The Gunners took a big step toward the Europa League semi-finals with a comfortable win over CSKA Moscow on Thursday night, and but for profligate finishing in the second half, it could have been even more comfortable. The 4-1 should be enough to get us over the line when we travel to Russia next week; though ideally we want to make sure the defence isn’t as jittery as it was between our first and second goals. Golovin’s unstoppable free-kick arose out of some slapstick defending by Koscielny, and Ahmed Musa could have put the Russians up after gliding past everyone, and for a while it looked like another classic Arsenal collapse.
But luckily for us, even when the defence was doing their best impression of drunken monkeys trying to waltz, the attack was purring like a sleek, deadly jaguar. Time and time again we sliced the CSKA defence open, thanks to a combination of great movement by Alexandre Lacazette, intelligent runs by Aaron Ramsey, and Mesut Ozil’s incredible vision. It really was a shame that we couldn’t get more – Ramsey in particular should have had a hattrick, and Ozil will be kicking himself for not getting himself on the scoresheet.
We were lined up in what was on paper a 4-3-3, but everything was so fluid on the pitch that you would be hard pressed to really be sure of much beyond the back-4. Granit Xhaka continued his improvement over the last few games, sitting in front of the defence with Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere ahead of him in midfield. Wilshere was nominally stationed as the RCM, and Ramsey as the LCM, which was where they took up positions in the buildup, as you can see from their heatmaps as well as the locations of their touches and passes. But as the ball moved into the final third, Ramsey made a lot of diagonal runs to the inside right channel, which helped create useful overloads with Bellerin or Lacazette, and also allowed Mesut Ozil to come away from his position on the right of the attack and float into dangerous positions across the front line, often popping up as the furthest forward down the left.
This pattern of taking up one position in the build-up and then another as the ball moved into the final third was replicated among all our five more attacking players, and wreaked complete havoc with CSKA’s 3-4-2-1 system, allowing us to either get in behind the wing-backs, or outnumber them in central midfield. Ozil started deep on the right, then drifted into midfield while swapping passes and then moved to the left. Mkhitaryan started on the left, before coming infield and then drifting over to the right wing where he linked up with Ramsey and Bellerin. Lacazette made darting runs across the forward line, though he drifted to the right quite a bit where he had the most touches. The drifts towards the right by many of the players was often pivoted around Jack Wilshere, who however seemed to play more of a decoy role, holding his position and then moving left. All of the movement to the right also opened up even more space for Ozil, who took full advantage, completing the maximum number of passes on the pitch, creating five chances, laying on two assists and winning the penalty that put us 2-1 up.
Through it all, Granit Xhaka was disciplined in his role as the deepest central midfielder, distributing possession gamely and coming further forward to support the attack when necessary. This is a useful development as we yet be able to develop a solid 4-3-3 system around him – which would be quite nice to see after months of poor performances which I’ve criticised quite harshly. The fluid 4-3-3 does appear to be one of the better bets for us, allowing Aaron Ramsey to properly thrive as a goal-getting midfielder, and allowing Ozil the freedom to wreak havoc. The both of them link up superbly in this system, as our third goal, scored with an audacious mid-air flick by Ramsey, shows, and also works well for Lacazette since it doesn’t require the kind of hold-up play his smaller size doesn’t permit.
It will be interesting to see whether this forms our approach when Aubameyang is available for selection as well, as this would require dropping either Mkhitaryan or Lacazette, presumably, since the others are more essential to the system. That is, of course more a dilemma for next season since Auba isn’t eligible in the Europa League, though at least Wenger can do a bit of tinkering in what’s left of the Premier League season to test some options, for instance (especially if Jack isn’t going to sign a new contract), dropping Mkhitaryan into central midfield. This won’t be possible in the next game, of course, with the Armenian’s injury, but hopefully we’ll see some useful experimentation going forward.