Seven Lessons from the 2013-14 Season

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First lesson: Improved Understanding in Attack

In an intriguing tale from Ancient Chinese philosophy, Butcher Ding was summoned by his village leader to perform a task that overwhelmed his fellow butchers who seemed to possess the same level of blade wielding skills; he had to sacrifice an ox as part of a ritual to consecrate a sacred bell. Unfazed by the task at hand, Ding went about cutting up the ox with nonchalant ease. When an astonished village chief demanded an explanation, Ding reveals, “The secret is to not approach the problem with your eyes, but with your spirit.” Novices like us probably won’t be able to entirely comprehend Butcher Ding’s methods but it is said that Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud offered similar explanations when asked about their wonder goal against Norwich City. (Though Wilshere supplied the final touch, can it really be counted as his goal solely?).

There are two fundamental requirements to breakdown parked buses; either depend on players to get past opponents through pace and dribbling ability or depend on fast circulation and understanding between players. Arsene Wenger is the type of manager who relies on his players’ combination play to break down defences and it’s quite fair to conclude the spontaneous understanding between the players reached its peak this season. The first half of the season saw some breathtaking moves from Arsenal with Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud combining like brothers having a kick around in the backyard. The French striker did an admirable job with his back to the goal, letting the midfielders create play by knocking passes off him.

For the second part of the season, Arsenal had been missing those runs from deep (from Ramsey) that glue Arsenal’s passing game together. Because without somebody breaking into space, who have Arsenal’s myriad of ball players got to pass it to? Instead, play in that period would look soporific, lacking urgency and easy to pick off. Indeed, the way Arsenal play, bumping passes off each other, it requires little triggers so that the players know when to move their passing game up a gear. Ozil is brilliant at that, moving quietly into space, trading a few innocuous passes, always with his head up waiting for the moment to increase the tempo and his team-mates seem to feed off that. Ditto Ramsey’s runs from deep.

To play truly great attacking football, a blind instinctive awareness – or “blind understanding” as Wenger calls it – of one’s teammates is fundamental and at moments this season Arsenal played attacking football of the highest quality.

Second Lesson: Is Mertesacker-Koscielny the best?

Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny complement each other perfectly; Koscielny is the fast and aggressive man marker while Mertesacker is the solid presence who sweeps behind; Koscielny is the forward thinking instigator while Mertesacker is one of the safest distributors around, etc. The partnership has had an appreciable season and has contributed immensely to achieving the second highest number of clean sheets in the Premier League, and conceding the fourth least number of goals. On average, the partnership averages 4.5 interceptions and 1.8 offside calls per game while only being dribbled past 0.7 times per game. Laurent Koscielny’s and Per Mertesacker’s  value in the attacking phase is unmatched as they top the passing accuracy charts with the former passing with 93.5% success and Mertesacker with 93%(he attempted 538 more passes) success. These rudimentary statistics don’t tell the complete story but keen observers will agree that the ‘Mertescielny’ is one of the best partnerships in the world.

Indeed, their partnership follows what has become a trend whenever teams play a back four: one of the centre-backs attack and the other covers. Against two strikers, though, the duo has shown how much their relationship has prospered because against such a set-up, both defenders have to mark (as opposed to playing against a lone-striker where Mertesacker will normally attack the ball and Koscielny drops back). As such, that puts demands on the holding midfielder to provide cover, which leads us on to the next lesson…

Third Lesson: Defensive Reinforcements

At the beginning of the season, the signing of Mathieu Flamini seemed an astute one from Le Boss as he performed dependably in his first few games. But as the season progressed, his weaknesses became apparent and playing him alongside Mikel Arteta only magnified them. In attack, Flamini offers almost nothing other than safe passing (91% success) and decent running, which means going backwards, he tried to compensate with his defensive positioning, which more than once, most notably against Southampton, Swansea has cost the team (click for image example). Mikel Arteta did slightly better than Flamini but his susceptibility to pace has become a prominent weakness of his. He has also been quite easy to dribble past, being bypassed 1.7 times per game. This figure is very much on the higher side as Flamini is dribbled passed less, at 0.4 times per game, with one particular weakness of Arteta is that he allows opponent midfielders to blitz past him in counters far too easily. That figure, though, chimes with what his game is about: Arteta loves to press up the pitch, looking to win the ball back quickly, an underrated trait of his. Flamini on the other hand brings hustle but his tendency is to drop deeper and cover spaces.

Another defensive midfielder would be imperative, particularly with Bacary Sagna leaving – one who slots in between the centre-backs in the build up to help better utilize the full backs as they can be important weapons to breakdown packed defences. Arteta’s distribution skills are better than he is given credit for (although his passing can be slightly on the slower side at times) but a defensive midfielder with better defensive positioning would help improve Arsenal’s defensive stability.

