Ross Eaton provides a detailed tactical analysis about the Premier League game which finished Arsenal 0-0 Southampton.
Going into the match trailing first placed Leicester by three points is a factor, the Gunners were determined to come out of the match against Southampton with a victory. Arsenal were hoping to improve on recent form, after going through a relatively drab last five or so games. The much awaited return of Alexis Sanchez was an exciting one for all, not just Arsenal fans, as the Chilean forward looked to add much needed impetus to Arsenal’s recently lacklustre attack.
Southampton were looking to extend their good run of form, and particularly look to emulate their wonderfully surprising 4-0 victory over Arsenal on Boxing Day. The acquisition of Charlie Austin has added further depth to an already strong Saints squad which has rapidly climbed the table since that excellent win on December 26th.
Both teams lined-up in 4-2-3-1 formations. Petr Cech in goal for Arsenal had a back-four of Bellerin, Gabriel, Koscielny and Monreal. Flamini played as Arsenal’s 6, while playing as more of an 8 than a defensive midfielder was Aaron Ramsey. Campbell started on the right, Özil central and Alex Sanchez on the left. Arsene Wenger took a big risk playing Sanchez twice in just three days following a return from a nasty hamstring injury, perhaps this kind of risk shows why Wenger’s players have such a poor injury record at Arsenal. The lone striker was Olivier Giroud.
Fraser Forster has solidified himself as Southampton’s number one following a horrible knee injury last season which he has only just recovered from recently. Cedric Soares was at right-back, Jose Fonte and Virgil van Dijk as centre-backs and Bertrand as left-back. Saints went with a double-pivot of Wanyama and Oriol Romeu. On the right of midfield was Ward-Prowse, behind Long who was a 9 was Mane and to the left, Tadic.
Build-Up Issues and a Compact Block
A possible cause of Arsenal drawing a blank was their poor build-play. With the lack of a ‘needle player’ and Koscielny the only player really able to play effective, clean vertical passes in any of their first two lines, Arsenal really struggled to move the ball into the final third or create good opportunities. As well as Arsenal’s own shortcomings, Southampton defended well from front to back and made it very difficult for Arsenal to create any sort of chances.
Southampton defended in a 4-4-2 shape, with Mane alongside Long, Ward-Prowse and Tadic dropping a bit deeper and narrower to play closer to Wanyama and Romeu. This narrow formation seriously restricted space centrally, the area where Arsenal like to play most of their football. As we have seen far too many times in the past, Arsenal commonly struggle against teams who deny them space in the key central and halfspaces. Dinamo Zagreb manager Zoran Mamic spoke a little about this in his post-match press conference after his side defeated the Gunners earlier this season in the a Champions League. He said “we thought it would be important to close the middle, to stop the fast passes”. This is exactly what Southampton did to suffocate Arsenal’s key players in key areas.
Saints’ standard defensive structure on the night
Rather than defending with a pendulum midfield three, which I spoke a bit about in my Southampton team analysis, Southampton went with a relatively flat midfield four, with either Wanyama or Romeu man-marking Ozil(depending on the position of the ball). With Özil marked out the game often, and Ward-Prowse and Tadic blocking passing lanes from deep to Sanchez or Campbell, Gabriel and Koscielny were often left with no choice but to play pointless lateral passes between themselves. This led to Koscielny often dribbling into midfield in an attempt to move the ball forward. The lack of intelligent movement from Flamini and Ramsey to get on the ball deep was a significant factor in Arsenal’s build-up problems.
Isolation the Cause of Frustration
As is often the case when playing as a lone striker, Shane Long became very isolated up front for Southampton. Due to Southampton playing quite a lot of clipped balls to Long’s feet, the Irishman was tasked with holding the ball up in a wait for runners to support him. Runners moving forward to support Long didn’t come in abundance though, and Long was often left with no options, with his back to goal, a striker’s nightmare.
The reason for Long’s isolation and lack of support was because it was such a long distance to cover for any of the four players(bar Mane)behind him to transition from their defensive positions up alongside him.
Weak and Disjointed Transition
As well as struggling with the ball, Arsenal had issues without it. The Gunners’ transition from attack to defence was too slow and lacklustre, especially against a team with quick forwards.
Being a team which doesn’t counterpress, Arsenal must be quick at retreating into defensive positions to defend against potential counter-attacks. When Arsenal did retreat into defensive positions quickly, Southampton struggled massively and they were forced to play a hopeless long pass to Shane Long. This wasn’t always the case however, as Arsenal were at times too slow retreating into their defensive shape.
Above we can see that both Flamini and Ramsey have been caught ahead of the ball, as well as left-back Nacho Monreal, which in turn drags both centre-backs out of position. Before this scenario, Arsenal had more than enough time to get back into a good, solid defensive shape but they didn’t take the opportunity and unsurprisingly got caught on the counter-attack.
As well as being too slow in transition at times, the transition was often disjointed, particularly between the back-four+Flamini and the front-four+Ramsey. The problem was that Flamini rarely proceeds any closer than 40 yards away from goal, while Ramsey like to push up alongside Özil, to make penetrative runs. This meant when Arsenal lost the ball, Ramsey had lots of distance to cover to get back to his position alongside Flamini. Although this didn’t cause too many problems on the night, it may be a worry in future.
For the third league game in a row, Arsenal failed to score, luckily neither did their opponents and they managed to pick up a single point. This leaves them trailing first placed Leicester by five points, as well as two behind second placed Man City and behind Spurs on goal difference. Tonight was further indication that a Coquelin-Cazorla double-pivot is by far the most efficient midfield pairing available for Arsenal at moment. With Flamini-Ramsey, this causes serious issues in the build-up, especially against teams playing narrowly. Wenger’s tactics have been pretty sound this season, but if he wants to push for the title, he must get his team selection correct.
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