Ten conclusions to make from Arsenal’s season 2012/13

1. Arsenal find defensive efficiency…

Arsenal’s season can broadly be separated into three parts, illustrated by the way their pressing has varied. Initially they didn’t press much, instead concentrating on discipline and shape as Steve Bould supposedly sprinkled his expertise on the team. (Although it’s arguable how much influence he had on Arsenal’s tactics and rather, the reactive approach we saw at the start of the season was dictated by the relative newness of the team). In any case, Arsene Wenger felt this style needed altering and for the next three months, Arsenal struggled to find any consistency. Sometimes they pressed, sometimes they sat off, and Wenger even admitted the way were set up was influenced by their opponents. In the final months, Arsenal finally settled on a more proactive approach, pressing up the pitch when the team lost the ball but if they didn’t win the ball back within the next three seconds, they retreated into their own half and started again.

Lukasz Fabianski says the new-found defensive stability owes a lot to improved communication and teamwork amongst the players and certainly, it’s encouraging to see that the players took responsibility to address their poor form in the middle of the season. Tactically, the availability of Tomas Rosicky made a massive difference as not only does he bring stability to the team with his passing, but his energy sets the tempo for the collective pressing. And at the back, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny ended the season strongly while Mikel Arteta finally found a partner in Aaron Ramsey. Credit too, must also go to the coaching staff for harnessing the potential in the group when for a moment; it looked to be running dry. Wenger reverted to a pragmatic approach a design based on efficiency, greater organisation and communication at the back, and very reliant on taking what little chances the team creates. It wasn’t always pretty but it was certainly efficient.

2. …but does it come at a cost?

Did Arsenal really play attractive football this season? The assertion alone would hurt Wenger but for a manager who sees football as an art form, it’s an important point. Certainly their passing was crisp but you could probably count the most aesthetically pleasing performances on one hand (wins against Reading, Swansea, Southampton and Liverpool amongst the best). And my God, there were a number of insipid displays this season (and the cup defeats to lower league sides were unprecedented). But Arsenal did play some good stuff, even if it did come in patches. In fact, I’d go as far as to say some of their second-half performances in the middle of the season, especially when they fell behind, were some of the best we’ve seen for a long time.

Of course, it’s much easier to do so when the opponents essentially give up all attacking ambition and Arsenal are forced to up the tempo. But when they did – that’s matches against Liverpool (2-2), Swansea (2-2 and 1-0 in the FA Cup, and Chelsea (1-2) – it was exhilarating even though it was short-lived. (One move sticks in the mind. It came against Liverpool and it ended with Lukas Podolski felled to the floor exclaiming a penalty, but the lead up to get there was magnificently composed as Arsenal pinged the ball up the left touchline, one touch at a time to each other’s feet with unbelievable accuracy. One wonders how good the team could be if they could produce this level of football more consistently. Actually, it reminded me of the 2007-08 team, who were probably the 2nd best team Wenger created but only remained for two seasons. Robin van Persie reminisced how they used to practice kicking the ball between each other as hard as possible to perfect their passing and control under intense pressure).

But those moments were few and far between. In the end, Wenger stumbled on a formula that worked. Yes, it was a bit mechanical but Wenger has proved it can work in recent seasons: in 2006 when they went all the way to the Champions League final, in 2007/08 and in spells in 2010/11. But the team has to achieve it more consistently over a season.

The seed was probably planted in January when Wenger signed six of his Brits on long-term deals. Because, he said when he committed the players to the club, that the “technical stability is important and the game we want to play demands a little bit of blind understanding. Therefore it is important that we keep the same players together.” Arsenal have their best chance of doing so this summer and in the process, ensure a way of playing is developed between his core group of players.

3. Aaron Ramsey adds clever to his tireless running

He may well wear the number 8 on the back of his shirt, but Mikel Arteta admits he has to forget about that side of his game. “Before I used watch the likes of Iniesta and Xavi,” he said. “And in my mind I always think about them, but now I have to stop that side. People may not understand why I don’t go forward more but this is my job, it wouldn’t be good for the team.”

Now Arteta takes inspiration from the likes of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets and Michael Carrick and last season, he performed the holding role superbly this. However, he has been waiting for somebody worthy enough to take the number 8 mantle all season and finally; there might be a credible candidate.

Out from the rubble after the home defeat to Bayern Munich emerged Aaron Ramsey and Arsenal have not looked back ever since. They went 11 games unbeaten from the second week of March to the end of the season to secure fourth place, and Ramsey proved crucial. The stats back him up: Ramsey averages 104 touches per 90 minutes and 83 passes per 90 minutes; attempts a tackle every 30 minutes and has an 89% success rate and runs the most in the side.

Indeed, his running has become cleverer too, often moving wide to create an overload or bursting beyond the first line of press so that the defence can easily bring it out.  In short, he’s the all-action that more and more teams have nowadays (Michael Cox of ZonalMarking.net calls them the Super 8s). The two best, Javi Martinez and Ilkay Gundogan, competed against each other in the Champions League final.

Ramsey’s breakthrough helped liberate Arteta who before then was the sole entity that separated defence from attack. He performed admirablynevertheless, but with Ramsey alongside him, Arsenal never looked better.

4. Santi Cazorla is central to Arsenal’s plans

The selfless way in which Santi Cazorla ended the season almost makes you forget just how good he was at the start of the campaign. Indeed, he had to alter his game twice for Arsenal in the season; the first, when he joined the club, as he was deployed in what was at the time, an unfamiliar role just behind the striker. He certainly gave no impressions as such when the season kicked-off and he started incredibly, asserting himself as the hub of creativity that Arsenal were built around. But that was also the team’s problem because at times – especially during a bleak period in the middle of the season – they were too reliant on the Spanish schemer.

