Arsenal (4-3-3): Cech // Monreal (Maitland-Niles, 34’) – Koscielny – Mustafi – Bellerin // Wilshere – Elneny – Xhaka // Iwobi (Kolasinac, 82’) – Lacazette – Ozil (Nelson, 72’)
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Hennessey // van Aanholt – Tomkins – Kelly – Fosu-Mensah // McArthur – Milivojevic – Cabaye (Riedewald, 90’) – Zaha // Benteke – Sako
The biggest change for Arsenal, other than the return of Mesut Ozil to the first eleven, was the introduction of Mohamed Elneny as the anchor in a midfield three with Jack Wilshere and Granit Xhaka on either side. Wenger’s tactical shift – moving Xhaka further forward into the eight zone – resembles his role for the Swiss national team, where he is given a greater attacking role knowing that the aggressive midfielder Valon Behrami is covering the central space. In this case, positioning Elneny in the six space was a conscious decision to combat the pace Crystal Palace possess in their forward line knowing that Xhaka would struggle in covering horizontally. While he is not a creative distributor, Elneny has strong positional awareness and is tidier in possession than Xhaka has been in recent months.
Roy Hodgson adopted a short-sighted 4-4-2 with the defensive liabilities Johan Cabaye and Wilfried Zaha in the midfield four. This was quite a tactical gamble by the seasoned manager as it is common knowledge that Arsenal prefers their possessional organisation to build through the central area. While Zaha was listed as a de facto left-sided midfielder, his inclination was to always look to push forward and counterattack, forcing the unlucky Patrick van Aanholt to defend Ozil one-on-one.
The Return of Wengerball
The defensive setup of Crystal Palace was always going to be problematic for the sole reason that they unnecessarily conceded space between the midfield and defence. Adopting a peculiar compact 4-2-2-2 with Zaha and McArthur positioning themselves closer to the half spaces, Palace attempted to limit the options for progression to the flanks. With a man-oriented pressing scheme, Arsenal was forced to recycle possession through the back line.
As the match progressed Palace’s strategy for negating central access posed a completely different problem: the positionless movement of Iwobi and Ozil. Both started in a more traditional wide forward role but were given free license to seek out space within the opposition formation. The higher positioning of Cabaye and Milivojevic – ostensibly to man-mark Xhaka and Wilshere, respectively – opened pockets of space behind that Ozil and Iwobi willingly drifted into. Ozil, in particular, was a constant thorn for Crystal Palace and is a perfect visualisation as to why man-oriented pressing is rarely adopted against Arsenal. For the fourth goal, Ozil moved from Cabaye to Milivojevic to Kelly with neither of them completely sure as to who should pick up his diagonal movement. Throughout the match there was miscommunication between defenders regarding Ozil’s off-ball movement; sometimes, multiple defenders would press that would leave space on the blind side for Wilshere to move into.
Arsenal only grew into confidence as the goals poured in and it took only twenty-two minutes for Arsenal to put the game out of reach. Hodgson’s lack of first-half response to an Arsenal side that was creating mismatches through their quick one-two’s and simple third man movements opened space all over the pitch. Zaha’s defensive positioning, which was closer to the forward line to aid in quick counterattacks, certainly did not help as Ozil constantly drifted into the spaces he left unoccupied. Over and over again Arsenal was able to easily bypass the central press and gain access to the defensive line at pace, creating situations where defenders are forced to react instead of setting up in an organised low block. That Arsenal was aggressive in their vertical passing allowed the attackers to flourish.
Wenger Pulls a Tony Pulis
For a side heavily focused on exploited and defending set pieces, that Crystal Palace conceded two similar goals from corners feels particularly painful. Neither set piece routines were complicated and should have easily been dealt with but their lackadaisical approach to defending, combined with Arsenal’s desire, led to clear-cut chances.
Mustafi and Koscielny deserve considerable credit for their contributions in dragging defenders out of position. For the first goal, Mustafi and Koscielny adopt positions near the penalty spot and are man-marked by Tomkins and Kelly, respectively. As the ball is delivered, Mustafi sprints towards the near post while Koscielny makes a slight movement towards the goalkeeper. Monreal, who is positioned along the edge of the 18-yard box, loses McArthur as he exploits the vacated space at the far post. Xhaka executes a perfect delivery that is easily headed home. The second set-piece goal is a near carbon copy of the first as McArthur lost Monreal again on a far post run, allowing him to hit a simple back pass to Koscielny. Two slight errors turned into two easy goals.