Arsenal crept out of the negatives for goal difference this season and into the positives for the first time, and for that they can say they have finally moved on from their disastrous start. The victory was more symbolic than being noted for the actual performance which was once again dominant without having to hit second gear. The Gunners added vigour to victory and while Robin van Persie was a major influence in all three of the goals, it was very much a collective endeavour.
West Bromwich Albion, on the other hand, looked a level below and they never got close to giving Arsenal a challenge. They had injuries but credit must go to Arsenal for suffocating the play and then giving themselves the comfort of a two-goal lead at half-time. The rest of the match was elementary as Mikel Arteta wrapped up the win.
1. “In the modern game, the only formation is 9-1”
The most impressive thing about Arsenal’s resurrection is not just how results have improved; it’s the way they have made visible steps to be more solid as a team. On Saturday, with the selections of Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny at centre-back as well as two attacking full-backs, it indicated Arsenal would attack as a team and defend together. In terms of physical make-up, the defence was barely indistinguishable to the attack – Gervinho and Vermaelen could easily mistaken for the wrong positions if you didn’t know who they were – and indeed, Vermaelen popped up with the second goal. Arsène Wenger knew he was going to face a defensive side (although he did expect West Brom to be more potent on the break) so he chose a team that he felt would stand the best chance of breaking them down. His team did and in comfortable fashion too.
2. Where would Arsenal be without
van Persie Arteta?
Talks of a one-man team are unfair on an Arsenal side who are improving each week, even if they are reliant on Robin van Persie to finish off the moves. However, it might be fair to say The Gunners can as much owe their revival to the twinkle toe passing of Mikel Arteta as much as van Persie’s goals. Yes, van Persie’s goals are more tangible to the end result but Arsenal have markedly looked a better team since the arrival of Arteta from Everton. The Spaniard has helped bring stability in midfield, recycling possession expertlyto give Arsenal the control they were lacking in the earlier games and he has stoked up an excellent partnership with Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey. It’s argued his passing can often be too passive but in keeping it moving, he’s dragging opponents around to create space and to help sustain the pressure. He’s in the top ten of most passes per game in Europe – the only player in the league. Arteta’s played nearly ninety minutes every match since and he deserves a rest; it’s just as well there’s an international break around the corner….
3. The modern centre-back pairing
Arsène Wenger’s comments on the importance of centre-backs to Arsenal’s attacks before the game, more than just being very insightful, seemed to be a thumbs-up for Koscielny and Vermaelen as the first choice pairing. He officially put down the benching of Per Mertesacker as tactical, opting for mobility but Arsenal’s game relies on nimble movement and unfortunately for Mertesacker, he falls just short of his two team-mates. To be fair, the German has proved surprisingly adroit on the ball and in the games he has played, has had more passes than Koscielny. That may just be down to Arsenal’s bias down the right-hand side (see figure 2) but Wenger can rotate his centre-backs when the circumstances demand it, safe in the knowledge than any of his three can do a good job.
Against West Brom, however, Koscielny and Vermalen showed why they are Arsenal’s best partnership, aiding Arsenal’s possession game with precision passing into the midfield. But most impressive was their acute reading of play which helped squeezed the play in West Brom’s half. They constantly won the wall back quickly, helping to restart attacks as soon as they broke down, something arguably less achievable if Mertesacker had played.
NB: We didn’t see how Arsenal’s defenders cope when pressed because West Brom weren’t able to close them down up the pitch but it’s important to note Wenger’s tactics when that happens. He usually pushes his midfielders up at the start of the build up to give the centre-backs time and space on the ball. It’s worked to varying success, though; Arsenal do look better when Song and Arteta rotate to drop deep to pick up the ball rather than Song on his own because it makes them harder to mark. Nevertheless, Arsène Wenger has indicated what could be a potential strategy for clubs against them and is taking steps to ensure his team is fully prepared.
“[Traditionally] when you play against a 4-4-2 the two strikers stop your centre-backs so the full-backs get the first ball from the goalkeeper,” said Wenger. “If your full-back gives ball back to the keeper or cannot get out of a tight situation you have to kick the ball forward.
“Against a 4-5-1, the trend now, the two centre-backs become more important as the full-backs are ‘blocks’ and the centre-backs get more of the ball. So the quality of their passing becomes very important.”
4. Another word on Arsenal’s wing-play
It’s a little bit strange to say that the wide forwards have been crucial to Arsenal’s game because, at the same time, they’ve yet to deliver as it’s been hoped. That’s probably down to the nature of the wide player as they generally tend to flit in and out of games because their space is often squeezed. Wenger has tried to keep their involvement going at all times by swapping sides when their impact wanes but we should note the differences of Gervinho and Theo Walcott’s roles. Gervinho is almost expected to be a striker tucked in on the left therefore he’s often left up the pitch so Arsenal can knick a goal on the break (although I feel he’s actually better on the right). Walcott, on the other hand, is given a more orthodox box-to-box winger role with Wenger admitting he’s instructed to do more defensive work. In a sense it’s like the front three at Barcelona; Villa on the left plays more direct and closer to Messi while Pedro hugs the touchline and covers for the right-full back.
5. West Brom offer limited threat
If there’s one negative from the game, it’s the way Arsenal dropped their intensity levels in the second-half. The lead never looked in doubt but Arsenal could afford to learn from Barcelona by taking the sting off games with their possession. That’s how they defended in the first-half, suffocating the play in West Brom’s half so much so they didn’t concede a shot. In the second-half, however, Arsenal relented and offered West Brom a small peek back into the game – The Baggies were allowed to get runners forward around the box – but their threat was minimal. The lack of a focal point may have affected West Brom’s game but this was Arsenal’s easiest opponent yet.
NB: A shout out also to the ever improving pair of Carl Jenkinson and Aaron Ramsey, who, due to time constraints, I couldn’t write about. But you can add your thoughts below should you wish.