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.

364e64f3-9ca0-424d-a6df-7309d641eb2d

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.

Advertisements

Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Gunners have more firepower

arsenal-everton-bellerin

Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Giroud, Rosicky

In between two desperate lunging headers, there was calmness, as Olivier Giroud put to bed a nightmare week to send Arsenal on their way to a 2-0 victory over Everton. His goal was trademark Giroud: a dash to the near post before guiding the ball into the bottom far corner. His other key trait, his heading, can fluctuate wildly as from outside play, Arsenal rely on his aerial prowess heavily; however, in front of goal, desperation seems to kick-in, as if scoring them should be a norm for him. Still, his greatest ability is perhaps his determination, as Arsene Wenger alluded after the win; that he kept searching for the chance.

The whole team too needed to respond and they did, although this was probably a more promising step forward than the other “reactions” we have witnessed this season following setbacks.  Previously, the response has been for Arsenal to stand off and cede possession just to give a little solidity to their defensive game in that sense, the Monaco game was a bit of an aberration, where the Gunners totally dominated) and although here, Wenger said “we could do better with the ball”, The Gunners were more proactive in their approach without it. As such, the game was more or less even (possession 48%/52%): when one team attacked, the other tended to press early then drop back into a compact shape. As 7amkickoff noted on Arseblog News, tackles (11-12), territory (50.5% – 49.5%), crosses (26-24), corners (8-9), seem to corroborate that but Arsenal were far more purposeful in the attacking third.

Arsenal try to press, centre-backs follow Lukaku

The early period, between 15-20 minutes, was dominated by Everton. Perhaps that was to be expected because Arsenal were always going to be a bit cautious after the 3-1 defeat to Monaco in midweek. On the other hand, Everton made it difficult for Arsenal to really gain a foothold in the match by being a bit risk-free themselves on the ball, stretching the pitch with the full-backs and looking to lure Arsenal out.

At times it worked, especially when they bypassed Arsenal on the flanks and had The Gunners forward players turned. It probably hints at Arsenal’s weakness as much as Everton’s strength when they push Seamus Coleman and Luke Garbutt forward because Arsenal’s press is not entirely co-ordinated.

It’s not unusual to see the forward players – namely Alexis Sanchez – gesticulate and cajole their team-mates to push up the pitch though no-one follows, or if they do, they usually do it with a brief burst of intensity. Indeed, Alexis’s pressing should be the signal for Arsenal to up their intensity; instead as he goes by himself, it often shows up the rest of the side, or has the unwanted effect of exposing the midfield. That’s the issue with Arsenal: there doesn’t seem to be clear understanding between the team on when to move up the pitch together, or what the triggers are to really up their intensity. Against Everton, that natural cautiousness meant Arsenal were able to retain a compact shape and cut out the passing lanes to Lukaku. Still, there were moments when the body twitched, and in that sense, it’s a tortuously fascinating experience to watch Arsenal grapple with the concepts of moving and reacting as a team together, as if Wenger asked them to analyse ten Salvador Dali paintings before sending them out on the pitch.

Thankfully against Everton the shape was more promising and the line just the right height not to allow Romelu Lukaku the chance to run behind. Still, Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny were diligent in their efforts to mark Lukaku, often following the striker across the pitch. It’s undoubted that having the two centre-backs in the backline aids Arsenal’s pressing strategy, to get the team up the pitch, because both players love to intercept and win the ball back early. In Wenger’s pressing game, whole team essentially has to man-mark and get tight, and Gabriel and Koscielny’s style might just be the platform to transform Arsenal into a better pressing outlet.

Ozil, Cazorla central to the way Arsenal create chances

Once Arsenal settled, the game proved to be an intriguing, if not entirely entertaining, example of how two sides noted for their treatment of the ball, can be so different. What the match showed is that possession football is diverse – as diverse as the game itself (as everybody passes the ball) – and that there is no such thing as a single, homogeneous style of build-up play.

Arsenal’s style is mainly position-based, and as such, it’s easy to identify the typical passing lanes. The centre-backs pick up the ball and look to feed one of the midfielders, in this case Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla (though neither is as adept in deep positions as the absent Mikel Arteta. Coquelin is improving, though he’s far from a prober, rather a player who uses his first touch to open up passing lanes), who in turn has the option of passing it to a myriad of attacking players who have committed forward in front of him. With this approach, Arsenal look to have as much of the play in the opponents half as possible and it’s up to the players, based on a know-how accumulated over time and matches, to find solutions.

Everton on the other hand, have the majority of their play at the back and are happy for it. Instead, they look to work space patiently by stretching the pitch as wide as possible in the hope that eventually, this will create a bit of space for one of the midfielders in the 4-3-3 to find a killer pass.

