Norwich 1-1 Arsenal: Injuries upset precariously balanced system

720p-Norwich 1-1 Arsenal ozil

“We are so unpredictable in what we are doing; even for me at the back sometimes it looks a bit weird! Sometimes we lose balance but sometimes it is really good so we have to keep going and focus on our game, especially defensively.” ~ Per Mertesacker

I’ve been trying to figure out Arsenal for a while now. Despite my twenty-two year association with the club (that is, the first game I recall watching them in – Cup Winners Cup in ’95), the last ten years have left me most perplexed. It’s not the lack of titles; I’ve come to terms with the mitigating circumstances following the move to the Emirates and subsequently, the wizardry to keep Arsenal competitive that Arsene Wenger has performed. But rather, it’s the playing style which, despite adding back-to-back FA Cups in the last two seasons, Wenger has had to be innovative – unorthodox actually – to keep Arsenal playing the same way that won trophies in his early years, and to challenge more convincingly.

I often hark back to the above quote from Per Mertesacker to assure me that even those in the best positions can find what happens on the pitch sometimes confusing. At this point, I realise that the answer lies in a case study of Arsene Wenger but he places such an unerring faith in autonomy and freedom of expression on the pitch such that nuances of the team’s tactics are as much a product of symbiosis as it is moulded by hand.

That’s evident by the rapid progression of Hector Bellerin from reserve-squad to starter, or Francis Coquelin, who has shaped Arsenal’s tactics the moment he stepped into the first-team last December. It’s a progression which has been a joy to watch and indeed, it’s not usually this discernible to see a footballer grow as we have witnessed with Coquelin, gaining more confidence game-by-game, becoming “more available” as Wenger says, “and [available] more quickly when our defenders have the ball. He blossoms well.” You can say the same thing about Nacho Monreal, where confidence has shaped him such that he seems unflappable at the moment but, because he started his Arsenal career so well but had a blip in between, we already knew his quality. Plus at that time, he played alongside Thomas Vermaelen so it’s understandable.

Coquelin’s injury has had people trying to work out ways to replace him without upsetting the balance of the side too much. However, an analysis by Chad Murphy, a professor of political science, deduces that Coquelin is near impossible to replace like-for-like because the actions he performs are commonly shared by wingers, not defensive midfielders. He’s a unique player, somebody who passes fairly infrequently considering the position he plays but is actually very press resistant because his dribbling out of tight areas is so good. Yet, therein lies Arsenal’s problems, and why Coquelin’s absence will be hard-felt, because Arsene Wenger has built a system reliant on the characteristics of certain key players – not necessarily robust concepts. And generally, once he finds a system that wins, he grinds it to the ground such that any slight change to that formula can cause Arsenal to stutter – until of course, somebody else makes their relative mark on the team.

Mathieu Flamini is the present incumbent of the holding midfield role and in the 1-1 draw against Norwich City; we got a glimpse of just what he can offer to the team in what is probably the twilight of his Arsenal career. Ironically, just as he was looking to make his stamp on team, The Gunners lost two key players to injury, adding to the uncertainty we’re likely to get in the coming weeks. Those losses proved telling, particularly when you focus on the passivity Arsenal displayed for Norwich’s equaliser. Because the thing with Arsenal’s defending, and probably what is the nezt step for Murphy’s analysis, is that it’s reliant on speed – or what Manuel Pellegrini describes as “defending with pace”.

Wenger teams have always been distinguished by this trait but usually when going forward; for this team, it’s probably more a hallmark going backwards, in terms of how quick the defenders recover (and the back-four, apart from Mertesacker are rapid) and the distances they cover when the team loses the ball. In that regard, the two key players are Laurent Koscielny, who departed the game early with a groin injury, and Coquelin of course. They tend to bail Arsenal out a lot of times from average defending situations frankly, by being aggressive, winning the ball back quickly and playing on the front foot. That’s what Flamini tried to replicate in midfield but what Gabriel failed (though he tends to be good at that kind of reading of play) with the missed interception before Lewis Grabban finished for Norwich .

Overall, The Gunners weren’t unduly threatened but there is a sort-of half-hearted press that they use even against the weaker opponents that puts them in situations where they invite teams at them. I would describe it as a 4-4-2 shape for the most parts with Ozil dropping off once the ball is played behind him. (That ambiguity – is Ozil a striker or a midfielder in the press? – sometimes puts Arsenal into trouble). It’s sort of a zonal-man-marking system where the team moves left and right, and backwards and forwards as a unit but when the ball enters a respective player’s zone, they look to aggressively man-mark that player. Certain players might have more freedom of how aggressively they close down an opponent such as Ramsey or Mertesacker who tend to push out, and sometimes abandon the shape in an attempt to win the ball back quickly – see video below.


For much of the game, though, it must be noted that Arsenal were very comfortable. It was after Alexis departed through injury, however, that the team lost a little spark and that is worrying because he is one of two players that push defenders backwards (the other being Theo Walcott), and also, the partnership between him and Ozil generates much of Arsenal’s attacking thrust. Arsenal tend to slant their play towards the left-side, with Alexis stepping five or six yards infield and Ozil floating wide to create overloads. Against Norwich, Monreal was also an important figure going forward, and again, it’s the understanding he has with Alexis that has become a key part of Arsenal’s game. Indeed, both full-backs actually got forward a lot in the match and that was facilitated by a subtle change to Arsenal’s build-up play from the back.

Again it involved Flamini, who tended to drift to the flanks to support the full-backs in possession, thus liberating them going forward. Whether this was accidental or not, it’s hard to say, but Flamini specialises in this kind of movement when Arsenal have the ball at the back. Certainly, it falls in line with Arsene Wenger’s strategy of using the ball-winning midfielder as a decoy, dragging opposition midfielders away with him, to create space for the centre-backs to pass through the midfield to either one of the attacking players or Cazorla who drops deep. This tactic tends to be used against teams who don’t press and indeed, Norwich camped 10 players behind the ball for the majority of the game. The intention is that then, it lures those teams to commit one or two players to the press – going against their gameplan really – so that Arsenal have a bit more space in the middle. Norwich didn’t really budge so Arsenal decided to use the sides of the pitch more in a bid to stretch their opponents. In the example below, you can see Flamini urging Monreal forward as Norwich narrow and Arsenal nearly score.

I find it oddly fascinating to watch this tactic because it goes against the textbook which is to ask one of the deep midfielders to drop in between the two centre-backs to stretch the play. With Arsenal generally resisting the urge to do that, it creates a game-within-a-game, with the midfielders battling with opposition midfielders off-the-ball to follow them. People argue that against the top teams that press, Arsenal would be found out. That hasn’t really been tested because when Arsenal play those teams, they tend to drop off themselves thus playing mainly on the counter-attack. The one time it did work was against Manchester United, when Arsenal blitzed them in the first half-hour, using their ambiguous midfield positioning to confuse United’s marking scheme and Cazorla tending to drop-off in between the centre-backs to pick up the ball. Indeed, his importance in the build-up must be stressed because Wenger calls him the “guide”, because he directs Arsenal’s play from the back rather than dictates, and the team-mates know when they pass it to him, he can get them out of trouble because of his quick-dribbling. That’s one of the reasons why Coquelin will be sorely missed, as together the pair created a unique partnership in the heart of the midfield. Hopefully now, Arsenal can find a different balance.

