Ten conclusions to make from Arsenal’s season

Despite another implosion late in the season, the Gunners have plenty of positives to take forward to next season.

1. Arsenal have learned how to defeat the “lesser” sides

The fact that Arsenal remained in the title race for as long as they did, despite losing both times to Manchester United and Chelsea, and falling away at Tottenham and Manchester City, was very much due to Arsenal’s new-found ability to beat the bus. In previous seasons, sides who set out with ten men behind the ball knew full well that the tactic could seriously decrease the Gunner’s effectiveness. Arsenal only wanted to play through them and that made it easier to defend against.

To counter that, Arsene Wenger sought his side to be more dynamic. His idea – borrowed from the philosophies of Dutch Total Football and adapted by Johan Cruyff at Barcelona – was to stretch play to create more space and hence more angles to attack from. The result saw the making of Robin van Persie in a hybrid striker role and the midfielders late runs, particularly at the start of the season, disrupting the opponents marking systems. “I believe the midfield was not a problem this year because we created so many chances from midfield and we dominated nearly all the games in midfield,” said Wenger at the end of the season.

The goal tally dipped towards the latter stages of the campaign yet Arsenal’s increasing  mental strength allowed them to turn adverse situations into positive ones by scoring a number of late winners. “The manager trusts us to do the job,” said Alex Song. “If the referee says we have four minutes or two minutes left then the boss says ‘don’t panic, be confident and play’. That means if the opposition team drop we have the chance to score. The mentality has changed for us.”

2. Robin van Persie may just be world-class

Arsene Wenger believes Robin van Persie is on par with the likes Lionel Messi and Xavi and indeed, the coming World Cup may prematurely bring forward that assertion but the Dutchman feels that can only be justified on the back of an injury-free season. And certainly, the stats do highlight another case of “what could have been” as in the sixteen games he has played in the league, van Persie has scored 9 goals (a conversion rate of 17%) and made 7 assists – meaning he has made a direct contribution to the result at least once in every game. Arsenal felt the brunt of his absence also as in the 17 games he did play in all competitions before his injury, the club scored 51 goals, an average of 3 goals per game. In the middle period without van Persie, 53 goals were scored in 30 games – the average dipping to just over 1.5 goals per game. (There are two keys factors in this stat; the fact that Nicklas Bendtner returned helped boost the goal tally somewhat while a small period where Arsenal had fought their way back in to the title race also saw an upturn of goals. But for the most part, the Gunners lacked a forward which seriously hampered their goal threat).

Van Persie’s involvement as the spearhead of the attack will surely also mean any evaluation of where the team goes will take into account his vast improvement. Becoming the focal point of Arsenal’s style and it could be argued he revolutionised the dual role up front. His movement created space for the midfielders to run into while developing a goalscoring instinct in the box. “Robin Van Persie, when he played we always scored three or four goals,” said Wenger earlier this season. “He didn’t score too many [himself] but he made a lot. Not only with passing, but with movement and the quality of that movement. Strikers open walls for the deeper players. That is a big part in the modern game.”

3. Gunners must make more of wide positions

A key aspect of switching to the 4-3-3 is that it gives Arsenal more natural width. That may seem a problem, however, given that Arsenal do not play with traditional wingers in the outside forward roles but in the modern game, wide players are expected to perform a number of different functions. The current trend is for teams to play “inverted wingers” giving them an added dimension in the attack. That means goals are more likely to be scored by wingers by cutting in on their preferred foot while it also creates more unpredictability in the team’s movement and the decision to cross the ball or dribble.

The Gunners wide men, given that the ball has reached the channels more than ever this season, must realise their importance in providing greater dynamism and variation to the attack. Arsenal’s crossing success, before the 4-0 at Fulham was the lowest in the league at 16% (the Premiership average is 21%) with the cross success from the right hand side at 18.5% and the left, 12.7%. Bakary Sagna has visibly improved his crossing this season and upon the recommendation of William Gallas, told to make more runs on the inside similar to Emmanuel Eboue. But given the slight lack of movement and willingness to get in the box – especially seen in the middle stages of the season where the Gunners lacked a natural forward – there is still a slight apprehension in delivering the ball into the box quickly.

