In a game which effectively served as a dress rehearsal for the FA Cup final in just under a month’s time, Arsenal beat Hull City 3-0 in the Premier League. Both teams were in need of the win with Arsenal in their bid to finish in the fourth and final Champions League placing and Hull in their attempts to secure survival in the Premier League for at least another season.
It was Arsenal that came out on top, and although the signs look bad for Hull ahead of the two teams meeting at Wembley, it’s not quite as bad as it initially seems. Hull manager Steve Bruce decided to play a 4-4-2 formation with Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic as his two strikers. Most teams against Arsenal would not decide to do that, especially if you are clearly an inferior team man-for-man.
It’s recognized by everybody that Arsenal are going to retain possession and control the game, and their weakness is being hit on the counter attack. Their ability to get back and defend in transition is poor, and the best way to exploit that is to pack the midfield, close off the middle and then look for joy on the break.
Even some of the top teams in the Premier League have played this way against Arsenal this season — not just teams lower down the league; it’s simply the best way to play them. Bruce decided to try a different tactic, though, and there is always the possibility he was just trialling the system ahead of the FA Cup final instead of on the day itself. If that is the case then at least it is out of the way with now — it didn’t work.
The problem playing 4-4-2 against Arsenal is that they pack the midfield with creative, possession based players and they keep the ball away from you for long spells in the game. You cannot afford to have two strikers upfront waiting for the ball. It would be more beneficial to have an extra midfielder in the center to aid the battle to retrieve the ball instead, because otherwise it gets extremely tiring chasing the ball in the midfield and you now end up having to do more more chasing than ever when you’re a man down in there too.
That is exactly what happened to Hull. They were chasing shadows for large parts of the game, and it wears you out and effects your ability to both defend and attack. In next month’s FA Cup showpiece, Hull will be better served to play just one striker and pack the midfield more to give Arsenal less time and space. They love to play against a 4-4-2; don’t give them that satisfaction — especially on a big pitch like Wembley.
For Arsenal it was a key win in their bid to secure that fourth place ahead of Everton, and it will also be a game which will give a lot of confidence to the team and specific players too. The returning Aaron Ramsey was excellent and scored a goal and so was Lukas Podoldski who scored the other two.
Overall, for Hull, it’s not as big of a blow to their FA Cup hopes as it may seem to be. They lost a game they were expected to lose anyway, and surely they learned a lot about what they can and can’t afford to do against Arsenal next time. Hopefully by then they make the adjustments necessary — to have a prayer of success in the game, they’re going to have to.