Arsenal foiled by Wigan’s tactical masterclass

I’m not hugely excited by tactical discussion.  I don’t do chalkboards, and I haven’t got a giant iPad to play with.  Generally, I’m off the belief that quality and desire will override formations and other such minor details.  Well, consider this the day that Gunnerblog grew up.  It’s time to talk tactics.

The catalyst to this was a quite remarkable display by Wigan at the Emirates last night.  Having seen them robbed at Chelsea and victorious against Man United, we knew they’d fancy their chances.  We knew, too, that we’d have to be on our guard.  What I personally didn’t realise was quite how intelligent a foe we’d be facing.

The formation Wigan deployed last night was probably the most innovative I’ve ever seen in the Premier League – although within that I’m discounting Ossie Ardiles’ midfield-less monstrosity.  It could probably best be described as a 3-4-3.  Three narrow centre-backs, all of whom were given license to drift wide to cover if needs me.  One of those centre-backs, Gary (or maybe Stephen, I’m never sure) Caldwell was given license to step up in to midfield when Wigan had possession, without ever really straying over the halfway line.  The four in front all sat deep.  The wingers in particular were almost auxiliary full-backs.  Ahead of them, Franco Di Santo played as a central target man, with Jordi Gomez drifting mischievously infield from the right.  Victor Moses, meanwhile, dutifully patrolled Wigan’s left flank.

It’s a system they’ve used regularly recently, but it’s the first time I’d seen it in the flesh.  They’ve shown that they do their homework and modified it, too.  Against Man United, they man-marked Ferdinand and Evans on throw-ins, so United couldn’t throw the ball back and start again, as is their wont.   Against us, Victor Moses (who had played on the right at Stamford Bridge), switched over to the left.  Wigan realised the majority of our attacks come down the right, where we generally look for an overlap from one of Walcott or Sagna.  We even aim all our goal-kicks out to Sagna and look for the flick on for Theo’s pace in behind.  However, with Moses dropping back, Beausejour deep, and Figueroa coming across, our men generally found themselves outnumbered.  It was subsequently the quietest game Theo’s had in months.

With the main point of our attack smothered, we looked bereft of ideas.  Although we’re known as a fluid footballing side, in recent months our attacking strategy has been built on quite a simple principle of exerting pressure high up the pitch and looking for an overlap outside or dart inside a full-back.  This has disguised and compensated for the fact that since the departure of Cesc Fabregas and injury to Jack Wilshere, we don’t have an incisive number ten who can find a pass through the centre – discounting, of course, the odd moment of genius from Alex Song.  Losing Arteta to injury early on didn’t help, but by 70 minutes we looked as if we simply didn’t know where to go.

Of course, we didn’t help ourselves.  Conceding two goals in two minutes was cretinous, and being down to ten men due to Arteta’s absence is no excuse for the chaos that we permitted to unfold.  When Thomas Vermaelen got a goal back with that excellent header, there was a long way to go and you fancied us to grab at least a point.

For us to do that, Arsene had to change the shape.  I know that Marouane Chamakh has been poor this season, but introducing him would have immediately given us an extra presence in the box and the option to play a longer diagonal ball.  As it was, Robin found himself crowded out by three-centre backs as we tried to thread a ball through a blue-and-white wall.  Instead, Le Boss stuck to his guns, and they misfired.

We weren’t even able to build up any sort of momentum, because Wigan’s players showed bravery and technique to keep the ball expertly.  You won’t find many sides at the wrong end of the table willing to keep the ball on the ground and knock it around in the way they did last night.

Wigan’s recent form suggest they should have been clear of the relegation zone long before now.  Noises from inside the club have suggested that Martinez’s tactics were too perhaps too sophisticed for some of his players.  It seems as if he is finally getting the message across.  Hats off: I was mightily impressed.

Arsenal, meanwhile, have missed a massive opportunity.  The game against Chelsea takes on even bigger significance now – we need to bounce back all over again.

QPR 2 – 1 AFC: Back to Earth

Arsenal fans seem as furious about this defeat as any other in this topsy-turvy season.  Once again, the players are being branded as no-hopers and the manager as clueless.  It’s almost as if one result has caused a seven-game winning streak to evaporate.

The fact is that if you allow your performance level to drop, any team in this division can beat you.  Our performance on Saturday was not up to scratch – when we had the ball, we didn’t do enough with it, and when we didn’t have the ball we made simple defensive errors, with the normally reliable Thomas Vermaelen particularly culpable.

It’s a bad result, but we were going to lose eventually.  The uproar and vitriol I’ve witnessed in the aftermath of this game suggests that, as with the long unbeaten run prior to Christmas, the winning streak has created a disproportionate degree of expectation considering the limitations of this team.  A few months ago we were praying for fourth; now we’re furious that Spurs have closed in on third.