Fourth Lesson: Aaron Ramsey is the man

This is the most obvious lesson of the seven. Aaron Ramsey had a blistering first half of the season when he was our best player by miles. Then he got injured for a while before coming back to deliver top four in the premier league and an FA Cup. Last season he was praised for his reliable performances alongside Arteta, where he combined intelligent running and an unrivalled work rate to become an important member of the team. This season saw him transform into an insanely confident footballer with outrageous skills as he went on an almost unstoppable run where he kept scoring, assisting and embarrassing opponents much to the joy of the Gunners faithful. Arsene Wenger kept reiterating Aaron Ramsey’s hunger to improve (he seems to have that Thierry Henry-like obsession about football) and this has seen him become the best player in our team. In the FA Cup final against Hull City, one could see Aaron Ramsey trying hard to force the winner in extra time. Despite a few improbable attempts from long range, he kept trying and eventually scored and it is this quality of delivering in decisive moments that has proved vital for Arsenal many a times. It is almost like there is a ‘What? What else were you expecting?’ kind of brash arrogance (in a subtle way, if that is possible) about him and it would be great if it rubs off on the team.

Image created by @Dorkkly Click to enlarge
Image created by @Dorkkly Click to enlarge

Fifth Lesson: Mesut Ozil provided only a glimpse

Big things were expected from Mesut Ozil and he seemed to be on the right track as he scored thrice and assisted four times in his first seven games. Since then he has only three goals and seven assists and most have been swift to brand him a flop. To do so would be very harsh on the German playmaker as his real contribution to Arsenal’s possession play shouldn’t be judged just by his assists and goals scored statistics.

He was expected to play the ‘Bergkamp role’, playing behind Olivier Giroud to be at the end of moves. But Ozil’s duties lie slightly deeper as he is given the responsibility to dictate play and perform an important role in the build up. As Wenger says, “the quality of his passing slowly drains the opponent as he passes always the ball when you do not want him to do it. That slowly allows us to take over.” Thus, extra layers are added to Ozil’s worth to the side; he’s all at once, an attacking weapon, a master controller and a defensive force, allowing Arsenal to keep opponents at arm’s length, and luring them into a sense of comfort that is also complacent.

Ozil averages 63 passes per game (behind only Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey in the team), constantly peeling to either wings (his preferred control centre seems to be that channel off the centre towards the right wing) to try various angles and combinations. His combination with Aaron Ramsey has been one of the more fruitful ones and has played a substantial part in the latter’s rise. Arsene Wenger is confident that the German wizard would deserve a statue at the Emirates by the time he leaves Arsenal but Mesut Ozil will have to elevate his game by a notch to attain such levels. Everyone knows he can.

Sixth Lesson: Olivier Giroud requires competition

Whoscored.com rates Olivier Giroud as Arsenal’s second best player behind Aaron Ramsey. While that is a little farfetched, it shows Giroud has had an acceptable season as Arsenal’s Number One Striker™. Netting 18 times and providing 9 assists in 43 games is decent output for a forward but Giroud has that wildly irritating knack of going into a run where it looks exceedingly improbable for him to score.

His major assets are his link up play and aerial ability, although his combination can desert him at times due to a first touch which at its best, can be silky smooth like delicate fingers working up Chantilly lace or just plain awful. Arsene Wenger took a huge gamble by not bringing in strikers in the transfer window and he was forced to rely entirely on the Frenchman who was bound to be affected by fatigue. As the season wore on, it wasn’t necessarily his finishing skills that let Arsenal down but his propensity, as the lone striker, to play a little bit like a totem pole. That works when there are runners getting beyond him – Ramsey and Walcott are key – but often, it relies on moves being perfect and that’s not always possible. When Yaya Sanogo has deputised, though he has still yet to break his mark for the club, it shows what value a striker can add purely by running the channels – that means sometimes away from play – stretching defences and creating space for runners. Indeed, in the cup final, Giroud was probably the one who profited most from Sanogo’s presence, as this meant he was afforded the freedom to do what he’s unable to do when he plays up front on his own: run. It seems unlikely, unless he adds a mean streak to his game, that Sanogo will push Giroud hard for a starting spot in the near future, nor is a switch to a 4-4-2 system in the offing, meaning it is absolutely necessary to bring in a different type of striker to compete with Giroud.