Cazorla’s best performance was probably in the 3-1 win in October against West Ham United, showing just why he has the best passing figures in the final third of any player in the top 5 leagues. As ever, he glided across the pitch to always end up in dangerous positions but it’s remarkable to see just how high he played in that match: almost on level with Olivier Giroud. Actually, Wenger deserves a lot of credit for the tactical foresight to play Cazorla as the “second striker” and in the game, unsettled West Ham’s defence by starting high up, moving backwards to receive the ball and then bursting forward unexpectedly to get into good scoring or passing positions. That’s how he got his goal in the game, picking the ball up on the edge of the area and letting fly with his left-foot.

It was when Tomas Rosicky returned to the side that Arsenal could share the burden of creativity and Santi Cazorla was shifted to the left wing. He was less explosive from the side but he was no less influential, often drifting infield and getting into positions that he only knew how to get to, yet was still Arsenal’s chief playmaker. It will be interesting to see how Arsenal share the responsibility to create next season; fielding Cazorla in a roaming role on the left allows Wenger to name another creative midfielder in the line-up. Yet, Cazorla is so good that he must surely be central to Arsenal’s plans next season.

5. Thomas Vermaelen might have to accept being third best

In this year’s edition of the Indian Premier League (a cricket tournament which brings together the best players from around the world to play with stars of the domestic game), 4 out of the 8 teams did something almost unheard of in sport: they dropped their captains. In football, there is a similar mystique about the captain’s armband – that it is not merely a cloth but deifies the person that wears it. Except this season, Arsenal went against that standard and they too dropped their captain. And their fortunes turned for the better.

In a way, Thomas Vermaelen was scapegoated for Arsenal not finding any consistency defensively for 3/4s of the season. Wojciech Sczcesny was also dropped out of the side but was abruptly put back in. Vermaelen, however, was the standard bearer for Arsenal’s newly-placed emphasis on shape, following the appointment of Steve Bould as coach. He talked about it extensively throughout the season, saying the team needed to be more compact when pressing. But he failed to influence any real change and when Wenger brought in Laurent Koscielny, it seemed to indicate a lot of the improvement was about communication.* Even so, Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have proven to be a more complementary partnership (and in any case, didn’t Wenger say that “we have three good centre-backs”?). Anyway, when the season starts over again in August, Thomas Vermaelen, the Arsenal captain, shouldn’t automatically expect a starting place.

* Actually, Vermaelen might have dropped out of the starting line-up much sooner, but Wenger kept him in because he felt his stature as captain, not to mention his left-footedness, would help ease Naxto Monreal into the side quicker. But as shown in the 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, Vermaelen’s notorious impetuousness  –  a part of his game which we had thought captaincy had reigned in – was self-perpetuating, and in the end, Monreal didn’t know whether to push up and hold his line. Suffice to say, Spurs punished Arsenal twice because of his (understandable) hesitancy.

6. Shared goalscoring a real success

Arsenal fans have been spoiled by great strikers in the past. In the season gone by, however, they’ve just been treated to one. And it’s been an admirable job done by Olivier Giroud, one that he should never had been forced to do by himself but Wenger probably persisted with him for so long because of the type of striker he is. He can do everything.

Giroud’s technical (for a big man), can hold the ball up and bring others into play, runs the channels well and works very hard. That means it carries little risk for a team that is still adapting to each other mainly. As such, acts Giroud as bit of a buffer, lessening the impact of this adjustment period by taking hits for the team as they strive to find better balance and understanding. By the same token, that’s probably why Wenger is willing to overlook some of his deficiencies – namely his goalscoring, which fans are understandably less forgiving of (only three goals away from home; two of those outside London but in the Champions League) – if Giroud makes the team play.

Arsenal ended the season using Podolski as the focal point. He performed solidly if not spectacularly making an addition up front inevitable. Which raises a lot of questions. If Podolski ended the season as the second striker, surely he will end the next season as the third. Because considering how little the 2nd choice striker has played in recent seasons – Podolski got just four games up front and Marouane Chamakh just one start before – that means he’d mainly be used as a left-winger again (where he played well) or perhaps Wenger has designs for a 4-4-2?

Pleasingly, though, goalscoring was shared between the side showing the attacking potential the team has. But there is no doubt that a consistent focal point (despite the arm-waving and the focal pointed-ness that Giroud brings) will improve Arsenal immeasurably so credit must go to the players for picking up the slack. In orderv that goes Theo Walcott with 21 goals, Giroud with 17, Podolski 16 and Cazorla with 12. Well done.

7. To be the best, you must beat the best

If you add sixth placed Everton to the list, Arsenal only won seven points in ten games against the best teams in the league. I don’t think it’s crucial to come out on top of the mini-league – although it’s never good to finish bottom – but it’s a good indicator of quality.

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8. Kieran Gibbs shines

For one moment last season, the left-back position was the most talked about position. Andre Santos’ confidence inexplicably dropped, Thomas Vermaelen looked very uncomfortable in the role when he filled in while Kieran Gibbs’ injury niggles were a concern. In late January, Arsene Wenger recruited a bona fide quality left-back in Naxto Monreal and thus started an engrossing battle for places in the ensuing months.

For a while, it looked like Monreal was leading, testament to the way he adjusted to the English game. But as Wenger gave chances for both players in alternating matches to stake their claims, Kieran Gibbs took his game to another level and has arguably surpassed his Spanish team-mate. Going forward, Gibbs has always been quick but his recovery speed is now an essential form of defence going back. There are subtle differences to the way Arsenal build up from the left to the right, and whoever plays there must show unexpected bursts of pace. Both left-backs do that well but Gibbs perhaps does it better.

