The margin of victory against Brighton may have been the same as that against West Brom, but there was a sea change between the two performances. A number of factors contributed to this change, including an improved performance (particularly in the 2nd half) by Alexis Sanchez and a probing, intelligent performance by Alex Iwobi, but in my opinion, the reason for the more fluid performance against Chris Hughton’s side was the fact that we played with a lot more positional discipline.
Against Brighton, Arsenal created multiple chances through the middle, with both Iwobi and Sanchez constantly taking up positions in front of the box on their respective sides, and created good chances for the team. Sanchez created 6 chances and took 8 shots (3 on target), while Iwobi created 2 chances and took 3 shots (all 3 on target), much more productive statistics than in previous games for our inside forwards. Both inside forwards generally stuck to their positions, which allowed us to have creative players in between the lines at two points at all times, which, combined with Iwobi’s greater mobility, proved a better option than when Mesut Ozil plays and takes up a free position.
But while they were the obvious people to attribute the improved performance to, credit needs to be given to the central midfielders and the wing-backs, who gave Sanchez and Iwobi the platform to shine. Both wingbacks hugged their touchline to give us width, ensuring that the Chilean and Nigerian didn’t have to move out too wide in the final third, and opened up the space between Brighton’s fullbacks and centrebacks. The central midfielders also maintained positions in the centre of the park, occupying the Seagull’s two-man midfield of Propper and Stephens, and with some neat interpassing with the inside forwards, got Iwobi and Sanchez into good positions between the midfield and defence.
Doing this meant that the central midfielders themselves didn’t create too many chances or have too many pops at goal, which was certainly a change from Aaron Ramsey’s general modus operandi. His heat map and positions when playing passes in this game kept him firmly in the centre of the pitch with only a slight tendency towards the right side, which was understandable since Nacho Monreal kept stepping up into the midfield towards the left.
However, this benefited the team immensely as not only was he able to offer himself to the inside forwards for passes in the middle which is much more dangerous than when out wide, but he was also able to help on the defensive side of the game, making 2 tackles and 3 interceptions. Few remember it but in the 2013-14 season, when Ramsey was at his very best, he wasn’t just scoring goals but also performing his defensive duties superbly, ranking 2nd in tackles per game till his injury in the winter. The difference between his positioning in this game and Elneny’s in the West Brom game where the Egyptian kept pushing wide into the channels, and the difference in the fluidity of the team’s performance, is no coincidence.
Xhaka still wasn’t the most convincing, but kept to his position, and was helped by Monreal’s aforementioned stepping up, giving him an option to pass, and also helping with defensive duties. Even so, for the first time this season we looked like we had an actual central midfield pairing, which combined a few times and was able to pick out other members of the team more accurately.
Bellerin and Kolasinac also played significant roles in improving our attacking fluency. Unlike Guardiola’s Manchester City, whose fullbacks tucked into midfield to excellent effect against Chelsea with their wide forwards creating width, Arsenal need their wingbacks to take on this role so that 2 in the 3-4-2-1 can create more chances. Both the Bosnian and Spaniard took up good positions, though the effects of this were different for both. Kolasinac used his positioning to create chances, playing 3 key passes, while Bellerin pushed high and wide on the right to pull defenders out of position and open up space for Iwobi and Lacazette, something which proved particularly useful in the build-up to the second goal.
There remains scope for improvement for both, however. Bellerin created no chances in the game, which is problematic given how involved he gets in games for us, and his crossing was woefully inaccurate as well. Of course, this is the advantage of good positioning – even when a player doesn’t have a great game, they can still help the overall gameplan function just by virtue of following their basic instructions. Nonetheless, given how good we know the young Spaniard can be, it is disappointing to see that he isn’t doing better offensively. Maybe if he cuts his hair things will change since it is an incontrovertible fact that his poor form began with his decision to grow his locks, but I understand this reverse Samson theory is perhaps not the most scientific.
Kolasinac also, for the second successive game, didn’t get into very advanced positions down the left wing. This didn’t stop him from creating chances or getting involved in the game, but it would still open up more space for Sanchez if he did maraud a bit more down his flank, pulling opposition right-backs away from our number 7. He could also get into more crossing positions, though this is less important when we are not playing Olivier Giroud.
Given Brighton were easier opposition, so to speak, one cannot take this performance to necessarily prove a blueprint for future games. However, one can only hope that Wenger will have also noted the benefits of greater positional discipline, both in this game and against Chelsea, and will utilise this going forwards.