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Fragile No More: Arsenal are finally learning how to beat big teams


Hrishi Anand has a look back at some of Arsenal’s memorable performances against big teams in the recent past to see how Arsene Wenger’s men got rid of the fragile tag.

Wenger 2016


Arsenal fans will remember vividly how on 8th February 2014, Arsenal were hammered 5-1 at Anfield by a rampaging Liverpool side. It was a year of mixed emotions with the Gunners finally breaking their trophy drought. They also were able to mount a title challenge which however petered out because of their inability to beat fellow title challengers and to cope against teams which used physicality and pace to neutralize Arsenal’s possession football. The pinnacle of this chronic issue was the 6-0 humiliation at Chelsea on what was supposed to be a celebration of Wenger’s 1000th game in charge of the Gunners. 3-0 down within the first 20 minutes and a man down by half-time, Arsenal fans were left in tears all around the world, a fact for which I can personally vouch for. Other embarrassments were a 6-3 humbling against Man City and a 3-0 destruction at Everton… Arsenal seemed to be incapable of altering their style to beat the bigger and better teams.

2 years on, Arsenal boast a list of high profile victims which includes Bayern, Manchester City, Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, as well as crunch games against Olympiakos in difficult away games. So what prompted this change? We analyze a few such games to conclude Arsene Wenger’s change of tactics.

Manchester City 0-2 Arsenal (18th January 2015)

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The stats speak volumes for a team known for possession football and its attacking flair. At the Etihad stadium, Arsene Wenger finally seemed to abandon his usual open style of attacking football when his team were away from home against the best teams in the Premier League. Instead, the Gunners were set up to defend and keep a clean sheet. Right from the start, there were times when all 11 of their players were defending deep in City’s half.

The Gunners resorted to counter attacking effectively which they did by winning a penalty and taking advantage of a set piece to secure 3 points against a City team which was on a 12 match unbeaten run. The excellent defending and emergence of Francis Coquelin were pivotal to the result while Santi Cazorla’s brilliance was the attacking outlet for Arsenal. It seemed as if Arsenal had finally learned how to keep their nerve on the big occasion.

Arsenal 4-1 Liverpool (4th April 2015)

Another showcase of Arsenal’s versatility against top teams, Arsenal blew Liverpool away with a rampaging first half of attacking football. Hector Bellerin opened the scoring with a brilliant run past Alberto Moreno and beat the keeper with a left-footed curler. Mesut Ozil added the second with a free kick, although Mignolet could have done better and Alexis Sanchez, who was having an excellent season, scored from a powerful shot into the top corner form outside the penalty box. Arsenal resorted to using an all-out attack policy to finish the game off before Liverpool even switched on. Jordan Henderson pulled one back for the visitors from the penalty spot but Arsenal did not panic as they had in previous times on conceding a goal and finished off the game through a goal from Olivier Giroud.

Arsenal 3-0 Manchester United (4th October 2015)

Perhaps one of the most famous Arsenal wins at the Emirates stadium, Arsenal firmly established themselves as title challengers with a breathtaking performance against fellow title contenders Man Utd. Facing one of the tightest defences in the league, Arsenal put 3 past Louis Van Gaal’s side in just 20 minutes and could have had more if not for the heroics of David De Gea. Adopting a fast passing system against a slow Man Utd midfield, Alexis Sanchez (6) and Mesut Ozil (7) scored within 33 seconds before the Chilean belted a third to leave United three-down inside 20 minutes for the first time in the Premier League era. Wenger again adopted an attacking style of play against a side he felt could be undone by pace.

Arsenal 2-0 Bayern Munich (21st October 2015)

With a horrendous run in the Champions League, Arsenal were up against perhaps Europe’s best team in a must win Champions League game. Early nervousness overcame an Arsenal side which was kept in the game by a bit of luck and a masterclass by Petr Cech. As the game wore on, Arsenal grew solid defensively and soaked up repeated pressure by a technically strong Bayern side. Olivier Giroud bundled home from close range in the 77th minute after goalkeeper Manuel Neuer made a rare error as he missed Santi Cazorla’s free-kick. The win was secured in the dying seconds when Mesut Ozil turned in Hector Bellerin’s cross, Neuer clawing the ball out only for the officials to adjudge it had crossed the line. It was a tactical masterclass from Wenger who had set up his team to defend and counter against a much superior team.

Arsenal’s average positioning compared to Bayern’s attacking

Arsenal’s average positioning compared to Bayern’s attacking

Conclusion

Since the thrashing at Chelsea, there seems to be a new look about Arsenal against big teams. Arsene Wenger has shown that he can adapt to 21st Century football and can abandon his philosophy of possession and passing football to get results against the biggest of teams. Against Liverpool and Arsenal, Wenger adopted a method of quick, incisive passes to kill the game off against teams with slower players. However against Manchester City and Bayern Munich, Wenger knew he was up against the likes of Lewandowski, Douglas Costa, Sergio Aguero and David Silva. Unfazed however, he set up the Gunners to defend and soak up pressure before releasing their quick players on the counter and capitalizing from set pieces. Both were season-defining victories that were a real morale boost to an Arsenal side accused of having a weak mentality. Arsenal fans will be hoping to see many more such victories in a season where they are tipped to lift the title after 10 years.


Written by Hrishi Anand

Hrishi Anand

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