9. Jack Wilshere has too much attacking potential

There was a period in the season when Jack Wilshere looked unstoppable. It was a pity then, that at the time, The Gunners were going through a stinky spell of form. He was thrown in straight away after recovery from injury against QPR at home and was then sent-off in the next match against Manchester United. But his attacking potential grew more evident as the matches were thrown at him. In various games, he drove Arsenal forward, played killer balls and glided past opponents and was fouled a lot. There’s an assertion that he’s too “English” in nature to play the Arsenal way. Bull. He’s just very young and needs to channel his talents better in a tactical framework. Wenger can help him do that.

10. Wojciech struggles but he’s still a key player

In the final managerial move of the season, Arsene Wenger pulled Wojciech Szczesny out of the side to allow his brain to recuperate. The reasoning seemed strange at the time but there was no doubt that Szczesny was going through a bad spell of form. However, it turned out to be an inspired move for a number of reasons. Firstly, as talked about and as Wenger once said, goalkeeping is the one position where there is “negative stress” and the culmination of errors had taken it’s toll on Szczesny. Secondly, it was a crucial time in the season so Wenger brought in Lukas Fabiasnki, a player who was fresh in the mind but also fighting for his Arsenal future. The run of five games might have just convinced Fabianski to remain at the least for one more season and maybe even beyond. Thirdly though, it gave Szczesny a taste for what it’s like to be in competition for places because in two-and-a-half seasons he’s been number one, he’s never been under any real pressure for his spot. Putting Fabianski in goal for a few games gave Szczesny a taste for potential life on the bench but when he came back, he produced one of the saves of the season when he denied Loic Remy against QPR to secure a crucial three points.

Jack Wilshere struggles as Arsenal’s attack falters against Everton

So it is then an unlikely source, César Azpilicueta, we refer to touch on what is at heart, the story of Arsenal’s season. In an interview with Sid Lowe for the Guardian the defender said that “a team is constructed with time and automatismos, habits, mechanisms” so as such, progress will occur gradually. That is surely the case with Arsenal.

Of course, there’s the other side of teambuilding which Chelsea in the past certainly have done and that is to buy “special players”; those players who lessen the adjustment period. Arsenal’s youngsters will soon get to that level but considering the signings made in the summer and the relative age of the squad, that is what it is: a new team. Against Everton on Wednesday evening, we saw those habits and patterns still struggling to form into one collective identity.

In the first-half of the 0-0 draw, Everton harassed Arsenal on the ball and marked them tightly to ensure that they never got into their usual passing rhythm. Arsenal stuttered and failed to get away. By the same token, Everton didn’t really threaten either – more on that later – and by the half-time whistle, both sides were separated by only one pass. In the second-half though, Everton relaxed and allowed Arsenal onto them in the hope of profiting from the gaps on the counter-attack, but held firm.

Arsenal looked disjointed, held together by one outstanding individual – Santi Cazorla – but in the end, creativity was stifled as they managed only 11 shots. And although Everton mustered only one more shot, it was at the back, strangely to say of them, that Arsenal looked more of a unit. Of course, this only confirms what Azpilicueta said at the start: that it’s easier to coach synchronicity at the back. Going forward, instinct and understanding cannot be taught; it’s developed over time. When Arsene Wenger committed his five Brits to the club – and later added Theo Walcott too – this is what he had to say: “Technical stability is important and the game we want to play demands a little bit of blind understanding, therefore it is important that we keep the same players together.”

Tactics and formations only go some way to addressing the nuances of balance and understanding. So as such, it might be better, after watching the draw with Everton, that Arsenal adjust their 4-2-3-1 to make it closer to a 4-3-3 because patently, Jack Wilshere is having a bit of trouble at the tip of the midfield. Of course, he’s still a bit rusty having just returned to the side from injury and he has too much attacking potential to not use him from the start. But Wilshere’s movement to get on the ball in the two sixty minutes he has played so far has left a lot to be desired.

Often against Everton, he dropped deep to try and escape his markers. And often, he didn’t receive the ball from the defence because there was no need. Mikel Arteta was there. And in any case, Laurent Koscielny is so good on the ball that what he needs is somebody forward to hit to. In contrast, Aaron Ramsey’s running was more intelligent, bursting forward into spaces behind the Everton midfield – where Jack Wilshere might have been – or moving wide to offer support. Other times, Santi Cazorla would drift into the attacking midfield position because Jack Wilshere wasn’t there. Indeed, Cazorla and Ramsey combined for the best chance in the first-half by creating an overload on the right before Ramsey whipped a cross into the penalty area which Olivier Giroud contrived to miss.

Wilshere’s inability to make an impact is shown by the places where he received the ball, often furrowing for possession deep to try and influence. Ramsey, perhaps due to the benefit of starting deep, often made intelligent runs to evade Everton’s midfield and had a fairly impressive game.

This conundrum, however, is nothing new to Wenger, Cesc Fabregas initially had trouble adjusting to picking up the ball with his back to goal. Wilshere similarly likes to collect the ball with his body to the goal so he can drive at the defence. When Wilshere got the opportunity to do that against Everton, it was because Arsenal had successfully penned The Toffees back in their own half.

Given that Wilshere has only just returned from injury, it was a surprise nevertheless, that he started given Tomas Rosicky recent form in that position. If Rosicky as well wasn’t quite fit, Santi Cazorla is the type of player who can make Arsenal tiki-taka from attacking midfield. But Arsene Wenger understandably didn’t want to upset the balance of his team and fielding Cazorla in a roaming role on the left allows him to field another creative midfielder. However, given the relative newness of the team, perhaps it’s not such a problem for Arsenal to depend on Cazorla for this moment because he’s just that good. (And indeed it’s arguable, without the right balance, Cazorla suffers in the wide role because he’s denied the freedom to roam laterally in the final third. In any case, he still does although it’s not without its risks).

At the end of the season, Arsenal’s position in the Premier League table will be the barometer which people will judge whether the team has made progress or not. But it doesn’t tell you the whole story.

