Have Arsenal become easier to press?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wenger’s aware of this, but he places great faith on his two centre-backs to pass the ball out and one of the central midfielders, usually Mikel Arteta dropping in. He says: “The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle. I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure. I am comfortable with that, although sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arséne Wenger has recast his side following the departure of Cesc Fábregas

Few teams have such an idealogical slant as Arséne Wenger’s Arsenal. In a video commemorating the Club’s 125th anniversary, the official website implores fans to explore the “passion, visionary philosophy and belief in youth that the Club inspires.” And certainly, Gus Hiddink believes that Arsenal are still one of the best sides in the world, less perhaps because of their reliance on youth, but mainly due to the attacking way they play football. “It’s true that, today, Barcelona leads the way — as Arsenal has done in the past,” he said in Issue Zero of The Blizzard. “And, in my opinion, still does, even if things haven’t worked their way in the Champions League so far.” However, that was five months ago, before Arsenal’s season imploded in their face like a birthday cake from Sue Sylvester.

Since then, Arsenal have sold off their most distinctive player, Cesc Fábregas. He was the one who was the most synonymous with their style and one who validated their game. Wenger built a system around him to get the best out of his ability to find team-mates that no-one could. Samir Nasri is set to follow and it seems that ideological slant is about to deviate somewhat, focusing less on the tippy-tappy concentrating more on the dynamic.

Arséne Wenger has recast his side following the departure of his captain. They are less focused on possession although it remains a key part to their strengths. However, Wenger’s aims this season are primarily to get the ball forward quickly and pass it with speed. It translates to a more direct approach; in the two games this season against Newcastle and Udinese, Arsenal essentially played with three strikers. Robin van Persie was backed up by Gervinho and Arshavin either side of him in a 4-3-3 formation in the first game and Marouanne Chamakh lined up alongside Theo Walcott and Gervinho at home to Udinese. The result was less passing through the middle and more focus on wing-play. Of course, the upshot of that is that Arsenal’s passing becomes less accurate as shown by the statistics against Udinese. UEFA.com list that The Gunners attempted a total of 546 passes, however, only 69% reached their target; way below their average of around 80%. They also made more fouls than Udinese and took less shots indicating that there may be an ugliness about Arsenal’s play this season.

On the other hand, they were markedly more accurate with the ball against Newcastle but as was often the case last season, they had trouble breaking down the opposition defence. Without players like Fábregas, Samir Nasri and the injured Jack Wilshere, Arsenal not only lose some of their ability to retain possession but incisiveness too. At St. James Park, there was an evident split between midfield and attack highlighting the need for a link player but also the change in emphasis for Arsenal away from the middle and to the flanks.

In the last couple of seasons, Wenger has tended to balance out the wings with one creative player –sometimes referred to as a “half-winger” — and a more dynamic winger the other side. His options this season, though, seem less varied; if Nasri departs it only leaves Arshavin as a player vaguely described a creative winger while Tomas Rosicky will probably get more time in the centre. By playing “strikers on the wings”, Arsenal’s aim is to try and get those two wide forwards behind as quickly and often as possible in an attempt to break down typically obdurate defences they face. One goal thus far in 2011/12 perhaps indicates it is still very much a work in progress but again, for the tactic to work, it is very reliant on the central midfielders to link up the attack. At Newcastle, the distance between midfield and attack was often too large. Aaron Ramsey, playing the playmaker role, likes to drop deep to pick up possession but in doing so, somebody else must occupy the space that he leaves. Tomas Rosicky didn’t and it must be noted Jack Wilshere does this very well therefore the cohesiveness of the whole unit was a bit disjointed. On the plus side, however, the rotation between the three central midfielders does give Arsenal a lot of ambiguity and fluidity and perhaps one of the arguments against Arsenal with Fábregas, no matter how brilliant he was, was that the side were too reliant on him. Now, the three can alternate responsibility.

One of the key differences between the Newcastle and Udinese encounters was Arsenal’s possession and passing accuracy statistics. While The Gunners held the ball for longer in the league, that may be down to the cautiousness of Alan Pardew’s side and the superior tactical nous of the Italians who came to exploit any Arsenal weaknesses.

