How they lined up
French journalist Phillipe Auclair said this week that, contrary to what many in this country might assume, Arsene Wenger is actually a pretty poor TV pundit, and one of the reasons might be that he doesn't really care about tactics. It's a reasonable theory - Wenger is not exactly known for his game-changing shifts in system, and since switching from 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 a few years ago in order to build the team around Cesc Fabregas, he hasn't really made many major shifts.
There was, however, a slight alteration to Wenger's standard tactics for this game against Swansea. Rather than a 4-2-3-1, Arsenal's formation was closer to a fluid 4-3-3, with Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey playing either side of Emmanuel Frimpong in midfield, while Andrey Arshavin and Theo Walcott flanked Robin van Persie up front. Wenger chose to only include two of his deadline day signings (Arteta and the unreasonably tall Per Mertesacker) in his starting line-up, leaving the other three on the bench. It was probably a smart move - after all, this is the first summer in years that Wenger has had to integrate a significant number of new recruits into his side, so trying to chuck them all in at once would've been reckless. Arteta and Mertesacker filled the most pressing needs, so they were the ones who got the nod.
Swansea lined-up in much the same way as they have for the past couple of seasons. They started in a 4-5-1 formation, with Danny Graham on his own up front, Lloyd Dyer and Scott Sinclair on the wings and a solid central trio of Joe Allen, Kemy Agustien and Leon Brittain. It's a formation that has served them well, and even without Brendan Rodgers on the touchline, who missed the game due to the death of his father, they're not likely to change.
While only the foolish and perhaps his lovely lady wife would argue that Arsenal's new Spanish playmaker is better than their old one, Arteta perhaps offers Arsene Wenger a little more adaptability than Cesc Fabregas. Arteta nominally lined-up as the most attacking in a three-man midfield, but in reality drifted all over the place. Fabrgeas did this too, but because Arteta spent a significant amount of time on the flanks for Everton, he will arguably be more used to and more comfortable in a roaming role.
And he wasn't the only man freestyling. Arsenal's forward line and midfield were all over the shop (in a good way) in the opening half an hour of the game. Arteta dropped deep, Ramsey pushed on, Arshavin and Walcott swapped wings and spent a good deal of time looking for space behind the centre-forward, which wasn't always Van Persie. At times, it looked like the Dutchman was playing a 'false nine' role that Leo Messi has done rather well with, popping up so deep on one occasion that he was sharing space with Bacary Sagna. It was fluid, and dare we say it a little more direct than we are used to seeing from Arsenal.
The problem was that they had a tough side to break down. While Swansea have a reputation as an attacking side, they defend stoutly too. When Arsenal were attacking they defended with two fairly solid banks of four and five, with the midfielders strung across the pitch and allowing little time or space for their opponents. It also helps that they have a very impressive centre-back partnership - Ashley Williams and Steven Caulker were exceptional, repelling most things Arsenal threw at them. In attack, Danny Graham did look rather isolated at times, but as the visitors grew in confidence, they became more adventurous, with Sinclair and Dyer swapping wings (as they always do) and pushing on to support the lone frontman.
They hardly deserved to be behind at the break, and it was only because of a deeply curious gaffe by Michael Vorm that Arsenal took the lead. While on one level it was a gift to Arshavin, one must commend him for firstly staying aware enough to capitalise, and secondly steering in the finish from a tight angle.
The second 45 continued where the first left off. As Swansea grew in confidence, so they became more adventurous, gradually edging forward, with Allen and Agustien making more forward runs to support Graham. Sinclair took on slightly more of a roving role, drifting inside from his wing to cause problems.
And the problems were such that Arsene Wenger had to make a change to combat them. While Arshavin was having one of his better games for the Gooners, tracking back will never be his forte, and he was removed in favour of the rather more industrious Yossi Benayoun. This resulted in a formation shift that was so brief it could almost be written off as a breakdown in communication between bench at pitch. For a short time, Arsenal switched to a 4-4-2, with Benayoun on the left, Arteta nominally on the right and Walcott pushed up front.
It was curious to see, but the 'experiment' didn't last too long, with Walcott told to revert to the wing after only a few minutes. However, it wasn't a switch back to the adventure of the first half - this was very much a 4-5-1, with Benayoun in particular spending a good deal of his time covering and defending.
The substitutions made by both sides also reflected the changing mentality of the game. While Wenger removed Frimpong for the theoretically slightly more predictable Francis Coquelin and brought the more physical Marouane Chamakh for Van Persie, Swansea replaced Allen, Agustien and Dyer with Scott Dobbie, Mark Gower and Luke Moore, each substitution making them more and more attacking.
In the end it didn't pay off, but that was more down to the ropey finishing of Graham than any lack of intent. In the closing stages Graham was presented with a golden chance, unmarked in the six-yard box, but he blazed a swivelling shot over. Wenger sighed with relief.
For both sides, this was a game of mixed messages. If Arsenal can build on their early, fluid play then they could yet salvage something from this season that has started so appallingly. Arteta was at the heart of most good things that they did, and by taking control of the midfield he takes a good deal of pressure off Ramsey. Mertesacker looked solid for much of the game, and the theory that Lorent Koscielny is fine with someone commanding alongside him will be given more weight by the first half, at least.
However, many of the same old problems remain. At times they could not find a way through a defence that is new to the Premier League, and when Plan A failed it didn't look like they had a place to go. The defensive frailties were there too - even when faced with a Premier League rookie like Graham, they were fortunate not to concede, and one suspects louder alarm bells will ring when Mertesacker is tested by someone with more pace. In addition, Ramsey looks tired already. He could do with a rest, but with Arsenal's options so limited at the moment, one struggles to think when that day might come.
For Swansea, they will of course be encouraged with such a good, if unrewarded performance. Only a goalkeeping brainstorm came between them and three points, and while it was troublingly easy to frustrate Arsenal, they managed it for long spells. However, Saturday afternoon at the Emirates was another reminder that Premier League teams simply must take their chances. Graham's miss was symptomatic of a side that have struggled in the opposition penalty area this season - they are four games in and have yet to score a goal, which for a team looking to avoid relegation, is an all-too familiar and really quite ominous story.