Gervinho comes into form to fit nicely into Arsène Wenger’s grand plan

Arsenal fans have a lot to look forward too if Gervinho’s first man-of-the-match in the 3-1 win over Stoke City is anything to go by. Daniel Jeandupeux, the man responsible for bringing Gervinho to Ligue 1 at Le Mans, tells Sabotage Times that “if he continues to improve, he could become one of the very best players in the world — like Messi.” It’s certainly a bold statement to make but Gervinho has the capability to be explosive. Fans complaining about a lack of high-profile signings in the summer cannot but be moved to stand in anticipation when Gervinho runs with the ball – he’s the type of player who gets bums off seats. His goal and two assists come at the right time; he’s effectively where he should have been three games ago were he not suspended in his first game at the club. But he’s slowly adjusting and his improvement can help take the growing reliance off Robin van Persie.

Ah, yes, Robin van Persie. As if it needed proving Arsenal are reliant on one man, the Dutchman came off the bench to secure three points for The Gunners. His record in 2011 is extraordinary: the two goals he scored in last weekend against Stoke takes his tally to 25 goals in 26 league games in this calender year. However, the most impressive aspect of this virtuoso performance is the way van Persie has consistently delivered the goals even as Arsenal have implemented a series of tactical and strategic changes in their play.

At the start of 2011, Arsenal were at their best: in fact, I’d go as far as to say the best period of form by any side last season. They played a dynamic and integrated brand of football with multiple avenues of creativity – culminating in the 2-1 win over Barcelona – but it was van Persie’s return from injury, giving an overworked Marouane Chamakh a breather, that really made the system click. But defeat in the Carling Cup final in February severely affected Arsenal’s confidence and they started playing football in a risk-averse manner. Their possession average shot up and the team lost it’s fluidity, a problem also attributable in part to the absence of Cesc Fàbregas, whose play was the basis for the formation then employed. Yet even in this time of turmoil and frustration, Robin van Persie refined his game and kept banging in the goals.

This season Arsenal have had to make further adjustments:  shorn of any one individual (apart, perhaps, from Alex Song) fully comfortable at playing incisive through-passes, the playmaker role that Fábregas once assumed is now shared. It appears, then, that Arsene Wenger expects dynamism to come from the forward three, who are given more license to move around the pitch. It’s taken a while, however, to get going but Gervinho’s all-round display should just be the start. Against Stoke, he spent a lot of his time taking on defenders as well as trying to get into goalscoring areas and indeed, his average touch position show he played higher than the central striker. Arsène Wenger feels if Gervinho can further develop his understanding with his strike partners it will be a crucial part of Arsenal’s game.

“It is very rare when people have that [ability to beat players in the penalty area] because you need to be quick over a very short distance without losing the ball,” Wenger told the Official Arsenal website. “Gervinho has that capability. He has the capability to score and make assists. I would say as well his mobility [is key] – our game is based on that.

His movement is great – he moves well in the final third – and he can pass people there too. We saw that on both occasions against Stoke for Robin’s goals. Other teams are tempted to put the quickest defender on Theo Walcott but Gervinho is very quick as well. We multiply our options speed-wise with him.”

One of the advantages of this type of wing-play is that they are not engaging in the low-percentage crossing game that other wingers typically involve themselves in. Instead they are choosing to keep the ball on the ground, seeking to dribble past their opponents and penetrate the box, or deciding to re-circulate the ball back to the central midfielders and maintain possession. In this the forwards are emulating Barcelona, the team so many have cited as Arsenal’s role model.

The emphasis on wing play has not been without it’s problems however. While Arsenal have looked as threatening from wide as they have ever been under Arsène Wenger, they haven’t been as fluid as previous incarnations. That assessment is supported by the number of occasions Arsenal players have been dispossessed this season. Before the Stoke encounter, Gunners had suffered this fate 197 times, a figure which tops the Premiership – at least we’re number one in something! Then again perhaps this statistic is to be expected – since Arsenal generally dominate possession, they present their opponents with proportionately more opportunities to win the ball back. But the statistic also serves to highlight the increased emphasis Arsenal have placed on the flanks this season and as a result, perhaps they’ve had to play more orthodoxly than Wenger would have liked.

Certainly, that’s the case with Theo Walcott which only helps fuel the calls to convert him back to a striker (although that’s actually another issue altogether) but he’s best on the right. He’s not playing as a typical winger; the aim is to get him in behind as often as possible therefore his effectiveness – or any one of the front three for that matter – it seems, is correlated to the ability of the midfielders – and van Persie – to find him. Early on in the season, Aaron Ramsey had difficulties being the link-man and indeed, much of the dispossessed figures are under his name. However, in recent games, there has been a marked improvement from Ramsey and his midfield partners and in the win over Stoke, all three midfielders (Alex Song, Mikel Arteta and Ramsey) completed three successful through-balls. Arsenal’s game is based on getting players behind and the three striker ploy could prove to be very deadly with the right supply and movement as Barcelona have shown.

With a four wins on the trot in all competitions since the international break, the improvements to Arsenal’s all-round game comes at a timely moment. The defence looks more secure, Arteta has added stability to the midfield while Ramsey has gone the opposite way, bringing spontaneity and van Persie is still van Persie. Gervinho, on the other hand…well, if he continues at this rate he may even be able to rival Messi for effectiveness.

Charting the rise and fall of Marouane Chamakh

At this point, it may be useful to compare the contrasting fortunes of Marouane Chamakh with van Persie. The Moroccan hit 10 goals in his first 17 games in 2010/11, but his confidence has since deserted him in the most drastic fashion. His performance against Stoke City, while not bad, showed just how much he’s battling with his own demons. It’s as if he’s become a caricature of himself in a bid to assert himself and find a place on the team. Chamakh’s play has become more functional, as displayed by the pass received charts below, and he is trying to pose himself as a “target man” alternative to van Persie, when in fact it was the ease with which he slotted into the team which made him a real success early on in his Arsenal career.


<Figure 1>Chamakh’s pass received chart against Stoke shows how deep he dropped to pick up the ball. In comparison to last season at home to Birmingham – another team which defended very deep – he played higher up and was more involved in all channels of the pitch.

NB: With thanks to Joe Christoff for helping me to piece together and proofread the article although he wasn’t available when the second edit was made and major changes to the piece were made!

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