Possession, as I’ve argued many times, is a form of defence for Arsenal. Indeed, it is for any ball-hungry side. Against Newcastle, by keeping the effectively ball, Arsenal stifled any hint of ambition the Toon Army had. As a result, they looked more secure as a unit although to be fair on the defence, they have been supremely organised these last two games. Wenger, though, lamented the “speed of our passing” in the 0-0 draw as one of the reasons for failing to break Newcastle down so perhaps as a reaction, they tried to raise the intensity of their game against Udinese. They made a breathtaking start, taking the lead in three minutes, but a little concerning was that they never let up. If possession is as much a form of defence as it is attack, they were unable to take the sting from game by holding onto the ball. The fast-paced football inevitably impacted on their ability to keep it for prolonged periods and that always gave Udinese a chance on the break. Perhaps most culpable was Alex Song, who more than just being overly exposed and heavily dependent to maintain Arsenal’s shape, had a pass success of 63%.

The presence of a Wilshere or Fábregas may have helped Arsenal keep Udinese at bay by way of keep-ball and as it turned out, they finally realised the error of their ways and killed off the game in the last twenty minutes. The introduction of Emmanuel Frimpong in that period cannot be understated as he helped Arsenal maintain a 4-2-1-3 shape. Indeed, structure has always remained Arsenal’s biggest weakness as their over-attacking approach tends to require more resources to push forward, leaving gaps at the back and that’s why effective use of the ball is ever more important. It can suffocate teams up the pitch and deny them from springing a quick breakaway. On the other hand, being less reliant of possession does increase Arsenal’s counter-attacking potential and in the absence of so many key players against Liverpool, it may be Arsenal’s best outlet of scoring.

We can probably put down some of the indecision and inaccuracy to the newness of the team and the need to get used to each other. Indeed, one of the reasons Wenger so wants to keep Nasri is that there would be no need to adapt as an understanding is already in place. Nevertheless, if Wenger is hoping to get Arsenal to be more dynamic again, it would still need a heavy dose of technical accuracy therefore the return of Wilshere and possibly a new signing to augment the new approach, cannot come soon enough.

The Cesc Fábregas dependencia

If Cesc Fábregas does leave Arsenal this season, it would be without any notable legacy. He should go down as one of the legends. Indeed he is one of Arsenal’s greatest individuals; the statistics and archive footages will testify to his outstanding ability but crucially, the trophies do not. He has, of course, won the best of the lot: the World Cup but it’s the manner of his involvement which is precisely why he hankers for more silverware. Coming off the bench to set up the winner, as he has done numerously for Spain, Fábregas showed his unparalleled ability to open teams with his penetrative passes but there’s a feeling inside him, that despite that genius, he hasn’t shown enough for it. At least, not at club level which should reaffirm his status back home. When the chance came to prove himself when Arsenal went to Barcelona, he was non-existent and at home, he was overshadowed by his heir, Jack Wilshere.

His ambition has been hampered by the youth development policy and one that, at 24, thrusts Fábregas into the role of a reluctant leader. Encapsulating what Arsenal is about since the “Invincibles” team broke up: skilful, spontaneous and confident in possession – the type of player that makes Arsenal a joy to watch – he has had to mature and lead a generation without the presence of big name players and that has left a bit of fragility in him that can occasionally frustrate. Indeed, that is the argument some have made against Wenger’s handling of the transition. That the youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and swagger in possession – have effectively taken over the team. And the other qualities that made them great – ruthlessness, power, organisation and experience – have been seen as an after-thought. It all displays the delicacy of the project the team has embarked upon since the move to The Emirates but the thread keeping Fábregas at the club is seemingly what is holding it all together.

He is the talisman; the highest profile player at the club and a leader of his generation. If he, who embodies it, ceased to believe in Arsène Wenger’s project then what hope does a youth development policy have?  One of the first products of the project, Gael Clichy, has already departed to a team which must be considered an antithesis of Arsenal, showing that winning matters most if you want to foster a sense of loyalty. Even coming through the ranks of your boyhood club is not reason enough to stay and Arsenal fans will be hoping Clichy’s expected successor, Kieran Gibbs, will not follow the same route of Ashley Cole. Samir Nasri is reportedly next to want a way out but if Fábregas departs, it must surely signal the end of youth project.

