Arsene Wenger made two changes to the side that defeated Swansea at the Liberty Stadium last weekend. Tomas Rosicky joined Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey in Arsenal’s attacking three, behind Olivier Giroud, while Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini played in the double-pivot.
Rafa Benitez made one change to his starting eleven that comfortably defeated Genoa, by introducing Marek Hamsik alongside Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon. Goran Pandev led the line for the injured Gonzalo Higuain, while Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler formed a midfield duo.
Arsenal’s movement, quick passing, and constant interchanging in the final third proved to be too much for Benitez’s men, as the Gunner’s flexed their muscle against an inexperienced Napoli side.
The 4-2-3-1 has become a favoured formation to instill in modern day football over the past few years. And despite both sides preferring to use this system, their approaches provided different variations. Arsenal’s double-pivot prefers to sit deeper and play forward passes, while Napoli’s duo like to get forward and provide an offensive presence.
The main difference was in the attacking three – Wenger fielded two central players out wide in Ramsey and Ozil, while Benitez’s wide options were direct attackers, who thrive on quick counters. But the key battle would involve the no.10’s and how both were utilized. Ozil glided across the final third, receiving the ball in dangerous positions, while Hamsik failed to have a significant impact on the match due to a lack of service.
Hamsik attempted to drop deep into midfield to receive the ball and push his men forward, but Arsenal’s superiority in possession was vital, along with Napoli’s inability to retain it.
Arsenal down the right
There was significant feat in Arsenal’s play in the first half, which virtually led to both goals scored – as they persistently attacked Napoli down the right side. With Napoli’s winger’s sitting fairly narrow, Arsenal had space to attack down the right flank. It must also be said that while Insigne could’ve done a better job in protecting Juan Zuniga, the Colombian’s work-rate was shambolic.
Bacary Sagna played a forward pass to Giroud, who did well to hold up the ball for Ramsey who surged into a heap of space, while Zuniga casually jogged back. With Napoli’s defence caught out of position, Ramsey cut the ball back to an open Ozil, who produced a breathtaking finish to beat Pepe Reina.
A few minutes later, Napoli failed to clear their zone from a simple throw-in. Flamini dispossessed Miguel Britos’ pass towards Hamsik, playing in Ozil – as Zuniga watched – and the German maestro flicked the ball into the path of a near-post run from Giroud, who thumped the ball into the net.
Benitez tinkered with his wingers swapping Callejon and Insigne – which was logical based on the Spaniard’s discipline – and the change saw a drop in Arsenal’s impact on the right. Nevertheless, the Gunners targeted Zuniga and enjoyed their best spell of the match down the right side, which arguably earned them three points.
A recurring theme in Arsenal’s great run of form has been Wenger’s will to overload central areas. Ozil’s lateral movement in the final third has opened gaps for Arsenal players to penetrate, and has also provided more options going forward. Wenger’s decision to fill his attacking positions with players that prefer to play centrally was interesting, and it was pivotal to their dominance in the first half.
Ozil, Ramsey and Rosicky interchanged positions constantly throughout the match, which caused Napoli’s midfield several problems. Ramsey moved centrally at times to prevent Arsenal from being overrun in midfield, but he also attempted to penetrate the left flank.
Arsenal’s passing tempo was quick – their movement was fluid and their ability to interchange dragged Benitez’s men out of position, thus leading to the Gunners’ dominance. Its been sometime since we’ve seen an Arsenal side play with such guile and fluidity – this can be attributed to the arrival of Ozil – furthermore highlighting the significance of his deadline day signing.
For what it’s worth, it’s unsure as to whether Napoli would’ve settled into the match had Zuniga produced a stronger performance. Benitez’s men dropped into two banks of four without the ball with Hamsik and Pandev closing down Arteta and Flamini. Arsenal struggled to push forward in attack until Rosicky, Ramsey and Ozil dropped deeper to help push the Gunners forward. Napoli was defensively organized, but a lapse in concentration from the Colombian fullback prevented Napoli’s press from nullifying Arsenal’s threat in central areas, as they were forced to chase the match.
However, Arsenal’s attempt to press Napoli when they played from the back had more of an impact on the match – seeing as it’s a rare feat amongst teams playing in Serie A. Benitez’s men struggled to sustain possession in the midfield area, so they aimed to push forward from the back. Wenger’s men squeezed Napoli in their own third and Napoli was unable to string passes together – thus leading to Arsenal threatening on the break.
Napoli’s press was logical considering they didn’t want Arsenal’s holding midfielders to dictate the tempo of the match, but the North London side’s movement in the final third was exceptional. As for Napoli, their inability to sustain possession was an issue, as they lacked cohesion going forward, and Pandev was an isolated figure upfront.
The second half lacked the flair showcased in the opening 45 minutes, as Arsenal sat off, allowing Napoli to take control of possession. Arsenal dropped into a 4-5-1 without the ball and was unable to move forward as a unit – resulting in several audacious shots from outside the box.
Insigne looked like Napoli’s main threat when running at defenders, but his decision making in the final third was poor. Benitez tinkered with his squad, pushing Callejon upfront and Dries Mertens to the left. Later on Duvan Zapata entered the match as the lone striker, but he had no influence in Napoli’s attack.
Napoli improved in the second half, but that was down to Arsenal’s cautious approach.
Arsenal’s dominance on the right flank, along with their movement in the final third, allowed the Gunners to blitz Benitez’s men.
“I just believe Arsenal started with the right intensity, without any mistakes. We made a mistake early on and conceded a goal,” Benitez said.
Benitez’s men were poor on the night, and although lack of experience could be a factor, it was shocking to see the Napoli manager do nothing about it. His changes were strictly player swaps, which weren’t adventurous. In fairness, he might’ve assumed the match was gone and attempted to prevent a blow out, but his initial game plan is difficult to critique, as Napoli didn’t cope with Arsenal’s early pressure.
“I think [Mesut Özil] had an outstanding first half. Everything you want from a fantastic player – teamwork, skill, passing, shooting – so just sit there and enjoy it. I loved him in Madrid as well, I must say. We were just lucky to have got him,” Wenger said.
Earning maximum points in your home fixtures are pivotal in any Champions League group, and this was an impressive Arsenal performance, led by the magnificent Mesut Ozil. His movement and tactical intelligence has been beneficial to Arsenal – the Gunners produced quick, fluid football, as they’re displaying signs of sheer confidence and a level of unpredictability that they’ve lacked over the past few years.