Arsenal fall short of Dortmund test but can take plenty of positives

arsenal-dortmund-lewandowski

The tendency, when a team loses the game in the manner which Arsenal did, is to dissect the winning goal in such detail that nothing else prior to that really mattered. And in a sense in the Champions League, that’s right.

For large periods of the 2-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal dominated but were dealt a sucker punch when Dortmund broke quickly and scored when Robert Lewandowski arrived unmarked at the back-post. There were a series of flashpoints leading up to the goal, however, which were particularly influential; why Bacary Sagna had committed that far up the pitch; why Tomas Rosicky and Mesut Ozil only cantered back; and why Kieran Gibbs decided to get tight to the player in possession instead of holding his position as Arsenal were outnumbered. In the end, Arsenal might want to focus on the wider issues that contributed to the defeat, namely how tired they looked, especially as they played very well on the whole. But in the Champions League, the margins are thin, as Borussia Dortmund themselves found out two years ago when they crashed out of the group stages, that it’s imperative to take advantage of the good spells you have, and to stay firm when you’re on the back foot.

Former Bayern Munich goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, underpins perfectly what makes the Champions League different to the Premier League: “The Champions League can hardly be compared to the respective domestic leagues,” he said. “The tempo is higher, the teams play tactically smarter, mistakes are ruthlessly punished and the referees are more lenient. In the European game, you have to be well organised, wait for your chances and take them when they come.”

At the final whistle, Arsene Wenger was particularly hurt, saying that for the two goals (Aaron Ramsey was dispossessed for the first) Arsenal were “naïve” (in contrast, Jurgen Klopp praised the “maturity” of his team). However, the problem of naivety has been levelled at The Gunners for a while, and indeed, except for the run in 2006 when they reached the final, Arsenal haven’t altered their approach much for the European stage and they’ve been punished. Could defeat be a turning point?

To be fair, Wenger’s side have shown more awareness recently and they started the game in cautious fashion – although perhaps overly so. They were unable to enforce the same intensity on the game as they did in the early minutes when they defeated Napoli 2-0. Instead, they dropped back, looked to get into shape and build a platform from there. In short, it was the perfect defensive strategy for Europe. But on the flip-side, Arsenal were guilty of being too passive when they allowed Dortmund to open the scoring. Mikel Arteta intercepted the pass, played it to Ramsey who, shorn of options, and the best option really was to punt the ball away as Arsenal were so deep, was dispossessed. Again, you can level at Arsenal that they were a bit naïve because Dortmund come to life when they force opponents back. When Ramsey received the ball, Klopp pressed the button from the stand to activate Dortmund’s gegenpressing and in an instant; he was surrounded by three yellow shirts. Marco Reus stole the ball away, Lewandowski passed it to Henrikh Mkhtarian, and the Armenian finished.

Managing Moments: The minutes where the match was won.  Courtesy of UEFA.com. Click to enlarge.
Managing Moments: The minutes where the match was won.  Courtesy of UEFA.com. Click to enlarge.

It took a while for Arsenal to get back into the game, and when they did, they moved the ball magnificently. Initially, they found it hard as Dortmund got tight to the midfield and denied them space. Passes went astray: Jack Wilshere had a pass success rate of 50% from 30 passes. But then again, it was players like Wilshere who helped Arsenal negate the early press, by gliding past with skill. It was ironic that Arsenal conceded the opener when Ramsey was dispossessed because Arsenal’s close-control was outstanding and indeed, it was Ramsey’s sidestep away from Sven Bender which opened the space for Bacary Sagna, and his cross fortunately found it’s way for Olivier Giroud to score.

Increasingly, the most space was to be found out wide because of the narrowness of both midfields. Arsenal played a 4-2-3-1 without wingers and similarly, Dortmund’s front four prefer to interchange. That meant Mesut Ozil was unable to influence, and although he likes to drift to the flanks, it showed how successful Dortmund’s tactic was that they able to shepherd him wide at every opportunity. “They are difficult to break down,” said Wilshere. “They have good team shape. We wanted to get Mesut [Özil] on the ball but they made it difficult for us.”

Arsenal were stronger in the second-half and as they sensed they had the ascendancy, tried to increase the tempo. Rosicky, on a yellow card, dropped back in midfield to play a more conservative role, helping Arsenal distribute the ball better (as in the first-half, he was often penalised for over-zealous tracking back) while Ramsey pushed higher to press Dortmund. But, they only created one real chance when Santi Cazorla hit the crossbar after a flowing move and were later punished by Lewandowski for over-committing. (The importance of Theo Walcott is obvious when Arsenal have days like this; lots of good approach play but need something else, someone to make runs behind, to break from the neat and intricate).

