Eight points on Arsenal 2-1 Sunderland

Isn’t it nice to have normality for once? In a sense, this was a typical Arsenal home performance. They dominated the first quarter of the match and for all the world looked like their technical superiority will run wild before a chronic aberration before half-time contrived to throw open the game. The rest of the match is then played in the attacking half as Arsenal push forward in search of the winner. Robin van Persie provided it and also opened the scoring, taking his tally in 2011 to 23 goals in 25 games. It’s a fantastic return but one that highlights the imbalances of this Arsenal side, namely the reliance on their captain. Here are some observations from the 2-1 win over Sunderland.

1. Little Mozart pulls the strings

Arsenal showed great link-up and interchange in the first 25 minutes and much of the reason why was the ambiguity the midfield three played with. Mikel Arteta often dropped deep to pick up the ball thus allowing Alex Song to push up while Tomáš Rosický roamed. As a result Sunderland found it difficult to mark. They matched up in the centre in terms of formations, both sides playing a variant of the 4-3-3 although Sunderland’s was much more defensive; a 4-5-1 in fact. Rosický in particular, revelled from the extra movement around him and was key in the first goal. He gave Arsenal an urgency on the ball and as displayed by his passing graphic, made a number of passes in the final third. It’s a shame he couldn’t sustain it but that was perhaps expected, having come off a gruelling international schedule. Nonetheless, his replacement, Yossi Benayoun, showed spark after coming on. Most encouragingly though, is Rosický’s with Arteta which looks very impressive.

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2. Reliant on Robin?

There are some statistics which suggest Robin van Persie has had to play more orthodox this season (such as no. of dribbles, dispossessed) although they’re not as revealing as his main stat; the goals he has scored. 51% of Arsenal’s league goals in 2011 have come from the Dutchman and he looked Arsenal’s best chance of scoring on Sunday. He’s crucial to the way Arsenal play but the team might not be as reliant on van Persie as the statistics seem to suggest. That’s because Arséne Wenger simply hasn’t given as much game time to his other strikers, tending to stick to what works. And that means more minutes – and invariably goals – for van Persie.

3. Mikel Arteta: the new Denilson

But only better. Arséne Wenger may have searched long and hard for a replacement for Cesc Fábregas but his most taxing search has been looking for a second-function midfielder to give security to Arsenal when they attack. After Gilberto, Flamini, Denilson, Diaby and Wilshere have all played that role while Melo and M’vila had been heavily linked and Arteta is the newest name on the list. He gives Arsenal “technical security,” as Wenger said after the 1-0 win over Swansea but he has measured his sharp passing with discipline, something which Arsenal sorely need.

Replace Denilson with Arteta in this quote Wenger made in 2009 of the Brazilian on loan at São Paulo but make sure you repeat the caveat “only better” when you finish.

Denilson Arteta gives us stability. Because we’re a team that goes forward, we need to win the ball back in strong positions and he contributes to that. He’s a good passer and keeps it simple – which is always a sign of class.”

4. Arsenal’s biggest flaw

Sunderland came back into the game with 25 minutes gone and by the end of the half, could have went into the interval leading. Lee Cattermole’s header was superbly blocked by Wojciech Szczęsny after Sebastian Larsson had equalised and it came after a period of sustained pressure by Sunderland. They pressed Arsenal higher and effectively man-marked their midfielders ensuring any space to be found had to be hard earned. Not coincidentally, Arsenal’s pressing game relaxed – and it seems it’s a common occurrence in this part of the match this season – and this invited Sunderland at them. Arsenal’s biggest flaw has been their relaxed pressing – which in fairness has gotten better each game – which focuses on shape first before closing down. Sunderland felt that if they got tighter to Arsenal and press their midfielders, they could turn the game into a scrap. They succeeded in this period – and thankfully in this period only – to trouble Arsenal although it might be stressed, fairly sporadically. The boos at half-time seem to suggest otherwise, though.

03Q2LArsenal’s passes when they dominated in first-half (0-25mins) and when Sunderland pressed (25-45mins)

 5. Laurent Koscielny remains unsung

The player with the best aerial success in the Premier League? Tick. Arsenal’s heading woes may be well documented but Laurent Koscielny stands on the shoulders of giants in this regard….ahem, excuse the pun. His overall aerial success rate was at 86% before the game (12/14) and against Sunderland, he won 6 out of 7 of his challenges. He’s just as good on the ground too, often nipping in to steal the ball and making crucial interceptions but his covering of the full-back was his most impressive contribution on Sunday.

6. Carl Jenkinson’s party trick

He likes to cross it and he’s very good at it too, putting real bend and whip to his deliveries at the most times. Just as well Arsenal are the footballing equivalent of Ronny Corbett in the box.

