Alex Song perfects the art of the lofted through-pass

Sandro Mazzola is talking about Andrea Pirlo. The former Internazionale forward, who played exclusively for the club between 1960-1977, spotted Pirlo as a teenager at Brescia (and not Mircea Lucescu as Wikipedia states) and convinced the club to sign him. The midfielder, he says, is the greatest passer in today’s game and in particular, he is talking about the lofted, weighted pass. “Pirlo’s footballing intelligence exploits angles and avenues others just don’t see,” Mazzola tells Champions Magazine. “Then his exceptional technique enables him to flight the pass brilliantly over distance, and to weight every delivery even when under pressure.”

This season, it’s been Alex Song who has joined him in mastering the art of the lofted pass. But while Mazzola may be talking about the high pass as a means of switching the emphasis of play, usually from side to side  — after all, he did start his Inter career under Helenio Herrera where the short, lateral pass which pervades the modern game, was scorned and saw West Germany dominate through the accurate, long passing of Günter Netzer and then Wolfgang Overath — there’s arguably a greater skill Song and Pirlo have perfected; that of the lofted through-pass.

This season, both players have made 24 assists between them and are among the highest exponents of the through-ball in Europe. Yet, while it may be expected of Pirlo, it’s not so much of Song who has come to the fore for Arsenal with his defence splitting passes in the absence of Cesc Fàbregas.  “He has improved his technique of transmission,” said Arsène Wenger. “When he arrived here, the passing of his longer balls was not the best. But he was worked on that, improved on that and now he can combine vision with technique.”

There are three passes of Song that stand out; his assist against Everton in December which made everyone – neutrals that is – take note of his special ability and he repeated the trick against their Merseyside rivals, Liverpool, with another deft pass. Both were finished emphatically by Robin van Persie. The third one against Blackburn, though, is not an assist but it demonstrated perfectly, just how much of a weapon he’s been to Arsenal in opening up defences as he floated the ball onto path of Theo Walcott to cross. Nevertheless, he managed to produce a carbon copy of that pass in the 3-0 win over Aston Villa which directly did lead to a goal.

Song’s not all about chipped passes though. His best assist is probably neither of the above. That came against Borussia Dortmund when, looking as if he had run into a cul-de-sac with three defenders converging on him, he deployed another little unbeknownst weapon in his armoury, clever footwork to jinx between them. His cross after was perfect as van Persie (again) guided a header in. And he’s shown he can keep it on the ground too; he played a sumptuous pass between a trio of perplexed Blackburn defenders to find Gervinho in the 4-3 defeat and did well to ignore him away to Norwich City, instead threading it to van Persie. The other five of his eleven league assists have come against Tottenham (a left footed cross to Aaron Ramsey), Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion (both to Andre Santos), Wolverhampton Wanderers and Norwich at home. (Note: he also floated the pass that led to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League but for a ricochet off a defender as he dribbled with it, it might not stand as Song’s assist).

Alex Song might nominally play as the enforcer but last season, he showed he’s becoming the complete link between the defence and attack for Arsenal.

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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.”

Aaron Ramsey can look back at a solid season

It can be hard to deconstruct the impact that Aaron Ramsey has made this season because it came at a time when Arsenal were at their worst. But when the team began to improve, Ramsey was central to it in an unheralded manner. His drive was crucial at an aesthetically bleak period in Arsenal’s season, especially when they lacked full backs and everything was forced to come from the middle. Thus his role was hard to define, because it flitted in between a playmaker and a box-to-box midfielder (and at times, a second-striker because he was often asked to press with Robin van Persie). He passed the ball neatly and before falling out of the team midway through the season, Ramsey was in the top 6 for chances created in open play in the league. But Arsenal found their best – and most fluid form – when he went out of the side and Tomáš Rosický came in. Suddenly, the dynamics of the midfield changed. Arsenal played at a higher tempo and displayed a ruthlessness that was unrecognisable in the first-half of the season.

