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.

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 3-0 Aston Villa: Defenders lead the way forward

This post first appeared on Arsenal Insider

If, as the orange and black banner draped against the North Stand is correct, and Robin van Persie does score “when he wants”, it was evidently his day off as he left it to the others to get the goals. On the face of it, perhaps it was a good thing as it showed Arsenal are not so reliant on Robin van Persie and Arsène Wenger indicated as much, although he would have wanted van Persie to continue his goalscoring form and thus kept him on until the end. But when Kieran Gibbs opened the scoring, the most surprising thing wasn’t the fact that he had scored but that it was Arsenal 17th different goalscorer in the Premier League – more than any other team. What reliance on van Persie?

Of course, that would be missing the point as Arsenal have hugely been dependent on their captain and as Gibbs scored, it merely confirmed what Arsenal had been missing for much of the season – a coherent squad and chiefly the presence of full-backs. Because, not having recognised full-backs on the pitch has affected Arsenal tactically and therefore forced them to play in a different way. (In one sense, perhaps Wenger is culpable as he could have altered his team’s shape). At the beginning of the season, having lost both Samir Nasri and Cesc Fábregas and then Jack Wilshere through injury, Arsenal switched emphasis towards the flanks. When the full-backs quickly succumbed to injury, Arsenal were not able to produce the same combinations that we are regularly seeing now between Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott and Gibbs and Gervinho as they showed for the first goal, thus they tried to force they through the centre. It’s no coincidence, then, Arsenal’s fluency suffered in that period. Now, as Wenger says, there is “a more variation in our build-up play and therefore we are more dangerous as well.” And when Theo Walcott scored the second to essentially confirm the win when The Gunners completely dominated, each part of Arsenal’s game finally fell into place. Because, that type of goal is how Wenger has always wanted to score and quietly, he will be disappointed that it hasn’t more often. Not the pass from Alex Song, which he has been doing all season, but the penetrative ball behind the full-back, which Arsenal made a trademark of last season, and which seemed a perfect fir for the three-striker system.

Speaking of plans, Wenger also feels the team has come out of their shell in recent weeks and that’s because they are clearer of their game. Indeed, he indicates the early season form and tactics they used may have been dictated by the unfortunate circumstances they were in and thus had to play more cautiously (think about how their pressing had changed and the run of eight games unbeaten from October to mid-December where they almost exclusively dealt in low scores). ”Since then [defeats to Fulham/Swansea],” said Wenger, “we have more options and a bit better plan. That has allowed the team to feel more confident.”

Their new-found exuberance can be typified by the way in which Kieran Gibbs was allowed to get forward against Aston Villa and previously against Everton although when he did, Arsenal also left themselves open. Luckily for Arsenal, Alex Song has been on standby as cover in recent games and has had to drop back into his spaces more frequently. It’s an area Arsenal can still improve on as pushing two full-backs forward can cause undue strain on the back, not to mention when your centre-back also decides to join in the attack, and they looked slightly vulnerable on the break.

Nevertheless, defenders are crucial in developing a fluent attacking game and Arsenal often seek to take advantage, as they look to free them in the build up depending on who they are playing (against a 4-5-1, centre-backs become key while versus a two-man attack, the full-backs are usually the ones who receive it from the back first. Aston Villa made it easy because they dropped deep and allowed Arsenal time to play it out). “When we did not win games [earlier in the season], I did not feel we played as badly as people said. We have gained a lot of confidence in our play out from the back and that makes a massive difference,” said Wenger. “The defenders who play out from the back give us a security now and that allows the team to be much more confident.”

The fate of Arsenal’s season has usually suffered from the absence of quality defenders; this season, their presence has reignited them.

Five points on Arsenal 3-0 West Bromwich Albion

Arsenal crept out of the negatives for goal difference this season and into the positives for the first time, and for that they can say they have finally moved on from their disastrous start. The victory was more symbolic than being noted for the actual performance which was once again dominant without having to hit second gear. The Gunners added vigour to victory and while Robin van Persie was a major influence in all three of the goals, it was very much a collective endeavour.

West Bromwich Albion, on the other hand, looked a level below and they never got close to giving Arsenal a challenge. They had injuries but credit must go to Arsenal for suffocating the play and then giving themselves the comfort of a two-goal lead at half-time. The rest of the match was elementary as Mikel Arteta wrapped up the win.