If already the transfer seems as if it will be a monumental one, consider the difficulties that Arséne Wenger will have to face in trying to replace his star player. Because the issue is not merely one of changing personnel; it’s also schematic one as Arsenal have built their system around the man who they feel is the most effective player in the game.

Fábregas makes the passes, he breaks down opposition defences and general makes Arsenal dynamic. In the last five seasons, the Spaniard has made 60 assists – no player has made more in the top five leagues. The official Premier League statistics has it at 71 but they tend to count indirect or passive assists (i.e. penalties won or deflections). Nevertheless it underlines his all-round contribution to the team. In that period, he has also created the most chances in the Premiership at 466 and most frequently too – last season he made a chance every 28.6 minutes from open play. The team shape is moulded so that it can make full use of Fábregas’ ability to find gaps that others can’t, fitting him in the playmaker role of the 4-2-3-1. It underlines his immense improvement that he is able to play this role now because it was once thought he was too slow and too weak to play with his back to goal but he has since added a robustness and directness to his game as shown by his frequent cameos off the bench for Spain. Even so, he has mastered the art of evading from his marker and ensures he doesn’t have to play as a typical number 10 would. Rather, he drops deep to pick up the ball, often making a midfield three and is the main man in the press. As a result, Arsenal also concede less goals because they keep the ball better. For them, possession is a form of defence and if they are to improve next season, it’ may be wiser to strengthen the areas that they are best at as opposed more trivial matters.

But despite playing a central role as a team’s chief chance creator – something which he manages to do unselfishly as he is overwhelmingly a team player – this means it comes to a situation where the other ten players are effectively looking to play everything through him. They depend on him to make the final pass – as one team-mate said this season  –  so what this results in, is the player himself landing a hat full of assists while his team-mates assists/key chances per game ratio can be unimpressive. Wenger realises that Fabregas is crucial to the team if they are to a land a trophy – no-one does what he does better – and until others mature quickly, they will continue to depend on him. The statistics weigh heavily in Cesc Fábregas’ favour: In the 22 games he started in 2010/11, Arsenal won 64% of their matches but that figure plummets to 34% when doesn’t feature. To put this into the context of last season, Fabregas missed 13 games and Arsenal lost 4 of them – such form is not title-winning and is unlikely to inspire him much confidence in the team.

With thanks to 7am Kickoff for the statistics. The dependence on Cesc Fábregas is shown last season by Arsenal’s results when the captain doesn’t play and when he does.

Letting Fábregas go is unquestionable at the moment but history is not against teams that have prospered when talismanic figures leaves the club. When Michael Owen left, Liverpool instantly won the European Cup. Likewise Marseille when star striker Jean-Pierre Papin departed. Perhaps the style of relying on a goalpoacher is unsuited in Europe and it took their main player to leave for Liverpool and Marseille to realise a holistic route is more fruitful. Certainly that was the case with Manchester United and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

It was, in 2006, a clash with their future talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, which forced van Nistelrooy out of the club at a time when it was felt unthinkable. But despite his brilliant record of goals, ultimately the club’s trophy haul during his five years at the club suggests he wasn’t success. The team was imbalanced towards him and essentially for Sir Alex Ferguson, engineering a fallout with his ‘star’ striker was one of his best ideas as United haven’t looked back. The rigid 4-4-2 became a flexible and dizzyingly high-tempo 4-3-3 which at times became “strikerless” – unfathomable given van Nistelrooy’s legacy – as Manchester United progressed past the quarter-finals for the first time between 1999 and 2007. Indeed, the secret of Sir Alex’s success has been his ability to scrap and evolve sides, especially when it seemed key individuals departing had left them in limbo. For a while, the Scotsman had trouble replacing Roy Keane – perhaps one of the reasons why the 4-4-2 system didn’t work with van Nistelrooy – looking to bring an enforcer type in a similar mould to him and no doubt inspired by Patrick Vieira. But later he realised that it would be difficult to recreate Keane’s qualities so instead of looking to replace him with one outstanding and possibly costly individual, found two, dropping Paul Scholes back and using him in a double shield. Arsenal had similar trouble replacing Vieira but unlike United, they initially went backwards.