In this game, Arsenal were much better equipped, and with the attacking quality they have, looked to get them combining as often as possible quickly in tight spaces. The way Arsenal do this is by creating a numerical advantage on one part of the pitch by committing an extra man to the build up.* Naturally that suits Ozil, who loves to drift into the channels, though with Alexis going the other way, found it more fruitful to move to the left. Kieran Gibbs would then come haring down the touchline to offer an outlet to play a penetrative pass forward, or wait for Santi Cazorla who would push forward to create an extra man. The aim is to create numerical advantage through overloads; situations of 3v2, 2v1, or 4v3, particularly in tight spaces and then suddenly break through with a incisive pass or late run.

arsenal everton

There was was a bit of apprehension about Arsenal’s play against Everton that meant they didn’t quite profit from these moments as they might have, (because those moments against Monaco were when Arsenal over-committed) though the best moments that wasn’t goals featured such build-up. Hector Bellerin’s blocked chance halfway through the first half and two Santi Cazorla long range efforts a few such examples. In the end, Arsenal showed the special quality that they have above Everton to make the difference; Olivier Giroud’s expert finish and then Ozil’s fantastic cutback to find Rosicky which sealed the win.

*
Mikel Arteta explains how Arsene Wenger cultivate moves like this in a feature for Four FourTwo Performance:

“At Arsenal, we do a lot of exercises where you have to play through the mannequins, but you can use cones. This is a great drill because it’s real; you’re moving and finding the holes to play the diagonal pass, just like in a match.

“The drill starts with player one passing the ball through two mannequins to player two, who with one touch steps through the next two mannequins. He then passes the ball to player three on the outside. Player three returns the pass and begins his run around the three mannequins, forming a triangle

“Playing one-touch football, player two and three exchange passes between mannequins one, two and three. Once player three has run past mannequin three he plays the ball back to player two and sprints around mannequins four and five.

“Receiving the pass, player two takes one touch through the mannequin gate and plays a diagonal pass to player three as he runs past mannequin five.

“The process repeats itself, with each player swapping positions in a clockwise direction. This drill will help you during a game when out to create two versus one situations against a defender.

“It’s also great for finding the spare man. Think of player two as a midfielder and player three as a full back or winger on the overlap.”

Ten conclusions to make from Arsenal’s season 2012/13

1. Arsenal find defensive efficiency…

Arsenal’s season can broadly be separated into three parts, illustrated by the way their pressing has varied. Initially they didn’t press much, instead concentrating on discipline and shape as Steve Bould supposedly sprinkled his expertise on the team. (Although it’s arguable how much influence he had on Arsenal’s tactics and rather, the reactive approach we saw at the start of the season was dictated by the relative newness of the team). In any case, Arsene Wenger felt this style needed altering and for the next three months, Arsenal struggled to find any consistency. Sometimes they pressed, sometimes they sat off, and Wenger even admitted the way were set up was influenced by their opponents. In the final months, Arsenal finally settled on a more proactive approach, pressing up the pitch when the team lost the ball but if they didn’t win the ball back within the next three seconds, they retreated into their own half and started again.

Lukasz Fabianski says the new-found defensive stability owes a lot to improved communication and teamwork amongst the players and certainly, it’s encouraging to see that the players took responsibility to address their poor form in the middle of the season. Tactically, the availability of Tomas Rosicky made a massive difference as not only does he bring stability to the team with his passing, but his energy sets the tempo for the collective pressing. And at the back, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny ended the season strongly while Mikel Arteta finally found a partner in Aaron Ramsey. Credit too, must also go to the coaching staff for harnessing the potential in the group when for a moment; it looked to be running dry. Wenger reverted to a pragmatic approach a design based on efficiency, greater organisation and communication at the back, and very reliant on taking what little chances the team creates. It wasn’t always pretty but it was certainly efficient.

2. …but does it come at a cost?

Did Arsenal really play attractive football this season? The assertion alone would hurt Wenger but for a manager who sees football as an art form, it’s an important point. Certainly their passing was crisp but you could probably count the most aesthetically pleasing performances on one hand (wins against Reading, Swansea, Southampton and Liverpool amongst the best). And my God, there were a number of insipid displays this season (and the cup defeats to lower league sides were unprecedented). But Arsenal did play some good stuff, even if it did come in patches. In fact, I’d go as far as to say some of their second-half performances in the middle of the season, especially when they fell behind, were some of the best we’ve seen for a long time.