Arsenal exit despite near-perfect away performance

Bayern Munich 0-2 Arsenal (3-3 aggregate)

The thing with hope is that it exists even in the most unlikeliest of circumstances. Arsenal faced 23 goal attempts, didn’t force Manuel Neuer to make a save but were still a whisker away from winning the tie. Laurent Koscielny scored with five minutes remaining to make it 2-0 meaning Arsenal only had to score one more to go through. In the end, the siege at the Bayern Munich goal never came so perhaps hope errs on the side of reason.

It was a strange game; Bayern Munich didn’t play like Bayern Munich normally do and Arsenal unlike Arsenal, and that created a dynamic far different to the first leg. In truth, FC Bayern didn’t do much different to how they were set out at the Emirates. They created lots of chances (but missed) usually from the edge of the box and attacked primarily down the right with Philip Lahm and Thomas Müller, while at the end of the match, Arsene Wenger was still able to comment that Bayern Munich “defend very, very well.” But their mentality stank and the Allianz Arena shared that timorousness as soon as Arsenal took the early lead. Arsenal weren’t able to profit considering how well they generally tend to play when the momentum swings their way. And as such, we probably didn’t learn that much from Arsenal last night despite the resilience they showed.

Because this was essentially another one of those “second-halves” that seems to indicate improvement but ultimately, you might say that Arsenal only reacted because they had already “lost” the game. But that would be a little bit harsh because what was different about this 2-0 win – all the more impressive because it was played away at Munich too – was that there was a conspicuous plan. Arsenal defended compactly, dropped deep when was required, remained focus to track their runners and tried to force Bayern to “play through our lines.” That’s not an easy thing to do and it showed that there is life in this group of players and that good coaching can harness the untapped potential that we were unsure of. “Overall we never had real control of this match,” said Bayern Munich coach Juup Heynckes. “And were never able to pass the ball in the calm and controlled manner we are used to.”

The flipside of a near-perfect defensive game was that it would invariably have some sort of effect on the team’s attack but Arsenal’s passing was blunted because of Bayern Munich’s exceptionally marking off the ball. It also confirmed that The Gunners still lack a player who can spot gaps in an opposition defence bar Santi Cazorla (and the speed of Theo Walcott) and he had to be shunted out wide to find creative balance. As such, the onus fell on Aaron Ramsey as the “spare” midfielder who could spring out of the defensive block and instigate forward movements. He did just that when he was involved in creating Arsenal’s opener but after the third minute, Bayern’s midfield made sure he was not to break free into space again.

Arsenal should have made the switch earlier to move Cazorla centrally but it appeared as if Wenger was waiting to ride on the crest of momentum that a late goal would bring and that, hopefully, would spark the winner.  Laurent Koscielny’s header on the 85th minute didn’t provoke such a reaction but Arsenal were still able to exit with their heads held high. The defence performed magnificently under the inevitable quality that FC Hollywood possess in attack while Lukasz Fabianski not only pull-off some brilliant saves, but was the vocal organiser that the back four needed to defend perform as it did. But a word on Fabiasnki’s shot-stopping: his technique is probably surer than Wojciech Szczesny’s (Wenger frequently compliments that side of his game) and as such, the fumbles and mis-parries that Szczesny’s recent displays has been littered with, were eliminated.

Failure might have been herioc and glorious and some pride restored but ultimately, elimination by a “technicality” leaves many regrets, tracing back to a fortnight ago in London where not conceding was of paramount importance. But it may also go as far back to the summer where the squad was stripped of a “game changer” for the first time Arsene Wenger’s reign. Arsenal had everything else last night.

The evolution of Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale

While Gareth Bale often finds his free-kicks hit the back of the net with pinpoint accuracy, Theo Walcott can sometimes see his shanked horribly off-target. Both practice hard at set-pieces; Theo Walcott more so on his technique than necessarily trying to craft a niche from such shooting opportunities. For Gareth Bale, detail is everything, from the stance to the run up, and he strikes the ball in particular way so that it achieves maximum top spin rather than bend.

From that example, one might dissect a harsh conclusion of the paths of the two careers, but come the North London Derby on Sunday; both will start the match at roughly the same places of their football careers. And at 6pm, one might even overtake the other.

For most people, with both players at 23 years old, Bale is in front. His form has been scintillating for the last two years but never has he played better than he is now. He models his game conspicuously on Cristiano Ronaldo and may soon reach his level. But while Bale admits admiration for the 2008 Ballon d’Or winner, he identified this evolution last season under Harry Redknapp. Indeed, the same can be said of Theo Walcott, who has finally been given his chance to play as a central striker having been destined to play there in his head at least, since he was placed under the wing of Theirry Henry. However, if there is uncertainty about one of the player’s future and excitement about the other’s, it’s because Gareth Bale’s style just fits better in today’s game.

“He is quick and powerful, technically gifted and can strike the ball ferociously with his left foot,” eulogised one piece by Jonathan Wilson for the Guardian, summing up why Bale has provoked such joy among spectators. If the modern game’s fixation on conditioning has a means to an end, it’d be a player like Gareth Bale. Theo Walcott, on the other hand, has bags of pace but wants to play as a poacher, a position which was horribly exposed as a dated craft against the might of Bayern Munich (although Arsene Wenger has still used Walcott up front in a number of high-profile games). To be fair to Walcott, his finishing is probably his other great trait (although, and while I don’t want to encourage comparisons, you wouldn’t say it’s massively superior to Bale who is deadly anywhere from about 45 degrees from the centre of the goal.

The main objective, though, of both players is to play with freedom so that they can be explosive and for that, credit must go to the coaches.Gareth Bale has talked highly about the tactical structure put in place by manager, Andre Villas-Boas, which allows him to cut inside with the security that his position is covered. Tottenham Hotspur work rigorously on shape in training. For Wenger, the deployment of Walcott centrally has been years in the making, stating that by playing a player wide, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.” That probably explains the apprehension in not using Walcott in a striking position earlier and certainly, in recent months, his dribbling has improved dramatically. There’s still uncertainty about what is Theo Walcott’s best position but given the freedom he’s been allowed by Wenger, has allowed him to turn in more consistent, game-changing performances. (Although the by-product is that it has said to have exposed Bacary Sagna, and perhaps that’s an area Villas-Boas’s side have the upper-hand over Arsenal).

