Arsenal have surprised many with their efficiency so far this season, taking an early position at the top of the Premier League table and their Champions League group.
Their dismantling of Napoli in midweek, however, was a performance which harked back to the days when the likes of Bergkamp, Henry and Pires graced the pitch in Arsenal's red and white, with a 15 minute attacking blitz enough to stun their Italian opponents into submission.
The game was unerringly controlled by a majestic Arsenal team, who allowed Napoli only one (fairly tame) shot on target all night. It was unusual, as an Arsenal fan, to witness the team defend a lead for 75 minutes, yet not once feel like the result was in doubt. It was Arsenal's most comfortable win of the season, yet it was against this campaign's toughest opponent yet - so what was different?
Arsene Wenger lined up with a changed formation, forced upon him by the resources available after injuries deprived him of all of his senior wide options. Arsenal are normally set up to play with a striker flanked by two wingers, supported by a 'number 10' and a box-to-box midfielder (the position in which Aaron Ramsey is setting the league alight this year). However, with Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out injured, the manager had to pick from a teamsheet deprived of wingers, but exceptionally well stocked in attacking midfielders.
The line up was announced as consisting of an attacking midfield triumvirate of Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky, and Mesut Ozil, behind Olivier Giroud. The immediate concern of fans would have been a possible lack of width, against a team notorious for it's exploitation of the wide areas. These concerns were swiftly put to bed with a display of slick 'total football' in which the three players glided around the pitch, confounding Napoli's defenders, all the while retaining a seemingly telepathic awareness of each other's positions.
The effectiveness of this combination was evident in Arsenal's first goal of the night, as Olivier Giroud popped up on the right touchline after receiving a high ball, and slipped it to the overlapping Ramsey who ran it to the touchline. Meanwhile, Rosicky had assumed Giroud's centre-forward position, sprinting into the six-yard box and taking the entire Napoli defence with him in anticipation of Ramsey's cross. The Welshman surprised defenders and spectators alike as he sweeped his cross into the huge space vacated by Rosicky's run, where Ozil had perfectly timed his run to meet the ball first time and caress it past the flailing Pepe Reina's outstretched arms into the goal.
It was a move which demonstrated the added dimension of having three technically minded players on the field at the same time. Walcott and Chamberlain are players of merit in other aspects of play, but it is hard to imagine the 19 year old Englishman having the nous and awareness to take defenders away with such a driving run; and the finish executed by Ozil could not have been performed by another player in Arsenal's ranks, such was its quality.
These slick interchanges, overlaps and sweeping counters were the theme of the night for the Gunners - and had there been more urgency to increase the scoreline, more care would have been taken in finishing, resulting in the embarrassment of a team which sits second in Serie A. The defensive aspect of the new formation, however, played just as important a role in shutting down the game in the second half and seeing out the result. The pairing of Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta seems to have been a stroke of genius on the manager's part, and looks to be a partnership which could form the base of a title chase.
Both players are defensive midfielders, yet each possess an entirely different style which complemented the other perfectly in shielding Arsenal's back four. Flamini's all-action, cynical, borderline savage style of breaking up play and flying into tackles with unmatched gusto juxtaposes with Arteta's flawless reading of the game, technically excellent standing tackle and silky pass. The result is that the two don't get in each other's way, and effectively eliminate any type of danger they are faced with. Arteta's passing ability also means there is no void or missing link between Arsenal's six defensive players and their ever-rotating carousel of four forwards.
Through sheer bad luck on the injury front, it appears that Arsene Wenger may have found a formation which is ideally suited to the squad at his disposal. The beauty of this 4-2-3-1 set up is that Arsenal are not only exceptionally well stocked in attacking-midfield areas, but have, in Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, players that can occupy both the more advanced and the deeper midfield slots. The impending return of Santi Cazorla opens up the exciting prospect of seeing him in tandem with Ozil and the on-fire Ramsey, with two of the best substitutes in the league in Wilshere and Rosicky to come on when needed.
Aside from the fortuitous circumstance of possessing the players to carry out this formation, Tuesday's display shows that it may genuinely provide a superior alternative to the 4-3-3 where wingers can go missing for large periods of the game. The fact is, three roaming players are much harder to mark out of a game than two static wingers, meaning that the team will carry no passengers and more chances will be created.
Looking forward (based on the admittedly unsubstantial evidence of only one game, viewed from the biased, amateur fan's perspective) the perseverance of the manager with this adjusted formation may just be a key factor in deciding Arsenal's chances of silverware. Clearly a lot rests on other factors, such as the fitness and availability of Olivier Giroud; but the new set up could maximise the efficiency of Arsenal's resources as they stake their claim to rejoining Europe's elite once more.
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