The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Alex Song lays the platform for young Gunners to dominate

They say that all formations are neutral; it’s the application that decides their failures and success. And indeed, in Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Manchester United, the subtleties of the two systems played a key part in the outcome of the game.

Arsenal started with their usual 4-2-3-1 shape but were handed a blow before  kick-off when Cesc Fábregas was ruled out in the warm-ups. Aaron Ramsey was drafted in – ahead of both Abou Diaby and Andrey Arshavin – which indicated that Arséne Wenger wanted control both on and off the ball. They did as it happened, as The Gunners monopolised possession for two-thirds of the game and while that was expected, Manchester United’s system, perhaps, gave Arsenal more respect than it ought.

Of course, how the system functions is down to the players but United’s 4-4-1-1 proceeded to stifle their game rather than assist it. The two wide men were, in the end, too preoccupied in defensive duties to provide support to Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney. Certainly, that’s expected of Ji Sung Park but Luis Nani? It just seemed a waste of his talents to have him endlessly track back. In the reverse fixture earlier this season, Sir Alex Ferguson deployed a 4-3-3/4-5-1 which not only allowed United to match up in the centre but also gave the wingers freedom to attack and close down Arsenal’s propensity to commit full-backs forward. Here though, with Nani and Park filtering back to make two straight lines, Gael Clichy – the weak-link in Arsenal’s backline – was allowed to get forward in the first-half and only troubled till much later in the game.

The game’s most intriguing tactical encounter, though, was in the centre of midfield between Wayne Rooney and Alex Song as both players effectively took turns to try and wipe each other out of the game. Rooney dropped back to make an extra man in midfield while the Cameroon midfielder tried to stop Rooney influencing. But Arsenal have faced this sort of situation before therefore Wenger detailed his midfielders to push forward when they had the ball at the back. United weren’t pressing very hard and while Rooney attempted to mark Song, it meant he was forced ever deeper to track his runs. It was, perhaps, for the best that he eventually gave up the ghost rather than being tied up in a game of cat and mouse because Arsenal just had more options.

Aaron Ramsey, starting the highest, dropped deep to pick up possession and this gave Jack Wilshere the space to get forward. Both alternated getting forward and as a result, Arsenal’s game was very fluid with lots of options around the box. There was something menacing about Arsenal’s willingness to spray the ball wide and get men around the box – more than in recent games. You can argue that there was a lack of end product but at least there were options for Theo Walcott to aim at while Wilshere’s powerful running was a huge problem for United. Robin van Persie rarely played in an orthodox manner, dragging Vidic and Ferdinand out of position and was denied a goal when the former used illegal measures to stop a Walcott cross. It was a most mature of Arsenal performances led by Robin van Persie.

Arsenal’s general shape flitted in and out of a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 with Alex Song usually the deepest. He shuttled left and right to cover space while Ramsey played a more disciplined box-to-box role as opposed to an attacking midfielder as he did against West Bromwich Albion – his only start in this season. (It must be noted that Arsenal’s best performances have come when Cesc Fábregas performs this duty but seemingly, the pressure at times, to score an extra goal can have a negative effect). Jack Wilshere revelled in the extra space he was afforded and often got beyond United’s static midfield. It was almost the “England problem” again for Sir Alex Ferguson as Michael Carrick and Anderson were limited to marking zones. Ultimately, their formation was too rigid in its practice while Arsenal’s young schemers worked in tandem to play around the lines. The fluid roles gave the midfield and ambiguity and that made it hard for United to mark. Rooney tried to mark Song out of the game but every time he got close, Ramsey or Wilshere dropped deep (see figure 1) to negate his own negating tactics. In a week which Wenger admitted that Fábregas has carried too much of a burden, Arsenal’s midfielders rose to the occasion to carry some of the weight off him.

<Figure 1> With Rooney looking to mark Song and make a 4-4-1-1 shape, Ramsey constantly dropped short to pick up the ball to nullify United’s tactic. Ramsey was often the out-ball for Arsenal’s defence and while he wasn’t the same creative spark Fábregas is, added his own quality, namely spreading the ball wide and knitting Arsenal’s play. He made 29 passes in the opponents half – the most in the game (via Orbinho).


by Guardian Chalkboards

<Figure 2> Arsenal held more of a 4-3-3 shape against United, with Song the deepest. This layout was similar to the role he played last season, being the blocker of counter-attacks and holding Arsenal’s shape. Song made five tackles, all won and 4 interceptions, the graphic showing how across the pitch he covered. He also committed five fouls, two in dangerous positions; one rather unlucky and one not. Perhaps, there’s an element of strategic fouling in his part as he stopped dangerous United attacks from developing. His passing was also very assured. (OPTA).

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16 Responses to “Alex Song lays the platform for young Gunners to dominate”

  1. Mani says:

    I have to say, I like the system of one holding midfielder (1-2) a lot more than with two (2-1), which Wenger has used most season. It allows for possession to be held more effectively in the opposition’s half, and allows for more attack minded possession in general.

    In fact, Cesc has said himself that he prefers playing in a deeper role than he has done most of this year and last, where he can see more of the pitch.

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  2. K-TR7 says:

    One of the main reasons why united always beat us is because with all our play going through cesc they start all their workman-like midfielders in anderson/fletcher/carrick to negate him.that way they just stop us playing and they always nicked a goal on the counter.today we had 2 players dictating play alternatively and they did not expect that.we were also very compact in midfield and as a result we pressed them very well.