Yet, that’s not to say Aaron Ramsey doesn’t quite fit. He does. Although, in his first full season, he’s still learning about his own game as much as we’re finding out how best to utilise him. In the recent 0-0 against Chelsea, Ramsey ended up with a 97% passing accuracy which indicates that he had little trouble replicating Mikel Arteta’s role just to the side of Alex Song –  but he did, especially in the first-half. His passing, while accurate, was slow thus failing to implant the same tempo Arteta does. And while he managed to find a team-mate with the majority of his passing, it tells a wider story of Ramsey’s style; he’s methodical – almost excruciatingly so – weighing up all potential options so much so that he often eschews the simple pass and by the time he’s decided, the risky pass passes him by. That sometimes leads him to cede possession sloppily – against Chelsea, Ramsey lost the ball five times through being tackled or by bad control. As a result, he can seem cumbersome on the ball but there is far more talent in his noggin than he’s been given credit for.

Arsène Wenger has been able to get the best out of him through a bit of guidance. In a few matches earlier this season, Ramsey made an immediate impact after being given his half-time instructions (Bolton, Tottenham, Aston Villa FA Cup and off the bench against Marseille) while at the start of matches, Wenger always looked to push him up the pitch in order to profit from his energy.

Rosický now assumes the position behind van Persie and since his recall to the starting line-up, Arsenal haven’t played better. But it also shows how Arsenal’s style has subtly changed over the season. Because for half a season, shorn of key creative figures, Arsenal played more vertically, more through the wings but what pervaded their play was an overriding sense of cautiousness dictated by the bad start they made. (They pressed deep in their half, while looking back at their run of eight games unbeaten from October to mid-December, it’s notable Arsenal almost exclusively dealt in low scores). Since their path became clearer – essentially just gunning for third place – Arsenal have been able to re-adjust their game back to the way they want to play. The tempo is higher as is their pressing while the use of a “half-winger” on the left-side has given the team more balance. “Since then [defeats to Fulham/Swansea],” Wenger said, “we have more options and a bit better plan. That has allowed the team to feel more confident.”

Thus the role of Rosický is different to the one Ramsey played because while Ramsey was once the instigator, primarily used highest up the pitch for his energy, Rosický is the natural playmaker. His passing has given Arsenal greater impetus and often, it’s him they build attacks round. Certainly, chance creation is still plural but whereas once the midfield was noted for it’s rotation, Rosický is overwhelmingly now the spearhead. The Czech captain expands: “I am in the advanced position of the three, looking to get in between the opposition’s midfield and defence,” says Rosický. “When we have the ball I am starting quite close to Robin [van Persie] up front, and after that I can come a bit deeper and stretch the pitch out. I can’t say for sure whether this has made the whole difference, but I would certainly agree that what the boss is asking [of me] at the moment suits me nicely.”

As the season draws to a close, Ramsey has flitted in and out of the squad and that may mean taking a back seat and learning from the little master, Tomáš Rosický. Certainly, the recent deployment of Ramsey on the left-side indicates so which Arsène Wenger says is for “the education of the player”, to help his movement and ability to get “into little pockets”. But even if Ramsey doesn’t end the campaign as the central starter, he can nevertheless be satisfied with his involvement this season and can look back proudly at the contribution he has made to help get Arsenal to where they are right now.

For extra reading, here’s my piece on Ramsey for Arsenal Insider.

Ramsey’s passing v Chelsea

Using this video here, I attempted to work out how long Ramsey takes to pass the ball after he receives it (implored by this comment here). The stopwatch starts as the ball is passed to him (as this helps gauge his ability to survey the situation) and stops as it’s released. Most passes are received in midfield but the ones which involve a different activity, are described.

First-half Average: 2.27 seconds

Passes: 2.7 secs, 3.4, 2.8, 1.5, 4.5 (dispossessed), 0.5, 6.0 (attack down right and cross cleared), 4.0, 2.0, 6.0, 1.5, 2.3, 3.8, 3.8 (wins tackle and release), 3.5, 1.7, 1.8, 1.5 (collects loose ball), 2.8 (dispossessed), 1.5, 3.2, 1.5, 1.4, 2.8 (dispossessed), 1.9 (wins possession and release), 1.3, 1.2 (give and go in attack), 3.0 (wins possession and releases), 0.6 (start of counter-attack), 1.9, 0.8 (receives throw), 1.2 (pass from wide).