The evolution of the Bale and Walcott ties in nicely too, with my piece two years ago on the contrasting styles of the two players. Because, while comparisons between the pair are always going to persist, they’re actually more similar in role now than they were even last season when both played as wingers. Then, Bale was the traditional touchline hugger and Walcott a modern-day inside forward, attempting to profit from the spaces in between the full-back and the centre-back (something which he still does frequently now).

Freedom has made both players more effective, although for Bale it’s made the bigger difference. Two seasons ago, when I wrote a piece entitled, “Crossing is football’s greatest divide” I concluded that Bale’s style of getting to the byline and getting crosses in is very inefficient and almost out-dated. The statistics concurred, finding that although 27% of all goals scored in 2010/11 came from crosses, only 1.6% of ALL crosses lead to goals. Bale’s return was similar at 2%. Walcott’s, whose style was about timing his runs and then measuring crosses if need be on the other hand, was 53%. A professor, Jan Vecer from the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, has taken this research further and published a paper (which you can download here) highlighting the negative impact crossing has on scoring.

Since the change in style, to a roaming role, Bale has doubled his goalscoring output on each of the last two seasons with 15 goals. His assists have dropped this season, creating only one goal (although he’s setting up much more chances than he did in previous seasons), indicating that he’s become more self-centred with more freedom. However, if Bale read Vecer’s paper today, “Crossing in Soccer has a Strong Negative Impact on Scoring: Evidence from the English Premier League”, it’d give him very sound advice, telling him to give up crossing altogether. Because conversely, despite the change in role, Bale is actually crossing more! Vecer says that teams like Arsenal and Tottenham “have the potential to score one more extra game per match if they reduced open [play] crossing.”

Certainly, that’s not what Theo Walcott’s game is about although circumstances dictate he puts the ball into the box more than he should. Statistically, though, he is doing the right things and with 11 goals and 8 assists in the league, Walcott might actually be the key player when the North London Derby kicks-off at 4pm on Sunday.

Arsenal put to the sword by Bayern Munich’s game intelligence

At the stroke of half-time, Bayern Munich had the chance to go an unassailable three goals up instead of the 3-1 scoreline it eventually finished. The Germans had possession of the ball at the back before they quickly switched it forward to the on-rushing Philip Lahm. As the full-back picked up the ball, Jack Wilshere stretched his arms out as if to say “how did that happen.” Bayern Munich might have felt the same sense of bewilderment when Mario Mandzukic flashed a header wide from Lahm’s cross.

However, it was the story of Arsenal’s night. And Bayern Munich were generally more clinical when good chances fell their way. It also summed up the gulf in intelligence. Bayern Munich had a plan and understood their game much clearer than Arsenal did. In a way, the selection of Theo Walcott up front typified that. Arsenal are at their best when they bump passes quickly off each other, usually off an inverted pivot, as is the feature of most of their second-half fightbacks – and for a period here, they did just that. But the deployment of Walcott centrally meant they had to find a different way to get through, typically by looking to spring the striker in behind. That proved too difficult against an expert Bayern defence. They nearly got Walcott through three times in the first fifteen minutes and as such; we might have been talking about how well it worked. As it turned out, the best chance Arsenal created from open play was when Olivier Giroud struck from Walcott’s swung cross.

There was an inevitability about it all when Bayern Munich raced to a two-goal lead. First Toni Kroos opened the scoring with an excellent half-volley and then Thomas Müller bundled the ball over the line when Wojciech Szczesny should have held. Arsenal would have been made aware of the enormity of the task ahead and conceding early dealt a massive blow to their plans. The truth is, one day practice could never be enough preparation and whatever structure they had at the start of the season, supposedly the Steve Bould influence, has inexplicably disappeared. Indeed, at times Arsenal looked over-prepared, if you can say that, tried too hard to be switched on and organised, that they forgot to track runners. They became too narrow and especially let the full-backs run free. For Bayern’s third, Mandzukic and Lahm combined again, this time successfully, as Mandzukic forced in a cross from the FC Bayern captain.

The difference in football intelligence was apparent. Bayern Munich didn’t just let Arsenal pass the ball – The Gunners had 55% possession at the end of the game and Per Mertesacker to Mikel Arteta was the most bountiful combination (29 passes). But they made it hard to pass through them, creating a wall of black shirts, each one marking a man and zone. It’s not if Arsenal can’t do this; in the season of 2010/11, when Arsenal beat Barcelona at the Emirates, they defended with a combination of high-pressing and the Dutch principle of “through-marking” which Bayern displayed.

This season, there seems almost an acceptance that Arsenal can’t defend that way. Perhaps because the effect we saw it have on their potency at the start of the season when Arsenal drew twice against Sunderland and Stoke. Perhaps also, like the Brazil team of 1970, they’re a team not “characterised by strong marking,” said the coach Mario Zagallo. So “we brought our team back behind the line of the ball.” But then, Arsene Wenger’s side are not as good an attacking outlet as that team. “It looked like we could come back to 2-2, but unfortunately we conceded another goal,” said Wenger. “The 3-1 was a big blow for the team. From that moment on, you could see that we might even concede one more because we didn’t keep our structure anymore.”

The inclusion of Aaron Ramsey was supposed to give Arsenal that solidity. Instead, for all his efforts, he was outshone by his opposite number Javi Martinez. Ramsey couldn’t assert himself as the spare man in midfield, often outnumbered when he received the ball. In contrast, Martinez, signed for €40m, even had the opportunity to get forward a few times, read play superbly (one interception from a pass by Mertesacker stuck in the mind) and alternated well with Bastian Schweinsteiger. Actually, Ramsey and Martinez’s stats ended up very similar: both made 6 interceptions and their passing accuracy were in the seventies. But as a collective, FC Bayern was far superior.

