2011/12: Arsenal Season Review

At 34 minutes, it seemed like the balance of power had indubitably shifted towards the white of North London. 34 minutes later, it appeared as if it had never moved. That’s how quickly Arsenal’s season had changed because if they had lost to Tottenham Hotspur – and they were already trailing 2-0 – they would have been an unassailable 13 points behind. But somehow, and dumped out of two cup competitions beforehand, they summoned extraordinary resources to not only comeback and win 5-2, but to claw back the deficit in the league table.

It many ways it was the defining match of the season – certainly, it was the Emirates Stadium’s most “signature moment” since it opened in 2006 – because it displayed the best and worst of Arsenal – their frailties and their strengths – in 90 exhilarating minutes. To be fair, there have been a lot of those matches which is why this has been such a frustrating season. Yet, for all of Arsenal’s supposed deficiencies, they find themselves in a better position than last season. Looking forward to next season and there’s a different sense of optimism and that might be down to the “panic-buys” that Arsène Wenger made last summer. Because with it, it imbued a mental strength that was once lacking and if Arsenal can make the necessary technical additions, they can challenge for trophies next campaign.

And that might be the biggest regret for Wenger because his team haven’t been able to exert their style on opponents as they have in the past. Wenger begrudgingly admits that that the team is a “little bit less good than last year with possession of the ball” and while talk of “philosophy” implicitly imbues it with a kind of moral superiority that tends to irritate, but in the case of Arsenal and Wenger, it’s everything. He ended the season with Tomáš Rosický orchestrating Arsenal attacks and tellingly, he opted for the fleet-footed artisan he borrowed from Chelsea, Yossi Benayoun, on the left,  putting an end to the mercurial three-striker tactic that he led with.

As per usual, it’s not just in attack where Arsenal have been unable to find the right balance because for the fourth season running, the defence has increased the number of goals it has conceded. But in this case, it’s not easy to recommend solutions because Arsenal are just inherently too complicated. Their rapid and intense brand of football is resource-heavy thus creating undue strain at the back. Wojciech Szczęsny has been criticised in the recent run for his save percentage, 64% (the fourth lowest in the Premier League – average 69%), but it’s down to the quality of chances Arsenal allow teams (more space, less men back, counter-attacks) thus the probability of scoring is higher. It’s evident, then, that Arsenal could improve on their organisation at the back although it’s not just a matter of the back four; the whole team is culpable. The two goals Arsenal conceded on the last day to West Bromwich Albion displayed the route of their problems as failure to press up the pitch allowed their opponents to play it from the back early and exploited spaces behind. The back-four attempted to push up and squeeze the space but the lack of pressing ultimately undid Arsenal. Put simply, you cannot play a high defensive line without closing down because it invites the opposition to make passes through the backline.

This season has seen Wenger increasingly delegate defensive responsibilities to Pat Rice. Earlier this campaign that was a necessity as Arsenal essentially required new recruits such as Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos to adjust quickly but one wonders whether the compartmentalisation had some effect on the cohesion of the team. Certainly, by separating the defenders and the attackers in training meant less time to practice moving up and down the pitch together but that would surely be picking at bones. Arsenal did it in their Champions League run of 2005/06 when Martin Keown was given hands-on access to improve the defence. Put simply, the strategy of relaxed pressing from the front has been all wrong. Last season, Jack Wilshere and Alex Song where able to set platform for Arsenal to press together and they were backed up by the Dutch system of “through-marking” to retain a shape. This season, there has been less structure although they began to get it right when they went on a good run towards the end of the season and especially in the 1-0 win over Manchester City where each midfielder was designated a man.

However, there are plenty of positives to take from the season too although you can’t help but not avoid the caveats. Robin van Persie has delivered on a virtuoso season, scoring 37 goals in 48 appearances although the next highest scorer behind him was Theo Walcott with 11. The winger himself has had a better season than given credit for and van Persie has taken it on himself to acknowledge that impact by the measure of his assists. Alex Song too, who has come to the fore creatively, especially when Arsenal were deprived of any first-choice full-backs and everything had to come through the middle. Backed up he has been by the astute Mikel Arteta who has in a sense, liberated him. In defence, Laurent Koscielny established himself as one the Premier League’s finest centre-backs despite the chaos that often surrounds him while Rosický has finally found the form he seemed to have lost five years ago.

With Arsenal, the same caveats always apply but in this season, they have become masters of the unexpected. And as such, there is always cause for optimism for 2012/13. “My target is to get back to that level (The Invincibles side of 2003/04),” says Arsène Wenger. “I feel we are not far from coming back to fight for the championship, and let’s hope we can show that next season.”


