Norwich 1-1 Arsenal: Injuries upset precariously balanced system

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“We are so unpredictable in what we are doing; even for me at the back sometimes it looks a bit weird! Sometimes we lose balance but sometimes it is really good so we have to keep going and focus on our game, especially defensively.” ~ Per Mertesacker

I’ve been trying to figure out Arsenal for a while now. Despite my twenty-two year association with the club (that is, the first game I recall watching them in – Cup Winners Cup in ’95), the last ten years have left me most perplexed. It’s not the lack of titles; I’ve come to terms with the mitigating circumstances following the move to the Emirates and subsequently, the wizardry to keep Arsenal competitive that Arsene Wenger has performed. But rather, it’s the playing style which, despite adding back-to-back FA Cups in the last two seasons, Wenger has had to be innovative – unorthodox actually – to keep Arsenal playing the same way that won trophies in his early years, and to challenge more convincingly.

I often hark back to the above quote from Per Mertesacker to assure me that even those in the best positions can find what happens on the pitch sometimes confusing. At this point, I realise that the answer lies in a case study of Arsene Wenger but he places such an unerring faith in autonomy and freedom of expression on the pitch such that nuances of the team’s tactics are as much a product of symbiosis as it is moulded by hand.

That’s evident by the rapid progression of Hector Bellerin from reserve-squad to starter, or Francis Coquelin, who has shaped Arsenal’s tactics the moment he stepped into the first-team last December. It’s a progression which has been a joy to watch and indeed, it’s not usually this discernible to see a footballer grow as we have witnessed with Coquelin, gaining more confidence game-by-game, becoming “more available” as Wenger says, “and [available] more quickly when our defenders have the ball. He blossoms well.” You can say the same thing about Nacho Monreal, where confidence has shaped him such that he seems unflappable at the moment but, because he started his Arsenal career so well but had a blip in between, we already knew his quality. Plus at that time, he played alongside Thomas Vermaelen so it’s understandable.

Coquelin’s injury has had people trying to work out ways to replace him without upsetting the balance of the side too much. However, an analysis by Chad Murphy, a professor of political science, deduces that Coquelin is near impossible to replace like-for-like because the actions he performs are commonly shared by wingers, not defensive midfielders. He’s a unique player, somebody who passes fairly infrequently considering the position he plays but is actually very press resistant because his dribbling out of tight areas is so good. Yet, therein lies Arsenal’s problems, and why Coquelin’s absence will be hard-felt, because Arsene Wenger has built a system reliant on the characteristics of certain key players – not necessarily robust concepts. And generally, once he finds a system that wins, he grinds it to the ground such that any slight change to that formula can cause Arsenal to stutter – until of course, somebody else makes their relative mark on the team.

Mathieu Flamini is the present incumbent of the holding midfield role and in the 1-1 draw against Norwich City; we got a glimpse of just what he can offer to the team in what is probably the twilight of his Arsenal career. Ironically, just as he was looking to make his stamp on team, The Gunners lost two key players to injury, adding to the uncertainty we’re likely to get in the coming weeks. Those losses proved telling, particularly when you focus on the passivity Arsenal displayed for Norwich’s equaliser. Because the thing with Arsenal’s defending, and probably what is the nezt step for Murphy’s analysis, is that it’s reliant on speed – or what Manuel Pellegrini describes as “defending with pace”.

Wenger teams have always been distinguished by this trait but usually when going forward; for this team, it’s probably more a hallmark going backwards, in terms of how quick the defenders recover (and the back-four, apart from Mertesacker are rapid) and the distances they cover when the team loses the ball. In that regard, the two key players are Laurent Koscielny, who departed the game early with a groin injury, and Coquelin of course. They tend to bail Arsenal out a lot of times from average defending situations frankly, by being aggressive, winning the ball back quickly and playing on the front foot. That’s what Flamini tried to replicate in midfield but what Gabriel failed (though he tends to be good at that kind of reading of play) with the missed interception before Lewis Grabban finished for Norwich .

Overall, The Gunners weren’t unduly threatened but there is a sort-of half-hearted press that they use even against the weaker opponents that puts them in situations where they invite teams at them. I would describe it as a 4-4-2 shape for the most parts with Ozil dropping off once the ball is played behind him. (That ambiguity – is Ozil a striker or a midfielder in the press? – sometimes puts Arsenal into trouble). It’s sort of a zonal-man-marking system where the team moves left and right, and backwards and forwards as a unit but when the ball enters a respective player’s zone, they look to aggressively man-mark that player. Certain players might have more freedom of how aggressively they close down an opponent such as Ramsey or Mertesacker who tend to push out, and sometimes abandon the shape in an attempt to win the ball back quickly – see video below.

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For much of the game, though, it must be noted that Arsenal were very comfortable. It was after Alexis departed through injury, however, that the team lost a little spark and that is worrying because he is one of two players that push defenders backwards (the other being Theo Walcott), and also, the partnership between him and Ozil generates much of Arsenal’s attacking thrust. Arsenal tend to slant their play towards the left-side, with Alexis stepping five or six yards infield and Ozil floating wide to create overloads. Against Norwich, Monreal was also an important figure going forward, and again, it’s the understanding he has with Alexis that has become a key part of Arsenal’s game. Indeed, both full-backs actually got forward a lot in the match and that was facilitated by a subtle change to Arsenal’s build-up play from the back.