4. Arsenal must invest in their own Milan Lab

You can blame the part-artificial turf on the Emirates pitch, the movement the players have to exert in a typical matchday or just plain old bad tackling but whatever the reason, there is no doubt Arsenal need to develop their own injury-assessment centre. The most famous of which is the Milan Lab (interestingly enough also situated in Milan) which has successfully prolonged the careers of a number of players so much so that they feel maximum age for a top-class footballer is now 40 (as opposed to the 34 previously thought).

Bruno Demichelis, now at Chelsea, and his team pioneered the ground-breaking work at the fitness lab by analysing data to see how they can predict and therefore reduce injuries suffered by their players. Non-traumatic injuries have now decreased (that means muscle pulls etc.) to around 80-90% and are looking to identify structural problems in players by using chiropractic techniques that may lead to injuries (Tomas Rosicky could benefit greatly from this). In 1996, Arsene Wenger revolutionised the club, from everything from the diet to the way they play, and seemingly the next step is to develop a fitness reasearch centre of their own to make Arsenal a truly modern superclub . “The first step to prevention is to analyse the problem and keep stats,” says Jan Ekstrand, Head of UEFA’s medical committee. “The second is to evaluate the mechanisms behind injuries, the third to introduce preventive methods, and the fourth to evaluate these methods have worked.”

5. Gunners yet to get their heads around pressing in the 4-3-3

Pressing has always existed in Arsenal’s system but not more important has it been upon the implementation this season of the 4-3-3. In previous seasons, the framework in the flexible 4-4-2 was provided in the form of zonal-marking – the positions and when to press were more or less rigidly defined. The current formation, as Denilson has particularly found out, can seem to fluctuate between a number of systems and that defeats the desired organisation of the side. Typically, pressing is done according to the Dutch framework of “through-marking” on account of the need to stretch the play. For example when a midfielder pushes out and presses an opponent, his team-mate(s) must back him up by getting tight and eliminate all other passing options. However, in moments where the opposition bypasses the first wave of pressure and commit numbers forward, that could often leave gaps ripe for exposure and the system of through-marking itself then become exposed. A good pre-season, correcting the faults of the pressing system is very much-needed to give the side the “defensive efficiency” Wenger is looking for.

6. Mature heads needed in a learning environment

The impact of Sol Campbell translates far greater than his exerts on the pitch. Off the pitch, he is a wise head who offers years of experience and know-how in the game and that is very much-needed in Arsenal’s environment of learning. Arsene Wenger’s desire is to breed an organic connection between each player to create an almost telepathic understanding but imaging the benefits of having a senior member of the “Invincibles” around – someone to give crucial advice in situations not yet experienced.

Wenger has blamed the maturity of the players in key games this season and indeed, that developing mental strength means it hampers his tactical flexibility. The young players have made huge strides this season and the experiences they’ve encountered will make them stronger for next season but mature heads could mean – whether a part-time coach like Martin Keown or a seasoned-pro – a quicker transition from a player of potential to one of great substance.

“It is important you have players like Silvestre, Sol Campbell and Almunia, who are very influential,” says Wenger. “They have done it before so players listen to them.” In short, Arsene Wenger can’t afford to see the back of one of Gallas and Campbell, and certainly not the both of them.

7. The Joy of Song

It’s difficult to praise Alex Song this season without treading in the vicinity of a pun. Put simply, his performances in the centre of midfield have been unsung. Quite why that is the case may be because of his seemingly languid style and certainly, in the first parts of the season, his tackles may have seen to be a bit clumsy. However, the stats show that is not the necessarily the case, as he has the highest success rate of tackles won in the side (83.9%), making 87 tackles and 89 interceptions. But the Cameroon midfielder is much more than an enforcer as he plays with an almost beastly grace, often seen pirouettes and tip-toeing away from markers and passing with great assurance. Probably Arsenal’s most improved player this season, making a metamorphic rise and the greatest example of Wenger creating an environment to allow the embryonic development of his players.