Of course, it’s much easier to do so when the opponents essentially give up all attacking ambition and Arsenal are forced to up the tempo. But when they did – that’s matches against Liverpool (2-2), Swansea (2-2 and 1-0 in the FA Cup, and Chelsea (1-2) – it was exhilarating even though it was short-lived. (One move sticks in the mind. It came against Liverpool and it ended with Lukas Podolski felled to the floor exclaiming a penalty, but the lead up to get there was magnificently composed as Arsenal pinged the ball up the left touchline, one touch at a time to each other’s feet with unbelievable accuracy. One wonders how good the team could be if they could produce this level of football more consistently. Actually, it reminded me of the 2007-08 team, who were probably the 2nd best team Wenger created but only remained for two seasons. Robin van Persie reminisced how they used to practice kicking the ball between each other as hard as possible to perfect their passing and control under intense pressure).

But those moments were few and far between. In the end, Wenger stumbled on a formula that worked. Yes, it was a bit mechanical but Wenger has proved it can work in recent seasons: in 2006 when they went all the way to the Champions League final, in 2007/08 and in spells in 2010/11. But the team has to achieve it more consistently over a season.

The seed was probably planted in January when Wenger signed six of his Brits on long-term deals. Because, he said when he committed the players to the club, that the “technical stability is important and the game we want to play demands a little bit of blind understanding. Therefore it is important that we keep the same players together.” Arsenal have their best chance of doing so this summer and in the process, ensure a way of playing is developed between his core group of players.

3. Aaron Ramsey adds clever to his tireless running

He may well wear the number 8 on the back of his shirt, but Mikel Arteta admits he has to forget about that side of his game. “Before I used watch the likes of Iniesta and Xavi,” he said. “And in my mind I always think about them, but now I have to stop that side. People may not understand why I don’t go forward more but this is my job, it wouldn’t be good for the team.”

Now Arteta takes inspiration from the likes of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets and Michael Carrick and last season, he performed the holding role superbly this. However, he has been waiting for somebody worthy enough to take the number 8 mantle all season and finally; there might be a credible candidate.

Out from the rubble after the home defeat to Bayern Munich emerged Aaron Ramsey and Arsenal have not looked back ever since. They went 11 games unbeaten from the second week of March to the end of the season to secure fourth place, and Ramsey proved crucial. The stats back him up: Ramsey averages 104 touches per 90 minutes and 83 passes per 90 minutes; attempts a tackle every 30 minutes and has an 89% success rate and runs the most in the side.

Indeed, his running has become cleverer too, often moving wide to create an overload or bursting beyond the first line of press so that the defence can easily bring it out.  In short, he’s the all-action that more and more teams have nowadays (Michael Cox of ZonalMarking.net calls them the Super 8s). The two best, Javi Martinez and Ilkay Gundogan, competed against each other in the Champions League final.

Ramsey’s breakthrough helped liberate Arteta who before then was the sole entity that separated defence from attack. He performed admirablynevertheless, but with Ramsey alongside him, Arsenal never looked better.

4. Santi Cazorla is central to Arsenal’s plans

The selfless way in which Santi Cazorla ended the season almost makes you forget just how good he was at the start of the campaign. Indeed, he had to alter his game twice for Arsenal in the season; the first, when he joined the club, as he was deployed in what was at the time, an unfamiliar role just behind the striker. He certainly gave no impressions as such when the season kicked-off and he started incredibly, asserting himself as the hub of creativity that Arsenal were built around. But that was also the team’s problem because at times – especially during a bleak period in the middle of the season – they were too reliant on the Spanish schemer.

Cazorla’s best performance was probably in the 3-1 win in October against West Ham United, showing just why he has the best passing figures in the final third of any player in the top 5 leagues. As ever, he glided across the pitch to always end up in dangerous positions but it’s remarkable to see just how high he played in that match: almost on level with Olivier Giroud. Actually, Wenger deserves a lot of credit for the tactical foresight to play Cazorla as the “second striker” and in the game, unsettled West Ham’s defence by starting high up, moving backwards to receive the ball and then bursting forward unexpectedly to get into good scoring or passing positions. That’s how he got his goal in the game, picking the ball up on the edge of the area and letting fly with his left-foot.

It was when Tomas Rosicky returned to the side that Arsenal could share the burden of creativity and Santi Cazorla was shifted to the left wing. He was less explosive from the side but he was no less influential, often drifting infield and getting into positions that he only knew how to get to, yet was still Arsenal’s chief playmaker. It will be interesting to see how Arsenal share the responsibility to create next season; fielding Cazorla in a roaming role on the left allows Wenger to name another creative midfielder in the line-up. Yet, Cazorla is so good that he must surely be central to Arsenal’s plans next season.

