Carl Jenkinson has risen to the responsibility

Carl-Jenkinson

Football players often talk about fulfilling “dreams”; as if the vocation they are already in isn’t one. But when they speak of fulfilling “dreams”, it often encompasses to some degree, a revision of the ones they had in their childhood: playing for the best team possible, winning your first international cap, or like a New Star Soccer game, progression from anonymity to super-stardom  beginning from the lower echelons of the football league to the team that you support. Of course, it rarely happens that way but for one player in particular, he can realistically say he is “living the dream”.

Two years ago, Carl Jenkinson was playing in the Blue Square Premier League with Eastbourne before he spent another loan spell at non-league side Welling United FC. He had barely played ten games for his parent club, Charlton Athletic, before the unexpected call from Arsenal came. It might have had something to do with former coach, Phil Parkinson, who spent a brief time at Arsenal after he was sacked although Arsène Wenger insists Jenkinson was under the radar for a while, particularly because of his stints with Finland U-19 and U-21. “It was a very steep learning curve for me,” says Jenkinson. “I believed I was capable of playing at the highest level, and sometimes it is about getting seen by the right people at the right time.”

Jenkinson was instantly thrust into the limelight in his début season and endured some difficult periods but this season, at the age of 20, he has matured into a dependable figure for Arsenal. In his latest matchagainst Montpellier at the intimate Stade de la Mosson, and particularly up against the intense pressure the team faced in the second-half,Jenkinson came out with a much-heralded performance. His low cross to assist Gervinho for Arsenal’s winner capped a superb all-round display.

Jenkinson‘s presence in the starting eleven has seemingly been steadier than his counterpart on the other side, Kieran Gibbs, who has caught the eye with marauding runs and his understanding with LukasPodolski. (Of Arsenal’s ten goals this season, eight featured build up from the left and only two towards the right). In some ways, that’sJenkinson‘s job; acting as a balancer for Arsenal as they press-on with more fruitful combinations on the other side. Indeed, one of the reasons for Arsenal’s defensive success this season has been the cautiousness of their full-backs.

The team worked on it extensively in pre-season but old habits just as quickly resurfaced when Arsenal entered the field for their first match of the season against Sunderland. As early as the eleventh minute, SteveBould noticed that twice, Sunderland had opportunities to score from attacks originating from fast breaks down the channels. Therefore, he instructed the full-backs to be more aware whenever they get forward. Thereafter, The Black Cats mounted no serious threat and of the 84 teams that played in the Football League and Premier League in the first weekend, they were the only side not to win a corner. Perhaps the cautiousness has suited Jenkinson because it was the area he was considered weakest – positionally – and in the tour of Asia against Manchester City, that was exposed. Can he show just how far he has progressed in a small space of time in the upcoming game against them? Certainly, the way Arsenal defend now, getting back into a compact 4-4-1-1 shape and the wingers double up have protected him much better.

There is, however, a flip-side to instructing your full-backs not to get forward as frequently. Because, as we know from last season in particular, when Arsenal were stripped of all of their natural full-backs, it has had a big effect on the team’s fluency getting forward. It was one of the reasons why Arsenal failed to get off the mark after their first two games of the season. Full-backs are now one of the most crucial positions on the pitch; they often start as the “free” man and also need to possess the all-round game to make a difference at both ends of the pitch. Arsene Wenger says “having a full-back who creates is an important part of winning.” Indeed, I’d put down Wigan Atheltic’s miraculous turnaround last season to the signing of left wing-back JeanBeausejour. Before he arrived at the club, Roberto Martinez used a central midfielder, David Jones, in that position. Before defeat to Swansea in March, they were hovering in the relegation zone; 11 games later, they had picked up 23 points out of33. In a strange way, JeanBeausejour gave the team balance and in that sense, we are seeing the same thing with Arsenal and their two full-backs this season.

Last season, I talked a lot about the bias Arsenal had towards the right-side and the subtle various it had on Arsenal’s play; the runs of TheoWalcott to break out of the triangles they created while the use of a right-footed winger on the left meant play tended to slant anyway. This season, Arsenal are using both flanks equally as much – indicating how well they are switching the ball from side to side – but it’s interesting to note *how* the build-up differs on each side.

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As we can see from the player influence diagram below and the pass graphics, the build up is deeper on the right-hand side than it is on the left. This might be for a number of reasons; (i) Thomas Vermaelen’s tendencies to step out thus allowing Gibbs to advance higher up the pitch; (ii) Per Mertesacker acting as the “stopper” therefore staying deeper while (iii) Mikel Arteta usually starts towards the right of the double-pivot. And (iv) Arsenal’s best combination play, between SantiCazorla, Lukas Podolski and one of the central midfielders, happens on the left.

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That difference between two flanks can be shown by the chalkboards of Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs in the game against Sunderland. (It’s the mirror image of last season where the build up generally started deeper on the left as opposed to the right. Click here to see example).

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Gibbs is allowed the freedom to get forward more easily due to more options around him. As a result, his passes are less frequent and involve a lot of “give-and-goes”. One might say the responsibility is considerably less in this regard for Gibbs as opposed to Jenkinson who is asked to be “out-ball” for Arteta or Mertesacker. By the same token, Jenkinson has a tougher task passing the ball out because he often has to go inside or back. As such, opposition might press him higher up the pitch. That was certainly the case against Montpellier Who doubled up on Jenkinsonwhenever Arsenal moved the ball wide. And because of Gervinho’s propensity to drift inside, he never really was an option for Jenkinson to pass to down the line. (Click here to open .PDF file to see average positions). Nevertheless, Jenkinson handled the pressure superbly and when he did get forward, he whipped the ball a fantastic ball forGervinho to score. It’s the one part of his game which he hasn’t quite delivered on this season although we know just how well he can cross it – Jenkinson has made 15 tackles so far in the Premier League, joint seventh with four other players – but just like the mantra that has pervaded the collective this season, Jenkinson realises that he has a job, first and foremost, to do for the team. And he’s quietly risen to the responsibility.

