Against Napoli and West Bromwich Albion, Arsene Wenger played similar starting XIs with the rather novel characteristic of playing five players in midfield who like to operate centrally. While this formation worked successfully against the second place team in Serie A, Arsenal had less success at The Hawthorns. The nature of the midfield base pair, the lack of width in attack, and the opponent’s set up all played important roles in two different outcomes.
Same Midfield Base Pair, Different Roles
In the Napoli match, Arsene Wenger played two holding midfielders, with Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta as the 2 in Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1, operating primarily as a midfield duo that sat in front of the back four. This type of formation gave Arsenal a solid defensive presence in the center of the pitch. It allowed the full-backs to bomb forward, and it let the front 4 stay high and play with remarkable fluidity, as they did not have to concern themselves with their attacking movement taking them out of a solid defensive shape.
Against West Brom, they operated more like a double pivot. They take turns going forward and sitting deep. Looking at the heat maps from Squawka, both Arteta and Flamini had greater variation in their positioning, with respect to their vertical level, in the West Brom match compared to the Napoli match. In this case, Arsenal did not have four men consistently defending in the center of the pitch. Instead, Arsenal often had a back 3, with one of the midfielders in between and slightly more advanced than the two center backs. There is nothing wrong with playing like this. Without any context, it is difficult to criticize the tactical deployment of players in general. However, given the skillset of the two midfielders, it may not have been the best way to implement the two.
A far cry from the Bastien Schweinsteiger-Javi Martinez double pivot from last season’s Bayern Munich, having a double pivot with Flamini and Arteta is far from ideal. Flamini is not a midfielder who should operate high up the pitch. He is not much of a dribbler or a shooter, and the purpose of his passing is to make a safe pass to a more creative player. These attributes are fine in deeper midfield positions. However, further forward, it makes him ineffectual (and costly to the side if you consider the opportunity cost). Also, when Flamini goes forward, Arteta, while being able to read the game, intercept passes, and commit smart fouls, cannot be asked to cover the same amount of ground as Flamini, nor should he be asked to cover out wide for a full back stranded high up the pitch. These deficiencies in his defensive game left Arteta unable to adequately defend some of West Brom’s counter attacks.
Now while Arteta going forward leaves Flamini in his best position for the team, Arteta in a more advanced position does not provide what Arsenal often need in the attacking third. Most of the time, Arteta slows the pace of the game too much when on the ball. While he can pick a pass, he is not expected to score from outside the penalty box (2012 goal against Manchester City aside), make a run into the box, outmuscle a defender, or beat a player off the dribble. So against an organized defense, like West Brom in this match, Arteta would have served Arsenal best as the deepest midfielder in possession, playing next to a more dynamic player (like Aaron Ramsey), who would take up more advanced positions, in order to put pressure on West Brom.
While Arsenal successfully used the Arteta-Flamini midfield base in Napoli, a different use of the same limited base pair hurt their ability to break down West Brom and defend against counter-attacks. However, while a limited base pair hurt them against West Brom, Arsenal’s lack of width probably hurt them more.
An Issue of Width
When a side plays so many players who enjoy operating centrally, a lack of width can occur. Against Napoli, this issue was solved by a combination of Mesut Ozil making the reverse run into the wide areas (mostly to the right side of Arsenal’s attack) and the forward runs of Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna. This allowed Arsenal to spread out the opposition and maximize the space with which they had to attack. Sagna also offered both short passing and crossing from out wide. Accoring to FourFourTwo, Sagna to Ozil was Arsenal’s most prolific pass combination in the match, other than Mertesacker to Sagna and Koscielny to Mertesacker. Ozil and Sagna worked to advance the ball down Napoli’s right hand side through this passing and movement. That width in attack, though in this case provided by Ramsey, was critical in the first goal Arsenal scored. Giroud receives the ball from Sagna and lays it off to Ramsey who is running at full tilt along the touchline. This allows him to get around Napoli’s back line and sets up the cut back to Ozil.
Against West Brom, Mesut Ozil had to come deeper to receive the ball, as shown in Squawka’s heat maps. With Jack Wilshere struggling to retain possession coming inside and deep from left (a la Santi Cazorla), it was probably best that Ozil dropped deeper to get the ball. Not only did that take his on-the-ball abilities away from the attacking third for more of the match, it took away Arsenal’s best space creator away from the attacking third. This led to many Arsenal attacks getting bogged down centrally. This was particularly evident in the first half.