5. Thomas Vermaelen might have to accept being third best

In this year’s edition of the Indian Premier League (a cricket tournament which brings together the best players from around the world to play with stars of the domestic game), 4 out of the 8 teams did something almost unheard of in sport: they dropped their captains. In football, there is a similar mystique about the captain’s armband – that it is not merely a cloth but deifies the person that wears it. Except this season, Arsenal went against that standard and they too dropped their captain. And their fortunes turned for the better.

In a way, Thomas Vermaelen was scapegoated for Arsenal not finding any consistency defensively for 3/4s of the season. Wojciech Sczcesny was also dropped out of the side but was abruptly put back in. Vermaelen, however, was the standard bearer for Arsenal’s newly-placed emphasis on shape, following the appointment of Steve Bould as coach. He talked about it extensively throughout the season, saying the team needed to be more compact when pressing. But he failed to influence any real change and when Wenger brought in Laurent Koscielny, it seemed to indicate a lot of the improvement was about communication.* Even so, Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have proven to be a more complementary partnership (and in any case, didn’t Wenger say that “we have three good centre-backs”?). Anyway, when the season starts over again in August, Thomas Vermaelen, the Arsenal captain, shouldn’t automatically expect a starting place.

* Actually, Vermaelen might have dropped out of the starting line-up much sooner, but Wenger kept him in because he felt his stature as captain, not to mention his left-footedness, would help ease Naxto Monreal into the side quicker. But as shown in the 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, Vermaelen’s notorious impetuousness  –  a part of his game which we had thought captaincy had reigned in – was self-perpetuating, and in the end, Monreal didn’t know whether to push up and hold his line. Suffice to say, Spurs punished Arsenal twice because of his (understandable) hesitancy.

6. Shared goalscoring a real success

Arsenal fans have been spoiled by great strikers in the past. In the season gone by, however, they’ve just been treated to one. And it’s been an admirable job done by Olivier Giroud, one that he should never had been forced to do by himself but Wenger probably persisted with him for so long because of the type of striker he is. He can do everything.

Giroud’s technical (for a big man), can hold the ball up and bring others into play, runs the channels well and works very hard. That means it carries little risk for a team that is still adapting to each other mainly. As such, acts Giroud as 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. By the same token, that’s probably why Wenger is willing to overlook some of his deficiencies – namely his goalscoring, which fans are understandably less forgiving of (only three goals away from home; two of those outside London but in the Champions League) – if Giroud makes the team play.

Arsenal ended the season using Podolski as the focal point. He performed solidly if not spectacularly making an addition up front inevitable. Which raises a lot of questions. If Podolski ended the season as the second striker, surely he will end the next season as the third. Because considering how little the 2nd choice striker has played in recent seasons – Podolski got just four games up front and Marouane Chamakh just one start before – that means he’d mainly be used as a left-winger again (where he played well) or perhaps Wenger has designs for a 4-4-2?

Pleasingly, though, goalscoring was shared between the side showing the attacking potential the team has. But there is no doubt that a consistent focal point (despite the arm-waving and the focal pointed-ness that Giroud brings) will improve Arsenal immeasurably so credit must go to the players for picking up the slack. In orderv that goes Theo Walcott with 21 goals, Giroud with 17, Podolski 16 and Cazorla with 12. Well done.

7. To be the best, you must beat the best

If you add sixth placed Everton to the list, Arsenal only won seven points in ten games against the best teams in the league. I don’t think it’s crucial to come out on top of the mini-league – although it’s never good to finish bottom – but it’s a good indicator of quality.

[Image lost]

8. Kieran Gibbs shines

For one moment last season, the left-back position was the most talked about position. Andre Santos’ confidence inexplicably dropped, Thomas Vermaelen looked very uncomfortable in the role when he filled in while Kieran Gibbs’ injury niggles were a concern. In late January, Arsene Wenger recruited a bona fide quality left-back in Naxto Monreal and thus started an engrossing battle for places in the ensuing months.

For a while, it looked like Monreal was leading, testament to the way he adjusted to the English game. But as Wenger gave chances for both players in alternating matches to stake their claims, Kieran Gibbs took his game to another level and has arguably surpassed his Spanish team-mate. Going forward, Gibbs has always been quick but his recovery speed is now an essential form of defence going back. There are subtle differences to the way Arsenal build up from the left to the right, and whoever plays there must show unexpected bursts of pace. Both left-backs do that well but Gibbs perhaps does it better.