Again it involved Flamini, who tended to drift to the flanks to support the full-backs in possession, thus liberating them going forward. Whether this was accidental or not, it’s hard to say, but Flamini specialises in this kind of movement when Arsenal have the ball at the back. Certainly, it falls in line with Arsene Wenger’s strategy of using the ball-winning midfielder as a decoy, dragging opposition midfielders away with him, to create space for the centre-backs to pass through the midfield to either one of the attacking players or Cazorla who drops deep. This tactic tends to be used against teams who don’t press and indeed, Norwich camped 10 players behind the ball for the majority of the game. The intention is that then, it lures those teams to commit one or two players to the press – going against their gameplan really – so that Arsenal have a bit more space in the middle. Norwich didn’t really budge so Arsenal decided to use the sides of the pitch more in a bid to stretch their opponents. In the example below, you can see Flamini urging Monreal forward as Norwich narrow and Arsenal nearly score.

I find it oddly fascinating to watch this tactic because it goes against the textbook which is to ask one of the deep midfielders to drop in between the two centre-backs to stretch the play. With Arsenal generally resisting the urge to do that, it creates a game-within-a-game, with the midfielders battling with opposition midfielders off-the-ball to follow them. People argue that against the top teams that press, Arsenal would be found out. That hasn’t really been tested because when Arsenal play those teams, they tend to drop off themselves thus playing mainly on the counter-attack. The one time it did work was against Manchester United, when Arsenal blitzed them in the first half-hour, using their ambiguous midfield positioning to confuse United’s marking scheme and Cazorla tending to drop-off in between the centre-backs to pick up the ball. Indeed, his importance in the build-up must be stressed because Wenger calls him the “guide”, because he directs Arsenal’s play from the back rather than dictates, and the team-mates know when they pass it to him, he can get them out of trouble because of his quick-dribbling. That’s one of the reasons why Coquelin will be sorely missed, as together the pair created a unique partnership in the heart of the midfield. Hopefully now, Arsenal can find a different balance.

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Five points on Arsenal 1-2 Wigan Athletic (and more!)

As Thomas Vermaelen made the pass forward, he ran into space making sure he did a double-take to check who’s around him. Not for any Wigan Athletic players, though – they were long camped in their own half by now. But for Alex Song, who was lurking to the right of the centre-circle. Vermaelen wanted him to fill him as he embark on another one of his runs up the pitch and why not? He had already scored one. However, as much as his constant forays forward are a weapon for Arsenal, they’re also a debilitating influence and Song’s reaction indicated that. The Cameroonian midfielder was reluctant to constantly drop back for what he felt was a disruption to the team’s structure and an inefficient use of personnel. In the end, Vermaelen neither went up or stayed back, continuing to remonstrate with Song.

If that moment on 65 minutes encapsulated Arsenal’s lack of cohesion in the 2-1 defeat to Wigan, it also did their desperation because they gave everything. The trouble was, Wigan gave more. And in a season when The Emirates finally felt like their own, this was one of Arsenal’s worst performances at their new home. But to phrase it that way round is to do a disservice to Wigan who outwitted and outran Arsenal to deliver a famous – and important – win.

For a moment, it didn’t look like they would quite hold on as Arsenal lay siege to the Wigan goal, despite taking a quite breathtaking two-goal lead. But they did, defending resolutely to block chances that came at them and in the second-half, they were so expertly organised that they never gave Arsenal a real chance on goal. And to put into context just how brilliant they smothered Arsenal attacks, they were also a threat at the other end, delivering 7 shots on target – the most by any away side at The Emirates this season.

Arsène Wenger had no answer. Or rather, he had no answer to the circumstances that befell his side, conceding two early goals. He said before the match, when asked about how he will counteract Wigan’s 3-4-3/5-4-1, to just “watch the game”and certainly, he would never have expected to fall behind that quickly. But to credit Wenger in his own unique way, he never used that as an excuse and you wouldn’t expect him to, after the way in which Arsenal have clawed back deficits this season. But it surely affected Arsenal’s gameplan and by the start of the second-half, just as they did against Milan, they ran out of energy. Indeed, it also highlighted just why it’s dangerous to draw too many conclusions from this good run of form because such an intensity – especially after conceding – is hard to sustain. Arsenal have been at their best when their emotionally-charged – which indicates a strength of character in a different sense as they’ve also managed to retain a level of control – but Wigan was the type of game which a different mentality was required. The use of Yossi Benayoun might even be an indication that Wenger is not drawing too much from this run too for next season except for breeding confidence and developing an understanding of a certain game plan and Benayoun allows them to achieve that. (Wenger talks of his application and work-rate but in all reality, is only being used to get them to third place – he’s unlikely to stay on).

The substitution of Benayoun on 60 minutes confirmed to some what they already felt about Wenger’s in-game management; that it’s his weakness. Certainly, it’s not that Gervinho entered the fray although he too was ineffective – and the fans wanted Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – it’s that it probably shouldn’t have been Benayoun that went off. Theo Walcott just could not get into the game. The lack of space in front and the shape Wigan deployed meant it stopped Bacary Sagna from overlapping and that affected Walcott’s influence. Another one of Wenger’s subs, and one which there was little to argue about, Aaron Ramsey, couldn’t also make an impact. The Welshman’s passing was slow and in his recent run of games, he’s not been able to show the energy he did earlier this season. Certainly he was affected by the relatively new, and important, role he was playing filling in for Mikel Arteta and as a result, his pressing and positioning suffered. When Oxlade-Chamberlain did enter the field, he did in central midfield and proceeded to try to do too much. His runs often led to blind alleys (showing how much Arsenal miss Jack Wilshere’s drive) and he probably needed a powerful player like Song to alternate with. He went slotted into centre-back, replacing Johan Djourou who had a fine game if a bit anxious on the ball giving Wenger no choice but to sacrifice him.

