Arsenal show they have the character for title run-in

Arsenal 2-1 Everton

When in a title run-in, there are two ways to assess the crucialness of a fixture in comparison to your rival(s); take it game-by-game and use the league table as your reference or on a team-by-team basis. At 1-0 down against Everton, Arsenal may have done the latter and judged the harshness of the result by the quality of the team they were facing. They knew they had to get a draw at least but because Everton are regarding as a tough team to beat and still have to face Manchester United again, the points dropped could be cancelled out when the pair meet each other. But at half-time, Arsenal decidedly looked at the scoreline from the viewpoint of the former and that meant a win was paramount because Wayne Rooney had already put Manchester United against Aston Villa ahead as early as the first minute.  This Arsenal team, however, is not willing to accept second-best this season and in the second-half, showed great character to fightback and win 2-1.

It’s been a trait of Arsenal under Arsene Wenger to make hard weather of a game and go behind – a consequence of their philosophy perhaps, by trying to force the result early on. The Invincibles did it but unlike in past seasons, and like the title winning side of 2003/04, there was a slight inevitability about the comeback. How much of that, was down to Everton’s lack of resilience, is debatable but there is no doubt that there is a greater mental strength in this Arsenal side and possess, a group of players who are “pulling in the same direction.” We are entering the run-in to the season now, and I’m really happy with the state of the squad,” Wenger wrote in his programme notes. “The attitude is fantastic and the togetherness is great.”

Others, however may interpret the comeback differently. The fact that Arsenal fell behind again, may be seen as a sign of their weakness and the turnaround, masking some of their flaws. In business, it is called the service recovery paradox which states that by making an effective recovery, a service can stand to achieve higher satisfaction ratings from customers than if the failure had never happened. That Arsenal fell behind, and recovered, quite effectively it has to be said as Everton had little of the second-half, and some fans and Wenger crown it as a sign of Arsenal’s “fantastic spirit” when at other times, it may be seen as a fragility. But the proof is in the pudding and Arsenal have made huge improvements, largely by having a settled squad and an easing injury list. The two centre-backs, Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny, had yet to concede in four matches before Louis Saha’s hugely contentious goal and have looked a superb, all-round partnership. The Gunners have also been playing more compact thus allowing them to press more effectively although the way Everton negated that side of the game in the first twenty minutes, highlights some areas for improvement.

Everton pressed high up the pitch but they also dominated possession in the early stages. Arsenal aimed to press themselves, high up the pitch but because they were structured in a 4-2-4 with Cesc Fabregas defending as a second forward, Everton had a man advantage in the middle in the 4-5-1. Their 3v2 in the centre of midfield allowed them control the game even without the ball and Jack Wilshere, who has been tipped to play deeper for England, was easily pressed for time whenever he received the pass. With Arsenal playing no holders, they could do with a ball circulator, something Abou Diaby did in the second-half, wrestling control of the middle from Marouane Fellaini with a strong presence and calmness on the ball. Fabregas could also drop back to make a three in the middle to press, alleviating Arsenal the numerical disadvantage. Of course, that would mean the side conceding possession high up the pitch, but it would create an effective first line of defence – something Arsenal could experiment with before the matches against Barcelona.

Saha’s presence also forced Arsenal’s defence deeper because they were worried about his ability to make runs behind but this only conceded space in front, affording space in front of them for Rodwell, Arteta and Fellaini to break forward. For Arsenal, by defending deeper, that created a larger gap between midfield and defence and that made pressing more inefficient. Thankfully, their attacking play prevailed in the second period and they dominated the half, which Everton had no answers too.

The wingers were forced back thus allowing Arsenal’s full-backs time on the ball and giving Everton little outlet on the break. Wenger switched his team’s formation to an attacking 4-3-3, similar to their base formation but with Robin van Persie playing a dual role. Indeed, the Dutchman’s movement was superb either as a centre-forward dropping off or as a striker, pulling the defenders left and right. Either way, he continued to create space for his midfielders. Arsenal’s passing, because of this, played at breathtaking speed and around the box, look more dynamic than ever. It’s probably not expected of them to have Barcelona-esque spells of possession but if they get the ball in the final third, expect ping-pong passing at the highest precision. It’s just a shame Samir Nasri is out for three weeks.

In the end, sometimes it is better for players to take things into their own hands. Andrey Arshavin’s pure individualism saw him take positions wherever it pleased him and he ended up getting on the end of Fabregas’ pass to score the first. Perhaps, if van Persie hadn’t dropped deep Arshavin wouldn’t have found the space but it shows, even if there’s good movement from the striker – as displayed by van Persie in the World Cup but without the support – there needs to be willingness to make runs, and Arshavin did that. The Russian has been in indifferent form recently but finally looks to be gaining in confidence. And that bodes well for an Arsenal side who believe they have what it takes to lift the league title.

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