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7. Emphasis on forward three after Cesc departure/Wilshere injury

In Wenger’s attempts to make Arsenal more dynamic, he’s willing to let the three forwards stay up the pitch. That means there can often seem to be a disjointedness between Arsenal’s attack and midfield – which is heightened greater by Cesc Fábregas’s departure. But because no-one, apart from Alex Song, perhaps, is fully comfortable making through-passes, the playmaker role is now shared. Dynamism then, is expected to come from the forward three who are given more license to move around the pitch. So far, Gervinho and Theo Walcott are yet to fire but ifthe three striker ploy works, as they tried in pre-season, it could be deadly.

8. Sunderland had van Persie’s free-kick coming

Without Jack Wilshere, Arsenal have lacked that somebody to suddenly change the impetus of an attack down the centre. In past games, Alex Song has attempted to replace his drive has but overall on Sunday, as a team, Arsenal showed more willingness to run at defenders. They constantly won free-kicks at the edge of Sunderland’s box due to the Black Cats’ incessant tactical fouling – which I’d argue is as bigger evil than diving. Arsenal won 12 free-kicks in their opponent’s half and used four different takers – Arteta, Walcott, van Persie and Santos – to try and take advantage. Van Persie’s superb free-kick – the 2nd best of the day however – was just deserts for Sunderland’s persistent fouling to stop potentially more  damaging danger from materialising.

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Useful men ship Arsenal to shape and help tame Tigers

Denilson and Diaby were key complementers to Arsenal’s defensive and attacking side of the game, helping the Gunners to a 3-0 win.
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In his playing days (and even now as the boss of Selecao), Brazil midfielder Dunga always seemed to be playing with the metaphorical middle finger up at his critics. Sneered despite his success, eventually leading the national side to World Cup glory in ’94, he just wasn’t Brazilian enough – European even, meaning helping achieve the end result was more important than how it preceded.

He was the ultimate volante – the destroyer – a hard tackler, constantly harrying the opponents and crucially, holding the team together so as to let them flourish. “I know there are things I can’t do on the pitch,” Dunga once said. “But there are other things which I think I do very well. And they are the things which help us get results. And that is what matters.”

Ironically, however, his style of play rather divides opinion like no other. The late Zizinho and star attacking midfielder in the 1950 World Cup, like much of his contemporaries, was rather critical of Dunga. In his autobiography in 1985, he wrote “the cabeca-de-area [midfielder who sits in front of the centre backs], a man who can control 70% of his team’s possession, has now been given the specific function of destroying, when it should be to set up the play” (quote referenced from Tim Vickery).

Arrigo Sacchi, the former AC Milan manager and revolutionary tactician, whose ideas rather unintentionally contributed, similarly agrees. “Many believe that football is about the players expressing themselves,’ he said. ‘But that’s not the case. Or, rather, it’s not the case in and of itself. The player needs to express himself within the parameters laid out by the manager.” And speaking in Jonathan Wilson’s book, Inverting the Pyramid about his brief tenure as Real Madrid’s director during the first Galactico era, he also added: “There was no project; it was about exploiting qualities,” he said. “So, for example, we knew that Zidane, Raul and Figo didn’t track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend.”

But that’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplier effect on the players’ abilities. In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them with y amount of specialists?”

The two questions Sacchi posed, can also be applied, albeit loosely, to Arsenal’s football. It was the Denilson’s goal right before the stroke of half-time which ultimately decided the remaining tone of the match against Hull City but he, Diaby and Song were also crucial in their roles as Arsenal assumed control of the game.

Denilson’s role in particularly is very intriguing. Playing in this game as the auxiliary midfielder, this season he has acted as the balancer alongside the now de facto holding player Alex Song. “Denilson gives us stability,” said Wenger. “Because we’re a team that goes forward, we need to win the ball back in strong positions and he contributes to that. He’s a good passer and keeps it simple – which is always a sign of class.”

For a team like Arsenal to work, the side needs players like Denilson and Song, the latter coming on leaps and bounds in his technical game. The Brazilian also representing a similar shift in his native country. Now many teams are playing with two volante, one purely holding and the other as a functionary midfielder, covering for gaps and giving stability in transitions and when the full back attacks. But it’d be harsh on Denilson to state he is a functionary player. An all-round midfielder is a more apt description and being able to perform many roles in one allows the team to flourish.

Back to the game against Hull and the side found it difficult to cut open a resilient and focused Tigers defence. Many would have chewed over what was a largely negative report of the first half from the mainstream press but in truth the away side made it difficult to play. It wasn’t until Denilson decided to take free-kick matters into his own hands when Arsenal could step up a gear as the midfielder’s free kick dipped into the bottom corner. Eduardo finished off a great move after a one-two between Diaby and Song before the former capped up a good win with a powerful move and finish after linking up with Andrey Arshavin.

