Arsenal place faith in brains over brawn

Alex Song’s £15million move to Barcelona, only days after the club announced the sale of Robin van Persie, means Arsenal have now covered the cost of investment on Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla entirely. As Gunnerblog writes; “it’s almost as if we planned it like this.”

Whether or not you feel this is good practice for a football club supposed to be competing for top honours doesn’t matter; the mood of the Arsenal online Diaspora seems to be a resounding “meh.”

That he has been described byBarcelona’s sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, as a complete player. “Skillful and tactical, he is good on the ball and very fit. He has experience of top level competition and knows how to cope with high pressure and big demands”.” means little (which, at the same time is a good thing, as Arsenal fans have recently acquired a pathological obsession on dwelling on the past). As such I feel compelled to defend the legacy of a man whose Arsenal career can only be described as “unsung.”

It’s true that Alex Song has a tendency for the indiscipline – which might boil down to his excitable character – and last season, he did abandon some of his tactical duties. But it seems he has attracted an unfair proportion of the blame for the goals Arsenal conceded. Indeed, there’s this growing idea that Arsenal must play – or rather be better – with a sole holding player. Perhaps, but the growing demands on technique and fitness means increasingly, it should be about the team. And certainly, one can make an argument against the team’s shape for Song’s diminishing defensive statistics (and their goals allowed column).

tumblr_m95ortbbka1r01uxc

Because last season, Song simply had to do more for the team than he had in previous seasons. In 2009/10, he was the deepest midfielder, breaking down attacks and moving it along to one of the midfielders in front of him when he won it. In 2010/11, he shared the role with Jack Wilshere and as such was allowed to get forward intermittently, contributing with four goals. But even though Arsenal conceded more goals in that campaign than in the previous one, structurally it’s probably when they were at their most impressive (and the implosion in the last quarter made it look worse than it was). Last season, though, Song had no Wilshere and the dynamics of the double pivot changed. Arteta and Song shared roles without either player taking full responsibility so Song pushed up to do what Wilshere usually did; give impetus with his running and to dink passes – to more success – over the defence. And what’s more, Song was required higher up the pitch because for large chunks of the season, Arsenal lacked full-backs and as such it meant creativity was almost always central. The problem of creativity was further compounded by Wenger’s prolonged experimentation with a three-striker system up top (which continued to be a problem in their first fixture this season against Sunderland). In 2010/11, remember that Arsenal had Nasri to share the burden to create from out wide even if Cesc Fabregas did tend to monopolise creativity. Defensively, the relaxed pressing last season also made it easier for teams to turn Arsenal from back to front and as such, easier to get at the backline.

Nevertheless, it’s probably best not to look back but look forward instead to this season and with the departure of Song, it especially elevates the stature within the team of Arteta. If anything, he is now Arsenal’s ideologue – bright, opinionated (at Everton, he was known for having tactical discussions with the manager, David Moyes) and technical – he represents Arsene Wenger’s trust in brains over brawn.

Wenger described Arteta last season as a “real midfielder – that means he can defend and he can attack” and against Sunderland showed why the manager places so much faith in him. Arteta made 4 tackles and 4 interceptions as well as making over 100 passes but what was most impressive was the intensity of which he covered ground. A couple of times he filled in for his centre-back and even got into the position when tracking back which I like to call the “third centre-back”.

[image lost] Via @1DavidWall: Arteta (8) played the deepest of Arsenal’s three starting central midfielders, with Cazorla (19) pulling the strings.

On the training ground, Arsenal have been working very hard on holding their shape and keeping/moving the ball better and that, Wenger sees, is the remedy to both their attack and defence. Because it’s as Athletic Bilboa coach, Marcelo Bielsa, says; “attacking football has nuances” and it’s controlling and understanding those nuances – how to dictate tempo and the dangers to expect when you lose it – which will make Arsenal better.

The two players who have submitted to this creed the most – talking extensively about team shape in interviews – are the team’s two leaders: Thomas Vermaelen and Arteta. (Robin van Persie similarly believed in moving as a team and led by example through his running to get back into position when the team defends, acting as the reference point, but perhaps it’s more effective to organise team-mates from their positions than higher up).

Similarly, the pressure is also high on Steve Bould (and Neil Banfield too for that matter) to make a robust impression in his first season as assistant coach and he showed – as early as the eleventh minute against Sunderland- he can make big decisions. Bould noticed that twice, Sunderland had opportunities to score from attacks originating from fast breaks down the channels so after Jack Colback stole ground in the midfield to shoot, he instructed the full-backs to be more aware whenever they get forward. Thereafter, The Black Cats mounted no serious threat and of the 84 teams that played in the Football League and Premier League in the first weekend, they were the only side not to win a corner.

Post Song, the methods of Arsenal may initially seem unclear. But what it does do is force Arsenal is to place even greater trust in their identity. And what bigger test is there of that than the one which they face next; away to Stoke City.

*Note: For all intents and purposes (whatever that means), match reports will now be published for my new column on Arseblog (with thoughts if I care enough about you guys, on here). My latest piece can be accessed here on Arsenal’s shift away from the “three strikers” tactic used last season. Editorials will still feature on this blog. Thanks for reading.

