Arsenal fall short of Dortmund test but can take plenty of positives

arsenal-dortmund-lewandowski

The tendency, when a team loses the game in the manner which Arsenal did, is to dissect the winning goal in such detail that nothing else prior to that really mattered. And in a sense in the Champions League, that’s right.

For large periods of the 2-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal dominated but were dealt a sucker punch when Dortmund broke quickly and scored when Robert Lewandowski arrived unmarked at the back-post. There were a series of flashpoints leading up to the goal, however, which were particularly influential; why Bacary Sagna had committed that far up the pitch; why Tomas Rosicky and Mesut Ozil only cantered back; and why Kieran Gibbs decided to get tight to the player in possession instead of holding his position as Arsenal were outnumbered. In the end, Arsenal might want to focus on the wider issues that contributed to the defeat, namely how tired they looked, especially as they played very well on the whole. But in the Champions League, the margins are thin, as Borussia Dortmund themselves found out two years ago when they crashed out of the group stages, that it’s imperative to take advantage of the good spells you have, and to stay firm when you’re on the back foot.

Former Bayern Munich goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, underpins perfectly what makes the Champions League different to the Premier League: “The Champions League can hardly be compared to the respective domestic leagues,” he said. “The tempo is higher, the teams play tactically smarter, mistakes are ruthlessly punished and the referees are more lenient. In the European game, you have to be well organised, wait for your chances and take them when they come.”

At the final whistle, Arsene Wenger was particularly hurt, saying that for the two goals (Aaron Ramsey was dispossessed for the first) Arsenal were “naïve” (in contrast, Jurgen Klopp praised the “maturity” of his team). However, the problem of naivety has been levelled at The Gunners for a while, and indeed, except for the run in 2006 when they reached the final, Arsenal haven’t altered their approach much for the European stage and they’ve been punished. Could defeat be a turning point?

To be fair, Wenger’s side have shown more awareness recently and they started the game in cautious fashion – although perhaps overly so. They were unable to enforce the same intensity on the game as they did in the early minutes when they defeated Napoli 2-0. Instead, they dropped back, looked to get into shape and build a platform from there. In short, it was the perfect defensive strategy for Europe. But on the flip-side, Arsenal were guilty of being too passive when they allowed Dortmund to open the scoring. Mikel Arteta intercepted the pass, played it to Ramsey who, shorn of options, and the best option really was to punt the ball away as Arsenal were so deep, was dispossessed. Again, you can level at Arsenal that they were a bit naïve because Dortmund come to life when they force opponents back. When Ramsey received the ball, Klopp pressed the button from the stand to activate Dortmund’s gegenpressing and in an instant; he was surrounded by three yellow shirts. Marco Reus stole the ball away, Lewandowski passed it to Henrikh Mkhtarian, and the Armenian finished.

Managing Moments: The minutes where the match was won.  Courtesy of UEFA.com. Click to enlarge.
Managing Moments: The minutes where the match was won.  Courtesy of UEFA.com. Click to enlarge.

It took a while for Arsenal to get back into the game, and when they did, they moved the ball magnificently. Initially, they found it hard as Dortmund got tight to the midfield and denied them space. Passes went astray: Jack Wilshere had a pass success rate of 50% from 30 passes. But then again, it was players like Wilshere who helped Arsenal negate the early press, by gliding past with skill. It was ironic that Arsenal conceded the opener when Ramsey was dispossessed because Arsenal’s close-control was outstanding and indeed, it was Ramsey’s sidestep away from Sven Bender which opened the space for Bacary Sagna, and his cross fortunately found it’s way for Olivier Giroud to score.

Increasingly, the most space was to be found out wide because of the narrowness of both midfields. Arsenal played a 4-2-3-1 without wingers and similarly, Dortmund’s front four prefer to interchange. That meant Mesut Ozil was unable to influence, and although he likes to drift to the flanks, it showed how successful Dortmund’s tactic was that they able to shepherd him wide at every opportunity. “They are difficult to break down,” said Wilshere. “They have good team shape. We wanted to get Mesut [Özil] on the ball but they made it difficult for us.”

Arsenal were stronger in the second-half and as they sensed they had the ascendancy, tried to increase the tempo. Rosicky, on a yellow card, dropped back in midfield to play a more conservative role, helping Arsenal distribute the ball better (as in the first-half, he was often penalised for over-zealous tracking back) while Ramsey pushed higher to press Dortmund. But, they only created one real chance when Santi Cazorla hit the crossbar after a flowing move and were later punished by Lewandowski for over-committing. (The importance of Theo Walcott is obvious when Arsenal have days like this; lots of good approach play but need something else, someone to make runs behind, to break from the neat and intricate).