Indeed, the second-half raises an interesting question, one which Wenger might have to find a solution to if his side are to succeed in Europe: if creating chances is the hardest thing to do in football, perhaps instead of pushing too much (too early) when in control, maybe it’s better to assert the dominance (and then push towards the end)?

Arsenal’s style has always been a bit gung-ho, although the signs are they are beginning to add greater game intelligence to their game and learning how to “manage moments”. Had Mathieu Flamini not been concussed, he surely would have started, given Arsenal the protection they sorely needed. Mikel Arteta did a fantastic job – making 11 tackles – but there’s no doubt Arsenal missed Flamini’s guided hustle in front of the back four.

Finally, there was another question raised about Arteta’s passing; that it was too ponderous, too safe. That’s a little unfair but certainly; he could do a little more to make Arsenal’s passing game quicker. That was mostly down to his positioning as he’s always looking to move up the pitch to give space to the centre-backs in the build up, when perhaps he should be doing more to create better passing lanes for himself. What that entails is moving wider to pick up the ball or occasionally drop in between the centre-backs. Flamini’s passing is often under-appreciated but one thing he does well is to always move into the channels to create better angles to receive the pass. The double-pivot is probably Wenger’s preferred option in Europe – and that means Aaron Ramsey will have to miss out playing in his favoured position. However, it might be the right choice to allow Arsenal to prodress in Europe.

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Five points on Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal

1. Bacary Sagna typifies Arsenal’s defensive performance

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

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

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

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

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

2. Selection gets the best out of fantastic three

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Arteta still the main man

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

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

5. Sunderland should just wing-it

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

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

Seven points on Arsenal 1-0 Stoke City

1. Arsenal revert back to type to win

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

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

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

2. Assured début for Monreal

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

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

Monreal v Stoke

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

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

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

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

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

4. Arteta still the man

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

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

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

5. Giroud needs to be more greedy

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

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

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

7. Sagna’s lack of form exaggerated

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

Mikel Arteta and Marouane Fellaini share the spoils in a fascinating midfield battle

arteta-fellaini

– Interesting battle between two key midfielders
– Ramsey’s role in 1-1 draw once again under-appreciated
– Wenger needs his side to find their fluency again if they are to push on

Marouane Fellaini’s stock has risen higher than even his prominent ‘fro. Last season, he was a good player for Everton playing in a box-to-box midfield role; this season, he’s become an important one mainly used as an advanced midfielder, linking up play, not with deft passes or dribbles past opponents – although he’s capable of that, as shown by his goal – but with his head: a half target-man, half midfield-pivot. It’s a strange role and one that Arsenal had to shackle if they were to stop an uncompromising Everton side. They nearly did; the match finished 1-1 and both sides had the potential to win it, if not for the special bit of quality to actually pull it off.

Everton’s play revolves around Fellaini. David Moyes creed is to create lots of 2 v 1 situations down the flanks and Fellaini is the reference point. If the ball is not played up to him, he can still act as the decoy which allows Everton to quickly ping the ball out wide, usually down the left hand-side with Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar and work into the box from there. As such, stopping Fellaini would go a long way to stopping Everton (although a bigger case could be made for Baines being their most important player, as shown by the way his side’s game suffered when he picked up an injury with 15 minutes to go).

That job would primarily be Mikel Arteta’s (while if Everton went longer, he would pass Fellaini on to one of the centre-backs). It was to be Arteta’s greatest test since being converted into a deep-lying playmaker. However, there is a growing thought that moving Arteta deeper is detrimental to his wider skill-set, yet that notion couldn’t be more misguided. After all, it hasn’t worked too badly for Andrea Pirlo. There is an argument that this team needs his passing higher up the pitch yet last season, he wasn’t Arsenal’s most penetrative midfielder – that was the holding midfielder Alex Song. Rather, Arteta’s role was about giving the team continuity and stability in possession, exactly what he is doing this season. Even so, moving Arteta further forward is not really an option.

Arsène Wenger’s perplexing decision to build a squad this season, with crucial areas under-manned mean Arsenal don’t have another holding midfielder to call upon. “Sometimes you have no possibility because you might only have one player in one position,” said Wenger before the game on his lack of flexibility to rotate. Francis Coquelin is purely not disciplined enough to hold a midfield on his own while the rest of Arsenal’s midfield is more suited to the box-to-box positions: Jack Wilshere Aaron Ramsey and Abou Diaby. Unfortunately, even with that talent at their disposal, they still haven’t got enough from that position this season. Hopefully, Wilshere can push on from his promising performance last night.