That Wenger pointed to a lack of players that could make a “difference” despite having the bulk of his attacking players on, showed just how well Wigan defended and how Arsenal still have a lot of work to be done. It’s been a fine run but that can’t hide deficiencies or areas that need improving. It seems The Gunners can’t seem to find a balance between their typical “gung-ho” style and playing a little bit cautiousness from the start – and they were punished for that. And strength-in-depth will be key next season, especially if they want to play with this intensity, however, Arsenal just could not find a way past Wigan even if they threw everything at them.

1. The effect of Vermaelen’s runs

Thomas Vermaelen has so much natural talent: He’s good on the ball, mobile, strong in the air and plays with a determined attitude but there are habits to his game that he must iron out. In the recent defeat to QPR – which they lost by the same scoreline – his impetuousness ultimately conceded the two goals and while he can’t be claimed to be directly at fault here, his constant forays forward at times, did have a domino effect on the team’s structure. Because that meant Song couldn’t be used higher up the pitch and often moved away from the middle where he should be as he was needed to fill in, while Andre Santos was often forced narrow so Arsenal could remain compact. Wenger may have allowed Vermaelen to continue bombing forward because he felt there was little inspiration in the team – he admitted that after the game – and it’s been a huge weapon for The Gunners, but Arsenal might have been more effective with a more orthodox structure. In the second-half, most of the play was going down the left and perhaps if Song was allowed to sit as an orthodox holding midfielder, it would have allowed Santos the freedom to bomb forward. But everything Wenger did tried, doomed to fail; the players had expended too much energy and had no ideas to Wigan’s organisation.

2. Arsenal’s pressing in the first-half without Arteta

Arsenal might be excused for feeling hard done by when conceding the first goal because it effectively came with ten men and that the man who was injured in the lead up, Mikel Arteta, was supposed to be the one tracking Franco Di Santo. But for the second they were punished when they did have ten men – Arsenal unable to make the change quick enough and after neat skill from Victor Moses, bundled the ball in. Arsenal’s gameplan altered drastically in the space of two minutes meaning they had no choice but to go for it. As a result, their pressing suffered as Aaron Ramsey wa still adjusting to the intensity. In the first-half, The Gunners were too open when pressing and particularly when the ball was played early from the back. Tomáš Rosický pressed alongisde Robin van Persie almost as a 4-4-2 – as he normally might do although with a bit more recklessness – and Alex Song followed. Aaron Ramsey did neither. He was the spare man in the midfield and the one who would drop into space as Arteta might. As a result, Wigan had plenty of space in between which, although they didn’t profit from after, gave Arsenal a few problems.

3. Wigan’s back five restrict Walcott

Wigan suffered an onslaught in the first-half, in particular, and survived with only conceding one goal against. Yet, their strategy of defending deep and sacrificing a midfield player for a centre-back probably invited that. Nevertheless, while it set up for a display of defensive fortitude, it stopped one crucial area of Arsenal’s game from developing; that of the overlapping runs. Theo Walcott, above all suffered as he was unable to manufacture any space to run in behind. Not only did Wigan double up on the flanks – they tripled up – and the one opportunity he did get, Walcott might have been aggrieved that it didn’t lead to more as Maynor Figueroa looked to have fouled him when closing in on goal. Behind him, Victor Moses did a brilliant job occupying Sagna and denying him the chance to get forward. Indeed, the threat Moses posed behind the full-back was a constant danger.

4. Arsenal’s attack sides in both halves

When Arsenal are at their best – or close to it – it can be indicated by the side they favour most: often the right-hand side. In the first-half, while they lay barrage to the Wigan goal, they mostly slanted to the right and were able to create combinations just inside of that area. Rosický in particular, revelled and it’s noticeable that his impact waned in the second-half when Arsenal’s play was scattered, if anything leaning towards the left. That’s not a patch on Santos who had a solid game contrary to common conception – because he also had to fill for Vermaelen – but because Arsenal have less associations on the left. Santos has no direct in-between midfielder playing in front of him – Arteta, Song and Ramsey are often biased towards the right – and that’s why Benayoun is key to this layout. The give-and-goes that were required to break down this Wigan defence never materialised. Rosický, who has been key to making Arsenal dynamic and penetrative with his turn and drive, couldn’t play off the pockets that are normally created though combinations and as a result, their best player of the first period, suffered.

Rosicky was superb in the first-half, linking play and providing the impetus. But he tailed off in the second as Arsenal lost fluidity following substitutions and energy. As a result, most of his play was scattered compared to the first period where he could revel in the combination play particularly out on the right – where he crossed for the assist.

5. Ramsey’s passing

This might be interesting to know RE Ramsey (who made most passes for Arsenal tonight). WARNING: Old quote.

Wenger: “If I know that the passing ability of a player is averaging 3.2 seconds to receive the ball and pass it, and suddenly he goes up to 4.5, I can say to him, ‘Listen, you keep the ball too much, we need you to pass it quicker.’ If he says ‘no’, I can say look at the last three games – 2.9 seconds, 3.1, 3.2, 4.5. He’ll say, ‘People around me don’t move so much!’ But you have the statistics there to back you up, too.”

Arsenal deliver a complete team performance to gun down Manchester City

There was a slice of poetic justice when Arsenal’s new number 8, Mikel Arteta, struck the winner three minutes from time to effectively hand Manchester United the title. The symbolism would have been complete, of course, had the championship gone their way – a victory for tradition over machination, self-sustenance v foreign investment – but if anything, it served as a reminder, to their own players in particular but also to Samir Nasri, that Arsenal have a great chance of winning if they stay.