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.

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.”

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.

Six points on Arsenal 2-1 Newcastle United

1. We’re witnessing the real Arsenal now

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

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

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

2. Arsenal profit from a right-side bias

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

3. Van Persie scores when he wants

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

4. Newcastle’s approach

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

5. Alex Song and Mikel Arteta switch roles

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

6. Thomas Vermaelen leads the way forward

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

Wing-wizards prove the difference for Arsenal against Blackburn Rovers

The writing was on the wall for Blackburn Rovers even before Gaël Givet’s red card effectively ended the contest for them – as early as the first minute in fact. Theo Walcott found it too easy to creep behind the defence and receiving Francis Coquelin’s pass, he was able to slide in a cross for Robin van Persie to score. This is what happens when everything falls into place for Arsenal and despite the brief aberration that was Morten Gamst-Pedersen’s equaliser, this was as perfect as Arsenal have played this season. Perhaps it’s not possible to read to much into a defeat of the league’s worst defence; the kind of beleaguered opponents that Arsenal thrive upon and should dismantle given their style. But they certainly did just that anyway.

For Arsène Wenger, it was the perfect response to their profligacy previously against Bolton Wanderers and given that the team’s game is based on confidence, Arsenal should take every positive from the 7-1 win. However, there was another part of this win which would provide Wenger with every inch of satisfaction and it was the contribution of the wide men.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott were superb, stretching the play before cutting into Blackburn like a pair of flying daggers. They played slightly differing roles, giving Arsenal a balance they had before lacked. Oxlade-Chamberlain, on the left, showed dexterous footwork allied with the ability to see the penetrative pass. Walcott, though, prefers to kill through subtle movement, darting off the right flank to deliver decisive passes. Indeed, the wide area has been a problem position for Arsenal in that it hasn’t delivered what they’ve wanted. Gervinho has got into great positions before inexplicably suffering from frequent bouts of nervousness; Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fearlessness is a marked contrast. And that Arsenal’s play has become more vertical, it’s forced Walcott into a more orthodox winger role. At least recently, Arsenal have shown visible steps to improve their ball retention. Here though, everything fitted into place as Walcott delivered three assists and he was rampant in creating for chances, evidently boosted by the presence of an overlapping full-back. Meanwhile Chamberlain – some regard as the player Walcott was supposed to be – showed his all-roundedness by scoring two goals, some fantastic footwork and a great understanding already with Robin van Persie.

It might be notable that the terminology Wenger uses to describe the system fluctuates, often in the same press conference, sometimes as the team playing with three “strikers” or “wingers”, highlighting the dual role. If the creative part of the game has slotted into place, the goalscoring hasn’t. Saturday – or rather, Wednesday night following the 0-0 draw with Bolton – might be the turning point. “[Sharing the goals around] was a problem I faced in all the press conferences at the start of the season,” said Wenger. “If he doesn’t score, who scores, you know? It was right, I couldn’t deny that. But I always felt that if you look at our numbers the trio of Gervinho, Walcott and Van Persie were involved in all the goals so they are more the providers because we play with two wingers. But the wingers can score as well, like today. It is something that is needed and we need some more goals from midfield as well.”

If there’s one affect the ideological slant has had on Arsenal’s play, it’s been their ability to keep the ball for sustained periods but here they had a lot of the play in the opponent’s half. That gave a great platform for the front three to revel and by keeping those wide players high up the pitch, it gave the midfielders a constant outlet behind.  Blackburn manager, Steve Kean, explains: “It is very very difficult to affect the game against a side like Arsenal, they keep possession really well, they kept their wide players wide all game and that made it difficult for us.”

Arsenal-v-Blackbrun

Arsenal 2-1 Bolton: Arsenal’s second typified the effectiveness of the team’s game plan. By keeping two wingers up the pitch, Blackburn’s full-backs were forced to play narrow. But, with Arsenal keeping the ball so well and creating space by dragging defenders around, they were able to get behind with alarming frequency. Song was superb in aiding that part of the game, often threading key through-balls to the forwards.

But while it might have been a game where everything went their way, it wasn’t the case for Tomáš Rosický who looked visibly frustrated at some of the things he tried to pull off. A kicked bottle summed his mood as his shot at 6-1 was deflected wide. It wasn’t a bad performance by the Czech; he showed the fluidity he brings to the side and was brilliant as Arsenal responded to Blackburn’s equaliser. In fact, Rosický’s role was a great “decoy” role as he roamed across the pitch to create space for his team-mates. Indeed, in the lead up to Arsenal third, Rosický’s part was understating as he was felled playing a quick one-touch pass for van Persie to free Oxlade-Chamberlain to score. Perhaps a bit of his anxiety came from seeing his other attacking peers make a direct contribution to the goals and sensing that extra penetration may set him apart from his rival in the position, Aaron Ramsey. Nevertheless, in midfield, Mikel Arteta and Alex Song once again set the platform and all game, they instigated and probed. Song, in particular, gives Arsenal a drive that they have missed following the injuries to Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby but his forte has since becoming his ability to play the ball round the corner as it is, the attack-braking tackles. Below the chalkboard shows how often he tried the pass behind, failing on four occasions but finding his man with a through-ball, three times (which is actually a large amount by any footballer).

