Arsenal 5-0 Porto – an open game favours the better side

March 9, 2010

It’s difficult to summarise a match tactically when one side wins by five goals. On one hand, assessing every aspect of the game points to Arsenal getting it tactically spot on, on the other you’re left to conclude that a five-goal win comes from a superiority in pure footballing terms, not the nitty-gritty of tactics.

That Arsenal are the better footballing team is not in doubt. Porto are a decent side with three or four very good players, but the first leg win flattered them. Their two goals came from two awful goalkeeping errors rather than through any attacking brilliance, and for the final half hour in the Estadio do Dragao, Arsene Wenger appeared to instruct his side to take things easy, confident that a 2-1 defeat could be turned around in the second leg.

Jesualdo Ferreira probably got this one wrong more than Arsene Wenger got things right. He matched Arsenal’s shape, whilst creating an open game with his wingers high up the pitch. And if there is no numerical advantage in any area of the pitch, and the game is open and full of attacking possibilities, the better football side will generally come out on top.

Perhaps the main problem was with the wide players.  Both Varela and Hulk are fine players going forward, but rarely will they have to play the role that was required tonight, which largely involved being disciplined and tracking Arsenal’s full-backs as they surged forward. Hulk, lacking match fitness thanks to a long-term domestic ban, simply seemed incapable of getting through the running, whilst Varela played too high up the pitch and occasionally looked to close down Arsenal’s spare centre-back, leaving Porto hopelessly exposed on the flank.

And just as the outside forwards didn’t track back enough, their full-backs didn’t get forward enough. Neither Fucile nor Pereira showed any technical ability on the ball, and neither looked to advance. Yes, it’s hard to go away from home in Europe and tell your full-backs to bomb on forward, but this was essentially where the game was won and lost – Arsenal’s full-backs asked questions of Porto’s wide players; Porto’s full-backs never looked to do the same to Arshavin and Rosicky, both of whom are out of their comfort zone in their own half.

Wenger’s use of Rosicky on the right-hand side meant Arsenal often had another player in the centre when he drifted in, whilst Diaby continued to play a relatively deep role, almost alongside Alex Song, with the superb Nasri left to create in the ‘Fabregas role’ from the centre of midfield.

What could Porto have done differently? Fielding a slightly more defensive player in one of the wide roles may have helped, and maybe they could have switched to something approximating a 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1) since Arsenal’s weakness in the first-half seemed to be Sol Campbell, who looked unconfident. If he and Vermaelen had two players to deal with rather than one, Porto might have exploited this more.

But this largely didn’t come down to tactics. Ferreira cannot be held responsible for 5′7 Arshavin outjumping 6′3 Rolando for the first goal, nor can he legislate tactically for Nasri’s excellent third. After that, Porto had to score, left gaps at the back, and the number of goals Arsenal scored was almost irrelevant.

Arsenal will face stiffer tests than this, and one suspects that making their wide players work harder defensively will be the key to success against them - you wouldn’t be confident Arshavin could even remotely do a defensive job against Dani Alves, Maicon or Sergio Ramos.

And this hasn’t even mentioned the fact that Nicklas Bendtner, who had a disastrous game against Burnley at the weekend, scored a hattrick. Strangely, his all-round game against Burnley was probably better than it was tonight. But whereas against Burnley he couldn’t locate the goal from eight yards, tonight he was presented with two open goals and a penalty which he took very well. It’s a funny old game.

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