For some rival fans, Arsenal's convincing 6-1 victory over Southampton at the Emirates was merely against a lowly team. The idea, of course, is to rub some sheen off this scintillating victory. It appears that rival fans like it when Gooners agonize.
Were John Milton alive today, they'd love nothing more than another volume from the bard titled: "Arsenal Agonistes," with the emphasis on the struggling part, of course.
But although, even I wrote an article soon after the dominating victory to caution against being carried away by these early performances as to conclude that we're simply going to win the title since stiffer tests lie ahead, I believe this victory deserves all the celebration emanating from the Grove.
Southampton gave a good account of themselves against the two Manchester clubs and were only unlucky, it must be said, not to get something out of the two games in terms of points. The only disappointment was their 2-0 loss at home to Wigan Athletic.
To conclude that Southampton are merely pushovers isn't entirely accurate. Moreover, so-called lowly teams often have been the wrench in the works that derail Arsenal from their title quests.
The Southampton triumph deserves not only to be lauded but to be celebrated. Players deserve praise, Arsene Wenger and Steve Bould too, and to us, the fans, belongs the euphoria.
I bring out a few of the important things on display in this match.
Take a look at the diagram below and you'd notice something peculiar and not so peculiar. It isn't so peculiar because you often find it in the formation of almost every team.
That is, when stating the formation of almost every team on planet earth, the formation often begins with a four (4), which designates the four primary defenders of the team (minus the goalkeeper, who is not designated in structural representations).
But since the full-backs often push a little further up, you'd see that these formations aren't exactly four in the back in practice, but some form of a 2-2 (center-backs, then full-backs).
In the case of many teams, however, the full-backs are still primarily defenders, in the sense that their default position throughout a match tends backward rather than forward, even if they'd overlap as situations arise in the match.
Most readers of the game know that Arsenal tend to push their full-backs high up the pitch, a tendency I have discussed on many occasions.
It is a pressure ploy. It seeks to engage the wingers of the opposing team as far away from Arsenal's goal area as possible.
It also helps to squeeze and limit the area of skirmish. Again, this allows Arsenal to engage the opponent as far away from Arsenal's own defensive third as possible.
Another team that does this is Barcelona. The German national team tends to do this as well.
What is peculiar in this diagram is the following:
The essential thing here is what I call the "pressure line."
Arsenal are a traditional high-line team. As a matter of fact, if we focus on last season alone (but we can expand our sample) we'd see that most on the matches in which Arsenal dominated completely were a result of playing a high line.
This often resulted in an aggressive commitment to playing the offside trap, which must work; otherwise the purpose of the high line is defeated and the team becomes susceptible to the menace of the No. 9 of the opposing team who often lurks within the high line.
Arsenal exert structural pressure in two ways. Pushing the full-back very high up the pitch, resulting in what I have called the "Structural V."
Suffice to say here that you'd notice that full-backs are pushed high up the pitch and that the center-backs themselves are staggered, with one of them acting as the final sweeper, who, in the case of the Sunderland game, was Per Mertesacker.
The second way of playing the pressure line is through the traditional high line, where the entire back four push up together. This, I believe, is familiar to most readers.
What I'm trying to highlight from the Southampton match is the third way, and it is essentially an inverted 4-4-2.
Take a look at the first diagram again.
The interesting thing here, and I must say, praise-worthy thing here, is the fact that Arsenal are playing a high line, but with two safety catches.
It is an inverted 4-4-2 because it is actually deployed as a 2-4-4, as you can see from the diagram, where the first figure represents the two center-backs (Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker), the second figure, the two full-backs (Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson) and the two pivoting deep-sitting midfielders (Mikel Arteta and Francis Coquelin), and the last figure, the two flank players (Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain) and the two advance attackers (Santi Cazorla and Gervinho).
The noteworthy thing is this:
Rather than playing the high line "outside," Arsenal have here devised a way to play it "inside"—"inside" because of the fail-safe two center-backs that lie outside it to guard against or to forestall the danger of counterattack.
The screenshot below provide a practical example. It also provides a visual prove of what I'm saying. The yellow lines show the position of the two banks of four.
Where Per Mertesaker is launching his pass is where the fourth person of the first bank of four lies. In this case it is Carl Jenkinson, who is just beyond the view of this camera angle. (He comes into view when he receives the ball.)
The white circle and the red arrow indicate that the players, of course, are in constant motion. Here, Mikel Arteta it moving "down" in the direction of Mertesacker's pass, but that there is a bank of four men here is without doubt.
