The most obvious tactical feature of Arsenal’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur was the difference in the roles played by the two wide players, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott.
Although on paper they were broadly playing in the same position on opposite sides of the pitch, Cazorla and Walcott could not be more different.
Cazorla is a technical, creative midfielder who enjoys receiving short passes to feet and sliding the ball between opposition defenders, while Walcott is an astonishingly quick player who enjoys darting in behind defenders.
This lopsidedness has been a regular feature of Arsenal’s play over the last couple of seasons, but it’s rarely been as effective as it was against Spurs.
Although there were other players involved in some of Arsenal’s best moves - Olivier Giroud was a constant threat in behind, and Tomas Rosicky played some excellent passes - there was a constant theme. Cazorla would move inside to become a fourth central midfielder, and Walcott would run in behind to exploit the space behind Tottenham’s high defensive line. Three times, Cazorla sent clever through balls into Walcott’s path.
As the average position diagram from the Tottenham game demonstrates, Cazorla is playing on roughly the same line as Rosicky, Arsenal’s central attacking midfielder, while Walcott has essentially becomes a second forward, playing in advance of Giroud.
Despite both starting wide, neither player is a true winger. Cazorla is a creative midfielder who starts in a wide position. “It’s not a question of playing wide,” says the Spaniard. “I like to get involved in the middle, to receive the ball and the boss lets me do it, so because of that, it doesn’t matter whether I’m positioned on the wing or in the centre.”
Walcott, meanwhile, considers himself a forward - and while Giroud’s great goalscoring form means he seems set to continue on the right, his movements in behind the defence are often reminiscent of a pacy forward rather than a wide midfielder.
No side played more through-balls than Arsenal in the 2012/13 Premier League, and Cazorla was the main man responsible - he played 30 accurate through-balls last season, 13 more than his nearest challenger, Manchester City’s David Silva.
Of course, the day after the Tottenham victory came the news that Arsenal will be signing the German playmaker Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid, for a club record fee. Ozil is also something of a through-ball specialist and, while he starts in central positions, he often likes drifting to the left, from where he’ll expect to combine with Cazorla regularly.
Ozil’s preference for using his left foot should also help him angle balls in behind the defence to Walcott - only Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Angel Di Maria played more through-balls in La Liga last season, and no-one has picked up more assists in Europe over the past five years.
The most frequent beneficiary of Ozil’s assists at Real Madrid was, somewhat inevitably, Cristiano Ronaldo - and in Walcott, Arsenal have a player who also starts high up against the opposition defence in a wide position.
Indeed, with Jack Wilshere shuttling forward from a left-sided central midfield role, Arsenal have a variety of players on that side of the pitch capable of threading passes through to Walcott. The Wilshere-Walcott combination has worked well at both club and international level, and has been apparent ever since Wishere laid on a tremendous assist for Walcott against Shakhtar in 2010/11.
“With Jack being left-footed, it’s a nice balance to have,” said Walcott at the time. “For the Shakhtar goal it was the perfect ball into space - it remains me of when I was younger, my team-mates would kick it behind the defence and I’d run onto it and score. It’s not that simple any more, but if you’re quick they’re the sort of passes you die for.”
Now, with Wilshere, Ozil and Cazorla all congregating towards that inside-left channel, and Walcott darting in behind from the opposite side, Arsenal’s No 14 has an ideal setting to continue last season’s excellent goalscoring form.
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