Nevertheless, there’s a compelling case to make for Mikel Arteta being main reason for Arsenal’s defensive improvement this season. Because for all the expertise that Steve Bould brings, there needs to be someone who embodies that know-how on the pitch and Arteta has done that.His defensive statistics are some of the best in the Premier League: he’s the sixth-best defensive performer in the Premier League on average, winning nearly 60% of his duels, with 52 tackles and 40 interceptions.

Continuing that theme against Everton last night, Arteta won 4/5 tackles and made 6 interceptions, while also clearing the ball four times. His tussle with Fellaini was engrossing as it was watching two completely contrasting styles. They niggled, fouled each other, and tugged one another’s shirts in the effort to win some sort of space in the midfield battle. (Both players are among the most fouled in the league too not coincidently). Arteta was not scared to put his body in front of the considerable frame of Fellaini and their tussle encapsulated the frantic nature of the fixture. Arteta showed that he had the physicality to play in the position – his tactical nous is already one the best – but due to the attentions of the Belgian midfielder, couldn’t really influence the game enough with his passing.

Marouane Fellaini got his goal when Steven Pienaar won the ball off Arteta following a lax pass from Bacary Sagna (in that sequence leading up to the equaliser, Pienaar actually recovered possession of the ball twice, the first time robbing Aaron Ramsey). Arteta could only watch, dumped to the floor as Sagna’s challenge inadvertently saw the ball squeeze its way to Fellaini and he shot accurately into the bottom corner with his left-foot.

Before that, Arsenal started wondrously, scoring inside the first minute but due to Everton’s pressing, but mainly some poor passing and understanding on their part, Arsenal never really dominated for a discernable period. Indeed, Everton’s equaliser came from a spell in which Arsenal kept the ball for good two-minutes before a certain level of cautiousness to play the killer ball and cockiness from Ramsey, saw them lose it in a dangerous area. That would be the most galling thing for Arsène Wenger to come out of this impotent period; that Arsenal haven’t moved the ball around effectively in the last month-and-a-half.After the draw, he said that the team “missed a little bit of accuracy in our final ball” and while Everton are always difficult opponents, Wenger’s way is set up for the midfield to win the game and they are not doing that at the moment.

Lukas Podolski’s absence meant Arsenal started with Ramsey on the left, four central midfielders in the line-up. The idea was to start as they did last season, where they kept the ball brilliantly for half an hour before Everton eventually threatened. Ramsey was key then and he was again, in a slightly different way this time. He created Arsenal’s goal, a Cesc-y reverse pass to Theo Walcott and made two other chances in the game (both with through-passes, possibly the hardest art in the sport). Yet, in between he showed some parts of his game which make him the maligned figure that he regretfully is.

He was dispossessed before Everton’s goal and overall, was pick-pocketed off the ball six times – the most of any player on the pitch.However, there were other parts of his game that went unnoticed such as the defensive work he did on Baines and Pienaar to limit as much as possible, their threat down that flank. Indeed, and that may partly be down to Walcott’s injury, Wenger switched Ramsey to Arsenal’s left in the second-half, to act as a balancing winger and allow Walcott to play on the counter-attack, almost as the second-striker. Arsenal’s problem, though, was the failure to successfully combine midfield with attack in transitions, especially with Santi Cazorla having a tired game. Ramsey did his part though, and one would hope his stint wide will make him a better user of the ball once he moves back centrally. Wenger once said that by deploying a central player wide, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.” That’s the aim with Ramsey.

All in all, though, a point was a fair result. Arsenal have a period of kind fixtures coming up which they must perform better. Against Everton, they showed the spirit required against normally troublesome opponents. Now they must hope that they find their technical accuracy consistently again. It’s Arsenal’s one trick but success is making it their one very good trick.

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.

Santi Cazorla can be the symbol of Arsenal’s attacking play

Mikel Arteta might be well placed to comment on Arsenal’s unfulfilled potential. He was in the Everton team that was thrashed 7-0 inMay 2005 by an Arsenal side that gave the most compelling argument for football as an art form. More relevantly, though, it was an Arsenal side which featured an amalgamation of the “Invincibles”, and a sprinkling of potentially world-beating youngsters who supposed to carry the club through the move to the Emirates. On that day they were devastating and even though the title was already relinquished to Chelsea, there was a feeling that there was enough talent on show to ensure they deliver more trophies in the future.

