Arsenal’s defensive struggled under Arsene Wenger continued Sunday evening after conceding four goals to a Nottingham Forest without a permanent manager and struggling in the Championship. For the North London club, this result capped a disappointing month that saw Arsenal crash out of the FA Cup earlier than many imagined. With nine players rotated into the side after their recent 2-2 draw with Chelsea, Arsenal was missing the level of fluidity that can be seen in their traditional first eleven. Nottingham Forest’s tactical ingenuity and desire forced Arsenal into numerous uncomfortable defensive situations that they were unable to adapt to. Man of the match performances by Brereton and Lichaj capped off a performance that continues Arsenal’s slide into mediocrity.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Ospina // Maitland-Niles – Holding – Mertesacker – Debuchy (Akpom, 87’) // Willock (Nketiah, 65’) – Elneny – Iwobi // Nelson – Welbeck – Walcott
Nottingham Forest (4-2-3-1): Smith // Traore – Mancienne – Worrall (red card, 84′) – Lichaj // Vaughan – Osborn // Clough (Walker, 56’) – Dowell (Mills, 93’) – Cash (McKay, 87’) // Brereton
No Ozil, No Creativity
Departing from the back three, Wenger deployed a rotated 4-3-3, possibly to provide greater central protection in a makeshift defense. Elneny acted as the deepest lying midfielder with Willock and Iwobi tasked to act as shuttlers who would provide support to the attack. With Forest matching 3v3 in the midfield, central occupation was limited and struggled to penetrate their 4-5-1 defensive shape. Arsenal tried to take advantage of their pace and width by progressing down the flanks. Nelson, who roamed laterally searching for space, dynamically interchanged with Maitland-Nile’s numerous inverted runs. Forest struggled to cope with the speed on the left and tried to shadow cover the passing lines in their space-oriented press. Arsenal could have enjoyed better attacking sequences, however, heavy first-touches and miscontrolled passes by Nelson and Willock led to several failed moves.
Without Ozil or Sanchez in the first eleven, Arsenal lacked creativity in the final third to break down Forest’s shape. Arsenal’s attack at times became incredibly predictable as they lacked the sort of depth and movement to break down their decent compactness. Situationally, their positioning regressed to a horizontal line of five, making finding forward passes into the centerbacks difficult. The only way to get forward was through dribbling or combination play, actions which did not succeed at a high enough rate to make it productive. Historically, Arsenal has been reliant on individual talents and high-speed combination play to create favorable attacking situations. Players such as Ozil allow for such individuality to flourish but when structured around a side full of academy youngsters and out-of-form substitute, a solid offensive structure is needed to penetrate obstinate sides. While Nelson can potentially become the type of player who can influence a game like Sanchez, he is not there right now and without a basal system to fall back onto, they could not find the requisite space to influence the game.
Nottingham Forest Stretch the Pitch
Many of Forest’s best attacks involved Brereton when he drifted out wide early in transition, forcing Holding or Mertesacker to defend the width of the pitch. With Debuchy and Maitland-Niles occupying positions higher up the pitch, they were left exposed to deep diagonal runs into the flanks. Brereton had a fantastic match for an 18-year-old that is only in his second full season as a professional. His pace and strength unsettled the two centerbacks, with Holding struggling to cope with the England U-19 forward’s strength in holding up possession. With Brereton out wide, central access was available for the attacking three midfielders to move into. Especially with Arsenal’s three midfielders roaming too far forward to provide defensive solidity, Dowell and Cash were able to get a foothold when they were in proximity to Brereton.
Arsenal afforded Forest greater central space with their weekly occurring tendency to drop into a flat low block when the opposition has strong possession. Weak defensive connections and a sacrifice of depth create circumstances where Forest’s midfielders are in dangerous positions to collect second balls. Lichaj’s is able to collect his second goal because Elneny has been dragged wide and Willock late in covering the unoccupied central area, letting the American right back to pinch inside and receive the weak clearance. Arsenal’s inclination to push forward only left more space for Forest to counterattack into and the cycle of defending and giving away possession prevented Arsenal from impacting the match.
Sacrificing defenders to bring on more attackers didn’t change the flow of the match. Nketiah and Welbeck found themselves occupying similar positions and a lack of a controlling midfielder hampered Arsenal’s ability to dictate tempo. With no quality depth on the bench to enhance their attacking chances, they were left with throwing square pegs at round holes.