There was something decidedly different about the Arsenal side that steam-rollered Ludogorets on Wednesday night – something curious and yet vaguely irksome.
There is no doubting that we were magnificent going forward, producing some truly spellbinding football at times – and with devastatingly accurate finishing to boot. On any number of levels, it was a remarkable result.
But there was definitely something that felt a little off to me. It felt as though a tweak had been made, as though the team had reverted in part to the style that I thought had been left in the collective dustbin of the 2013-15 era.
There was just a hint of Monaco, Dynamo Zagreb and Olympiacos about it – only this time good fortune and wasteful finishing meant those comparisons went unfulfilled.
It seemed as if the team set up a markedly deeper than in recent matches.
We have found a great deal of success in the last month or so playing high up, pressuring teams in advanced positions, and really committing players to the attack.
Against Ludogorets – particularly in the first half – it felt as if we were content to invite the visitors on to us, with a view to winning the ball back and building from deep.
The problem with this system, as we have found in recent seasons, is that it can be extremely slow going and means that, if the opposition press high, they can win the ball back in advanced positions and bear down on our goal.
There were several occasions when that scenario played out and it was only a combination of some alert work by David Ospina and the general lack of quality from Ludogorets that we went unpunished.
A look at the match stats added a little credence to my suspicions.
The Bulgarian side had almost 57 per cent possession and wracked up 610 passes to our 457. The Gunners also made 30 successful tackles during the course of the game. In all, five of our team recorded average positions in advance of the half-way line: Hector Bellerin, Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain.
In order to appreciate what all that means, here is how it stacks up against our last four games in all competitions:
In the game against Swansea, Arsenal had seven players whose average position was in advance of the half-way line. We made 514 passes and 17 successful tackles. Swansea had 51 per cent possession.
Against Burnley, seven players were in advance of half-way on average. We made 741 passes and 16 tackles, while Burnley had about 33 per cent possession.
In the 2-0 win over Basel, Arsenal had six players in advance of half-way. We made 755 passes and 24 tackles. Basel averaged about 35 per cent possession.
Finally, against Chelsea we had a whopping eight players whose average position was in advance of half way. We made 529 passes and 18 tackles. The Blues had a little in excess of 50 per cent of the ball.
What seems clear to me is that, in the match against Ludogorets, Arsene tweaked the way in which the team set up. The Gunners sat deeper, invited pressure, and allowed the visitors to have a lot of the ball.
I can’t image that to have been because of a lack of on-pitch organisation – particularly as they have been so well drilled in recent weeks. I suspect, therefore, that it was a tactical decision made by Arsene and Steve Bould.
What troubled me was that our high-pressing style has been a superb and fundamental part of our recent winning run. Sitting deeper and inviting pressure felt like something of a gamble.
As it turned out, it was a gamble that paid enormous dividends.
Ludogorets couldn’t hit a barn door despite some really very promising opportunities, and we were able to exploit the ineptitude of their defence, which was woefully unprotected at times.
On another night, however, things may not have gone so smoothly for us.
I like the high-pressing, high-energy style Arsenal. There is something very satisfying about winning the ball back or snuffing out an attack because of a co-ordinated, concerted team effort. And it has proved to be a system Arsenal are very good at playing. Our recent results speak for themselves.
Wednesday night’s retreat – as it were – ultimately resulted in a memorable victory, but I wouldn’t particularly want to see that system again.
I understand that keeping the high-intensity game up in every competition for the rest of the season is going to be a tough ask, but I would much rather there be significant squad rotation for a game such as last night’s, rather than a touch of tactical experimentation and, to some degree, gambling on things clicking into place.
It is a little churlish of me to bemoan anything to do with a 6-0 win but I have come to really like this season’s Arsenal side. It feels like we have started down the road to something very promising, and I wouldn’t want us to hit the skids so soon after finding the winning formula.
Hopefully, this Saturday’s clash with Middlesbrough will see a return to the sort of dynamism that saw as overawe Chelsea and swat aside Basel and Burnley.