Just as many were too quick to write us off in the face for the Champions League back in September, so too were we too swiftly heralded as the Premier League’s ‘third-place elect’.  The road until the end of the season is long and winding, and there will be several more bumps between now and May.  Good: I for one find it exciting.  And, remembering the disaster that was last summer, am very glad just to be in the mix.

I’ve been fairly consistent in saying that we’d finish fourth this year.  Looking at the respective fixture lists of ourselves, Tottenham and Chelsea, I see no reason to revise my prediction.  As I’ve said several times, considering the problems we’ve faced this season – many of which have been self-inflicted, I’ll admit – that would resemble some achievement.  As much as I’m enjoying laughing at Liverpool, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to imagine that it could very easily have been us.

Of course, we should give it everything we have to finish third.  It’s still very much in our hands, and if we want to do it we need to avoid the complacency we displayed in the game at Loftus Road.  Some of the players seemed a little like they had begun to believe their own hype, whilst Robin van Persie is finally starting to look a little jaded – one can’t help but feel that earlier in the season he would have buried the one-on-one chance presented to him by Alex Song’s fine through-ball.  I was also a little bemused by the selection of Aaron Ramsey wide on the left – it was a ploy that had limited success at Everton, and seemed to backfire in a game where the attacking onus was with Arsenal.  Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has not started any of our last three games – a run I hope will end soon.

So it was a poor performance, and a poor result.  But it’s not the end of the world – nor, crucially, the end of our season.  Before the game I spoke of eight cup finals.  We lost the first won, but win the next against Man City and it will soon be forgotten.  Arsenal have plenty to play for, and I’m afraid slip-ups along the way are inevitable.  Don’t be fooled by unbeaten runs: this team are not the Invincibles.  They are, however, earning a reputation for being fairly unkillable: as soon as they’re written off, they find a way of coming back from the brink.  It’s a trait I can’t help but admire.

Swansea thoughts: Ramsey does too much and Theo doesn’t do enough

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I am not a fan of blaming referees for poor results…
…especially in a match like this, when Arsenal had ample time to get back in control of the game.  Slow-motion replays may have shown that Nathan Dyer was guilty of simulation, but in real-time it looked very much like a clumsy tackle.  When you become the first side to score twice at the Liberty Stadium this season and still conspire to lose, the signs suggest our major flaw was a familiar one: a feeble defence.

Still, I’d rather have Sagna back than a substandard signing…
Inevitably, there will be calls to strengthen the squad.  I understand why: Miquel and Djourou struggled at full-back against the pace of Dyer and Sinclair.  But with the likes of Sagna and Gibbs now just a few weeks away from returning to action, I’m just not sure if players of the requisite quality are available in this window.

If I thought Arsene could buy or loan a better reserve full-back than Djourou or Miquel, I’d be all for it.  But none of the names I’ve seen so far – Wayne Bridge, for example – meet that criteria.

Aaron Ramsey was suffering from acute Gerrard-itis…
I don’t doubt Aaron Ramsey’s work-rate.  I have more faith than most in his technical ability.  Where I do think he has plenty of room for improvement is on the mental side of the game.  That’s understandable: he is only just 21.  Unfortunately, after the departure of Cesc and with Wilshere’s injury, he has been a handed a huge responsibility as the main creative midfielder in our team.

Ramsey’s problem is that he tries to do too much.  I’ve always said he reminds me of a young Steven Gerrard, in part because they occasionally seem to share a desire to win games on their own.  Yesterday, on Welsh soil and with the crowd on his back, Ramsey’s head wasn’t quite right.  A footballer can try too hard.  Sometimes he would benefit from keeping his cool, and keeping it simple.  He will learn.

Theo Walcott has regressed in the last few weeks…
In the early part of the season, Walcott was one of our few commendable performers.  Since the win at Chelsea, however, his form has dropped off considerably.  His goal yesterday was his first since that game in October, and a rare moment of quality in another average performance.  I have never bought in to the claims that he is a “good finisher” – for every good goal there is a horrendous miss.  In his brief cameo yesterday, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain showed that he already has more awareness and technical ability.

Thierry Henry…
…impressed me on and off the pitch.  I thought he looked sharp and dynamic when he came on with half an hour to go.  Unfortunately, few of his team-mates seemed to be on the same wavelength.  Henry passed the ball with more speed and urgency than almost anyone else on the field – but often no-one had anticipated or made a run to match his vision.

As for him having words with an Arsenal fan who had booed his own team, I say that’s fair enough.  Robin might be the captain but Henry is probably the most obvious link between the fans and the players, and if he is prepared to take on that sort of responsibility then I’m all for it.