Indeed, the second-half raises an interesting question, one which Wenger might have to find a solution to if his side are to succeed in Europe: if creating chances is the hardest thing to do in football, perhaps instead of pushing too much (too early) when in control, maybe it’s better to assert the dominance (and then push towards the end)?

Arsenal’s style has always been a bit gung-ho, although the signs are they are beginning to add greater game intelligence to their game and learning how to “manage moments”. Had Mathieu Flamini not been concussed, he surely would have started, given Arsenal the protection they sorely needed. Mikel Arteta did a fantastic job – making 11 tackles – but there’s no doubt Arsenal missed Flamini’s guided hustle in front of the back four.

Finally, there was another question raised about Arteta’s passing; that it was too ponderous, too safe. That’s a little unfair but certainly; he could do a little more to make Arsenal’s passing game quicker. That was mostly down to his positioning as he’s always looking to move up the pitch to give space to the centre-backs in the build up, when perhaps he should be doing more to create better passing lanes for himself. What that entails is moving wider to pick up the ball or occasionally drop in between the centre-backs. Flamini’s passing is often under-appreciated but one thing he does well is to always move into the channels to create better angles to receive the pass. The double-pivot is probably Wenger’s preferred option in Europe – and that means Aaron Ramsey will have to miss out playing in his favoured position. However, it might be the right choice to allow Arsenal to prodress in Europe.

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Arsenal 2-1 Marseille: Aaron Ramsey makes the difference in battle of 4-2-3-1

After Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Marseille, Arsene Wenger attempted to explain Theo Walcott’s form in front of goal as “cyclic. You have cycles where everything goes for you and after every game where it’s a bit less,” he said. The same can be said of most things in football: of the success of club sides and nations, and similarly, formations and tactics.

For a large period of the 2000s, 4-2-3-1 was the favoured approach replacing 4-4-2 as the default way of playing. And while there tends to be more variations of play these days – hinting at football moving onto its next cycle – the 4-2-3-1 still remains the most popular approach. The reason behind this is simple: the 4-2-3-1 affords coaches the most even way to distribute players across the pitch. It’s not infallible, however, and as interpretations of players’ roles change, gaps have been exploited in recent times.

On Wednesday night on Matchday 1 of the Champions League, both Marseille and Arsenal played with 4-2-3-1 formations and although for the majority of the match it played out a stalemate, the different interpretations of the system ensured an interesting encounter.

Marseille’s formation was more standard with two holding midfielders playing behind a number 10 and two fairly orthodox wingers although Andre Ayew did tend to drift infield a few times. Arsenal’s, on the other hand, was more fluid, with Jack Wilshere playing narrow on the left and Theo Walcott stationed high up the pitch, almost as a striker. All eyes, however, were on the two playmakers, Mathieu Valbuena and Mesut Ozil, and instantly both were involved heavily. Valbuena attempted a couple of long-range efforts while Ozil put through Walcott for a header, and was snuffed out when he tried to find Walcott again later. But Ozil’s influence soon began to wane while Valbuena’s increased. That’s because Marseille’s 4-2-3-1 was better equipped at disrupting Arsenal’s passing, with the two holders, Imbuna and Romao, frequently breaking up play.

Valbuena, though, kept on influencing, not necessarily directly as he created zero chances in the game, but with the pass before. And that, in an effect, highlighted why he’s so important to Marseille because in this set-up, he’s their only real link-man. The wide players stick wide and stretch the pitch, therefore what Valbuena does so well is drift to those flanks and combine with them. In a sense, he’s just doing what’s natural to him having played the majority of his professional career as a wide-player. Yet, he’s also clever enough to understand that that’s where the space is in today’s game because most teams play with two holding midfielders denying the space in front of the defence. Indeed, for a while, orthodox No.10s were in danger of becoming extinct due to the proliferation of 4-2-3-1, but they’ve since had to evolve and become accustomed to lateral movement, or even further or deeper on the pitch to evade their markers. “The word enganche (playmaker) is dangerous,”says Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone. “But, I like enganche, although with some variations. More like the playing style of Zidane, call it a prototype of enganche? That evolved into the enganche roles today of Kaká, Totti, Pirlo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. I believe enganchetoday must come from another sector, there must be wider variety of options.”

valbuena ozil

Roaming laterally is what Ozil loves to do too, acting as both a playmaker and auxiliary winger due to the intelligent runs he makes. He was fantastic at exploiting this space on his debut against Sunderland but against Marseille’s flat 4-2-3-1, his root to the channels was blocked. It was different to Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 where Aaron Ramsey frequently pushed forward and as such, Mathieu Flamini essentially had to cover the spaces on his own. Perhaps on another day, Arsenal might have been exposed but then again, they can because they rely heavily on their astronomical fitness levels to get back, running on average 11.3k km in the match, while Marseille only managed 10.3k km.