Arsenal, under Wenger, would normally play a double pivot – two disciplined midfielders in front of the back four – but with Fábregas breaking through and making himself undroppable, it meant finding a way to utilise a box-to-box midfielder whose creative tendencies would see him get involved further up the pitch thus disrupting some of the balance. Vieira and Fabregas didn’t work so Wenger made the difficult decision to let his captain go. However, the solution, a split midfield with Gilberto solely holding was too inefficient. At the same time, it was becoming more and more evident that Fábregas needed greater freedom to  because, as Henry once said: “If you let Fábregas play he can kill a team.” In the Champions League, Wenger switched to a 4-5-1 which the midfielder to get forward with more security nearly reaped instant rewards. In 2007, Wenger discarded Gilberto and brought in the highly energetic Mathieu Flamini to cover the ground that Fábregas would be leaving. It so nearly worked at a master-stroke but ultimately it proved to be too exhausting to last the season, the manager eventually switching to the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 we see now. Perhaps Wenger has learnt from this past, not only utilising Fábregas high up because they need his vision, but it’d be much more efficient to have him as high up the pitch as possible without affecting the defensive balance of the team.

If Cesc Fábregas leaves, this does not instantly mean Arsenal are doomed. To the contrary, the “Ewing Theory” (when a team prosper after their biggest star – or in Arsenal’s case, perhaps a couple if Nasri also departs – leaves the club) may see that that as soon as Cesc walks away, Arsenal will start winning things again. Indeed, their best performances last season were when they took a holistic route. We’ve already said last season, from the months from the middle of December to the end of February, Arsenal were the best team in the league. That’s scant consolation perhaps to Arsenal ending up fourth but it showed, when the parts start to function as a unit, The Gunners can be unstoppable. Fábregas was a key member his dependence wasn’t overwhelmingly evident: Samir Nasri pitched in as a wide playmaker, Jack Wilshere continued probing as did Alex Song graft. Theo Walcott stretched the defence on the right, creating and profiting from the runs Robin van Persie made. Certainly the Dutch striker rising to the occasion has been one of Arsenal’s plus points, helping take the load off Fábregas.

A taster of Arsenal might play without Fábregas was in end-of-season clash with Manchester United when the holistic route was at it’s best. In that game Fábregas’s anticipated successor, Jack Wilshere, who represents the new Arsenal with his rapid “change-of-direction” and glide on the ball, stepped up to the occasion and was given more freedom in a more natural 4-3-3 to wreak havoc. Perhaps that’s the lesson Arsenal can take from the game: that they shouldn’t be fearful of losing their best player and worry about how to replace him directly – that may be nigh on difficult with someone of his vision – but they can certainly reshape. It’s not impossible. When Patrick Vieira departed in 2005, it was thought he would by leaving a huge hole in the midfield but Cesc Fábregas stepped up. When Thierry Henry left, it was not just their greatest ever player that was leaving; it was an icon. But Cesc Fábregas stepped up, nonetheless, to become the main man. Arséne Wenger will be hoping there are plenty of other Cesc Fábregas’ in the team waiting take up the mantle whether he departs in the near future or not.

*Statistics courtesy of OPTA and @Orbinho.

Cesc Fábregas-inspired Arsenal punish Blackpool’s adventurism

Blackpool 1-3 Arsenal: Diaby 18, Eboue 21, Taylor-Fletcher 52, van Persie 76.

If this win is to re-ignite Arsenal’s title challenge – a title challenge which had threatened to actually descend into “considerable disappointment” – then it is probably apt that it was a game which displayed Arsenal’s season in a microcosm that invigorated them. Arsenal were exuberant in attack for most parts, picking off Blackpool’s courageously high backline with ease but were profligate in attack; and that, coupled with a sudden inexplicable nervousness, contrived to throw open the game. Blackpool came back into it after half-time and had Arsenal on the rocks for fifteen minutes – a similar spell to the one they had in the first period – but Robin van Persie’s goal finally settled them.