8. Cesc Fabregas is still king

Anything that happens in the summer concerning the club will no doubt revolve around Arsenal’s talismanic skipper. There is news already that Barcelona are preparing a bid to bring back their prodigal son to Camp Nou after landing David Villa but there is a club that need him more. Cesc Fabregas has had another stupendous season, weighing in with 15 goals and 13 assists in the league and at the ripe old age of 23, carries much burden in the way Arsenal play. No player has made as much forward passes in the championship as him and that highlights the creative responsibility and balance weighed on Fabregas’ shoulders. “I believe in them [the players] because if you compare them two years ago and this year they are tremendously improved,” evaluates Wenger, before adding. “And if they continue to play together, especially with Fabregas, they have a good understanding.”

9. Goalkeeping gloves in uncertain hands

It’s an over-simplistic view that the goalkeepers are to blame for the number of goals shipped in (as our analysis shows that the quality of chances the Gunners allow is far greater than opponents allow due to the expansive style of the team) but neither Manuel Almunia or Lucasz Fabiasnski commanded the presence and confidence in the defence that is required. How you achieved that is almost mythical as Jens Lehmann’s career has always been clouded with mistakes and calamities but somehow rose to the respect of his team-mates.

“As a player, I learnt very quickly that, when you are at Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and now Chelsea, you have to be more than just a good technical goalie,” says former Arsenal goalkeeper and coach, Bob Wilson. “You can`t really coach presence. It is an indefinable thing, but I believe in it so much. Once you have passed the first exam to prove you can play – and Manuel and Lukasz have – then the bit you have to pass is that extra dimension. It`s the bit that marks you out from the rest. That is the one area that is lacking.” What is certain, however, is that goalkeeping is very much a confidence thing and neither first choice or second are in that zone yet.

10. Arsene Wenger still the right man for the job

Now that the debt clouds are clearing we should see a more proportional Arsenal and despite the increasingly uncertain environment, Arsene Wenger has navigated the club admirably through and kept them competing year after year. Signings will have to be made and are going to be made – and no one has a better eye for talent that Wenger. Arsenal will compete next year…


26 thoughts on “Ten conclusions to make from Arsenal’s season

  1. The wing play issue is very well said. We’ve not been clever enough or dynamic enough in our wing play.

    We don’t combine well enough in wide areas as we combine in central areas. Also we need more variability in the way we cross. We make too many aerial crosses, whereas we could be as effective crossing lower (chest to mid-riff height) or along the ground. Also there are opportunities for chips from the edge of the box, to pick a player out on the other side of the box. We could look to play in the full backs between opposition full back and centre back. etc

    More cleverness, more confidence, more awareness.

  2. In Arsene we trust! I am so tired of the negative comments. The tin, sorry the Carling Cup should be left to the youngsters. So far we have never been dumped out of the cup like Man ure by Southend with Ronaldo & Rooney fielded) and more importantly the kids have never embarassed the red and white shirt and I don’t want to chase this cup at the expense of the other 3.

    Silverware is coming and I don’t think we will bottle it next time. People like Sol in the team will see to that. I can’t wait to see whom we are bringing in, talking to fan’s of other teams – they even admit Wenger’s signings are interesting and 90% gems.

    Arsharvin I have to admit is getting on my nerves – Cantona was a bit different but did most of his talking on the pitch. Can’t say the same for Arsharvin. His words instead of deflecting from his performances, instead highlight how average he has been.

    I am digressing abit from main topic here, I am basically saying we don’t need to be as negative about our team or manager whom I believe is working away to ensure we are genuine challengers on all fronts.

    Cesc will leave, but if he goes this year he will regret it, sitting on the bench is hard when you come from a big team where you were so inportant and on the way to earning legendary status. He should look at recent history Hleb, Flamini and dare I say it Henry as examples. Even currently, Sol ( who I have now forgiven)tell the same tired story about life after Arsenal.

    I like the article.

  3. Great post.

    Especially agree about the wing play. The problem is that we don’t really have proper wingers. The perfect player for wing in 4-3-3, would be a hard working, pacy, technical, good finisher.

    Walcott, has all those but is not technical enough, he loses the ball too easily and his final ball is normally poor, but has great pace and is an excellent finisher.
    Arsahvin, has everything to play on the wing, and then some but he doesn’t track back enough, and leaves the left back exposed.
    Nasri could be the solution next season. He’s lost a bit sharpness this season due to his leg break.
    Rosicky has no pace to play in this position.
    Vela has the qualities to play here, but lacks application.

