In the past two games, the Gunners have looked very much like Ferguson’s Manchester United, a team that did not impress with its passing game but that often came away with three points. Wenger started the season with a 4-3-3 system tailored for Ozil, but the Germany playmaker’s knee injury combined with disappointing results against average sides have led the manager to switch to a 4-4-2 formation against Sunderland and Burnley.
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The tactical change paid off as Arsenal won two consecutive Premier League matches for the first time this season. We still miss some fluidity in our passing game, but this new directness makes us more threatening in the final third. At this stage of the season, racking up points is crucial in helping the team build confidence. No club gets artistic marks for producing a fine performance, only goals matter. The Gunners played poorly at Sunderland but still won 2-0, whereas they had a good game against Tottenham but drew 1-1.
Because we have more attacking options than last season, it makes more sense to use a 4-4-2 system that can put more pressure on sides parking the bus. For instance, the manager can play Walcott, Podolski, Sanchez and Campbell as second strikers instead of using them as wingers. That system can also keep our opponents on their toes. I feel that we have been a bit too predictable in the past couple of seasons with our 4-3-3 formation. Wenger would sometimes switch to a 4-4-2 system while chasing a late goal, but most of the time he would be happy to make like-for-like substitutions.
Back to the future
Of course, a 4-4-2 formation also has some flaws. We are a bit more vulnerable in midfield and therefore need a strong defensive contribution from the two strikers. The tactical switch does not affect too much the balance of the team because of the outstanding work rate of Sanchez and Welbeck. But I think we’ll need to shift back to a 4-3-3 system against the strong sides as well as to rest Sanchez and Welbeck.
Wenger has mostly relied on a 4-3-3 formation since the move to the Emirates stadium because it suited Fabregas’ style of play. But you also have to remember that his favorite system when he was coaching Monaco in the early 1990’s was a 4-4-2 with two ballwinners, two attacking midfielders and two strikers. Wenger stuck to that system when Arsenal hired him, playing Bergkamp and Wright up front. As the old saying goes, a good manager doesn’t adapt his players to a specific system, he simply uses the system that will optimize his players’ abilities.
There’s no major difference between the two systems so far in terms of chances conceded. Turnovers by Flamini in the 20th and by Cazorla in the 32nd led to dangerous crosses for Burnley. The Clarets almost capitalized on some poor positional play by Mertesacker to score after the break. Ings outpaced Mertesacker to be clean through on goal in the 51st but lost his footing when Szczesny came off his line. In stoppage time, the Burnley striker beat the offside trap but was denied by Szczesny. Mertesacker usually reads the game well but he clearly had two bad moments on Saturday.
What is Sanchez’s ceiling?
Sanchez stole the show at Sunderland and was again the man of the match against Burnley. The Chile forward outjumped two defenders to head in a cross from Chambers in the 70th minute for the opening goal. Chambers capitalized on a goalmouth scramble to double the lead two minutes later after Welbeck had a close-range effort saved by Heaton. Sanchez sealed the victory in stoppage time with a spectacular display of close control and cold-blooded finishing: he met a cross from Gibbs and cut inside Ward with his first touch, skipped past Shackell with his second and poked home with his third.
I can’t help but think that Barcelona perhaps made a mistake by releasing Sanchez. Sure, Barcelona got 35 million pounds from Arsenal for a player who scores fewer goals than Suarez. But did the Spanish club underestimate Sanchez’s potential? Barcelona essentially saw Sanchez as a winger and probably thought it was the right time to cash in on his 2013-14 season when he netted 19 goals in 34 Liga matches. If you think it’s a fluke, you sell him. But if you think he’s only starting to peak, then you’d better keep him.
We will only know at the end of the season whether Barcelona made the right decision. By contrast, selling Ozil was a smart move from Real Madrid. Ozil could only lead the Spanish club to the semifinals of the Champions League. From the moment Real Madrid signed Bale, they found the piece that was missing to win the lucrative European competition. The Welshman is a matchwinner while Ozil needs talented players around him to shine. Die-hard Ozil fans will say that it’s not a playmaker’s priority to score goals. Really? Look at Zidane: he netted twice in the 1998 World Cup final and scored the winner in the 2002 Champions League final. Great players deliver on the big occasion.
Cazorla not at the top of his game yet
Wenger fielded the same team that beat Sunderland the previous weekend. The start didn’t look promising as Arsenal dominated possession but struggled to reach the Burnley area. The Gunners gradually played at a higher tempo and created their first scoring chance in the 10th minute. Welbeck knocked the ball down for Cazorla, whose low volley lacked power to test Heaton.
Arsenal outplayed Burnley in the first half, with 13 goals attempts to only three for the visitors, but reached halftime without finding the net. The obvious reason was poor finishing. Cazorla and Sanchez missed the target in the 26th and the 36th respectively while Welbeck had a shot blocked by Trippier in the 13th. Heaton also made a couple of fine saves, denying Sanchez in the 33rd and the 40th.
Welbeck has played a lot of games lately because of injuries to Giroud and Sanogo and he might start feeling a bit exhausted. It’s a different story with Cazorla, who hasn’t hit his stride yet. Cazorla is still chasing the form that led him to score 12 goals in his first Premier League season. He had a golden opportunity in the 66th when Shackell poorly cleared Chambers’ cross. The loose ball fell to the Spaniard who was denied by a sliding block from Duff.
Competition and chemistry
The only real positive in the first half was Oxlade-Chamberlain’s performance. The England winger was more accurate and efficient than against Sunderland and Hull, torturing Ward with his pace and dribbling moves and troubling the Burnley defense with his final ball.
Wenger increased the pressure on Burnley by replacing Arteta with Ramsey in the 63rd. Ramsey sent a long-range strike over the bar in the 75th and then forced Heaton to turn around the post a spinning shot from 25 yards in the 88th. The manager said in a recent press conference that Ramsey shouldn’t be “obsessed” with goals. His point is that Ramsey has been trying too hard to reproduce his scoring form from last season instead of being more patient and keeping it simple.
Wenger felt confident enough with a two-goal lead to send on Walcott and Podolski for Chambo and Welbeck in the 80th. In his return from a knee injury, Walcott had an angled strike palmed away by Heaton in the 85th. He then made a cross for Podolski, whose volley crashed against the near post. Heaton also parried another volley from the German forward in the 84th.
Competition within the squad could define our season. Chemistry in the dressing room often depends on the number of players involved in games. In that regard, it’s a smart move from the manager to loan out Coquelin to Charlton for a month. The challenge for Arsenal next weekend at Swansea will be to start strong and make the difference by the 60th so that Wenger can give some playing time to the substitutes.