9. Jack Wilshere has too much attacking potential

There was a period in the season when Jack Wilshere looked unstoppable. It was a pity then, that at the time, The Gunners were going through a stinky spell of form. He was thrown in straight away after recovery from injury against QPR at home and was then sent-off in the next match against Manchester United. But his attacking potential grew more evident as the matches were thrown at him. In various games, he drove Arsenal forward, played killer balls and glided past opponents and was fouled a lot. There’s an assertion that he’s too “English” in nature to play the Arsenal way. Bull. He’s just very young and needs to channel his talents better in a tactical framework. Wenger can help him do that.

10. Wojciech struggles but he’s still a key player

In the final managerial move of the season, Arsene Wenger pulled Wojciech Szczesny out of the side to allow his brain to recuperate. The reasoning seemed strange at the time but there was no doubt that Szczesny was going through a bad spell of form. However, it turned out to be an inspired move for a number of reasons. Firstly, as talked about and as Wenger once said, goalkeeping is the one position where there is “negative stress” and the culmination of errors had taken it’s toll on Szczesny. Secondly, it was a crucial time in the season so Wenger brought in Lukas Fabiasnki, a player who was fresh in the mind but also fighting for his Arsenal future. The run of five games might have just convinced Fabianski to remain at the least for one more season and maybe even beyond. Thirdly though, it gave Szczesny a taste for what it’s like to be in competition for places because in two-and-a-half seasons he’s been number one, he’s never been under any real pressure for his spot. Putting Fabianski in goal for a few games gave Szczesny a taste for potential life on the bench but when he came back, he produced one of the saves of the season when he denied Loic Remy against QPR to secure a crucial three points.

Arsenal 2-0 Montpellier: On Giroud, Podolski’s movement

podolski-mont

Arsène Wenger’s tactical reputation has been predicated on his insistence on playing the game one way: “his way”. But on Wednesday night against Montpellier, he showed why that perception of him may be a little misguided.

First was the use of Olivier Giroud. At his best, he was the complete striker, delivering two assists, one which was a deft chip over the defence to Lukas Podolski; the other a more routine knock-down. But there was the other side of his game which suggests Arsenal would be foolish to completely rely in Giroud to lead the attack. His distribution was erratic and when he dropped deep, he didn’t always find his team-mate. Wenger says Giroud “still has some work to do” balancing both sides of his game.

However, there is a good reason for Arsenal to stick faith with Giroud to be their focal point. In recent matches, he has been decisive, not necessarily with goals but also with assists (although he has now scored five goals in his last nine matches. His previous eight only yielded one goal). In a sense, Giroud’s goal record is a bit like Thierry Henry’s when he first signed, if you allow me to get carried a *little* away. The Arsenal legend had struck only once in his first twelve league games yet ended up at the end of the season as the team’s top-scorer with seventeen. Giroud may not end up with that many and it’s likely, the goals will be shared but there is scope for a purple patch. And like Henry, whoPhilippe Auclair chronicled in his biography Thierry Henry: Life at the Top, Wenger had little choice but to build his team’s playing style around his talismanic striker. This version of his Arsenal could thrive playing with Olivier Giroud.

Wenger wants to use Giroud as a “target man”. That may sound like a compromise of his established ideals but it’s not. Because Wenger, contrary to common belief, abhors possession for the sake of it. Rather, a team’s dominance is measured by the chances it creates to the ones it concedes. Thus, the more of the ball Arsenal has, the more chances it can create.

With Giroud pushed higher in the second-half against Montpellier and told to stop furrowing for possession deep, Arsenal proceeded to be more effective. They played the ball forward quicker with runners beyond, something which they fail to do in the first-half and that’s where we must add a caveat comes; Arsenal must find their fluency again with the ball at the back because in recent games it’s undermined their effectiveness. When they play the ball quickly, they’re deadly as Spurs with ten men found out.

“Giroud is good when he plays completely on the offside line,” said Wenger. “Sometimes when he doesn’t get the ball enough he wants to come deep. That is not his game. When he is a target man and uses his link-up play, he is fantastic because he can win in the air, he can score with his feet and can be a complete striker.”

Suddenly Giroud makes a lot of sense: in a side who pass the ball accurately in the final third and a striker who wins most of his duels, it could work really, really well.

