The formation a team plays, the style of football, depends almost entirely on the players put on the pitch. So while our shape looked the same as it has all season against Spurs, there was a subtle difference, created by the presence of Benayoun instead of Gervinho.
For most of the season, we have lined up with Gervinho, van Persie, and Walcott, who are essentially three strikers. The wingers, Gervinho and Walcott, are very direct players. Not so good at holding up the ball or dribbling in tight spaces, but always focused on going towards goal, taking players on, and they are more than capable of beating them for pace.
This had the effect of making our team less good at keeping possession, but more direct. The focus was on feeding the forward three as quickly as possible, and relying on them to create chances. We defended slightly deeper as well, to give Gervinho and Walcott room to use their pace.
The upside to playing this way was that given any sort of space by the opposition defence, we would counter attack very quickly, relying on the wingers to create space for RvP with their movement, or supplying it to him in the box from wide areas. Theo and Gervinho have racked up several assists this season, most of them going to RvP.
The downside, besides the lack of the possession play of last season, was that Gervinho and Walcott have been rather erratic. When in form, they are almost unplayable, but all too often they failed with their “end product.” Gervinho missing many sitters, and Walcott struggling, at times, to even make simple passes.
But that is the problem with playing such direct forwards on the wings. They are good when supplied the ball in the final third continuously. Their approach of taking players on and beating them is bound to be a bit erratic. You can never have a 100% successful rate of dribbles or crosses/passes in the final third. If you keep getting them the ball in the final third, in and around the box, they will create a few chances.
However, that doesn’t always work. When teams have pressed us well in midfield, we have needed more of a technical and physical presence on the wings to allow us to keep the ball a bit better. When our midfield hasn’t been on full song, Gervinho and Walcott have tended to disappear, or become completely ineffective.
At Craven Cottage they were both hauled off as Fulham turned up the pressure on us in the second half. Replaced by ball hoggers that are Rosicky and Benayoun.
And that is why perhaps Wenger has decided to go back to a similar system to last season. A passer on one wing (Benayoun for Nasri), and a direct forward on the other (Theo for Walcott). Against Milan, it was Rosicky and Walcott that started on the wings, and we tried (and failed) to play a similar style.
What the presence of Benayoun did was allow us to keep possession better, and keep it higher up the pitch. Benayoun played deeper than Walcott on the other side, saw more of the ball (received the ball 35 times compared to Walcott’s 26), and played narrower, combining excellently with Rosicky, RvP, and Arteta.
With Benayoun getting more involved in the build up and link-up play, Walcott was “freed” on the other flank to play higher up and play almost as a second striker. Wenger has always said that Walcott likes to be at the end of things rather than the build up, and that is exactly what he was able to do in this match. He saw less of the ball, received it higher up (4 times inside the box, as much as RvP, and that doesn’t include his goals). Even in the first half when his performance was mixed at best, his off the ball movement was causing the Tottenham defence all sorts of problems. In the games against United and Bolton, where he had much less effective games, he received the ball far more (41 times against Bolton, 32 against United), and received them in deeper positions as well.
Walcott, when we rely on him to link up and create in midfield, struggles. This system with a ball hog like Benayoun on the other flank frees Walcott to try to play more off the shoulder and get in behind the defence.
Another aspect of this system was that we didn’t rely on pace so much, so were happy pushing Tottenham back against the wall by pressing them high up the pitch. This meant Walcott was a bit ineffective in the first half, but his movement created enough havoc in the Spurs defence that RvP and others had space to create. When Spurs pushed up in the second half, Walcott exploited the wide open spaces perfectly.
So it seems the 3 striker formation, with Gervinho and Walcott supporting RvP, might be abandoned completely, or reserved for games where we want to be/afford to be more direct. At least against the big teams, where possession is more highly valued and difficult to maintain, Benayoun or Rosicky might be the permanent option from now on. Individually the two have not created as many chances as Gervinho, but they can add some balance to the team and have us perform better as a collective.