Arsenal, however, were more effective going forward because their creativity was plural. Jack Wilshere had a particularly strong first-half drifting off the left-flank and his movement highlighted the other way in which the 4-2-3-1 can be exposed. Because by drifting infield, it asks a lot of the opposing winger to remain alert to track his movement, or if the full-back follows him, slot back into the defence. It’s significant that Arsenal’s opening goal came from such an attack, with Kieran Gibbs taking advantage of this vacant space to cross, and with a little bit of help from Morel, Walcott volleyed home. However, the drawback to Wilshere constantly moving inside was that it horribly exposed Kieran Gibbs; nonetheless he performed admirably with little to no help.

By Wilshere also moving infield, it created an overload in the midfield and thus gave Arsenal a numerical advantage where previously it was stalemate. Indeed, it’s a tactic a lot of top sides are using nowadays, abandoning one flank – usually the left – and then having someone stationed high up the pitch on the other side for a quick switch of emphasis (e.g. Manchester United with Kagawa and Valencia). For some teams, there isn’t a higher tactical purpose for playing an attacking midfielder wide other than a way of fitting all those creative players in (for example, Brendan Rodgers, who christened the clunky term “false 7”, plans to move Coutinho back to the number 10 position as soon as he gets a proper left winger). However, for Arsenal, the benefit is that it gives them a numerical advantage whenever teams pack the middle and encourages the type of combination play that makes them so deadly.

The final say, though, went to Aaron Ramsey, not Ozil or Wilshere, despite conceding a last minute penalty. And in a sense, it was logical. The other two playmakers started much closer to the two holders but Ramsey’s positioning, by playing 10 metres or so deeper, meant he had more time and space to assess the game, to measure his passes and crucially, time his runs into the box. When Gibbs played the ball up to Ramsey with five minutes to go, he had three players around him. But by the time they could react, Ramsey had already made up ground against them and was able to fire the goal that gave Arsenal the three points.

Jack Wilshere struggles as Arsenal’s attack falters against Everton

So it is then an unlikely source, César Azpilicueta, we refer to touch on what is at heart, the story of Arsenal’s season. In an interview with Sid Lowe for the Guardian the defender said that “a team is constructed with time and automatismos, habits, mechanisms” so as such, progress will occur gradually. That is surely the case with Arsenal.

Of course, there’s the other side of teambuilding which Chelsea in the past certainly have done and that is to buy “special players”; those players who lessen the adjustment period. Arsenal’s youngsters will soon get to that level but considering the signings made in the summer and the relative age of the squad, that is what it is: a new team. Against Everton on Wednesday evening, we saw those habits and patterns still struggling to form into one collective identity.

In the first-half of the 0-0 draw, Everton harassed Arsenal on the ball and marked them tightly to ensure that they never got into their usual passing rhythm. Arsenal stuttered and failed to get away. By the same token, Everton didn’t really threaten either – more on that later – and by the half-time whistle, both sides were separated by only one pass. In the second-half though, Everton relaxed and allowed Arsenal onto them in the hope of profiting from the gaps on the counter-attack, but held firm.

Arsenal looked disjointed, held together by one outstanding individual – Santi Cazorla – but in the end, creativity was stifled as they managed only 11 shots. And although Everton mustered only one more shot, it was at the back, strangely to say of them, that Arsenal looked more of a unit. Of course, this only confirms what Azpilicueta said at the start: that it’s easier to coach synchronicity at the back. Going forward, instinct and understanding cannot be taught; it’s developed over time. When Arsene Wenger committed his five Brits to the club – and later added Theo Walcott too – this is what he had to say: “Technical stability is important and the game we want to play demands a little bit of blind understanding, therefore it is important that we keep the same players together.”

