Arsenal disappointingly drew 0-0 to Middlesbrough. Tactically this was as straightforward a match as you can get but Aitor Karanka deserves credit for how he set his side out. In their 2-1 defeat earlier this season to Spurs he played a 4-4-1-1 with Gaston Ramirez just off of Alvaro Negredo and defended in blocks of four. They were overwhelmed in midfield on that day. Yesterday he played with three central midfielders in a 4-5-1 with Ramirez and the ultra-pacey Adama Traore on the wings. They defended with a deep midfield five in front of the back four. The three central midfielders- Adam Forshaw, Adam Clayton and Marten de Roon, crowded the center of the pitch and made it extremely difficult for us to do our quick passing combinations that have successfully unlocked defenses during our run of nine consecutive wins. Ramirez and Traore would break beyond our advanced fullbacks when Boro won the ball back and posed a serious threat on the break. Boro had the better chances and it was only fine goalkeeping from Cech that kept Boro from picking up all three points.
Wenger never deviates from a back four but this may have been the perfect game to play a back three. We often have issues breaking down teams defending deep. We’ll dominate possession high up the pitch in the opposition half and look to unlock them with quick combinations. We’ll play with all but our two center backs within 35 yards of the opposition goal. This leaves us vulnerable on the counter when the opposition wins the ball back. Our two center backs are left with a lot of 1 v. 1 defending to do slow up counters.
Middlesbrough’s approach from the outset was obvious. They defended with a midfield bank of five in front of the back four then looked to break quickly into the space behind our advanced fullbacks through Ramirez and especially Traore. This forced Koscielny and Mustafi to defend the channels when Boro won possession back and looked to break quickly by hitting it over the top to the channels. Even Koscielny, one of the quickest center backs in the game, was no match for Traore’s speed. The ex Barca winger burst past Koscielny after nicking possession from him in the 20th minute and was clean through on goal but Cech closed down the angle and saved his shot. It was an early warning sign that we didn’t heed. Boro continued to pose a threat through Traore. In the 58th minute Ozil gave away possession cheaply allowing Traore to break forward again. On this occasion he blew past both Coquelin and Koscielny but his effort was again saved by Cech.
Had we gone to a back three by keeping Monreal deeper as the left sided center back alongside Koscielny and Mustafi (I’d probably play Kos as the right-sided center back since his pace makes him slightly more suited to defend the channels than Mustafi with Mustafi as the center of the three) the two outside center backs would have had the channels covered so that Boro wouldn’t be able to hit early long balls into empty space down the wings for Traore . We could have played Bellerin as a right wing back and introduced Ox for Iwobi and played him as a left wing back. This would have provided attacking width high up the pitch. Figure 1 shows the danger area in the channels that was coming from us playing a back four. Figure 2 shows a back three with Koscielny and Monreal in positions to cut out any long passes to the channels Boro would attempt to play.
Admittedly we should have had enough to beat a team with one point from its last five matches at home without needing to change the defensive structure. Higher up the pitch we just couldn’t find a way to unlock a very crowded, deep defense. The two screen shots below show Boro’s block of five in front of a block of four and very little space between the lines for the likes of Sanchez and Ozil to get into.
This may have been a game where Giroud could have done some good. Without an aerial threat to attack crosses in the box, Middlesbrough knew that when we got the ball wide we would ultimately circulate possession back to the middle. We continued to play square passes just outside the penalty box looking for an opportunity to play a more penetrating series of combination passes. That opportunity never really came. It looked like a training session of defense versus attack. There’s certainly nothing wrong with patiently keeping possession and waiting for the defense to slip up and lose their positioning and I’m not suggesting we should just be lumping balls into the box from the wings. But occasionally it would be nice to be able to have the option of crossing to give the defense something else to think about.
This was an opportunity missed to take sole possession of first place after Spurs and Manchester City could also only manage draws. The most frustrating bit for a fan is having to read the endless stories about “familiar failings” and whether we’re missing something mentally from our game that causes us to falter when opportunities come our way. I don’t buy that- I think it’s football related. We have difficulties breaking down deep, compact defenses and typically those sides cause us real problems on the break because we’re playing so high up the pitch.
I also think Cazorla proved to be a massive miss. Both Coquelin and Elneny are fine players but their biggest attributes are their energy and defensive contribution. Neither have Santi’s excellent feet in tight areas and ability to pick out a forward pass to break down the opposition lines. Without him we looked slower in possession than we have in recent weeks.
Finally it’s worth mentioning how big Cech came up for us. After Ospina’s excellent first half performance against Ludogorets in the Champions League Wednesday I wondered if maybe he wasn’t the better option. He’s quicker off his line and Cech is pretty terrible with his feet. But Cech showed what an immense shot stopper he is. His saves from Traore’s breakaway and Ramirez’s header at the back post certainly saved us a point.