Arsenal 2011 v The “Invincibles”

We’ve heard it before. Comparisons between players, although in this case, teams, of two distinct generations are futile. There are different rules; different environmental factors that make each era unique thus rendering the debate obsolete. Take the recent domination of Barcelona for example. If it weren’t for the volcanic eruption that forced Pep Guardiola’s side to travel by bus before the semi-finals to Inter last year, they may well be sitting on top of a Champions League hat-trick right now. Nevertheless, their success in the last three years is almost unparalleled and should put them close to the top of the footballing pantheon. How high up, though, is open to debate and even then, it will probably remain inconclusive.

Barcelona are not as innovative as the great Ajax side of the mid-1960’s to early-70’s of whom they are clearly inspired by. (Indeed, how much scope is there to innovate when in South America they regard the high-intensity pressing of Holland as the last, great tactical innovation). But Barcelona’s style does fly in the face on current convention. Despite the liberalisation of the offside law, they are one of the few sides who play an aggressive offside trap and have popularised the current trend of pressing from the front. Also, their emphasis on technique came at a time when the fixation on speed and power was at its greatest. It’s a style mixed with the best of old and new. So rarely can it be said that a football team wins on its own terms; that they do it by doing exactly what they want to do. Barcelona is that one team.

Of course, it’s more difficult to innovate now because football has probably reached a summit in terms of what can be achieved naturally. Ajax were able to do this because there was more scope to differentiate in the past — and as scientific rationing became more possible —   but that shouldn’t be used as an argument against them: they did it in spite of any environmental disadvantages.

If this shows the difficulties of comparing two clubs of two distinct eras, in the case of Barcelona and Ajax, separated by the best part of forty years, then what about teams only separated by a mere seven years? Indeed, that’s the situation we have now with Arsenal.

With their recent troubles to add to the trophy cabinet, fans naturally hark back to more fruitful days for inspiration and there are two eras which are most frequently revisited. The George Graham era, although delivering six trophies in nine years and emphasising on the promoting from within, was more mechanical than it is now meaning any attempts to implement key properties of the side requires a drastic change of style. (Although the organisation they displayed could help the current side on their set-piece woes). Arsenal’s most successful period is undoubtedly between 2001 and 2005, most especially the season of 2003-2004 of which they went unbeaten. That team was divine, joining those two supposedly mutually exclusive entities of art and pragmatism. The passing was rapid, the understanding was telepathic and the accuracy unerring. Couple that with a ruthlessness and doggedness to see out matches, it made for a legendary unit. Well, in the league that is because — and it remains the greatest blotch on their legacy — that that legendary group never progressed beyond the quarter-finals in Europe. Maybe it was the way the “Invincibles” played that made them too open against the brutal efficiency of the European game. Or was it a psychological thing, seemingly coasting in the group stages, especially at home, but faltering when the pressure was ramped up? Indeed, can it be purely coincidence that Arséne Wenger’s most successful foray into Europe came only in 2005-06 after switching to 4-2-3-1 for Champions League encounters?

That they dominated in the league should come as little surprise. There was no great challenge to Arsenal and Manchester United’s duopoly so the notion that they could go unbeaten was not as fanciful as it initially seemed. Also, back then, mid-to-lower table teams would dare to approach Arsenal with some semblance of ambition so as good as Arsenal were with the ball, they were as much forced to retreat to the edge of their own box as they did creating rapid triangles up the pitch. That they were so good on the counter-attack, you could argue, owed as much to the tactics of their opponents who would offer more space as opposed to the overly-cautious way they approach Arsenal now.

It’s not to be understated how much of an effect the disparity of finances between top and bottom clubs has had on the tactics in the Premier League and that perhaps remains the massive difference between the tactics of the current Arsenal side and “The Invincibles” and why fans can’t demand Arsenal play the same ways as they did then. So with that in mind, what would happen if both teams played each other? Never mind that it’s chronologically impossible to pit both sides at their peak without the use of a time machine  – and even that, we’d imagine would bring them back horribly deformed. But we have, nevertheless, set-up a hypothetical meeting between the two teams played over two legs to try and decipher what may happen. The Invincibles using the same line-up that defeated Liverpool 4-2 in that magical encounter at Highbury and the current Arsenal side, sending out the team that that defeated Barcelona 2-1 last season. The managers, of course, would be Arséne Wenger but with slight personality differences; the one in charge of the 2004 side will be more relaxed, keeping his dark side better in check. The 2011 version, on the other hand, is unafraid to show his emotions and is often seen venting his anger at the nearest water bottle.