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Seven points on Arsenal 1-0 Queens Park Rangers

Robin van Persie provided the appropriate bookend to 2011, having scored both on the first day of the year and now on the last to give Arsenal a 1-0 win over Queens Park Rangers. Including and in between that time, he has plundered in 35 goals in 36 games making it a phenomenal return for the Dutchman. It’s perhaps inevitable he scored the goal that separated the sides and Arsène Wenger is happy to be both reliant on van Persie and boring – at least, in regards to the result – in this crucial period. As has always been the case, Arsenal had chances to score more than the one while QPR got into a number of promising positions but while their team selection sought to exploit Arsenal in transitions, they were ultimately lacking the sting to take advantage. Here are some (belated) thoughts on the game:

1. Wright-Phillips v Arteta

As touched upon, Neill Warnock named an intriguing side, playing in a 4-3-3 formation. But most interesting was the positioning of Shaun Wright-Phillips who played loosely on the right of central midfield. His role was to break forward quickly when QPR attacked and when they didn’t have the ball, he was detailed to engage the deep passer. In that instruction, he created a passive battle between he and Mikel Arteta.

The Spaniard straight away saw that Wright-Phillips was looking to press him up the pitch whenever he got on the ball so he often drifted towards the right to avoid his attentions. In making that decision, Arteta did the right thing as it encouraged greater rotation between him and Song thus initially allowing Arsenal to dominate. Wright-Phillips, though, remained QPR’s most influential player and despite not always being in direct confrontation with Arteta, it looked like their battle would go some way in deciding the game. Wright-Phillips, with his pace to break and enthusiasm to engage the holding midfielders or Arteta, whether he could get enough of the ball to find Arsenal’s forwards. Indeed, that’s how the goal came about.

Firstly, Wright-Phillips battled with Arteta to send QPR on an attack which eventually led to nothing. From the resulting goal-kick, he collected the ball in midfield but, following the attentions of Arsenal’s midfielders, proceeded to give it away. Andrey Arshavin picked up the loose ball and set van Persie on his way to score and ultimately win the game. As Arshavin tweeted after the game, “sometimes one ball is enough to get three points,” but he could just as easily have been talking about Wright-Phillips’ stray pass and not just than his own.

2. Full-backs stay back

While Arsenal created a number of chances – 18 according to WhoScored.com and winning 12 corners (which we feel is important in recognising a side’s attacking dominance) – they lacked in dynamism somewhat. Johan Djourou rarely made an attempt to discover the opposition half – which might have been a purposeful ploy because his cautiousness allows Theo Walcott to stay up the pitch – but it tends to limit the type of chances Arsenal make (section 4). The problem is that neither full-back is comfortable on the ball in the opponents half and is capable of stretching the play to provide overlaps thus Arsenal’s attacks always follow a certain pattern. On the other hand, Arsène Wenger has tried to compensate by looking to push Aaron Ramsey higher up the pitch and giving the two wide forwards more freedom while they are a more dangerous threat in the air. Wenger says it would be “stupid to drop points” because Arsenal are short of full-backs but that also highlights the delicacy of Arsenal’s play at the moment.

“We are a bit more cautious going forward because a centre back is not a full back,” Wenger recently told Arsenal Player. “Maybe we are a little bit more resilient defensively and a bit stronger in the air but overall it doesn’t change a lot and we still try to play out from the back with our passing game. It’s changed it a little bit.”

<Figure 1>Johan Djourou’s pass received chart shows he’s less involved in the game than Carl Jenkinson in a home fixture against Sunderland earlier this season. While Djourou only acts as a support down the pitch, Jenksin covers the whole flanks to provide overlap and an outlet to stretch play.

3. Francis Coquelin at left-back

Following the injury to Thomas Vermaelen, we saw Arsenal deploy the unfamiliar sight of Francis Coquelin at left-back. And the Frenchman did a good job at it too. Coquelin was positive, picking the ball up and looking to make things happen in the opponents half of the pitch. It shouldn’t be too surprising to hear that as Coquelin is a bold and confident character and the left-back position may just suit him as it’s more central midfield in its actions than at right-back (think Mathieu Flamini in 2005/06). Indeed, there might be a bit of Marcelo Bielsa-like thinking in using Coquelin more at left-back; his runs are generally more vertical and playing with a natural wide forward, he might be an interesting weapon. Sure, it’s not orthodox but that and the unexpectedness of it makes it an interesting option.

<Figure 2>In contrast to Johan Djourou, Francis Coquelin often looked to get high up the pitch. His drive was refreshing and attempted a few unorthodox passes.

4. How Arsenal chances were created

1. A pass from deep looking to get the strikers in behind

2. Aaron Ramsey’s modus operandi: a diagonal to the far post/wide forward

3. Set-piece

4. Robin van Persie

5. A rare moment of surprise/unexpectedness (Johan Djourou’s run to find van Persie) or mistake (the goal). (In that respects, Arsenal are perhaps lacking that dynamism in the dribble that Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby or Cesc Fabregas provided).

5. Theo Walcott makes great runs but fails to deliver

Closely chased down by Armand Traore, Theo Walcott would have felt the breath of the former Arsenal left-back, as well as the watching Thierry Henry down his neck. But just as he realised how close Traore was to him and the sheer pace with which he ran with the ball, Walcott’s touch was rushed and he scuffed his shot. It wasn’t a great day for the winger-come-striker and the frustration on his face was telling. It wasn’t without the want of trying, though, as he constantly found himself in good positions. Indeed, his runs were often fantastic, given the freedom of the touchline but like the whole Arsenal team, lacked the conviction in the final moments. Arguably, his near-open goal miss in the first-half was a worse miss, just highlighting the lack of confidence he has at the moment. On the other hand, Andrey Arshavin just couldn’t get himself in the game and was lucky that a stray pass was gifted to him for his assist. He’s been Wenger’s impact player but at the moment, that seems far from being proved right.

6. Per Mertesacker continues to show his quality

Little has been written about Per Mertesacker. He hasn’t quite been as spectacular as Laurent Koscielny who, bar a couple of rash challenges, was once again superb but he has been consistently solid. Mertesacker reads the game well; so well, in fact, that he rarely has to challenge (his stats show him to be quite passive in that regards). There are still misgivings about his pace but he doesn’t make that obvious because his positioning is excellent. Indeed, Arsenal have conceded the most goals in the league which have been attributed to mistakes and Mertesacker’s problems have generally been closer to goal than up the pitch. In the changing room, Mertesacker is a reliable aide to Robin van Persie but on the pitch, he has settled in quietly – which is how he would want it.

