After a momentous but energy-sapping battle with Barcelona mid-week, Arsene Wenger made several changes to his team to face midtable League One side Leyton Orient, who were spurred on by the promise of a trip to Las Vegas promised by their sports promotion mogul chairman Barry Hearns as well as a trip to Old Trafford in the next round. Only Alex Song and Andrey Arshavin survived from the Champions League tie, with Ignasi Miquel making his debut for Arsenal in the centre of defence.
Arsenal appeared to be lined up in something closer to a 4-3-3 than their typical 4-2-1-3, with Song stationed higher up the pitch than usual. Orient’s formation was more interesting, setting up in something of a 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid with no nominal right-sided attacking or midfield player. You would expect the huge gap on that flank to be exploited by Keiran Gibbs, but Orient’s players had a good understanding – the more obvious candidate to track Gibbs was striker Alex Revell who would regularly drop to the right to stifle the full-back’s forays forward, but when he was too far away to deal with him Jimmy Smith would shuffle out to the right to stop him.
First of all, it must be said that Orient really lucked out with this one, as they never really looked like scoring. They rarely looked comfortable on the ball – Dean Cox gave it away on the edge of his own area early on and there were several instances of defenders almost getting caught on the ball and horribly wayward passes – and so hitting long balls up to their forwards were their main way of creating scoring opportunities. Unfortunately for them, Arsenal’s high line meant their flick-ons were rarely all that useful, especially as their focal point Scott McGleish is 37 years old – hardly a prime age for getting in behind the defence. There were a few instances where they looked to have beaten the offside trap because Miquel, wary of being turned, was dropping a touch deeper, but he generally had a decent debut and Arsenal’s offside trap was well-drilled.
Arsenal were having problems of their own though – Orient were pressing, albeit it not that intensely, rushing up to Arsenal’s players but neglecting to put their feet in, making it difficult for Arsenal’s midfielders to play it to one another or the forwards. The main issue was that Arsenal’s players were too spread out to pass easily through the midfield – Denilson showed the solution with a couple of nice one-twos, but Arsenal didn’t change anything.
Instead, it was a change by Orient that allowed Arsenal an easier ride. Before the game, their captain Steven Dawson outlined their gameplan, saying “against Ipswich and Huddersfield and Leeds, Arsenal got put under pressure and I don’t think they really liked it. It’s not about kicking them around, it’s about getting in their faces – we’re going to be right on top of them.”
Once they upped their pressing to this level, they looked much worse defensively. They were pushing some players into busier areas, but it also opened up large amounts of space for some players; generally, at least one of the midfielders and a full-back were left completely free so, once the ball made it to them, they were able to make that previously missing link between defence and attack.
Arsenal were still having problems creating chances though, often intricately knocking it between them on the edge of the area then taking weak shots. Moving the ball wide more definitely would have helped – Gibbs and Bacary Sagna were taking up high positions on the flanks but rarely received the ball, allowing Orient to play their back four very narrowly with little consequence. Once when Gibbs did get the ball, he put in a cross to create a good chance for Marouane Chamakh. Despite picking the ball in the centre, the goal came from the use of width: Nicklas Bendtner picking up the ball and dribbling wide to cross in for Tomas Rosicky to head in.
Arsenal were in complete control of the second half, but Orient were finding some joy hitting it down the right for Revell to cross in, although this only resulted in one good chance, where the ball hit Sebastien Squillaci in the face.
Then of course Orient scored late on – there were question marks over the defending, and definitely over the goalkeeping, but ultimately it was some excellent footwork by Jonathan Tehoue to get them the goal to rescue an arguably undeserved draw and get a replay that will no doubt annoy Arsenal, another fixture added to an already busy schedule.