Seventh Lesson: This team can play both ways

It comes as a surprise that Arsenal hasn’t topped the possession table (they’re fourth behind Southampton, ManchesterCity and Swansea) this season given that they’ve done so in each of the last three seasons. This season, Arsenal has conceded that extra bit of possession to maximize efficiency in ‘moments’. Fewer shots have been taken this season (13.8 compared to 15.7) and creating qualitatively better chances seems to have been the focus.

The trend in the Premier League this year has been not to press defences (Southampton being the exception; they’ve kept 58% possession on average mainly due to their ball winning mechanisms) but to forming two compact banks of four. Arsenal did the same last season and showed their prowess on the counter many a times, which makes it even more disappointing that Arsenal lost to Liverpool and Chelsea in that manner due to flawed strategy. It is apparent that this team has the personnel to execute both strategies effectively and Arsene Wenger has done reasonably well to juggle his approach midway games.

Follow Karthik on Twitter – @thinktankkv

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Five points on Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

2. The new Arsenal arrives

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

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

3. Laurent Koscielny shines once again

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

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<Figure 3> Koscielny interceptions

4. Mikel Arteta gives Arsenal stability

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

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

5. Arsenal keep Mata quiet…sort of

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

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

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.

Arsenal’s defence must overcome its mental barriers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal show they have the character for title run-in

Arsenal 2-1 Everton

When in a title run-in, there are two ways to assess the crucialness of a fixture in comparison to your rival(s); take it game-by-game and use the league table as your reference or on a team-by-team basis. At 1-0 down against Everton, Arsenal may have done the latter and judged the harshness of the result by the quality of the team they were facing. They knew they had to get a draw at least but because Everton are regarding as a tough team to beat and still have to face Manchester United again, the points dropped could be cancelled out when the pair meet each other. But at half-time, Arsenal decidedly looked at the scoreline from the viewpoint of the former and that meant a win was paramount because Wayne Rooney had already put Manchester United against Aston Villa ahead as early as the first minute.  This Arsenal team, however, is not willing to accept second-best this season and in the second-half, showed great character to fightback and win 2-1.

It’s been a trait of Arsenal under Arsene Wenger to make hard weather of a game and go behind – a consequence of their philosophy perhaps, by trying to force the result early on. The Invincibles did it but unlike in past seasons, and like the title winning side of 2003/04, there was a slight inevitability about the comeback. How much of that, was down to Everton’s lack of resilience, is debatable but there is no doubt that there is a greater mental strength in this Arsenal side and possess, a group of players who are “pulling in the same direction.” We are entering the run-in to the season now, and I’m really happy with the state of the squad,” Wenger wrote in his programme notes. “The attitude is fantastic and the togetherness is great.”

Others, however may interpret the comeback differently. The fact that Arsenal fell behind again, may be seen as a sign of their weakness and the turnaround, masking some of their flaws. In business, it is called the service recovery paradox which states that by making an effective recovery, a service can stand to achieve higher satisfaction ratings from customers than if the failure had never happened. That Arsenal fell behind, and recovered, quite effectively it has to be said as Everton had little of the second-half, and some fans and Wenger crown it as a sign of Arsenal’s “fantastic spirit” when at other times, it may be seen as a fragility. But the proof is in the pudding and Arsenal have made huge improvements, largely by having a settled squad and an easing injury list. The two centre-backs, Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny, had yet to concede in four matches before Louis Saha’s hugely contentious goal and have looked a superb, all-round partnership. The Gunners have also been playing more compact thus allowing them to press more effectively although the way Everton negated that side of the game in the first twenty minutes, highlights some areas for improvement.

Everton pressed high up the pitch but they also dominated possession in the early stages. Arsenal aimed to press themselves, high up the pitch but because they were structured in a 4-2-4 with Cesc Fabregas defending as a second forward, Everton had a man advantage in the middle in the 4-5-1. Their 3v2 in the centre of midfield allowed them control the game even without the ball and Jack Wilshere, who has been tipped to play deeper for England, was easily pressed for time whenever he received the pass. With Arsenal playing no holders, they could do with a ball circulator, something Abou Diaby did in the second-half, wrestling control of the middle from Marouane Fellaini with a strong presence and calmness on the ball. Fabregas could also drop back to make a three in the middle to press, alleviating Arsenal the numerical disadvantage. Of course, that would mean the side conceding possession high up the pitch, but it would create an effective first line of defence – something Arsenal could experiment with before the matches against Barcelona.

Saha’s presence also forced Arsenal’s defence deeper because they were worried about his ability to make runs behind but this only conceded space in front, affording space in front of them for Rodwell, Arteta and Fellaini to break forward. For Arsenal, by defending deeper, that created a larger gap between midfield and defence and that made pressing more inefficient. Thankfully, their attacking play prevailed in the second period and they dominated the half, which Everton had no answers too.