1. “In the modern game, the only formation is 9-1”

The most impressive thing about Arsenal’s resurrection is not just how results have improved; it’s the way they have made visible steps to be more solid as a team. On Saturday, with the selections of Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny at centre-back as well as two attacking full-backs, it indicated Arsenal would attack as a team and defend together. In terms of physical make-up, the defence was barely indistinguishable to the attack – Gervinho and Vermaelen could easily mistaken for the wrong positions if you didn’t know who they were – and indeed, Vermaelen popped up with the second goal. Arsène Wenger knew he was going to face a defensive side (although he did expect West Brom to be more potent on the break) so he chose a team that he felt would stand the best chance of breaking them down. His team did and in comfortable fashion too.

2. Where would Arsenal be without van Persie Arteta?

Talks of a one-man team are unfair on an Arsenal side who are improving each week, even if they are reliant on Robin van Persie to finish off the moves. However, it might be fair to say The Gunners can as much owe their revival to the twinkle toe passing of Mikel Arteta as much as van Persie’s goals. Yes, van Persie’s goals are more tangible to the end result but Arsenal have markedly looked a better team since the arrival of Arteta from Everton. The Spaniard has helped bring stability in midfield, recycling possession expertlyto give Arsenal the control they were lacking in the earlier games and he has stoked up an excellent partnership with Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey. It’s argued his passing can often be too passive but in keeping it moving, he’s dragging opponents around to create space and to help sustain the pressure. He’s in the top ten of most passes per game in Europe – the only player in the league. Arteta’s played nearly ninety minutes every match since and he deserves a rest; it’s just as well there’s an international break around the corner….

3. The modern centre-back pairing

Arsène Wenger’s comments on the importance of centre-backs to Arsenal’s attacks before the game, more than just being very insightful, seemed to be a thumbs-up for Koscielny and Vermaelen as the first choice pairing. He officially put down the benching of Per Mertesacker as tactical, opting for mobility but Arsenal’s game relies on nimble movement and unfortunately for Mertesacker, he falls just short of his two team-mates. To be fair, the German has proved surprisingly adroit on the ball and in the games he has played, has had more passes than Koscielny. That may just be down to Arsenal’s bias down the right-hand side (see figure 2) but Wenger can rotate his centre-backs when the circumstances demand it, safe in the knowledge than any of his three can do a good job.

Against West Brom, however, Koscielny and Vermalen showed why they are Arsenal’s best partnership, aiding Arsenal’s possession game with precision passing into the midfield. But most impressive was their acute reading of play which helped squeezed the play in West Brom’s half. They constantly won the wall back quickly, helping to restart attacks as soon as they broke down, something arguably less achievable if Mertesacker had played.

04P84

The urgency Vermaelen instilled in Arsenal’s game is shown by his interceptions which were higher than any other Arsenal player. Two were in the opponents half and his impetousness is infectious.

NB: We didn’t see how Arsenal’s defenders cope when pressed because West Brom weren’t able to close them down up the pitch but it’s important to note Wenger’s tactics when that happens. He usually pushes his midfielders up at the start of the build up to give the centre-backs time and space on the ball. It’s worked to varying success, though; Arsenal do look better when Song and Arteta rotate to drop deep to pick up the ball rather than Song on his own because it makes them harder to mark. Nevertheless, Arsène Wenger has indicated what could be a potential strategy for clubs against them and is taking steps to ensure his team is fully prepared.

“[Traditionally] when you play against a 4-4-2 the two strikers stop your centre-backs so the full-backs get the first ball from the goalkeeper,” said Wenger. “If your full-back gives ball back to the keeper or cannot get out of a tight situation you have to kick the ball forward.

“Against a 4-5-1, the trend now, the two centre-backs become more important as the full-backs are ‘blocks’ and the centre-backs get more of the ball. So the quality of their passing becomes very important.”