Alex Song passes

On song – and with Alex Song’s passes – Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott can be a formidable foil for Robin van Persie who got his 22nd league goal with a hat-trick. He took home the match ball but the day belonged to Arsenal’s wing-wizards as they put The Emirates in a spell with their performance. It’s as David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, told SI.com: “the two wingers are creating waves while Van Persie dances and plays in the splashes that they make.”

Arsenal 2-1 Borussia Dortmund: Alex Song helps Gunners to overcome Dortmund’s pressing

Of all the things riding on the match, Alex Song’s dignity in the dressing room was the least obvious. But his bet with Andre Santos proved to be the catalyst to produce one Arsenal’s all-time great assists and send Arsenal through to the knock-out stages.

Picking the ball up slightly to the left of Borussia Dortmund’s half – in a position Santos himself may have expected to have been – he went on a slaloming run down the touchline, taking on three men before delivering a pin-point cross onto the head of Robin van Persie. The goal came just after Dortmund had cranked up the pressure after the interval and Arsène Wenger was grateful to Alex Song for breaking free from the remits of his trade. “Song did something exceptional for a defensive midfielder,” he said after. Song, though, revealed it was a wager with Santos which inspired him but more tellingly, gave an insight to the strength of Arsenal’s dressing room at the moment. “What’s important is not what I did,” said Song. “It’s what the what team did tonight. We had a good result. Before the game, I said to André [Santos]: ‘Tonight I will score or I will give an assist,’ and he said: ‘No chance.’ It was that sort of challenge you give each other before a game.”

For Arsenal fans, Alex Song’s all action displays are nothing new and they feel he deserves greater recognition for his consistency in the holding role. Of course, that role has been made easier this season – as Jack Wilshere also did last season – because of the arrival of Mikel Arteta. Nonetheless, Song still rose to the occasion and in the second-half – after the whole team had been given an unrelenting test in the first – came up with a number of important blocks and interceptions. His glide means he doesn’t need to slide to win the ball back and because he stays on his feet, Arsenal are able to attack as soon as he makes a tackle. He made 5 in fact while also executing 7 interceptions, showing how important he is to the way Arsenal functions.

It’s a more functional Arsenal this season; sort of a halfway house between pragmatism and the romanticism of the past and it’s proving to be the perfect blend. Initially, though, the cautiousness of Arsenal’s approach play was exposed as Dortmund hounded them in possession. However, they were patient to ride through the storm, particularly in the first 15 minutes and their passing was excellent in the second-half. The tempo was increased while Dortmund tired after their excursions against Bayern Munich in the weekend, and Arsenal finished them off with the efficiency normally typical of German opponents. Commendably, Jurgen Klopp was unwilling to attribute the loss of Mario Gotze and Sven Bender through injury as turning points but it did massively impact on their strategy. Bender in particular, sets the tone for the high pressing to work, as he backs up the work of the forwards by aggressively getting tight to the opponent’s central midfielders. As a result, Arsenal suffered early on in that area.

Jurgen Klopp’s tactics must be commended; he has the look of a genius and his side buzzed around the pitch like the particles in the Hadron Collider. The 4-2-3-1 morphed into a 4-4-2 off the ball and the wall of pressure they created stopped Arsenal from passing it through the centre. Ultimately though, both sides wanted to play through the wings; Dortmund were threatening at first but Arsenal’s defending around the box continues to impress. Wenger’s side, however, remained patient and they knew if they were able to get the ball to Walcott and Gervinho, they had every chance of exposing Dortmund’s impetuousness off the ball. The big difference between the two attacks, though, turned out to be van Persie and there was no doubt he was going to get the goals. Klopp promised to stop the striker by stopping the supply to him but the nature of van Persie’s play was an altogether unfamiliar threat. In the end, Klopp’s words seemed to resonate the same mixed feeling of awe and resignation that van Persie has inflicted on his opponents in his amazing run. “But Robin van Persie, wow, what a performance, what a player,” said Klopp. “He’s certainly one of the best in Europe. I’ve hardly ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box.”

Some Chalkboards…..

1. Dortmund’s pressing

Borussia Dortmund’s pressing in the first 15-30 mins will have been familiar to Arsenal fans in more ways than one. While it has drawn comparisons with Barcelona’s rapid spell of pressure at the Emirates in 2009, it more closely resembles Arsenal’s efforts which worked so successfully for two-thirds of last season. Shinji Kagawa presses alongside Robert Lewandowski to make a 4-4-2 when closing down  – similar to what Cesc Fábregas had been doing – and behind them was a unit who defended through “through-marking;” (i.e. by getting tight to stop the passes from reaching their targets). Sven Bender did that particularly well and as such, his removal from the game, from a defensive viewpoint, can be seen as a turning point. Dortmund created a first line of pressure that stopped Arsenal from passing the ball into the centre of midfield.

