Pace Is Already Making a Major Difference in Arsenal's Attack

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistAugust 11, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 10:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal in action during the FA Community Shield match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Wembley Stadium on August 10, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

If Arsenal's 3-0 FA Community Shield win over Manchester City is anything to go by, then pace is going to create a sea change in the Gunners' attack this season.

That was the one quality that was missing for too long during the last campaign. Theo Walcott spending most of the season on the treatment table saw to that.

Without the England international's direct speed, Arsenal became static and ponderous in forward areas. Nowhere was this more evident than during the biggest games.

Every Gunners supporter remembers the catalogue of defensive howlers that saw the team concede 20 goals in four lopsided away defeats to Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton.

Walcott's injury did more to derail Arsenal than any other factor last season.
Walcott's injury did more to derail Arsenal than any other factor last season.Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

But too few have referenced how disappointing the Gunners were in their own search for goals. There was no pace and urgency when the team drew a blank against both Everton and Chelsea. Neither side was threatened by the possibility of runners breaking behind defensive lines.

That let both the Toffees and the Blues press high, winning the ball in midfield and quickly countering to isolate plodding centre-backs. The only headline defeat where the Arsenal attack merited any credit was the 6-3 drubbing at the hands of City. It's no coincidence that Walcott featured in that game and scored twice.

Even the lone goal at Anfield, a Mikel Arteta penalty, was created by the speed and trickery of another flier, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. His quick breaks also tormented the same opposition during the 2-1 FA Cup fifth-round win.

That serves to show the importance of pace. It's an element that's useful for any team, but one that is everything to Arsenal. Manager Arsene Wenger's fluid and expansive style of play relies on pace and the threat of it, to spread defenders all over the pitch.

With new signing Alexis Sanchez and quick young striker Yaya Sanogo leading the line against City, that's just what the Gunners were able to do. The threat of getting behind the Citizens' back line directly impacted the midfield. In fact, it tipped the battle in the middle in Arsenal's favour.

City kept both Fernando and Yaya Toure deep to help out against pacy breaks. That's one reason why Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere were afforded so much room in central areas.

The threat from Sanchez made City's midfield destroyers passive.
The threat from Sanchez made City's midfield destroyers passive.Clive Mason/Getty Images

It was only after Sanchez and Sanogo were substituted at half-time that Toure began to drive forward more often. Before that, the mere threat of speed had taken perhaps the opposition's main danger man out of the game.

With Sanchez and Sanogo around, City had learned the hard way that they couldn't afford to commit too many bodies forward. That lesson was brutally taught via Arsenal's second goal.

Henry Winter of The Telegraph succinctly described the goal:

Ramsey did superbly, starting the move in his own box with a touch out to Wilshere, who was flattened in spreading the ball right to Sánchez. The little Chilean weighted his pass perfectly, allowing Sanogo to outmuscle, wrong-foot and generally bamboozle Boyata. Sanogo rolled the ball on to Ramsey, who had raced 80 yards. His first touch deceived Nastasic and Gaël Clichy. His second gave Caballero no chance.

An earlier break from Sanchez also played a significant part in the first goal. Both moves demonstrated how Arsenal are now able to make quicker transitions to create chances.

Sanchez gives them that outlet because of his direct pace. It opens up the counter-attacking game, something Wenger noted after the match, per

[Alexis] Sanchez was lively, still not completely ready physically but he was very exciting. He was always dangerous, always a threat and gives us great qualities on the counter-attack.

Quick combinations on the break are at the root of Wenger's philosophy. They are what made his best Arsenal teams consistent trophy winners.

Without the quick outlet offered by a fleet-footed forward like Sanchez, the Gunners often become pedestrian. They are reduced to slow passing in congested central areas.

The re-emergence of acceleration on the counter can make a huge difference this season. It can allow Arsenal to occasionally sit a little deeper, rather than always pressing forward in numbers.

Sanchez has already shown why he will be the key figure for Arsenal this season.
Sanchez has already shown why he will be the key figure for Arsenal this season.Clive Mason/Getty Images

That's a dangerous ploy that has been mercilessly exposed by teams who pack the middle and pinch possession, before using direct passing to release pace in behind. That's what Chelsea did to the Gunners at Stamford Bridge. They were free to do it because they knew the favour couldn't be returned.

Of course, Arsenal were able to press in numbers against City, but that was largely due to not having to face a quick striker like Sergio Aguero. City also like to build through meticulous possession, something that allowed Arsenal to rob the ball and break for a change.

It was only a glorified exhibition game against a City team missing some key figures, but Arsenal's newfound speed demonstrated the tremendous impact it can have this season.

Immediately after the game, Mikel Arteta was quick to reference and endorse how pace has improved the team, per BT Sport:

In the first half we had 20 or 25 minutes where we were outstanding and we passed the ball around very quickly and looked a threat every time.

We've got pace up front now and it makes a big difference so we're really happy to get another trophy.

Now that Wenger's squad has that precious pace back, the Gunners chief should do all he can to get more of it on the pitch.

That means finding room for Walcott in an attack also featuring Sanchez. The oft-injured forward has already suggested he and the Chilean international can form a deadly tandem this season, per Arsenal Player (h/t The Guardian):

Sánchez is a world-class player and I enjoyed watching him play for Barcelona and for Chile at the World Cup.

He’s still very young as well and he is going to show so much pace and power, which we lacked a bit last year.

With me and him on the flanks, a lot of teams won’t be looking forward to playing Arsenal this year.

Having a pair of speedsters on the wings will require some tough decisions elsewhere in the squad, but they are decisions worth making. The more pacy runners there are, the more targets a playmaker such as Mesut Ozil can aim for.

Some alleged bright spark will no doubt suggest that teams can simply counter by smothering Ozil. Anyone who argues that clearly doesn't have much respect for the creative instincts of Ramsey.

The Welshman can pick a pass with the best of them, and so can Arteta. It's not just Ozil who has to release speed between the lines.

With more pace up front, the Gunners can even use a long ballyes that's right, a long ballover the top. That's a tactical change-up Arsenal certainly weren't ashamed to use during the days when Nicolas Anelka or Thierry Henry led the line.

Wenger is hardly going to be loath to use it if both Walcott and Sanchez are on the prowl.

Arsenal weren't afraid to mix up their passing to unleash Nicolas Anelka's direct pace.
Arsenal weren't afraid to mix up their passing to unleash Nicolas Anelka's direct pace.Ben Radford/Getty Images

Pace will be the defining quality of this Arsenal squad this season.

If Walcott stays healthy and Sanchez makes a quick transition to the Premier League, Arsenal's sprint-based attack will earn the club even more silverware.


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