Arsenal had suffered a slow start to the season after enduring a painful loss to Liverpool in the opening fixture, and drawing against last season’s champions. Leicester City. Even at this early stage of the campaign, the masses decided to take the evidence into account and convict Arsenal to failure. Many had written them off, stating that they lacked the competitive edge and squad depth required to fight against the rejuvenated and rebuilt teams of Manchester City, United, and Chelsea. With the competition running away with wins and goals, it was time for an impassioned wake-up call from Arsene Wenger.
Watford was simply a stepping stone, in this context. A catalyst for his aforementioned wake-up call. He knew that they would come out with a win, but the extent to which they win would depend on their team and it’s individuals. The extent of their win there essentially mapped out the rest of their season. Similarly, Watford went in with one point, under a new manager and with new record-breaking transfers at their command. Unfortunately, they could not pressurize Arsenal into sharing a point with them, but in my opinion, there are some serious benefits that the side can take away from this fixture, and if all goes well, Watford should have enough points to avoid relegation this season. It’s a new phase for the club. but this transition of ideologies and mindsets can’t be managed in a better way.
Vintage Wenger Build – Up
“Unsurprisingly, anything worked with that starting XI during the first half.”
After what has seemed to be a timeless eternity, Arsenal began the first half by successfully playing with the expansive, fast-paced build up that they’ve been hailed for. This fluid build up play, of course, had it’s foundation set in the formation. Arsene’s men lined up with the typical expansive 4-2-3-1, but over the course of the game, the formation began to take on multiple variants, with the team occasionally morphing into a 4-1-4-1 or a 3-3-3-1, based on the stage of their buildup.
When they didn’t have to go forwards, they opted to play it laterally, or backwards. Throughout the course of the game, the back line opted to play the ball around toward the wing-backs or the midfield, creating a “U-Shape” while they patiently looked for their options. Koscielny, Bellerin, Holding, and Monreal exuded a calming effect on the tempo of the game, with their patient passing play, making their opponents drop back and wait patiently, slowly lulling them to sleep. Then, when they least expected it, they put their foot down, spraying long balls to Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain or playing the ball right through the middle of the park, where they employed the prowess of Xhaka, Ozil, and Cazorla to make the most out of the confusion and play the ball through the lines.
This fluidity, was, in turn, only possible grâce à the quality of the starting lineup. Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil, Granit Xhaka, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez have immense technical capabilities and are able to play in any area of the park. For example, throughout the match, we could see Cazorla dropping deep to spread the play in tandem with Xhaka, while Ozil opted to stay in an offensive position, coaxing the ball around the defenders gently and artistically, in the fashion of the typical playmaker. His sharp vision and sublime dribbling skill pierced the last line of defence like hot knives in slabs of butter.
Alexis Sanchez was thrust into a relatively new number nine role against Watford due to the absence of Olivier Giroud, and he effortlessly conquered that position, effectively integrating his playing style with that of his French companion to unknowingly mimic a false nine. In fact, the way that he dropped back to the midfield to get the ball to spread the play, link up with Ozil and charge at the last line of Watford’s defense really reminded you of the Messi False Nine era. It was a world-class performance from him. Offensively, he was brilliant. In fact, the entirety of the ninety minutes was just dedicated to him. Running down the wings, down the middle, pressing the opposition, then dribbling past them, linking up with Ozil, he had a perfect game, even by his undeniably high standards.
In my opinion, this is not the last time that we’ll see him in this position. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in speed and dribbling, therefore, replacing Giroud with him is actually tactically plausible. It just depends on the type of opposition defenders that Arsenal are playing against, and their stance on the game. Sometimes, Giroud is needed to hold up the play offensively, to stamp out the dying embers of a game to secure a win. Sometimes, Giroud is needed to challenge the bulky defenders and give them something to think about. It’s a real selection dilemma. On their day, both of them are world class players, but the circumstances might favor one over the other in the number nine position.
Credit must also be given to Granit Xhaka. The headline-grabbing Arsenal signing had a large role to play in this game. In my opinion, he emulated the playing style of Xabi Alonso at Bayern Munich, acting as a defensive anchor and feeding Walcott, Chamberlain and Sanchez with accurate, brilliant through balls. However, he is still getting used to the English game and needs to improve on his defending prowess. Over the course of the season, however, I do believe that he will evolve into a player that blurs the lines between the defensive prowess of Coquelin and the passing brilliance of the likes of Ozil and Cazorla.Unsurprisingly, anything worked with that starting XI during the first half, as there was a unique blend of teamwork peppered with individual talent that seemed to create this feeling of invincibility around the players of the team. Needless to say, the famed short and direct play of Arsenal has returned for this season, and it might just be the driving force that helps them push for another title challenge.
There’s A Hole In The Defense
While Arsenal were brilliant going forward, they were a bit faulty in tracking back. This was brought out in the second half, where Watford used their defensive weaknesses against them to level the playing field. A change in formation, to a 4-4-2, and an injection of pace in the attackers by bringing on Success and Pereyra, wreaked havoc on a patched-up Arsenal back four. Xhaka couldn’t handle the pace, therefore, Cazorla and Chamberlain had to drop back to ensure that they didn’t concede a goal. Holding, inexperienced in the Premier League, was also a cause for concern, as nobody knew if he would come out of a challenge with the ball.
To summarize, Arsenal’s transition defense needs working on. The substitutions of Elneny and Wilshere did help in negating the attacking threat of Watford, but there’s no guarantee that Arsenal will ever be so lucky. As I mentioned earlier, Xhaka does not have a lot of pace, and unfortunately, the very essence of transition defence lies in having enough pace to track back. In this case, Cazorla and Chamberlain conveniently dropped back to fill the gap created by him, but aren’t you just putting a leash on the overall creativity of your team by forcing you intelligent and pacy players to stay back? It just drains them of their energy and negates their effectiveness upfront. A change in the lineup is required. Mustafi fits perfectly into the back line with Koscielny, which immediately relieves Holding of his stressful first team duties. Personally, I feel that the likes of Coquelin and Elneny need to gracefully help Xhaka during his personal and team transition. It would take a few months (my best bet is that he will fully adapt during Christmas), but the opportunity cost of dropping Cazorla needs to be kept in mind. The Spaniard’s quick feet and deep passing are extremely important to the Arsenal build-up play, especially against teams with bulky midfielders. Once again, Wenger is faced with a selection dilemma. It’s important for him to choose between short-term and long-term success. How will he approach this? Only time will tell. The international break is a very convenient time for him to get his squad and thoughts together. Let’s hope that the rejuvenation of Arsenal continues against Southampton.
Written by Chaitanya Jadhav (@)