Goals: Gaston Ramirez (34) Do Prado (41, own goal)
Arsenal Line-Up (4-3-3). Szczesny (GK), Sagna (RB), Vermaalen (CB), Koscielny (CB), Gibbs (LB), Wilshere (CM) Arteta (CM), Cazorla (CM), Podolski (LF), Oxlade-Chamberlain (RF), Walcott (CF).
Arsenal dropped two points at relegation threatened Southampton after a dismal performance which will hopefully convince Arsene Wenger that he needs to bring proper reinforcements to shore up his mediocre squad in the January transfer window.
Southampton press hard in the center and isolate Walcott
Arsene Wenger clearly must have thought that this was yet another game (fourth in a row?!) where Walcott’s pace was more preferable to Giroud’s physical strength and more traditional centerforward play. The Southampton manager Nigel Adkins, however, had other ideas. The home side excellently neutralized Arsenal’s game plan with a ferocious high tempo press in the center.
What Arsenal try to achieve with Walcott as the central striker is simple: If the opposition holds a high line, Walcott exploits this by running behind them. If, due to his threat of pace, the opposition centerbacks defend deep, then the midfield area is stretched, and Arsenal’s ball playing midfielders Wilshere and Cazorla have more space to work with.
As a counter measure, Southampton created a mobile and highly energetic pressing screen that matched Arteta with Gaston Ramirez, Wilshere with Davis and Cazorla by Schneiderlin in the center. Furthermore, their wide midfielders cut off the out ball to Arsenal full backs Gibbs and Sagna. This relentless press (somewhat similar to Arsenal’s away game at Aston Villa) crippled Arsenal’s ability to bring the ball to the final third. Ironically, Arsenal’s intention to use Walcott to stretch the game undid their own attacking ability: the physical and high tempo game of the home side meant that the Arsenal midfield trio Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla lacked the physicality and energy to control that “stretched center”. Walcott not dropping back to get involved in midfield play did not help and left the distance between Arsenal defensive line and forward too big. For the third game in a row (like Wigan and Newcastle games), Arsenal conceded the midfield battle.
The Southampton pressing in the center during the first half had three implications. First, it forced Arsenal wide to send in ineffective crosses that Walcott can not do much about (crosses came in almost exclusively from their right–see diagram). Second, it completely isolated Walcott who prefers to stay high up the pitch (see diagram below).
The third implication of Southampton pressing was almost farcical as Arsenal are renowned for the quality of their passing game. Against Southampton, Arsenal attempted a record number of dribblings (take-ons). In other words, facing Southampton’s press, they basically gave up passing their way through, and opted for trying to dribble their way through (see diagram below). It is hard to say they were succesful (13 out of 31).
Overall, the above pictures explain why it took Arsenal more than an hour to register their first shot on target (they scored from a gift of an own goal when Walcott’s set piece was turned in at the near post by Do Prado), why they completed the game with only one shot on target and why their most creative player Cazorla could not make a single key pass to create a single chance.
This game was an excellent illustration of why most observers (including myself) kept their deepest doubts about Walcott playing as a central striker on a regular basis, despite the goals he scored in the last 3 games. Here was an away game against energetic and high tempo opponents where Arsenal needed a powerful and tenacious traditional centerforward, one who can drop deep to help his team to break the press, who can chase random long balls played under pressure, who can use his body to draw fouls to relieve pressure, who can be a pivot to bring midfielders into attacking positions, who can attack crosses, etc. Yet, Arsene Wenger sent in Giroud only in the 58th minute and continued with Walcott experiment, probably hoping that Southampton are tactically inept to neutralize Walcott.
Bacary Sagna’s Terrible Form
It is not clear whether this has something to do with the extension of his current deal with Arsenal, but for a right back famous for the shift he puts in and the consistency he displays, Bacary Sagna’s bad form is seriously hurting the team. Against Newcastle all the three Newcastle goals came from his side and he made a mediocre winger like Obertan look good. Today, he was again at fault for the goal, as his clearance went straight back to the danger zone for Gaston Ramirez to finish. Not only that, the French right back looked completely lost even doing some of the basic things like controlling a ball under no pressure. It might be a good idea if Arsene Wenger gives more chances to Carl Jenkinson who was playing quite well until Sagna got back from his injury.
Defensive Burden Wilshere Imposes on Arteta
Jack Wilshere is seen by many as the future of Arsenal and England, but his game currently lacks positional discipline in the defensive department. More than often, the young midfielder decides to grab the game by its neck (which is a good thing, every team needs its hero) and ends up exposing Arteta. Not only he sometimes switches off completely and does not track opposition midfielders (see the second Newcastle goal last Saturday), he also regularly fails to display a basic understanding of when to press and when to stand off. In that sense, Wilshere is somewhat similar to Vermaalen with his impulsiveness and lack of positional instinct. The end result is that, like it was the case against Southampton, Arsenal midfield looks too open and the opposition bypasses the midfield cover without breaking any sweat. One tackle and one interception Wilshere produced against Southampton is hardly enough defensive work.
Podolski had a great game against Newcastle, being involved in all the four goals until he was substituted. Yet, as it has been so frequent in the season, he completely disappeared against Southampton. The chart below speaks for itself.
Lack of Options from the Bench
With the game tied at 1-1 and Arsenal not showing any sign or ability of taking the game to Southampton, Wenger took off Cazorla and Podolski and sent in Ramsey and Gervinho. The Ivorian again made sure that not a single Arsenal fan will miss him when he is off to African Cup of Nations in two weeks time. Ramsey, on the other hand, despite not deserving most of the abuse and criticism he gets (I think he should have started today as Arsenal needed his energy in the center) is hardly a goal scorerer (1 goal in 35 games). It is imperative that Arsenal improve their options from the bench in the transfer window, and also start thinking using Rosicky more frequently to keep Cazorla fresh, as the Spaniard had his worst game in the season so far today against Southampton.