Arsenal had their own strategy to evade the press and as a result, perhaps they didn’t mind the fact the middle was blocked. Arteta and Song pushed up instead of dropping deep to pick up the ball therefore affording the centre-backs more room in the build up. Arsenal had plenty of ball in their own half but struggled to unsettle Dortmund’s pressing. It was not until the second-half when Arsenal passed the ball quicker that Dortmund’s pressing became less effective.

The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager last season. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

04k4d
Only 22% of Arsenal’s play came through the middle due to Dortmund’s pressing and compactness. Their season average through the middle is 34%.

2. Arsenal’s defensive plan

Alex Flynn, the author of Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub, said on twitter that “Arsène Wenger has no defensive plan B.” Which is quite an oversight from someone who has “analysed” Arsenal extensively during Wenger’s reign because it is quite evident he has changed his defensive strategy this season, and has done over the last few years. The change sees Arsenal dropping into their own half instead of aggressively searching for the ball and their improvement has become more noticeable as the season has progressed. Initially, they failed to get to grips with it but their defensive security has gradually improved and their defending around the box – bar the mistake at the end – is now more solid.

04k6d

04dDh
In Arsenal’s first European match last season, they pressed more aggressively and won the ball back higher up the pitch. As such, it echoes Dortmund’s tactics last night and highlights the marked difference in Wenger’s defensive plan this season.

3. Explosive Gunners

044Dj

Jurgen Klopp bemoaned the lack of directness in Dortmund’s attacking play and that can be shown by the amount of times they attempted to take an Arsenal defender on. Without the magical feet of Götze, Dortmund lacked dynamism on the wings. Arsenal in comparison have plenty although they were far more successful on the less clogged left-hand side. Both sides, however, attempted the same amount of crosses at fourteen each.

4. The joy of Robin van Persie

What’s even more impressive about Robin van Persie is that he runs so much – as much as midfielder would. Last night, he covered 11252 metres – the 2nd highest for Arsenal. I watch him and think “Arsenal don’t press that intensely yet his figures so high. Why is that?” And that’s because he works so hard to get back into position when the team defends, acting as the reference point while his movement off the ball is stunning, always working the central defenders. Klopp says he’s rarely ever encountered a player like him and in the second-half, once Arsenal took the lead, van Persie used his intelligence to move around the pitch and allow the faster Theo Walcott and Gervinho to profit on the break.

Arsenal 3-0 Bolton Wanderers: Gunners yearn for the drive of Alex Song

– Midfield rotation allows Song to get forward
– Ramsey gets closer to van Persie in second-half
– Win displays much needed improvements after stumbling start to season

There were times in the last two seasons when watching Arsenal that Tony Adams thought, “Thank God for Alex Song.” Because for all of Arsenal’s enthusiasm going forward, there was always one man back to cover for the team’s vagaries and that was Song. In recent campaigns, Song has grown into the role, playing with an urgency and intelligence that it’s not an understatement to say The Gunners wouldn’t be ass effective if it wasn’t for his input. Despite his physique, though, it’s not the battling qualities that make Song an indispensable fixture of their side; it’s his urgency and “get and give” attitude that Arséne Wenger so dearly values. Against Bolton Wanderers, it was those qualities that shone the most but this time he was an asset higher up the pitch.

Song scored the final goal of the match to make it 3-0 and he was constantly found in the final third trying to give direction to Arsenal’s game as Bolton Wanderers, for the majority of the match, camped in their own half. (Song attempted 28 passes in the attacking third, three more than Aaron Ramsey). There’s no doubt that this was a considerably weaker Bolton side than Arsenal would normally have faced but Owen Coyle made his intentions perfectly clear with his line up; to sit back and attack Arsenal with speed on the turnover. In that respect, The Gunners were much better here than they have been this season, stopping Bolton breaking forward through defence by keep-ball. Every time Bolton tried to spring a counter-attack, Arsenal had enough men back. As we will talk about, it’s not just in attack the central midfield rotated well – the trio delegated responsibility accordingly for at least one to stay back showing the holding role need not to be fixed. (Ramsey’s tracking back was noticeably much improved).

It’s probably the greatest indication that the central midfield is finding is rhythm because it was the partnership between Jack Wilshere and Alex Song that worked so well last season that ensured Arsenal played some of their best football in an (otherwise largely) forgetful last two seasons. This time, however, it’s not a two and Cesc Fábregas as it was last season – that’s probably understandable as it would be mightily difficult to replace Fábregas directly – but as a trio, taking turns to engage the space the other team-mate has vacated. (As a result, the average touch positions might show Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey almost playing on top of each other but the way they swap roles, it’s statistically harder to depict in a simple diagram).

With Bolton defending deep, Song’s drive was useful in helping Arsenal break them down. And although he didn’t score until the side’s third, his idea to get close to Robin van Persie was the right one. The Dutchman hasn’t had the same effect with his movement this season and he has stated that the new personnel – particularly out wide, where Arsenal are trying to get the ball more to – have seen him play more orthodox. It’s that balance between dropping deep and staying close to the goal which he has to get right because Arséne Wenger would like to get the ball in behind more but a fluent link between midfield and attack is stopping that. It was almost the problem for Arsenal in the first-half until Wenger instructed Ramsey to get closer to van Persie after the break and it was his pass that led to the opener. Arsenal’s play became more dynamic and when David Wheater was dismissed, the space opened for the strikers to get in the act. Gervinho and Walcott grew in influence as the ten men of Bolton were unable to shackle Arsenal on the flanks through tight marking as they did in the first. Van Persie nudged in the second expertly before Song wrapped up the win.