“The Invincibles” (4-4-2):Lehmann – Lauren, Campbell, Toure, Cole – Ljungberg , Vieira(c), Gilberto, Pires – Bergkamp, Henry.
Subs: Shaaban, Keown, Clichy, Edu, Reyes, Wiltord, Kanu.

Arsenal 2010/11 (4-2-3-1): Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy – Song, Wilshere – Walcott, Fábregas(c), Nasri – van Persie,.
Subs: Almunia, Rosicky, Denilson, Squillaci, Arshavin, Gibbs, Bendtner

The Rules: The first leg will be played at Highbury and the second leg at the Emirates Stadium with away goals only counting after extra time. Both sides are allowed to use only three subs and the referees ignoring the fact that there are two Gaël Clichys because it is thought unlikely that he would be sent on for the “Invincibles” side. If, in the unlikely event that the two Clichys do in fact enter the pitch at the same time, the officials have set aside a rule in which both managers can call up any well-known historical figure: Abraham Lincoln and most amazingly, Charles Babbage, were put on standby. The only slight playing rule change concerns the interpretations of the offside laws; at Highbury, the old law states that a player is only offside if he is “gaining an advantage by being in that position.” The new rule, brought in at 2005 and to be used at The Emirates, stipulates that the individual must be “interfering” with play to be deemed offside.

The Match

Rumours that Patrick Vieira tried to rile Cesc Fábregas in the tunnel but failed to get a reaction out of him are unfounded nevertheless the teams were immaculately led out. The Invincibles were sent out in a 4-4-2 with Dennis Bergkamp playing off Thierry Henry and the two wide men looking to support them as often as possible. Behind them, Vieira and Gilberto formed a solid midfield base that allowed the attacking players to get forward with assurance as their primary job was to help retain the shape of the team in and out of possession. Arsenal of 2010/11, meanwhile, had more of a 4-2-3-1 shape: Cesc Fábregas had the main creative duties in front of a double pivot of Alex Song and Jack Wilshere while Robin van Persie played as a focal point of the attack, allowing Theo Walcott in particular, to take up a forward role by drifting inside from the right.

With five minutes on the clock gone, a pattern of the game was quickly emerging. Arsenal of 2010/11 had plenty of the possession but were finding it difficult to break into the Invincibles penalty area. Neat give and go’s around the box were a frequent sight but the claustrophobic feel of Highbury meant their attacks often found a brick wall. Gilberto Silva and Vieira were making their presence felt and the latter in particular, was already looking in imperious form. With every attack the Invincibles were able to soak up, they could quickly feed the ball to Thierry Henry on the break who looked to profit from the gaps Arsenal’s full-backs left. It was from this situation that The Invincibles were able to create the first chance of the game as Henry’s pass in field saw Robert Pires dart in from the left but his shot was blocked by an alert Laurent Koscielny. The Invincbles were growing in confidence and sure enough – and not notoriously known for being quick starters for nothing – they forced a save out of Wojciech Szczesny. Dennis Bergkamp, picking the ball up from the right, picked a gap between Arsenal’s two centre-backs who were trying to play a high line and Henry, seemingly destined to score, shot straight at the goalkeeper’s legs.

It was a hectic start to the game and Arsenal of 2010/11 finally started to gain their composure again and following a crunching tackle by Alex Song on Pires, they almost scored a great goal; Bakary Sagna bursting forward and playing a one-two with van Persie before his lay-off for Fábregas was well held by Jens Lehmann. Jack Wilshere had a token effort from outside the box soon after fly over the crossbar.

After the furious opening exchanges, the game now settled and after a spell of possession for the Invincibles, they tried their luck down the right with Fredrik Ljungberg but he couldn’t connect to Henry’s through-ball. Arsenal continued passing the ball around and their possession pushed the Invincbles deeper but little did they know it would became a double-edged sword. The possession killed off the influence of Vieira on the ball but he only ever needed a couple of passes and the Invincibles were away. There was ample space on the counter and after a couple of failed bursts from Ashley Cole, they soon scored. Dennis Bergkamp again picked the ball up from deep and played a superb pass to the right for Ljungberg. The Swede had Clichy backtracking before his cut back found Henry at the edge of the box. The Frenchman took one touch to his right before hitting powerfully and accurately in the bottom corner. The goal was just rewards for their superior tactical acumen, soaking up Arsenal’s attacks before hitting them devastatingly on the break.

