Arsenal 3-0 Bolton Wanderers: Gunners yearn for the drive of Alex Song

– Midfield rotation allows Song to get forward
– Ramsey gets closer to van Persie in second-half
– Win displays much needed improvements after stumbling start to season

There were times in the last two seasons when watching Arsenal that Tony Adams thought, “Thank God for Alex Song.” Because for all of Arsenal’s enthusiasm going forward, there was always one man back to cover for the team’s vagaries and that was Song. In recent campaigns, Song has grown into the role, playing with an urgency and intelligence that it’s not an understatement to say The Gunners wouldn’t be ass effective if it wasn’t for his input. Despite his physique, though, it’s not the battling qualities that make Song an indispensable fixture of their side; it’s his urgency and “get and give” attitude that Arséne Wenger so dearly values. Against Bolton Wanderers, it was those qualities that shone the most but this time he was an asset higher up the pitch.

Song scored the final goal of the match to make it 3-0 and he was constantly found in the final third trying to give direction to Arsenal’s game as Bolton Wanderers, for the majority of the match, camped in their own half. (Song attempted 28 passes in the attacking third, three more than Aaron Ramsey). There’s no doubt that this was a considerably weaker Bolton side than Arsenal would normally have faced but Owen Coyle made his intentions perfectly clear with his line up; to sit back and attack Arsenal with speed on the turnover. In that respect, The Gunners were much better here than they have been this season, stopping Bolton breaking forward through defence by keep-ball. Every time Bolton tried to spring a counter-attack, Arsenal had enough men back. As we will talk about, it’s not just in attack the central midfield rotated well – the trio delegated responsibility accordingly for at least one to stay back showing the holding role need not to be fixed. (Ramsey’s tracking back was noticeably much improved).

It’s probably the greatest indication that the central midfield is finding is rhythm because it was the partnership between Jack Wilshere and Alex Song that worked so well last season that ensured Arsenal played some of their best football in an (otherwise largely) forgetful last two seasons. This time, however, it’s not a two and Cesc Fábregas as it was last season – that’s probably understandable as it would be mightily difficult to replace Fábregas directly – but as a trio, taking turns to engage the space the other team-mate has vacated. (As a result, the average touch positions might show Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey almost playing on top of each other but the way they swap roles, it’s statistically harder to depict in a simple diagram).

With Bolton defending deep, Song’s drive was useful in helping Arsenal break them down. And although he didn’t score until the side’s third, his idea to get close to Robin van Persie was the right one. The Dutchman hasn’t had the same effect with his movement this season and he has stated that the new personnel – particularly out wide, where Arsenal are trying to get the ball more to – have seen him play more orthodox. It’s that balance between dropping deep and staying close to the goal which he has to get right because Arséne Wenger would like to get the ball in behind more but a fluent link between midfield and attack is stopping that. It was almost the problem for Arsenal in the first-half until Wenger instructed Ramsey to get closer to van Persie after the break and it was his pass that led to the opener. Arsenal’s play became more dynamic and when David Wheater was dismissed, the space opened for the strikers to get in the act. Gervinho and Walcott grew in influence as the ten men of Bolton were unable to shackle Arsenal on the flanks through tight marking as they did in the first. Van Persie nudged in the second expertly before Song wrapped up the win.

Wenger has adjusted the formation in the last two games to a 4-2-3-1 and it clearly suits Ramsey more. He is still adjusting to playing with his back to goal and indeed, at times he did look uncomfortable in doing so, but the system allows better fluidity than the 4-3-3 did and it gives him more freedom to get on the ball. There’s still a belief that Arsenal need a number 10 or at least, someone to get close to van Persie as Ramsey did halfway through. In that regards, the 4-2-3-1 has worked better than the 4-3-3 because there’s less pressure on one of the midfielders to take the initiative higher up. Both Ramsey and Arteta like to pick the ball up from deep and that has meant Arsenal are able to circulate the ball better early on in the build up – and – it possibly offers Arsenal a solution to a slight weakness to their game and that is opponents pressing aggressively. On the other hand, Arsenal’s pressing was much improved although being on the front foot for nearly all of the game, it was a must that they closed down quickly to stop counter-attacks. The proof will be when teams hold the ball much longer in midfield and if Arsenal press more intensely early on.

Slowly Arsenal are making the improvements that is needed following the departure of Fábregas and that expected time-period needed to adjust. They won’t replace their former captain directly, though, but through a holistic route which suits the players better. And with Robin van Persie also finding the net, this win – albeit against a poor Bolton side – was a massive step in the right direction.

Arsenal 3-0 Bolton Wanderers: van Persie 46, van Persie 71, Song 89

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