7. Robin van Persie has the last laugh

This time last year, Robin van Persie would probably looked straight in the eye of his calender and said “I want an injury free campaign and goals. Lot’s of goals. You are going to be my bitch.” And certainly, it has been his year, scoring a bucket-load of goals but what’s not been picked on as much is the truck-load of chances he’s had to score them. That shouldn’t be an indictment of his wastefulness as he still has a very good conversion rate (19%), taking 90 shots at 4.7 per game. But rather, we should be talking about how many chances he creates himself by his devastating moving or his sheer unpredictability. He has taken less of a creative role this season as Arsenal have changed their style but that has also been the story of Arsenal this year. Each time Wenger has implemented a series of tactical and strategic changes to their play, van Persie has adapted and consistently delivered the goals. Borussia Dormund coach, Jurgen Klopp, says he finds it amazing that a player who plays so deep in midfield can be such a danger in the box but you just have to study his movement to see why. Van Persie constantly peels of his marker, whether playing on the shoulder or picking up possession. And if he does pick up the ball around the box, all manner of things can happen. Which highlights the joy of Robin van Persie at the moment. Long may it continue. He’s deserved it.

Andre Santos adds a different dimension to Arsenal’s attack

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When hoping to get a glossary commissioned translating Anglo-French football terms, journalist Philippe Auclair realised just how under-developed England’s vocabulary was when it came to the beautiful game. Writing in the biography Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King, he says; “The French (and indeed, the Spaniards, the Italians and, believe it or not, the Germans) had at their disposal an arsenal of descriptive words and phrases which my English press-box colleagues had yet to coin.” To highlight his point, he says any piece of skill would generally be referred to as a “flick” whilst “nutmeg” springs to mind as perhaps the only skill to have been baptised.

The English lexicon is similarly unrefined in regards to football positions: a striker is a striker even if in a 4-4-2, one of those strikers drops deep to pick up the ball. Likewise, players are often strictly defined by their roles. For example, the common argument you hear today is that Alex Song cannot get forward because he is a holding midfielder. And indeed, that’s the same argument used against Andre Santos, who has been unfairly criticised for constantly looking to get forward to support the attack.

To be fair to Santos, he had rarely played at full-back for his club side, Fenerbahce, before signing (although he did for Brazil) so his enthusiasm to join the attack may have partly stemmed from that. However, in saying that, his forays forward have been selective and they only have the look of reckless abandon because when he does get forward, he tends to do so with the aim of maximising from the opportunity. Yet, the misgivings about his excursions up the pitch say more about the tactical sophistications of the English game than about Andre Santos’s deficiencies.

In Brazil, the full-back is known as the “lateral” which is perhaps misleading as although it gives the notion of width; it could just as well be misconstrued for the English definition of the full-back whose primary purpose is as a defender who defends across the back-four. However, in Brazil, the full-back is an integral part of attack and the term “lateral” indicates “a wide player, but not necessarily a defensive one,” writes Jonathan Wilson. This idea can be further elaborated by José Thadeu Gonçalves who, writing in the book, Principles of Brazilian Soccer (1998), highlights just how important the full-back is as an attacking capacity.

“One of the most effective ways to penetrate into the offensive zone during the game is utilizing the lateral parts of the field. Because of the excessive development of defensive tactics and the tremendous physical power of many teams, the only way to identify an open space in that zone by moving the attackers and the outside midfielders inside, carrying their marks, and opening space to the full-back moving forward to become the attacker responsible for the crossing.”

The quote has particular resonance to the scenarios Arsenal frequently face and you don’t need to go further than the last fixture against Fulham to see how The Gunners are often faced with deep-lying teams. Thus the attacking thrust of Santos becomes more significant and towards the end of the 1-1 draw with Fulham, he nearly created the winner.

Arsenal failed to get enough from their full-backs last season, particularly on the left. Gael Clichy’s performances, while not the disaster some fans have made out, didn’t really rise above the average. Defensively he was generally solid and particular when Arsenal pressed, he was magnificent but he tended to handle pressure badly and suffered from a lack of concentration which sometimes led to him giving away dangerous opportunities. In attack, though, he was not very effective and as a result, Arsenal suffered when breaking down defensive sides. It proved crucial towards the end of the season as a lack of creativity proved to be the downfall of their title challenge.

In defence, Santos is not the liability he’s made out to be. In seven matches in the league, he averages 4.9 tackles per game – the highest at the club – and makes the most interceptions too at 3.4 per game. The notion that he dives into tackles far too much is fair – as he can commit a lot of fouls – but it’s also a key part of Arsenal’s game. With every ball he wins back quickly, he’s initiating another attack, in a sense, similar to Alex Song who also commits his fair share of fouls but makes even more successful tackles. Risk comes with reward might be the mantra but as intelligent players, they are being selective also. Nevertheless, Santos has shown a composure on one-on-ones that is essential to Arsenal, especially playing on the left side as he does. And that’s because Arsenal have a bias to the right-hand side; 34% of their attacks start on that side as opposed to 31% on the left and that figure increases to 37% at home matches. The reason for the tendency to build up towards that side may be that Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey, two of the three central midfielders, are attracted the to the right whilst Theo Walcott is given a box-to-box role on the flanks. Gervinho, on the other hand – and on the other side – is afforded more freedom and generally stays up the pitch. Bearing that in mind, you might want to forgive Andre Santos if he ever does complain about the lack of protection he gets.

That difference can be shown by their chalkboards in the game against West Bromwich Albion; Santos had more of the ball deeper as generally he was isolated while Carl Jenkinson was allowed to get forward more easily due to more options around him. As a result, his passes are less frequent and involve a lot of “give-and-goes” while Santos often has to go inside for options and use his drive to influence higher up the pitch. Full-backs are generally the only players “free” on the pitch and Santos’ bursts down the left can leave the defence unaware just as when he did scoring against Chelsea and Olympiakos.