It was by no means a convincing win as Blackpool were denied one penalty but in no way was it also unconvincing. This is Blackpool’s style and they will always create chances against most opponents. At home, they led Manchester United 2-0 before they succumbed to a 3-2 defeat and it was their expansive nature which ensured the game would remain competitive. For a newly promoted team, it would be seen as suicidal to ape Barcelona’s tactics but in an age of winning at-all-costs, Ian Holloway tactics, however much idealistic, must be applauded. On another day, perhaps, Arsenal would not have been as comfortable for surely they were indebted to Cesc Fábregas who was inspirational once again.

Blackpool pen Arsenal back before Fábregas takes control

With two 4-3-3’s facing each other, both with wide forwards with little intention to track back, it was the flanks where there was most space. For Blackpool, it was perhaps favourable that they kicked-off as it allowed them to push Arsenal back instantly. Both Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Luke Varney were able to get crosses into the box and attack the full-backs, of which The Gunners defended rather well. For Arsenal, it wasn’t their plan to intentionally sit back and allow Blackpool to attack before launching a counter of their own but with their opponents pushing so many men forward, they were naturally penned back. Arséne Wenger also likes to push his players up the pitch early on to force the opposition back but this tactic only made it harder to pass the ball out. However, when they did get their first real chance to counter-attack, Abou Diaby made sure it counted as his tackle then finish ended a superb move.

The goal settled Arsenal and soon Cesc Fábregas was able to assume control. The Spanish midfielder continually dropped deep and alternated position with Diaby, allowing the rangy midfielder to get forward and this made it harder for Blackpool to mark him. Forward balls over the Blackpool offside line were a frequent sight as Fábregas threatened to make hay of the space he was afforded. Chance after chance was created by the captain, those of which, Wenger visibly felt, should have been put away. The switching of positions between Fábregas and Diaby was also very effective in the first-half of Arsenal’s 4-4 draw with Newcastle, an explosive period which they scored four goals in twenty minutes.

<Figure 1> Blackpool’s expansive style where they try to mirror Barcelona’s tactics and stretch play wide meant the midfielders had a lot of space to cover. That allowed Fábregas time and space to play the ball and was relatively unpressurised  on the pass. Blackpool pushed up looking to squeeze the space and the central defenders were often left marking a lot of empty space and that afforded van Persie the opportunity to get behind. Fábregas made many key passes in the game but no assists; however, he was crucial in both the first and third goal, playing passes that arguably no Arsenal player could. In a league looking for superstars, Cesc Fábregas is surely the top player.

Second-half: Substitutes change game for different reasons

Blackpool upped their intensity again after the interval – it’s amazing how a break in proceedings can reinvigorate a side’s mentality as Blackpool looked demoralised after Emmanuel Eboue had put Arsenal two up. Their improved moral summoned them the energy to force Arsenal back and were quicker to the loose balls around the box. Charlie Adam was able to find his wide men with increased regularity – a key feature of his game that was nullified in the first-half – and it was no surprise that the goal came from Taylor-Fletcher on the right whose run was left unmarked. Blackpool were getting so much joy from the flanks that it would be foolish to tamper with the success – but Holloway did, replacing Varney with Andy Reid.

The thinking was simple; Blackpool had the initiative and with Reid, they could assume more control. However, with the substitute, Blackpool lost a direct threat – Varney, who is a striker on the wings – and that meant less speed for Arsenal to deal. Close to the same time, Wenger introduced Theo Walcott for the ineffective Andrey Arshavin, the Russian failing to track runs, and the winger quickly stretched play. He gave Arsenal an out ball but more than most, Varney’s substitute stripped Blackpool of their quick release of their own. Adam was frozen out; Reid was insignificant and Arsenal kept the ball better. With Blackpool desperately looking to try and win back and Arsenal retaining possession, The Seasiders increasingly pushed forward to squeeze the space but it only gave van Persie and Walcott space to get behind. Both did and the third goal was an inevitability seeing as Walcott has set up the Dutchman for four of his last five goals.

For Arsenal, they rediscovered a zest about their game although Blackpool’s tactics which gave them plenty of room, are unlikely to be mirrored again this season. However, with Fábregas back and Walcott under his wings too, there is reason to be optimistic. Plus Diaby stepped up in place of Alex Song – the first win without the midfielder. It’s now a 14 game unbeaten run in the league. Only seven more to go then…

Arsenal’s team of 2000-2010

–         Firstly, as you may have noticed, the decade ended at the start of last year (although some dispute otherwise). So that’s why we’ve aptly renamed the Arsenal XI of the Decade to Arsenal XI from 2000-2010. That’s technically eleven years. We’ve published our matches of the decade last season if you want to take a look.