Nasri, predictably the attention of the home fans’ boos, was given a central role but was quickly shuffled wide such was the excellence of Arsenal’s play. Mikel Arteta, on the other hand, was simply metronomic, jabbing at Manchester City’s shield with each probing pass and he eventually found his way through by stealing the ball off David Pizarro and finishing from range. It was everything that Arsenal deserved; in many ways, the complete performance if not for the finishing. Because The Gunners not only dominated monopolistically against normally such vibrant opposition but shut them out comprehensively at the back.

The image of the Arsenal Back Four in the late 80’s-mid 90’s with their hands up, executing the perfect offside-trap is often brought up nostalgically and regret but here  – and not just that, all season – the Arsenal defence paid the ultimate tribute. Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen are crucial to Arsenal’s style working and they helped compress play – almost asphyxiatingly – in the opponent’s territory. (City only had five shots, none on target. Indeed, it must be remembered how difficult it is to keep a high-line is in today’s game and the fact that Arsenal have persisted and, on the whole, remained successful is an achievement in itself). Defensive security would have been on Arsène Wenger’s mind after the way in which their possession approach was rebuffed last week at Queens Park Rangers and the way Vermaelen was exposed and certainly there was an improvement in that regard. The two central midfielders provided a solid base in which Arsenal could attack and in the first-half in particular, used the whole width of the pitch to pin Manchester City back. The selection of Yossi Benayoun might have helped in that aspect than first thought because his ability to keep possession meant neither Alex Song or Arteta had to over-commit when getting forward. Indeed, Arsenal’s success this season in the middle has been the way in which they have rotated, alternating runs going forward and while that was on show again, their was an economy about Arsenal’s positioning. When one of the full-backs got forward, the central midfielders were in position to cover. Man City might not have been able to take advantage as they did in the reverse at The Etihad due to the absence of David Silva but certainly, Arsenal showed more control.

This was probably Arsenal’s most convincing performance this season. The football was rapid, especially at the start whereby Tomas Rosicky set a dizzying tempo and provided impetus with his passing while Song typified the graft. The selection of Benayoun helped Arsenal keep possession higher up the pitch and probably hints at an end – at least in the big games – of the three striker tactic. But while it might have been the template performance, there’s a danger of drawing too many conclusion from this win. And that’s because Arsenal have been at their best when they’re emotionally-charged and that level of intensity is surely hard to sustain. Wenger points to the improved “plan” and “more options” allowing the “team to feel more confident” and it’s still not clear whether this team needs to be unshackled and be forced into taking creative risks. Perhaps greater strength-in-depth next season will allow Arsenal to continue at this pace. Indeed, it was a couple of years ago Wenger stated the desire a produce a speed of passing game and while that might have been rebuffed earlier this season when key players departed, Arsenal’ strong finish has rejuvenated that ideology and lifted the club.

Something of note…

Arsenal were superb in compressing play, so much so that City accrued no shots on target. Indeed, most of their threat came from set-plays but it will have mostly pleased Wenger because it showed Arsenal played as a unit – not only squeezing the space but also keeping the ball well. It was also interesting to note the work of the central midfielders who essentially marked when pressing – Arteta picked up Milner, Song picked up Barry and Rosicky Pizarro and they almost followed them around the pitch.

Arsenal had much joy in the first-half, attacking down the flanks and using the width of the pitch as the full-backs got forward. In particular, they forced Mario Balotelli all the way back down the right but Mancini was too slow to change it. Indeed, it was the wrong decision to play a striker down Arsenal’s strongest side and once he made the switch, Mancini made the point that the distances in the 4-2-2-2 was wrong. Balotelli was City’s best attacker nevertheless but Mancini didn’t help him but playing him wide. In the second-half, Arsenal dominated in the way they usually play – through rotation in the centre.

Arsenal’s domination can be neatly surmised by this chart presenting each minute-by-minute domination in the form of polka-dots. Red is Arsenal, Blue is Man City. For more like this, visit andrewcharding.com.

Six points on Queens Park Rangers 2-1 Arsenal

1. Arsenal’s away blues continue

Arsenal’s indifferent away form continued with a 2-1 defeat to Queens Park Rangers. Their opponents might be embroiled in a relegation battle but there was an air of uncertainty whether Arsenal could extend their lead over Tottenham Hotspur with a victory. That’s because their record away has been patchy until recently – it became 7 wins, (2 draws) and 7 losses after this defeat – but while previous games against Sunderland, Liverpool, Everton have yielded wins, Arsenal have rode their luck somewhat.

That’s probably a harsh assessment because they were tough fixtures and rather, the fact that Arsenal came out with three wins should highlight their growing mental strength. However, there is a sense of anxiety in Arsenal’s football whenever they play away from home and while Arsène Wenger maintains there is no difference to their approach wherever they play, there’s no doubt that their opponents show more ambition at their home ground. Regardless, Wenger’s selection hinted that he considered QPR might play more aggressively therefore he selected Aaron Ramsey on the left to try and gain some form of control. We’ll debate whether that was the right decision later but certainly there was sense in the move; Arsenal have struggled when opponents press – and they do so more confidently at home – thus Wenger wanted to strengthen his side’s ability to keep the ball. His reason, however, was less revealing; “the thinking is that he played there because I decided for him to play there.”