Second-half Average 2.0 seconds

Passes: 1.7 secs, 1.5, 1.2, 0.4, 0.3, 1.3, 3.6 (build up wide leading to Gervinho run in box) , 0.7 (bad touch/loss of possession), 0.9, 3.4 (pass from wide), 2.36 (chance created – long pass to van Persie), 4.5 (pass back to ‘keeper), 1.4, 1.1 (switch play to release full-back), 2.8, 2.7 (pass from wide under pressure), 0.7 (start of counter) – 4.5 (release Gervinho down touchline – end of counter), 2.14 (switch play to release full-back), 1.4 (pass to van Persie), 2.7 (switch play to release full-back), 1.8 (loss of possession in tight area), 3.1, 1.6, 2.8, 2.7 (switch play to release full-back), 0.4 (miscontrol), 2.5, 1.3, 2.5 (dribble and counter), 1.6 (switch play to release full-back), 2.7 (ball falls to feet after clearance outside opposition box).

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.”

Yossi Benayoun: The loan diamond who came from Dimona

On-loan players are often quicker to win the hearts of fans than permanent signings. They have to. Time is at a premium to make an impact and like visits by long-distance, gift bearing relatives, you have to make the most of it. Fans often endear to their nuances and foibles quicker too; Yossi Benayoun was taken aback, as if it was the first time anyone has noticed, when asked about the conditioner he uses to maintain his perfectly groomed hair.

Ah, Benayoun. Speaking of foibles, I somewhat harshly likened him to Edvard Munch’s The Scream on Twitter but followers would also know just how much I rate the guy. Of course, I had little to back that up with  – he had rarely played for one-and-a-half seasons – but he was just made for Arsenal. His glide on the ball, his skinny frame that revealed nothing but indicated so much and his penchant for the big games. Yet, despite that, he rarely figured for the first part of the season. Unlike loan-signings, he was forgotten. This is what I wrote about him in December:

However, The Gunners do have someone to call on with capability to give Arsenal’s play a plurality in Yossi Benayoun; a fleet-footed schemer with an art deco finish but Wenger’s adamant his three striker tactic can be deadly and as such, Benayoun misses out. (Given the right creativity – another reason why Benayoun must play more often – and penchant to keep the ball).

But unfathomably, he’s forced his way into the team and his impact might even remain beyond next season. Not because he’s likely to stay – Benayoun knows he won’t get many games at a big club again despite his ability – paradoxly, a loan is probably the best chance to appreciate his talents. But because he gives Arsenal balance due to his artistry and next season, Wenger will want to replicate it. Playing on the left of the attacks, he’s put an end to the “three striker system” in big games at least. Because using someone like Benayoun out wide, Arsenal can keep the ball better and put pressure on teams higher up the pitch. It also synchronises better with their high-line and quick passing tempo.

The obvious answer here is that Arsenal, next season, will use their strength-in-depth and pick and choose styles depending on their opponents. But they won’t have a Benayoun – a Plan A in big matches, and a Plan B in smaller games. Aaron Ramsey is not the long-term solution on the wings and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is still developing although he looks the best option. New signings might put a welcome spanner in the works – Lukas Podolski is a give-and-go winger and has the added advantage that Marouane Chamakh hasn’t of versatility that means he will always be involved.

Yossi Benayoun looks to be getting the credit he finally deserves and not just as essential as a coat-hanger in the dressing room. Okay, he’s only started five times in the Premier League but his affect is arguably far larger – that he’s impacted on the strategy and, laid the foundations for Arsenal to build on next season.

Anyway, here’s my piece on the effect Benayoun has had tactically for Arsenal Insider. Peace.

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.