In the game against Fulham, however, and that may be the trend in the coming games as Arsenal are to play without a recognised right-back, Santos was expected to provide more of the width. Johan Djourou’s distribution was understandable more simplistic for a player in a make-shift position and as such, most of Arsenal’s play came on the opposite side.

Andre Santos, though, realises the differences between the English and Brazilian games and is learning quickly in order to improve the defensive side of his game. Arséne Wenger, however, signed Santos for his attacking capabilities and is not going to let the English game’s restrictive linguistics hold him back: “For me, having a full-back who creates is an important part of winning,” he said. “Take the Brazilian national team, the ones who have won trophies anyway, you will see that there is always two good full-backs. With two average full-backs they would not have won.” Arsenal already have one outstanding attacking full-back and it’s a shame Bacary Sagna can’t join him due to injury.

Eight points on Arsenal 1-1 Fulham

The argument that Arsenal are reliant on Robin van Persie would prove most conclusive when the Dutchman isn’t scoring goals, as opposed to when he is. So, in the first league match in seven games in which he has failed to score, are Arsenal reliant on Robin van Persie? That answer is probably yes although the overriding reason for Arsenal’s mute performance on Saturday seemed to be down to fatigue as well as Fulham’s obdurate defending.

Arsène Wenger admitted his team lacked accuracy in their passing and that proved crucial given Fulham defended as they did. Essentially though, Arsenal were too functional and the selection was in need of a little invention. Yossi Benayoun’s impressive cameos deserved a bigger stage while Abou Diaby was deemed not match fit to start – both players will surely take their starting births against Manchester City in midweek. As a result, Wenger pushed Aaron Ramsey up the pitch from the outset before the inevitable fatigue factor came into affect and he had a couple of chances himself to give Arsenal the lead. Robin van Persie had a shot cleared off the line but he was forced to take more of a creative role because Arsenal’s passing lacked urgency. The fact that Theo Walcott has laid on so much of his goals highlights just how Arsenal have changed; where it was once about quick passing around the box, they now procrastinate that movement before feeding the ball to the wide men to deliver. Thankfully, Walcott’s movement was good and given the opportunity to test John-Arne Riise, he impressed. The Gunners though failed to break down Fulham’s defence and the 4-4-2 in the second-half suited the urgency of the situation.

Fulham, on the other hand, have carved out a niche in recent years of being organised and tough to break down and despite the flurry at the end, were well worth the point. They would have preferred to play a more functional Arsenal and it showed; in the moments where passed with urgency they looked very good. Unfortunately, Vermaelen’s goal  and the sustained pressure soon after came much too late to force the win although they mustn’t be too unhappy at the result.

1. Aaron Ramsey plays the second-half from the beginning

A key feature of Arsenal’s second-halves – when they are searching for the win – has been to push Aaron Ramsey up the pitch and aiming to profit from his drive. But Wenger initiated that straight away against Fulham, indicating he had always had reservations about Aaron Ramsey’s fitness levels. The Welshman picked the ball higher up the pitch than normal but what was most notable was that he also pressed higher making Arsenal’s formation look more like a slanted 4-4-2 off the ball. But of course, Arsenal do not press intensely therefore the closing down was more about positioning and he did well to help create a barrier to stop the easy pass from midfield. As a result, Fulham had a lot of the ball just inside their half.

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Fulham matched Arsenal in possession in the first-half before The Gunners gradually grew more dominant. The relaxed pressing this season meant Fulham could have a lot of the ball in front of the defence with Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu happy to oblige.

Fulham matched Arsenal in possession in the first-half before The Gunners gradually grew more dominant. The relaxed pressing this season meant Fulham could have a lot of the ball in front of the defence with Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu happy to oblige.

Ramsey should have probably scored with one of the cut-backs he received but his movement continues to improve and it’s not gone unnoticed. Robin van Persie singles out his intelligent runs against Norwich: “He was a bit unlucky against Norwich as he should probably have been passed to on a couple of occasions when he’d shown great movement to get into good positions,” said van Persie. “I should definitely have given him one ball, looking at it again, and there were other times too. If he keeps going that, though, he’ll score goals.”

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Ramsey ensured he got on to the end of moves as well as starting them. His drive set the tone for the early exchange.

2. Arsenal miss Sagna. 3. And Fulham try to target that

The absence of Bacary Sagna hasn’t been made as obvious as it might have from a defensive viewpoint as Laurent Koscielny and on Saturday, Johan Djourou, have filled in with admirably. But it was from an attacking viewpoint as Arsenal hardly passed the ball our from deep on the right side.

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Fulham targeted Arsenal’s right-hand side particularly in the absence of Sagna. As a result, Djourou was denied possession from deep and Arsenal’s play was slanted to the left.

However, that’s not to say Djourou is poor on the ball. Rather, Fulham targeted him in the build up and the movement of Clint Dempsey constantly dragged him in the centre. What Martin Jol did well was to keep Dempsey up the pitch – almost as a left-ish striker thus denying Djourou from getting forward. His deployment was the reverse of a defensive winger; whereas someone like Dirk Kuyt (a defensive winger) would try and stop the attacking full-back influencing by tracking him all the way back, Dempsey stayed up the pitch to give Djourou second doubts about getting forward. Djourou couldn’t and he was under pressure each time he got forward. In the second-half, Fulham dropped back into their own half and the Swiss was more freely able to get forward. However, while his passing was surprisingly safe, he was unable to provide the overlap Sagna so typically provides. (Part of that may go down to the switch to the 4-4-2 thus making Arsenal more direct).

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Johan Djourou’s passes in either half.

4. Walcott impresses as a winger

The upshot of Fulham targeting Johan Djourou was that he was unable to support Theo Walcott and get on the overlap. As a result, Walcott was forced to play a more orthodox role and he performed that very dangerously. His cross led to Arsenal’s equaliser and along with the powerful runs of Andre Santos on the other side, he stood as Arsenal’s best chance of creating another goal.

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Theo Walcott received most of his passes on the touchline as John-Arne Riise gave him little space behind while the blocking of Djourou overlapping meant a lot of his early passes were backwards.