–         Secondly, we all realise when creating such a list, there will always be a natural bias to the “Invincibles” side of 2003-04. After all, they are the best Arsenal team. Ever. But trophies are not the only measure of success. The clever clogs amongst yourselves will probably say that you wish you knew that before you signed up to Arsene Wenger’s post-Highbury “project” but let’s not be facetious. This XI consists of players who have performed consistently to the Arsenal cause. So no one season wonders – Matheiu Flamini may be the first to enter your mind although he did have two good seasons; the other being an impressive run at the left-back position in the season The Gunners made the Champions League final.

–         In true Arsene Wenger fashion, the players are slotted into a 4-4-2. As ever the wide players are not “prisoners of their position” and that is particularly appropriate once you see who we have at right-midfield. And yes, he has played there for Arsenal.

GK: Jens Lehmann
2003-2008 (147 appearances)

For a while, Lehmann looked like he wouldn’t be considered an Arsenal great. He was part of the unbeaten Arsenal side but was often regarded as the weak link in their success. His frequent calamities were appropriate of a time after David Seaman’s retirement when nothing seemed to be going right between the sticks. But he gradually grew more serene and that, seemingly, was enough to hide his faults. In his defence, Lehmann’s initial troubles in adapting to the league may have been due to European style which encouraged goalkeepers to come off the line as opposed to England, where ‘keepers are chiefly stoppers. But he still made more mistakes than he should have.

That saying, his eccentricities was part of his charm and in a strange way, gave his defence a sense of assurance because they knew he would take responsibility. In particular, he was very assertive at coming out from corner-kicks as this was considered to be Arsenal’s main weakness, the whole in the Death Star if you’d like. His penalty save against Villarreal in the Champions League semi-final stands out as his greatest individual moment but he just as quickly ruined it all in the final. With 18 minutes played, Lehmann, all too predictably rushed out at the feet of Samuel Eto’o to earn himself a red-card and leave Arsenal having to fend off Barcelona with ten-man: Mission impossible almost. Still, despite the attendant rashness, he was a class goalkeeper and during Arsenal’s 2006 Champions League run, he was Europe’s best goalkeeper at that point, going 853 minutes without conceding a goal. A record that still stands today.

RB: Bakary Sagna
2007-present (118 appearances)

He’s not even Arsenal most successful right-back; Emmanuel Eboue is ahead of him if finals and trophies are a measure of success. That honour goes to Lauren. But he IS Arsenal’s best right-back and for that reason, Bakary Sagna deserves his place in the eleven.

Sagna was a relative unknown when he signed in 2007 and there were doubts about whether the side needed him. Eboue was there. But he soon dispelled such reservations with a rapid transition as the league’s best right-back in his debut season. Defensively, he is at his best but despite his forward limitations, Sagna keeps going. And going. And going. To be fair to him, he has improved in his delivery, making five assists last season but his value is that he remains as reliable at the back as ever.

CB: Sol Campbell
2001-2006 (135 appearances), 2009-2010 (11 appearances)

Crossed the short North London divide amid much controversy and found immediate success with a League and Cup double in his first season. Sol Campbell was just the powerhouse defender Arsenal since Tony Adams and Martin Keown were already queueing up to pick up their pensions. Luckily for The Gunners, Campbell had let his contract at Tottenham run out and as the rules of the Bosman Transfer state, he was free to leave for any club he desired. He chose Arsenal and never looked back. A goal in the Champions League final was scored in a losing cause but ultimately got what he craved for with the move: trophies and European football. He was a rock and Arsenal evidently looked weaker without him, effectively conceding the 2002-03 title due to his absence through injury. But he was there when Arsenal won the championship in 2004 and at what better place to seal the glory than at Tottenham’s ground. The metaphorical middle finger was well and truly up.

Campbell returned to the club for one more season in October 2009 and was never once exposed by the high-line they played, even at the age of 35. We are, however, going to overlook him absconding like a baby from Highbury at half-time after a horror show against West Ham which sandwiched between his two times at the club. Probably a trait he learnt at Spurs.