4. Another word on Arsenal’s wing-play

It’s a little bit strange to say that the wide forwards have been crucial to Arsenal’s game because, at the same time, they’ve yet to deliver as it’s been hoped. That’s probably down to the nature of the wide player as they generally tend to flit in and out of games because their space is often squeezed. Wenger has tried to keep their involvement going at all times by swapping sides when their impact wanes but we should note the differences of Gervinho and Theo Walcott’s roles. Gervinho is almost expected to be a striker tucked in on the left therefore he’s often left up the pitch so Arsenal can knick a goal on the break (although I feel he’s actually better on the right). Walcott, on the other hand, is given a more orthodox box-to-box winger role with Wenger admitting he’s instructed to do more defensive work. In a sense it’s like the front three at Barcelona; Villa on the left plays more direct and closer to Messi while Pedro hugs the touchline and covers for the right-full back.

04P84
Van Persie has admitted he has had to refine his game due to the increased number of crosses coming his way and against West Brom, The Gunners plundered in 34 crosses. Arsenal’s play was also generally skewed towards the right – the first image showing the passing in the first-half. Overall this season, Arsenal attack from the right 35% of the time compared to 31% from the left but that figure increases to 37% at home, with attacks from the left going down to 29%.

5. West Brom offer limited threat

If there’s one negative from the game, it’s the way Arsenal dropped their intensity levels in the second-half. The lead never looked in doubt but Arsenal could afford to learn from Barcelona by taking the sting off games with their possession. That’s how they defended in the first-half, suffocating the play in West Brom’s half so much so they didn’t concede a shot. In the second-half, however, Arsenal relented and offered West Brom a small peek back into the game – The Baggies were allowed to get runners forward around the box – but their threat was minimal. The lack of a focal point may have affected West Brom’s game but this was Arsenal’s easiest opponent yet.

04Yg3

West Brom had 10 shots in the game, all in the second-half. In the first-half they had none and you can see by the pass graphic how Arsenal squeezed their passing by not allowing them to penetrate the final third.

NB: A shout out also to the ever improving pair of Carl Jenkinson and Aaron Ramsey, who, due to time constraints, I couldn’t write about. But you can add your thoughts below should you wish.

Five points on Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal

In the end, it was the similarities between the two sides which resulted in such an open encounter. Which is strange to say considering past meetings when Arsenal and Chelsea face has been decided by their differences.

The millions pumped in by Roman Abramovich already indicates an uneven playing field and on the playing field the contrast is evident; it’s usually a battle between aesthetes and results, between romanticism and pragmatism. However, this season’s hiring of Andre Villas-Boas – the deviator from Jose Mourinho’s team of brutal perfectionists – indicates that Abramovich wants to change that image. And in Saturday’s encounter at Stamford Bridge, Villas-Boas attempted to go toe-to-toe against Arséne Wenger for attacking football but ended up looking a bit naïve. Here are some observations from the 5-3 win over Chelsea.

1. High line + lack of pressing = recipe for openness

The defending of both sides presented another opportunity to belittle the use of a high-line but it was the combination of that – and not on it’s own – and a lack of pressing which led to a hectic encounter. Put simply, you cannot play a high defensive line without pressing because it invites the opposition to make passes through the backline. Both sides did that constantly and getting the wide men beyond the back four was a common sight but it was Arsenal in the second-half who reacted, getting tighter to stop the passes out wide and playing a bit deeper (see figure 1). Chelsea, on the other hand, continued to allow Arsenal to get through.

 

03HjS<Figure 1>Arsenal allow Chelsea to pass it deep in the first-half with relatively little pressure but that only invites Chelsea to exploit through the channels. In the second period, The Gunners drop deeper and get tighter, blocking the combination play out wide from developing.

The lack of pressing can be displayed by the goals. For the opener, Arsenal dropped off and allowed John Terry to play a diagonal wide to Juan Mata and his resulting cross was met by the unmarked Frank Lampard. He was afforded a free run at goal because Arsenal sat off early on in the build up and when the long ball was played, the midfield was left marking space, ignoring Lampard’s run. In the second-half, The Gunners got much tighter and stopped those runs having any effect. Chelsea, however, didn’t react and the goals they conceded were of a similar vein. They were often too late to close down and Arsenal were able to get runners beyond. Vitor Pereira, Porto’s new coach and Villas-Boas’ number two last season, says he most differs from the Chelsea manager in their philosophies in the defensive; Villas-Boas is more passive while Pereira is much more aggressive at winning the ball back.

AC Milan set the benchmark under Arrigo Sacchi in the late eighties/early nineties playing a high defensive line (even if the offside laws were favourable) because of their structural pressing. Both Arsenal andChelsea may have tried to be compact in their own halves but their relaxed closing down ensured both sides invited each other forward. Nevertheless, it’s a balance that not only they have had trouble with this season; Manchester United have allowed the most shots because they don’t press intensely AND play a deep line, affording space for opponents between midfield and defence. Manchester City have perhaps got this balance most right, having at least five men back at all times.

As The Short Fuse put it so well on Saturday, “playing a high-line without pressure, though, is hazardous at best and defensive suicide at worst.”

2. The new Arsenal arrives

If it wasn’t instantly obvious how Arsenal would adjust after Cesc Fábregas early on in the season because their passing was soporific and not incisive, it was made apparent here. They played with lots of speed when in possession while Gervinho and Theo Walcott were the perfect foils for Robin van Persie. Arséne Wenger is willing to keep his three forwards up the pitch in order to make Arsenal more dynamic and while it may leave them defensively exposed at times, it can make them devastating at times. Chelsea do the same thing but the difference between the two sides were shown; The Blues’ front three are more crafty and creative while Arsenal, with van Persie in particular, can be unpredictable and erratic but were brutally effective.

03HrS.png<Figure 2> Arsenal v Chelsea successful/unsuccessful dribbles

3. Laurent Koscielny shines once again

Another game and another excellent performance by Koscielny. His rise has been remarkable and it seems he has finally adapted to the vagaries and subtleties of the Premier League. On Saturday, he made dominant showing, most impressively making 8 interceptions. His partnership with Per Mertesacker works because they complement each other well as the stopper and the sweeper which allows Koscielny to use his intelligence to get into position. If, as expected, Thomas Vermaelen comes straight back in, Koscielny may have to adapt his game because the two are very similar. They are Arsenal’s two best central defenders but is it the best partnership? (We think so).

03MxV

<Figure 3> Koscielny interceptions

4. Mikel Arteta gives Arsenal stability

If it wasn’t instantly obvious how Arsenal would adjust after Cesc Fábregas early on in the season because their passing was soporific and not incisive, it is now because of Mikel Arteta. It’s true, he would rather keep it simple than play defence-splitting passes – his pass for van Persie was his first assist – but by keeping the ball moving, he helps Arsenal sustain the pressure. His defensive work can also go understated, by not only helping Arsenal to recycle the ball from the back but also holding his position and allowing Alex Song (for Andre Santos’s goal) to add drive going forward and Aaron Ramsey to revel higher up. The Welshman made his best performance to date and you can’t help but feel it was made possible by Arteta’s presence.

03MyV

<Figure 4> Mikel Arteta’s pass completion was at 94%.

5. Arsenal keep Mata quiet…sort of

There was much talk about how Johan Djourou would cope with Juan Mata but it turned out to be a team responsibility. In the first-half, he was fantastic, drifting all over the pitch (although he left his team horribly exposed in defence) and in particular, doubling up on the right. However, in the second-half, Arsenal got tighter and stopped him from getting space on the flanks. The Gunners blocked the easy pass to the flanks and Mata’s influence waned. Apart from his brilliant strike to make it 3-3 that is.

03bDW

<Figure 5> Juan Mata’s involvement in both halves. Notice, in the first-half, how his involvement was purely creative, drifting into pockets to get on the ball. In the second-half, he was more frustrated. He still had his only two chances in the game late on and could have added to his belter has his shot not be cleared off the line.

Arsenal’s defence must overcome its mental barriers

Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham City (League Cup Final) ~ Fuuuuuuccckk part II

So the monkey on Arséne Wenger’s back remains. On Sunday, it was viciously clawing and grasping onto Wenger’s shoulders, trying desperately to keep balanced; especially so after Arsenal dominated the middle period of the second-half, aiming shot after shot at Ben Foster’s goal. Today, it rests happily on his back, chain-smoking like a simian Zdeněk Zeman casually wearing a porter’s uniform as if waiting for work – without the trousers, of course. On Wednesday night, it will surely be back to its taunting best, furiously pointing and gesticulating at the manager who faces an FA Cup replay at home to Leyton Orient.

Six years it’s been without Arsenal lifting a trophy and it is a monkey Wenger will want to get off his back. Perhaps not desperately because modern football is about staying competitive but it remains a major objective for his iconoclastic side and the 2-1 League Cup defeat remained its best chance. Key matches in the FA Cup and the Champions League are yet to come, not to mention the league where the holders play the leaders tonight. With the loss, Arsenal has become now, perennial failures, having overtaken Manchester United in the domestic cup loses count with 12 defeats and the most recent cup failure had a bit of fatalism about it.

Birmingham City boss Alex McLeish, set up his team to try and exploit what he saw as Arsenal’s flaws as he packed a midfield with runners, backed up by a menacing technician on the right-wing in former Gunner, Sebastian Larsson to aim balls forward to beanpole striker Nikola Zigic. In the end, they may have accrued less possession and were visibly shattered at the back but McLeish knew, because of their direct style, could always create a chance It was up to Arsenal then, to be more effective with the ball – they only completed half the job having notched up 58% of the ball possession – but lacked the cutting edge of Cesc Fabregas or even Theo Walcott. Abou Diaby’s powerful runs would surely have made a difference even but Wenger decided not to risk him in the squad and opted for an adjustment up top after Robin van Persie’s injury.

The second job to negate Birmingham’s strategy, was to press quickly but the hectic nature of the English game can make that difficult. Birmingham were able to escape with one quick release and the fact that Arsenal don’t press as high up the pitch as last season left Barry Ferguson and the back four relatively unopposed. The long ball tactic also meant it was more difficult to get organised as the team would have to rush back into position straight after attack, so knock downs and loose balls would almost exclusively have to be picked up by the defence and Jack Wilshere and Alex Song. Tomas Rosicky was often too high up the pitch to make a three which would have made a great deal of difference to Arsenal as it was already outnumbered in the centre.

And the third task and perhaps the most simplistic instruction on paper, was to win challenges in the air. Initially, Laurent Koscielny tried to stick to Zigic like glue but the Serbian kept on peeling off his markers and when he began to win an increasing amount of headers, doubts crept in. And that, in a nutshell sums up the problem with Arsenal’s defensive strategy, if indeed it is a problem. Wenger has long been criticised for not purchasing another a commanding centre-back and consequently an experienced goalkeeper and that supposed intransigence, cost them the trophy. But can it be as easy as that?

In the goalkeeping department, perhaps more pragmatism should have been taken because it is the most mentally frail position. But at centre-back, it is more complicated than that. Improved fitness, thereby exposing technique and mobility makes “no-nonsense” defenders obsolete. Footballers must be all-rounders and those defenders that are usually described as the aforementioned – John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Vidic – are adept at all parts of the game. Initially Vidic had a uncomfortable transition to the English Premier League but now regularly completes 5-10 passes in the oppositions half while Terry is a fantastic two-footed passer of the ball. Yes, football may still be specialised, but in each position, a player must compose of a multitude of traits.

Arsenal’s centre-backs in the past few years have been on the passive side but the current four, and given that two are in their début season, like nothing more than to put their head on the ball as well as their foot. The mix up between Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny may go down as a communication error and one that highlights the embryonic partnership between the pair rather than meekness. When Wenger did enter the club, he inherited the best back four in the country and so it is to some surprise that he has neglected the battling qualities of the old guard of which he talks glowingly about. But lets not forget also, he signed, possibly the most gifted of the lot. Sol Campbell was boisterous on the pitch and displayed a fantastic all-round ability, no less displayed when he made his comeback to the team last season, at 35 years old and was forced to defend on the half-way line against both FC Porto and Tottenham. Who could have, however, fathomed that he had a mental frailty that he suddenly released in between his two spells? and certainly, what could Arsenal have become did he stay and inspire the class of 2007-08?

Campbell’s reincarnation, however, also shows that some pragmatism may be allowed in the centre-back position even given the expansive nature of Arsenal’s style. Wenger, as the psychologist Jacques Crevoisier who has devised customised personality tests for the manager, explains, wants “above all…intelligent players. To play for Arsenal you have to be intelligent, technical and fast.”

The difficulty then becomes obvious in building a team like Arsenal’s and trying to find a balance between technique, speed, efficiency, dynamism, possession, mental strength and height. Every team must have a weakness. Barcelona has conceded half of their goals from set pieces as height becomes an issue in trying to produce a technical level of football. Brazil may achieve this because as Dunga says, “it’s about the Brazilian population because the height is increasing and this brought a good stature and physical agility.” But on the whole, it’s generally difficult. Chelsea or Manchester United may be closer to getting there but it come as a sacrifice on ball-hungry possession keeping and an intricate style.

