Yossi Benayoun: The loan diamond who came from Dimona

On-loan players are often quicker to win the hearts of fans than permanent signings. They have to. Time is at a premium to make an impact and like visits by long-distance, gift bearing relatives, you have to make the most of it. Fans often endear to their nuances and foibles quicker too; Yossi Benayoun was taken aback, as if it was the first time anyone has noticed, when asked about the conditioner he uses to maintain his perfectly groomed hair.

Ah, Benayoun. Speaking of foibles, I somewhat harshly likened him to Edvard Munch’s The Scream on Twitter but followers would also know just how much I rate the guy. Of course, I had little to back that up with  – he had rarely played for one-and-a-half seasons – but he was just made for Arsenal. His glide on the ball, his skinny frame that revealed nothing but indicated so much and his penchant for the big games. Yet, despite that, he rarely figured for the first part of the season. Unlike loan-signings, he was forgotten. This is what I wrote about him in December:

However, The Gunners do have someone to call on with capability to give Arsenal’s play a plurality in Yossi Benayoun; a fleet-footed schemer with an art deco finish but Wenger’s adamant his three striker tactic can be deadly and as such, Benayoun misses out. (Given the right creativity – another reason why Benayoun must play more often – and penchant to keep the ball).

But unfathomably, he’s forced his way into the team and his impact might even remain beyond next season. Not because he’s likely to stay – Benayoun knows he won’t get many games at a big club again despite his ability – paradoxly, a loan is probably the best chance to appreciate his talents. But because he gives Arsenal balance due to his artistry and next season, Wenger will want to replicate it. Playing on the left of the attacks, he’s put an end to the “three striker system” in big games at least. Because using someone like Benayoun out wide, Arsenal can keep the ball better and put pressure on teams higher up the pitch. It also synchronises better with their high-line and quick passing tempo.

The obvious answer here is that Arsenal, next season, will use their strength-in-depth and pick and choose styles depending on their opponents. But they won’t have a Benayoun – a Plan A in big matches, and a Plan B in smaller games. Aaron Ramsey is not the long-term solution on the wings and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is still developing although he looks the best option. New signings might put a welcome spanner in the works – Lukas Podolski is a give-and-go winger and has the added advantage that Marouane Chamakh hasn’t of versatility that means he will always be involved.

Yossi Benayoun looks to be getting the credit he finally deserves and not just as essential as a coat-hanger in the dressing room. Okay, he’s only started five times in the Premier League but his affect is arguably far larger – that he’s impacted on the strategy and, laid the foundations for Arsenal to build on next season.

Anyway, here’s my piece on the effect Benayoun has had tactically for Arsenal Insider. Peace.

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Five points on Arsenal 1-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers

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Since Mick McCarthy was charged for fielding a weakened team against Manchester United in 2009, he hasn’t been the same. Not just that he won’t roll over again against “stronger” opposition so easily but he’s rarely had to make the same drastic reshuffle to his pack. Because it was he who was one of the first to highlight the importance of rotation to the mainstream media so it’s slightly strange he hasn’t been pressed to do so (though that may be because Wolves play much less matches than top Premier League sides). “I read an article where Carlo Ancelotti had said that the risk of injury in one game is 10%,” said McCarthy justifying his changes in that infamous game. “And then that goes up to 30% or 40% if another intensive game follows in three or four days. We believe that anyway, but that came from the Milan Lab research centre set up by AC Milan.”

Indeed, that’s been the trend in the Premier League this season; unforced rotation has almost non-existent amongst the top clubs this season because they’ve just been unwilling to deviate from a formula. Arséne Wenger may have thought about resting Robin van Persie had his team played on the same day as everybody else but the dropped points from his closest challengers gave Arsenal an window of opportunity they had to take. One of those changes saw Yossi Benayoun slot in on the right, making only now, his first league start for Arsenal as Wenger finally budged on his three striker system. Nevertheless, Benayoun was detailed to play more of a direct style instead taking a creative role although he still contributed with the assist for Arsenal’s only goal. But, such has been their luck this season, Wolverhampton equalised though a fortuitous goal and then survived an onslaught in the final third of the game as goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey performed heroics to deny Arsenal.

1. How the changes saw Arsenal shape up

As mentioned Benayoun started on the right although he constantly swapped positions with Gervinho throughout the game. Tomas Rosicky also began the game and much of early impetus came through him. As Ramsey has, Rosicky undertook a energetic role although with a bit more finesse and was unlucky that some of his through passes did not find their men. Indeed, the front men started so dangerously in the first thirty minutes but in lacking that conviction in the final third, it always gave Wolves hope, even if they hardly saw any of the ball. At the end of the game, as Arsenal threw everything forward, it wasn’t necessarily creativity that suffered although Wenger might not have saw it that way; they just could find a way past Hennessay. Wenger on the other hand felt Arsenal betrayed a bit of their technical philosophy and they should have kept a calmer head. Perhaps that’s why Benayoun was taken off even though he might have been the type of player which suits that occasion. Benayoun had a pass accuracy of 61% and although he created two chances, his care-free approach saw him replaced.