Wenger has adjusted the formation in the last two games to a 4-2-3-1 and it clearly suits Ramsey more. He is still adjusting to playing with his back to goal and indeed, at times he did look uncomfortable in doing so, but the system allows better fluidity than the 4-3-3 did and it gives him more freedom to get on the ball. There’s still a belief that Arsenal need a number 10 or at least, someone to get close to van Persie as Ramsey did halfway through. In that regards, the 4-2-3-1 has worked better than the 4-3-3 because there’s less pressure on one of the midfielders to take the initiative higher up. Both Ramsey and Arteta like to pick the ball up from deep and that has meant Arsenal are able to circulate the ball better early on in the build up – and – it possibly offers Arsenal a solution to a slight weakness to their game and that is opponents pressing aggressively. On the other hand, Arsenal’s pressing was much improved although being on the front foot for nearly all of the game, it was a must that they closed down quickly to stop counter-attacks. The proof will be when teams hold the ball much longer in midfield and if Arsenal press more intensely early on.

Slowly Arsenal are making the improvements that is needed following the departure of Fábregas and that expected time-period needed to adjust. They won’t replace their former captain directly, though, but through a holistic route which suits the players better. And with Robin van Persie also finding the net, this win – albeit against a poor Bolton side – was a massive step in the right direction.

Arsenal 3-0 Bolton Wanderers: van Persie 46, van Persie 71, Song 89

Arsenal’s system finds no space for holding midfielders

Some plans fall into place as if part of a grand design. Others just happen by accident. For Arsène Wenger, there is something prophetic about the way the season has panned out thus far. Less clairvoyant is his prediction that Arsenal would meet FC Barcelona in the Champions League but he is being proved right when he says, in his own, that his team will be able to “beat, in a comfortable way, all the other teams” when they reach the age of 23/24 years old. When Cesc Fàbregas scored the third goal in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Ipswich Town to send Arsenal to the League Cup final, it was almost a symbolic vindication of Wenger’s youth policy as the talisman and leader of a generation. Jack Wilshere had the chance to add another layer of symbolic meaning two minutes later as the first real “home-grown” star to emerge from the policy but fluffed his lines in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

That Wilshere took part in the game is not so extraordinary given that Wenger usually bloods his youngsters in the competition but the fact that he has become such an essential part of the team’s dynamics in the position he is playing now, that he will certainly start against Barcelona in the defining game of the season, whether for or against tactical sensibilities.

Before the start of the season, Jack Wilshere looked as if he may go out on loan but luck – bad luck in normal circumstances – plumped him at the heart of midfield. He was the mainstay during pre-season as injuries, and the need for recuperation for those involved in 2010’s World Cup, stripped him of his main contenders for the slot and hr has remained there ever since. His partnership with Alex Song has flourished and together they have created an understanding akin to Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar. Indeed, the two look like the typical odd couple pairing; one is a ball player, the other is a ball winner; one is small and the other one is big. But there is also something very atypical about the way they function which expunges the myth that the doble pivote in a 4-2-3-1, must compromise of a ball winner and a deep-lying playmaker. (Or more simply teams must play at least one holding midfielder).

In Arsenal’s system neither midfielder is the holding midfielder. That may seem contradictory given Wenger’s comments earlier this season when he said that Song is the “holding midfielder” and Wilshere is “more box-to-box” but it also shows the level of autonomy the manager grants his players. Over the course of the season, Wenger has let the process of natural assimilation dictate the nuances of the system and the understanding the pair have now is all the more impressive given that their first match together was in the third league game of the season against Blackburn Rovers. The process has probably bear fruit quicker than it may have at other clubs because the players are trained one way; the “Arsenal way,” as Wilshere calls it.

Of course, in Arsenal’s system, Alex Song is stronger defensively so his tendencies to help out in defence is greater but he spends just as much time going forward as does Wilshere stay back. Both move together in unison and together, they have created a natural understanding with each other that goes beyond the mere description of their roles.  “We have no deep-lying midfielders in our midfield,” said Wenger, before adding in regards to Jack Wilshere. “But he can play in any position because he is tactically intelligent. He can defend [and] he can attack, he’s a midfielder. For me a midfielder is not exclusively one position. He is a guy who defends when the team does not have the ball and attacks when we have the ball.”

The other point of importance is the need for Arsenal to have all-rounders in the team. This allows The Gunners to play with more fluidity and a higher tempo, enabling Arsenal to retain their thrilling passing from back to front when, elsewhere in a 4-2-3-1, not having the players of a certain mobility and technical ability, may make the formation look clunky. Indeed, Arsenal’s explosive start against Newcastle, where they took a 4-0 lead in thirty minutes saw both Wilshere and Abou Diaby at the edge of their opposition’s penalty area in the build up to the third goal. (Ironically in that game, the virtues of the holding midfielder was evident when Arsenal went down to ten men but there was not much else Wenger could have done; he had no Song or Denilson on the bench due to injuries therefore dropping Fàbregas back).