Podolski-Cazorla

The other facet of Wenger’s tactical acumen is one which we often take for granted as fluidity. That usually involves making subtle alterations to player’s roles as opposed to wholesale formation changes. It’s less easy to understand this say, when he uses a player typically unsuited to a certain role, such as Aaron Ramsey on the right. But the idea might be one such as what he did against Manchester City this season when Arsenal drew 1-1, where Gervinho, playing up front, was allowed to take up the positions which Ramsey vacated to try and get behind with runs from that side. In Lonely at the Top, Auclair talks about a subtle change he noticed to Arsenal’s layout in one game which he said Ray Parlour’s positioning high up the field made the system look like a skewed 4-3-3. Henry proceeded to him explain why Wenger adapted their shape on that occasion. Likewise, Ray Parlour used to drop back when playing with Marc Overmars on the other side, so the Dutchman could play close to the strikers.

Against Montpellier, we saw Wenger continue on with an experiment which he started against Schalke 04 in the previous Champions League game at the Emirates. In that encounter, Wenger was banned from the touchline and as such, the experiment lasted more than it needed to. In fact, it was a bit of a disaster. The idea was to ask Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski to switch positions at various phases of the match, in the hope that it confuses Schalke’s defence and allows the respective players to attack with a degree of unpredictability (see image). It didn’t work because The Germans defended particularly stoutly and Arsenal’s passing just failed on that day.

There was a chance to resurrect that tactic against a Montpellier side lacking in confidence and any attacking bite themselves. Wenger, though, waiting until half-time to apply the change, asking Podolski to get closer to Giroud – who had also been instructed to play higher up the pitch – and when he did, the ever-willing Cazorla would fill in. It was a success this time: Podolski was in the box for the first goal, in which the cross came from his side. And when Podolski scored his goal, Cazorla ensured he back covering.

I’m unsure to what degree you would constitute these movements as instinctive movements; as by-products of Arsenal’s fluid game. But the fact that it didn’t happen besides this 20-25 period hints that it was planned. Indeed, we’ve often seen interchange between Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski this season but not necessarily in the same vein. It’s often in-game, through quick passes between each other (and a full-back overlapping). Here, the interchanges seemed triggered by different phases of play. When the ball when out, they’d switch. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops, if indeed it does.

: Podolski’s positioning in the second-half became more central, drifting closer to Olivier Giroud while Santi Cazorla, especially in the period between 60-75 minutes, slanted to the left-hand side.
: Podolski’s positioning in the second-half became more central, drifting closer to Olivier Giroud while Santi Cazorla, especially in the period between 60-75 minutes, slanted to the left-hand side.

Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Thumping good victory

Santi-Spurs

The About page on this website reads:

The goals, the refereeing decisions and the mistakes, ultimately decide the outcome of the match – that’s the usual argument. However, football is played on the pitch and to assume such solitary factors are the only things that matter, renders the rest of the game useless. Which is an absurd argument. That’s why The Arsenal Column serves to exist; to analyse the pattern of play, the tactics, as well as the individual factors which prove crucial in deciding the final result.

But after Arsenal’s 5-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur (no, not that one), we’re going to ignore our usual little principle. Because this latest edition of the North London Derby – in its 125th year – was ultimately shaped by a refereeing decision.

It was one, however, which Howard Webb had no choice. Emmanuel Adebayor’s challenge on Santi Cazorla was high and dangerous and as much as Andre Villas-Boas argued that it did not change “the running of the game”, after that it was all Arsenal even with their susceptibility to collapse like England’€™s middle order – against spin.

Before Adebayor’s sending off in the seventeenth minute, the game was tantalisingly poised. In fact, it had all the ingredients of a classic; the nervous energy, the recent history which dictated that taking the lead is the most dangerous thing: Spurs did. (Of the last 19 encounters, the team that has scored first has only won 6 times). Then there was a battle of the systems; Tottenham surprisingly played a 4-4-2 chosen on the backdrop of a win against Hungarian side, Maribor. Arsenal recalled Jack Wilshere and bar Kieran Gibbs, who was out through injury, this was the strongest side Arsenal could put out.

The game started tentatively, with both sides trading possession as if to scrutinise each others’ (slightly damaged) credentials. When Tottenham scored with the first meaningful attempt at goal, it hinted at a vulnerability that has been the hallmark of North London Derbies. Wilshere and Cazorla were just beginning to get on the ball, the former in particular catching the eye with a neat turn to initiate an attack. But then, Adebayor saw the red mist.

It was over as a competitive spectacle after Spurs were reduced to ten-men. The game became embarrassingly one-sided, apart from a spell in which Gareth Bale pulled one back. Not that it mattered. Football is about one-upmanship and revelling in the glory whenever it comes and given the position Arsenal are in, and that the team is still gelling, Wenger would have cared little about facing opponents in the best possible condition. Besides, Arsenal’s attacking play, due to the numerical advantage, was breathtakingly dizzying for the most part and despite Wenger admitting the “confidence was not completely there” in the second-half, it’s a step closer to where they want to be.