5. Bobby Zamora didn’t fancy Per Mertesacker

Per Mertesacker’s Arsenal career has been solid if not spectacular and being a novice, he might have expected to be given a more sterner test in Europe’s best league™. But so far, he’s been given an easy ride with Bobby Zamora choosing to play on Thomas Vermalen’s side instead. The battle between the two was intriguing and Zamora looked to have the last laugh when Vermaelen put through his own net. But the Belgian was determined to put that right and he came up with the winner after a run which went unmarked. (Surely, Zamora wasn’t expected to track him, was he?!) Fulham’s play generally slanted down Arsenal’s left, however, so perhaps that’s the reason why Zamora was mostly up against Vermaelen. But Mertesacker should expect busier afternoons than this.

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Bobby Zamora picked the ball up mainly on the left.

6. Fulham’s lack of adventure shows in Wojiech Szczesny’s kicking

“Good ball retention starts from the keeper” writes Zonal Marking but job is made easier if the opponent let’s you. Fulham were more than happy to let Szczesny play it short and he did, attempting only one long pass. Which, inevitably, was unsuccessful.

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8. Van Persie the creator

When Robin van Persie first assumed the no.9 position, he was thought to be unsuited to the role because he liked to dropped deep to pick up the ball. In the early parts of that tactical reshuffle, Arsenal profited from van Persie getting into space and playing his team-mates in. He did that again against Fulham, particularly in the first-half and he was unlucky his pass to Andrey Arshavin was ruled out for offside. He played a bit deeper, usually looking to give moves some impetus as Arsenal’s passing was, at times, too slow while Fulham defended deep to deny him any room behind. Mentally, Arsenal never looked fully focused in breaking down such a stubborn defence and the switch to 4-4-2 at the end was necessary. He still roamed around the pitch and Arsenal looked more urgent in the final ten minutes, van Persie still reminding everyone that he can perform a creative role if needed.

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Van Persie got onto the end of two crosses in his last game against Dortmund and generally ran the channels well. Against Fulham, with Arsenal playing with two players hugging the touchline, he tended to remain central.

Arsenal: Szczesny (6), Djourou (6), Mertesacker (6), Vermaelen (7), Andre Santos (7), Song (6), Ramsey (6), Arteta (6), Walcott (6), van Persie (6), Arshavin (5).
Subs: Fabianski, Diaby (6), Koscielny, Frimpong, Gervinho(4), Chamakh (4), Benayoun.

Fulham: Schwarzer (5), Baird (6), Hangeland (6), Senderos (6), Riise (6), Etuhu (7), Murphy (7), Dempsey (5), Ruiz (6), Dembele (6), Zamora (6).
Subs not used: Etheridge, Johnson (4), Kasami (4), Gecov, Hughes, Frei, Briggs.

Ratings breakdown: 1-3: Absolute stinker, 4: below par; ineffective. 5: par, average. 6: Above average; solid if unspectacular. 7: Impressive; good performance. 8-10: Substantial impact, match winning.

NB: Our thoughts go to Gary Speed and his family. Speed impressed me very much as a player and also a human being. I remember thinking, with a bit of luck, he could have achieved more in the early/mid nineties and not just his superb league title triumph with Leeds United. It was a dream for him to become Welsh manager, something you work your whole life for and for some reason – and I think his privacy deserves to respected at this moment – it was gone in an instant. May Gary Speed rest in peace.

Borussia Dortmund 1-1 Arsenal: BVB treat Arsenal to a taste of their medicine

In the end there were two Arsenals: the one from North London and the one from the westernmost region of Germany. Both teams tried to play the same way but for a long time last night, Borussia Dortmund out-Arsenaled The Gunners and did everything the way they would have wanted to. In the end, Arsenal will be content with the draw although it leaves with a bit of a sour taste due to the way it came; Ivan Perišić’s wonder goal from the edge of the box came on the 88th minute. For Dortmund though, it was a spectacular way to mark their return to the biggest stage but it was the way they played, that ensured that their return is warranted.

Jurgen Klopp’s side outclassed Arsenal but for profligacy in front of goal, we could have seen a different result. For much of the match they had The Gunners boxed inside – partly due to the way Arsenal were set up – but also because of asphyxiating pressure they put them under. Dortmund pressed – very hard – and it seemingly looked as if they wouldn’t let up. Indeed, they couldn’t because their game plan hinged on stopping Arsenal getting forward so that they themselves could spend as much time in the opponents half as much as possible. When it didn’t pay off – such as a spell of ten minutes in the second-half and around an hour or so – they panicked. But other than that, Dortmund were superb.

They pressed high up the pitch, never letting the defence play the ball out from the back and quickly putting pressure on Arsenal’s sole holding midfielder, Alex Song. They created a line when they didn’t have the ball and that made it hard for Arsenal to pass through. It was particularly effective when it got wide as they suffocated Bakary Sagna for space and closed down his passing options. At full-back, there’s a limited number of passing options you can make as the square ball to your stronger side is effectively null (because of the touchline). And whenever they got the ball, the movement was intelligent and incisive, Mario Gotze in particular was a handful, drifting in from the left but the real plus was the return in form of Shinji Kagawa who ran the channels very well as the “false 10”.

Arsenal’s problems, however, were as much self-inflicted as Dortmund’s mechanical pressing forced them. They played a high-line which BVB constantly sought to get men beyond but it was a lack of cohesion in front that was the real cause of the trouble. Arsenal’s 4-3-3 isn’t the real problem although in this game, there were valid assertions that they should have gone with a 4-2-3-1. Perhaps an available Arséne Wenger in the dugouts would have altered the team as he did in the second-half against Swansea. But the overriding flaw in Arsenal’s game is that it just doesn’t work – you can’t not press and play a high line at the same time – and for that you can accuse Wenger of tactical naivety. Maybe it’s just that; that he’s trying to account for his team’s youthfulness that sees him focusing firstly on shape before they press but that merely invites the opposition at them.

