Arsenal came into this critical match at the Liberty Stadium desperate to break their horrible away form (3 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses). Too far from Manchester City to mount a title challenge, Wenger is still hoping that a run of form can precipitate a rise in the table to claim the Champions League spot the club craves. Swansea City, on the other hand, had performed admirably under new manager Carlos Carvalhal with an amazing win over Liverpool. At the end of the night, new-signing Mkhitaryan was introduced to the “Arsenal Way” as they succumbed to a Swansea side full of desire and fell further behind the Top 4.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Cech // Monreal – Mustafi – Koscielny – Bellerin // Xhaka – Elneny (Mkhitaryan, 60’) – Ramsey // Iwobi (Giroud, 76’) – Lacazette – Ozil
Swansea City (5-4-1): Fabianski // Olsson – Mawson – Fernandez – Van der Hoorn – Naughton // Clucas (Routledge, 92’) – Ki – Fer – Dyer (Carroll, 83’) // Ayew (Bony, 88’)
There were no surprises from either side as each adopted familiar formations. Arsenal continued in their 4-3-3 structure with Mohamed Elneny acting as the deepest midfield fulcrum and Aaron Ramsey replacing the ill Jack Wilshere. The front three remained unchanged with Wenger stating that Mkhitaryan is short of match fitness and will be slowly introduced into the side.
Swansea City lined up in a defensively organized 5-4-1 that they have commonly used when facing tougher opposition. Jordan Ayew acted as the lone forward though received significant support from the wide areas in the form of Sam Clucas and Nathan Dyer. Alfie Mawson and Mike van der Hoorn acted as the defensive anchors as they sat on either side of Federico Fernandez.
Swansea Look To Frustrate & Succeed
Swansea’s primary goal throughout the match was to deny easy access to the central area when they moved into the final third. For them, adopting a position-oriented pressing scheme made sense as it allowed the defenders to control the space by simply shifting their defensive block. Against an Arsenal side that has become overly dependent on positionless football, Swansea was able to force Arsenal into meaningless sideways passing among the back line.
Give credit where credit is due. Arsenal attempted throughout the match to penetrate the opposition midfield by overloading the no. 9 space. With Ramsey in the first eleven instead of Wilshere, Arsenal lacked the type of penetration from deep that can collapse compact defences. Ramsey prefers occupying the channels near Lacazette than initiating the transition and it can make Arsenal quite predictable in their buildup. With Xhaka roaming forward into the half space and Elneny as a single pivot, Ozil consistently dropped deep to link possession. To cover, Lacazette or even Bellerin would push forward into the half space, leaving gaps in their possessional structure. Their inability to break the lines with vertical passing left Swansea perfectly capable to reset their shape.
For Carvalhal, Arsenal’s attacking predictability lent itself to a simple attacking strategy built around utilising the width of the pitch. Typically, Arsenal’s forwards – in this case, Iwobi and Ozil – are rather narrow, sometimes in the half-space closer to the midfield line, and depend on the full-backs to provide the necessary width. With a more attacking mindset, Bellerin and Monreal apply pressure further up the pitch (near the halfway line) as Arsenal prefer inside-out ball movement early in the possession. When Arsenal move into the final third and the full backs now as de facto wingers, the only defensive coverage is the two center backs (it doesn’t matter who the deeper midfielder is since they push forward to support the attack than protect the back line). It is much to ask of Mustafi and Koscielny to cover 68 meters between the two; this became doubly difficult when Swansea would transition quickly from the defense with direct passes and a 3rd man runs from wide positions.
Here Naughton was able to win a header from Monreal and leave Elneny to defend both the fullback and Dyer. Notice Ayew as he points out the space that will be available behind the defence. Dyer plays a simple pass to Ayew and a misplaced one-touch pass to Naughton leads straight to Cech. While this open play came to nothing, these off-ball movements are problematic for an Arsenal side that neglects their defensive duties during transitions. Teams are aware now that if you can exploit Arsenal’s lack of defensive width after they give up possession, clear chances will always be available.
Arsenal Take A Holiday In Wales
What makes the match all the more frustrating is that all three goals were entirely preventable. Neither came from spectacular team movements or individual brilliance that most fans could easily dismiss as lucky. The three goals by Swansea are representative of the Arsenal of 3rd term Wenger: occasional attacking beauty with a growing fear of constant self-immolation. For all the transfer news that has come out during this window, the lack of rumors surrounding anyone who can fill the void as the anchor of the midfield is distressing. This type of match demonstrates why one is sorely needed.
How Xhaka does not notice Clucas’ ambling run in front of him across the defence is baffling. If it was a blindside run, you could at least justify his negligence. He gets caught ball watching and Clucas is able to respond immediately to Monreal’s earlier goal. Ayew was gifted the easiest goal known to man when Mustafi and Cech decided to play act the Three Stooges. Right now, Arsenal looks defensively lazy and without ideas of how to cope. I, for one, can come up with at least 3 suggestions: (1) keep Bellerin and Monreal closer to the centre backs when Arsenal are in possession to avoid the flanks from being exposed, (2) either bench Xhaka or start Maitland-Niles as the anchor since he possesses the speed to cover lateral spaces, and (3) stop the use of man-oriented pressing as defenders are dragged all over the pitch, leaving space behind. Of course, neither of these will be adopted. Wenger will subsist on what he does best: attack, attack, attack.