<Figure 1> Yossi Benayoun’s game is certainly laden with risk as he seeks to attempt the killer-option. He may have been partly inaccurate but it presents Arsenal a different option; one which none of the wide players have. The issue is, will Wenbger deviate from his three striker ploy?

2. Robin van Persie more dangerous as the orthodox striker

Van Persie has an extraordinary goalscoring record this season but he’s also taken a ridiculous number of shots. Against Wolves, van Persie attempted 12 shots with five on target. He should have probably scored and he looked more dangerous, as he has all this season, playing up the pitch. His movement was fantastic and as well as getting behind on more than a number of occasions, he dragged the Wolves defence all-over the pitch. On the other hand, his link-up play can be erroneous as a heavy touch and too much time on the ball can retard his impact. His spontaneity has been his biggest strength and while he was unable to use it to his full advantage and he became desperate after the break, he was still Arsenal’s best chance of winning.

<Figure 2> Van Persie pass received and shots attempted.

3. When nothing goes right, nothing goes right for Arshavin

Andrey Arshavin isn’t having the best of relationships with the fans; his introduction was met with groan and bemused looks and some things he attempted achieved the same reaction. He had one snap shot, showing the unpredictability Wenger was banking on. His chalkboard below isn’t so interesting except that what failed, happened on the right; the rest was accurate. It probably shows that he is not a crossing type – that of which he attempted at the end of the game from the right – while he mostly looks to play quick and go’s inside – the ones on the left. His position echoes another substitute’s, Marouane Chamakh, who again failed to make an impact. His time is ticking.

<Figure 3>Andrey Arshavin’s peculiar pass chart.

4. Aaron Ramsey: a viable full-back option?

As Arsenal chased the winner, they dropped Aaron Ramsey into full-back. His first contribution after his immediate arrival was to drive at the Wolves defence, nearly putting in Robin van Persie. He was later playing at right-back and was able to provide the passes and drive Johan Djourou was not. Certainly this was against backs-to-the-walls opposition therefore Wolves were unable to test his defensive game but with wing-backs being an important part of Arsenal’s play, perhaps is not such a far-right option.

5. Wolves defend in a pack

Wolves deserve some praise – if indeed most. Arsenal played well but ultimately failed to break through and that must go down to some brave defending and a little bit of luck. A moral victory may be that they forced Arsenal to crosses and not enough ground play in the final quarter of the game. Nevertheless, the defence and crucially, Wayne Hennessey, got in the way for Arsenal.

Arsenal 1-0 Swansea: Arteta helps Gunners rebuild

“Beleaguered Arsenal need to rediscover their sense of fun,” was the Guardian’s headline and rather than dwell on the obvious inhibitions Arsenal played with, Paul Hayward may be right. The Gunners were soporific in their passing in the 1-0 win over Swansea; no longer does the ball move up the field like a puck rebounding from stick to stick like the great Russian ice-hockey teams, rather it jerks and every so often twitches to life. Mikel Arteta initially gave Arsenal a bit of spark and his attempts to keep Arsenal passing and moving with short, snappy passes were not confidently received. The thing is, with the swift to a 4-3-3 and with Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri having departed, Arsenal are like a halfway-house. They use three strikers — as part of Arséne Wenger’s remit to make the side more dynamic — and two creative midfielders – possibly one less than the side needs.

Robert Sweeney of Santapelota likens Arsenal to the scattered approach of Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona team in the two years prior to Pep Guardiola’s appointment in 2008. He writes on twitter; “And it’s curious how since 2009 Arsenal have resembled that late-Rijkaard side; lackadaisical, periods of possession without penetration [and] defensively flacid. But the craziest thing is that even the 2006-08 Arsenal side, supposedly in transition were more imposing more imposing than Barça Dec 06-May 08. Let alone this current Arsenal lot. [Is] the transition is getting worse?”

Perhaps it’s a bit harsh considering it was written after Arsenal’s humiliating and confusing 8-2 defeat to Manchester United but it does highlight the difficulties in finding a balance. In that respects, Arteta and Yossi Benayoun are probably more crucial signings than any defensive ones if we are to believe the rhetoric Arsenal are an “attacking” side. As Wenger said after the game, Arteta gave the team a “technical security” that they have perhaps lacked this season while Benayoun comes into a position Arsenal don’t have: wide creative. It’s telling that Wenger banks a lot on the return of the player who most resembles his ideals; Jack Wilshere with a glide and technical accuracy that represents the new Arsenal. With that in mind, here’s some thoughts on the win over of Swansea.

