Arsenal 6-1 Southampton: Tactical Analysis
Often, the first match after an international break can throw up a disjointed team performance as players struggle to settle back into groove after exertions with their national sides. Yesterday though, Arsenal looked like a well-oiled machine, one lubricated by quality, spirit and determination.
Despite the good run of form that secured third place last season, not since the 5-2 thrashing of the wannabe neighbours in February have the Gunners looked so fluent and potent in attack. Admittedly, Southampton’s defending wasn’t of the highest quality but you can only beat what’s in front of you and Arsenal were full value for both the three points and the emphatic scoreline.
As expected, Arsene Wenger chose not to risk Abou Diaby and handed a start to Francis Coquelin in midfield alongside Mikel Arteta. In defense, Szczesny returned in goal while Mertesacker’s impressive early season form consigned the fit-again Koscielny to the bench. The surprise of course was up front, with the manager opting to hand Gervinho the role of the central striker.
The visitors named the same team which troubled United a couple of weeks ago so new signings Gaston Ramirez and Maya Yoshida had to be content with a place on the bench.
The Gunners found an early rhythm as all four attacking players combined well in the opening minutes. There were warning signs for the visitors as they first allowed Podolski time to shoot from outside the box and then presented acres of space to Oxlade-Chamberlain down the right to make a couple of deliveries into the box. Neither attempts were successful but Arsenal were certainly in the ascendancy in the opening 10 minutes.
The first goal came soon enough, the opportunity created by fantastic determination from Lukas Podolski. The German fought for the ball midway in Southampton’s half, seemed to have lost the battle as he fell to the ground but sprang up quickly to win it back, then shrugged off a shirt tug, motored towards goal and found Kieran Gibb’s run down the left. The English youngster’s shot from 6 yards was deflected off the keeper and bundled into his own net by Hooiveld.
It was the perfect start and although Southampton saw more of the ball after going down, Arsenal were the ones creating the chances. Just past the half hour mark, things got significantly better. Three Arsenal goals came in seven minutes, effectively putting the game beyond doubt. First, Podolski curled an impressive free kick past Kelvin Davies, then Gervinho scored after his smart turn was brilliantly spotted by Arteta and finally, Kieran Gibbs’ early cross was deflected for another own goal.
It was all too comfortable for the Gunners and perhaps the scoreline affected Wojciech Szczesny’s concentration. The Pole’s terrible handling ensured Arsenal were unable to set a new record for four clean sheets at the start of a season. When dealing with an innocuous cross at the end of the first half, Wojciech made a hash of things as he succeeded in knocking the ball down into the path of Danny Fox to put into an empty net.
Southampton came out a little more determined in the second half and tried to control the game a bit more. In fact, until the 68th minute when Arsenal scored their fifth, the Saints attempted and completed more passes than the Gunners.
Overall too, Southampton had nearly 50% possession over the course of the game. Not often do we see a team that’s gone down 6-1 share the possession stakes, certainly not when the gulf in class is so big between the teams. It throws up an interesting discussion regarding Arsenal’s strategy this season, something I will cover in detail tomorrow.
Coming back to the game, most of this early second half Southampton possession was around the middle of the pitch. And with Arsenal dropping eight men back when the Saints’ had the ball, the visitors rarely made any forays into the attacking third although they did keep the ball for long periods of time.
Somewhat against the run of play, Arsenal’s fifth goal came in the 71st minute resulting from another lightning fast attack by the Gunners when Szczesny’s downfield kick was held up by Podolski for Cazorla. The Spaniard found the run of Ramsey on the left with an inch-perfect pass. The Welshman, who had replaced Coquelin a few minutes before, then showed a bit of skill to shield the ball from Clyne and drive into the box. His right foot poke hit the post but Gervinho was following up to put the ball in the net.
The icing on the cake came right at the end with Theo Walcott scoring against his former club with a curling left footer from inside the box after Vermaelen’s effort was blocked by the keeper. The 6-1 scoreline was a fair result and did not flatter the Gunners.
There were many aspects of our play which were encouraging while there was also concern in the way we conceded the only goal. Below are a few observations.
Arsenal’s combination play
There’s no doubt that our midfielders and attackers are now striking up a good understanding. Not counting Podolski’s goal from the free kick, the remaining five goals came from five different combinations. Also, two of Arsenal’s three substitutes were involved in second half goals.
Last season, we relied too heavily on the Walcott-Van Persie and Song-Van Persie combinations to yield goals. With Podolski, Gervinho and Cazorla not only scoring but setting up goals as well, Arsenal at the moment are posing threats on multiple levels. It’s certainly encouraging for the future.
Without taking anything away from a majestic performance by Arsenal, it must be noted that Southampton were extremely poor in defense and seemed to lack a cohesive strategy.
Whereas the midfielders chased the ball carrier and tried to press aggressively, the central defenders stayed back and tried to keep the ball in front of them. Possibly they were concerned about getting too tight on Arsenal’s tricky strikers but the effect was to allow space between the lines, space that Gervinho and Cazorla in particular enjoyed running into. Compounding the problem for the visitors, their full-backs did not receive enough support from Puncheon and Lallana and got dragged into wider areas, thus leaving gaps in between the channels.
If Southampton had wished to be aggressive in their defensive approach, the back-line should have stepped up and tried to deny space to Arsenal’s forwards. On the other hand, if they wished to defend deep then the midfield should have dropped back closer to the back-four. As it turned out, it was neither here nor there and Nigel Adkins’ side paid the price for a disjointed performance without the ball.
Ramsey and Jenkinson
While Gervinho and Podolski can both stake a claim for the Man of the Match award and Cazorla was sublime once more, I was also very impressed the performances of Carl Jenkinson and Aaron Ramsey.
Jenkinson put in another assured display at right back. In fact, after Mikel Arteta, the youngster attempted and completed the most number of passes of any Arsenal player. He also figured in the top two pass combinations, receiving 17 passes from Mertesacker and 16 from Arteta. While Kieran Gibbs was more attack minded on the left side, Jenkinson was disciplined in recycling the ball down the right side.
Aaron Ramsey continues to show signs that he’s rediscovering his best form. The Welshman also seems to have more pace suddenly, and it was this pace which was responsible for Gervinho’s second. After all the abuse thrown at him by Arsenal fans last season, it’s heartening to see the youngster looking like the player he was before the Shawcross intervention.
While it’s good to focus on the positives, there’s no running away from the negatives. Wojciech Szczesny’s propensity to commit errors continues to be a cause for concern. And even though the Pole has shown himself to be a capable keeper over the last two seasons, Arsenal can ill afford such lapses of concentration against stronger teams.
In the 2011-12 goalkeeping review, I had noted that the young keeper needs to work on improving his kicking ability. Although he did find Podolski for the move that ended in Arsenal’s fifth goal, Szczesny’s overall distribution was very poor and his technique when striking the ball forward needs improvement.
Aside from the cheaply conceded goal, it was the perfect way to start a busy period of football for the Gunners. With Manchester City next up, confidence is running high right now and another strong showing against Montpellier on Tuesday would set things up nicely for next Sunday’s visit to the Etihad.