, whose back was against the relegation wall, would want to give a final push and nick the match, and so long as the target men performed their role (and they did), Wigan remained in control.
It was a shrewd tactical move, calculated to keep control and advantage with Wigan. It was a "Y" formation of sorts.
The reader may ask: "Well, but what has all this to do with Clint Dempsey at Arsenal?"
Take the Wigan example. This strategy worked because the focal players for direct balls up front could keep the ball. It was this exact tactic AC Milan used against Arsenal at the San Siro when Arsenal suffered a humiliating 4-0 defeat.
Here, Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic received direct balls high up on the flanks and kept possession using a combination of skill, trickery and strength to keep possession. That allowed first Kevin-Prince Boateng and Milan's middle three to push up to consolidate the attack.
The key, then, is a player with ability to keep possession. Clint Dempsey fits that bill. Arsenal currently don't have such focal men, with the exception of Marouane Chamakh, who, for one reason or the other, has been under-utilized.
In the USA example, I highlighted the strength of Dempsey in the midfield. It was a performance of person who can boss and dominate his opponents in the midfield. Arsenal have skillful players in the midfield but not this kind of person—not since Patrick Vieira.
It is the same kind of strength one finds in Marouane Fellaini. It is a dimension sorely missing in the Arsenal midfield, a dimension either of these two could add to the Arsenal midfield. But the fact that Dempsey adds to his natural strength the poacher's instincts only promotes his stock as a player.
Fellaini or Dempsey have the kind of experience that gives a team the edge in difficult matches. Dempsey’s tenacity is also perfect for cagey matches and matches where a team needs to see off to earn a precious victory or to survive with a point.
Add to this Dempsey strength and ability to mark down opponents and to break down their attacks and you have something different in the Arsenal midfield. Plus, he can play as a supporting striker in the 4-4-1-1 formation.
Clint Dempsey in action against Liverpool. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images.
The Wigan and Everton examples involved shifts in tactics in the middle of a match. For this to happen, a team must have players comfortable enough to change roles in a match.
Dempsey possesses such a dimension. Tactical shifts to sew up a match are what we don't see enough from Wenger, who tends to react only when Arsenal are on the brink of losing a match.
The ability to modulate from formation to formation in an ongoing match gives a team that added dimension; that extra ability to control the movements of a match. Even Barcelona, despite their tiki-taka, often change tactics in an ongoing match. This has often been the difference between frustration and victory.