Arsenal 2-0 Napoli: Arsenal win the game early by attacking down the right flank

October 1, 2013

The starting line-ups

Arsene Wenger fielded five natural central midfielders, but Napoli were opened up repeatedly in their left-back zone.

Wenger was without a variety of players comfortable in wide roles – Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – while Jack Wilshere was rested, with Mikel Arteta coming into the side and Arsenal’s three attacking midfielders playing fluid roles.

Rafael Benitez was still without Christian Maggio, and also lost Gonzalo Higuain through injury.

Arsenal were dominant from the first whistle, and Napoli rarely offered a goal threat.

Fast start

Napoli started with a high defensive line, the natural approach against a forward like Olivier Giroud who is strong in the box but lacks raw pace, and also against a side playing without players like Walcott, who naturally break in behind the defence.

But Napoli immediately looked uncomfortable with the tempo of the game – Arsenal started extremely quickly, passing the ball with great speed and switching play rapidly across the pitch. Benitez’s side were also extremely poor at coping with Arsenal’s pressing, a common weakness of Italian clubs in European competition.

It was amazing how often Napoli squandered possession within two passes of winning the ball inside their own third, and Arsenal deserve credit for pressing high up and playing with an aggressive defensive line (which was particularly understandable as Napoli were without Higuain, who was such a threat in behind the opposition defence in the win over Dortmund).

Arsenal flexibility

But the major issue was how Arsenal would get around the problem of starting five players who prefer playing in central positions. Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta sat solidly in front of the defence, but the other three were given freedom to rotate higher up the pitch – Aaron Ramsey started on the right with Mesut Ozil in the centre, but the longer the first half went on, the more they swapped roles.

Such outright fluidity is relatively rare for Arsenal over the past couple of seasons – often they’ve played with fluidity to the left of the pitch, with the likes of Cazorla, Rosicky and (briefly) Yossi Benayoun dovetailing nicely, but on the right they’ve usually used Walcott as a more direct option.

When Arsenal have used two players moving inside into the centre of the pitch from the flanks, they’ve often become too predictable and easy to play against – there was a period a few years ago when two of Rosicky, Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri would be fielded on either wing, and simply crowd the centre of the pitch alongside Cesc Fabregas. Arsenal became too predictable and were easy to play against – teams defended narrow and Arsenal were unable to attack down the flanks.

Perhaps that was Napoli’s problem – maybe Benitez looked at the Arsenal teamsheet and ordered his players to stay narrow. From the moment Bacary Sagna got space to overlap and put in a cross in the second minute, it was clear Arsenal would have space to attack down the wings.

But although Arsenal’s wide players drifted inside, there wasn’t that age-old problem with congestion. For that, Ozil must take a huge slice of the credit – he’s an extremely intelligent player in a tactical sense and specialises at drifting wide from central positions, particularly obvious at Real Madrid when he did so to allow Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria to cut inside onto their stronger side.

Arsenal’s movement inside was met with reverse movement to the flanks – whereas previously Arsenal would end up with multiple players in the same central zone.

Arsenal focus down the right

Arsenal’s strength was down the right side, where they exposed the limitations of Juan Zuniga and Miguel Britos, who both endured extremely difficult evenings. When dividing the pitch into three narrow, vertical bands, Arsenal played 50% of their passes down the right flank (26% down the left and 24% through the middle) and by almost every measure they focused their play down that side, too.

Zuniga played poorly and Lorenzo Insigne didn’t offer much help, but Napoli really couldn’t cope when Arsenal moved a central player towards the right.

The first goal, for example, came when Olivier Giroud moved over to the touchline, dragging Britos out of position and creating even more space for Ramsey – who had already broken past Zuniga. Napoli’s entire defence had to shift over to cover, and Ozil was left free at the far post to convert Ramsey’s cut-back.

The second goal came after 15 minutes, and saw Arsenal box Napoli into their left-back position when taking a throw, with three nominally central players – Flamini, Giroud and Ozil – helping to win possession. Ozil assisted Giroud with a cut-back for the goal.

Napoli simply seemed disorganised and unable to cope with the movement down that side of the pitch, and they never really recovered from the battering they took in the opening 15 minutes.

Arsenal took it easy at 2-0 up, and there was a slight change in Napoli’s approach in the second half – they seemed to press higher in an attempt to win possession quicker. Benitez also tried two other options upfront – first he moved Jose Callejon there, then tried substitute Duvan Zapata.

But the final 75 minutes was a non-event – Arsenal wrapped the game up early.


Ironically, it was Benitez who outlined the value of cut-backs from wide positions in a recent column for The Independent. “There was an interesting few days for me at the Uefa headquarters in Nyon, since I last wrote, at the elite club coaches forum, where there were many ideas being talked about. There was statistical data to analyse what brings success in the Champions League, in which my Napoli team receive Borussia Dortmund next week. There has been a rise in goals scored from cutbacks from the goal line which shows the value of wide players.”

He’ll be particularly disappointed to have conceded two goals from cut-backs, in that case, and might regret giving Arsenal such time on the flanks. Once upon a time, defending narrow against Arsenal was the logical option, but the inventive positioning and movement of Ozil has made that approach less of a guaranteed success.

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