The return of the Bakary Sagna-Theo Walcott axis was shown to be Arsenal’s strongest weapon while Wilshere and Cazorla look like they could be a formidable duo. At times, the way the two midfielders supported Olvier Giroud, it looked like the team played a 4-1-4-1 with Mikel Arteta at the base.

It was strange then, in the little time Spurs had two strikers on the field, that they didn’t drop somebody on Arteta. And given that Arsenal have had trouble building from the back against both Fulham and Manchester United, we didn’t see the potentially tantalising tactical battle unfold. Credit to Tottenham (and Villas-Boas), however, for still posing The Gunners questions. The switch to 3-4-2 at half-time was interesting as it gave Spurs a man advantage – however futile it may seem – at the back when playing it out. And when Bale scored a fine individual goal, it seemed like Arsenal’s defensive creakiness might rear its ugly head. But perhaps the point isn’t that there is a discernible weakness at the back but the fault lies because, as Wenger says, they lacked confidence in the second-half. Because as Arsenal’s passing and movement play has regressed in recent games – particularly the latter – so it has exposed the backline. Of course, Tottenham’s opener was avoidable; it came from a puzzling decision by Per Mertesacker to push up neither to play an offside or pre-empt Jermaine Defoe’s movement (except, he tried to read the pass which proved fatal).

That one of Arsenal’s goals came from an individual mistake wasn’t really unexpected. The football statistic website, WhoScored.com, lists “avoiding individual errors” as Arsenal’s biggest weakness. Indeed, and unfortunately I can’t prove the veracity of these claims, but I think it came during the systemised footballing days of Valeriy Lobanovskyi derived from laboratories of Kyiv, which said that “a team that makes errors in no more than 15 to 18% of its acts is unbeatable.” They also stipulated, however, that you can’t control mistakes and refereeing decisions so as such; football is centred on minimising errors through a style which makes the pitch as large as possible when in possession and small as possible, without the ball.

This season, Arsenal have chosen, not to press, but to drop back in their own half for the most part and to try and deny opponents space in front of the back four. It’s their way of minimising errors: Brazil’s fabled 1970 team did the same thing. “We played as a block, compact,” said coach Mario Zagallo. “Leaving only Tostao up field. Jairzinho, Pele, Rivelino, all tracked back to join Gerson and Clodoaldo in the midfield. I’m happy to see the team in terms of 4-5-1. We brought our team back behind the line of the ball….Our team was not characterised by strong marking.” (The Blizzard, Issue Three).

Previously, you might have said the same thing about Arsenal. That pressing up the pitch was too high a demand for such a young team and as a result, it left copious amount of space behind the midfield. When Tottenham scored their opener, it happened when they committed four players beyond Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere. But to talk about defensive misgivings is beside the point if mentioning nothing about Arsenal’s passing. That’s the mechanism in which the team uses to reduce errors – the more they attack, the less they have to defend. And as such, the most important thing to come out of the North London Derby is not just the result but the confidence gained from dismantling quality opponents. I’m sure the referee had a part to play in that but it’s best not to talk about it…

Schalke 04 overload their right to hurt and stop Arsenal

Uchida

Arsenal’s season so far may be summed up by the quibbles in agreeing a contract with Theo Walcott. Last night, though, it was another striker converted to a winger who made the difference. Jefferson Farfan, playing on Schalke’s right, created the goal that secured 2-0 victory and was a constant menace with his running. The Peruvian showed great promise as a youngster playing as a striker, attracting the attentions of Arsene Wenger, but coach Huub Stevens, who managed him at PSV Eindhoven, took him with him and has since used him mainly as a dangerous winger. Together with Atsuto Uchida, they were a thorn in the side of Arsenal.

Schalke overload the right

Schalke’s success mainly came from the right-hand side where they could double up and at times, even triple up on Andre Santos who had a bad game. It wasn’t necessarily all his fault; he was left suicidally isolated from much of the game and had to contend with the late runs of Uchida – who should normally be picked up by the left-winger – and Farfan’s touchline-hugging.

So strong were Schalke on that side that 50% of their attacks came from the right. It probably wasn’t a predetermined tactic to exploit Santos but it was most certainly a concious one – they just have better players on that side.

