Arsenal 3-1 Fulham: Midfield Shape Crucial

Jamie McDonald

The three midfielders selected on Saturday, Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky and Santi Cazorla, were crucial to Arsenal's 3-1 victory.

Arsene Wenger must have been frustrated by the inquest over his bid of Yohan Cabaye. Not only did he feel the club had acted appropriately, but, he probably would've been annoyed by questions about whether Arsenal needed another ball-playing midfielder. For when Arsenal have been at their worst over the past two seasons, it has been when they've lacked an identity, and when their passing and creation of chances has been below par. It was thus last week against Aston Villa: not only did Arsenal look frail when Villa counter-attacked, but they also struggled to gain fluency and create chances. Desperately needing 3 points to kickstart their Premier League campaign, Arsene Wenger played two number 10s in Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky, and Aaron Ramsey. On the face of it, it looked incredibly dangerous: Fulham started Damien Duff, Adel Taarabt, Dimitar Berbatov and Pajtim Kasami, all of whom like to exploit space between the lines. If Arsenal were open against Villa, surely, they'd be even more open against Fulham.

Arsenal quickly shifted the narrative, though, and gained control of the match because of the midfield players that started. In Cazorla, Rosicky and Ramsey, Arsenal had three players who exploit and understand space extremely well, both with the ball and without the ball. This was important, because the individual qualities of each player meant that the midfield shape, so often a 2-1, had to shift. While Aaron Ramsey was often slightly deeper than Rosicky and Cazorla, the three midfielders were often very close to each other, making the shape much more of a flat three. This suited Arsenal; in the absence of a ball-winning midfielder, like Mikel Arteta, the obvious thing to do was to make the team difficult to break down, and by having the three midfielders close to each other and deeper, they denied Fulham the space to create chances, and Per Mertesacker and Bacary Sagna dealt with crosses into the box. Thus, despite the midfield trio combining for two tackles and two interceptions, they worked as a defensive shield because of their positioning.

Arsenal were superb on the counter attack on Saturday, and again, that was down to the midfield, and the way they transitioned from defence to attack. With the flat three midfield, each of the midfielders took turns to make runs forward; when Arsenal were in possession, it was more often Aaron Ramsey who made forward runs, with Rosicky and Cazorla remaining deep. When Arsenal were breaking, Arsenal would try to set Rosicky, or more often Cazorla free to then find Theo Walcott or Lukas Podolski, as they did on the second Arsenal goal. Yet they were only able to do so because of the other midfielders: the pass to Cazorla was often the second or third of the attack, with the passing out of the back four, particularly Per Mertesacker, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna, crucial.

The passing of the back four in such conditions was exemplary, and it was often how Arsenal broke forward. Fulham's set up had the front four press after losing possession, but the speed and composure of Arsenal's passing broke that line of pressure, which left Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell isolated. By leaving them isolated, Arsenal were able to exploit the space, which is how Cazorla and Walcott had free reign: the two excel at running into space, and combined to create 10 chances. And with the conditions so poor, quick ball movement had to be the way to break past pressure.

Dribbling, especially in front of one's own box, would've been too dangerous and wouldn't have exploited space quickly enough. What today's match showed is that Arsenal are at their best when playing as many quick and accurate passers as possible, and that it is the understanding of space that is most important in defending, rather than physicality. Fulham had two physical, tackling midfielders in Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell, but because their understanding of space, and Fulham's team shape as a whole, were poor, their physical traits were effectively useless. Instead, Arsenal, with two playmakers and an attack minded box to box midfielder in Aaron Ramsey, were the more secure team because they were able to exploit space and control it without possession.

Chalkboards to be added later

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