At Signal Iduna Park, Arsenal allowed Dortmund to stride forward with ball from the back and as the midfield attempted to organise itself in their own half, the back four pushed up at the same time. As a result, the two nearly collapsed on top of each other to become one indistinguishable band.Dortmund pushed their full-backs further up the pitch penning Arsenal in their own half and that meant the formation almost became a 7-3. As it showed; you can’t not press and play a high a line at the same time; they’re two incompatible beings.Dortmund showed how it should have been done, pushing the excellent Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic forward and the midfield and attack pressing high up the pitch as a unit. Sebastian Kehl’s error for Arsenal’s goal showed the risks an expansive game has as ironically, it was one of the few times Arsenal closed down high up the pitch that the opener came from. Theo Walcott’s pass to find Robin van Persie after a neat interchange was wonderfully weighted.

That was one of the few good moments from Arsenal and considering the pressure they were put under, they defended with their backs-to-the-wall superbly. And at periods their passing was snappy and direct but that was mixed with some woefully inaccurate ones too. Strong individual performances go to Laurent Koscielny and Song who recovered from nervy starts while Mikel Arteta showed the assurance Arsenal need technically as well as tactically even if it wasn’t the dominant performance he was signed for.

However, despite the nature of the performance and the end result, the fact that a second anxious game in a row didn’t result in a defeat will see Arsenal’s confidence grow. If that keeps happening, Arsenal will surely recover their former glories. And who knows, maybe then they will reach the level that Borussia Dortmund showed in UEFA Champions League Match Day 1!

Dortmund press Arsenal’s full-backs and the problem with Wenger’s defensive strategy

Pat Rice cannot wait for the return of Arséne Wenger to the dugouts – the manager still has one game remaining in his touchline ban from UEFA – and it’s easy to see why having put through a stern examination of his coaching credentials that he didn’t want. While against Udinese the comfort of the early goal dictated the encounter, he got no such assistance away to Borussia Dortmund as Jürgen Klopp sought to impose his style as quickly as possible. And they did, creating an overwhelming swirl of yellow and black around Arsenal in possession. It was a strategy that earned them many plaudits last season and while they haven’t made the best of starts this year, they aimed to put that right against Arsenal, the team that in the past, have been the model of the tireless, high-intensity and rapid passing game they displayed on Match Day 1.

The players were turbo-charged from the off; indeed the popular image of Borussia Dortmund today is that of the “Duracell Bunny”, the wind-up rabbits that front the promotion of the battery manufacturer’s products and Dortmund certainly lived up to their metaphor. They hounded Arsenal on the ball at the back so much so you could see the gears in The Gunners mechanics clicking and stuttering into place, trying to find a solution. Should the midfielders drop back or push forward to counter/negate the press? Or should the centre-backs risk Arsenal’s philosophical game and pass the ball long? Because, as magnificently as Dortmund did press, it’s been a ongoing problem that Arsenal have had to contend with.

Tuesday night’s troubles were indicated in pre-season when SL Benfica did well to stop Arsenal playing in part although The Gunners reacted well when Alex Song tried to evade the attentions of his marker by moving left and right, allowing his partners to pick the ball from deep instead. Unfortunately Arsenal didn’t do that enough at Signal Iduna Park, with Mikel Arteta only receiving 23 passes. Contrast that to Song, Arsenal’s main outlet from deep, who received 33 passes. Arséne Wenger’s answer usually is to push his midfielders up the pitch when opponents close down but that was similarly problematic as all it did was lessen the options the defenders can pass to so they were forced to pass it amongst each.

“The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager. “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, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that 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.”

Dortmund know Arsenal won’t play very long; indeed, perhaps therein lied another issue. The Gunners stretch the play length-wise, up the pitch but don’t laterally. We know how Barcelona stretch their two centre-backs across the pitch at the start of attacks so that it increases the distance that the opponents can get compact. As a result, a midfielder can then drop in as they’ll have more space now. Manchester United did that well against Benfica last night and the fact that their play is naturally wide made it difficult for the Portuguese side to squeeze the play.

Pressing of full-backs

With all the talk about how well Dortmund played, Arsenal actually had more possession in the first-half. The selection, Benayoun ahead of Frimpong suggested Wenger would try and dominate through possession. Klopp realised this too so he set up his side to work very hard off the ball and when they got it, work the channels to try and get in behind. In fact, Dortmund were content with letting Arsenal’s centre-backs pass the ball, especially Per Mertasacker, who they thought may have more chance fumbling with time on his hands while the more competent passer, Laurent Koscielny was afforded less due to Mario Götze’s tendencies to drift in. As a result, there was a slant towards the left-hand side and Bakary Sagna, the right back, found it was him who was put under the most pressure.

Dortmund’s pressing usually starts when the ball moves towards midfield or out-wide to the full-backs although the two forwards created an initial barrier that stops the easy pass going through. BVB did this very well, creating a line and getting tight when the centre-backs had the ball but when the ball reached the full-backs, ramped up their efforts to close down thus making it hard to start moves off. And certainly, with the success that they had, you wonder why more teams don’t do the same particularly because of the way the game has developed, the full-back has most time on the ball and often start moves off. At the end of the game, both Sagna and Kieran Gibbs made the most passes for Arsenal but by denying them time on the ball, they were unable to influence and spread play wide effectively – their main avenue of attack this season. (Alan McInally, co-commentating for Sky, observed how often Arsenal were forced to play the ball back to their defenders).

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<Figure 1> Bakary Sagna was targeted by Dortmud’s pressing, particlarly early on. Whenever the ball reached the wide areas, he was instantly surrounded and making it difficult to find a pass through. The tactic was very effective in the first-half when Arsenal tried to get on the offensive so much so, it’s a wonderment more teams don’t do it more often. Full-backs have such a prominent role in a building attacks and the fact that they stopped him getting forward, affected Arsenal’s game. The knock on feature in pressing a full-back is that it then limits the angles he can pass the ball. Here, Sagna is not offered a 360 degree vision as the side to his stronger foot is closed off due to the touchline. He is thus compelled to pass it back or to the congested centre or else, to try and find a way past Grosskreutz who gets tight.

