The accolades that accompany victory in football normally go the ones who scored the goals.
Accordingly, it is natural to talk about Olivier Giroud in the same breath as Arsenal's improbable victory deep in Bayern Munich's own fortress and about Laurent Koscielny, who scored Arsenal's second goal from the tightest of angles, a goal that raised Arsenal's hopes closer to realm of possibility.
But while we may praise the goal-scorers and rightly so, it is proper to acknowledge the foundation that enabled this heroic victory: Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta.
Following Arsenal's loss at Spurs, I spoke about "the hole" in the 4-2-1-3 (normally 4-2-3-1) system and Arsenal's struggle to find the necessary balance in the midfield to eliminate this hole. (Refer to the article here.)
The hole is the area that opens up between" 2" and the "1" in the formation and how this affects the back-four and the front-three of a team.
With Abou Diaby in the Arsenal team early in the season, Arsenal found a neat balance between its three midfielders, where Diaby function as the transitional bridge between defense and attack.
His injury disrupted this balance, and even though Jack Wilshere's return brought a different sort of strength to the team, Arsenal has struggled to recover the early balance in the midfield.
This has owed mostly to Wilshere's proclivity to attacking than defending, meaning that "the hole" has tended to shift to the space just in front of the back-four, where Mikel Arteta has hovered isolated.
With Aaron Ramsey coming into the team and Jack Wilshere playing further forward, a better balance has been achieved, although not exactly like it was at the beginning of the season when Diaby played the true box-to-box role.
With Ramsey partnering Arteta at the base of Arsenal midfield, the approach has mostly been double pivoting between the two.
Still, they have not found the sort of understanding that Arteta had with Alex Song when the two functioned similarly in the 2011-12 season.
That changed in the match against Bayern Munich. Please refer to the following diagram.
Notice that three arrows lead away from both, indicating each person's defensive-cum-attacking movement in the match. Noteworthy are the diagonal arrows, with the ones facing backward indicating the players' function in "the hole."
Marshaling the Hole
In this match, both Ramsey and Arteta were mindful of exposing the back-four. As a result they made sure to track back when Bayern Munich was attacking to provide the required shielding for the back four.
If—as testified by many of the match reports filed following the match—Arsenal's defense looked solid in this match, it was exactly because of this screening, which the team has tended to lack in recent times, leading to nervousness in the back-four, which in turn has led to individual errors that have caused Arsenal goals.
The diagonal arrows that point to the sides indicate how both players provided help for the full-backs in dealing with Bayern Munich's danger from their flank players.
This helped curtail Bayern Munich's potency from these areas, a danger much subdued compared to the first leg of the match in London.
The forward-facing arrows indicate the attacking movement of both players, with each taking turns (as the elapsing play enabled) to advance the play forward or to support the attack.
What is important and noteworthy though is the diligence each displayed in tracking back immediately, when Arsenal's attacks were halted and Bayern recovered the ball.
The Role of Other Players
Highlighting the role of Ramsey and Arteta here is by no means meant to minimize the role of the other players in the match.
Take Tomas Rosicky, for example, his tenacity in staying close to Toni Kroos and in pressing when Arsenal were out of possession meant Bayern were unable to exert the same control in the midfield which they enjoyed in London.
Some might argue that part of this owed to the absence of Bastian Schweinsteiger in this match.
This may well be, but there's no denying that Arsenal themselves played the match with more defensive awareness than they did in London, and staying close to the danger-men as Rosicky did here was part of the reason why Bayern were unable to control the match with as much authority as they did in London.
The same argument might be advanced for the flank players, to wit: Franck Ribery's absence in the match was a big reason why Arsenal did not experience as much heartache from the flanks as they did in London.
This, again, might be true. But here, Thomas Muller, very much a danger-man in London, was unable to cause real havoc in this match.
This owed to two important factors, the first of which was that Santi Cazorla was much more aware defensively, helping to stay tight to Philipp Lahm, thereby enabling Kieran Gibbs and Ramsey to double-team Muller whenever he attempted to maraud along Arsenal's left flank.
The second factor was the return of Kieran Gibbs to the team, giving the left flank more solidity than what Thomas Vermaelen (who isn't a full-back) was able to afford the team in London.
Gibbs' own more attacking potency acted as a deterrent to Lahm, who was mindful of exposing his own flank.
On the right side, Theo Walcott worked hard to help Carl Jenkinson to marshal Arsenal's right flank. And the fact that he is very fast subdued David Alaba. This reduced the danger on the right and enabled Jenkinson and Arteta to double-team Arjen Robben.
Not since Arsenal's excellent master class at Liverpool earlier in the season in what the mean between defense and attack should look like has the team played with a measured defensive control laced with attacking potency on the break.
Ramsey and Arteta should be saluted for their solid, defensive work in "the hole." The entire team should be commended for a job well-done, even if ultimately the mission itself was a failure.
If Arsenal carry this diligence into the Swansea City match on Saturday (March 16), there's no reason they shouldn't hope for victory there.
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