Yossi Benayoun probably hasn’t done enough to achieve cult status. His imprint is far larger amongst the squad than the fans. When he scored the winner against Aston Villa in December the euphoria in the celebrations said it all. It wasn’t just that it was such a crucial goal, it was scored by a popular player in the team and one of the signings who did much to improve morale amongst the group. A month ago, it was probably his biggest contribution to the season which is a criminal underuse for a player of his talent.
The problem for Benayoun is that he bucks the trend for an Arsenal player even he seems perfect in playing style; he came as a panic buy due to injuries in midfield and is only on loan with relatively little chance of staying beyond – games were never really going to be on the cards for him. Yet, after being involved in the big games in Arsenal’s impressive late run this season, his impact may be much larger than he would have imagined only a few weeks ago.
For this has meant Arsenal have had to deviate from their three striker system – in January, that looked unlikely as Arsène Wenger brought in Thierry Henry but duty called for Gervinho as he departed for the Africa Cup of Nations and Arshavin left on loan meaning space opened up for somebody. But Arsenal sooner stuttered and there was a feeling that something needed to change – they needed to revert back to what they were good at. Because, while a three-pronged speed attack gave the team a different emphasis and was a implemented as much in hope as it was necessary when key creative figures departed, it didn’t really fit in with Arsenal’s style. They were exposed on the flanks defensively and it never really synchronised with the way they defended.
“I agree we are a little bit less good than last year with possession of the ball,” said Wenger after Arsenal were defeated 3-2 by Swansea. “But it’s down to the structure of the team a little bit, because we play this year with two wingers who are real wingers. And, you know, we are as well a bit more vertical than last year and a little less possession [based].
“When we played for a long period with Gervinho, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott we were dangerous, basically, always through our wings, but a little less in control possession wise. It was not a conscious thing but it’s just we found Gervinho, who did well, and we tried to find a system that can accommodate Walcott and Gervinho. I feel that in weaker periods of our game we are a little bit more in trouble because we can’t keep the ball as well,’ said Wenger. ‘We are maybe a bit more vulnerable on the wings defensively sometimes, because we have real strikers (playing wide).’
Initially Tomáš Rosický started out on the left and Arsenal were battered 4-0 in Milan. But Wenger has since retained the layout with a creative midfielder deployed on the left of the attack – at times, to the fans chagrin. Certainly, since Arsenal effectively crashed out of two successively cups, they have only started what can remotely be described as “wingers” on both flanks in 3 of the 8 matches. In the 3-0 win over Milan, that hand was partly forced as The Gunners were hit by injuries and as a result, suffered in the second-half due to their inability to keep the ball. Gervinho began against cannon-fodder opponents at home to Aston Villa while Oxlade-Chamberlain last started in the 2-1 victory over Newcastle.
Playing a creative midfielder on the flanks allows Arsenal to retain possession better and that also effects things at the other end because attack is as much their defence. In two recent games, Wenger used Aaron Ramsey there to varying effect; they produced one of their most blistering performances in the first 20 minutes at Everton before burning out, however, the extra ability to keep the ball proved ineffective against QPR. The problem was Arsenal’s movement was too static – it worked against Everton as Ramsey got into little pockets but QPR blocked the space in the middle. Benayoun does that – it’s been his USP wherever he went – or as Rafa Benitez said, he’s a dangerous player because he gets in “between-the-lines.” In the 1-0 over Manchester City, he was one of the reasons why Arsenal dominated and he should have had his name of the score sheet when his shot was blocked on the line. “First of all Benayoun knows the job in this [wide] position,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. “He is highly focused in the big games, that is a massive part, because you cannot switch off. So we have a good balance in the team with him and a good focus. And of course he has quality. We have to say that in the games he has started he did extremely well and the team did extremely well as well. That is never a coincidence.”
The other benefit of this ploy is that it opens up space on the other side for Theo Walcott. It worked to devastating effect against Tottenham Hotspur and even against QPR, Arsenal’s goal came from space being opened up for the England winger to roam infield.
The use of a half-winger in the line-up is part of a wider change in Arsenal’s tactics. Wenger speaks of a “better plan” and “more options” which had led to increased confidence and form. That means Arsenal have abandoned the cautiousness that plagued their game earlier this season and have pressed higher and the increased technicality in the team means they can attack with clinical speed.
But with Benayoun likely to trudge back to his parent club in the summer, this poses an intriguing question; what does it mean of Arsenal’s tactics next season? Do they persist with a using a creative winger on one flank when essentially, the only one they had has left? If Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was older then he’d be the natural answer, mixing technical ability with dynamism. But he remains one of the many options although none of them, you would say, is creatively inclined. Perhaps, then, the answer lies away from the flanks and in the middle where The Gunners welcome the return of Jack Wilshere, who had looked brilliant linking up with the forward men in pre-season before he succumbed to injury. His drive – something which Arsenal have sorely missed – will allow Arsenal to attack from all angles. Nevertheless, Arsenal can take great confidence for the next season from the way they have ended this one and Benayoun, despite not staking his place as a regular, should take great satisfaction for laying some of the foundations to build on.