Robin van Persie scored the first goal in that game, and he started alongside Philipe Senderos, Ashley Cole and Jose Antonio Reyes while Cesc Fàbregas and Mathieu Flamini both came on as substitute. Now, however, Van Persie is the last that remains of “Project Youth” and this summer, he revealed that he wants to leave the club.

In a sense it’s understandable although some say he owes the club a little bit more loyalty for the time he spent on the treatment table – ironically, the one thing that probably stopped him from leaving earlier. The Arsenal project he was bound to was predicated on success and the premise was simple: “stay here,” it said to players, “and you may not make the best money in the world, but you will win trophies in a thrilling style.” Van Persie only has an FA Cup to show for it.

Losing Van Persie now would be unprecedented – although there are signs that he may yet stay – because Arsène Wenger rarely lets anyone go at their peak. Nevertheless, he’s acted quickly to ensure that there is no repeat of the Cesc Fàbregas/Samir Nasri saga that plagued the club last summer. Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud have joined the club as potential replacements. Yet, while Wenger continues to strengthen, there is a feeling that Arsenal are not completely over the damage that was caused when their two star midfielders left last season. Because, it must be remembered that Arsenal played some of their best football in the final year Fàbregas and Nasri spent at the club – playing a dynamic and integrated brand of football which was supposed to be the benchmark for coming seasons – culminating in the famous 2-1 win over Barcelona. Wenger was adamant that they would stay – nay, he somewhat naively convinced himself that they would stay – so when they did decide to leave, he was suddenly forced to scavenge the market for world class players who could replace them. It was too late in the transfer window to realistically do that thus the rebuilding has effectively started this season. The signing of Santi Cazorla puts Arsenal back on the technical plane that they were when Fàbregas and Nasri were at the club. Now all Wenger needs is Jack Wilshere to return from injury.

In the meantime, that most important of roles is being fulfilled by Mikel Arteta and from there – just in between Alex Song and the playmaker – he gives Arsenal definition. His passing is as unerring as the neatness of his hair and his positional play provides Arsenal the structure when they press while acting as the reference point when they have the ball. And being the best midfielder in the Premier League outside of the established Champions League clubs before he signed, he might have felt he had earned that trust in his technical ability.

Joined by another Spaniard, not insignificantly – Santi Cazorla – Arsenal are just starting to find their balance which is why the other, most important piece of the puzzle – Robin van Persie – must not leave. Finally he gets what he craves – a midfielder with a special eye for a pass because, as he tells Henk Spaan for FT Magazine, a team’s playmaker and the striker must “form a two-in-one unit”. Last season, Van Persie displayed a bit of frustration at Aaron Ramsey’s tendency to procrastinate in possession (although he praised his running) and for a while seemed reinvigorated by Tomáš Rosický.

The injury to the Czech midfielder has seemingly thrown a spanner in Wenger’s pre-season plans; “Rosicky did fantastically well for us at the end of the season, so it is a big blow,” he said of his injury. And listening to how Rosický performed the playmaker role last season, it’s easy to understand why. “When we have the ball I am starting quite close to Robin [van Persie] up front, and after that I can come a bit deeper and stretch the pitch out,” Rosický said. “I can’t say for sure whether this has made the whole difference, but I would certainly agree that what the boss is asking [of me] at the moment suits me nicely.”

This is how Arsène Wenger seeks to find the balance in his midfield. The number 10 starts as a typical playmaker but as the play unfolds, merges in with the other midfielders so that he is hard to pick up. In pre-season, the tactic didn’t go exactly to plan as Wenger found he didn’t have the personnel to execute it smoothly. Against Malaysia XI, Arteta nor Francis Coquelin felt comfortable pushing into the space whenever Abou Diaby dropped back. In the second-half, there was a much better understanding between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chuks Aneke in the advanced midfield role. Against Manchester City they were overrun to ever really test the dynamics while they again underperformed versus Kitchee SC. Abou Diaby, the constant in each of the first-halves, though, did display powerful drive and give-and-goes that will benefit Arsenal. And it should dovetail well with Cazorla who is – not unsurprisingly – one of the best one-touch players in the game. In the long run, he might play as the playmaker expected to replicate the decisiveness and penetration Fàbregas showed but in the immediate term, he replaces the massive impact Yossi Benayoun made at the back-end of last season.

Santi Cazorla comes into the side with intense pressure from the outset and even higher expectations. But Arsenal, stronger after last seasons travails, are seemingly back on the path to building the team that Arsène Wenger always wanted.