“My philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble” ~ Wenger

arsenal reading

Arsene Wenger has always been wonderfully inventive with who he casts in the role of Arsenal’s defensive midfielder, and sure enough Francis Coquelin’s pathway to the side has been no less remarkable. We know the story by now: on another non-descript loan in his fifth year at the club, Coquelin was recalled amidst an injury crisis in midfield. He wasn’t expecting to play because things don’t just happen like that, but little did he know that Wenger had birds watching every pass, tackle and mistake that he made, and each favourable/unfavorable report sent back to headquarters served to shape his very future. Luck had played his part too, but when everything down to the last detail concerns a man like Wenger, luck will eventually favour you.

A place had opened up in the side for Coquelin because of injuries – and also because, as Martin Keown revealed during Arsenal’s 2-0 FA Cup win over Hull City, Wenger was looking for someone that could provide the snarl and aggression that Mathieu Flamini did, but more crucially, play more proactively, pushing the team up the pitch. Coquelin did this, reinvigorating the side through the way he did things simply: winning the ball back and passing it quickly. At the same time, other pieces began to align: Mesut Ozil returned from injury back to his favoured position, Olivier Giroud came back like a dog unleashed, and Arsene Wenger could chose from a settled squad.

These things all come together to explain Arsenal’s unbeaten run which began in February and ended at the start of the week, against Swansea. What it showed that finding attacking chemistry takes time and continuing on the Coquelin theme, as does somebody who bends to the will of the side. As Tim Stillman writes for Arseblog, “for Wenger, the defensive midfielder is usually the last piece of his puzzle.” Yet, as we found out in the 1-0 defeat to Swansea, Coquelin is still some way from the perfect fit. He’s as good as Arsenal have got – a halfway house between Mikel Arteta and Flamini – though to be truly “The Answer”, he needs to add more subtlety to his game.

In that game, Coquelin was constantly found wanting as the outlet in possession at the back. In fact, he’s the exact opposite: a decoy when Arsenal have the ball in defence, looking to shuffle opponent midfielders this way and that to open up space for the centre-backs to pass through. Indeed, after the 3-1 win over Hull City, Wenger praised the way Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker stayed composed with the ball at the back, patiently waiting for an opening to develop. Coquelin by contrast, rarely took responsibility for this and in an opening 35 minutes, when Arsenal assumed a two-goal lead, he only made 9 passes. Against Swansea he was more involved yet hardly the pivot that you need when defences are set. Wenger, though, is inventive in that regard when details his midfielders to push up the pitch, to force the opponents back so that Arsenal can play as much as possible in their half. I expand on this tactic in my most recent Arseblog column.

In that game, he also asked Ozil and Santi Cazorla, in addition to Ramsey, to drop deeper for the ball and use their 1v1 ability to get into space or play the pass through. It will be interesting to see how this tactic will develop; whether it was the players who initiated this move by being drawn to the ball or Wenger is trying to draw the opponent’s backline out simultaneously – a la PSG – to play the ball over the top (thus the recent recasting of Theo Walcott up front).

Though the big issue is the role of Coquelin. Does he take it on himself to become a more nuanced midfielder? Because he is a far more subtle player than given credit for; his first-touch is clever which he uses to get out of trouble, while he has two good feet. And we haven’t seen his reaction if opponents press Arsenal up the pitch. Does he continue to follow the same movements away from the ball carrier? The call for him is not to become a playmaker but if he doesn’t get on the ball enough, then Arsenal’s fluency can suffer, especially if other attacking players, Ozil or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain say, are forced to come towards the ball and away from the goal. As Johan Cruyff used to say, if the holding midfielder is not involved in the build-up, then he becomes a “block”, stopping you from passing the ball out effectively. More pertinently he adds, “if you bring the ball out well initially, then you’ll play well. If you don’t do that then there’s no chance of playing well.”

Read my latest Arseblog Tactics Column: SWANSEA FRUSTRATE AS COQ BLOCKED

Seven Lessons from the 2013-14 Season


First lesson: Improved Understanding in Attack

In an intriguing tale from Ancient Chinese philosophy, Butcher Ding was summoned by his village leader to perform a task that overwhelmed his fellow butchers who seemed to possess the same level of blade wielding skills; he had to sacrifice an ox as part of a ritual to consecrate a sacred bell. Unfazed by the task at hand, Ding went about cutting up the ox with nonchalant ease. When an astonished village chief demanded an explanation, Ding reveals, “The secret is to not approach the problem with your eyes, but with your spirit.” Novices like us probably won’t be able to entirely comprehend Butcher Ding’s methods but it is said that Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud offered similar explanations when asked about their wonder goal against Norwich City. (Though Wilshere supplied the final touch, can it really be counted as his goal solely?).

There are two fundamental requirements to breakdown parked buses; either depend on players to get past opponents through pace and dribbling ability or depend on fast circulation and understanding between players. Arsene Wenger is the type of manager who relies on his players’ combination play to break down defences and it’s quite fair to conclude the spontaneous understanding between the players reached its peak this season. The first half of the season saw some breathtaking moves from Arsenal with Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud combining like brothers having a kick around in the backyard. The French striker did an admirable job with his back to the goal, letting the midfielders create play by knocking passes off him.

For the second part of the season, Arsenal had been missing those runs from deep (from Ramsey) that glue Arsenal’s passing game together. Because without somebody breaking into space, who have Arsenal’s myriad of ball players got to pass it to? Instead, play in that period would look soporific, lacking urgency and easy to pick off. Indeed, the way Arsenal play, bumping passes off each other, it requires little triggers so that the players know when to move their passing game up a gear. Ozil is brilliant at that, moving quietly into space, trading a few innocuous passes, always with his head up waiting for the moment to increase the tempo and his team-mates seem to feed off that. Ditto Ramsey’s runs from deep.

To play truly great attacking football, a blind instinctive awareness – or “blind understanding” as Wenger calls it – of one’s teammates is fundamental and at moments this season Arsenal played attacking football of the highest quality.

Second Lesson: Is Mertesacker-Koscielny the best?

Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny complement each other perfectly; Koscielny is the fast and aggressive man marker while Mertesacker is the solid presence who sweeps behind; Koscielny is the forward thinking instigator while Mertesacker is one of the safest distributors around, etc. The partnership has had an appreciable season and has contributed immensely to achieving the second highest number of clean sheets in the Premier League, and conceding the fourth least number of goals. On average, the partnership averages 4.5 interceptions and 1.8 offside calls per game while only being dribbled past 0.7 times per game. Laurent Koscielny’s and Per Mertesacker’s  value in the attacking phase is unmatched as they top the passing accuracy charts with the former passing with 93.5% success and Mertesacker with 93%(he attempted 538 more passes) success. These rudimentary statistics don’t tell the complete story but keen observers will agree that the ‘Mertescielny’ is one of the best partnerships in the world.

