The match was billed as an encounter between two aesthetes – “Old Arsenal” and “New Arsenal” – but this win was all Swansea City’s own. Arsenal weren’t just beaten; they were beaten at their own game. Yet, it would do disservice to Swansea to say that they are Arsenal-lite; they did what Arsenal normally do but at times they did it better. WhenArsenal were beaten by Barcelona in the Champions League last season, Arsène Wenger spoke of their “sterile domination” and in a way, it’s something Arsenal have been unable to achieve and Swansea did. They may have ultimately profited from lapses in the defence but it was their fantastic ball retention – like Barcelona, which at times, was extraordinarily casual – and voraciousness when they lost it, which suffocated Arsenal’s play. “I like to coach my players to manage pressure with the ball,” manager Brendan Rodgers said afterwards. “In the last few minutes they were able to play some nice little triangles to get out of trouble and launch some attacks of our own.”
Wenger later bemoaned defensive frailties and some “unbelievable chances” missed but in regards to the former, at least, he might have seen it coming. The Gunners have gotten through a torrid start through strong team spirit to defend more securely but sooner or later, the gaps would be shown again unless they become more cohesive as a unit. In particular, they owe much thanks to Mikel Arteta, who has steadied the ship and before this fixture, had not missed a game since his début, ironically against Swansea. Perhaps they haven’t progressed as much as they thought they had following the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United but Mikel Arteta is single-handedly papering over the team’s cracks. (Robin van Persie has performed miracles with his goalscoring exploits and we must be be appreciative of that, but in terms of team performances, Arsenal haven’t much improved in 2011. Indeed, once Arteta slotted in, it was then the team was transformed from the cavalier to more controlled).
Arteta presence was sorely missed on Sunday although he wasn’t the only significant absentee – Arsenal’s full-back woes have been much documented and notably, Ignasi Miquel was caught out twice up the pitch for Swansea’s two goals. Yet, if Swansea would still have retained the same measure of possession if Arteta had been playing, because he too was non-existent in the second-half against Fulham, his positioning was Arsenal’s biggest loss. As a result, poor Yossi Benayoun was drafted in out of position as a central midfielder and the Isreali was found wanting defensively. Often he was attracted higher up the pitch or towards the left. Indeed, Benayoun has often been a drifter which has as much irked his previous coaches as well as endeared himself to them. He’s a tactical anarchist, making hay with his superb off-the-ball movement but that would normally be on the flanks. Andre Villas-Boas couldn’t find a space in either position so he cast him off to Arsenal where he has only started out wide twice (excluding Carling Cup), making one assist and has been called upon twice in central midfield. The ramifications of playing Benayoun in a makeshift position was that it caused imbalances to Arsenal’s team. Normally, Arteta would play closer to Alex Song but on this occasion, Arsenal’s defensive screener was often isolated. With Benayoun tending to drift left, it meant Aaron Ramsey had to drop ever deeper to close the gaps and in the end, he was culpable for two of Swansea’s goals, fouling for the penalty and then dawdling on the ball. (Arsenal were increasingly exposed in transitions and the drastic tracking-back proved fateful).
<Figure 1> With Benayoun constantly tending to drift to the left, it created an imbalance which Aaron Ramsey sought to plug. As a result, he was unable to press up the pitch as normal and Arsenal suffered on the break whenever both got forward.
The other effect this had on Arsenal was that they were unable to press effectively, as usually, it’s Ramsey who gets close to van Persie. In this instance, Benayoun’s naturalistic tendencies saw him push higher leaving Ramsey somewhat tactically lost. Only in a 10 minute period before half-time did Arsenal look more organised and they pressed Swansea in possession well (this being Arsenal’s best spell of possession as well). [Click here for Chalkboard]
After this seventh defeat (as if compartmentalising is needed at this stage) Arsenal’s league objectives took a huge battering. It’s not just in defence they look jittery; the attack hasn’t sparkled without the divine intervention of van Persie. Theo Walcott got his goal while Andrey Arshavin also bagged an assist but the two wide men can still seem a bit disassociated and that was more the case as Swansea squeezed their involvement out of the game. Perhaps then, there are few holes in Arsenal’s philosophy. Arsène Wenger can certainly learn a few things from Swansea who treated the ball with a a calmness and tranquillity as if strolling through the Irish farmlands. Arsenal on the other hand, looked anxious to exert their game when in the past, it would have been expected to come naturally. Wenger said they showed a “lack of appreciation of the ball” and this graphic below might tell it’s own story.
Note: We used an imperfect measure to rate the quality of chances Arsenal create and concede per match (Chance Quality Index). Against Leeds, Arsenal created an average chance quality of 5.3/10 and conceded an average quality of chance 6.5/10. As Wenger said, they created better chances against Swansea at 6.4/10 but also conceded at a similar rate at 6.6/10. OPTA don’t measure quality of chance as it’s interpretative so we implore you guys to help develop this further. (At the moment, it’s rudimentary rating of chances out of ten).