By Michael Cox
There’s a standard strategy when playing against 10 men - whatever your formation, regardless of your general playing style, you make the pitch as big as possible by playing with great width.
The 10 men are stretched out of shape, and the greater distance they’re forced to cover, the more their numerical disadvantage becomes obvious.
Arsenal did this excellently against Tottenham on Saturday afternoon, turning a 0-1 deficit into a 5-2 win thanks to fine work on the flanks.
Arsène Wenger’s sides have always played with some degree of width - he’s never experimented with a diamond midfield, for example - but often Arsenal’s wide midfielders have drifted inside into central positions.
In the corresponding fixture six years ago, for example, Freddie Ljungberg and Tomas Rosicky were the wide men - the former tended to charge into the penalty box into goalscoring positions, while Rosicky roamed into central, creative zones. Back then, stretching the play would have been more difficult.
On Saturday, the two players in the equivalent positions were Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski. They’re much quicker, direct runners with and without the ball - and although both are capable of playing up front, they still remain close to the touchlines when deployed wide.
By encouraging the opposition defence to play wider, gaps between defenders open up, allowing Arsenal’s creative players opportunities to play through-balls.
In other words, they weren’t simply stretching play for the sake of it, they were doing so to get into crossing positions - which isn’t a typical feature of Arsenal’s play. Per Mertesacker headed the opener from a fine Walcott cross, then shortly afterwards Olivier Giroud had a good chance from Bacary Sagna’s delivery.
Two further goals, scored by Giroud and Cazorla, came following low centres from wide positions. Crossing isn’t a consistently successful approach only five of the attempted 24 were successful on Saturday afternoon (which is not unusual: cross completion rates are generally at the 20-25 per cent mark), but three resulted in goals, justifying the strategy.
CHALKBOARD - ARSENAL ASSISTS
It was particularly interesting that so many crosses came from Arsenal’s right against Tottenham.
There were a couple of reasons for the bias towards that flank. First, with Sagna at right back and Thomas Vermaelen at left back, it’s clear the Frenchman is a more natural attacker, and more accustomed to skipping down the line and centring the ball.
The heatmaps show he galloped into the final third more regularly than Arsenal’s captain, who played a more reserved role on the left.
SAGNA - HEATMAP
VERMAELEN - HEATMAP
Equally crucial was the positioning of Cazorla. Although he took up varied positions throughout the first half, he increasingly moved towards the right-hand side after Emmanuel Adebayor’s red card, creating three-against-two situations with Walcott and Sagna.
For the second half, he was permanently positioned to the right, from where he scored the fourth goal.
CAZORLA - FIRST HALF
CAZORLA - SECOND HALF
Because of the greater attacking possibilities down that side, Arsenal’s orchestrator Arteta directed play to that side constantly from deep midfield positions.
ARTETA - PASSING (green - successful)
This approach unquestionably favours Giroud. Of his seven Arsenal goals, only his debut strike against Coventry in the Capital One Cup was assisted with a vertical pass, rather than a cross or pass from a wide position.
The Frenchman thrives on deliveries from wide, and Arsenal are well-equipped to provide him with his favoured service.Copyright 2015 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source