Three of the four men in the most advance bank of four are visible in this camera angle.
We find that AOC is moving "toward" the pass. The fourth person of the most advance bank of four (Gervinho) is outside the view of this camera angle.
The first bank of four (where the first yellow line is drawn) is where the pressure point of Arsenal's structure lies.
By it, the team squeezes the area of skirmish. It allows Arsenal players to remain in close proximity, enhancing their close passing, which they favor.
It also allows Arsenal to engage their opponent far away from their own defensive third.
Take note of how the two center-backs (Vermaelen and Mertesacker) lie outside the pressure line as we've observed, functioning as two safety nets.
The next screenshot provides a more sweeping view of the tactic in review.
Although the two banks of four are slightly staggered because of the natural movement of players in response to the developing play, there's no doubt that these two banks of four are there nevertheless.
Again, notice how the two center-backs lie "outside" the pressure line, and how, here, they function as the structure's safety net.
Also note how high up the pitch the center-backs are. That's because Arsenal prefer to squeeze up the area of skirmish as much as possible.
As in the case of the Structural V, this way of controlling the area of skirmish does not replace the default formation of the team, the 4-2-1-3 (or 4-2-3-1) formation. This default formation defines the role of each player on the pitch.
The pressure line (or structure) deals with how the playing space is handled by Arsenal.
One of the major talking points after the match was the fact that in the absence of Olivier Giroud to lead the Arsenal attack, Gervinho, instead of Lukas Podolski, was deployed in this position.
My concern here isn't to comment on the effectiveness of this maneuver by Wenger (this is obvious enough), but to highlight the fact that although Podolski was positionally deployed in what I have called the false 11 position, he really didn't play there.
Nor was his function in this match similar to the one at Liverpool, where he played mostly deeper and truly on the flank most of the time, as a result of Arsenal's defensive mindedness in this match.
Here, Podolski played more centrally. (Refer to the first diagram above, where I have highlighted the area of Podolski's influence.)
I should underscore two things therefore.
Podolski wasn't a true flank player in this match, but was more central, even if albeit he tended to swing outside, especially when the team defended.
As a result of playing more centrally, Kieran Gibbs functioned more like a wing-back than not. In this wise, Gibbs functioned in the manner of Dani Alves for Barcelona, even if the given flank is different, the one on the right and the other on the left.
As a result of this—Podolski more central and Kieran Gibbs a wing-back of sorts—Arsenal's formation was more a disguised 4-4-2 (or a 3-3-4) than their normal 4-2-1-3 formation.
Playing more centrally meant that Podolski was an added body in the middle, in which case, Arsenal played with two advance strikers (Gervinho and Podolski) and a supporting (influencing) one (Santi Cazorla).
On the right, AOC functioned more as a wide midfielder than a winger. He tended to drift inside, with his forays outside more intermittent.
The key here was that Arsenal wanted to closed up the playing space in the middle of the pitch as much as possible.
Recalling my analysis of last week's game against Liverpool, this approach is different from Liverpool's, who choose to expand the playing space rather than shrink it.
Lukas Podolski: Disguised striker. Getty Images.
Joy of the Final Third
If the obvious thing in Arsenal's first two matches was the team's defensive solidity and disjointedness in the final third, with an observable improvement in the forward line coming in the match against Liverpool, here, a new joy in the final third was very apparent.
Different kinds of combination could be seen in the final third. This led to the goals and the mistakes that yielded the goals.
It is safe to say that Podolski seems to have settled in, and this is really nice.
The flashes of brilliance that Aaron Ramsey displayed when he came on was a welcome change from the lethargy that overtook him in the last half of last season. Of course, Ramsey is always better playing in a more advance position.
Here, the fact that he started wide didn't seem to be a problem for him. What's more, he may have found a compromise to "score" without "killing" anyone: send the ball in in such a way that he doesn't really score, but makes it so impossible for a teammate not to mop up.
Arteta and Cazorla are combining very well, seeking each other out with great ease. Abou Diaby will still be the first choice in the box-to-box role, but Francis Coquelin did well in Diaby's absence.
We saw a different dimension of Gervinho, but this wasn't surprising. Readers would recall that Gervinho played centrally in his first preseason game for Arsenal last season at Cologne and did well.
The sore point in this victory was, of course, Wojciech Szczęsny's peevish performance, but like Wenger said later, it is important to stand behind him.
Szczesny: He will improve. Getty Images
Find my analyses of previous games in the following links: