It took Wenger a lot of time to fix the flaws in his team. Cazorla’s recurrent injury forced the French manager to try several midfield pairings in the first half of the season. But none of those pairings could protect the defense efficiently. So Wenger tweaked the system a bit by sporadically using an inverted pyramid midfield in February and March. However, the losses to Chelsea, Bayern Munich and West Brom showed the team needed a stronger remedy.
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The Arsenal manager came to the conclusion that the solution was not in midfield but at the back. He finally switched to a 3-4-3 system against Middlesbrough on April 17. Guardiola at Manchester City and Pochettino at Tottenham have played a back three quite a few times this season while this was the first time in 20 years that Wenger relied on three centerbacks. Since that tactical shift, the Gunners have won six games and conceded one loss in all competitions.
There was a time when Wenger could find answers more quickly. During the 2014-15 season, Arsenal struggled in midfield because of injuries. Stuck in sixth place at the end of November, the Gunners were losing ground in the race for a Champions League spot. By December, the manager decided to recall Coquelin from his loan spell at Charlton. The partnership formed by Coquelin and Cazorla in midfield proved instrumental in Arsenal’s third-place finish.
When the going gets tough, the skills of a manager can be tested by the speed of his reaction. Wenger needed 9 months to stop the bleeding. At the top level, that’s too slow for a manager. Chelsea leaked a lot of goals when Conte took over. The Italian manager needed just two months to turn the Blues into champions. Ironically, Conte switched to a back three after an embarrassing 3-0 loss at the Emirates in September.
On Saturday, Wenger made 4 changes to the side that won 2-0 at Southampton on Wednesday with Koscielny, Bellerin, Coquelin and Giroud replacing Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Welbeck in the starting lineup. Gibbs and the Ox were sidelined by injuries while Ramsey and Welbeck started on the bench.
Stoke and Arsenal had 8 chances and 10 shots each, but the Gunners proved more clinical. The Britannia stadium is usually a hostile ground. Yet, Arsenal managed to match the Potters’ commitment by winning 55.2% of the duels and making as many interceptions as the hosts, according to the club’s website.
The 3-4-3 formation is the main reason for the number of duels won. Basically, there are fewer softies in the team. Walcott and Iwobi were starters in the first half of the season. In the new system, Walcott has been replaced by the Ox or Bellerin on the right flank while Iwobi has lost his spot to the third centerback. It’s no surprise to see Holding and Bellerin win more duels than Iwobi and Walcott.
The key to a lot of goals is the understanding between the players involved. Giroud opened the scoring in the 42nd minute by converting a cross from Bellerin. The France striker then made it 4-1 in the 80th by sliding home a cross from Ramsey. Bellerin is spending his third season with the first team and has a good idea of the kind of service Giroud needs. Likewise, Ramsey has struck a good understanding with Giroud, especially since the 2013-14 season when Giroud’s link-up play helped Ramsey score a lot of goals.
Scoring while being injured
Giroud got the nod up front because his lack of pace is less relevant against teams sitting deep and letting Arsenal enjoy a lot of possession. His outstanding movement inside the box definitely made a difference as he converted his only two goal attempts. He also created two chances before Walcott replaced him in the 84th.
It’s no secret that Sanchez and Ozil love finding each other on the pitch. Yet, the Potters seemed to have no clue in the 55th when Ozil played a one-two with Sanchez before chipping Butland for a 2-0 lead. Whelan and Johnson failed to track Ozil on that play while Sanchez had plenty of time to make a perfectly weighted pass. Sanchez made it 3-1 in the 76th by taking a pass from Bellerin to bury the ball into the bottom corner. He was not even supposed to be on the pitch anymore: Sanchez picked up a hamstring injury after Martins Indi fouled him in the 64th. Somehow, Sanchez tried to carry on before gesturing toward the bench in the 73rd for a substitution. Ramsey finally replaced Sanchez just a minute after the Chile striker scored Arsenal’s third goal.
Sanchez produced an amazing performance with 1 goal and 1 assist but also 4 tackles and 1 interception. He had 5 successful dribbles and was fouled 6 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. By contrast, Ozil had a poor work-rate despite 1 goal and 2 key passes. The Germany playmaker made 1 dribble, 0 tackle, 0 interception and 0 block, according to Squawka. Ozil was nowhere near Pieters when the Stoke leftback made a dangerous cross that Monreal headed out in the 63rd. I’m not sure Ozil would get a free pass for defensive duties with other managers.
