Despite another implosion late in the season, the Gunners have plenty of positives to take forward to next season.
1. Arsenal have learned how to defeat the “lesser” sides
The fact that Arsenal remained in the title race for as long as they did, despite losing both times to Manchester United and Chelsea, and falling away at Tottenham and Manchester City, was very much due to Arsenal’s new-found ability to beat the bus. In previous seasons, sides who set out with ten men behind the ball knew full well that the tactic could seriously decrease the Gunner’s effectiveness. Arsenal only wanted to play through them and that made it easier to defend against.
To counter that, Arsene Wenger sought his side to be more dynamic. His idea – borrowed from the philosophies of Dutch Total Football and adapted by Johan Cruyff at Barcelona – was to stretch play to create more space and hence more angles to attack from. The result saw the making of Robin van Persie in a hybrid striker role and the midfielders late runs, particularly at the start of the season, disrupting the opponents marking systems. “I believe the midfield was not a problem this year because we created so many chances from midfield and we dominated nearly all the games in midfield,” said Wenger at the end of the season.
The goal tally dipped towards the latter stages of the campaign yet Arsenal’s increasing mental strength allowed them to turn adverse situations into positive ones by scoring a number of late winners. “The manager trusts us to do the job,” said Alex Song. “If the referee says we have four minutes or two minutes left then the boss says ‘don’t panic, be confident and play’. That means if the opposition team drop we have the chance to score. The mentality has changed for us.”
2. Robin van Persie may just be world-class
Arsene Wenger believes Robin van Persie is on par with the likes Lionel Messi and Xavi and indeed, the coming World Cup may prematurely bring forward that assertion but the Dutchman feels that can only be justified on the back of an injury-free season. And certainly, the stats do highlight another case of “what could have been” as in the sixteen games he has played in the league, van Persie has scored 9 goals (a conversion rate of 17%) and made 7 assists – meaning he has made a direct contribution to the result at least once in every game. Arsenal felt the brunt of his absence also as in the 17 games he did play in all competitions before his injury, the club scored 51 goals, an average of 3 goals per game. In the middle period without van Persie, 53 goals were scored in 30 games – the average dipping to just over 1.5 goals per game. (There are two keys factors in this stat; the fact that Nicklas Bendtner returned helped boost the goal tally somewhat while a small period where Arsenal had fought their way back in to the title race also saw an upturn of goals. But for the most part, the Gunners lacked a forward which seriously hampered their goal threat).
Van Persie’s involvement as the spearhead of the attack will surely also mean any evaluation of where the team goes will take into account his vast improvement. Becoming the focal point of Arsenal’s style and it could be argued he revolutionised the dual role up front. His movement created space for the midfielders to run into while developing a goalscoring instinct in the box. “Robin Van Persie, when he played we always scored three or four goals,” said Wenger earlier this season. “He didn’t score too many [himself] but he made a lot. Not only with passing, but with movement and the quality of that movement. Strikers open walls for the deeper players. That is a big part in the modern game.”
3. Gunners must make more of wide positions
A key aspect of switching to the 4-3-3 is that it gives Arsenal more natural width. That may seem a problem, however, given that Arsenal do not play with traditional wingers in the outside forward roles but in the modern game, wide players are expected to perform a number of different functions. The current trend is for teams to play “inverted wingers” giving them an added dimension in the attack. That means goals are more likely to be scored by wingers by cutting in on their preferred foot while it also creates more unpredictability in the team’s movement and the decision to cross the ball or dribble.
The Gunners wide men, given that the ball has reached the channels more than ever this season, must realise their importance in providing greater dynamism and variation to the attack. Arsenal’s crossing success, before the 4-0 at Fulham was the lowest in the league at 16% (the Premiership average is 21%) with the cross success from the right hand side at 18.5% and the left, 12.7%. Bakary Sagna has visibly improved his crossing this season and upon the recommendation of William Gallas, told to make more runs on the inside similar to Emmanuel Eboue. But given the slight lack of movement and willingness to get in the box – especially seen in the middle stages of the season where the Gunners lacked a natural forward – there is still a slight apprehension in delivering the ball into the box quickly.
4. Arsenal must invest in their own Milan Lab
You can blame the part-artificial turf on the Emirates pitch, the movement the players have to exert in a typical matchday or just plain old bad tackling but whatever the reason, there is no doubt Arsenal need to develop their own injury-assessment centre. The most famous of which is the Milan Lab (interestingly enough also situated in Milan) which has successfully prolonged the careers of a number of players so much so that they feel maximum age for a top-class footballer is now 40 (as opposed to the 34 previously thought).
Bruno Demichelis, now at Chelsea, and his team pioneered the ground-breaking work at the fitness lab by analysing data to see how they can predict and therefore reduce injuries suffered by their players. Non-traumatic injuries have now decreased (that means muscle pulls etc.) to around 80-90% and are looking to identify structural problems in players by using chiropractic techniques that may lead to injuries (Tomas Rosicky could benefit greatly from this). In 1996, Arsene Wenger revolutionised the club, from everything from the diet to the way they play, and seemingly the next step is to develop a fitness reasearch centre of their own to make Arsenal a truly modern superclub . “The first step to prevention is to analyse the problem and keep stats,” says Jan Ekstrand, Head of UEFA’s medical committee. “The second is to evaluate the mechanisms behind injuries, the third to introduce preventive methods, and the fourth to evaluate these methods have worked.”