Arsenal’s (lack of) pressing invites Dortmund forward

It’d be unfair not to praise the way Arsenal defended (not to mention seriously questioning the partisanship of this blog!) because it was an atypically resilient performance with their backs-to-the-wall. Alex Song, in particular, was magnificent in front of the defence although it was he who also had the feel the full brunt of Dortmund’s high-tempo strategy. However, Arsenal’s problems were as much self-inflicted as they were thrust upon them because they simply invited the opposition at them. BVB had three good chances to score in the opening twenty minutes, exposing the kinds of weaknesses that were displayed in the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United. That it nearly happened again shows that there is a serious flaw in Wenger’s defensive strategy and cannot all be excused by unfamiliarity between the players.

Arsenal’s defensive line was all over the place but the real trouble stemmed from the non-existence of a pressing game high up the pitch. If the back four want to push up then the midfield must do so in accordance. However, Arsenal tend to sit off in their own half and that just invites the opponents at them and more crucially, the chance to spring the offside trap. As the game wore on, the midfield dropped even deeper so the chance to get behind was limited but the lack of pressing was still shown by the level of last ditch defending they did; Dortmund had 22 shots in all, 16 in the second-half and half of those were blocked efforts.

Arsenal, with the best defence in open play last season, were not in need of such a drastic overhaul to their pressing and ironically, it was when they did press up the pitch that they created the goal. They say from up the stands you can analyse the action better and you’d hope Wenger, watching from the perfect vantage point, can learn from the side he says pressed the best he’s seen this week and make the changes the side desperately needs.

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<Figure 2> The lack of synchronicity between the instructions of the defenders and the midfielders is shown. While the back-four push up to play a high line, the midfield doesn’t follow suit. In fact, they are more concerned with shape – which is all well and good – but by not getting tight, they are essentially allowing the opposition at them. This makes it ripe for Dortmund to attempt the ball over because they are not under pressure to make the pass. At times on Tuesday night, the two conflicting strategies meant the positions collapsing on each other as the midfield dropped deep in their own half, pressing too late and the back-four pushing up. In the second-half, particularly that was the case as Arsenal were unable to get out of their own half.

Use of wing backs will only put teams in a flap

With the use of wing backs decreasing in the modern game, Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa has set his side up to play in an intriguing 3-3-1-3 formation but he must be wary of it’s weaknesses.
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Chile

Three years ago, during England’s ill-fated 2008 European Championship Qualifiers, then manager Steve Mclaren made a bold move which shocked and surprised everyone; he was to play a 3-5-2. It was either going to be a stroke of genius or a monumental cock up. And as it proved, it was the latter.

The England team had been preparing the system for a while but bearing in mind not many teams had played with wing backs for some time, the Three Lions would always find it troublesome. Curiously Slaven Bilic, upon getting the job as Croatia manager, made sure the first thing he was to do as coach is to ditch the 3-5-2 and then hoping England would deploy the formation for the exact reason abandoned it. “I hoped they’d play 3-5-2 as it would give us more room to attack on the wings,” said Bilic. “I knew if we could switch the play quickly we’d be two-on-one. I expected England to come out and pressurise us but it was more a question of whether we’d get a third.”

It was tactical naivety from McLaren’s part and also assistant Terry Venables who was said to be heavily involved. The press derided them after the 2-0 defeat but rather hypocritically, a number of them championed the cause for the system in years previously. The idea was to be “adaptable and flexible” something which Venables’ England side of ’96 had in abundance (they played a fluid system which started as a 4-4-2 but could become a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3) but having been out of the game during the rapid evolution of the Premier League,  gone were the days where superior players could fit into a 3-5-2 and overwhelm opponents.

Quite how the wing back has dramatically fallen from grace can be neatly summed up by one word: inefficiency. Playing with wing backs require securities in order for them to bomb forward therefore the need to deploy three centre backs. However many sides are increasingly turning to the lone striker leaving three central defenders marking one and meaning at least one of them unemployed from the initial danger. It makes more sense in this instance to push one defender out and play a defensive midfielder and dropping wing backs back to full backs.

Johan Cruyff has blasted the use of full backs because he feels they function more like athletes than players of skill. They need to be quicker and fitter to cover more ground and reorganize themselves for the team. Just mapping a wing back system with other more established ones draw on the same weaknesses Slaven Bilic touched upon and those of controlling and pressuring “zones”. And because of Fabio Capello’s Arrigo Sacchi-like thinking, it is unlikely to see his ever-improving England side deploy the same system as Mclaren even if having more players suited to the formation than the now FC Twente coach.

Having said that, two teams have used wing backs to a degree of success recently with Napoli playing a 3-5-2 and Udinese 3-4-3. The former however is a club who would rather sit back and let their opponents take the initiative, looking to break on the counter while Udinese are more the opposite.

The problem with using wing backs is finding balance; it suited Napoli’s counter attacking style last season but anyone who is intent on dominating may find it more difficult. It almost seems wing backs are either best suited to the ultra-defensive or the ultra-attacking. And it is the latter Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa is trying to implement in the South American World Cup qualifiers, his side playing an adventurous 3-3-1-3.

The thinking here is to play in the oppositions half, pressuring opponents high up and using the wide areas to great devastation. The two-v-one weakness Billic alluded to is meant to be their strength attacking wise although defensively it can still be a problem especially down the channels. And still it requires high intensity and fitness levels but on the plus side, they are playing with great fluidity with the front four. Chile have moved up to second in the race for the World Cup Finals and the real test will be how they cope with Brazil’s expertise on the counter. Argentine Basile will not have forgotten his country’s failure in the 2002 finals where they disastrously crashed out in the group stages, tiredness after a long season blamed for the failure of the wing back system.

Which begs the question, could wing back formations be deployed in more one-off situations? Shakhtar Donestk had a modicum of possession against Barcelona in the Super Cup and could not get the support they desired to lone striker Luiz Adriano. Could they have looked to force the game to Barcelona especially in extra time? Or maybe, Burnley who for all their industry and willingness were cut open by Chelsea. Maybe using three defenders to counter Drogba and Anelka would have been the way forward while using wide forwards to deny Ashley Cole and Bosingwa the opportunity to get up the pitch.