Indeed, their partnership follows what has become a trend whenever teams play a back four: one of the centre-backs attack and the other covers. Against two strikers, though, the duo has shown how much their relationship has prospered because against such a set-up, both defenders have to mark (as opposed to playing against a lone-striker where Mertesacker will normally attack the ball and Koscielny drops back). As such, that puts demands on the holding midfielder to provide cover, which leads us on to the next lesson…

Third Lesson: Defensive Reinforcements

At the beginning of the season, the signing of Mathieu Flamini seemed an astute one from Le Boss as he performed dependably in his first few games. But as the season progressed, his weaknesses became apparent and playing him alongside Mikel Arteta only magnified them. In attack, Flamini offers almost nothing other than safe passing (91% success) and decent running, which means going backwards, he tried to compensate with his defensive positioning, which more than once, most notably against Southampton, Swansea has cost the team (click for image example). Mikel Arteta did slightly better than Flamini but his susceptibility to pace has become a prominent weakness of his. He has also been quite easy to dribble past, being bypassed 1.7 times per game. This figure is very much on the higher side as Flamini is dribbled passed less, at 0.4 times per game, with one particular weakness of Arteta is that he allows opponent midfielders to blitz past him in counters far too easily. That figure, though, chimes with what his game is about: Arteta loves to press up the pitch, looking to win the ball back quickly, an underrated trait of his. Flamini on the other hand brings hustle but his tendency is to drop deeper and cover spaces.

Another defensive midfielder would be imperative, particularly with Bacary Sagna leaving – one who slots in between the centre-backs in the build up to help better utilize the full backs as they can be important weapons to breakdown packed defences. Arteta’s distribution skills are better than he is given credit for (although his passing can be slightly on the slower side at times) but a defensive midfielder with better defensive positioning would help improve Arsenal’s defensive stability.

Fourth Lesson: Aaron Ramsey is the man

This is the most obvious lesson of the seven. Aaron Ramsey had a blistering first half of the season when he was our best player by miles. Then he got injured for a while before coming back to deliver top four in the premier league and an FA Cup. Last season he was praised for his reliable performances alongside Arteta, where he combined intelligent running and an unrivalled work rate to become an important member of the team. This season saw him transform into an insanely confident footballer with outrageous skills as he went on an almost unstoppable run where he kept scoring, assisting and embarrassing opponents much to the joy of the Gunners faithful. Arsene Wenger kept reiterating Aaron Ramsey’s hunger to improve (he seems to have that Thierry Henry-like obsession about football) and this has seen him become the best player in our team. In the FA Cup final against Hull City, one could see Aaron Ramsey trying hard to force the winner in extra time. Despite a few improbable attempts from long range, he kept trying and eventually scored and it is this quality of delivering in decisive moments that has proved vital for Arsenal many a times. It is almost like there is a ‘What? What else were you expecting?’ kind of brash arrogance (in a subtle way, if that is possible) about him and it would be great if it rubs off on the team.

Image created by @Dorkkly Click to enlarge
Image created by @Dorkkly Click to enlarge

Fifth Lesson: Mesut Ozil provided only a glimpse

Big things were expected from Mesut Ozil and he seemed to be on the right track as he scored thrice and assisted four times in his first seven games. Since then he has only three goals and seven assists and most have been swift to brand him a flop. To do so would be very harsh on the German playmaker as his real contribution to Arsenal’s possession play shouldn’t be judged just by his assists and goals scored statistics.

He was expected to play the ‘Bergkamp role’, playing behind Olivier Giroud to be at the end of moves. But Ozil’s duties lie slightly deeper as he is given the responsibility to dictate play and perform an important role in the build up. As Wenger says, “the quality of his passing slowly drains the opponent as he passes always the ball when you do not want him to do it. That slowly allows us to take over.” Thus, extra layers are added to Ozil’s worth to the side; he’s all at once, an attacking weapon, a master controller and a defensive force, allowing Arsenal to keep opponents at arm’s length, and luring them into a sense of comfort that is also complacent.

Ozil averages 63 passes per game (behind only Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey in the team), constantly peeling to either wings (his preferred control centre seems to be that channel off the centre towards the right wing) to try various angles and combinations. His combination with Aaron Ramsey has been one of the more fruitful ones and has played a substantial part in the latter’s rise. Arsene Wenger is confident that the German wizard would deserve a statue at the Emirates by the time he leaves Arsenal but Mesut Ozil will have to elevate his game by a notch to attain such levels. Everyone knows he can.

Sixth Lesson: Olivier Giroud requires competition rates Olivier Giroud as Arsenal’s second best player behind Aaron Ramsey. While that is a little farfetched, it shows Giroud has had an acceptable season as Arsenal’s Number One Striker™. Netting 18 times and providing 9 assists in 43 games is decent output for a forward but Giroud has that wildly irritating knack of going into a run where it looks exceedingly improbable for him to score.

His major assets are his link up play and aerial ability, although his combination can desert him at times due to a first touch which at its best, can be silky smooth like delicate fingers working up Chantilly lace or just plain awful. Arsene Wenger took a huge gamble by not bringing in strikers in the transfer window and he was forced to rely entirely on the Frenchman who was bound to be affected by fatigue. As the season wore on, it wasn’t necessarily his finishing skills that let Arsenal down but his propensity, as the lone striker, to play a little bit like a totem pole. That works when there are runners getting beyond him – Ramsey and Walcott are key – but often, it relies on moves being perfect and that’s not always possible. When Yaya Sanogo has deputised, though he has still yet to break his mark for the club, it shows what value a striker can add purely by running the channels – that means sometimes away from play – stretching defences and creating space for runners. Indeed, in the cup final, Giroud was probably the one who profited most from Sanogo’s presence, as this meant he was afforded the freedom to do what he’s unable to do when he plays up front on his own: run. It seems unlikely, unless he adds a mean streak to his game, that Sanogo will push Giroud hard for a starting spot in the near future, nor is a switch to a 4-4-2 system in the offing, meaning it is absolutely necessary to bring in a different type of striker to compete with Giroud.

Seventh Lesson: This team can play both ways

It comes as a surprise that Arsenal hasn’t topped the possession table (they’re fourth behind Southampton, ManchesterCity and Swansea) this season given that they’ve done so in each of the last three seasons. This season, Arsenal has conceded that extra bit of possession to maximize efficiency in ‘moments’. Fewer shots have been taken this season (13.8 compared to 15.7) and creating qualitatively better chances seems to have been the focus.

The trend in the Premier League this year has been not to press defences (Southampton being the exception; they’ve kept 58% possession on average mainly due to their ball winning mechanisms) but to forming two compact banks of four. Arsenal did the same last season and showed their prowess on the counter many a times, which makes it even more disappointing that Arsenal lost to Liverpool and Chelsea in that manner due to flawed strategy. It is apparent that this team has the personnel to execute both strategies effectively and Arsene Wenger has done reasonably well to juggle his approach midway games.

Follow Karthik on Twitter – @thinktankkv

Have Arsenal become easier to press?


A great attacking performance is such that at first viewing, it seems inherently defensive. Take Liverpool’s 5-1 home win against Arsenal in February this season. It’s true that they looked like they could have scored with every chance such was the alarming regularity they got behind the Arsenal defence. But it was the swirling press of red shirts that was just as memorable, surrounding the Arsenal midfielders in possession and blocking potential passing lanes. And when they regained the ball, the pace and trickery of Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling et al. put The Gunners to the sword.