Xhaka overestimating his abilities
In his 15-minute cameo, Ramsey made a strong impression with an assist and a shot on target. He sent Shawcross to the floor by faking a shot before testing Butland with a low strike in the 78th. Two minutes later, Ramsey made a crossfield run to chase Ozil’s long ball and held off Johnson to set up Giroud for the final goal. It’s a pity that Ramsey’s season had been marred by injuries because he has never really been able to find his groove.
In midfield, Xhaka and Coquelin proved relatively inefficient. They combined to create 0 chance, make 1 interception and win 1 of 8 tackles, according to Squawka. Xhaka set a too slow tempo to create space in the Stoke defense. The Switzerland international also has a tendency to overestimate his pace and dribbling skills. He was dispossessed by Diouf in the 12th and Cameron in the 75th because he dallied on the ball. It was weird to see Coquelin in the role of a box-to-box player. Coquelin was often in the final third and did not seem aware of his own limitations as he made 3 dribbling attempts. I guess the manager’s rationale for starting Xhaka and Coquelin was to win duels in midfield.
On the wings, Bellerin finished the game with 2 assists. The Spaniard can be a threat with his crossing ability, but he needs to get back to basics in his defensive game. Bellerin led all players with 8 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Right now, I’d choose the Ox over Bellerin for the wingback position because the England international is more focused on his defensive tasks than Bellerin.
On the opposite wing, Monreal had a solid game, making 4 blocks and winning 3 of 4 tackles. He took advantage of the Potters’ lax marking to make dangerous runs in behind. Monreal met a cross from Ozil in the 13th but was let down by a poor first touch. Four minutes later, he connected with a cross from Bellerin only to hit the post with his header.
At the back, Holding produced an energetic display a la Sanchez. It was quite a mixed bag. Holding had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, won 5 of 7 aerial duels and made 3 interceptions and 5 blocks. But he also lost 3 of 4 tackles. Allen too easily ran past Holding in the 31st and Arnautovic too easily got the better of him twice in the second half. The Stoke winger peeled away from Holding in the 60th to make a cross for Diouf who headed wide from 3 yards. Then Arnautovic outpaced Holding in the 67th to make a cross for Crouch, who scored to cut Arsenal’s lead. With the naked eye, it seemed that Crouch headed the ball in. But video replays showed that Crouch scored with a handball. The goal should have been disallowed but the Premier League has no video assistant referee, which means that the referee and the linesmen have to make the call on their own.
Frustrated by Arnautovic’s skills, Holding received a yellow card in the 78th for a cynical foul on the Austria international. Chambers’ career at Arsenal has been doomed by his slow first steps and inability to turn quickly. I hope Holding does not have those flaws and can adjust his positional play. In any case, Holding needs a loan next season to speed up his development.
Out of Arsenal’s hands
Koscielny and Mustafi were playing together for the first time in a back three. It was weird to see Mustafi as the sweeper and Koscielny as the left centerback. In his return from injury, Koscielny produced a low-key performance, winning 1 of 1 aerial duel and losing the 2 tackles he made. The France defender cleared the danger in the 31st when Allen ran past Holding. Mustafi was a bit more active than Koscielny, winning 1 of 5 tackles and 5 of 8 aerial duels. The Germany international was booked for a reckless tackle on Shaqiri in the 28th. Mustafi nearly scored in the ninth minute but Butland tipped his looping header over the bar.
Stoke mostly threatened on set pieces and long-range attempts. The Arsenal defense failed to clear a corner in the 63rd and Cameron beat Coquelin to the second ball to nod it back toward Martins Indi, whose header was tipped over the bar by Cech. The Czech goalkeeper also stopped a low drive from Berahino in the 71st and palmed away a volley from Cameron in the 85th.
The Gunners must beat Sunderland on Tuesday to still have a chance of finishing in the Top 4 when they host Everton on Sunday for their final Premier League game. Their fate is still out of their hands as they also need Liverpool or Manchester City to drop points.