But Arsenal failed to find a way through as QPR remained compact in the middle and pressed particularly hard whenever the ball reached the wide areas. Arsenal were unable to complete the combinations they’ve been doing recently down the flanks and their movement was uncharacteristically static. It’s in little moments, such as the goal, in which Arsenal were able to find a semblance of fluency, otherwise QPR deserve full credit for their gameplan. And they were just as alert to take advantage whenever they got forward, particularly exposing Arsenal with early balls down the channels. For their second goal and their winner, the ball was played quickly from the halfway line just as Arsenal looked to push up. As a result, a large gap was created in the midfield which the spare midfielder, Samba Diakité, took advantage of. The problem was Arsenal were unable to compress space when pressing; at home they can push teams back with their possession as normally, opponents are more cautious. Here, QPR showed zeal and while Arsenal accrued 69% possession – eminently more than their average of 57% away – QPR defended deep and left their forwards up the pitch, creating a large gap in the centre. They made full use of it, as Wenger indicated afterwards saying: “It is the first time this season, we were too open when we had the ball.”

2. Ramsey selection

The decision to start Aaron Ramsey on the left against Everton raised a few eyebrows but that was emphatically swatted away by the start Arsenal made. However, at QPR, that moment never came. Just as Thomas Vermaelen was at fault for the two goals, Ramsey has been scapegoated  – or rather the selection of him out wide, as symptomatic of Arsenal’s poor performance. The rationale was not incorrect although by deploying a player outside of his favoured position it always carries with it, a higher degree of uncertainty.

Ramsey tended to drift inside and that clogged up the centre. But that in itself shouldn’t be a problem because put simply, Arsenal’s movement was below par. Indeed, the selection of Ramsey on the left as an auxiliary wide midfielder was meant to encourage greater fluidity and in particular, the rotation between him and his direct competitor in the centre, Tomas Rosicky. That may seem like an unnecessarily complication but possession sides are built on interchangeability and by drifting infield, it opens up space for another midfielder to take up his position. It should be the basics of football and in Spain, young players are trained this way as they are “taught to see the pitch as a field of eight boxes, all of which must be occupied.” Indeed, Cesc Fábregas hints at this “tactical anarchy” when he says “at Arsenal, I could move wherever I felt I could make the best contribution. Here [Barcelona], it’s completely different. Everyone has their own place and it’s important you stick to your position.” And certainly, this season, we’ve seen him frequently get into positions detriment to his team – at times, getting in the way of his team-mates – a sight all too familiar at Loftus Road whenever Ramsey drifted inside. Fans shouldn’t direct their anger at just him though; Rosicky should have looked to take up his position on the left.

– Some argue the decision to start Aaron Ramsey on the left disrupted a winning formula. That’s not entirely true as although Arsenal fielded a more attacking line-up against Aston Villa, away from The Emirates, Wenger has often tried to incorporate another midfielder to retain a level of control. Indeed, on further inspection, it’s been the left-side which has been rotated in this run of wins with Yossi Benayoun initially starting there before Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain was used against Newcastle. Ramsey was given his chance in the next game and was kept after a good team performance. Wenger would have wanted to recreate the first 30 minutes of that game where Arsenal completely outplayed Everton but perhaps it was wrong to draw too many conclusions from that win. Because when Everton did press Arsenal, they were unable to find any rhythm and surely enough, they fell into the same trap against QPR. Nevertheless, the way Arsenal did score was how Wenger would probably have envisaged – Ramsey coming inside, drawing attention away from the right where Walcott made a run, allowing Rosicky and van Persie to combine before freeing the winger. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen enough as Arsenal’s overall movement was very poor. Creativity suffered and, as shown by the graphic below, QPR funnelled their attacks and forced them to try and dribble their way – unsuccessfully – through the centre.

3. Vermaelen’s impetuousness proves costly

The biggest test of Thomas Vermaelen’s character, after he allowed Adel Taarabt to get past him for the opener, was whether he would continue playing in the same manner. And sure enough, the next similar pass that was played to a QPR forward, he tried to nip in front and steal possession. Vermaelen’s game – as indeed Arsenal is – is built on his impetuousness, looking to regain possession quickly and compress the space in front. But it carries with it, it’s inherent risks and the downside of it was displayed twice for QPR’s goals as first, Vermaelen was turned by Taarabt before he slipped in the lead up to the second, after initially winning the ball.

Both Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny contribute heavily to Arsenal’s style due to their stealth-like ability to take possession of their opponents toes but while the latter has added calmness to his game, lengthy periods away from centre-back haven’t seen yet Vermaelen adjust. It’s not the first time he has made such errors that have led directly to goals and Vermaelen will have to prove that his reputation thus far, hasn’t been biased towards his character. Arsenal have long bemoaned costly individual errors and Vermaelen’s untimely slip means Arsenal have now conceded the most goals – 11 – from errors leading directly to goals than any other team.

Both Vermaelen and Koscielny made five interceptions but Vermaelen’s sum up his zealousness as he won his high up the pitch.

4. Alex Song crucial

Alex Song’s importance was displayed once again as he attempted 109 passes in total but there is a feeling that he might be doing too much. Because, as well as acting as the shield in front, making 5/7 tackles, he’s often tasked with providing the through-balls for the forwards. It’s all part of Arsenal’s rotation in the centre but perhaps a degree of specialisation might allow them to be more efficient. At the moment, both Arteta and Song play a dual role but if one of them held, then Diakite’s goal might have been avoided. The pair have been superb this season but there are inefficiencies in the system, those of which have been particularly exposed away from home.