Great attacking teams don’t just throw caution to the wind when they go forward; effective attacking play is predicated on a solid defensive foundation which allows those players to flourish. It’s indicative of the way Liverpool worked as a team that their best defensive player wasn’t a member of the back four nor a central midfielder: it was Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian won 6 tackles and made 2 interceptions, but was most impressive was the way he filled in the gaps when players moved out of position. In fact, Liverpool’s system is all about little chain reactions: when one players moves, it activates the trigger for another to move into the space. What Coutinho did so well was to make Liverpool’s formation move from a 4-4-2 at various times, to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.

There are other such examples in the past of good defence aiding devastating attacking play. When Ajax beat Liverpool 7-3 in the European Cup over two legs in 1966, Bill Shankly peculiarly declared that “they were the most defensive team we have ever met.” Then there were the two famous 5-0 wins over Real Madrid: the first, by AC Milan in 1989, which put Arrigo Sacchi on the map; while in 2010, we remember mostly the way Barcelona kept the ball, in particular the controlling forces of Xavi and Messi, but just as important was the way they pressed their opponents, hunting in packs to win the ball back.

Indeed in Chris Anderson and David Sally’s The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong, they find, using statistical evidence, that keeping a clean sheet helps a team more than scoring lots of goals does. That’s what the basis was for Arsenal early season form, with Arsene Wenger telling Arsenal Player: “It’s very important for the confidence of the team that we have such a [defensive] stability. As I said many times, we are an offensive team, but you are only a good offensive team if you have a good defensive stability.”

Sadly, that assurance in defence has dissipated in recent matches, most crushingly when Arsenal were defeated 6-0 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The irony was that Wenger’s worst defeat waited until his 1000th match in charge of Arsenal. Still, The Gunners are in with an outside shot of the title, and have a great chance to break their nine-year trophy drought with the FA Cup but in my opinion, that owes much to the defence – which individually, is perhaps Wenger’s best for a long time. Those big defeats Arsenal suffered, against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, which have put a damper on their season, mainly originated from Arsenal frequently giving the ball away in midfield thus exposing the back four repeatedly.

For me, a large part of Arsenal’s vulnerability – that good players, like Aaron Ramsey, who Arsenal have missed massively, can alleviate – stems from the unique way they bring the ball out of defence. To understand that, first we must understand Wenger.

Explaining Arsene Wenger’s philosophy is a trickier task than at first it actually seems. It’s widely accepted that he’s an attacking coach but can that be distinguished from a coach that favours possession first? For example, his Arsenal side do not stretch the pitch as wide as other possession-orientated sides might; instead the Wenger way is to stretch the field vertically in the build up to avoid the press, and then drop a midfielder in to pick up the ball in the extra space. Other teams such as Barcelona – at the far end of the attacking-possession extreme – stretch the play horizontally, firstly by splitting the centre-backs and then dropping a midfielder in between.

Instead, the main focus for Wenger is on expressionism and autonomy, cultivated on the training ground by small-sided matches – games of 7v7 or 8v8 – to encourage better combination play. (Think about how, in the first-half in the 2-0 win against Crystal Palace, Lukas Podolski kept on drifting inside too early in the build up instead of, as he should have, hugging the touchline to open up space. It was later in the second-half, when he curbed his tendencies to get on the ball, that he attempted his first shots in the game).  The importance of possession is preached of course – Arsenal practice a drill called “through-play” whereby a team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively – but keeping the ball must have means: patience is only tolerated to an extent. Cesc Fabregas expands: “Wenger showed me a lot, but wouldn’t say ‘I want you to copy what I show you.’ He let me find by myself the player I was meant to be. Now whenever I have the ball I look to gain yards. This sense of verticality, it’s Wenger. He made me an attacking player.”

“Wenger always said to me: ‘Forward, Cesc, forward! Attack! Attack!’ From a young age I heard him say that. All the players he’s coached will tell you: the eyes must always look to the opponent’s goal. He didn’t really like spending training working on defensive strategies. What he loves is seeing his team take initiative and create chances.” And comparing Arsenal to Barcelona, Fabregas says: “Wenger didn’t really like it when we kept ball for long periods, he thought it counter-productive & sterile keeping the ball but not really doing anything with it (not attacking), he (Wenger) hated that. What (Wenger) loves is goals. For example, if at 3-0 up we could still score two more, he’d push us to do so. The Barca style is more composed. You have to string passes together. Bam. Calm. Bam. Calm. I had to adapt to team’s needs which are different from Arsenal. Here I must play as the coach wants and respect the philosophy of the team.”

This idea of verticality works against most sides as they tend to defend deep against Arsenal, and while that throws up problems of its own, Wenger is secretly happy to face those sides as it means Arsenal have most of the play. However, it can be a problem when teams play high up, as we have seen against Southampton, Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Liverpool to name the most troubling.

Wenger’s aware of this, but he places great faith on his two centre-backs to pass the ball out and one of the central midfielders, usually Mikel Arteta dropping in. He says: “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle. 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. I am comfortable with that, although 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.”

What Arsenal do is, instead of opening the pitch horizontally to evade the press as other possession sides usually do (typically that means splitting the two centre-backs wider and dropping a midfielder in between or asking one of the midfielders to move laterally), they push the team up the pitch to create space in the middle of the pitch for one of the central midfielders to pick up the ball in extra space. The problem is when say Wilshere (who is not very good with the ball deep) or Arteta get the ball there, they’re often isolated and thus easy to dispossess. Often, they have to try and dribble their way out as Mesut Ozil was forced to when he was tackled in the build up to Liverpool’s 3rd goal. In fact, if you cast your mind back to the defeat 3 out of 5 of their goals came from Arsenal relinquishing possession meekly.


Arsene Wenger takes great stock in players who have the dexterity and close control to get out of tight situations, as he said recently when describing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s strengths in central midfield: “He has the sense of positional play and he has the qualities which you want to see in the modern game,” Wenger said. “He has that capability to break through because there is a lot of pressure in the modern game. So those players who have the ability to get out of that pressure are of course very important.”

If they don’t, then it can prove catastrophic as Ozil continually found against Liverpool when he dropped deep and instead, was forced to pass backwards or attempt to dribble through. Bear in mind that there is no right or wrong way – Liverpool have often been in uncompromising situations when they split their centre-backs – it depends on how well you execute your plans and Arsenal are better than most. And better teams are more likely to expose chinks, as Liverpool did and then Chelsea in their 6-0 win. Again, goals were relinquished through easy concession of possession in midfield, as Chelsea not only pressed up the pitch, but intelligently and structurally.

Ozil’s options are compressed as he opts to dribble past Henderson in an attempt to go forward instead of passing it backwards to Mertesacker or Arteta.
Ozil’s options are compressed as he opts to dribble past Henderson in an attempt to go forward instead of passing it backwards to Mertesacker or Arteta.

However, in the recent Champions League encounter against Paris Saint Germain, Chelsea tried to replicate the same tactics but frequently hit a brick wall. Why? Well, for one, they were without their master presser, Nemanja Matic, who is cup-tied in Europe, but the way Paris play under Laurent Blanc, it’s like a game-within-a-game they play at the back, taking risks with the ball in an attempt to draw the opposition out. Chelsea tried to press but each time they did, they were rebuffed either from brilliant close control, especially from Marco Verratti, or intelligent positional play from the Paris players, stretching the pitch horizontally, and then dropping a midfielder in the extra spaces to the side of Chelsea’s attackers so they couldn’t press effectively.