Five points on Arsenal 1-2 Wigan Athletic (and more!)

As Thomas Vermaelen made the pass forward, he ran into space making sure he did a double-take to check who’s around him. Not for any Wigan Athletic players, though – they were long camped in their own half by now. But for Alex Song, who was lurking to the right of the centre-circle. Vermaelen wanted him to fill him as he embark on another one of his runs up the pitch and why not? He had already scored one. However, as much as his constant forays forward are a weapon for Arsenal, they’re also a debilitating influence and Song’s reaction indicated that. The Cameroonian midfielder was reluctant to constantly drop back for what he felt was a disruption to the team’s structure and an inefficient use of personnel. In the end, Vermaelen neither went up or stayed back, continuing to remonstrate with Song.

If that moment on 65 minutes encapsulated Arsenal’s lack of cohesion in the 2-1 defeat to Wigan, it also did their desperation because they gave everything. The trouble was, Wigan gave more. And in a season when The Emirates finally felt like their own, this was one of Arsenal’s worst performances at their new home. But to phrase it that way round is to do a disservice to Wigan who outwitted and outran Arsenal to deliver a famous – and important – win.

For a moment, it didn’t look like they would quite hold on as Arsenal lay siege to the Wigan goal, despite taking a quite breathtaking two-goal lead. But they did, defending resolutely to block chances that came at them and in the second-half, they were so expertly organised that they never gave Arsenal a real chance on goal. And to put into context just how brilliant they smothered Arsenal attacks, they were also a threat at the other end, delivering 7 shots on target – the most by any away side at The Emirates this season.

Arsène Wenger had no answer. Or rather, he had no answer to the circumstances that befell his side, conceding two early goals. He said before the match, when asked about how he will counteract Wigan’s 3-4-3/5-4-1, to just “watch the game”and certainly, he would never have expected to fall behind that quickly. But to credit Wenger in his own unique way, he never used that as an excuse and you wouldn’t expect him to, after the way in which Arsenal have clawed back deficits this season. But it surely affected Arsenal’s gameplan and by the start of the second-half, just as they did against Milan, they ran out of energy. Indeed, it also highlighted just why it’s dangerous to draw too many conclusions from this good run of form because such an intensity – especially after conceding – is hard to sustain. Arsenal have been at their best when their emotionally-charged – which indicates a strength of character in a different sense as they’ve also managed to retain a level of control – but Wigan was the type of game which a different mentality was required. The use of Yossi Benayoun might even be an indication that Wenger is not drawing too much from this run too for next season except for breeding confidence and developing an understanding of a certain game plan and Benayoun allows them to achieve that. (Wenger talks of his application and work-rate but in all reality, is only being used to get them to third place – he’s unlikely to stay on).

The substitution of Benayoun on 60 minutes confirmed to some what they already felt about Wenger’s in-game management; that it’s his weakness. Certainly, it’s not that Gervinho entered the fray although he too was ineffective – and the fans wanted Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – it’s that it probably shouldn’t have been Benayoun that went off. Theo Walcott just could not get into the game. The lack of space in front and the shape Wigan deployed meant it stopped Bacary Sagna from overlapping and that affected Walcott’s influence. Another one of Wenger’s subs, and one which there was little to argue about, Aaron Ramsey, couldn’t also make an impact. The Welshman’s passing was slow and in his recent run of games, he’s not been able to show the energy he did earlier this season. Certainly he was affected by the relatively new, and important, role he was playing filling in for Mikel Arteta and as a result, his pressing and positioning suffered. When Oxlade-Chamberlain did enter the field, he did in central midfield and proceeded to try to do too much. His runs often led to blind alleys (showing how much Arsenal miss Jack Wilshere’s drive) and he probably needed a powerful player like Song to alternate with. He went slotted into centre-back, replacing Johan Djourou who had a fine game if a bit anxious on the ball giving Wenger no choice but to sacrifice him.

That Wenger pointed to a lack of players that could make a “difference” despite having the bulk of his attacking players on, showed just how well Wigan defended and how Arsenal still have a lot of work to be done. It’s been a fine run but that can’t hide deficiencies or areas that need improving. 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 – and they were punished for that. And strength-in-depth will be key next season, especially if they want to play with this intensity, however, Arsenal just could not find a way past Wigan even if they threw everything at them.