5. Bobby Zamora outshines van Persie

If there’s one criticism of Robin van Persie’s game, it’s that his hold-up play leaves a lot to be desired. He lost the ball 8 times on Saturday through bad control or being dispossessed and generally failed to get into the game. He did have Arsenal’s best chance beyond the goal, threaded through by Song, displaying his superb movement but was well stopped by Paddy Kenny. By contrast, Bobby Zamora received the ball twice as much as QPR tried to play it to him early and he caused Arsenal plenty of trouble with his strength. Indeed, he tends to drift to his right and in the games he played for Fulham against Arsenal as well, he has got the better of Vermaelen.

6. Kieran Gibbs is learning but he needs help

A common theme of QPR’s play was getting the ball down the channels, especially when Arsenal were disorganised. Kieran Gibbs was especially targeted and the winner came from his side. As shown by the take-ons below, QPR were not put under the same pressure down the left as they were on the right where Arsenal tend to slant. As a result, Gibbs wasn’t afforded the same protection and as thus, made to look inexperienced. He’s going to be a superb full-back in the future but at the moment, he’s not getting the help he requires.

Arsenal 3-0 Aston Villa: Defenders lead the way forward

This post first appeared on Arsenal Insider

If, as the orange and black banner draped against the North Stand is correct, and Robin van Persie does score “when he wants”, it was evidently his day off as he left it to the others to get the goals. On the face of it, perhaps it was a good thing as it showed Arsenal are not so reliant on Robin van Persie and Arsène Wenger indicated as much, although he would have wanted van Persie to continue his goalscoring form and thus kept him on until the end. But when Kieran Gibbs opened the scoring, the most surprising thing wasn’t the fact that he had scored but that it was Arsenal 17th different goalscorer in the Premier League – more than any other team. What reliance on van Persie?

Of course, that would be missing the point as Arsenal have hugely been dependent on their captain and as Gibbs scored, it merely confirmed what Arsenal had been missing for much of the season – a coherent squad and chiefly the presence of full-backs. Because, not having recognised full-backs on the pitch has affected Arsenal tactically and therefore forced them to play in a different way. (In one sense, perhaps Wenger is culpable as he could have altered his team’s shape). At the beginning of the season, having lost both Samir Nasri and Cesc Fábregas and then Jack Wilshere through injury, Arsenal switched emphasis towards the flanks. When the full-backs quickly succumbed to injury, Arsenal were not able to produce the same combinations that we are regularly seeing now between Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott and Gibbs and Gervinho as they showed for the first goal, thus they tried to force they through the centre. It’s no coincidence, then, Arsenal’s fluency suffered in that period. Now, as Wenger says, there is “a more variation in our build-up play and therefore we are more dangerous as well.” And when Theo Walcott scored the second to essentially confirm the win when The Gunners completely dominated, each part of Arsenal’s game finally fell into place. Because, that type of goal is how Wenger has always wanted to score and quietly, he will be disappointed that it hasn’t more often. Not the pass from Alex Song, which he has been doing all season, but the penetrative ball behind the full-back, which Arsenal made a trademark of last season, and which seemed a perfect fir for the three-striker system.

Speaking of plans, Wenger also feels the team has come out of their shell in recent weeks and that’s because they are clearer of their game. Indeed, he indicates the early season form and tactics they used may have been dictated by the unfortunate circumstances they were in and thus had to play more cautiously (think about how their pressing had changed and the run of eight games unbeaten from October to mid-December where they almost exclusively dealt in low scores). ”Since then [defeats to Fulham/Swansea],” said Wenger, “we have more options and a bit better plan. That has allowed the team to feel more confident.”

Their new-found exuberance can be typified by the way in which Kieran Gibbs was allowed to get forward against Aston Villa and previously against Everton although when he did, Arsenal also left themselves open. Luckily for Arsenal, Alex Song has been on standby as cover in recent games and has had to drop back into his spaces more frequently. It’s an area Arsenal can still improve on as pushing two full-backs forward can cause undue strain on the back, not to mention when your centre-back also decides to join in the attack, and they looked slightly vulnerable on the break.

Nevertheless, defenders are crucial in developing a fluent attacking game and Arsenal often seek to take advantage, as they look to free them in the build up depending on who they are playing (against a 4-5-1, centre-backs become key while versus a two-man attack, the full-backs are usually the ones who receive it from the back first. Aston Villa made it easy because they dropped deep and allowed Arsenal time to play it out). “When we did not win games [earlier in the season], I did not feel we played as badly as people said. We have gained a lot of confidence in our play out from the back and that makes a massive difference,” said Wenger. “The defenders who play out from the back give us a security now and that allows the team to be much more confident.”

The fate of Arsenal’s season has usually suffered from the absence of quality defenders; this season, their presence has reignited them.

Six points on Arsenal 2-1 Newcastle United

1. We’re witnessing the real Arsenal now

Some of the crowd left early but for the rest who stayed, there was a sense of expectedness about Arsenal’s last-minute winner. It came in the fifth minute of injury time as Thomas Vermaelen bundled in a cross from Theo Walcott; never mind that it came from the right-hand side or that Vermaelen constantly got forward, this was another example of Arsenal’s mental strength. With the victory, Arsenal have become the first Premier League side to win four consecutive matches having fallen behind initially. Perhaps, it’s not the most desired recognition because it means Arsenal have teething issues within but for a club which hasn’t consistently faltered in the final stages in the last few season, this shows a quality which Arsenal have, in the past, lacked.