Arsenal could take some hints. For me, Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s foremost deep-lying midfielder, is fantastic at keeping Arsenal’s intensity high in matches where the team is on the front foot and can play in the opponent’s half; indeed, that’s how Wenger used him in the 4-1 win against Everton and 1-1 draw with Manchester City. But when the opponent forces him to play almost as a quarter-back, he can be easily nullified. What Arsenal need to do is offer more rotation; when one of the central midfielders drop deep to pick the ball up, the other pushes up so that it’s harder to mark. Indeed, that’s what Aaron Ramsey did so well before his injury, often out-passing his own teammates and the opponents’. Therefore it’s suffice to say also that how Arsenal cope with high pressure depends on the personnel available.

Then there’s the intricate, almost one-paced play Arsenal play. At times this season, it’s been exhilarating: the team goals against Sunderland and Norwich are some of the best I have seen and that burgeoning understanding can only get better with time and a full complement of healthy players. But the statistics also say this is probably the worst of Wenger’s sides at keeping the ball, dropping to fifth in the Premier League for average possession per game at 56%, down from the last three seasons of 60%+. Of course, this is partly a purposeful ploy from Wenger, implanting a pragmatic side to Arsenal’s game, as they are more willing to drop off and soak up pressure, gradually working a foothold in the game and taking the chances that come. However, it’s also hard to ignore that they now take four less shots per game and concede one more shot on average per game than they have in the past few seasons. Is it a strategic fault that Arsenal have or is it the players that account for the drop-off?

There’s an argument that Arsenal also lack enough players with the change of pace and direction that has been the standard of Wenger sides in the past. Chiefly, that has been levelled at striker Olivier Giroud who it is said could run the channels more, thus opening space for the attacking players behind him. Giroud, while his link-up play brings others into play, is mainly static, exclusively playing in between the two centre-backs and as such Arsenal’s play can look predictable, and it relies on moves being perfect.

Indeed, it’s even arguable that Arsenal don’t use him enough as a target man to bring more variety into their play – or rather that they can’t because his ball retention is wildly inconsistent. It’s more convenient (and frustrating as well) to think of Giroud as an extension of the midfield, another pass before Arsenal eventually get inside the box.

One must also consider the psychological factor in appraising whether Arsenal are more susceptible to the press. Because so much of Arsenal’s play is predicated on passing the ball well and playing attractive football, thus creating a perception of superiority that is often enough to overwhelm teams lower down. But against the top sides the players (and the manager) seem so anxious to make a statement,* that when things are not going their way, they can crack –and badly – from which there is no fallback position. Paul Hayward of The Telegraph calls this a “conviction deficit”. In that sense, Arsenal needs not just strong individuals, but technical leaders (players like Xabi Alonso, who sets the tempo, ideologue for Real Madrid) or more damningly even, a more robust footballing strategy beyond merely “expressing” yourself.

*Think back to when, before the 1-0 defeat to Manchester United, Mesut Ozil saidwe are going to Old Trafford to have fun – and that is why we are going to win.” What we saw instead was a very timid Arsenal performance, visibly uncertain about the best way to break down a defensive United side.

This can also tie in with Arsenal’s vulnerability to the high press because players are not sure where to move on the pitch to evade the pressure. Above all, though, it seems that what we need to see most to alleviate this flaw is a more confident Arsenal, one with real relief belief in the way they play – and of course, their best players fit and available together.

Difference in possession philosophy defines Bayern Munich’s approach against Arsenal


– Kroos’s excellent pass set up the key moment in the match
– Bayern Munich’s “sterile” domination a by-product of their technical superiority
– Wenger needs to improve his side’s ball-retention to really kick on

In the end, Arsenal’s Champions League aspirations were cut down to size by one glorious pass by Toni Kroos. The Bayern Munich midfielder, picking the ball up 10-yards outside the penalty box, lifted it over a static Arsenal defence who could not help but stand and watch, as if somebody had stopped time and simply placed the ball in the air and restarted time again. Arjen Robben, who initially played the pass to Kroos, was alive to the opportunity and pounced on the give-and-go, trapping the ball superbly and inducing Wojciech Szczesny into a foul. David Alaba missed the subsequent penalty but it was clear, having seen out Arsenal’s early storm, that the game would turn on that sending off and that one superb moment of vision from Kroos.

It’s not that Arsenal didn’t have the quality to get back into the game but that piece of inventiveness in a way, already highlighted the technical edge that Bayern held over Arsenal, at least at face value. It’s true that Arsene Wenger’s side could harbour much regret from the 2-0 defeat, especially from the way they started the game and then should have had the lead when on eight-minutes Mesut Ozil horribly messed up from the penalty spot. Still, Arsenal’s gameplan was working superbly for the first 15-20 minutes, unsettling Bayern on the ball and breaking quickly. They had lots of joy down the right, especially with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and then the targeted flick-ons from Yaya Sanogo and Bacary Sagna. But then, the game starting to settle into an ominous pattern: Bayern Munich increasingly began to monopolise possession and play the game outside Arsenal’s box. There were sporadic moments to attack after that but the crucial thing for Arsenal was that there were chances on the break; something which was taken away from Arsenal after the red-card before half-time. (To put into context how the game was taken away from Arsenal in the second-half, Bayern Munich completed 494 passes after the break. By comparison Arsenal managed just 38).

Technically, this Bayern Munich side is probably somewhere in between the two ball-hogging Barcelona sides which entertained Arsenal at the Emirates in 2010 & 2011, and the Bayern side which Arsenal faced last year. Indeed, in those matches, those teams found out that they couldn’t dominate The Gunners for the full ninety-minutes and as such, there was valid reason here for Arsenal to harbour great regret.

Yet, it was Bayern Munich’s superior technical quality – something that’s ingrained in their mentality much deeper than just being able to pass the ball accurately – which allowed them to assume the tie away from Arsenal.

In the past, Wenger has talked about this as sterile domination (most recently he has said this about Southampton, saying that their possession, in Arsenal’s 2-0 win in November, was an “illusion”); or in other words, passing the ball for passing sake. But for those sides, sterile domination isn’t an aim: it’s a by-product of their voraciousness to be better than the rest at manipulating the ball. In that sense, it’s a grave error for Wenger to continue dismissing the necessary-evil(?) of sterile domination. It forces teams back, and provokes teams to play, at 0-0, in a way that seems inherently defensive (anti-football even in some cases), and it makes it harder to counter-attack against them. Of course, in recent times, there’s been a movement against possession-fixated sides that has been used to great effect called counter-pressing, most devastatingly used by Bayern Munich in the Champions League against Barcelona. Arsenal have tried to adopt those methods to some degree this season and indeed, before the red card in this match.

The most piercing comment of the match was not, however, Wenger’s indignation of the triple-punishment that his side suffered after Robben’s “play-acting” but rather, the approach that he revealed pre-match that they were going to take, which was to defend first. That was him accepting that Bayern are the better side, which in itself is not new information, however, it should put to bed the notion that when two possession-based attacking sides meet, we’re likely to see a festival of goals. Indeed, it’s more likely we’ll see one team defend for large periods and the other try to weather the storm – and possibly after going a goal down, forced to react. That in itself is a bit of a regret: we rarely ever see two sides defined by possession go toe-to-toe on equal footing for the whole match: one is usually a cut above the other. The last I remember seeing such a game was in 2010 when Argentina defeated Spain 4-1 in a friendly with near 50-50 possession each. Other similar encounters, Arsenal’s 2-1 win at the Emirates in 2011 against Barcelona saw Arsenal only accrue 36% of the ball. That, though, after weathering a first-half Barca storm and then having to go Catenaccio in the aggregate defeat away. (Pep Guardiola’s Bayern against Tata Martino’s Barcelona might be the closest we come to seeing possession v possession).