In the defensive phase it is just as important because Arsenal defend as a unit more than ever now. The team press high up the pitch and that means the back four must also push up to remain compact. Earlier in the season, Arsenal failed to get this part of their game correct thus leading to some of their inconsistencies but when it goes right; it can be devastating as Chelsea will attest. “We were concentrating on the defensive of the game today. Everyone pressed. It was so good to see,” said Walcott after the 3-1 win over Chelsea. ”Not just the starters, but the players who came on as well. They pressed and we didn’t give Chelsea space at all. We did that throughout the 90 minutes. I think everything went well for us. We made Chelsea look average at times. We played some great football and not just the pressing. It was fantastic to see.”

Arsenal’s pressing has become more strategic. It is perhaps not as athletic as it was before, instead applying a mixture of the Dutch principles of “through-marking” (where player looking to eliminate all passing options by sticking tight to their opponents) and zonal marking. Wenger wants his team to play in the opponents half of the pitch both in an attacking sense and as a means of defence by suffocating their opponents. “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

a-v-wigan

<Figure 1> Arsenal’s pressing this season is more focused on stopping the pass through midfield.Against Chelsea, Arsenal did that expertly. They let the centre-backs have possession of the ball but ensured it was difficult to build out play forward. John Obi Mikel was pressed tight in the first-half and when he was taken off in the following half, Arsenal gained their two goals by intercepting Michael Essien. It was a tactical blunder by Chelsea who, by stripping themselves of the best ball circulator, made them susceptible to the press. Against Manchester City, they were less intense but similar made it difficult for them to play the ball out. With the emphasis on the front four to press up the pitch, the two central midfielders have a great responsibility in keeping the structure of the side together.

In that respects, then, there are striking similarities with Arsenal and Arrigo Sacchi’s, highly-integrated and highly attacking Milan side between 1987 and 1991. Both managers stress the importance of “universality;” both acknowledge the significance of pressing to get the most out of the side and both have a unbending belief in playing football in a “pro-active” manner.

Sacchi says, in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, that “pressing is not about running…..It is about controlling space. I wanted to make my players feel strong and my opponents feel weak. If we let our opponents play in a way they were accustomed to, they would grow in confidence. But if we stopped them, it would hurt their confidence. That was the key: that out pressing was psychological as much as physical. Our pressing was collective.” Wenger’s purposeful desire to play in his opponents half, despite the fact that it may leave the team open, is as much a psychological ploy as it is tactical as he indicates.

Of course, it is perhaps even a moot point that Sacchi and Wenger’s thinkings are similar. Sacchi’s ideologies come from the same bloodline as Dutch Total Football, the archetype Wenger cites as his greatest influence and that South American football sees it as the last, great tactical innovation, it is perhaps inevitable they carry the same traits. Indeed, those principles common with the two coaches are in some way interpreted by elite clubs but they perhaps would not so rigidly adhere to Sacchi’s ideologies because they are inherently too dogmatic. Sacchi’s main idea was that every player must play an equal part in a highly systematised layout – but as directed by the manager. That meant having players in all areas of the pitch who can deliver key passes (for him, everyone was the playmaker) and then able to press and defend to his instructions (i.e. compact, organised and moving as a unit – a difference of twenty-five metres from the last defender to the centre-forward was a must to be maintained). Managers may prefer to take small parts of his philosophies because essentially, it’s those parts that make modern (attacking) football. Nevertheless, now is the cult of the coach and more and more, players are expecting to have more obligations than liberties while Wenger prefers expressionism and indeed, it’s easy to think how clunky his system may look if Wilshere’s indulgences were reigned. (Or even, if Song had a higher ratio split in defending rather than the 50:50 it is now).

And that itself is another important point. Sacchi’s successor at Milan, Fabio Capello, was ultimately more successful than him and did it in a way that Sacchi would consider an antithesis of his approach. Capello’s Milan was defensive and was more about individuals and specialists than the team as one. With Marcelo Desailly holding, it allowed the attacking players to play with more margin of error. Indeed, in Arsenal’s one season with Flamini as the holding midfielder or even Gilberto, in the run to the Champions League final of 2006, Arsenal came as close to they have ever come with a designated holder. In 2008/09, it must be noted that trying both Denilson and Fabregas in a shared role was a disaster and it wasn’t until Wenger changed it all in the second half of the season and played a functional 4-2-3-1, in Arsenal standards anyway, did they improve massively. Just as Adam Smith’s economic theory,  the division of labour, indicates that by specialising parts, a processes can be more effective, a team may be more effective should players be encouraged to make the most of their specific talents.

But it perhaps isn’t an option currently for this Arsenal side to designate a holder. It is noticeable just how important the two in the middle are in creating a platform for the team’s structure and the way they move left and right, back and forth together to cover spaces is, a bit, reminiscent of Sacchi’s Milan. Certainly the same solutions are not available for Arsenal that Milan had to remain compact. The liberalisation of the offside law means despite all the efforts they try to push up, it still poses the danger that teams may get behind with one long ball. And even if Denilson, does try to stay back on his own, as he does when Arsenal attack, it may paradoxically create a larger gap in between midfield and attack.