5. Gunners yet to get their heads around pressing in the 4-3-3
Pressing has always existed in Arsenal’s system but not more important has it been upon the implementation this season of the 4-3-3. In previous seasons, the framework in the flexible 4-4-2 was provided in the form of zonal-marking – the positions and when to press were more or less rigidly defined. The current formation, as Denilson has particularly found out, can seem to fluctuate between a number of systems and that defeats the desired organisation of the side. Typically, pressing is done according to the Dutch framework of “through-marking” on account of the need to stretch the play. For example when a midfielder pushes out and presses an opponent, his team-mate(s) must back him up by getting tight and eliminate all other passing options. However, in moments where the opposition bypasses the first wave of pressure and commit numbers forward, that could often leave gaps ripe for exposure and the system of through-marking itself then become exposed. A good pre-season, correcting the faults of the pressing system is very much-needed to give the side the “defensive efficiency” Wenger is looking for.
6. Mature heads needed in a learning environment
The impact of Sol Campbell translates far greater than his exerts on the pitch. Off the pitch, he is a wise head who offers years of experience and know-how in the game and that is very much-needed in Arsenal’s environment of learning. Arsene Wenger’s desire is to breed an organic connection between each player to create an almost telepathic understanding but imaging the benefits of having a senior member of the “Invincibles” around – someone to give crucial advice in situations not yet experienced.
Wenger has blamed the maturity of the players in key games this season and indeed, that developing mental strength means it hampers his tactical flexibility. The young players have made huge strides this season and the experiences they’ve encountered will make them stronger for next season but mature heads could mean – whether a part-time coach like Martin Keown or a seasoned-pro – a quicker transition from a player of potential to one of great substance.
“It is important you have players like Silvestre, Sol Campbell and Almunia, who are very influential,” says Wenger. “They have done it before so players listen to them.” In short, Arsene Wenger can’t afford to see the back of one of Gallas and Campbell, and certainly not the both of them.
7. The Joy of Song
It’s difficult to praise Alex Song this season without treading in the vicinity of a pun. Put simply, his performances in the centre of midfield have been unsung. Quite why that is the case may be because of his seemingly languid style and certainly, in the first parts of the season, his tackles may have seen to be a bit clumsy. However, the stats show that is not the necessarily the case, as he has the highest success rate of tackles won in the side (83.9%), making 87 tackles and 89 interceptions. But the Cameroon midfielder is much more than an enforcer as he plays with an almost beastly grace, often seen pirouettes and tip-toeing away from markers and passing with great assurance. Probably Arsenal’s most improved player this season, making a metamorphic rise and the greatest example of Wenger creating an environment to allow the embryonic development of his players.
8. Cesc Fabregas is still king
Anything that happens in the summer concerning the club will no doubt revolve around Arsenal’s talismanic skipper. There is news already that Barcelona are preparing a bid to bring back their prodigal son to Camp Nou after landing David Villa but there is a club that need him more. Cesc Fabregas has had another stupendous season, weighing in with 15 goals and 13 assists in the league and at the ripe old age of 23, carries much burden in the way Arsenal play. No player has made as much forward passes in the championship as him and that highlights the creative responsibility and balance weighed on Fabregas’ shoulders. “I believe in them [the players] because if you compare them two years ago and this year they are tremendously improved,” evaluates Wenger, before adding. “And if they continue to play together, especially with Fabregas, they have a good understanding.”
9. Goalkeeping gloves in uncertain hands
It’s an over-simplistic view that the goalkeepers are to blame for the number of goals shipped in (as our analysis shows that the quality of chances the Gunners allow is far greater than opponents allow due to the expansive style of the team) but neither Manuel Almunia or Lucasz Fabiasnski commanded the presence and confidence in the defence that is required. How you achieved that is almost mythical as Jens Lehmann’s career has always been clouded with mistakes and calamities but somehow rose to the respect of his team-mates.
“As a player, I learnt very quickly that, when you are at Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and now Chelsea, you have to be more than just a good technical goalie,” says former Arsenal goalkeeper and coach, Bob Wilson. “You can`t really coach presence. It is an indefinable thing, but I believe in it so much. Once you have passed the first exam to prove you can play – and Manuel and Lukasz have – then the bit you have to pass is that extra dimension. It`s the bit that marks you out from the rest. That is the one area that is lacking.” What is certain, however, is that goalkeeping is very much a confidence thing and neither first choice or second are in that zone yet.
10. Arsene Wenger still the right man for the job
Now that the debt clouds are clearing we should see a more proportional Arsenal and despite the increasingly uncertain environment, Arsene Wenger has navigated the club admirably through and kept them competing year after year. Signings will have to be made and are going to be made – and no one has a better eye for talent that Wenger. Arsenal will compete next year…