Arsenal: Almunia, Eboué, Vermaelen, Gallas, Silvestre, Song, Denilson, Nasri (Ramsey), Diaby*, Eduardo (Walcott), Arshavin (Vela).
Subs Not Used: Fabianski, Sagna, Wilshere, Emmanuel-Thomas.

Hull: Myhill, McShane, Zayatte, Gardner, Dawson, Boateng, Garcia, Geovanni, Barmby, Hunt, Fagan.
Subs: Duke, Mendy, Kilbane, Ghilas, Cousin, Vennegoor of Hesselink, Olofinjana.
Referee: Steve Bennett (Kent).

Arsenal Team Statistics Hull City
3 Goals 0
1 1st Half Goals 0
4 Shots on Target 3
11 Shots off Target 4
5 Blocked Shots 2
8 Corners 0
9 Fouls 17
0 Offsides 4
1 Yellow Cards 5
0 Red Cards 0
83.5 Passing Success 71.2
27 Tackles 25
81.5 Tackles Success 68
65.3 Possession 34.7
53 Territorial Advantage 47

Denilson has risen from the shadows to take centre stage

Denilson’s performances in the centre of midfield have largely gone unnoticed with the stats showing the Brazilian as the Gunners’ top performer.
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At 16th place, he’s Arsenal’s best player this season according to the Actim Index stats which ranks players according their contribution to the team’s success. The more direct forward play one is involved in, the higher he ranks. Not just that, he’s the best interceptor in the the Premier League, the most accurate passer, fifth best tackler and the fourth most fouled player (OPTA stats). But while he’s a great number cruncher, Denilson has yet to get the recognition he deserves because his style is less crowd pleasing than his other teammate in the same position, Alex Song.

The Actim Index and Opta stats only includes actions that can be measured objectively therefore positioning, marking and balance cannot be quantified. Which is just as well as Denilson would surely have been placed much higher. An invisible wall in every sense, the Brazilian combines sound positional play with efficiency, linking up play whether sideways, forwards or backwards and covers as high a distance as any other Arsenal player.

Of course his job was made more difficult after the Gunners made an inconsistent start to the season. It could be described as a season of two halves; the first of which saw Arsenal looking to strike the right balance in their play after key personnel went missing, primarily playing in a 4-4-2. As a result Denilson was often left exposed to do most of the sweeping up and as Arsenal were not as strong in possession as last season, the ball was likely to come back more.

The second half was played in a 4-2-3-1 as Arsene Wenger looked to make up for the deficiencies of the first half, now trying to get the balance between attack and defence and focusing on getting the ball forward quicker. Denilson’s stats were just as impressive and even with an extra midfielder still assumed the main holding role.

Overall, he has managed on average 59 accurate passes a game this season and Song just 38 while Flamini last year made 47. Interceptions are counted as 146 (on average 4 a game) for the full season, 51 for Song (average 2.5 a game) and just 57 for Flamini (average 2 a game). On average Song made more tackles than the other two and the Cameroon midfielder showed why Wenger prefers him in central defence. Song had performed better against the more direct clubs such as Wigan and Liverpool as he is a player who is more comfortable at reading the play in front of him rather than around. Against the ‘weaker’ clubs (those who Arsenal played during their unbeaten run), Song played just as decently but has always assumed a supporting role to Denilson and Fabregas/Nasri.

The two players can be used where the situation best suits them; Wenger deployed Song in the second leg against Villarreal as he wanted the side to pressure higher up the pitch and win the ball back quicker. At Chelsea however, Song failed to impress. Although the tracking back in front of him wasn’t great, Denilson made nearly as much passes as him and twice as many interceptions in the 25 minutes he was on the pitch. The Brazilian has excelled in more technical games, preferring to use his his intelligence to nip the ball away and ensure the ball is always moving.

Matthieu Flamini’s statistics paint a bigger picture of the differences between this season’s Arsenal and last season’s. That season the link up play, movement and balance was better with the ball likely to stay in the opposition’s half more. With Hleb and Rosicky available for much of the season Arsenal were able to play their passing game with greater effect. Also just by a bit, Fabregas’ discipline was better as he went about picking the ball up deeper while Flamini’s role was about keeping the shape if the Gunners did lose the ball. This season, Denilson has had to contend with an inconsistent side hampered by injuries, the lack of team cohesion in defending and without such creative midfielders who owe much to the Arsenal style.

Arsene Wenger’s main priority next season must be about getting his side to become the expansive, ball-hogging side they were in previous years and the role of the defensive midfielder cannot be crucial enough. Denilson has come on leaps and bounds and although he still has much to learn, has shown with his performances that the position is in safe hands.

2008/9 Denilson (3,074 minutes)

Tackles won (includes aerial): 148 (average 4 per game)
Tackles lost: 81 (average 2 per game)
Pass interceptions: 146 (average 4 per game)
Accurate passes: 2,009 (average 59 per game)
Bad passes: 238 (average 7 per game)
Assists: 7
Goals: 3

2008/9 Song  (1,741 minutes in midfield)
Tackles won: 104 (average 5 per game)
Tackles lost: 50 (average 2.5 per game)
Pass interceptions: 51 (average 2.5 per game)
Accurate passes: 742 (average 38.4 per game)
Bad passes: 90 (average 5 per game)
Assists: 0
Goals: 1

2007/8 Flamini (2,665 minutes)

Tackles won: 102 (average 3.4 per game)
Tackles lost: 56 (average 1.9 per game)
Pass interceptions: 57 (average 1.9 per game)
Accurate passes: 1,321 (average 44.6 per game)
Bad passes: 100 (average 3.4 per game)
Assists 2
Goals 1

Denilson can rekindle the lost art of midfield tackling

Arsene Wenger may have bemoaned the lack of good tacklers these days but what are the reasons for the demise and does he have one right under his nose?
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“I see very few good tacklers nowadays,” said Arsene Wenger most probably reminiscing of the horrendous moment that ended Eduardo’ season and also Arsenal’s title aspirations at the same time last season. Tackling has been the talk of the Premier League in recent games with cards being dished out like confetti  for challenges where one must side with the Frenchman. Indeed a player Wenger identified as one of the lost breed of clever tacklers was involved in what was probably the worst tackle ever and one which even had his own team mate Michel Platini proclaim that he thought he was dead, because “he had no pulse and looked pale”.

Along with Patrick Battiston, Wenger bracketed Frenchmen André Chorda and Christian Lopez in the same category. “A good tackle is beautiful to watch because in the tackle the player is already making a pass, not just clearing the ball. Most of the tackles nowadays they go in blindly. When you do a good tackle you are relaxed because you master every movement.”

His description may seem fanciful and indeed looking at the profile of some  defenders, can fit quite a few in. Rio Ferdinand, Carvalho, Cannavaro (in the 2006 World Cup) and Pepe; in fact the trend nowadays is for central defenders to be mobile and technically secure. Even the arguably less aesthetically pleasing defenders such as Vidic and Terry are very adept at passing the ball. It is maybe not enough from these defenders that Wenger sees as they are not sweepers; the position the manager himself played but one which has since disappeared.

However the bulk of these rash tackles have featured midfielders with Wenger suggesting improved pitches are the reason for the lack of good tacklers. Players are able to control and turn more freely while it allows for better passing and movement. The greater technical emphasis has probably made having a specialised tackler more difficult because while they may be stronger at winning the ball back, hinder the teams passing momentum. Currently most teams play with deep lying playmakers in defensive midfield, able to initiate attacks and break down play just as the sweeper used to and with second strikers or playmakers.

Players in between channels are seen as the key to unlocking defences and one of the reasons for the demise of the box-to-box midfielder. “There are trends in football,” says former Roma manager Carlo Mazzone. “This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.”

“Today’s football is about managing the characteristics of individuals and that’s why you see the proliferation of specialists,” says former AC Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi.  ”The individual has trumped the collective. But it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reactive, not pro-active.”

“For example, we knew that Zidane, Raul and Figo didn’t track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend,” he said when talking about his stint as Real Madrid’s director of football . “But that’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplier effect on the players’ abilities. In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them with y amount of specialists?”

But such defensive midfielder’s can’t have everything. They must be able to pass, be tactically aware and strong in the tackle a difficult equilibrium to find. Sacchi believed in players being able to play a number of positions and hence do more and his AC Milan team played a high pressure game with the team defending in a organised defensive unit. “The trend is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball,” says Gerrard Houllier. Defending is such a way allows for greater balance especially as deep playmakers are converted attacking midfielders in some cases (Pirlo, S. Petrov, Murphy, Scholes, Denilson) and while there is more utilisation of the dual defensive midfield shield that allows organisation.

For Arsenal the departure of Matthieu Flamini has had a great effect;  hardworking and strong positionally and in the tackle as well. The only weakness was his limited technical ability but in his replacement, Denilson can offer more. Like all great defenders, at most times they are not required to even make a tackle to win the ball as his interception stats shows; the Brazilian is second only to Clichy in the league (109 to Clichy’s 118). Playing with much simplicity, Denilson is not the type of player one notices but the work he puts in is tremendous and is also able to initiate attacks. The boy from the favelas in São Paulo can be better and more expansive, but that will come with games and with quality players around him.

As Wenger says, there may not be too many intelligent tacklers but the player described as “a little bit in between Tomáš Rosický and Gilberto” can be the one to rekindle the lost art of tackling in the midfield.