Arsenal have made an unremarkable start to the season, by their standards, taking nineteen points from their opening twelve games. However, there have been quite a few positives to take from the start of the season and something big that has been shown is their new-found emphasis on width and crossing, as they have a huge aerial threat in Olivier Giroud, and now, it seems width is direct to their success, as they aim to stretch defences, creating space for Santi Cazorla and provide Giroud with the right service, however, they haven’t sacrificed their passing approach, they’ve just added an extra dimension to their game, which could see them be a much bigger force, over the coming years.
Now, for me at least, Arsenal look like a side that without width, can’t really break down teams, which is unsurprising. Lots of teams park the bus against Arsenal, and if they keep attacking down the middle, the defence can stay narrow and compact and deal with most things, which is why you need to stretch the play and pull players out of position, to break them down, it just happens this is now more effective for Arsenal with Giroud leading the line.
To demonstrate the difference of when Arsenal play with width and without, I’ll be looking at two games. Manchester United vs Arsenal and Arsenal vs Tottenham Hotspur, but there are things to note when looking at these. In the game versus Manchester United, lots of credit has to go to Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick, who pressed the Arsenal midfield extremely well and hardly gave them any time on the ball, though there are still points to pick out about Arsenal, and how they didn’t help themselves. Then, against Tottenham it’s important to remember Spurs had ten men, automatically giving Arsenal a huge advantage over their North London Rivals.
Firstly, I’d like to start with stats that show differences in Arsenals style of play. It seems there is a bigger emphasis on width and crossing as you can see in the table below:
There has been an increase in both their passes out wide and crosses per game, not a huge increase, but I think with the recent success of the system, the margins will gradually keep growing, until it’s a significant difference towards the end of the year – if they sustain the style they are currently using. An interesting point, for me, is the fact they actually pass more times per game this season, despite a lot of pundits saying they have taken a more direct approach to their game. They have a bigger emphasis on crossing, but for me, with the technical midfield they have, with not true enforcer, a lot more emphasis is on ball retention, until it is in a dangerous crossing positon. However, their creativity and goalscoring has suffered, ever so slightly, but it’s not anything to worry about for Arsenals fans, as you have to remember they replaced three out of their front four of last year and it will take time for them to adapt and click with each other, which was seen during the first two games of the season, in which they failed to score and struggled to break down defences. However, after their impressive wins against Tottenham and Montpellier, in the Champions League, you get the impression they have now all learnt more about each others games, leading to better performances, and more importantly, goals.
Arsenal started quite a few games with Lukas Podolski and Aaron Ramsey playing on the wings and it didn’t really work out, for most games. Personally, I thought they looked ‘flat’ and couldn’t break defences down well enough – and generally, it just didn’t look like the Arsenal we’ve all come to know since Arsene Wenger took over. Playing with these two on the flanks, has an adverse effect on the team, as they both prefer playing centrally, so naturally drift inside, making them narrower and ultimately helping compact teams defend against them. However, it has also had an adverse effect on Cazorlas games, as he hasn’t got as much space to manoeuvre. Which can be seen in these pictures:
Wilshere has the ball in midfield, but has limited options due to how compact it is. You can see Podolski has come inside on the left, with Rafael going in, and Valencia covering the outside, whilst Young has tucked in on the right hand side of the picture, making Manchester United more compact, and means they can easily deal with Arsenal, as they’re almost cluttering themselves in one area, and then, this has an adverse effect as look how little space Cazorla has if he was to receive the ball. Credit has to go to Manchester United, but Arsenal didn’t help themselves. Then another example is this one:
Here again, Podolski and Ramsey are both central, bringing the play inside and making the game narrower, as you can see with Uniteds compact defence, with Rafael on the edge of the ‘D’ and Evra on the corner of the box. However, against Tottenham when Theo Walcott and Podolski both started, a lot of people on Twitter were talking about how Cazorla is ‘back to his best’ and I, personally, think that this is because of the width giving him more space in the middle.
This isn’t the be all and end-all however, as Cazorla likes to drift flank-to-flank, the difference is, though, it’s more fluid when playing alongside Walcott, as opposed to Ramsey, as Cazorla and Ramsey tend to drift in similar areas when they both play in more advanced roles, which does more harm than good. These aren’t the best visual examples, but Cazorla did find more ‘little pockets’ of space against Tottenham, despite playing against two deep midfielders, in Sandro and Tom Huddlestone.
It’s more obvious to notice the effect when you look at the action areas of Walcott vs Ramsey, and the team action areas as a whole. Against Manchester United, the actions areas looked like this:
(Arsenal attacking right to left on these)
Compared to the teams action areas and Walcotts action areas vs Tottenham:
(Arsenal attacking left to right on this)
It is evident that Arsenal were a lot more wing-orientated against Tottenham, and looked a lot better. This isn’t negative towards Ramsey, as I do think he’s a very talented player and I can understand Wengers logic in playing him on the wing, however, it’s not that functional for the short-term. Playing with width helps Arsenal, as it does for a lot of teams, it’s also evident when you look how they’ve played with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right-side, as he likes to drift inside a bit more and not ‘hug the line’ like Walcott. Arsenal are better with width, even more so since Girouds signing.
This, also brings on the debate about Theo Walcott and his contract. Walcott is key to Arsenal, but not irreplaceable. I think the width he provides, is more important than the actual service he provides. He has given Arsenal a great return this season so far, but there are players who can do similar jobs, if the worst does happen, from an Arsenal view.
Overall, it’s evident Arsenal play better with more width and it seems if they want to have a successful season, and make up for their fairly average start, they need their wide players to be on form, and make sure they help to get the best out of Olivier Giroud.