Cesc Fábregas was becoming more desperate now for an equaliser and his link-up with van Persie looked Arsenal’s best bet for a goal. He found the Dutchman with a great pass on the edge of the box and as he swivelled and opened up his body for a left-foot shot, the ball cannoned off the post. “Just my luck,” thought van Persie and he was again involved with another chance, this time for Nasri who cut in from the left but his tame shot was straight at Lehmann. Arsenal were sensing a goal but before half-time they conceded another one instead, Vieira rising to meet a corner from the right to make it 2-0. Arséne Wenger was furious and he was motioning for his wide-men to try and get behind more but with the Highbury pitch more condensed than they are used to, Walcott was frozen out of the game. His crosses almost always found an Invincibles shirt while Nasri, tying Lauren in knots at times, failed to deliver the crucial pass. It was becoming congested and that’s how the second half continued.

Fábregas was instrumental in everything Arsenal threw forward and he should have scored himself when Walcott’s low cross was met crisply towards the far corner but Lehmann somehow tipped wide. Wenger – the one with the bottle – was ready to summon Marouanne Chamakh but was conscious that he may lose his shape as it was only the first leg so the arrival of Andrei Arshavin was imminent. But soon enough the pressure told and van Persie, looking dangerous when picking the ball from deep and testing the mobility of Gilberto, picked up a pass from Fábregas to power a shot into the top corner. Suited and calmer-looking Wenger reacted and sent on Edu and Reyes for Bergkamp and Pires and the five-man midfield finally began to exert some influence on the game. Reyes was looking potent every time he ran at Sagna and on the 89th minute, he was the one who looked to have put the tie beyond doubt when he latched on to a pass from Edu before using the run of Henry as a decoy to arrow into the bottom corner. 3-1 to the Invincibles and game over it looked but not before Arshavin wasted a couple of good chances. The handshake from both managers was firm but never quite convincing; they both knew there was still 90 minutes to play.

2nd Leg

The bigger, continental style Emirates Stadium was a little more demanding for the Invincibles and for the first thirty minutes they found it difficult to get going. Both teams were unchanged and Wenger was beginning to rue the decision not to start Reyes on the left of a 4-5-1. Arsenal monopolised possession once again and before half-time, won a penalty when Jack Wilshere was felled after neat work with Fábregas. The captain stepped up and slammed the penalty down the middle.

Ashley Cole was The Invincible’s best player in the 2nd Leg and his late runs were a constant threat. He teed up Henry for one chance before lurking in the box himself but his shot was parried by Szczesny. Arsenal sent on Chamakh for Wilshere thereby dropping Fábregas deeper alongside Song and they continued to pepper the Invincbles box with failed crosses. Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure were imperious and cleared everything that was thrown at them.

The problem for the Invicibles was that their 4-4-2 was outnumbered by Arsenal’s three-man midfield and that meant they struggled to get an out-ball to Henry. Wenger eventually altered things and brought on Reyes to run at Sagna down the left and it so nearly worked. His understanding with Henry offered a tantalising vision of what could be achieved in the future and he seemed to thrive off the confidence he gave him. Henry dropped deeper for the ball and he kept on finding Reyes with his superbly timed diagonals and soon the same men combined to put the game beyond doubt. Reyes laid off Henry after good work from Pires to slot home. Arsenal scored straight after through van Persie but their dependence on him and Fábregas was becoming more and more apparent over both encounters. Nasri and Walcott were more involved than they were in the first leg but without taking some of the burden off their two main men, it is evident that Arsenal will struggle to make the final hurdle. Chamakh had one final chance to take the game into extra-time but he headed wide. When the final whistle sounded, Arsenal reluctantly accepted that they were beaten by the more canny side.

While they held most of the possession, Arsenal of 2010/11 became unstuck against old-fashioned resilience and organisation and their lack of experience told in the end. However, there are some positives they can take out of the encounter and it’s that they dominated a very good side over both legs. Their style is more suited to Europe but if they can add a couple more robust individuals they can be a force in the league for the next coming years. The Invincibles showed again why they are a great side as their football bordered on the impossibly quick at times and defended astutely. However, there is room for improvements despite their 4-3 aggregate win; they can learn better, how to counter-act possession hungry teams and their formation was found out to be too outdated. They do, nevertheless, possess plenty of talented back up such as Reyes and Clichy and if they can let them mature in the presence of experienced individuals, the future is definitely bright. The move to a new stadium in the next three years certainly signals exciting times for the Gunners but Wenger must handle the transition delicately and there’s no better manager for it.

The last word of the game was left to Man-of-the-Match, Patrick Vieira who had wise words for his conquers: “There is a big difference between the Arsenal team now and the one I played in,’ he said (in an actually interview with the Daily Mail). “It was a big, physical team. We could play as well but I honestly believe that the Arsenal team now are playing better then we ever did. The difference is we put silverware on the sideboard. That is what people remember, not how you play. Only Barcelona play (like that) and win silverware….Maybe now Arsenal lack the physical aspect. You need a balance to win trophies.”