Southampton v Arsenal - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round

Tactical Analysis: Southampton vs. Arsenal: Pérez, Wide CMs & Narrow Forwards.

No manager in the history of football has won the FA Cup more times than Arsène Wenger. The cup loves Wenger and Wenger clearly loves the cup. With the Premier League title looking like a foregone conclusion, the competition offers Arsenal their most realistic chance at silverware this season. The Saints, however, were already basking in the glory of their midweek accomplishments, after reaching the final of the EFL Cup at the expense of Liverpool.

Claude Puel's Southampton came into this tie with a different perspective, having won the Cup only once in their history, this game wasn't a priority for them. But even with the reduced importance, the Saints fancied themselves against Arsenal. Southampton have been somewhat of a bogey team for the Gunners in recent years. The Saints have beaten Wenger's men in four of their last five meetings, only conceding two goals and scoring 9 in the process.

Both managers made wholesale changes to their teams with Premier League fixtures on Tuesday in mind. Mesut Özil, Petr Cech, Olivier Giroud & Laurent Koscielny were all rested, while rare first team starts were given to Maitland-Niles, Reine-Adelaide, Lucas Pérez and a returning Danny Welbeck. Kieran Gibbs was chosen to captain the side. In a similar vein, Southampton made 10 changes from the team that knocked Liverpool out the EFL Cup. Jack Stephens was the only Saints player to retain his place.

Southampton Arsenal Line up

4-3-3 vs. 4-4-2

Pérez in the pockets:

Arsenal started the game in electric fashion, zipping the ball around with pace and pressing as a unit. In contrast to what they're often criticised for, the Gunners played on the front foot from the first minute. The whole team pushed up together and stayed camped in the Southampton half. The front three of Welbeck, Pérez & Walcott were too much to handle for the makeshift Southampton defence. The three were silky with their touches, aggressive in their closing down and fluid with their movement. They were unplayable and Southampton found themselves 3-0 down by the 35th minute.

Lucas Pérez was key to this newfound fluidity. Despite lining up on paper as the spearhead of the attack, Pérez played like a false 9. Opting to create chances rather than convert them. Throughout every attack Pérez would drop into just behind the Southampton midfield, forcing the CBs to come out and close him down. This space would then create gaps for Welbeck and Walcott to attack. The narrow positioning of the forwards led to an overload of the Southampton centre backs.

Perez false 9

Pérez dropping deep forcing CB Stephens to follow him, creating space for Welbeck to exploit.

The Spaniard made 10 key passes in the final third, creating 5 chances for his teammates. The 29-year old was exceptional with his back to goal, linking up his with his fellow attackers with ease. His delicate first-time touch led to the opener of the game. The touch took out two defenders simultaneously and perfectly found its way into the path of Danny Welbeck.

Southampton's response to Arsenal's fluidity was to stay deep, compact and try to cover all spaces. However, the makeshift XI struggled to find any cohesion in defence. Clasie tried his best to plug the hole between the CBs but his indecisiveness as to whether to track Pérez or Adelaide reduced his positional discipline. Hojbjerg also refused to stay tight with his midfield partners, creating more space for Southampton to get overrun in.

drop deep defending

Southampton positioning themselves in a low-block with several gaping holes in the midfield.

Make-shift midfield = tactical masterclass?

With an incredibly fluid front three ahead of them, life was made easier for a midfield three that had never played together before. Youngsters Chamberlain, Adelaide and Niles produced a quality performance in the art of solidity and discipline. The Ox especially was very disciplined, he frequently resisted his urges to bomb forward & drift wide. Attacking-wise he kept things ticking over in the middle, cleverly distributing the ball from flank to flank to create overloads.

In defence, the Ox was astute in his tracking back and covering of space, while also being sturdy in the tackle. His bulky physique allowed him to go into 50-50s with confidence. Alongside him, Maitland-Niles was operating as the deepest of the three, quietly controlling the tempo of the game. The 19-year old never shied away from the ball, Niles made 103 touches through the game, maintaining an exceptional 90% pass accuracy.

With a narrow front three, the midfield took responsibility in restoring the balance of the team. As in all Arsène Wenger teams, the full-backs Kieran Gibbs and Hector Bellerín bombed down the flanks sustaining width at all times. This meant Chamberlain & Adelaide would position themselves wider to cover the FBs. This maintained the balance of the team in both transition and defence.

Arsenal wide man

Jeff Adelaide one of the advanced CMs, coming out wide to facilitate Bellerin's attacking runs.

Southampton's game plan to sit back and counter was neutralised by the positioning of the two more advanced CMs. Their ability to sense danger and position themselves accordingly minimised the threat the counter-attacking threat of Southampton, rendering their wide midfielders useless.

All in all touchline-banned Arsène Wenger will be euphoric with his team's performance. Being able to rest key players and give fringe players a run whilst thrashing Southampton is a plus on all accounts. His free-flowing team have now scored 81 goals this season, only 10 less than last season's total, with 21 games still to go. On the other side, Southampton are out of the FA Cup, but with one cup final to focus on, I'm sure the fans would forgive Claude Puel for having his head turned elsewhere.

About the Author Mathaeus Abuwa

Arsenal fan with a soft spot for Pascal Cygan.

Leave a Comment: