Arsenal v. Napoli: Analysing the New Midfield at the Emirates

by Karthik Sastry

Arsenal celebrating Ozil’s goal

When asked about the last time he had seen his Arsenal side as well as they did in last Tuesday’s comfortable 2-0 victory over an on-form Napoli, manager Arsene Wenger could only draw a comparison with his club’s dramatic 2-1 triumph over Barcelona at the Emirates in February 2011. Tactically, the parallel is interesting. At that time the undisputed conductor of the Gunners’ attack was the now-departed Cesc Fabregas, who excelled at finding small openings in the middle of the pitch. Wenger selected his team to suit this centrally-focused approach; by the end of 90 minutes, he was playing in front of the talismanic Spaniard three forwards (Andrey Arshavin, Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner) all most comfortable playing through the middle. Unfortunately, the strategy had an obvious counter, successfully implemented by opposition large and small: to defend narrow and deep before attacking wide areas quickly on the break.

On first glance, Wenger’s team-sheet for the European clash suggested a return to the old “pack-the-middle” mentality, with central midfielders (Mikel Arteta, Matthieu Flamini, Tomas Rosicky, Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey) substituting for central strikers. But the game itself developed rather differently. Arsenal did play controlled, passing football, but the goals came from incisive and quick moves on the flank.

The outcome was not a turn of fortune, but rather a testament to the flexible movement of Wenger’s attackers. Instrumental in this regard was new addition Mesut Ozil. The German playmaker knows quite a bit about managing constriction in the middle of the pitch—at Real Madrid, he was most often flanked by Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria, both of whom like to cut in on their preferred foot. Ozil would respond to the wingers’ movement by drifting to the vacated flanks to provide another outlet and, in many cases, drag holding midfielders woefully out of position.

Ozil’s Heat Map (goal on the right): Ozil did a lot of his work on the right

That experience rotating to the flank was on full display Tuesday night at the Emirates. Early in the match it became clear that Napoli’s defense weakness would be on their left, where full-back Juan Zuniga seemed out of sorts and young forward Lorenzo Insigne unwilling to offer assistance.  Ozil repeatedly slipped away from Napoli’s midfield anchors Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler to overload that side of the pitch; 48 of the 79 balls he received were in the right third of the pitch. He stayed on the flank, too—one might be fooled looking at a heat map of Ozil’s location when he attempted each of 75 passes into thinking he started as a right winger.

Ozil’s passes received, with the ball setting up his volleyed goal in yellow
Ozil’s passes received, with the ball setting up his volleyed goal in yellow

The effort would have been in vain, though, if not for the thoughtful adjustments of teammate Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman, more accustomed to playing in the middle but on the day fielded on the wing, tended to tuck into a central-deep position during slower phases of the game when Ozil moved outward. The rotation was not quite the same as that of 2012-2013 Madrid (with Ronaldo and Di Maria moving into the box) or the old, Fabregas-based Arsenal (with wingers crowding the edge) but the overall effect worked well—the overloads in the first half caught Napoli off-guard for each of the two goals and the additional control afforded by Ramsey’s inward movement allowed Arsenal to see out the second half comfortably.

Ramsey’s Heat Map (goal on the right), Ramsey displayed lots of flexibility and movement
Ramsey’s Heat Map (goal on the right), Ramsey displayed lots of flexibility and movement


An unexpected dilemma

Looking forward, the success of this starting XI offers an interesting, though perhaps welcome, selection headache for Wenger. Ramsey is currently on too good form to drop, and his strong interplay with Ozil suggests the flank may be his best place at the moment. Incisive passer Santi Cazorla, due back this week, could easily substitute directly for Tomas Rosicky to complete a rather creative troika behind the main striker. Much like Ozil, Cazorla likes to drift into wide areas when playing centrally and vice-versa when on the flank (most notably during his spell playing on the left of a 4-2-2-2 at Villareal). If he coordinates his movement well with the German, their partnership could be very strong.

The losers in this arrangement might be Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski, both of whom enjoyed a great amount of minutes in the previous season. For tricky away fixtures or as a solid “plan B” at the Emirates, their more direct style might be a necessary balance to the playmakers’ deliberate build-up. But if the short-passing machine can run so smoothly against top-tier opposition, both wingers might find themselves without a starting place in what is shaping up to be, at least in the early stages, the most refined attack fielded by Arsenal since their Premier League triumph in 2003-04.
Ozil’s calm side-footed shot into the net

[Data was taken from FourFourTwo’s StatZone app, which is a front-end for Opta positional data.]

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