“Beleaguered Arsenal need to rediscover their sense of fun,” was the Guardian’s headline and rather than dwell on the obvious inhibitions Arsenal played with, Paul Hayward may be right. The Gunners were soporific in their passing in the 1-0 win over Swansea; no longer does the ball move up the field like a puck rebounding from stick to stick like the great Russian ice-hockey teams, rather it jerks and every so often twitches to life. Mikel Arteta initially gave Arsenal a bit of spark and his attempts to keep Arsenal passing and moving with short, snappy passes were not confidently received. The thing is, with the swift to a 4-3-3 and with Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri having departed, Arsenal are like a halfway-house. They use three strikers — as part of Arséne Wenger’s remit to make the side more dynamic — and two creative midfielders – possibly one less than the side needs.
Robert Sweeney of Santapelota likens Arsenal to the scattered approach of Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona team in the two years prior to Pep Guardiola’s appointment in 2008. He writes on twitter; “And it’s curious how since 2009 Arsenal have resembled that late-Rijkaard side; lackadaisical, periods of possession without penetration [and] defensively flacid. But the craziest thing is that even the 2006-08 Arsenal side, supposedly in transition were more imposing more imposing than Barça Dec 06-May 08. Let alone this current Arsenal lot. [Is] the transition is getting worse?”
Perhaps it’s a bit harsh considering it was written after Arsenal’s humiliating and confusing 8-2 defeat to Manchester United but it does highlight the difficulties in finding a balance. In that respects, Arteta and Yossi Benayoun are probably more crucial signings than any defensive ones if we are to believe the rhetoric Arsenal are an “attacking” side. As Wenger said after the game, Arteta gave the team a “technical security” that they have perhaps lacked this season while Benayoun comes into a position Arsenal don’t have: wide creative. It’s telling that Wenger banks a lot on the return of the player who most resembles his ideals; Jack Wilshere with a glide and technical accuracy that represents the new Arsenal. With that in mind, here’s some thoughts on the win over of Swansea.
1. Arteta gives Ramsey security
My first thought after seeing Mikel Arteta in the red and white was that “he knows how to defend in a 4-3-3.” Indeed after a couple of crucial interceptions high up the pitch, he showed just how he might be Arsenal’s most important signing. His passing we all know about but his defensive work is often understated and it should give Arsenal much needed balance in the formation.
In possession, he often rotated with Ramsey, allowing the Welshman to get forward and vice-versa. Both players like to drop deep to pick up the ball so it allowed more fluidity with the ball. However, the upshot of this is that one of those players must take up the position “between-the-lines” and get close to Robin van Persie. Thus far this season, Arsenal haven’t done this as well as the last, as the forwards have often been left isolated and the team lacking a player to link up the midfield and attack. Against Swansea, the partnership of Arteta and Ramsey, plus the roaming of Andrei Arshavin (although you can argue, in doing so, the Russian often got into Arteta’s way) helped address that issue somewhat but you can’t help but feel the play is still a bit clunky and uncertain in the final third.
<Figure 1> Arsenal’s rotating midfield. In the 4-3-3 — which it may be useful to distinguish as a 4-1-2-3 — Arteta and Ramsey can alternate responsibilities to get forward. Here, when one drops back, the other pushes forward. The average touch positions also showed how this worked as both of them where shown to have most of the touches very central as opposed to either side of Emmanuel Frimpong.
Ramsey is not a natural playmaker — he’s someone who prefers to knit play rather than penetrate defences — therefore the willingness of Arteta to dominate playmaking duties, takes some of the burden from him to create. In the second-half, in an attempt to get the second — and expected killer goal — Wenger reverted to a 4-2-3-1, trying to get Ramsey closer to van Persie. Arsenal’s play became less structured; that was probably most evident when Benayoun came on and tried to link up between the lines but found it too unorganised to be fully effective.
2. Robin van Persie in a more orthodox role
One of the players most impacted by an unfixed playmaker in the side is Robin van Persie. The forward has been unable to perform to the effectiveness he did last season when he scored 21 goals in 23 appearances but it’s hard to pin down exactly why. Andrei Arshavin says it’s the lack of creative players which has impacted on his form. “Watching the Udinese match,” said Arshavin. “I said to [Nicklas] Bendtner that now we have no one so comfortable with passing the ball to Robin van Persie or who ideally utilises the qualities of the other forwards.”
Indeed, his assertions do have some credence. Without Cesc Fábregas getting close to him, he has been unable to work off another team-mate and instead is playing higher up. It is perhaps significance that Barcelona’s legendary winger Charly Rexach, Johan Cruyff’s former assistant, feels Fábregas is best as close to the striker as possible as a mediapunta, the role he is playing now to much success and van Persie now is feeling the full affect of his departure.
Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel van Persie is not making the most the situation at Arsenal by not dropping deep enough to create space. There’s perhaps a hesitancy if no one is making the runs beyond him and indeed, Arsenal’s play has often tended to narrow earlier on in the build up as the wide players are strikers therefore their natural tendencies is to look central.
Van Perise works best as a nine-and-half; working the channels between the centre-backs and the full-backs, dropping off when needed but if the middle is already congested, he will tend to hold his position. Against Swansea, he tried to take the position of Arshavin who regularly cut in off the flanks but it’s notable he’s always looking for the run in behind. Walcott was usually crowded out so that option wasn’t available enough.
Playing strikers on the flanks should in theory work as it would encourage him to drop deeper more so there’s perhaps a frustration issue here. While the fact that Arsenal’s play tends to narrow early may mean he hasn’t the option or the space to play as a false nine as regularly as he would like. The return of Gervinho as someone who more naturally stretches play should bode him well as the pair have linked up well in the few matches this season and in pre-season too.
3. Per Mertesacker makes comfortable start
It concerned everyone of Per Mertesacker’s relative lack of pace and indeed, the German’s action indicated even he had reservations. Everything he did, he did in trying to compensate for his lack of speed. He ran flat out every time just to ensure he didn’t but once he gets used to the intensity of the game, he should prove an astute signing. Swansea was perhaps the perfect game to get used to the speed of the league as their passing is soporific but they have a unexpected turn of pace that would keep him on his toes. And he did that well through good positioning and reading of play although he was twice flat-footed when the ball was crossed in. One tackle particularly stood out as it was every bit from the Tony Adams text book; as Swansea came rushing out from a quick break, he out of a sea of shirts, remained calm and poked his foot at the ball to nick it away. His pace is still a concern and will be targeted therefore onus may be on Sagna to tuck in whenever possible. It’s notable that the partnership between Mertesacker and Koscielny was more flat than Arsenal’s centre-back pairing normally, playing in a line rather than one ahead of the other. Maybe that was the Per Mertesacker effect as Wenger said, “when a Germans talks, you listen.”