The movement of goalscorers Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos were superb too although Arsenal gave considerably more time on the ball. Kroos has a curious way of playing which had ITV Sport commentator, Andy Townsend saying he’s “never seen him dominate a game.” What he didn’t see is the way that he gets into positions which allow others to profit, often dropping deep in the first-half to receive possession, or moving to the left side to create an overload and then switching the ball quickly to the other side. Müller describes his style as “ready for action, unorthodox and efficient.” And he also highlighted what sets the top sides apart in the Champions League, something which was the talk in Germany when Borussia Dortmund crashed out of the tournament last season. “In the Bundesliga, you could say we lack concentration sometimes,” says Müller. “But when it is the round of 16 in the Champions League, everyone is really fired up and focused. We know how important these games are, as you don’t have much time to make up for mistakes.”

Arsenal certainly realised that end the end of the game, chasing an equaliser when not conceding was arguably more important. But the tie might have been over before it began because Arsenal hadn’t adequately readied themselves psychologically. When Philip Lahm bypassed Jack Wilshere late in the first-half, it encapsulated their problems. “We sort of questioned ourselves in the first half: ‘Can we really live with it?” he said. They couldn’t. Bayern’s game intelligence was simply too much.

Five points on Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal

1. Bacary Sagna typifies Arsenal’s defensive performance

The referee had barely put his lips to the whistle when Bacary Sagna punched both arms in the air and let out a cry of both jubilation and relief. Wojciech Szczesny crashed to the floor and held the ball tightly to his chest, knowing that all three points were finally secure. Sunderland had just pelted their 48th cross into the box and a little less than that many long passes, and Arsenal survived them all. When one of them did get through, however, Arsenal had Szczesny to thank (he also made some crucial punches to go with his saves), some wasteful finishing – and Titus Bramble.

It was one of Arsenal’s most impressive defensive performances to date this season, certainly from a last-ditch perspective with Bacary Sagna typifying the fight. This was an important game for him as recently, his form has come into question. Certainly it’s not been of the same high standards he had set in his last five seasons but then again, watch how Carl Jenkinson coped when deputising during the 1-0 win and then see how much of a bitch it is to play right-back for Arsenal.

With Laurent Koscielny a late withdrawal through injury, Sagna had to slot in at centre-back and was excellent. Last week, we talked about how good he is in the air (despite his 5 ft 9 frame) and against Sunderland, the stats bore that out. He won six out of ten of his aerial challenges, and cleared the ball 15 times, 11 of which were with his head. In the second-half, those skills were increasingly asked to come to the fore but in the first-half, with Sunderland playing wider and on the floor, he could use his knowledge of the full-back position to help Jenkinson.

That’s not to say the whole of the game was a war of attrition. Arsenal were so comfortable in the first-half that they should have scored more, playing some beautiful football in the process. But things started to dissipate when Carl Jenkinson was red-carded and Arsenal were forced increasingly back. But they were still a danger in the second-half, particularly on the break and actually at times even with ten men, passed the ball with relative comfort. However, it proved more difficult to hang on as time passed and Arsenal – and Sunderland too – spurned decent openings.

After the red-card, Aaron Ramsey moved to right-back and performed admirably against the dangerous Stéphane Sessègnon. Arsene Wenger waited until the 87th minute to make his final substitution, when Ignasi Miquel replaced Theo Walcott, as Arsenal were still a threat on the counter-attack and they switched to a 5-3-1. They held firm despite the growing number of balls that were now entering the box and when Szczesny grabbed the ball with the last cross of the game, they knew that they secured the win that they deserved.

2. Selection gets the best out of fantastic three

With the way the early decisions went, on another day Sunderland’s wanton intimidation might have ruffled Arsenal. They pressed Arsenal up the pitch and sometimes left a foot in the challenge longer than necessary. But Arsenal’s response wasn’t just to fight fire with fire – indeed, by 20 minutes; they had committed 7 fouls to Sunderland’s 2 – but they simply upped the pace of their passing where it didn’t look possible. Jack Wilshere was the drive and seemingly acted as the resistor as he rebuffed challenge after challenge and when he was on the ball, Arsenal passed faster and faster. Soon, they were rebounding one-twos off each other and got into full flow.

It was perhaps fitting then, that when Arsenal did score, it featured the three players that look unstoppable at the moment with the ball at their feet: first Jack Wilshere, who took three players out with his burst, then Theo Walcott as he spun and played the ball back and finally Santi Cazorla who applied the finish. It was probably no accident too that the goal featured a combination between the three players because the selection to put them on the same line was to encourage them to get on the ball more. Actually, the line that they played on wasn’t a straight one, it was slanted.

Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 saw Cazorla on the left, asked to cut in and link-up with the central midfielders thus allowing Walcott the freedom to play high up. At times, it looked like a 4-2-2-2 but Walcott didn’t get in behind as a wide striker might be expected to – probably because the way Arsenal were set up forced the play to become narrow quickly. Instead, he found space when Arsenal quickly switched emphasis from left to right and he could dart inside his full-back. Walcott had two early chances and of course, the effectiveness of the freedom he was given to move was best demonstrated by his pass to set up Santi Cazorla coming in from deep.

In the second-half, Arsenal’s formation didn’t actually change that much despite the red card. Walcott still buzzed about with freedom, as did Cazorla who ended up wherever he felt he could be dangerous. That liberty wasn’t limited to just an attacking capacity, though, because Cazorla also worked hard defensively to cover the gaps. The one blemish to his performance, though, was that he was so wasteful, failing to hit the target with his four other shots. Nevertheless, it was an impressive performance from Arsenal in attack despite the profligacy. What would have been equally encouraging though, was that not only are Arsenal playing beautiful football again, but they are now more difficult to rough up.