But back to the deficiencies and it seems The Gunners can’t seem to find a balance between their typical “gung-ho” style and playing a little bit cautiousness from the start. Indeed, it must be noted that when they went unbeaten in eight games from October to mid-December, Arsenal typically won by low scores, usually delivered by Robin van Persie. Against Newcastle United, van Persie wasn’t required to be at his best (although his movement continues to be superb) and it was the same against Milan but Arsenal still produced a performance of great character and substance. Perhaps Arsenal are finally coming to their own with only 3rd place to concentrate on. Because now they can take the risks that their play wants as they know they have more recovery time if they expend all their energy. And certainly, it showed as Arsenal pressed more proactively against Newcastle than they generally have this season, usually winning the ball higher up the pitch.

In the match programme, Arsène Wenger said that Arsenal “can play at a pace that, arguably, nobody (else) can sustain” and as we’ve seen this season, that involves taking full advantage of the side’s speed. In a sense, the game reasserted the new way Arsenal  look to break down sides now, shorn of a central creative figure like Jack Wilshere of Cesc Fábregas, as they’re always looking for the quick release behind otherwise, everything goes down the flanks. Theo Walcott was superb, dovetailing with Bacary Sagna while van Persie’s movement was always sought, either from a ball over the top or through by Alex Song or a cross from out wide. But the reason why Arsenal have found such a holistic style this late in the season, might probably fall down to the fact that the team is now settling into habitual patterns and the cautiousness that we saw early season, having stemmed from a certain unfamiliarity with each other. Because, as much as the signings might have been reactionary, it takes a lot more time and integration to alter mindsets and get a team to properly know each other and finally, Arsenal look in tune.

2. Arsenal profit from a right-side bias

Tactically, much of Arsenal’s success came from the flanks, especially on the right-hand side. Arsenal gave a glimpse of that tactic early on, by aiming goal-kicks at Bacary Sagna and twice he freed Theo Walcott behind. The focus on that side – as it has been for much of the season – was paying off as Jonas Gutierrez was often forced all the way back and even as the defensive winger, he was not getting any joy out of it. Theo Walcott dovetailed with Sagna superbly as they constantly took on their man and aimed in crosses – most encouragingly, low ones too. On the other side, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, couldn’t force himself into the game as Tomáš Rosický – the midfielder who tends to drift left – was similarly dragged to the right. Indeed, it was more discernible on Monday night that Arsenal favour the right side because of the pace of their attacks but this season, the majority of play has tended to operate towards that side. (The season  average is at 37% for attacks origination from the right, and 30% from the left).

3. Van Persie scores when he wants

Arsenal only needed a minute to cancel out Newcastle’s goal with Robin van Persie putting the finishing touches to a equally swift move. Actually, it required three touches to be precise and each one was as devastating as it was expert; his first was to kill off Theo Walcott’s fizzing cross and open up his body, his second to take it away from the defender and the third, a powerful shot into the corner. The nature of Arsenal’s winner overshadowed the quality of the first and again van Persie showed why he is the best striker in the world at the moment. Indeed, his evolution is slightly going against convention in the fact that he’s playing more conventionally because the two best players in the world, Ronaldo and Messi, have scored all their goals unorthodox roles. It must be admired then, how van Persie has refined his game to resist his natural urges to continually drop deep and now all his instincts have gone towards getting onto the final ball. His movement was superb – wizardy almost – as he continuously spun off his marker to find space. Michael Williamson will attest to that when he was beaten for the first.

4. Newcastle’s approach

Considering that Newcastle United won so many aerial duels (19/28 although Demba Ba never won it in the box and while when they did, it was through a predetermined set-piece aimed at Williamson), it poses the question why they didn’t play two forwards. Of course, that would mean ceding a centre-midfield which they probably wouldn’t have won any way but it would have always gave them an outlet to get away from the battle in the centre. Cheik Tiote did a good job moving the ball and closing Arsenal down but whenever  he did get it forward, attacks often broke down straight away. And that’s because Arsenal squeezed the play well and won the ball back quickly. However, by choosing to go one forward and Gabriel Obertan operating off Ba, they played into Arsenal’s hand as Laurent Koscielny in particular, got to the ball first  constantly while, as we’re going to find out, it meant Vermaelen could get forward often without being a danger to his team (although the winner came when Newcastle switched to a 4-4-2).

5. Alex Song and Mikel Arteta switch roles

As Arsenal looked to press higher, Alex Song was used mainly in a box-to-box role. The truth is, that has been almost his default role this season as he has delivered some telling assists while Mikel Arteta dropped back naturally to pick up possession. But here, Song clearly started off with the brief to try and win the ball back higher up. Arteta on the other hand, kept the ball moving from deep, completing a weighty 52 passes in the first half. In the second half, Song dropped back while Arteta probed. But the Spaniard rarely uses his passing to penetrate and for a while, it looked like his technical ability would be better suited in a more advanced role. As it was, Song broke from his shackles and gave the drive for the move that eventually led to the winner.

6. Thomas Vermaelen leads the way forward

Barcelona’s use of midfielders in the backline points to a wider trend – that of a move to a purer game. Defenders are now required to have an almost faultless technical ability as they tend to have most of the ball and thus start attacks. With Vermaelen though, the centre-back offers more than playmaking because he’s also a goal-threat. So often in the game, he pushed up looking for that space to run into while Song dropped back. And often he was forced to abort his run as Newcastle blocked off the space. But he broke forward in the last minute – strode rather – while the rest ran full-bloodedly into the box. His movement is often superb and it’s no surprise that he found the ball at the back post unmarked – he already has two to his name from such runs and assisted Arteta against Wigan. Indeed, with Arsenal’s game seeking to give as much space to the centre-backs in the build up and the fact that they are usually the “spare” man, it can be such a dangerous weapon. Of course, it carries it’s inherent weaknesses but when you can get forward unmarked – and let’s face it, the striker will rarely track the centre-back – it can be a match-winner. Which it turned out to be.

