Arsenal 5-1 Shakhtar: stalemate turns into a rout
Arsenal started slowly but ended up thrashing a Shakhtar Donetsk side who offered no attacking threat until the final ten minutes.
Arsene Wenger recalled Cesc Fabregas and played him alongside Jack Wilshere and Alex Song, whilst Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky were preferred to Andrei Arshavin.
Shakhtar named both Douglas Costa and Eduardo da Silva on the bench, which hinted at their lack of attacking ambition. Willian and Alex Teixeira sometimes switched flanks, and Henrikh Mkitaryan came deep to collect the ball in a fluid 4-2-3-1 shape.
The game started extremely slowly, with a lack of action on the pitch matched by a lack of noise from the fans. Arsenal started at a slow tempo, and Shakhtar were barely looking to get the ball forward.
Shakhtar defence comfortable on ball, or…?
The one thing of note in the opening minutes was the technical quality of the away side’s defence – all four were extremely comfortable on the ball and happy to pass the ball around Marouane Chamakh and wait for a promising forward pass to present itself.
However, after Arsenal’s first goal, (a fortunate strike from Alex Song after a mistake by Andriy Pyatov) what initially appeared to be “Shakhtar happy to play the ball around across the back four” appeared more like “Shakhtar unable to play the ball forward”. Arsenal were defending well from the front, using ‘false’ pressing where one player closed down the man in possession, and the rest stood off slightly.
Song high up pitch
The key to this was the fluid midfield three, and Alex Song’s role high up the pitch. This has been evident before so far this season – notably early on at Chelsea when Arsenal produced an uncharacteristic display of intense pressing from the start of the game – but here it was particularly impressive as Arsenal simply refused to accept the away side passing through midfield.
Song, Fabregas and Wilshere each occupied a man closely. Last season, Song probably would have swept up behind the midfield battle, meaning both he and the opposition holding midfielder would have had time on the ball, but here he was more proactive in closing down and also took his turn at making forward dashes into the penalty area.
Wilshere was happy to drop deep, and saw a lot of the ball in deep areas, whilst even Fabregas sometimes moved into a holding role and let the other two go forward. Arsenal’s midfield trio is generally less structured than Chelsea’s, for example, but this was a very loose formation, even for them.
The rest of the game was characterised by a general lack of true width – the ‘wide’ players all collected the ball in broadly central positions and looked to create from these channels, which in turn narrowed both sides’ full-backs. Arsenal were content to use Chamakh as a direct route of attack, and he won both high balls and free-kicks which helped Arsenal advance further up the pitch. Nasri’s second goal put Arsenal out of sight.
Shakhtar were more versatile in attacking areas in the second half, which meant they were slightly more able to get the ball forward into attacking zones. Unfortunately, despite the presence of Douglas Costa, they were able to create little, and the fluidity only served to make them more vulnerable to Arsenal players running from midfield. Wilshere added a superb fourth with this very approach, shortly after some ludicrous defending at a free-kick resulted in a foul, and Fabregas converting from the penalty spot.
Chamakh added a fifth after Shakhtar’s terrible offside line allowed him the freedom of the penalty area to finish, whilst at the other end Eduardo, came on and grabbed a consolation that was well-received by the Arsenal supporters. But the second half was almost a non-event, despite four goals. Shakhtar offered nothing going forward and Arsenal were able to score without breaking sweat.
The shift in Arsenal’s midfield this season has been interesting. Last season Song generally sat deep and allowed two more offensive-minded plays to go and create – but in recent games Arsenal’s trio has been tilted so that Song plays higher up the pitch, to the right of another central midfielder. To call it a double pivot would be somewhat misleading, as the two more defensive-minded players play higher up the pitch than that – it’s more like Arsenal are playing without a true holding player.
Shakhtar were extremely disappointing – naive defensively, toothless going forward. The one consolation is that they won’t be this bad in the return fixture.
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