1. The effect of Vermaelen’s runs

Thomas Vermaelen has so much natural talent: He’s good on the ball, mobile, strong in the air and plays with a determined attitude but there are habits to his game that he must iron out. In the recent defeat to QPR – which they lost by the same scoreline – his impetuousness ultimately conceded the two goals and while he can’t be claimed to be directly at fault here, his constant forays forward at times, did have a domino effect on the team’s structure. Because that meant Song couldn’t be used higher up the pitch and often moved away from the middle where he should be as he was needed to fill in, while Andre Santos was often forced narrow so Arsenal could remain compact. Wenger may have allowed Vermaelen to continue bombing forward because he felt there was little inspiration in the team – he admitted that after the game – and it’s been a huge weapon for The Gunners, but Arsenal might have been more effective with a more orthodox structure. In the second-half, most of the play was going down the left and perhaps if Song was allowed to sit as an orthodox holding midfielder, it would have allowed Santos the freedom to bomb forward. But everything Wenger did tried, doomed to fail; the players had expended too much energy and had no ideas to Wigan’s organisation.

2. Arsenal’s pressing in the first-half without Arteta

Arsenal might be excused for feeling hard done by when conceding the first goal because it effectively came with ten men and that the man who was injured in the lead up, Mikel Arteta, was supposed to be the one tracking Franco Di Santo. But for the second they were punished when they did have ten men – Arsenal unable to make the change quick enough and after neat skill from Victor Moses, bundled the ball in. Arsenal’s gameplan altered drastically in the space of two minutes meaning they had no choice but to go for it. As a result, their pressing suffered as Aaron Ramsey wa still adjusting to the intensity. In the first-half, The Gunners were too open when pressing and particularly when the ball was played early from the back. Tomáš Rosický pressed alongisde Robin van Persie almost as a 4-4-2 – as he normally might do although with a bit more recklessness – and Alex Song followed. Aaron Ramsey did neither. He was the spare man in the midfield and the one who would drop into space as Arteta might. As a result, Wigan had plenty of space in between which, although they didn’t profit from after, gave Arsenal a few problems.

3. Wigan’s back five restrict Walcott

Wigan suffered an onslaught in the first-half, in particular, and survived with only conceding one goal against. Yet, their strategy of defending deep and sacrificing a midfield player for a centre-back probably invited that. Nevertheless, while it set up for a display of defensive fortitude, it stopped one crucial area of Arsenal’s game from developing; that of the overlapping runs. Theo Walcott, above all suffered as he was unable to manufacture any space to run in behind. Not only did Wigan double up on the flanks – they tripled up – and the one opportunity he did get, Walcott might have been aggrieved that it didn’t lead to more as Maynor Figueroa looked to have fouled him when closing in on goal. Behind him, Victor Moses did a brilliant job occupying Sagna and denying him the chance to get forward. Indeed, the threat Moses posed behind the full-back was a constant danger.

4. Arsenal’s attack sides in both halves

When Arsenal are at their best – or close to it – it can be indicated by the side they favour most: often the right-hand side. In the first-half, while they lay barrage to the Wigan goal, they mostly slanted to the right and were able to create combinations just inside of that area. Rosický in particular, revelled and it’s noticeable that his impact waned in the second-half when Arsenal’s play was scattered, if anything leaning towards the left. That’s not a patch on Santos who had a solid game contrary to common conception – because he also had to fill for Vermaelen – but because Arsenal have less associations on the left. Santos has no direct in-between midfielder playing in front of him – Arteta, Song and Ramsey are often biased towards the right – and that’s why Benayoun is key to this layout. The give-and-goes that were required to break down this Wigan defence never materialised. Rosický, who has been key to making Arsenal dynamic and penetrative with his turn and drive, couldn’t play off the pockets that are normally created though combinations and as a result, their best player of the first period, suffered.

Rosicky was superb in the first-half, linking play and providing the impetus. But he tailed off in the second as Arsenal lost fluidity following substitutions and energy. As a result, most of his play was scattered compared to the first period where he could revel in the combination play particularly out on the right – where he crossed for the assist.

5. Ramsey’s passing

This might be interesting to know RE Ramsey (who made most passes for Arsenal tonight). WARNING: Old quote.

Wenger: “If I know that the passing ability of a player is averaging 3.2 seconds to receive the ball and pass it, and suddenly he goes up to 4.5, I can say to him, ‘Listen, you keep the ball too much, we need you to pass it quicker.’ If he says ‘no’, I can say look at the last three games – 2.9 seconds, 3.1, 3.2, 4.5. He’ll say, ‘People around me don’t move so much!’ But you have the statistics there to back you up, too.”