Richard Whittall, editor of The Score, makes a similar point. When you see two sides like Arsenal and Bayern Munich, and then the comprehensive way Arsenal in which were erased from the match red-card after, you wonder why a team as technically proficient as The Gunners couldn’t react. Yet, it’s often forgotten that possession football is diverse – as diverse as the game itself – and usually the best teams are the ones who cultivate possession. In his piece, Whittall uses the example of Manchester City’s defeat 2-0 defeat to Barcelona, saying:

And yet ten minutes in last night, the illusion there is a single, homogeneous style in build-up play in Europe was undone by the clear juxtaposition of the lanky giants in Blue taking on the upright, two-touch-and-go efficiency of the boys in red and purple (what are Barca’s colours, exactly?). One of these teams was not like the other. One of them didn’t belong.

If that seems a little harsh an analogy to use on Arsenal, a team who under Wenger have captivated the world for over 15 years, consider Pep Guardiola’s dismissal of interchangeability and fluidity as a tactic. In a way, he could be dismissing Arsene Wenger’s style which is to grant players the freedom to move around the pitch when in the attacking-third. On the training ground, that’s cultivated by small sided games of 5v5, 7v7 etc. to encourage spontaneous combination play or by drills such as one called “through-play” whereby the team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively and pass the ball between them. For Wenger, the main focus is on expressionism and autonomy. The importance of possession is preached of course but keeping the ball must have a means: patience is only tolerated to an extent.

Guardiola’s approach, however, is more scientific, more hands-on. Players must see the pitch as a grid, each occupying a “square” and making sure each one is filled. He says moving the ball is more important than the man moving as that’s the best way to work opponents. Thomas Muller explains: “It isn’t about having possession just for the sake of it, that’s not the concept. It’s about using possession to position the team in the opposition’s half in a way that makes us less liable to be hit on the break.

Guardiola’s methods are not to be used as a stick to beat Wenger with: he deserves to have faith in the way he works, while his Arsenal side is one that continues to play better football than most. Indeed, at 11 v 11 he had realistic reasons to expect that Arsenal could win this game. However, there are teams that are taking the game to new levels now, and watching the way Bayern Munich stretched the pitch, time after time creating overloads and opening up half-spaces, it’s little wonder that Arsenal weren’t able to get back in the game after Szczesny saw red.

**NB: Pep Guardiola after the match: “Today we again saw that it all depends on possession. We should have fought harder during the first ten minutes. It’s a question of personality; you need to want the ball. We are not a great counterattacking team, as we don’t have the physical requirements for that. We always need to have the ball, that’s what it boils down to.”

Olivier Giroud, master of the wall pass, makes Arsenal play


Olivier Giroud fell to the floor and put his hands to his face. When he took them away, his face revealed a look of great anguish. Of course, the cameras caught it all and with the rain falling heavily, his body drenched, there was even a homoerotic quality about it. For Arsenal fans, it’s become an all too familiar sight; presented with a golden opportunity at key moments in a given game – against Chelsea it was at 0-0, the contest evenly poised, and against Everton (1-1), practically the last kick of the game – Giroud has failed to deliver.

Giroud’s reactions after he misses are almost always the same; he writhes like an animal hit by a tranquiliser dart, after huffing and puffing all game waiting for such a chance to fall his way. To be fair, the two opportunities mentioned were not easy chances by any stretch; against Chelsea, the skiddy surface meant it was always going to be difficult to hit the ball cleanly. But a striker at the peak of his confidence would probably put it away anyway. And his last minute shot against Everton was even harder and it would have been a spectacular outcome had Giroud scored but the ball agonisingly clipped the crossbar instead of dipping underneath.

In the most recent match against West Ham United, Giroud had one glorious chance which he dragged wide. This time he swiped at the turf in frustration. Then, there were two crosses that evaded him, yet, rather than take the hint that Giroud was having a hapless game, Arsenal continued playing the ball up to him. And he kept on returning the ball back to them. Perfectly. That was something he couldn’t miss.

This is generally how Arsenal have used Giroud. Rather than finishing moves, or even acting as a target-man to get onto the end of crosses, Giroud is best as a pivot to bounce passes off. The goal he created against West Ham United – Arsenal’s third in a 3-1 win – shows his importance to the side in a deceptively simple way. The ball was fizzed into Giroud by Theo Walcott; he controlled it, held off his marker and then laid the ball off perfectly for Lukas Podolski to lash home. It’s this ability to bring others into play which is probably why Arsene Wenger has persisted with him for so long (at least, long enough that he doesn’t feel the need to bring another striker in), but it’s also because Giroud’s a big part of his plan for how he wants Arsenal to play.

It started last season, with Arsene Wenger having to remould the side again following the departures of two key players. In previous seasons, the Frenchman’s ability to teambuild has been crippled by want-away stars although this time, Wenger went into the season knowing that this would be the last time it would happen because the Great Darkness over Islington was finally beginning to lift. But his plan really went up a gear on the last day of August 2013 when Mesut Ozil walked through the doors at Arsenal’s London Colney, echoing the first time Dennis Bergkamp set foot inside Highbury’s famous marble hall.

Then, Dennis Bergkamp transformed the culture of the club simply by being different. This time though, Ozil changes Arsenal because he’s just like everybody else in the team – only a little better. His impact has been palpable in the 21 games he’s played so far, scoring 5 goals and creating 9 others. Most notably, though, has been the effect he has made on his team-mates, instilling the self-belief that has been so desperately lacking in recent seasons. Like Bergkamp, the players use Ozi as a “reference”. When he gets on the ball, they know they must provide options for him; they’re now moving into spaces they didn’t before because back then, they weren’t expecting the pass. Each time the players receive the ball from Ozil, it’s like he’s hitting an untapped erogenous zone: “oh, oh, oh!”

Because Ozil is similar to the rest of his team-mates, Arsenal become instantly stronger than they were last season because he reinforces their USP. Think about it this way: if playing against Arsenal was difficult because they pass and move so well, imagine how much harder it’d be with another trickier midfielder in the line-up (who is better than what they have already). As Brian Phillips, writing for Grantland, puts it: “Özil represents Wenger trying to build the most completely fucking Arsenal team this side of Thierry Henry’s 30th birthday.”

Signing Ozil confused people: “Why do they need him? Where would he fit?” they asked. His tactical purpose, though, is alchemical. When others vacate their positions, Ozil slots in meaning that Arsenal always have a zone occupied. He makes the fluidity complete. In the 3-1 win over West Ham, Ozil was instrumental, gliding across the pitch, and combining quickly with team-mates. With Aaron Ramsey pushing up (and later it would be Santi Cazorla assuming the role), Arsenal’s formation transformed into a 4-1-4-1 with Mikel Arteta acting as the base. When Ozil signed, Arsenal went wingerless, but with Theo Walcott providing the depth and the width, there are more options for him to hit. With 8 goalscoring chances created at Upton Park, Ozil’s productivity was Bergkamp-esque but there was one person he found more than anyone else: Giroud.