  4. Well said. Its very pleasing for once to read an intelligent, well written, balanced and comprehensive review of the Arsenal. It makes such a change from the ignorant anti Wenger rants. Thank you whoever you are. Terry Barry

  5. Absolutely brilliant piece. couldn’t agree more.

    On wide play, clichy needs to be encouraged to go past the last defender.

    On RVP….I think i agree, but we really need a better direct free kick taker – really ineffective over the last 4 years. has nearly scored loads, but has actually scored none.

    Absolutely agree on pressing versus the zonal marking.

    If i could add one more….we need a bit more height in the team.

    Otherwise great analysis

  6. Point # 4 is an awesome Idea… i guess we should pass it along to someone in management…

    since we are about investment… nothing to beat this …

    Arsenal for ever…

  7. Nice analysis.

    Hopefully the lads can really learn from this season and develop their character in big/tough games.

    I hope dearly the Boss keeps the key players at the club and only allows fringe players to leave. Or indeed players out of contract who get a better offer.

    Surely the time has come to stop selling key memebers of the squad. If we want to become successful and by that I mean silverware, then we have to keep this squad together but also add to it.

    Good point on the wingers and also the pressing. Off the ball we need alot more work if this system is to be truly successful

  8. Well done, Brain.

    Have to echo another poster’s point that we don’t have proper wingers. Nasri, Rosicky, Walcott, Arshavin — none of these players really impress on the wing.

    Re your section on goalkeeping…

    It’s true that we often forget Jens’ mistakes when dissing Almunia and Fabianski. But here’s the more important point for me: Seaman and Jens KNEW HOW TO DEAL WITH PHYSICAL INTIMIDATION in the box. The Bburn game was a farce and exposed our keeper’s and our defenders’ complete inability to deal with Allardyce’s tactics. It wasn’t just Fabianski who looked clueless and helpless, so did our defenders – his teammates didn’t help him.

    Jens made a big deal about defenders stepping on his toes or shoving him, drawing the ref’s attention to it. He’d push back opponents trying to crowd him, and our defenders would also react to help Jens. There was understanding and communication between Jens/Seaman and their defenders.

    Fabianski and Almunia show that they’ve had absolutely NO understanding or preparation in this aspect of the game. Training should be more than just improving one’s technical gifts, positioning, movement, etc. It should also be about toughening up and knowing how to deal with the cynicism of teams like B’burn.

    This is the kind of knowledge you get from learning alongside older, experienced players. Our young players have not learned alongside such players – players who’ve won trophies. Campbell’s presence has made a huge difference. Almunia, Silvestre, Rosicky, Arshavin all may be older but they really haven’t provided guidance or leadership in this area.

    So yes, Jens made plenty of errors – but he wasn’t intimidated, he had the savvy to deal with opponents who tried to prevent him from doing his job. This is something our current keepers have absolutely no training in.

  9. Also, apparently we’ve adopted this new GPS technology that will help in reducing injuries – this technology has been used by Utd, Fulham, Villa, Chelsea and other clubs for years now. We apparently have been behind in adopting it.

  10. How is 9 goals in 16 games a conversion rate of 17%, isn’t it more like 56%? Unless you’re talking about shots to goals, or shots on target to goals, but you the article doesn’t mention shots, or shots on target, so at the moment it’s misleading.

    Also I think it’s fairly safe to say that if Gallas wanted to stay, he’d have signed a new deal already; the fact he hasn’t suggests he’s all but certainly off. Sol, however, is far more likely to accept a one year deal and stick around.

    I think despite Wenger saying he might not buy a keeper that he definitely will. It was probably a ploy designed to keep the price down. Wenger’s savvy like that. As for Jens, I think not only did he make less absolute howlers (like dropping the ball onto an opponent’s head or flapping shots into his own goal) but he won us plenty of games single-handedly. Apart from Barcelona at home, which we didn’t win, it’s hard to think of similar performances from Almunia or Fabianski this season.