The wingers were forced back thus allowing Arsenal’s full-backs time on the ball and giving Everton little outlet on the break. Wenger switched his team’s formation to an attacking 4-3-3, similar to their base formation but with Robin van Persie playing a dual role. Indeed, the Dutchman’s movement was superb either as a centre-forward dropping off or as a striker, pulling the defenders left and right. Either way, he continued to create space for his midfielders. Arsenal’s passing, because of this, played at breathtaking speed and around the box, look more dynamic than ever. It’s probably not expected of them to have Barcelona-esque spells of possession but if they get the ball in the final third, expect ping-pong passing at the highest precision. It’s just a shame Samir Nasri is out for three weeks.

In the end, sometimes it is better for players to take things into their own hands. Andrey Arshavin’s pure individualism saw him take positions wherever it pleased him and he ended up getting on the end of Fabregas’ pass to score the first. Perhaps, if van Persie hadn’t dropped deep Arshavin wouldn’t have found the space but it shows, even if there’s good movement from the striker – as displayed by van Persie in the World Cup but without the support – there needs to be willingness to make runs, and Arshavin did that. The Russian has been in indifferent form recently but finally looks to be gaining in confidence. And that bodes well for an Arsenal side who believe they have what it takes to lift the league title.

Laurent Koscielny is reaping the benefits of risk

Even in an eventful summer in France, there was perhaps one transfer which caused the most surprise; that of Laurent Koscielny. Kosicelny made his move from the relative modesty of FC Lorient to the vibrancy and tradition of Arsenal for a fee of £8.5m rising to £10m in 2010; a fee which seems perfectly normally in today’s climate if only Koscielny hadn’t spent just the one season in the country’s top-flight. Cue plenty of back-slapping, man-hugs and lame-cool guy handshakes from those who brokered the move on Lorient’s side.

Arsène Wenger knew he was taking a gamble on Koscielny but similarly, a calculated one at that. The statistics show he was Ligue 1 best defender last season, making more interceptions (159) than any other player and clearances (328) too, although conversely, Lorient did allow the most shots against them in the championship. He was his club’s best defender – their Gary Cahill if you like – composed on the ball, aggressive although without the frame and a fine reader of play. But due to his rapid rise in a short period of time, there was always question marks regarding his suitability at the top-level. Wenger, however, was willing to take a punt on a raw talent he felt he could nurture into a fine centre-back. “He said he was interested in my quality,” said Koscielny. “That I had progressed well and I was intelligent in the matches.”

In that sense, Koscielny is a typical Wenger signing; plucked from relative obscurity and dropped perfectly into the line-up, it’s as if he had always been there. However, some argue therein lies Arsenal’s weakness because Wenger’s signings in central defence are always usually too similar and lacking a bit of experience. They feel The Gunners need an aggressor, a no-nonsense defender who acts as the antithesis to complement their fixation on style. Which, is a fair argument if not for the fact it is also too simplistic.

Signings need to fit in strategically and by having all-rounders at the back, it allows Arsenal to play a high line to complement their pressing and possession game. Of course, that’s  not to say more orthodox centre-backs don’t have their uses. Phillipe Senderos was crucial in Arsenal’s Champions League final run in 2005/06 although it particularly worked because Arsenal defended deep in a compact 4-5-1 formation. Wenger hadn’t usually played the system and when he did decide to switch back to the 4-4-2 in Europe the next season, his side went crashing out of the tournament to PSV as Ronald Koeman purposely told his team to let Senderos have the ball as often as possible because they felt he was their weakness. Another argument against Wenger is that two similar defenders deny Arsenal of a “first-ball/second-ball” partnership, which is again a valid point because Arsenal do yearn the return of Thomas Vermaelen. However, their recent impressive form shows that as a partnership, Johan Djourou and Koscielny possess the necessary skills to complement each other and in the 3-1 win over Chelsea, Djourou displayed his authoritative side by dropping deeper so he could better handle the threat of Didier Drogba.

The reason for the recent upturn of form – coinciding with a run of four clean sheets – is that Arsenal have found a balance structurally. Wenger has decided on a settled line-up and the team are now playing more compact. Earlier in the season, the gap between the attack and defence was at times large, making it more harder to press – or rather – win the ball back and this owed much to Arsenal’s inconsistencies. The ramifications a bad pressing structure has to the side is that it makes it easier for opponents to break through to the midfield and get the ball quickly to the strikers, forcing the Arsenal defence to scramble back. Former Barcelona defender Víctor Muñoz helps explain the risk in regards to the Catalan club, but because the underlying systems are similar, it can be applied to Arsenal as well.