Frequently Ozil played the ball up to Giroud, either looking for a return or merely just making a run off him to receive the ball from a possible lay-off. It’s not just Ozil; others do the same. Podolski loves to play close to Giroud because he knows he will return the ball back to him. They do that because they know that Giroud, even for a big man, is a deft passer. He has a graceful touch that when it is at its best, is as smooth as Chantilly lace. It helps, though, that Giroud is a big man because it makes him easier to find and that any ball played up to him, he can hold and shield off any opponents. In that sense, Giroud is more similar to Bergkamp than say, Alan Smith who Wenger likened him to. Bergkamp used to implore team-mates to hit the ball up to him, hard if they have to, because he knew he could trap any pass. Giroud, similarly, is targeted by difficult long-balls, as much as the team plays through him with short, simple passes. (Giroud has attempted 98 flick-ons this season, 3rd behind traditional target men, Peter Crouch and Christian Benteke. This also from a side who complete the second fewest long-balls in the league, although it must be said, a lot of Giroud’s flick-on numbers include those with his feet).

There’s an anecdote in Stillness and Speed, Dennis Bergkamp’s “non-autobiography” written by David Winner, where he talks about the wall of his childhood home in Amsterdam where he would endlessly kick the ball back-and-forth, watching the ball come back to him, trapping it and then doing it again but in a different way, and trapping it again. This reminded me of Giroud: if Ozil is the natural heir to Bergkamp, then Giroud is like that wall in Amsterdam that Bergkamp used practice to bouncing passes off – the ball comes back perfect.


Actually, at this point, it might be helpful to break the piece up and include an excerpt from the book to help understand:

David Winner: I’M TRYING TO picture you aged about eight, kicking a ball against this wall. What would you be thinking?

Dennis: ‘It’s not thinking. It’s doing. And in doing, I find my way. I used the brickwork around the entrance to the building. You see that line of vertical bricks, like a crossbar? Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it. I found that so interesting! Trying it different ways: first one foot, then the other foot, looking for new things: inside of the foot, outside of the foot, laces . . . getting a sort of rhythm going, speeding it up, slowing it down. Sometimes I’d aim at a certain brick, or at the crossbar. Left  foot, right foot, making the ball spin. Again and again. It was just fun. I was enjoying it. It interested me. Maybe other people wouldn’t bother. Maybe they wouldn’t find it interesting. But I was fascinated. Much later, you could give a pass in a game and you could maybe look back and see: “Oh, wait a minute, I know where that touch comes from.” But as a kid you’re just kicking a ball against the wall. You’re not thinking of a pass. You’re just enjoying the mechanics of it, the pleasure of doing it.

‘Later, I’d say: “With every pass, there needs to be a message or a thought behind it.” But that was there from very early, in my body and in my mind. When I was kicking the ball against the wall I’d be trying to hit a certain brick or trying to control the ball in a certain way. You play around with the possibilities, with bounces, for example. You hit the wall and the ball comes back with one bounce. Then you say, “Let’s try to do it with two bounces,” so you hit it against the wall a little bit softer, a little bit higher. With two bounces, it means probably that both bounces are a little bit higher, so you have to control it again, in a different way. You’re always playing around. I wasn’t obsessed. I was just very intrigued the wall by how the ball moves, how the spin worked, what you could do with spin.


Giroud’s neat flicks and touches are crucial to the way Arsenal play and it is clear, watching Giroud execute those passes, that he takes immense pride in seeing them find his team-mates. There is a painstaking meticulousness to them that can occasionally frustrate, yet, at the same time; Giroud often sees pictures that others don’t, like his passes last season against SwanseaCity and Montpelier, or most famously, in October, against NorwichCity. To walk through that goal again; Jack Wilshere receives a pass from Santi Cazorla, plays it back to him and continues running to an empty space behind Giroud. He already anticipates the ball will get to him but probably never pictured that it would, the way that it did. Giroud touches the ball to Wilshere who, surprised by the earliness that it reaches him, flicks it back. Giroud, though, is not flinched by the quick pass and instead, flicks the ball aback gain with the outside of his boot through two defenders into the path of Wilshere. The pass was so good that all Wilshere had to do was stick a boot out and the ball rebounded in. It was natural that some Arsenal fans got carried away after that; that type of telepathy, accuracy and instinct develops over time, and it’s not hard to see Giroud’s role in accelerating the type of football that Wenger wants.

As Philippe Auclair tells Arseblog, Giroud “is not just a big guy who is good at holding up the ball with his back to goal. He’s somebody who loves to play with ‘first intention’ as we say in French; somebody who can flick the ball around the corner, is always looking for a quick solution when the tempo of game has to be accelerated. He’s always looking to create something, a creator in the box. It’s something that Arsenal have been lacking for a while.”

Of course, there’s a trade-off and that is Giroud is probably not as clinical in front of goal as a striker in a top club side should be. His movement to get onto the end of chances is also fairly predictable, often making a darting run towards the near post but usually little else. And perhaps, looking beyond his fantastic link-up play, a different type of striker who makes runs across the channels thus stretching play might improve Arsenal’s efficiency even more. But because Giroud can do everything – “physical presence, technique and charisma” Giroud is the “type of striker who is difficult to find nowadays”, Wenger says – it means it carries little risk for a team that is still adapting to each other, still working out each others’ movements. In that sense, Giroud then, acts as a bit of a buffer, lessening the impact of this adjustment period by taking hits for the team as they strive to find better balance and understanding. That’s why Wenger is willing to overlook some of his deficiencies – namely his goalscoring, which fans are understandably less forgiving of – because Giroud makes the team play. (Which begs the question: When Arsenal becomes fully in tune with each other, perhaps then Wenger might be more willing to leave out Giroud than he is at the moment?)

However, that’s not to say Giroud is untouchable in Wenger’s eyes because I’ve not seen a player come under such heavy scrutiny from Wenger in all his time in charge. After Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Montpellier in the Champions League last season, Wenger said that “technically it was not one of his [Giroud’s] best games … sometimes when he doesn’t get the ball enough he wants to come deep. That is not his game. And in a 3-1 comeback against Norwich City towards the end of the campaign, he said “I think he had a very, very average first half,” before adding “and a very, very positive and influential second half.”

Arsenal have practiced a lot on Giroud’s technique, he reveals, on the training ground and in particular, the type of moves we saw regularly against West Ham United and earlier this season. He doesn’t have to make the final pass. Dennis Bergkamp similarly derived great pleasure from making the “pass before the assist. Look at the goal,” he says, “and look at the assist, but most importantly, look at where the attack starts from.” Often Giroud is involved. Even if he’s not, he’s a useful decoy, making runs across defenders to create space elsewhere.

It’s probably best not to view Giroud as your orthodox striker but rather, as an extension of the midfield – although he’s the player who has the biggest responsibility to finish. (“You need more players who can create that special opening and I believe that Europe uses fewer strikers than before,” says Wenger). Certainly, Giroud would love to score more: the pain inflicted by missing a chance is evident in his reactions. But Giroud is determined not to let that put him down: his unique role as a goal-getter as well as a goal-creator is one that he relishes. “Strikers are judged on their goals, he says. “But we must also [provide] assists and that is what I try to do: help my team-mates. It is easy to play with people like Jack, Mesut, Santi or Tomas – all my offensive team-mates. We have good relationships on the pitch and when we play one-touch football, it is a pleasure. We try to do it in every game, and when we succeed it is fantastic.”