But lets not also forget the impact Cesc Fabregas has had on the balance on the team coinciding in an upturn of form since the 1-0 defeat to Manchester United or the tracking back of the wide players and Robin van Persie’s return. With Wenger’s desire to push up the pitch early on, it strips, sometimes, Arsenal of a ball circulator so with Fabregas dropping back to pick up the ball makes him harder to mark and the two central midfielders to push up. The wide men are also tracking back more fastidiously, meaning the amount of ground Wilshere and Song may have had to cover before, is decreased. And of course, attack and defence is all relative and van Persie’s ability to bring others in the game is perhaps been the most impressive of the Premiership.

Arsenal’s scheme is about working together, encouraging combinations and harnessing the process that occurs naturally amongst a group of intelligent players who play with each other long enough and appreciate each other’s company. As the structuralist architect, Aldo van Eyck once wrote; “All systems should be familiarised, one with the other, in such a way that their combined impact and interaction can be appreciated as a single complex system.” The partnership of Jack Wilshere and Alex Song helps achieves just that.

A timeline of holding midfielders lost

January 31, 2010: “We have to focus on delivering a completely different performance [against Chelsea on Sunday] because today we were never close in our marking and you do not win big games like that. We gave them too much room everywhere and afterwards Rooney takes advantage of it. We conceded two goals which were ‘corner for us, goal for them’ – two goals, the second and third. I believe it was much more with our positioning and the intelligence of our positioning that we were wrong.” Arsene Wenger after Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat to Manchester United in the league acknowledging the need to improve marking.

April 5, 2010: “We know that when we don’t have the ball you need everyone on board, especially against Barcelona and on a pitch like the Nou Camp. We have to make the pitch smaller and everybody must work hard to win the ball back. That’s where we failed in the first game last week, especially in the first half and of course the heart of the battle will be won in midfield.” Wenger on the Barcelona masterclass and the importance of structure without the ball. Arsenal played with a 4-1-4-1 and over the course of the two legs were destroyed because of the room they gave to the Catalan club.

June 8, 2010: “What happens in football is that there are trends. People see a [Claude] Makelele and say – you need a holding midfield player. Well, do you? Man Utd won the European Cup with [Michael] Carrick and [Paul] Scholes as central midfield players. All of a sudden Makelele defines the Makelele role and everyone says you’ve got to have a Makelele. What you need is good players who recognise danger. The idea that you need a natural holding midfielder – I don’t go along with that.” Gary Neville on holding midfielders.

July 2010 edition of Arsenal magazine: “Tactically, the World Cup was very, very one-sided. All teams played five men in the midfield and that was their priority.” Wenger on the importance of defending as a team and how better to improve his side’s attack/defence split.

August 1, 2010: “A little bit because at the start of the season I was not convinced that Wilshere and Frimpong could be central midfielders, defensively. There is a little bit more competition than we expected there to be. We were considering even maybe going on the market for a midfielder. We will not do that now.” Wenger on whether the Wilshere and Frimpong have changed his thinking ahead of the new season.

October 30, 2010: “We kept the structure of our game right, we didn’t do anything stupid, we kept trying to be intelligent and that in the end got us the goal with two minutes to go. He is [adding that to his game] because when you sum up his game today he had three good chances: the goal he scored, the one on his right boot and the header in the first half that touched the bar. He has got the taste to go forward, even if I think a little too much sometimes for a holding midfielder! But that is part of our game as well.”

“Offensively, it works very well. We have to show it works defensively as well. We have many who like to attack, so we have to be intelligent to do the defensive job well because if you want to be efficient you need to defend well in midfield. Wilshere at the moment suits a deeper role and Fabregas a little bit higher. Wilshere can find a good pass through the lines and find Fabregas.”

“Denilson had three good games this week – he played the whole 90 minutes at Manchester City, the whole 90 minutes at Newcastle and he did quite well today because he defended very well at the moment everybody went forward. But Jack can play with Denilson, he can play with Song, I have good potential for rotation and don’t forget we have Diaby who can come back too.”

Wenger first on the changing role of Song, the contributions of Fabregas and Wilshere and finally Denilson. After the 1-0 win over West Ham United.

November 03, 2010: “He is not completely holding, he is in between. He is a box to box player more than a holding midfielder. And in fairness he can play as well behind the striker, he can penetrate, he has a good burst. Give him time, let him play and I know that is not easy for you, and it’s not your greatest strength.” Wenger after Wilshere dismantles Shakhtar Donetsk with a complete all-round performance.

December 5, 2010: “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.” How Wenger has changed his system to help make and break down space. After the 2-1 win over Fulham.

December 27, 2010: “We were concentrating on the defensive of the game today. Everyone pressed. It was so good to see. Not just the starters, but the players who came on as well. They pressed and we didn’t give Chelsea space at all. We did that throughout the 90 minutes. I think everything went well for us. We made Chelsea look average at times. We played some great football and not just the pressing. It was fantastic to see.” Walcott after the 3-1 win over Chelsea.