CB: Kolo Toure
2002-2009 (226 appearances)

In his first season at Arsenal, Kolo Toure looked like an excitable puppy and sure enough, Wenger let him play in such a way. He was frequently let off the leash as a substitute, usually on the right of midfield but sometimes at right-back and he just kept running and running. Somehow, Wenger was able to channel that energy and Toure established himself as a defender of great maturity. He developed a solid partnership with Sol Campbell, helping Arsenal to that fabled unbeaten season as a ball-playing, adventurous centre-back.

LB: Ashley Cole
1998-2006 (156 appearances)

Left the club in acrimonious circumstances but he did so, unlike many, as the world’s best in his position. However, Ashley Cole almost never made it Arsenal. Having been sent out on loan to Crystal Palace as a youngster, he was called back after Sylvinho was unable to get his work-permit renewed and forcibly, was elevated to the first-team. Cole snatched at the opportunity like a tramp on a loose bag of chips and made the role his own. Marauding up-and-down the left flank, he was Arsenal’s answer to Roberto Carlos and ensured the left-back role wasn’t just a secondary position. His goal against Aston Villa remains one the club’s best team goals highlighting just how deadly the full-back can be in the modern game. Defensively, he was just as good and Arsenal fans perhaps, still take pride in the fact that he is one of the few that can stop Cristiano Ronaldo and we just as much cheered whenTheo Walcott tore him a new one in the recent 3-1 win. Cole may have been a problem child and a naughty boy but he was our problem child and naughty boy.

RM (sort of): Cesc Fabregas
2003-present (201 appearances)

Cesc Fabregas seemingly encapsulates what Arsenal is about since the “Invincibles” team broke up. Skilful, spontaneous and confident in possession – the type of player that makes Arsenal a joy to watch – but letting him mature without the presence of such big name players left a bit of fragility in him that can occasionally frustrate. Indeed, that is the argument some have made against Wenger’s handling of the transition. That the youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and swagger in possession – have effectively taken over the team. And the other qualities that made them great – ruthlessness, power, organisation and experience – have been seen as an after-thought.

But that also displays the delicacy of the project the team has embarked upon and this season, we are finally starting to see it bear fruit. Cesc Fabregas has been influential, even when he is absent through injury, and in past seasons, has almost single-handedly carried the team forward. Fabregas sees things that others don’t and plays the through pass as if it was his first step as a baby. Last season, he made 13 assists, a fantastic feat which is made the more amazing considering he scored 15 goals also. He is more robust now and direct – as shown by his impact in the 2010 World Cup finals and Euro 2008, regularly coming off the bench to change his country’s flow from the lateral to the dynamic. We have done a whole analysis of his time at Arsenal so head over and read it there, because frankly, we can write so much more about the talismanic midfielder.

In this list, Fabregas comes in right midfield, a position he has not played since his first full season in the senior side. It’s probably fair to say we can all agree he deserves his spot in this XI but where to put him considering the rest of the players to come? Right-midfield adds balance to the side and because he is such a genius, you can bet on him to make a great impact from the position.

CM: Gilberto Silva
2002-2008 (170 appearances)

Gilberto Silva’s brilliance was his simplicity. Initially he couldn’t stop scoring which, rather prematurely, because of his late runs, drew comparisons with Fredrik Ljungberg but that just underlined his underrated all-round ability. He soon settled, however, and became the wise head in midfield who kept the side ticking with his get and give efficiency.

The fact that Gilberto came into a winning side on the back of a World Cup triumph helped him settle and he was a key component in the “Invincibles” side. His altruistic style was needed most when Patrick Vieira departed and the midfield needed a composed figure to guide them forward. Gilberto rose to the occasion and was the glue that held the structure together as Arsenal agonisingly lost to Barcelona 2-1 in the Champions League final. Wenger summed up his value to the team best when he said: “what I like was the fact that he kept things simple. He can play all across the midfield but the holding role just in front of the defence is what he does best.”