As a compensation perhaps, although, Arsenal does practice set-plays and practice, does indeed, make perfect, Arsenal has concentrated a lot on strategic defending. This season, it’s been awe-inspiringly integrated and one that is so dependent on the unit that one chink in the system can affect the whole. If the distances between the back four and the midfield and consequently, the midfield and the attack are too large or too small, the press will fail. The mantra is to win the ball back and that comes through structural pressing and the use of Dutch priniciples of through-marking. (Through-marking sees the players behind the first presser looking to eliminate the next pass through tight-marking and close attention). As Andoni Zubizarreta, the director of professional football at Barcelona says, “strategic defending has nothing to do with height.” But he adds – almost as a caveat – a point one which is perhaps the most pertinent to Arsenal: “But defensively, it’s a good team, and it’s not as if we’re an English team, who are always physically more powerful. We might pay for that in some games.”

Modern football reaches a pantheon. Arsenal prevails in attack vs attack

Arsenal's Johan Djourou, at left, with teammates Alex Song, centre and Emmanuel Eboue, at right, challenge for the ball with Barcelona's Lionel Messi during a Champions League, round of 16, first leg soccer match at Arsenal's Emirates stadium in London, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Tom Hevezi)

Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona (First Leg)

This was a match where every detailed seemed to matter just that bit more. Every pass was stressed. Every shot was scrutinised. Every contested challenge, dribble and interception was crucial. Every bounce of Lionel Messi’s hair. The timing of Theo Walcott’s runs. Refereeing decisions. Pep Guardiola’s catwalk struts down the touchline. Every unscrewing of Arsene Wenger’s bottle cap. Every inch Victor Valdes left exposed at his near post. Every substitution. Each moment of ascendancy had to be taken. Those were the margins and fortunately enough, a huge dose of Lady Luck went Arsenal’s way also.

Barcelona played Arsenal off the park for the first forty-five minutes. Or so it should have been. Lionel Messi was sensational in dropping deep and collecting possession then running at Arsenal’s back-line. But Arsenal tried it’s darnest to limit his threat and for keeping it 1-0 and sticking religiously to their gameplan, it nevertheless must go down as a fantastic first-half effort. After the break, however, Arsenal ramped up their intensity and it was Barcelona who looked like they may buckle. Granted, Pep Guardiola’s side had plenty of the possession but that was expected. The Gunners continued to play pro-actively, undeterred by their so-called superior’s level of technical ability. And for that the game must go down as the best of the modern era. Manchester United and Chelsea in the Champions League in 2008 may have been a compelling advert for the speed and power of the evolving game but this was how football should be played: with an unerring technical accuracy, tempo and tactical complexity.

But it is more significant given that Arsenal has beaten the best team of the current generation and one who is light-years ahead of the rest because of the philosophy bestowed onto them by Johan Cruyff (although their financial ethics must be questioned). Whenever anyone has played the Catalan giants, they almost certainly contest in one way; to defend deep and look to counter attack and all with an air of inevitability and fear. Only Villarreal has deferred from the modus operandi but it has only served to highlight the difficulties of facing Barcelona at their own game. “You’re always on the border of collapsing against them,” said Arsène Wenger, after last night’s 2-1 victory and it seemed like it may go that way for Arsenal as well after they made a fantastic start to the game in the first ten minutes. Somehow a good ten minutes becomes a positive thing when facing Barcelona.

Arsenal fought fire with fire and although the possession count was a superior 66%-34% to Barcelona, it was not as if The Gunners tried to concede possession to their opponents. Arsenal pressed and squeezed Barcelona. It worked but at the same time, failed to work also. Messi had a fantastic chance when he chipped wide when one-on-one with Wojcjech Szczesny and had a goal disallowed for offside. But the highly integrated, highly compact pressing from Arsenal, which at most times was never 25 metres apart from the first line of defence to the last, constantly broke up play.  Arsenal’s best play was mostly on the turnover but fortune favours the brave and as a result, they also had their fair share of possession. Jack Wilshere in particular was so impressive that he never gave the ball away in the first-half. He had a composure in front of defence beyond his years and a discipline which was crucial to the moment. The central midfield pair delegated roles accordingly, as Alex Song continued charging for the ball, knowing that he was the better tackler and Wilshere the better circulator.

Arsenal did get a bit of joy when defeating the first line of Barcelona pressing which consisted on Pedro, Messi and David Villa. The threesome tried to close the defenders down high up the pitch but if Arsenal bypassed it, they found space down the wings because it exposed Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the middle. Emmanuel Eboue galloped up and down while Samir Nasri had Dani Alves in knots at times. But by also keeping the front three high up the pitch and the keep ball that Barcelona are capable of, it sucked Walcott and Nasri, in particular, centrally and Alves himself continued bombing up and down.

Arsenal’s strategic defending

It is true Messi had a barnstormer in the first-half but he was eventually squeezed out for big periods in the second. Lethargy had a part to play but also, Barcelona cannot really be asked to defend for 90 minutes and against a team like Arsenal, it was also going to concede chances on the break. Arsenal’s tactic was as it has always been this season; strategic defending that incorporates the Dutch principles of through-marking and winning the ball back quickly. Through-marking sees the players behind the first presser looking to eliminate the next pass through tight-marking and close attention. It is highly dependent on the structure and distances between players and Arsenal’s 4-4-1-1 in the press, which was Arrigo Sacchi-esque, ensured the team could match up well numerically. Laurent Koscielny typified the strategy as he continued to nick the ball away from the Barcelona attackers.

Much was to be made of the two central defender’s style before the game and by the end, showed that their style of winning the ball back quickly, which has been the mantra of Arsenal’s defensive strategy this season, was a masterstroke. The high-line got them in to trouble on occasions but apart from a Messi miss and a lack of concentration from Gael Clichy, it worked to great effect. Villa tried to take advantage by getting in between Johan Djourou and Koscielny and in that one instance, it worked.

a-v-barca1

<Figure 1> Arsenal’s defensive outline. Arsenal squeezed the play, looking to stop Barcelona from playing their game. Their backline was adventurously high and that meant at most times, a distance of 25 metres between attack and defence.

messi-a-vb

<Figure 2> Lionel Messi’s completed passes. Arsenal’s compactness shows in Messi’s passing graph. The Argentine had a free striker role and dropped deep to collect possesion but Arsenal tried not to let him get into the final third. (Courtesy of Zonal Marking and Total Football iphone app.)

kos

<Figure 3> Arsenal Interceptions (Courtesy ofSleepy_Nik and and Total Football iphone app.)

In the second-half, Arsenal was more effective, more tighter and this allowed the side to comeback in the fashion that they did. Robin van Persie’s goal had a bit of good fortune but the build up was just what Wenger would have wanted. Quick passing, quick interchange and dynamic movement. Clichy’s dinked pass had Gerard Pique a bit flat-footed, enough for van Persie to exploit. Andrey Arshavin’s goal was even better as an interception at the edge of their own box started a crisp counter attack which saw two great passes by Wilshere and Cesc Fabregas to free Nasri and he showed fantastic composure to tee-up Arshavin to place home.

Much was made of Guardiola’s substitution of David Villa for Seydou Keita. In one sense it was defining but you could understand his reasoning. Barcelona was losing the dynamism and potency that their possession game is famed for and as a result Villa was kept quiet. He wanted to retain control and defend via possession; however, it only served to hand some initiative to Arsenal. Wenger was spot on with his substitutions which saw Nasri just hold his position deeper with Fabregas also dropping back and Nicklas Bendtner replacing Walcott. Guardiola’s tactic, however, also showed his flaws as he wanted to make a artistic impression when the game should have been killed off –  to teach an educational lesson with their belief in keeping the ball on the floor and moving at all times.

“We made more chances and in general terms, we have had a very good game,” said Guardiola. “But Arsenal is good at playing the position and exposing the weaknesses. When they get past the first pressure line, they are very fast. For many years they have set an example in Europe.”

The return leg at Camp Nou promises to be special and judging by the last three games against each other, the first-half will be crucial. But right now, Arsenal can celebrate even though the game is only at the halfway point. They have beaten the best team in the world and in a style that never at one moment, betrayed their own. This was a game where ascendancy had to taken. Where every moment was crucial. When football reached a pantheon. When Arsenal prevailed in attack versus attack.