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @K-TR7,

    That’s true. United’s tactics were evidently more cautious than in the past; both central midfielders were, however, very lax in their pressing – Anderson in particular. They maybe exaggerated their strengths on the counter, thinking that it would be enough to soak up the pressure and break to beat Arsenal. How wrong they were and how they missed Fletcher.

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  3. Am says:

    Its safe to say that we wont see Denilson in the centre of midfield any time soon, which is the best thing to come out of the game.

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  4. S says:

    The goal is very similar to the second goal against Barca at Emirates.

    Interception -> pass -> shift to flank -> cut in -> lay it out for runners from midfield.

    The Barca goal was much more slick because of the space available. But Song’s interception/pass in one touch was superb.

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @S,
    Agreed. Goal showed everything great about Arsenal not only yesterday. Pace, accuracy, movement, options all started by good reading of play.

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  5. guy says:

    what a piss poor report. 1. fab was ruled out the day before the match after failing a fitness test. 2. diaby is injured so ramsey was not picked over him. 3. why the hell would arshavin be drafted in to pay centre mid. dont talk crazy. i refuse to read the rest of your drivel

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @guy,

    Both players may have been ruled out late but it wasn’t communicated so that’s why it’s not mentioned in the report. But why do some people choose to fixate on one petty point and neglect the rest? Oh well…

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    Eurazian Reply:

    @Arsenal Column,
    don’t worry, I’ll happily continue to read your “drivel”. Guy should get his own blog, he can call it “Pedant Punditry” or something like that.

    I do think that as much as tactics are a part of Arse/Manure games, in the end it mostly comes down to chances. We have dominated ManU in most recent games, yet lacked in the crucial department of finishing. Ferguson knows that his team can soak up pressure and hit on the counter, simply because they have more clinical finishers than we do. This week, they missed chances they might normally have got, and we managed to squeeze one in.
    Had Ramsey’s shot been a milisecond slower, and Clichy’s foul on Owen been spotted, we might be talking about how Ferguson outsmarted Wenger again.
    It shows how, as much as our defence is talked about as our weak spot, our finishing is a bigger problem. We would beat United every time if we could be more clinical with the many more chances we do get.

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    Angel Reply:

    @guy,
    Arshavin wouldn’t have been drafted in the center middle, but Nasri could have, with Arshavin taking his place on the left.
    And BTW, the report is great :)

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  6. jeungnovi says:

    Ramsey-Wilshere partnership looks promising. Jack made a forward run into united’s penalty area few times, which is something we rarely see when he played alongside Fabregas.

    Overall, we did well and deserve the 3 points but the understanding among players involved in the counter attacks needs improving. I recall there were 2 or 3 promising counter attacks which were gone just because of poor understanding.

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  7. kc says:

    Its somewhat true that when Cesc did not play the MU midfielders “lost” their target. They must had thought that they wil have an easy game with Ramsey, and let him go. How wrong they were! Ramsey and Wilshire played with energy and verve combine with intelligence. Song, being the most senior member of the trio, took his responsibilty well and was discipline; did not drift forward too much. Even when he did, Ramsey or Wilshire was there to cover. I must say, it was a good team play in the middle of the park for a long time.

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  8. M. Gordon says:

    Hi,
    Great insightful article and commentary. As I was reading through I had a couple of questions, if you don’t mind. Please bear with me as I am not well-versed in all of the formation/tactics and so if it’s a rather “obvious” then by all means please point that out to me!
    Okay, on to the questions:
    1. Given the history between these two clubs, and the managers intimate understanding of each other, i don’t understand why Ferguson/Man U picked a 4-4-1-1 formation. Was this done to soak up the expected Arsenal pressure and then hit them on the counterattack (something that has worked to great effect for Man U in past games with Arsenal) or was it meant to “negate” the effects of Cesc?

    2. I thought this game was one of the best of the season (Chelsea game in December comes to mind as another) and you made a comment about (and if I got this wrong, apologies) Cesc enjoying the box to box role; if so would it be best for Arsene to look for a more “attacking” midfielder as opposed to conventional wisdom which is to pick up another “holding” or defensive midfielder?

    Finally, and this is a comment on the game, I hope the players know that when they do commit to the little things (tackling, chasing loose balls, closing down on players, not giving up on a play) good things can and will happen..

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @M. Gordon,

    1. Patrice Evra recently commented tat he was disappointed by United’s more cautious style. It was deliberate by Sir Alex; perhaps underestimating Arsenal on the break and taking for granted his team’s strengths. As a result, the formation played into Arsenal’s hands – a tactical defeat for Ferguson.

    2. There is sure to be another attacking player in the summer – likely to be a wide forward. Arsenal have many players who can play attacking midfielder central but the problem has been creativity without Fábregas. Nasri may in the future assume that role but if there is a quality wide forward drafted in (Ribery has been mentioned) perhaps a 4-3-3 can be reverted to.

    Fábregas does like the deeper role but he’s quite happy to play higher at the moment because Arsenal need him to. I’ve been recommending Arsenal be more possession and interchange oriented because if we get that right – like we did against United – we look better defensively. My choice has been a deeper playmaker but an attacking midfielder also can work.

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  9. M. Gordon says:

    @Arsenal Column, Hi thanks for the reply! I enjoyed your comments/explanations to my questions. I have enjoyed the chess match between Ferguson and Wenger over the years, and although they have mellowed so glad to see that intensity and want to win show up on the pitch. Can’t wait for the next year to see what Ferguson throws at us.

    Thanks again and keep up the great work here!

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