CM: Patrick Vieira (Captain)
1996-2005 (279 appearances)

Put simply, Patrick Vieira was a monster of a specimen when he first set foot in the Premiership. He was a player of great physical presence but one who could also match that with an unerring technique and lung bursting stamina. Such traits allowed him to dominate the league for the remaining years and he was the driving force of the Arsenal team from the heart of midfield. Vieira’s success lent itself to a spate of imitators looking to recreate a similar profile of the player, some successful, others not so, such as Manchester United’s Eric Djamba-Djemba.

Injuries and speculation about his future perhaps limited his influence in the later years but was still impressive when he did play. He captained The Gunners to their historic unbeaten triumph, scoring the goal that sealed the title.

LM: Robert Pires
2000-2006 (189 appearances)

It may be difficult to fathom now that Thierry Henry had ever taken a backseat to any such attacking player during his eight years at the club but in the 2001-02 season, he did. To Robert Pires. Pires looked uncomfortable in the way he ran with the ball but there was something poetic about the way he moved. His hair swishing up and down against the wind; his arms almost stiff when running as if to ensure the maximum balance and he took ever so timid steps with the ball at his feet. For that one season, Pires was perhaps the best player in the world but that season was also prematurely hacked down to size in March against Newcastle. That didn’t stop him, however, scooping the PFA player of the year award and the way his team-mates acknowledged his contribution to the title win by smiling gleefully at the player on the podium, spoke louder than words ever could. Pires scored an amazing 62 league goals from left midfield, a thought unthinkable to some at that time and reinvented, on the face of it, the simple position of the winger.

CF: Dennis Bergkamp
1995-2006 (316 appearances)

You’d have to be Groundskeeper Willie to conclusively prove Dennis Bergkamp’s intention in video form when scoring Arsenal’s greatest goal ever, but at 5 seconds in in video clip, we can attest the only space he could have exploited was to the left of him. His finish in the 2-0 win against Newcastle was labelled a fluke by some but only a genius could have produced a goal when there looked like there was nothing on. Somehow he manufactured the space to turn past Nikos Dabizas with a balletic pirouette before slotting past Shay Given.

It was this type of operational mastery that set the Dutchman apart and his spacial awareness ensured he was at the hub of most of Arsenal attacks in their most successful era. His contribution to Arsenal’s 7-0 win over Everton once again highlights that vision and particularly the third goal. As we pick it up, we see Bergkamp running into the space in front of the box but as the ball reaches him, he is instantly surrounded by four defenders. However, with one flick of the boot, he cuts open the defence and frees Patrick Vieira to chip home. His ability to squeeze and double the size of the pitch set him apart in a generation.

No player in the Premier League era has given as much visceral joy as Dennis Bergkamp. Here was a player who always seemed a step ahead of his opponents and perhaps the only player in the world whose brain was conjoined to his right boot.

CF: Thierry Henry
1999-2007 (254 appearances)

2000-01: 17 goals, 7 assists. 2001-02: 24 goals, five assists. 2002-03: 24 goals, 23 assists. 2003-04: 30 goals, 8 assists. 2004:05: 25 goals, 14 assists. 2005-06: 27 goals, 6 assists. 2006-07: 10 goals, 4 assists.

Thierry Henry may have been Arsenal’s greatest individual player but the statistics paint him as one of the best team players also. Amazingly, he never quite got the European recognition he deserved despite scoring a hat-trick against both Inter and Roma in 5-1 and 3-1 wins respectively, and both in away matches. And let’s not forget the way he tore apart Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu with a terrific solo goal on the run to the final. [EDIT] Henry has actually been named in UEFA.com’s team of the year a five times but a podium finish is perhaps scant consolation for a brilliant goalscorer – yes – but also a supreme team player.

In his pomp, he was a stallion of a striker. Gracefully fast and explosive in front of goal, Henry terrified defenders with the ball at his feet. He ended as Arsenal’s highest ever goalscorer with 226 goals in 380 appearances. A phenomenal feat from a phenomenal player.

Honourable mentions: Lauren (2000-2007 – 159 appearances), Fredrik Ljungberg (1998–2007 – 216 appearances), Silvain Wiltord (2000-2004 – 104 appearances).

And finally, a wholly irrelevant XI but one that reserves a special place in your memory. (Romantic XI): Lehmann; Luzhny, Campbell, Gallas, Cole; Hleb, Fabregas, Edu, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry