26 November 2015

Dinamo offer Arsenal a template for blitzing opponents...

On the back of a 3-0 win we sorely needed, if only to resurrect some confidence, it's well worth noticing some take-aways that should prove useful going forward. We have on paper a softer string of fixtures coming—at Norwich, Sunderland, at Olympiacos, and at Aston Villa—and this should offer us a chance to rest a few key players here and there while practicing an approach that delivered such dynamic results against Dinamo Zagreb, namely counter-attacking football and high pressing. Over the years, we've grown accustomed to Arsenal dominating possession but to little effect, nibbling around the edges of an opponent's area. Against Dinamo on Tuesday, as against other, "superior" opponents, we saw a cagier, more-lethal Arsenal attack.

For the first goal, we absorbed a bit of pressure from a Dinamo team that needed to find an early
opener. However, a series of tackles opened up a chance to hit them on the counter, and Giroud and Özil, who had each kept possession with little taps, surged forward while Flamini thrust the ball forward to Alexis on the left wing. Dinamo's defenders did their best to get back, but Giroud's dragging run pulled one if not two defenders out of position, creating space for Özil to run in behind to head home Alexis's cross. A moment of panic as one wondered whether Özil would get clattered by Eduardo was assuaged as Özil avoided injury and put Arsenal ahead 1-0.

Just a few minutes later, an aggressive high press earned us the second Cazorla collected one clearance and then Monreal intercepted a second one just outside of Dinamo's area and charged right back through the heart of that self-same area to find Alexis, who made no mistake in one-touching it home. Up 2-0, there was little chance if any that Dinamo could reel us in. In fact, their attempts at doing so opened the game up for us to carve out even more chances.

It would be Özil who would benefit from Dinamo's more-desperate forward forays, as he found two if three chances at scoring again before halftime only to be denied by Eduardo.

As enjoyable as all of this was in the moment, it does prompt certain key-questions: why don't we absorb pressure and hit harder on counters more often? After all, it arguably plays to our strengths (pace on the wings from Alexis and Theo, vision from Özil...) and minimizes our weaknesses (getting hit on counters and set-pieces...). While we shouldn't mistake Dinamo Zagreb for Manchester City, there are lessons to be drawn all the same.

What point is there to dominating possession, after all, if that statistic only opens us up to getting hit hard, once, on a counter? How often have we dominated possession to no purpose and the suffered the embarrassment of seeing an opponent lash out once, scoring on a counter or from an ensuing set-piece? It would make far-more sense for us to sit back just a little, luring opponents forward, and then hitting them as we hit Dinamo.

While we can't quite count on Man City or Man U to show the same naïveté as Dinamo, there's something in this result that we should build on. Hitting hard on the counter, as we did against Dinamo, opens up the game. Without bragging, it's safe to admit that we're superior to most of our opponents, at least on paper. Where we frequently suffer is on the pitch, largely because we seek to dominate possession. The Stokes and West Broms of the Prem can simply pack the box, hoof it forward, and hope for the best.

If we sit back rather than pinning back our opponents, we can create one or two gilt-edged chances, much as we did on Tuesday, Score once in the first half, and even the most-stubborn of squads will be drawn out in search of an equalizer. It's then that we can unleash a typical Arsenal goal, with Campbell sending a sharply angled pass into the area for Alexis to run onto and beat the keeper on a tight one-touch, cutting his shot against the grain of his run (with Monreal waiting to clean up, just in case...).

Fault Arsène for any number of other failings, most of them financial, but fault him foremost for our lack of tactical nous. The playbook against Arsenal has become the stuff of stereotype: sit back and defend in numbers, play physically, and hit on counters. All too often, we play into our opponents' hands, dominating possession (incurring all sorts of ticky-tacky fouls in the process, many of them uncalled) to little avail, and exposing ourselves to counters because our wide defenders have committed too far forward to get back into position.

Against our next two opponents, we should seize a chance at putting the Dinamo dynamic into practice. Against Olympiacos, who are likely to park the bus in manner likely to bring a tear to Mourinho's eye, we may have to explore other approaches. Still, there's enough in this suggestion to be worth a meditation...