The use of wing backs is certainly not dead but for a team looking to take the initiative it may be too big an ask to play it. Indeed Rinus Michels said of Johan Cruyff’s 3-4-3 formation for Barcelona as “spectacular but risky” as much responsibility to dominate was entrusted to the central midfielders. Cruyff knew he would have close to 60% of control each game therefore minimizing some of the risk on the defenders that would have been far greater to other sides. It seems nowadays with the increased importance of zones and transitions you either have to be the best or a cautious side.

Or maybe, as Steve Mclaren intended, it may be best used in one-off games but if you do be prepared for the same weaknesses that Mclaren and England found out about one night in Zagreb.

3-3-1-3

Why the full back has been the most important position this season

The defensive shield may have been getting most of the plaudits but the cautious nature of Sagna and Clichy has been the real reason for Arsenal’s recent defensive stability.
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bacary-sagna

For two players supposedly having below-par seasons, their contribution to Arsenal’s success in the second half of the season could not be more greater. Gael Clichy and Bakary Sagna have yet to hit the heights of last season offensively at least, but at the back the pair have been solid as ever though maybe not as spectacular because their roles have changed.

It is fair to say Arsenal are still fairly infant in their beginnings as a team and this season has mostly been one of rebuilding and getting the side back to genuine and consistent contenders for the league title once again. Last season, attack was the main form of defence; keeping the ball denied pressure on the back line while highly mobile players such as Flamini and the centre backs allowed for such an elaborate play. (Mobility and tactical awareness is the main difference between Denilson and Flamini, something which is hard to quantify).

This season key men have departed and indeed some have never left the treatment room therefore the same attacking verve was not there. The marauding full backs of Arsenal was one of the successes of the season as both were selected in the team of the year. But Wenger, after seeing his side lose five games before the halfway point and his team not quite as gelling as he would have liked, decided it was a liability to have his full backs bombing forward. “At one stage we had conceded too many goals, so we encouraged our defenders to be a bit more cautious,” said Arsene Wenger.

The affect of the change has been threefold: Early in the season (though not just limited to) Arsenal were being attacked in the space vacated by Clichy and Sagna (1) while at the same time putting too much strain on Denilson, (2) who was still maturing and the centre backs (3), who had to push up to make up the space hence playing with a line higher than Arjen Robben’s. And they are also stopping crosses coming in to the box, long thought to be the defences Achilles heel; that’s four then.

Full backs can be a great weapon and at the same time a great vulnerability. The shield has been also been a reason for the greater defensive performance but remember Fabregas also played there against Chelsea, in which the Gunners won 2-1. In that same match Bosingwa was the Blues’ chief architect in the first half but once the system was changed could not get involved.

Defender or Attacker?

The question is, is the full back primarily a defender or an attacker? It may seem obvious because of the term ‘back’ but recent times have seen such players signed for their greater offensive abilities. Traditionally most teams played the ‘WM’ formation but with the increased skill of forwards another defender was added hence pushing the full backs wider who were then used to counter the threat of wingers. The Brazilians with two their full backs both named Santos on either side made great use of this extra space and caused havoc to opposition defences. In the 1960’s Helenio Herrera deployed Giacinto Facchetti as a means of launching faster counter-attacks (incidentally the same coach also was the brains behind the rethinking of the sweeper role). Andrea Tallarita of Football Italiano said of the full back: ‘If fullbacks today are more than just central defenders playing on the sides, we owe it partly to this man’s revolutionary interpretation of the role.’

Key method of attack

Cafu and Roberto Carlos displayed how destructive full-backs can be combining great stamina with high levels of technical ability to cause all kinds of mess to defenders organisation and possibly their shorts as well. Their endurance and physical power allowed them to take advantage of the fact that they were unmarked. “Brazil have two great wing-backs in Cafu and Roberto Carlos but they are only able to get up so often because no-one is attacking them,” said Johan Cruyff.

Off the ball movement is crucial. Getting 1 v 1 situations as often as possible can win games but rather than the dribbling ability of players, it is the doubling up and providing movement causing uncertainty and unpredictability on the defender which can change a game. The search for space and making best advantage, whether defending or attacking is the first thing on every managers’ mind.

In Euro 2008 attacking full-backs was a major tactic used and one of the main exponents of that strategy, Russia benefited greatly from the late arrival and support from Anyukov and Zhirkov who were often unmarked. Spain went into the semi-final with Russia with a more orthodox set-up denying the two players space and as a result Russia were all at sea attacking-wise (not to mention the complete negation of Arshavin). But manager Hiddink’s recent excursions with Chelsea show that he is also wary of the drawbacks. “We have to stay back a bit more now and defend as a unit, and maybe that could be the change that could change our season,” said Jose Bosingwa of the Dutchman’s changes.

Defensive block

The space left behind is ripe for counter attacks, something Inter manager Jose Mourinho is prepared for. “Transitions have become crucial,” he says. “When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position.”

Teams defend in compact blocks and therefore it seems the greatest trait for a full back to have defensively is to be positioned well rather than the ability to tackle the ball of the winger. When Arsenal went a man down against Tottenham, Wenger played a 4-3-2 formation which at the time seemed suicidal given Aaron Lennon was on the right hand side but Clichy and when replaced by Gibbs, in conjunction with the three midfielders gave the winger space and but were organised enough not to allow him to make great use of it.

Former Ecuador manager Luis Fernando Suarez argues the physical development of the game and the packing of central midfield means that more emphasis should be placed on the wings. Around a quarter of goals  from open play come from a cross and teams are quick to stop that happening. Clichy and Sagna are more cautious allowing in the other end for a more quicker approach while teams like Liverpool and Manchester United, especially in big games look to double up their midfielders in these areas to stop the threat (Kuyt and Riera, Rooney and Park, Eboue for Arsenal).

Full backs are not on their own the most major position in winning and losing matches but can be the key. Why Arsenal haven’t been as potent from this position can go down to the defensive nature of oppositions and the fact that the crossing and the options in the box have been poor. The question for Wenger is whether to reinstate the expansive style next season by which the team should have got to know each other better.

Great teams can make greatest use of full backs as an attacking option hence the hefty price tags for the best in recent seasons; Bosingwa, Alves, Evra, Sagna and Ramos to name a few. Still Arsenal reversed that trend slightly by signing the defensively more secure Sagna to replace Emmanuel Eboue and have not looked back.