Arsenal 3-0 Milan: Arsenal’s spirit proves that the dog days are nearly over

As the half-time whistle blew, Laurent Koscielny slumped down with his hand on his knees, in his mind still chasing the loose ball with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Tomáš Rosický ruffled his hair and looked around; all his team-mates were doing the same and all telepathically asking the same question: “is this really happening? Are we actually going to do this?” The truth probably lay in their reactions, frantically searching for their next breath. They had just made the improbable possible – heck, they even looked favourites to win the tie now – but they had given so much and expended so much energy in one half. At 45 minutes, the distance covered count read Arsenal 56756 metres, Milan 52803 metres. (In comparison, Milan ran 55km at the San Siro and Arsenal 53km). They were also so clinical, so calculated that they couldn’t keep this up in the second-half. Arsenal’s statistics read like a vector graphic: 5 shots, 4 on target, 3 goals, 2 cards, 1 half.

Yet, whatever happened in the second-half, there was a feeling this would still be the defining match of The Emirates Stadium. In an age where football is becoming more business-like, fans are finding it ever difficult to relate to the men on the pitch. Tickets were given up even before kick-off but the true fans remained. They sung and encouraged the players and the players in turn, delivered a passionate performance, chasing every ball and crucially playing with a calm head too to, not only go in at half-time 3-0 in front, but having not conceded also. The platform was in place for a momentous evening.

As it was, Milan came out in the second-half and showed all their continental nous, keeping the ball for lengthy periods and as Arsenal tired, constantly broke up any momentum that was created. They gave Arsenal one real chance in the second-half and that fell to Robin van Persie who, with the goalkeeper in front of him, tried to lift it over him. Christian Abbiati lifted up his hand and stopped it going in. That was on 60 minutes and while Milan had a few of better opportunities – Stephan El Shaaraway shooting wide just before half-time, Zlatan Ibrahimovic gifted a chance and Antonio Nocerino missing an open goal – those missed chances didn’t even themselves out with van Persie’s. Arsenal were looking for a breather and that goal would have provided them that respite to drop deep. Instead, The Gunners had to plough on for a fourth; Arsène Wenger threw on all his strikers in an attempt to salvage extra-time while Alex Song, who tried to do everything himself in the first-half, was forced to do everything himself  in the second as his partner in crime, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain succumbed to injury.

In the end, Arsenal lacked sufficient energy and the creativity to pull out the great escape. At the final whistle, Laurent Koscielny slumped down with his hand on his knees,  Tomáš Rosický ruffled his hair and eventually dropped to the ground. Robin van Persie looked around in disbelief but thanked the supporters in believing anyway. And Wenger went on his customary rant at the referee chasing the metaphoric light down the tunnel. (Sky Italia’s pitchside reporter actually reported that the referee ran off down the tunnel shouting “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” at Wenger!)

For Arsenal, it had started so well but petered into the game that many had predicted beforehand. In the first-half, Arsenal gave a fine demonstration of their attacking capabilties, pressing Milan up the pitch and then breaking with devastating speed. The left-back, Djamel Mesbah, had an uncomfortable evening as everything came down his side while Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain typified Arsenal’s maturity with a cool-headed display and passed the ball with conviction. Indeed, the injury to Oxlade-Chamberlain early in the second-half probably ended Arsenal’s chances of a fightback as he was disciplined and excellent positionally, allowing Song to get forward and break up the play but suddenly, BAM! he went on a wonderful run to win Arsenal a penalty. In that moment, he showed Arsenal just why they have missed Jack Wilshere, with Wenger telling Sky Italia: “We should have put more drive and intensity in the 2nd half, but our legs went because we played so hard in the 1st half.”

Even if the result wasn’t ultimately satisfactory, the performance was as the team answered all the questions that was asked of them before the game. Most pleasing was Arsenal’s defensive organisation which was superb throughout considering they had to “go for it.” In particular, Laurent Koscielny rose to the occasion once again in a big game but they looked like a unit once more; the nine offsides they won was an indictment of their cohesion. But there were still some questions left to answer after the win; does this team need to be unshackled and be forced into taking creative risks to play at it’s best? And considering how difficult that is to sustain as shown by the second-half, it’s not a reasonable request to expect them to play like this all the time. Of course, the core theme of the game is what they should take as the reference point for the rest of the season; the togetherness, cohesion, the conviction in attack and the perfect execution of the game plan – and this was probably the first game in the season that Robin van Persie wasn’t required to be at his best. And looking at it from a universalistic point of view, this team has actually remained very consistent throughout this season if not spectacular although it needs a couple of creative players if it wants to play as the manager wants to. Wenger was about to introduce rookie, Oguzhan Ozyakup, to regain some control but as he waited for Oxlade-Chamberlain to shake off his knock, it became too late and he was forced to throw another striker on. The balance was lost as soon as Oxlade-Chamberlain felt the effects of the flu he was suffering on the eve of the game.

Andrey Arshavin might have made a difference but it must be remembered, that he made an ultimately selfish decision to leave. Now the irony is, his form will be under more scrutiny in front of his native people’s eyes in Russia. The other irony for Arsenal was that Robin van Persie, so often making the habit of scoring the easy way this season, opted for the chip. Abbiati read it and pulled off the save to stop Arsenal completing the great escape. Nevertheless, the image may serve as a symbolic moment of this team’s potential; the audacity and character to try something special even in the most unlikliest of moments. And for that, there is a need to recognise something exceptional. This team has it.