3. Olivier Giroud needs to add robustness to his game. Or something like that

Olivier Giroud does a lot of things. He can hold the ball up, combine quickly with his team-mates, win headers, make poacher-like runs towards the near-post and create chances. The problem is, because he can do all of these things, when he’s not doing at least one of these things well, it’s easy to criticise him. Last week, against Stoke, he was better as a creative fulcrum but when the chances were presented to him, he wasn’t greedy enough to take them. He was afforded the same level of opportunities against Sunderland but he was once again the wall which Arsenal bounced passes off. Except this time, they didn’t really stick and the passes of his own were often very ambitious (who’s heard of a striker who attempts four through balls! – though only one was successful). But Giroud deserves a bit of slack; he’s doing a commendable job as the only recognised striker.

4. Arteta still the main man

When Sunderland began the game by pressing Arsenal up the pitch, it looked like they might pose Arsenal familiar problems when they’re closed down high up the pitch. Alfred N’Diaye in particular harassed Mikel Arteta and his discomfort when marked tightly looked like it might rear it’s ugly head. It’s not that Arteta is not able to manoeuvre away from opponents; his close control is superb. But rather, Arsenal’s strategy to push the midfielders up the pitch and isolate the centre-backs so they have more time on the ball, looked like it might be vulnerable. But like the rest of the half, Arsenal grew more comfortable and Arteta once again showed why he’s indispensable to Wenger. Tactically, he was superb, hassling Sunderland in a gritty early period and was a calming presence when the team went down to ten men. He had Aaron Ramsey alongside him this time and the presence of the Welshman even allowed him to get forward and show his effective, and under-used, burst to get away from opponents.

Ramsey may harbour hopes of making Arteta’s position his own in the near future but whatever he brings to the side with his passing (although his tendency to dwell was almost exposed at one point), he’s not ready to replace in stature.

5. Sunderland should just wing-it

Martin O’Neill’s managerial reputation may be a little over hyped. As a player, he was a nippy little winger who played on the right side for Brian Clough’s NottinghamForest. He’s taken on that style as manager where his teams’ have generally focused on wing-play and getting crosses into the box. But he might have to realise that it’s part of his side’s problem as well.

O’Neill has just brought in Danny Graham and the expectation is that he’ll partner Steven Fletcher up front thus giving Sunderland another body to aim crosses at. Except crossing is a highly inefficient strategy – only about 1.7% of all crosses lead to goals. That’s not to say it should be eschewed altogether but as a primary tactic, it’s not to be relied upon. Because it’s effectiveness is determined by a lot of factors: the amount of crosses you put in, the number of players in the box, the quality of the delivery and your teams’ mentality. And sometimes that’s not enough. Sunderland might be better off adding a little dexterity to their play and mixing it up with their crossing game. Indeed, Sessegnon frequently got the better of Nacho Monreal and then Carl Jenkinson that it seems a little bit of a waste that his other team-mates can’t match his skill, and that his only option was to just fling it in. And indeed, after the 48thcross that Sunderland failed to convert, you’d have expected somebody of Martin O’Neill’s calibre to have recognised that.

Seven points on Arsenal 1-0 Stoke City

1. Arsenal revert back to type to win

In the end, it was probably appropriate that Lukas Podolski scored from a free-kick. Because it was a game in which Arsenal struggled to create chances through their established way of playing, as Stoke defended deep and forced Arsenal to try and find a different way to score – usually through crosses. And it generally did work, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Olivier Giroud and to a lesser extent, Laurent Koscielny, spurning good chances from corners. However, the best chance Arsenal did create in the first-half actually came from a quick, flowing move which started with Giroud dropping deep and then spinning away from his marker wwith a deft touch and ended with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s shot tipped wide.

If chances few and far were created through an extended passing move, it’s not as if Arsenal played badly. It’s true, that for the most part they were a bit ponderous, with Abou Diaby tending to slow down play. But when he got into the mood, like the rest of his Arsenal team-mates, and played like they can with quick give-and-goes and getting runners beyond quickly, some of Arsenal’s play with a joy to watch. It wasn’t quite as scintillating as their performances in the second-halves against both Liverpool and Chelsea where I can’t overstate enough, just how good it was. Put it this way, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Arsenal ping the ball one-touch accurately to feet like that.

So perhaps it was apt in the end that Lukas Podolski did score because when he and Santi Cazorla both came on, it gave Arsenal something different. Or rather, got them playing the way they normally play. Which is a bit worrying in a sense because it suggests that they’re still very reliant on a core XI of players but make no bones about, this is the way Arsenal must play. They were probably too reliant on wing-play for 60 minutes of the game as Arsene Wenger chose to go with two wingers because he knew Stoke would defend narrow, and as such, their most potent outlet was Theo Walcott on the right. Lukas Podolski, on the other hand, is another striker that Arsenal like to play on the wings but he is different to Walcott in that he’s not so direct. Actually, he fits in imperceptibly to Arsenal’s give-and-go style and his partnership on the left side with Cazorla, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere looks so potent at the moment.

2. Assured début for Monreal

There could be no greater culture shock for Nacho Monreal than Stoke City for his English league debut and fears whether he could mix it with the physical stuff were allayed when he bloodied Jonathan Walters in an unfortunate clash of heads. Actually, it was probably the type of collision a rookie would make but for everything else, Monreal looked very assured.

He started the game cautiously but grew more confident in the second-half and played in some telling crosses. At £8m, Monreal is not just a back-up; he’s someone in full ownership of his career and will challenge Gibbs for a starting berth from the off. His passing was neat here, which is what you’d expect from a Spaniard (although his first club, Osasuna, were noted for being the most Stoke-like team in La Liga). It’s tactically, though, which he might be a step up for Wenger as he is positionally sound and is built a bit like a centre-back, giving balance to both sides of defence.