28 January, 2011: “In our midfield he plays everywhere. We have no deep-lying midfielders in our midfield, but he can play in any position because he is tactically intelligent. He can defend [and] he can attack, he’s a midfielder. For me a midfielder is not exclusively one position. He is a guy who defends when the team does not have the ball and attacks when we have the ball.” Wenger commenting after Wilshere was tipped by Capello to play as a holding midfielder.

February 11, 2011: “He can play in any position. He can play everywhere on the football pitch because he’s a good football player.” Wenger after Wilshere’s full debut.

Alex Song typifies Arsenal spirit to help deliver their best performance yet

Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea: Song 44, Fabregas 50, Walcott 53 Ivanovic 57

There was a satisfying moment in last night’s broadcast by Sky when the commentators belatedly realised the misunderstood genius of Arsène Wenger’s project. “Perhaps, that’s where Arsenal are ahead of their time,” mused co-commentator Paul Walsh when mulling over just how the mighty Blues have fallen. Indeed, Arsenal have matured – although it is accepted that there are still issues that need to be ironed out – but a core of early-to-mid-twenty players offer long-term value while under Wenger, there are always a number of youngsters waiting to take over in the wings. Chelsea, on the other hand, lacked strength in depth, and their profile driven transfer policy, focusing on the now, has slowly caught up with them. Of course, Carlo Ancelotti has recently had to contend with the departure of his assistant, Ray Wilkins, but it also shows the reliance they have on their sugar daddy, and once he decides to tighten the purse strings, the vulnerability they have.

It showed on the pitch as Arsenal played with a dizzying tempo that Chelsea had no answer to. In truth, this was perhaps the best time to play them because they were severely lacking in confidence while Arsenal were buzzing. A run of five games without a win before this defeat was the main cause of it and not having to play Manchester United the week previous, conversely didn’t help.

Arsenal’s pressing alleviates numerical disadvantage

Tactically, this was as good as Arsenal have been for two or three seasons. Arsène Wenger sent a similar team out in the summer of 2008/09 but was comprehensively batted out 4-1 by, then, Gus Hiddink’s Chelsea. However, there were some positive signs to be attained from the defeat, most obviously the 20 shots Arsenal had on goal, the relative success Theo Walcott had against Ashley Cole and the pressing up the pitch. It’s safe to say 11 shots this time round is not quite as impressive but what they lacked in quantity, they made up in efficiency as the Gunners were clinical with their three goals. The finishes came at crucial times too, as Alex Song made Arsenal’s late first-half dominance tell with a good burst and shot while Cesc Fabregas and Walcott combined for two and three respectively quickly after the break.

Arsenal’s success, however, lay in their pressing and tempo imposed on Chelsea. Alex Song typified that spirit and after a tentative first twenty minutes, he grew in stature to dominate a powerful Blues midfield. His newly-adjusted role has been deplored by some but those who do, misunderstand really, what his position entails.

Song is not anymore, the main holding midfielder but rather it has become a shared role. This means there is no need for the Cameroon midfielder to stay back at all times but he and Jack Wilshere, who was expected to be more box-to-box in his role, can delegate. Song, it turns out, is able to go forward more because of Wilshere natural attraction to the ball from deep but nevertheless, it means Song can press higher up the pitch. Wenger remains open to the idea it can leave the team open more but if it works, as it did against Chelsea, it can be mightily effective. His burst is also a dangerous weapon and with Robin van Persie playing a role that can bring midfielders in, makes it hard for defenders to mark.

“The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

Arsenal had problems imposing themselves with the same style earlier in the season against Chelsea and looking back, it is hard to believe this is the same swaggering side that beat the Gunners 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. That time, Chelsea’s 4-3-3 was able to outnumber and create triangles around Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 but partly maybe due to short fitness levels of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien but mainly because of the Gunner’s intensity, were unable to make their man advantage count. Wenger’s side hassled Jon Obi Mikel and pressed him for time on the ball to the point that his existence in the ball circulation role was thought redundant. It continued in the second-half and earned Arsenal the two goals through closing down high up the pitch although Mikel was off by then; perhaps a tactical blunder because the centre-backs lacked an out ball while Essien is unsuited to the deep-playmaker/centre-half role.

“We were concentrating on the defensive of the game today. Everyone pressed. It was so good to see,” Walcott told Sky Sports. “Not just the starters, but the players who came on as well. They pressed and we didn’t give Chelsea space at all. We did that throughout the 90 minutes. I think everything went well for us. We made Chelsea look average at times. We played some great football and not just the pressing. It was fantastic to see.”

Cesc Fabregas’ presence was a calming influence and unlike against Tottenham where he tried to be two places at once, here he dropped back to collect the ball if needed and perfectly orchestrated the tempo of Arsenal’s play. It was the most complete Arsenal performance yet and despite conceding the slightly predictable header to Branislav Ivanovic, were just as comfortable at the back. Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny were a centre-back pairing brought forward from the future and the Swiss in particular, marshalled Didier Drogba well by dropping back to allow space to survey the threat. It is, however, by no means the start of a decline for Chelsea but rather a thirty-something identity crisis. For Arsenal, the win signalled the best years are still ahead of them.