Arsenal 2-0 West Ham: Zola brave for going with a 4-4-2, but foolish for sticking to it

March 20, 2010

You have to admire Gianfranco Zola for going to the Emirates and playing a 4-4-2. Without his two best players, Scott Parker and Carlton Cole, it would have been tempting to do what most sides do when they play Arsenal away – go 4-5-1 and try and hit Arsenal on the counter.

It least gave Arsenal’s players something to think about. For example, Emmanuel Eboue (who increasingly seems to be Arsenal’s first-choice right-back in home games), seemed slightly unsure of himself positionally. Accustomed to playing against 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 shapes where he is in direct competition with an opposing winger, he is used to having to stick solidly to his opponent. But with West Ham playing a 4-4-2, his opponent, Junior Stanislas, was playing 20 yards deeper than he would be in a 4-5-1, and slightly narrower too. So when Eboue tracked Stanislas closely, he opened up a huge about of space in Arsenal’s right-back area, which was exploited briefly first by Mido, and then by Alessandro Diamanti, who wasted a good opportunity to score. West Ham seemed to be lacking any pace upfront to exploit this problem (and also any pace to worry Sol Campbell).

A similar situation was faced by Thomas Vermaelen, by now used to facing just the one opposition striker. He went on one of his customary surges forward to join the Arsenal attack, before quickly realising that this was leaving Sol Campbell with an overload of strikers, forcing him to retreat.

But ultimately it left Arsenal with a spare man in the centre of midfield. Arsenal continually worked triangles around West Ham on the edge of the opposition area as a result, and five or six times were just one (fairly basic) pass away from creating clear-cut chances throughout the first half.

The game’s crucial moment came on the stroke of half-time, when Thomas Vermaelen brought down Guillermo Franco, to concede a penalty, and reduce Arsenal to ten men. That is twice in as many games that Arsenal have conceded a penalty in this manner – at Hull it was Sol Campbell who brought down Jen Venegoor of Hesselink and was lucky not to be sent-off. Is this a coincidence? It is probably slightly unfortunate that the situation has arisen so blatantly in such a short space of time, but the fact is that Arsenal play a relatively high defensive line, and when they are without the pace of William Gallas, they’re much more likely to be exposed by balls played in behind the defence. Whether it was a penalty is debatable, but it was nevertheless a certain error by Vermaelen, who hesitated before allowing Franco to get in behind him. The Belgian has been a wonderful signing, but is prone to small yet crucial errors.

After the break, Arsenal reacted by simply shifting Alex Song into the centre of defence, and playing a 4-4-1 system. The decision by Wenger to bring on Abou Diaby was wise, for he held onto the ball well and was defensively sound. Song’s presence from the centre of midfield was missed, but the Fabregas-Denilson partnership has played together in a four-man midfield on countless occasions, and was fairly comfortable throughout.

It’s always amazing that managers change their side so little when an opponent gets a man dismissed. You’re faced with a different challenge – the opposition will suddenly be a man light in one area of the pitch, and if you don’t seek to exploit that, you probably will play into the hands of the ten men. Defensively, Arsenal didn’t have much of a problem during the game. In terms of defending, if you’re up against a 4-4-2, you’re completely comfortable playing with a 4-4-1 shape, because none of your defenders or midfielders are any more stretched than if you still had eleven men in a 4-4-2 shape – unless the opposition get their full-backs forward.

But West Ham didn’t do this – neither Daprela or Spector seemed comfortable coming forward on the ball. Zola’s substitutions were effectively just straight swaps – two strikers off, two strikers on, and a central midfielder removed for a (slightly more offensive) central midfielder. With Spector relatively poor on the ball, surely Zola could have put Noble on for Spector, and shifted Valon Behrami to right-back, where he has played for West Ham numerous times. This would have given West Ham one extra player comfortable on the ball, and Behrami’s forward runs would have at least drawn an Arsenal midfielder towards him, creating more space for West Ham to work the ball around Arsenal’s players.

Alternatively, Zola could have switched formation, perhaps to a 4-3-3. This would have turned the tables on Arsenal, and given West Ham an extra player in midfield, where they perhaps could have worked the ball more effectively around Fabregas and Denilson. Being a man short in the centre of midfield is not a situation Arsenal are used to.

Zola admitted in his post-match interview that West Ham didn’t exploit Arsenal’s numerical disadvantage well enough, and said he had hoped West Ham would ‘use the ball better’ and ‘move Arsenal’s players around more’. But surely Zola himself must take some of the blame – by effectively ‘matching’ Arsenal in keeping with a 4-4-2 (without attacking full-backs) against a 4-4-1, he made it extremely easy for Arsenal to defend their lead, as each Arsenal player had a specific player to be picking up, and were never overloaded in any area of the pitch.

It’s easy to be wide in hindsight, but the deficiencies in West Ham’s play were obvious throughout the second half, and Zola didn’t really take any steps to address them. Arsenal should have been made to work harder than this.

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