Also, with Bacary Sagna unfit to play, Carl Jenkinson filled in at right back. This took away that combination of short passing and crossing from wide right. While Jenkinson is faster and stronger than Sagna, and is probably a better crosser, he is not a better passer than Sagna, nor did he seem to have the kind of relationships that Sagna has with the rest of the Arsenal midfielders, especially Ozil. Unlike Sagna, who would look to pay the short simple pass, Jenkinson seemed hellbent to beat the man in front of him to get a cross off. Not only was it highly predictable, making it easy to prevent, but with the lack of Arsenal players in the box and West Brom playing Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson, the chances for a successful cross becoming a productive one were quite low.
Given the state of Arsenal’s attack, I was surprised that Arsene Wenger did not put Serge Gnabry into the game. With his pace and dribbling, he could have caused problems for the West Brom defense, either attacking the full back or attacking the full back/center back gap. Going further, this game helps show why Theo Walcott, though he leaves many wanting when it comes to his on-ball intelligence and overall technical ability, is so valuable to the side. His pace gives Arsenal the ability to get around or beyond the opponent’s defensive lines. This increases Arsenal’s ability to get shots on goal and not only due to Walcott getting shots on goal.
One of the underrated attributes of an attacking player out wide is the ability to get behind the line and then come inside. Often this brings all of the attacking players onside, as the player with the ball is often the furthest forward. Even the most organized defense, once a player has gotten behind them with the ball, will scramble to take up new defensive positions and close down the player. In this scenario, defenders can only pay attention to either the ball or the other attacking players, as opposed to being able to watch both, due to the angle of the ball and the other attacking players’ runs often being equal to or greater than 90 degrees, pi/2 radians for my more mathematically inclined readers. This makes the cut-back a rather effective pass when it comes to creating goals (see Ozil goal against Napoli). In a game against a team set up to stifle, like West Brom, an ability to get around or behind the defense from the wide areas could have very well led to Arsenal grabbing all three points instead of one.
The Opponent’s Set-Up
The system Arsenal used against Napoli was an excellent way to play against the Italian side. Napoli played with a narrow attacking quartet and need their full backs to go forward to provide width. It was similar to the 4-2-3-1 Arsenal looked to play against West Brom. By playing Arteta and Flamini as a midfield two sitting in front of the two center backs, Arsenal were able to clog the center of the pitch. Combine this with the absence of Gonzalo Higuain, and all the Arsenal “back 4/2-2” only needed to worry about was killing the space between the back line and the midfield, and denying the ball to Napoli most dangerous creative force, Marek Hamsik. Also with Napoli wide attackers, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon, looking to stay high to threaten on the counter, Arsenal, in particular Ozil, could overload a flank and put pressure on the full back. This worked brilliantly on Arsenal’s right hand side, and it helped them end the game after 15 minutes.
Unlike Napoli, West Brom set up in what could be called a 4-4-1-1 (4-5-1) with Stephane Sessegnon as a rather withdrawn attacking midfielder. Compared to Napoli, West Brom sat much deeper, defended in greater numbers, and attacked with more width. With West Brom limiting the space between the lines and defending with so many bodies, Arsenal found it difficult to break their opponent down. With Arsenal’s lack of width in the attack, there was little space for attackers to operate against a compact formation. West Brom’s wide attackers stayed deep, making it difficult to find space wide and to outnumber the defense on the flanks. With their tall strong center backs, long balls and crosses ended with rather limited success.
Often Arsenal found themselves scrambling to cover their defensive positions with Morgan Amalfitano and Saido Berahino attacking down the flanks. Especially in cases where Arteta was the deepest lying midfielder, with Arsenal relying on their full backs pushing up to create width, the counter attacks from the flanks dragged a center back into a wide position (an especially scary proposition for Per Mertesacker) and left a large amount of space in the 18-yard box for West Brom players to run into. When West Brom countered centrally with Sessegnon and Youssouf Mulumbu, they found themselves with man advantage and/or with the ability to blow past the slower Mikel Arteta, when Flamini got caught high up the pitch, due to their ability to counter quickly. Certainly, when you consider Anelka missed a golden opportunity to put West Brom up 2-0, Arsenal could consider themselves lucky to leave the Hawthorns with a point.
While these two matches showed us the strengths and weaknesses of the Arsenal squad’s current state (and the West Brom result probably came down to many Arsenal starters not playing well), what may be more important is that these matches teach us not to overlook the nuances of how a side sets up and how two systems match up against each other. If you looked at the pre-game formation going into the West Brom match, you would think Arsenal are playing the same exact system with Jenkinson coming in for Sagna and Wilshere coming in for Rosicky. However, Arsenal did not operate in a similar fashion due to the nature of their midfield base pair and the differences between their two right backs. Also, just because a team plays what appears to be a similar system, it does not mean that one should expect the game to play out like previous games in which that system was used. The way a side is allowed to operate often comes down to the set-up of the opposing side. When watching a match, heed the advice of Bruce Lee. “Never take your eyes off your opponent.”