Cardiff’s final fixture in a punishing home November schedule sees Arsenal come to visit. The league leaders are in great form, both at home and in Europe – of their five matches so far in November, they have won four with clean sheets, the most impressive result being a 1-0 win away to Champions League finalists, Borussia Dortmund.
Arsenal are one of the Premier League’s most attractive sides and Wenger has used a 4-2-3-1 this season, with the holding midfielders (two of Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere and Ramsey) playing in a double pivot and the attacking midfielders (three of Cazorla, Ozil, Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky and Walcott) interchanging their positions behind Giroud. They lined up against Southampton last weekend like this:
Versatility in the midfield
The outstanding feature of Arsenal’s midfield is the versatility. Players like Wilshere and Ramsey have filled in all over the midfield as the season has progressed (a little more on the former bluebird’s best position later on), and the addition of Ozil in the late summer has only aided this. He has been described by Zonal Marking as one of the new breed of central winger, a player who is not the traditional number 10 in the hole behind a striker but one who moves from the centre to a flank in order to find space horizontally and vertically (of course no players only move in one direction, but even a winger who cuts inside mainly plays vertically).
In recent matches, he has been more restricted to one part of the pitch. Heat maps from the 3-1 win over Stoke (top) in September, where Ozil was magnificent and set up all the goals, and the 2-0 win over Southampton (bottom) are shown below. Against Stoke, Ozil was the main creative player due to the absence of the likes of Cazorla, Walcott and Rosicky and he was heavily involved centrally. Against Southampton, the creative burden was shared and he stayed more on the right (until the later substitutions).
Cazorla is another player that central winger could be applied to, while Walcott gives his better performances on the right wing (even if he would rather play centrally). Walcott’s introduction against Southampton on to the right wing, the beginning of his return to the team following a lengthy injury, caused a ripple of changes that really underlined Arsenal’s versatility. Wilshere moved from the right into Arteta’s holder/pivot role, Cazorla moved from the left into the central number 10 position, Ramsey dropped back a little and Ozil moved over to Cazorla’s left sided spot (Ozil later replaced by Monreal on the left flank, a more defensive player). The return of Walcott will also ease the burden on Arsenal’s fullbacks to create width – this has been one of the downsides of Arsenal using central players in wide positions, although Sagna’s crossing this season has been very good.
For all of Arsenal’s eyegrabbing talent, it is Ramsey who has taken the most headlines. Only Yaya Toure has had more touches of the ball or made more passes than Ramsey this season and, unlike Toure, he is in the top five midfielders for most passes in the opposition final third and most through balls. On the defensive side, he has won considerably more tackles than any other midfielder and is in the top five for most loose ball recoveries. Finally, only two midfielders have made more assists and he is the top goalscoring midfielder. The stats are impressive and support what can be seen by any observer – Ramsey is fulfilling his potential in a startling way.
He has played his best football of the season in the double pivot alongside Arteta. Although Arteta is not the best player to be left in front of the defence when Ramsey attacks, in general this has worked very well. Ramsey’s impact on matches has certainly dropped off when asked to play on the right rather than a central pivot and he will face a battle from Flamini and Wilshere, as well as Arteta, to be given this role. Flamini and Ramsey both played 90 minutes midweek against Marseille, Wilshere scored twice before being withdrawn and Arteta played for only 10 minutes – could this be an indicator that Ramsey will be rested on his return to Cardiff?
Replacing the club legend Robin van Persie, Giroud’s second season at Arsenal has started well. Unusually for a lone striker in the Premier League who will expect to only see glimpses of the ball, Giroud tends to receive it often – Rooney is the only forward who has had more touches of the ball in the opposition half this season and he is not the focal point of Man Utd’s attack but a player who frequently comes deep. Giroud’s job has been a combination of not only getting involved at the end of the move with a strike at goal (and he has had more than any other forward) but also as very much part of the buildup. One thing he lacks is a goal from long range- Cardiff will try to keep Giroud outside the box, despite his willingness to press.
The screenshot below shows how Arsenal push up to restrict the opposition’s options when the ball is in defence. Boruc, in the Southampton goal, has received a backpass from Clyne and elects to look for a short pass. Even before he has controlled the ball, Arsenal already have players close to the defenders, with Giroud preparing to pressurise the goalkeeper. The only option left to Boruc is to clear the ball up the field.
Unfortunately for Boruc, he doesn’t take this option and repeatedly attempts to dummy Giroud while looking for the short pass. In what will surely be the goalkeeping blooper of the season, Boruc eventually spins so much he loses the ball and Giroud can tap it in for the opening goal.
Cardiff conceded the opening goal to Man Utd in a similar but more understated fashion, with Hernandez pressurising Turner into a loose pass. Arsenal will seek to stop the short passes amongst the defence, whether from the goalkeeper or a centreback, and force Cardiff to play it long. Although this gives Arsenal a good chance of regaining possession, it will happen in a far less dangerous area of the pitch. This match turned on this incident, as Southampton were never able to claw a goal back.
Dealing with Arsenal
Cardiff will need to restrict the space that Arsenal have and that can be done by pulling the midfield back towards the defence – something Cardiff have done often this season, although not against champions Man Utd last weekend. If the two wide midfielders drop back with Medel and Whittingham in front of the back four, it will leave the attacking midfielder (on recent performances, Mutch) and the forward (possibly Cornelius, if given an unlikely start) responsibility to threaten Arsenal on the rare occasions that they have the ball. Campbell is quicker than Cornelius and did a surprisingly good job of bringing teammates into play last weekend, but this Arsenal side (Mertesacker excepted) is much faster than Man Utd so balls played into space will have to be very accurate. The alternative to quickly move defence into attack is to play a higher ball, which will suit Cornelius better as a forward but not Mutch; despite his height, his aerial dominance is poor and he won just one out of eight in the air last weekend.
With the counterattacking game looking unlikely to pay off against a pacey Arsenal side, Cardiff may again be relying on set pieces to get attempts on goal.
Graphics provided by: