We should really start with an acknowledgement that the opponents for Arsenal in this match were at something of a disadvantage. Southampton had overcome Liverpool in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final just days before this fixture and we saw a weakened side at the Emirates for this match.
With that said though the conventional wisdom states that you can only beat what is in front of you and in this match a five goal victory is a positive for the club no matter who the opponents are.
Recent results have been reasonable and since two defeats in the middle of December the club has been unbeaten and only dropped points once, in a three all draw with Bournemouth, indeed as results have been positive so to have been performances from the playing staff. To that end there have been few calls from the fan base to strengthen the squad in this transfer window.
Instead the focus from the club and the fans has to be on extending the contracts of two of their most important attacking players in Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
The general attacking structures of Arsenal under Arsene Wenger are of course already well established. The shape in the attacking phase can alter from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 depending on the match situation and in the defensive phase they like to play with at least one central midfielder shielding the defensive line to prevent easy access in the central areas.
Both sides had something of an experimental look to them as each manager chose to rest key players with an eye on more competitive fixtures looming on the horizon.
Arsenal started with David Ospina in goal as is the norm for domestic cup fixtures and fielded a back four of Bellerin, Mustafi, Holding and Gibbs. In a midfield three we saw Maitland-Niles, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Reine-Adelaide preferred in what could well be the first all double barrelled midfield three in the club’s history.
This continued the trend from Wenger to prefer Oxlade-Chamberlain in a central role where his ability in one on one situations could be used to the benefit of the team.
In the attack Arsenal played Lucas Perez centrally with Walcott and Welbeck playing off of the main striker.
Southampton on the other hand fielded Harry Lewis in goal behind a back line of Martina, Gardos, Stephens and McQueen. In midfield they used Harrison Reed as the sitting midfielder behind Hojberb and Clasie with Isgrove and Sims behing Shane Long who led the attack.
Arsenal’s defensive structure
One of the biggest issues cited with Arsenal in recent years has been the lack of a genuine and dedicated defensive minded midfielder who was capable of effectively and efficiently patrolling the space between the creative midfielders and the defensive line to negate any danger from the opposition in this area.
In this match however the defensive structure from Arsenal was excellent throughout and appeared flexible enough to deal with a number of different issues posed by Southampton.
It may appear somewhat counter intuitive to start an analysis of a five goal victory discussing defensive structure but it was an impressive aspect of the game plan for Arsenal.
The key to this defensive structure is the positioning and awareness of Ainsley Maitland-Niles who covered the space between the midfield and defence perfectly throughout. His pace allowed him to cover gaps in the midfield line wherever needed to prevent Southampton from easily playing through the gaps between the Arsenal lines.
The initial line of four in the midfield is flat which can cause issues but the spacing allows them to cover the entire width of the field making if difficult for Southampton to play around them.
The willingness of the wide forward to tuck in to a defensive shape in this manner displays the flexibility between different shapes used in this match from Wenger. A 4-3-3 in possession quickly and easily transitioned in to a 4-1-4-1 shape in the defensive shape of the match. The pace and awareness of the two wide players meant that they were able to transition quickly from the defensive to attacking phases of the game or vice versa.
As the match progressed though and Arsenal began to display their dominance in the game we saw a change to the defensive structure and pressing in the midfield.
Here you can see that the line of four is still present but Maitland-Niles is willing to break with the structure and lead the press in the midfield often moving up ahead of his midfield team mates to become the most advanced player.
This happened too often in the match to have not been a specific tactical instruction and again we saw the versatility of Maitland-Niles who impressed in this match despite having made limited appearances for the first team.
Arsenal continually broke the defensive lines
If you go back between five and ten years then the main focus of most tactical analysts and even coaches was the importance and necessity of keeping possession of the ball. This was of course on the back of the success enjoyed by the Barcelona side of the corresponding time frame who under Pep Guardiola dominated the game whilst dominating the ball.
To a large extent though this missed the point of that Barcelona side completely and the focus was not purely on possession but on penetration of the opposition defensive structure through vertical passing.
Penetrating or playing through the opposition defensive lines is key to creating goal scoring chances for your side and in this match Arsenal excelled in doing so.
Once again Maitland-Niles is the protagonist in this example as he moves forward with the ball and is confronted by an admittedly poor defensive structure from Southampton.
The important thing is that the young midfielder shows bravery in possession of the ball and instead of laying off an easy pass with one eye on his pass completion ration he instead plays the ball through two distinct defensive lines of the opposition in to the feet of his attacking player.
This form of pass cuts vertically through the lines of the opposition and allows Arsenal to play from an advanced platform in behind the opposition midfield which makes it easier for them to play through on goal. In this instance the ball is spun through behind the defensive line for one of the wide forwards to run on to and score.
The goal would not have been possible if it were not for the penetration offered by Maitland-Niles.
On this occasion the ball is being carried in to the middle third of the pitch by Mustafi with little pressure being applied to the Arsenal defender.
This time there are two vertical passes made in quick succession which completely penetrate the Southampton defensive structure. The first pass goes vertically from Mustafi through to Theo Walcott who has dropped in to a pocket of space to take possession of the ball. Instantly with this pass Walcott and Perez make movements in to the final third of the pitch beyond the Southampton defence and Walcott is able to play the ball through for another goal scoring chance.
In two passes Arsenal have bypassed the entire defence.
Movement and space
Along with the importance of penetration in the attacking phase a top class team in today’s football needs to be aware of the importance of the creation and use of space across the width and depth of the pitch.
Throughout the match we saw Arsenal in the attacking phase pull the Southampton defensive structure out of position to allow them to play through certain areas of the pitch.
Arsenal have possession of the ball facing two banks of four from Southampton. Straight away we can see that two Arsenal players have dropped in to the space between the defensive and midfield lines making it difficult for Southampton to mark them properly.
The defensive structure however is still solid. The important aspect of the attacking movement is the run of the left back who goes outside on the flank and immediately pulls Hojberg from his central position towards the outside.
This gives the man in possession of the ball two distinct options as he can pass wide should Hojberg not cover across properly or through the gap created by the movement of Hojberg should the Dane cover the run of the left back properly.
Here the important positioning is that of Alexis Sanchez who has moved from the left hand side of the pitch in to a central area.
As he does so he attracts three Southampton players towards him as they are aware of the potential danger that the Chilean International offers. This movement empties the space on the left hand side and has the left sided player advances up the field the man in possession is able to play an easy pass in to this space and Arsenal play around the defensive block for Southampton.
A very strong showing from Arsenal as they put on a superb attacking performance to overcome this Southampton side.
On the evidence of this performance could we be about to see a genuine title challenge from Arsenal? There is strength in depth for the first time in years with younger players also coming in to the first team picture.
The future may actually be bright for Arsenal.