Focusing down the right-hand side wasn’t just an attacking move; it was also a defensive one as Schalke knew Arsenal are also best when combining down their left. Therefore, whenever Arsenal picked up the ball on that side, Marco Höger shuffled towards his right to close the Gunners down. Indeed, he isn’t necessarily Schalke’s first-choice midfielder – that’s spot goes to Jermaine Jones – but considering hisgood performance in the weekend against Borussia Dortmund, Huub Stevens made a deal with his two midfielder that he will give both players a half each. Höger would begin the first and set the tempo of high pressing and Jones would simply pick up where he left off in the second-half. It’s probably fair to say Höger didn’t all succeed; Stevens was unhappy at the “passive” start Schalke made (although he praised the organisation) but after 30 minutes, the Germans finally got into the game and imposed their true style. When Serge Gnabry lost the ball in the lead up to Schalke’s second, it was Roman Neustädter who nipped in with the interception and Jermaine Jones who lead the charge for the counter-attack.

schalke-attack

Cazorla-Podolski

If Schalke are clearly stronger attacking down their right, then Arsenal have their most fruitless passages of play when attacking down their left-hand side. However, that was also part of their problem at The Emirates.

If anything, Arsenal tried to get too much out of the Cazorla-Podolski dynamic that has been the most visible feature of their play this season. That they persisted, though last night, was quite baffling considering Schalke were constantly marauding down that flank while Arsenal seemed more preoccupied getting correct certain idiosyncrasies of their game.

The key to Santi Cazorla’s game is that he plays with freedom, gliding across the final third and making clever, vertical runs to get into space. Podolski on the other hand, thrives whenever Cazorla gets near him, attempting to use his quick passing and low centre of gravity to play little give-and-goes. The problem was, Cazorla too often started wider than Podolski an as such, it became a case of the two players getting too close to each other. And instead of Podolski making runs in the channels inside of left, he was only really able to get through on the outside.

There might have been two reasons that contributed towards this: 1) Schalke defended so well around their box that Arsenal’s joy could only come from the wide-areas but just as Norwich denied them, so did they. 2) With Aaron Ramsey drifting inside anyway, areas on the right side that Cazorla usually likes to operate were already occupied. However, this point is slightly a moot one. Because, like the dynamic with Podolski, Cazorla could still have drifted wide. Indeed, on a couple of instances he did link-up with Ramsey, it looked promising. It might be, though, that Cazorla prefers to pick up the ball with his body angled to play hence his predilection to slanting to the left.

a-v-schalke

It was defensively, though, that the Cazorla-Podolski dynamic affected the team the most. With Podolski given freedom of sort to drift inside and then Cazorla take up his position out wide, it often left no one getting back to help Santos. Indeed, Santi Cazorla was asked increasingly to drop back as the two interchanged in the attacking phase yet neither really wanted to get back to defend. At one point, Cazorla threw up his arms at the absence of a player filling in while Thomas Vermaelen seemed to signal to Francis Coquelin to cover. The young midfielder often did but with Steve Bould’s creed defending in two banks of four, he was perhaps unwilling to sacrifice the base that two central-midfielders give, therefore the onus was on one of Podolski or Cazorla to get back. It often left Arsenal a mess positionally down the left flank.

Arsenal’s problems

Arsenal’s problems are well documented; it seems like everyone has an opinion. Except, Arsenal’s AGM this morning shed little light on the problems with playing staff beyond the need for a new striker. At various points against Schalke, Arsenal tried three players different players up front with Podolski often interchanging to take up the second striker or centre-forward position. It was though, Gervinho, who played the role for most of the match with little impact. His movement was uncertain and jerky while his take-ons were often unsuccessful. The Ivorian looks better as a forward when drifting in between the left centre-back and the left-back as he did v Manchester City and he started that way until Arsenal began to play more down their left.

It might be worth a punt now for Wenger to go back to what was his Plan A and use Lukas Podolski as a number 9. Certain they could do with his individuality and spontaneity around the box which is lacking throughout the team, let alone up front. Indeed, that touches on the wider issues of what really is Arsenal’s problem. That their play is too predictable at times and that was   summed up by the way they tried to force Cazorla to interact more with Podolski. It might be that Cazorla tried to force it on himself. But that may be futile because the relative freedom that the team played with at the start of the season stemmed from the unfamiliarity they had with each other and thus, established patterns were still yet to be formed. It’s dangerous for Arsenal to fall into habits that are too obvious.

It’s probably too early to expect too much out of Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky and even Theo Walcott considering he has one foot on the way out. But the fact it, they give Arsenal something different to break out of the passive passing. Against Schalke, that was the problem; because they lacked penetration, that drive (perhaps a chance now for Ramsey to play in the middle given that he made some good runs?) they needed to pass the ball even better than they are now and hope that that may open up space (indeed, after the Norwich defeat, Mikel Arteta preached more “patience” with the ball). In the meantime, though, Arsenal will have to find the resolve within themselves to get out of this period of impotency.

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.