With Arsenal failing to mount a serious title challenge this season, Arsenal Column analyse what exactly has gone wrong, what has improved and why we should look optimistically to the future.
Last season, after a quite blistering start, Arsenal’s title challenge ground to an anti-climatic halt after a series of draws and injuries took it’s toll on the squad. This season the same two points apply however there was no blistering start; if defeat to Fulham in the second game was a sign of things to come, no-one would have expected five before December. However the Gunners are now unbeaten in eleven games in the league since the 3-0 defeat to Manchester City.
What’s different between the Arsenal of now and the Arsenal that started the season and how much have things actually improved?
Balance is key
‘Balance is number one’ claims World Cup winning manager Marcello Lippi therefore it seems Arsenal had shot themselves in the foot by making attack their main priority. With Denilson taking over Flamini in central midfield that balance was likely to take time though the Milan midfielder himself fit into the system with ease.
The myth at the start of the season was that Denilson was playing in the same areas as Cesc Fabregas therefore forcing the Spaniard to play lower down the pitch. In truth this was half correct; Denilson was attacking slightly more than Flamini did but Fabregas himself never played any deeper than he had before. In fact the stats seem to show he was passing the ball higher up the pitch which for the inexperienced Denilson, was giving him too much defensive work to do in terms of pressuring and tracking back opponents.
Balance seemed better restored but this was after five defeats. Song had come in to the centre with Denilson moving to the right as Arsenal reacted to back to back defeats to Villa and Man City by beating Chelsea. Injury to Fabregas has seen the midfield partnership rotated but the balance has still been there if not the creativity. Diaby’s ability to win the ball back being crucial, the Frenchman making 45 successful tackles in just five matches (starting from Portsmouth and ending with West Ham). Denilson on the other hand has been steadily improving and while he is yet to fully win over the fans, less has he become the target of their displeasure. It seems the stint out wide had improved the Brazilian’s tactical awareness and positioning, especially when tracking his runner.
As Man Utd have shown defending is a team collective therefore Van Persie’s role must not be underestimated. By dropping back when Arsenal are defending to make a 4-4-1-1 the Dutchman denies the ball from being played out from the back. The trend in football is to defend as a ‘compact defensive block’ and then to aggressively press the ball.
Newly found defensive stability
In the 14 starts Mikael Silvestre has made in all competitions this season, Arsenal have let in 22 goals but rather than pin the blame on the Frenchman, there has been a number of reasons for the improvement in defense.
Johan Djourou has been brought in to add speed and height at the back, creating a complementary partnership with whoever he plays with. However recent games at West Ham and Tottenham have seen Wenger revert to the shorter pairing of Toure and Gallas, where together they have kept two clean sheets. Height is still an issue if the two play but denying crosses and being first to knock downs minimizes the exploitation area of weakness.
The high line required great mobility from the defenders and while that was there, there was simply too much work to do.
“At one stage we had conceded too many goals, so we encouraged our defenders to be a bit more cautious,” says Arsene Wenger. The full back area, when they push forward exposes the channel for counter attacks. With teams sitting deep this was especially a problem in the early part of the season. Against Tottenham the full backs denied the wingers the opportunity to attack down the flanks as Arsenal played a 4-3-2 and although the lack of adventure was forced nevertheless shows their quality. “Transitions have become crucial,” says Jose Mourinho who tries to keep a minimum of five behind the ball. “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.”
The clearest signs coming from Arsenal’s first defeat to Fulham was how the Gunners would cope without Fabregas. At the time the performance was merely seen as one-off as it was still early in the season therefore improvements will be made. However while there have been improvements, the eleven game unbeaten run has included only five wins while in eight of those games Arsenal have scored once. One can put it down to the defense minded nature of the opposition as United have also found it difficult, winning 1-0 eight times in their last eleven games nevertheless the evidence is there that greater creativity is required to break them down.
Fabregas’s influence is massive. He has created 50 chances this season, the most of the Arsenal side while behind him Van Persie has been involved in all goals this year either scoring or assisting them directly. Below shows why the Spaniard has been missed; playing at West Ham earlier this season he made more passes in the final third and generally took more risks. Compare with Denilson and Diaby against the Hammers at the Emirates, where their passes inside and around the box is almost non-existent.
Fabregas also contributed with ten goals lasts season by arriving late in the box whereas his replacements decide to stay back. Maybe there is an opportunity for Nasri to play in the centre after being utilised in the centre against Tottenham. If there was doubts about his work rate and positional play they will surely have been eased by his performance. The return from injury of key players may yet see a surplus of creative talent but at the moment there is no real back up to Fabregas thought there are great talents in Ramsey and Merida coming through.
According to former Holland coach (Total Football) Rinus Michels top teams can be distinguished in the way they ‘circulate’ the ball. “To carry the play on the opponents half of the field places high demands of the build-up. There is not much time and space to work in and you have to deal with high defensive pressure. Fast combinations and excellent positional play are a must.”
While this could easily have been attributed to last season’s Arsenal side the same cannot be said about this season. In Flamini, his tireless nature ensured he could deal with the high demand in positional play while in attack the combinations and fluidity was better. Denilson has the attributes to be a similar success and with the trend moving towards deploying deep-lying playmakers all he needs is more confidence.
Matches against Aston Villa and Everton this season have seen the Gunners not retain possession as well as they have done in the past as such opposition take the game to the Arsenal midfield.
And confidence seems missing from the whole team. Diaby and Song, although not known as creative players are capable of passing the ball but it is up those in front to ensure that it is used more effectively in providing support and movement. Adebayor’s impact seems lessened this season as he roams around looking for the ball while Eboue, the brunt of fans frustrations has been seen coming inside to provide support but the link up play has been lacking. Getting a highly mobile and interchangeable system will take time especially with the integral cog in Hleb having departed in the summer but with the signing of Arshavin and Rosicky to return, the dynamism and fluidity may return too.
One can argue perhaps it is natural that Arsenal have concentrated more on their defence because of the lessening of creativity and attacking play.
Reason to look forward?
There is no doubt that this has been a disappointing season so far but the Gunners can realistically still get second place. Arsene Wenger has spent over £20million on transfers yet has been criticised for not spending more. With the debts the club has, Champions League football is the bear minimum required each year and while Wenger has provided that thus far, he also needs to add trophies. The Frenchman is trying to address that but any team will feel the effects of injuries to key players; take out Gerrard from Liverpool just like Fabregas from Arsenal and they will struggle. When everyone is fit, the Gunners actually have a very good squad of quality players.
But Arsenal’s model of sustainability will surely mean the Gunners will still be competing for years to come will others are in a cloud of financial insecurity. The youngsters displayed possibly the best performance by a Premier League side this season in their quite breathtaking demolition of Wigan in the Carling Cup and it seems the senior team is not very far off.
Things can only get better but it is disheartening to hear the same words, bar last season, being said for the last four or five years. But this time, with Champions League qualification ensured the fundamentals may yet be greater.