Tactics truck: Why Alexis, Giroud & Welbeck works so well

GiroudWelbeck

That might have been Arsenal’s best performance of the season thus far. Scoring four times against a team who had conceded just two goals in their previous seven games is not to sniffed at. It’s somewhat ironic that a cobbled-together XI managed to put together our most fluent 90 minutes of 2014/15.

Key to that fluency was the attacking trio of Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck. They started in tandem at the Hawthorns at the back end of November, but despite encouraging signs were split up for the subsequent games against Southampton and Stoke. I hope Arsene Wenger sees fit to stick with them now: they appear to be a potent combination.

There’s a lot to like about the way the three strikers combine. Few forwards offer quite as much defensively as Alexis and Welbeck, who work tirelessly to protect their full-back. Both players also have the technical skill and tactical intelligence to join up with Arsenal’s approach play when required.

Giroud was outstanding on Saturday, and it’s surely no coincidence that he looks more of an asset when complemented by attackers with speed and dribbling ability. However, he deserves a measure of credit for being prepared to adapt his game. Against Newcastle, he regularly drifted in to wide areas to allow Alexis and Welbeck spells in the middle.

His Squawka heat map demonstrates that he was willing to work the channels, particularly on the right, when required. He may be the team’s focal point, but he is determined not to weigh down a mobile attack by becoming an immobile anchor.

There’s a growing camaraderie there, too. These players seem to have embraced the challenge of competition, and are working hard to discover a way to play together. Giroud is not affronted by Welbeck’s presence, and Welbeck in turn has not piped up about being ousted to the flank. Alexis meanwhile, just wants to play anywhere with anyone.

However, what I like most of all is that fielding this front three almost guarantees that Arsenal have a bigger presence in the penalty area. Last season, crosses would flash across a box occupied primarily by opposition defenders. If it wasn’t within Giroud’s reach, it would generally be cleared without danger: No longer: Welbeck and Sanchez both have the stamina and the willingness to get in the box to join Giroud on a regular basis.

That much was evident from our winning goal at West Brom. When Santi Cazorla sprinted to the byline, Giroud’s mere presence at the near post was enough to attract a defender out of the centre, granting Welbeck the space to charge in and score.

Since then, the interchanging movement has only become more sophisticated. The opening goal against Newcastle was a perfect example: when Alexis crossed from the right, Welbeck and Giroud engaged in criss-crossing diagonal runs, the Englishman darting from far post to near and his French counterpart moving in the opposite direction. Their markers were baffled, and Giroud was able to climb high to score.

Our third goal came from another cross from the right. This time, Giroud made his preferred darting run to the dear post. Beyond him, Welbeck sprinted towards goal before pulling back in to space around the penalty spot — a classic Thierry Henry strategy. His positioning created doubt in the mind of Fabricio Colocccini, and allowed Giroud to nip in to score.

Arsenal’s improved penalty box presence has another benefit at the other end of the pitch: having the height of both Welbeck and Giroud in our area does offer a measure of insurance at set-pieces.

Arsenal looked as impressive going forward against Newcastle as they have done all season, and for once it wasn’t solely down to the individual brilliance of Alexis Sanchez. This new front three is already working. Let’s give it the time it needs to get even better.

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ps. Thanks to Arsenalist for the goal clips for me to deface, and sorry for reminding everyone of the horrors of Andy Townsend’s Tactics truc.

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.