Much was made of the apparent change in tactical setup that Arsenal used in their 2-0 victory over Manchester City in January. Rather than the usual free flowing, attack at all costs mentality, the team played with discipline, content to sit back, defend, and hit on the counter on their way to beating City. This wasn’t the first time that Arsenal had tried this, but it was the first time that they had shown the discipline to maintain this style for 90 minutes in a significant match.
While Arsenal have reverted to their usual attacking style in victories over Brighton and Aston Villa since then, there has been a growing element of tactical flexibility in the Arsenal side in 2015 and it has things looking up at the Emirates.
Since their 2-0 loss to Southampton on New Year’s Day, Arsenal have won five consecutive games entering this weekend’s North London Derby. One of the keys to Arsenal’s recent success has been variety. With Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott returning from injury, and Olivier Giroud in fine form, Arsenal have shown a new variety in attack that was absent in previous years.
The variety in attack displays itself in multiple ways. The first is simply styles of play among attacking players. Both Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla are playmakers capable of playing wide. This allows them to create from different positions, forcing opposition defenders to adjust to attacks from all areas. Theo Walcott is obviously quite pacey and a bit more direct, giving Arsenal the option to play the ball in behind the defense, as they did so effectively against Villa on Sunday. Alexis Sanchez meanwhile has shown the ability to excel this season as a winger, a creative midfielder behind the striker, and even as the central striker.
These varied options give Arsenal a balance in the attack which they have lacked in recent years. The speed of Walcott and Sanchez open things up in the midfield, giving Ozil, Cazorla and others increased space in which they work their magic. Having a playmaker out wide (Ozil, Cazorla, or even Sanchez can fill this role) ensures that Arsenal are not too direct in their play, while having a pacey winger in Walcott or Sanchez ensures they have a plan B when opposition defenses congest the center of the field.
Also evident recently has been an in game positional flexibility which gives further variety to the Arsenal attack. This was noticeable several times against Villa, and has been a growing trend this season for Arsenal in which the front four switch places with regularity throughout the match. The match against Villa saw Theo Walcott at times switching to the left wing and Ozil to the right. Ozil and Cazorla also rotated at times, and other times saw Ozil simply floating centrally in a more advanced role than Cazorla. Previous games have seen Giroud occasionally moving to the left and Alexis Sanchez taking the center striker role for brief periods. This fluidity of position again presentsdefenses with changing attacks to deal with, forcing adjustments in-game and creating space for the attack.
On Sunday against Villa the fluidity of Walcott on the right and Ozil on the left was the key to much of Arsenal’s attack. The first goal came on an Ozil assist very much from the center of the pitch. Walcott’s goal, Arsenal’s third, came during a spell of play in which Walcott played as the left winger.
Looking at attempted passes and dribbles from each of Arsenal’s front four from the Villa game provides a great visual of the fluid rotation of each player. Notice how all four of Ozil, Cazorla, Walcott, and Giroud have more than a few passes from all over the pitch.
Not only does this flexibility give Arsenal a plethora of options in attack during each game, it gives Arsene Wenger a variety of options for how to set his lineup, and even quality depth for when changes are required. This depth could prove vital down the stretch as Arsenal seek to solidify their top four position, repeat in the FA Cup, and advance in the Champions League. With Danny Welbeck set to return from injury, Chuba Akpom starting to earn some minutes, Tomas Rosicky in fine form, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain nearing a return as well, Arsenal should have plenty of depth and flexibility to compete on all fronts in the season’s crucial stages.
One of the main criticisms of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal teams in recent years has been their lack of a backup tactical plan when things aren’t working. While their defensive mentality against City certainly represented a more practical approach to certain opposition, this positional rotation in game adds another element. It allows the players to find the specific matchups in a given game which they can take advantage of, and helps create space all around the field making chance creation easier against teams that sit back and try to frustrate the attack.
If Arsenal can continue to adapt to this new flexibility there’s no reason they shouldn’t expect to solidify a top four finish, make a strong effort at a repeat in the FA Cup, and progress in the Champions League.