Monreal v Stoke

3. Improved defensive display (but it was only Stoke)

How can one explain the difference in performances which can see Arsenal defend as securely as they did here and so jittery in their last few matches? Thomas Vermaelen says they have started recent matches cautiously as they chose to sit and examine opponents’ approaches but as we’ve found out, it’s often proved costly in first-halves. At least it would be easier against Stoke, if that’s even possible to say, because everyone knows how they play. And indeed, Wenger admitted that his side prepared mentally for this test which saw them hardly conceded anything from set-pieces. Of course, Stoke City are a different team away than they are at the Britannia Stadium and often, they were pushed so far back by Arsenal that they couldn’t build out with long passes.

If anything, it hints at Arsenal’s problems being psychological, both from a defensive viewpoint and an attacking one. Because going forward, it demands a certain level of understanding and intuition, and defensively, a lack of confidence often pervades the team and its fans. It’s gotten to the point where nervousness has become self-perpetuating, and The Emirates can be a difficult place to play. However on Saturday, the fans were fully behind their team.

From a tactical perspective, Wenger says defensive frailties are a consequence of “our philosophy.” It’s true; attack is a form of Arsenal’s defence, not necessarily in the form of pressing but when the team keeps the ball, it keeps trouble away from their goal. However, it’s when they lose the ball that sometimes Arsenal are not adequately prepared. Often both full-backs push forwards at the same time while Arsenal style anyway, demands resources to be committed to the attack quickly, exposing the backline.

Arsenal’s style is inherently risky but not anymore so than Barcelona, who achieve equilibrium by pressing intensely and strategically while suffocating opponents by religiously keeping the ball. Arsenal’s Champions League opponents, Bayern Munich actually play very similar but while he difference can even be amounted to a 3-5% possession variation or better players, they are probably just better at controlling the nuances of attacking play than Arsenal. Indeed, a study in the 1960’s from the labs of Dynamo Kiev says that “a team that makes errors in no more than 15 to 18% of its acts is unbeatable.” You do this by making the pitch as big as possible when you have the ball and as small as possible when you don’t. Arsenal achieved the latter against Stoke but need to do it more consistently if they are to be more competitive.

4. Arteta still the man

Often managers have their favourites and it’s undeniable that Mikel Arteta is Wenger’s. Arteta represents exactly what Wenger wants from his midfielders tactically: someone that can pass the ball and tackle, and from his position, Arteta is his eye on the pitch. His return meant Aaron Ramsey was the one to miss out who some might say unluckily so. But whatever impressions he might have made with his passing, positionally Ramsey is not as advanced as Arteta. That was shown against Liverpool where, despite completing more than 100 passes in successive league games (Arteta made 105 out of 116 against Stoke) he was a bit late in sensing the danger. That could be shown by his positioning when the two goals were scored. For Suarez’s goal, the ball took an unfortunate nick off him as he rushed back to help out when Thomas Vermalen mis-kicked the cross. And when Henderson broke through, his slide tackle was a bit unnecessary as Arsenal had men around the Liverpool midfielder, but felt he had to because of the desperateness of the situation. (His energy, however, brings an interesting dynamic and might even replicate Mathieu Flamini in importance in time).

What Ramsey might have going for him ahead of Arteta is his passing range and what I liked about him in that role is that he collects the ball in between the centre-backs, forcing them to spread wide. This makes it harder for opponents to press Arsenal. (When Arteta plays, he tends to push up when Arsenal have it at the back and that puts more onus on the centre-backs, especially Per Mertesacker who the opponents want to have the ball). What Arsenal did well, however, against Stoke with Arteta and Diaby, was that both midfielders alternated dropping deep for possession so whatever plans Stoke had getting tight to them on the ball, was made more difficult.

Arteta can also be criticised for being a bit too passive with his passing which is a bit unfair because he made the most final third passes yesterday. Indeed, Arsenal’s style, which is about rebounding quick one-touch passes in the final third like a puck between hockey sticks, gives the impression that it should always be fast and forward moving. What Arteta probably understands is that it’s not always possible and sometimes, moving the ball back and across is equally as effective in creating space.

5. Giroud needs to be more greedy

Might Arsenal rue not bringing in another striker in the transfer window? That’s the impression Olivier Giroud gave at times, especially when he incomprehensibly headed across goal from a corner-kick when he should have tried to score. His touch was graceful at times, dropping deep to link up play or acting as the pivot for the midfielders to play around. But he lacks the goal-scoring instinct or the explosive moment that could make something out of nothing for Arsenal. Alas, Podolski’s goal probably postponed such tedious discussions of needing another striker but to avoid it in the future, Giroud might need to add a greedy streak to his game.

6. Theo Walcott continues to make an impact on the game on a stunning level

That’s it. Granted, his direct contribution to the result was winning a free-kick but he was brilliant throughout on the right of the attack, which might actually be his best position. Nevertheless, the key is seemingly to let him play to his ego, let him take free-kicks and corners however wild they might be. Thierry Henry did the same thing at the start.

7. Sagna’s lack of form exaggerated

His form has come into question recently but Wenger remains forever grateful to Giles Grimandi for bringing Bacary Sagna to his attentions. He can do everything and as such, at 29 years old, Arsenal would be foolish to not offer Sagna a final, big contract. A downturn in performance is probably just a blip – just ask Patrice Evra what they were saying about him this time last season. But Carl Jenkinson must be pushing Sagna close, especially in these types of matches where opponents sit deep and his crossing can come to the fore. But Sagna brings height and tactical understanding, especially when Walcott is granted the freedom that he has been given recently. As such, Sagna’s lack of form might be a little exaggerated: his role in the side has been adjusted slightly recently. Even so, he’s still a very important player to Arsenal.