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).

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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

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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.