1. Arteta gives Ramsey security

My first thought after seeing Mikel Arteta in the red and white was that “he knows how to defend in a 4-3-3.” Indeed after a couple of crucial interceptions high up the pitch, he showed just how he might be Arsenal’s most important signing. His passing we all know about but his defensive work is often understated and it should give Arsenal much needed balance in the formation.

In possession, he often rotated with Ramsey, allowing the Welshman to get forward and vice-versa. Both players like to drop deep to pick up the ball so it allowed more fluidity with the ball. However, the upshot of this is that one of those players must take up the position “between-the-lines” and get close to Robin van Persie. Thus far this season, Arsenal haven’t done this as well as the last, as the forwards have often been left isolated and the team lacking a player to link up the midfield and attack. Against Swansea, the partnership of Arteta and Ramsey, plus the roaming of Andrei Arshavin (although you can argue, in doing so, the Russian often got into Arteta’s way) helped address that issue somewhat but you can’t help but feel the play is still a bit clunky and uncertain in the final third.

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<Figure 1> Arsenal’s rotating midfield. In the 4-3-3 — which it may be useful to distinguish as a 4-1-2-3 — Arteta and Ramsey can alternate responsibilities to get forward. Here, when one drops back, the other pushes forward. The average touch positions also showed how this worked as both of them where shown to have most of the touches very central as opposed to either side of Emmanuel Frimpong.

Ramsey is not a natural playmaker — he’s someone who prefers to knit play rather than penetrate defences — therefore the willingness of Arteta to dominate playmaking duties, takes some of the burden from him to create. In the second-half, in an attempt to get the second — and expected killer goal — Wenger reverted to a 4-2-3-1, trying to get Ramsey closer to van Persie. Arsenal’s play became less structured; that was probably most evident when Benayoun came on and tried to link up between the lines but found it too unorganised to be fully effective.

2. Robin van Persie in a more orthodox role

One of the players most impacted by an unfixed playmaker in the side is Robin van Persie. The forward has been unable to perform to the effectiveness he did last season when he scored 21 goals in 23 appearances but it’s hard to pin down exactly why. Andrei Arshavin says it’s the lack of creative players which has impacted on his form. “Watching the Udinese match,” said Arshavin. “I said to [Nicklas] Bendtner that now we have no one so comfortable with passing the ball to Robin van Persie or who ideally utilises the qualities of the other forwards.”

Indeed, his assertions do have some credence. Without Cesc Fábregas getting close to him, he has been unable to work off another team-mate and instead is playing higher up. It is perhaps significance that Barcelona’s legendary winger Charly Rexach, Johan Cruyff’s former assistant, feels Fábregas is best as close to the striker as possible as a mediapunta, the role he is playing now to much success and van Persie now is feeling the full affect of his departure.

Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel van Persie is not making the most the situation at Arsenal by not dropping deep enough to create space. There’s perhaps a hesitancy if no one is making the runs beyond him and indeed, Arsenal’s play has often tended to narrow earlier on in the build up as the wide players are strikers therefore their natural tendencies is to look central.

Van Perise works best as a nine-and-half; working the channels between the centre-backs and the full-backs, dropping off when needed but if the middle is already congested, he will tend to hold his position. Against Swansea, he tried to take the position of Arshavin who regularly cut in off the flanks but it’s notable he’s always looking for the run in behind. Walcott was usually crowded out so that option wasn’t available enough.

Playing strikers on the flanks should in theory work as it would encourage him to drop deeper more so there’s perhaps a frustration issue here. While the fact that Arsenal’s play tends to narrow early may mean he hasn’t the option or the space to play as a false nine as regularly as he would like. The return of Gervinho as someone who more naturally stretches play should bode him well as the pair have linked up well in the few matches this season and in pre-season too.

3. Per Mertesacker makes comfortable start

It concerned everyone of Per Mertesacker’s relative lack of pace and indeed, the German’s action indicated even he had reservations. Everything he did, he did in trying to compensate for his lack of speed. He ran flat out every time just to ensure he didn’t but once he gets used to the intensity of the game, he should prove an astute signing. Swansea was perhaps the perfect game to get used to the speed of the league as their passing is soporific but they have a unexpected turn of pace that would keep him on his toes. And he did that well through good positioning and reading of play although he was twice flat-footed when the ball was crossed in. One tackle particularly stood out as it was every bit from the Tony Adams text book; as Swansea came rushing out from a quick break, he out of a sea of shirts, remained calm and poked his foot at the ball to nick it away. His pace is still a concern and will be targeted therefore onus may be on Sagna to tuck in whenever possible. It’s notable that the partnership between Mertesacker and Koscielny was more flat than Arsenal’s centre-back pairing normally, playing in a line rather than one ahead of the other. Maybe that was the Per Mertesacker effect as Wenger said, “when a Germans talks, you listen.”