“You can’t have it both ways, there’s always a downside,” says Muñoz. “If the press doesn’t get the ball, you’ll often see Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol (or Johan Djourour and Lauren Koscielny) furiously sprinting back to ward off the danger. They have the pace to do that. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it can be scary.”

Ipswich Town exposed that weakness in the first-leg of the League Cup semi-final when Tamas Priskin continually broke the offside trap because of Arsenal’s high-line before finally scoring to give his team a 1-0 aggregate  lead, although, the example also shows the correlation there is between the attack and defence. Arsenal needed to push up as they looked to force the initiative as the dominant team but were rebuffed because the attack failed to work Ipswich’s defence. As a result Ipswich could remain organised and compact because Arsenal’s passing was too parallel and sideways, and often too lethargic to drag them out of position. With each attack that Arsenal failed, the danger was that they could be left exposed to a quick counter-attack and as it turned out, they were punished by a long-ball which had Djourou and Koscielny scrambling back.

Both players, however, have made massive strides this season and Koscielny, in particular, coming into the Premier League in his début season, has made a very rapid transformation. His first game, a 1-1 draw with Liverpool, displayed everything you have come to expect from a Wenger centre-back. Great presence on the ball, allayed with a studious reading of play, Koscielny slotted in perfectly alongside Thomas Vermaelen at the back. However, he blotted his almost faultless performance by picking up two yellow cards in almost identical positions, highlighting his unorthodox style which is sometimes splayed with risk.

“Laurent is tough, he’s not so tall but goes for the close marking style,” Vermaelen told the Official Matchday Programme. “He’s a clever player, quick over the ground, quick with his feet and looks to be the complete defender. I think we can work together well, he’s right-footed and it’s often better to play one left-footed and one right-footed defender together. That’s the boss’s choice.

“With Johan [Djourou] too we are three quite similar defenders – we all like to mark tightly. Johan is big of course, but myself and Laurent aren’t as tall but we all look to play with our feet, and we are all quick. We are all quite similar so we should be able to work together well.”

<Video>Laurent Koscielny v Milan (Emirates Cup, August 2010)

Koscielny likes to win the ball back quickly so he sticks to his opponents like glue. He gets tight to his opposition forwards to deny them any space and you will often see him dangle a leg around the player in order to knock the ball away. His strength, his former manager Christian Gourcuff says, is at one-on-ones, which he says he “never saw him lose” and has an unerring belief that he can win every ball. “He has a real charisma and gives off a feeling of strength and serenity,” say Lorient scout Christophe Le Roux.

His style helps aid Arsenal’s tactic of winning the ball back quickly but Koscielny knows if it goes wrong, he can put him but most importantly, the team in trouble. In the game against Liverpool, despite looking comfortable for much of the match and expertly helping to squeeze Joe Cole out of the game, over-zealousness meant he received almost identical bookings. The first was for a tug that halted a Liverpool counter-attack, the other, a handball, again just on the halfway line as Torres looked to break. In his next game after the suspension, he was skinned by El-Hadji Diouf for Blackburn’s goal in their 2-1 defeat, perhaps out of a bit of casualness and an unwavering belief in his ability at one-on-ones. His technique, to get square on to his attacker in front of him, means he needs to correctly guess which way his opponent will go. Luckily, Koscielny has got this right more often than not but there are moments this season where an over-complication caused Arsenal to concede a goal.

On five minutes in the 2-2 draw against Wigan Athletic, he stood up fantastically to Hugo Rodallega when the striker had only him to beat but was desperately wrong-footed when Charles N’Zogbia skipped passed him on seventeen minutes, to win his side a penalty. Koscielny tried to anticipate which way the French midfielder was going to go and therefore shifted his bodyweight to his left but as N’Zogbia moved the ball to his right, Koscielny dangled his leg out to catch him. It was a similar situation against West Bromwich Albion in the 3-2 defeat, as Koscielny tried to force Gonzalo Jara inside but the right-back was conceded too much space on the outside, and with the help of a mistake by Manuel Almunia, squeezed the ball in. Koscielny’s bad performance in that game saw him hauled off as Arsenal searched for the win.

But since a patchy start to the season where Koscielny’s performances ranged from the frustrating to the brilliant, such as in the League Cup win over Tottenham and the 1-1 draw with Sunderland, he has gone from strength to strength. It’s perhaps a testament to Wenger’s scouting team and the homogenisation of the game, that Koscielny is expected to slot in straight-away to Arsenal’s style. Nevertheless, he has adapted impressively to the rigours of top-level football and is doing it in a style which is thoroughly his own.