An interesting week, then, in Arsenalworld, as the Gunners came from behind to give Everton a right spanking, the second string huffed and puffed till Eddie Nketiah got us over the line against Norwich (with a little generosity from the ref – for once) and an entirely new brand of brazen shamelessness was put on show at the AGM by stupidity’s Sir Chips Keswick. The AGM fiasco points to a lot of what is wrong with the club at an institutional level, and the root of all the things which we keep grumbling about. After all, the institutional failures affect transfers and recruitment, they affect our ability to set targets for the team, and they affect the willingness to shake things up at the club, tactically or administratively.
Arsenal 2 Norwich City 1 – Familiar failings, but saved by Eddie
And we see the effects of that in very real ways on the pitch, as the Norwich game showed. Much like the game against Red Star Belgrade, for most of the game our play was so devoid of any creative spark that Roy Hodgson could have taken it out to dinner. There were two reasons in particular why this happened. First, our play from the back was shaky because we were basically playing a defence cobbled together from the contents of an old man’s pockets, an old rusty tin, and a strip of rotten balsa wood, so threadbare were our options there. Secondly, Francis Coquelin decided to lessen Wenger’s selection headaches by putting in a midfield performance so spectacularly terrible, he’s been hired to direct the next Transformers movie.
Yes, part of why Le Coq was so awful was that Wenger had decided to break out his idiotic decoy central midfielder plan again, meaning that we were treated time and time again to the sight of the French midfielder scurrying upfield into a number 10 position, finding himself completely out of his depth and losing the ball cheaply with most of the team encamped outside the Canaries’ box. But this is exactly why we should in no way think the superb win over Everton is any marker of real change for us – Wenger is still going to stick with this formation, he is still going to give silly instructions to our ostensible central defensive midfielder, and he is still going to fail to recruit a lot of the players we need.
Having said that, the Norwich game was a reminder of one of the more hallowed traditions of the Wenger years – the utilisation of the League cup to blood youngsters AND for them to repay that trust. After seeing numerous first-team players use the League Cup as a launching pad, it’s been several years since we’ve seen any youngsters announce themselves on the stage with a good performance, but this is precisely what Eddie Nketiah did on Tuesday night. Brought on at the 85th-minute mark for Reiss Nelson, the young Englishman made an instant impact, scoring with his very first touch, and over the next 35+ minutes demonstrating to Theo Walcott what he should have been doing the whole time. His movement was excellent, timing his runs and darts to perfection, his touch was good, and he kept making the right decisions in the final third. Arsenal were a different prospect after he came on, and his boldness helped galvanise the team and generally control a tie they had never really stamped their authority on. Notwithstanding Debuchy’s idiotic challenge which the referee somehow decided to ignore and not
Everton 2 Arsenal 5 – Lacazette movement makes the difference
The big tactical news from the week was, of course, the deployment of the AOL frontline at Goodison Park for the first time. Alexis, Ozil and Lacazette had never started together, but you wouldn’t have thought while watching them rip through Everton’s defence like a hot knife through butter, at will.
Alexis was his usual industrious self, harassing the opposition, and getting a wonderful assist for Ozil’s goal before grabbing one himself with a videogame-esque run past several defenders and then a shot. Mesut Ozil had an immense game, playing 8 key passes in the game, getting himself a lovely headed goal, and setting up Lacazette, and generally linking well with everyone on the pitch with some beautiful touches and layoffs.
But the reason the front three, and the team as a whole, clicked so well, was because of Alexandre Lacazette and his movement. The French striker didn’t have the most touches, didn’t play the most passes, didn’t take the most shots, and didn’t register a single assist. But his movement up front created space for Sanchez, Ozil and Ramsey to drift into, and with that freedom, they all had superb games.
Take the second goal, where Sanchez dinked a ball in from the left onto the head of Ozil in the centre. Ozil isn’t really all about winning headers in the box, but he has the vision and technique to head the ball in – provided he’s not being aggressively tackled by a centreback. He was afforded the time to put away Sanchez’s cross because Lacazette, after dropping deep to pick up the ball and feed the Chilean, made an incredible run into the inside left channel, pulling the defenders out of place, and away from the German.
His movement for the third was similarly exemplary, allowing him to be perfectly unmarked at just the right time to meet Ozil’s pass and sweep the ball into the net. Here, he eluded his markers, who probably thought the ball was going to go to Ramsey or Sanchez, but was himself in the right place.
Apart from these instances, all the numerous chances Arsenal created owed a great deal to how he ran the channels, feinted dropping deep only to push at the centrebacks, and actually dropped deep, allowing Ozil and Ramsey, in particular, to take up excellent attacking positions in the final third.
The Everton game was a great example of how the 3-4-2-1 can give attacking fluidity if used right. And this isn’t just about the performance of the forwards – a significant part in this was played by Nacho Monreal’s personal interpretation of a quasi-libero role. Similar to what he did against Brighton, Monreal kept stepping up into midfield, getting involved in play and ensuring Ramsey’s forward runs and Alexis’s darts infield didn’t leave Kolasinac and Xhaka without support. This also led to his equalizer at a crucial time, and a second goal this season.
For more Monreal love and additional analysis of the team’s performance, of course, there’s also Barry’s superb piece on the website here.
PS: I’d love to take some credit for this, given this new Monreal role emerged conveniently after I suggested he should play as a libero for us here, but that is of course pushing it. Or is it? 🙂