    Almunia, in particular, has always given me the feeling of being a far better keeper when he’s got competition. He was brilliant when Jens was around because he knew he had to be. I wonder if complacency is a little bit of an issue with Manuel.

    We could do worse, when it comes to crossing, than learning from Barca, especially Messi’s second goal against us at Camp Nou. Abidal crossed low and that suited the players they had in the box (Bojan and Messi) much more than an aerial ball would.

    1. It’s shots to goal but “misleading” is quite an exaggerated description. Maybe slightly unclear is the correct choice of words. Anyway, I’m quite tired of talking goalkeepers so apologies for those I’m not going to reply to.

      Regarding crosses; Barcelona also crossed quite a lot from the right in the air so it’s quite a moot point saying Arsenal should learn to cross low more often (many people, not just you have made that point). It’s about selection.

      – RE Marcus: I’m convinced had we had a striker for that middle period of the season, the cross success would be higher. We’ve seen what RVP’s movement in the box does to instil confidence in crossing and Bendtner’s presence.

  11. Hi, great review of the season! The articles on pressing and fitness were amazing too.
    I really like the idea of developing a Milan Lab of our own. One of the major reasons for our failure this season is injuries to key players at major intervals of our season. More than prolonging players career, we must look to avoid injuries. In the last two seasons, we have suffered just too many injuries to win the title and people blame Wenger for not buying players to fill the gaps.
    As you state, our new formation has seen wingers positioned higher up the pitch(at least in the earlier part of the season) and we attacked with added dynamism that the smaller teams couldnt handle. But against the bigger teams, we have failed miserably. Against Chelsea, we kept going down the flanks and Sagna kept crossing to Eduardo(whose movement is better utilised out wide) and it was a walk in the park for the Chelsea defence.

    I would suggest you do a tactical review of the season, focusing more on the formation, player roles and options for the next season. Will Chamakh play wide forward in the 4-3-3 or will Arsene switch to a hybrid 4-4-2 creating a Bergkamp-Henry style partnership with RVP and Chamakh? It might be a good option as Bendtner, Vela and Walcott all can fulfil the roles. We also have playmakers like Nasri and Rosicky who can play out wide. The only drawback would be that it would push Fabregas more deeper.

    1. Fabregas may do better starting from deep, allowing him to dictate the pace of the game better and see the entire field. I remember reading a quote from Xavi stating Cesc preferred to pay with the field in front of him, or something like that. (maybe I read it here, can’t remember)

  12. State of the Art analysis as usal, blogs 😉
    What about the REAL revelation of the season, j’ai nommé Thommas Vermaelen? Isn’t that guy a lengend in the making? He’s very young in the life of a center half, I can only see him getting even better.. I am confident that the association with a brand new experimented centre half will reduce his positional mistakes and make our back four look like a real Arsenal back four: Invincible.

    1. You’re right, Thomas Vermaelen has been fantastic despite a couple of faults which have sometimes gone exaggerated. He likes attacking the ball early, which Arsenal have benefited greatly from in recovering possession quickly. I’ll see if I can get a post on him…

  13. Brain,
    How do you see Arsenal line up with Chamakh, RVP and Arshavin? Don’t you think the 4-3-3 will be too top heavy? I think against Tottenham (not so sure, but remember that RVP came on as a sub) we switched to a 4-4-2ish formation and Bendtner played quite close to Van Persie. How do you fit Arshavin in that sort of a formation and don’t you think we will be out manned in the center?
    Cesc leaving us is a big blow! But we might be able to cope up as we have two capable midfield creators in Nasri and Ramsey. Do you think grooming Denilson for that role might be a good alternative? He can develop into a good deep lying playmaker.

    1. I would like to do some thing on this – but I’ve got my hands tied at the moment but hopefully things will clear up and some Arsenal – as well as World Cup – articles can be covered soon, including this. Thanks.

  14. I think the 4-3-3 formation from AW is closer than Bugel 4-3-3 formation that played on Football Manager… is it true?

  15. Arsenal need to win when it really matters, i.e against United
    and Chelsea and the top teams in the Champions League, its ok to win ugly and boring (Chelsea) the most important thing is to win these games.

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