Review: Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top


Normally, nostalgia is evoked by watching a movie, looking at photos or merely by way of conversation. It’s not, however, normal for someone to come back and do exactly the same thing again. That’s how it felt when Thierry Henry returned to Arsenal in the January of 2012 and, against Leeds United in the League Cup, scored in exactly the same way that he had made a trademark.

Starting from a position on the inside-left channel, Henry darted inside to receive a pass from Alex Song. When the ball landed at his feet, the angle was fairly tight; improbable even to some players as defenders encircled him. But Henry, as we learnt in Philippe Auclair’s biography of the French Striker, Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top, had perfected the art on the training fields of Monaco with then fitness coach, Claude Puel [Page 52]. The open body shape, leaning awkwardly to his left and with almost all of his weight transferred to one foot, and hitting the ball on the bottom-right corner to achieve maximum deviation away from the goalkeeper. When he scored, I gathered this is how it might feel for Napoli fans to see Diego Maradona once more pirouette on the centre-circle. Or for Manchester United fans, seeing Eric Cantona lift his famous collar again.

Of course, that might just be the romantic in me. After all, Henry had played his last game for the club back in 2007, only some four seasons ago. And he came back a year-and-a-half before signing on loan for Arsenal as a Barcelona player with credentials still strong. (The Arsenal fans gave him a rapturous applause when he came on at the Emirates Stadium and then booed him when he touched the ball, somewhat acknowledging the danger he can cause. On an aside note, the first 20 minutes from Barcelona was the most breathtaking and relentless exhibition of football I have ever seen).  But at that age, there was a doubt that he would only be a hologram of the player we remembered; the power, the grace, the athleticism, the absolutefuckingbrilliantness – what of that would remain? Thankfully those fears, how ever much was not already engulfed by excitement, were allayed. Arsène Wenger used him sparingly in only moments he could be absolutely effective (his winner away to Sunderland cannot be overstated) and his goal against Leeds United, as Auclair tells, came “to be the defining image of his relationships with Wenger, the club, and the club’s fans.”

That magical night in January is the somewhat reluctant ending toLonely at the Top because, while the book predominately charts how the love affair with Arsenal came to be, Henry’s story develops into another, less savoury tangent; that of his image in his own country. Whatever reservations the French public had of Henry’s character – the botched transfer to Real Madrid early on in his career certainly didn’t help (although he quickly recoiled those scepticisms with his ability on the pitch), or his aloofness off it – that all came to a head after the “Hand of Gaul” incident which cost lowly, plucky and thus loveable, Ireland a place in the World Cup. France’s subsequent failure in the tournament and the “shameful” bus strike midway through saw Thierry Henry, among others, come under severe criticism. Here, the book switches to a more serious tone and Auclair provides a wonderful, if precautionary, dissection of modern France and it’s relationship with the national team; one that is not limited to one country it must be said, but France’s seems a bit of a watershed.* One of the reasons why Henry might have been as criticised as he was, was that he was seen as a talisman of a mediocre France side and when the time came “when the foolishness of others gave him the chance of being a hero”, Henry did nothing. (Henry’s place in the selection was previously in doubt anyway, as Raymond Domenech admitted in his memoirs, Tout seul: Souvenirs, that he ended up picking Henry for “emotional reasons” as he couldn’t bear to face the impending uproar from the public – who saw Henry as a talisman and leader of a leaderless group before and after the tournament – were he not taken).

*Auclair’s explanation of France’s tolerance to nationalised citizens and its value of supranationality helps understand why Wenger had traditionally, before now it seems, ignored a player’s passport when making transfers.

If that seems at odds with the image of Henry we have on these shores, it’s because Auclair wants to make you aware of the dichotomy “between the troubled image of Henry in his own country, and his status as a genuine hero for Arsenal fans.” His route to the latter might be less sensational but it is no less straightforward. In fact, much of it is owed to hard work, as Henry when converted back to a striker at Arsenal, would practice his finishing for hours on end to the mockery of his teammates because he was horrible initially, and the faith of his father and coaches in his formative years before Wenger (Gérard Houllier and Jean Tigana at Monaco most well-known). Wenger, though, had the foresight – or hindsight one might even call it, to use him in the position he played as a teenager.

The transformation was metamorphic as it wasn’t entirely natural. Henry needed a lot of convincing at first and there even seemed to be a bit of science about it. That owes much to the analytical mind of Henry as Auclair reveals, especially of his knowledge of the game (the striker says he relished playing against Italian defenders like Alessandro Nesta as his game was too quick for them which helps explain his success against them although conversely, my memory of him was that he struggled against the opposite: of pacy, intelligent anticipatory centre-backs such as William Gallas/Ricardo Carvalho or Ledley King). Henry is also capable of being self-critical – self-aware even – to the point of being obsessive, cosying up to certain journalists to make sure that not only does he survive, but his legacy thrives.

Two months before Henry rejoined Arsenal on loan from New York Red Bulls, his legend was crystalised when a statue was unveiled of him celebrating a fine solo run from his own half before scoring against Tottenham Hotspur in 2002. (The design of which I have a bone to pick because, whilst artistically perfect, it didn’t capture Henry in his usual swagger, his grace: the features that defined him as statues are meant to capture). That might go down as one of Henry’s finest performances but certainly not his defining moment. Indeed, Lonely at the Top fails to underpin one defining moment which might be to Henry’s detriment but certainly not the book’s. There are plenty of great moments; his hat-trick against Liverpool at 2-1 down when Arsenal’s “Invicible” status was yet to be confirmed was probably his best. A personal favourite was his double away at Internazionale to win 5-1 which only further confirmed to me and Arsenal fans of his untouchable status. But he was more than just a goalscorer which is why it’s said “Wenger owes as much to Henry as Henry does to Wenger.” His assist before the assist against Aston Villa (drifting to the right this time, beating two or three defenders before playing a wonderful “banana” pass to Dennis Bergkamp – whose deft touch was just as deadly – found Ashley Cole) best encapsulates how Henry was the system.

As I neared the conclusion of Lonely at the Top, I couldn’t help but feel the real star of the book wasn’t actually Henry but Auclair himself. That’s not meant to be an indictment of Henry’s interestingness, although at first, he doesn’t seem like the most obvious candidate for a biography. Indeed, Auclair prefers to describe this as a “biographical essay”, an apt description of a unique account of Arsenal’s greatest player. It’s a brilliantly written book with great distance between the writer and its subject, and Auclair’s insight genuinely adds to the narrative of Henry’s career when with others, it might get in the way (the use of statistics however, does get tedious at times). At the end of it, Auclair won’t make you love Henry more, but you will certainly have a deeper understanding of him. And as such, love him more because we get to appreciate that what we got wasn’t the Henry after the debacle of South Africa 2010, but 8 years of greatness. When he returned and scored against Leeds, and then the adulation he received; perhaps we are the wisest of all when judging Thierry Henry.

Thierry Henry: Life at the Top by Philipe Auclair is available at all good bookstores. (Actually, “good” is harsh because all bookstores are good. I especially like the ones owned by middle-aged men with ponytails. Which is all of them, really).