Arsenal vs Udinese: 1-0 to the Gunners

First half lineups

The post Cesc Fabregas era officially began on Tuesday night at the Emirates as Arsenal came up against the entertaining Italian unit, Udinese. Together with the Catalan-born midfielder’s departure questions also loom over the future of Samir Nasri and he was left out of the matchday squad with according to the club’s website a muscular problem. Jack Wilshere also did not feature as he was out with an injured ankle. For the Italians they were playing their first competitive match without Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler and Christian Zapata all instrumental members of last season squad.

Before the game was settled into any particular pattern, Arsenal were already on top with a 4th minute tap in by Theo Walcott from a Aaron Ramsey right flank cross. The movement of the Arsenal players in the play leading up to the goal was a mere reflection of the fluidity that the Gunners would play with for the remainder of the half. Udinese seemed intent to sit back and play on the counter attack with the hope of nicking a goal through their talisman forward Antonio Di Natale.

Arsenal Rotating midfield

The Gunners midfield trio of Tomas Rosicky, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Song constantly rotated positions making it difficult to for the Udinese midfield to pick them up. In the build up their shape would usually be two of the midfielders holding and one advanced but as the move progressed into the attacking third this would switch to one holding, one advanced and the other in between the two.

Song (green) and Ramsey (yellow) in holding postions as the play builds up with Rosicky (blue) in an advanced position

In the attacking third Rosicky (blue) advances with the ball and Ramsey (yellow) drops off while Song (not in picture) sits deeper

The advanced midfielder would usually make a forward run looking for the final ball capitalizing on the space created by Marouane Chamakh who played a false 9 role (This can be seen in the video below of Walcott’s goal). This rotating midfield trio helped to exploit a flaw in the Udinese system. The Serie A unit played with one holding midfielder, Agyemang-Badu, and due to the fact that the Gunners did not have a player playing consistently between the lines when he was drawn to the movement of one of their midfielders he often left a lot of space in front of the defense and this was exploited by either another midfielder making a forward run or a winger coming in off the flank.

Udinese’s dodgy defending

Intent to sit deep and play on the counter Udinese were surprisingly open. Besides the brilliant off the ball movement from Arsenal, Udinese was not compact in the defensive phase the space between there lines was too large most of the times and also their spacing amongst eachother left a lot to be desired. Debutant Neuton struggled in the left back position as he was given insufficient help from Pablo Armero who never looked comfortable in the defensive phase. Most of the Gunners success in the first half came down this flank. Overall as a defensive unit they were poor their marking wasn’t up to scratch, neither was their closing down of their opponents neither or tracking of runners. Arsenal main strategy to capitalise on Udinese’s poor defending was to play in runners in behind their defensive line by attempting defense splitting through balls and at times passes over the top.

In the above picture the large space between the Udinese defensive line and midfield can be seen (blue circle). Holding midfielder Agyemang-Badu (purple) is drawn to the ball leaving no one in between the lines to protect the back four.

Going forward Udinese looked threatening as they moved the ball quickly out of their half  trying to catch Arsenal out.  Most of their attack consisted of trying to play in Antonio Di Natale who was giving Arsenal’s defenders a lot to think about with his movement. Such was his threat that he caused Arsenal to play a bit deeper usual. When Udinese won the ball off Arsenal they were also able to play in either Pablo Armero or Mauricio Isla who capitalised on the space left behind by Keiran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna who were going forward aggressively in the Gunners’ attempt to pin their opposition back. Most of their attacks were with the three aforementioned attacking players with Giampero Pinzi and/or Kwadwo Asamoah supporting at times.

Guidolin makes a much needed adjustment

As the first half drew to its final stages the Udinese coach, Francesco Guidolin, switch his 4-1-4-1 defensive shape to a more compact 4-2-3-1 dropping Asamoah to play alongside Agyemang-Badu in front of the defense. Pinzi remained as the lone advanced midfielder. This change allowed either of the two holding midfielders to closely mark one of the ‘rotating midfield trio’ which may come into that zone and not have to worry about leaving space in behind as the other would cover for him. This proved to be a masterstroke as the Italians were now less porous and this gave them a proper foundation to build upon as they attempted to get back into the match.

La Zebrette takes charge

Udinese's lineup for the second half.

After the break Udinese came out looking for the equaliser and began to press Arsenal higher up the pith and made it difficult for them pass the ball comfortably out of their half as they did in the 1st half. The momentum was now with the visitors as they spent most of the half in their host’s half. Their fullbacks picked up positions higher up the park, Asamoah left his deep position to support the attack (in the defensive phase he remained alongside Agyemang-Badu) and Armero, Pinzi and Isla all tried to link up with Di Natale in an attempt to break the Gunners’ defense down. They did play some impressive football. Armero, in particular, had a much better half partially because Udinese had the upper hand and he had less defending to do than in the 1st half.

Arsene Wenger’s men were forced into playing a lot of long balls out of the back by their and never seem to get a grip of their high pressing. They did though have opportunities to extend the lead as they utilised the pace they have on top to capitalise on large spaces being left by an Udinese team who were growing in confidence. The French tactician did make a tactical substitution during the course of the half and this was to take off Rosicky and bring on Emmanuel Frimpong. This substitution was obviously to add more steel to the midfield. Frimpong though did not come on to play a holding role together with Song in order for Arsenal to see out the tie with a 1 goal advantage but instead he joined in the ‘rotating midfield trio’ as they tried to win back the midfield with some physicality.

Conclusion

In the end Udinese were clearly the better team throughout the 2nd half but didn’t have a goal to show for it and would think they have seen enough of Arsenal to have a go at them in the return leg. The Gunners on the other hand would be disappointed that they didn’t score a next goal in order to take a comfortable 2-0 lead to the Stadio Fruili in a week’s time.

Tactically, the visitors were outwitted early on by the home team’s movement and intelligent overloads especially in between the lines but once Guidolin had adjusted his formation and get his team to be more compact Udinese was right back into the tie. It should be interested to see what sort of tactics would be implemented by both coaches but more so by Arsene Wenger giving that his side was clearly outplayed in the latter half of this leg.

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