Tactics and formations only go some way to addressing the nuances of balance and understanding. So as such, it might be better, after watching the draw with Everton, that Arsenal adjust their 4-2-3-1 to make it closer to a 4-3-3 because patently, Jack Wilshere is having a bit of trouble at the tip of the midfield. Of course, he’s still a bit rusty having just returned to the side from injury and he has too much attacking potential to not use him from the start. But Wilshere’s movement to get on the ball in the two sixty minutes he has played so far has left a lot to be desired.

Often against Everton, he dropped deep to try and escape his markers. And often, he didn’t receive the ball from the defence because there was no need. Mikel Arteta was there. And in any case, Laurent Koscielny is so good on the ball that what he needs is somebody forward to hit to. In contrast, Aaron Ramsey’s running was more intelligent, bursting forward into spaces behind the Everton midfield – where Jack Wilshere might have been – or moving wide to offer support. Other times, Santi Cazorla would drift into the attacking midfield position because Jack Wilshere wasn’t there. Indeed, Cazorla and Ramsey combined for the best chance in the first-half by creating an overload on the right before Ramsey whipped a cross into the penalty area which Olivier Giroud contrived to miss.

Wilshere’s inability to make an impact is shown by the places where he received the ball, often furrowing for possession deep to try and influence. Ramsey, perhaps due to the benefit of starting deep, often made intelligent runs to evade Everton’s midfield and had a fairly impressive game.

This conundrum, however, is nothing new to Wenger, Cesc Fabregas initially had trouble adjusting to picking up the ball with his back to goal. Wilshere similarly likes to collect the ball with his body to the goal so he can drive at the defence. When Wilshere got the opportunity to do that against Everton, it was because Arsenal had successfully penned The Toffees back in their own half.

Given that Wilshere has only just returned from injury, it was a surprise nevertheless, that he started given Tomas Rosicky recent form in that position. If Rosicky as well wasn’t quite fit, Santi Cazorla is the type of player who can make Arsenal tiki-taka from attacking midfield. But Arsene Wenger understandably didn’t want to upset the balance of his team and fielding Cazorla in a roaming role on the left allows him to field another creative midfielder. However, given the relative newness of the team, perhaps it’s not such a problem for Arsenal to depend on Cazorla for this moment because he’s just that good. (And indeed it’s arguable, without the right balance, Cazorla suffers in the wide role because he’s denied the freedom to roam laterally in the final third. In any case, he still does although it’s not without its risks).

At the end of the season, Arsenal’s position in the Premier League table will be the barometer which people will judge whether the team has made progress or not. But it doesn’t tell you the whole story.

Arsenal exit despite near-perfect away performance

Bayern Munich 0-2 Arsenal (3-3 aggregate)

The thing with hope is that it exists even in the most unlikeliest of circumstances. Arsenal faced 23 goal attempts, didn’t force Manuel Neuer to make a save but were still a whisker away from winning the tie. Laurent Koscielny scored with five minutes remaining to make it 2-0 meaning Arsenal only had to score one more to go through. In the end, the siege at the Bayern Munich goal never came so perhaps hope errs on the side of reason.

It was a strange game; Bayern Munich didn’t play like Bayern Munich normally do and Arsenal unlike Arsenal, and that created a dynamic far different to the first leg. In truth, FC Bayern didn’t do much different to how they were set out at the Emirates. They created lots of chances (but missed) usually from the edge of the box and attacked primarily down the right with Philip Lahm and Thomas Müller, while at the end of the match, Arsene Wenger was still able to comment that Bayern Munich “defend very, very well.” But their mentality stank and the Allianz Arena shared that timorousness as soon as Arsenal took the early lead. Arsenal weren’t able to profit considering how well they generally tend to play when the momentum swings their way. And as such, we probably didn’t learn that much from Arsenal last night despite the resilience they showed.

Because this was essentially another one of those “second-halves” that seems to indicate improvement but ultimately, you might say that Arsenal only reacted because they had already “lost” the game. But that would be a little bit harsh because what was different about this 2-0 win – all the more impressive because it was played away at Munich too – was that there was a conspicuous plan. Arsenal defended compactly, dropped deep when was required, remained focus to track their runners and tried to force Bayern to “play through our lines.” That’s not an easy thing to do and it showed that there is life in this group of players and that good coaching can harness the untapped potential that we were unsure of. “Overall we never had real control of this match,” said Bayern Munich coach Juup Heynckes. “And were never able to pass the ball in the calm and controlled manner we are used to.”

The flipside of a near-perfect defensive game was that it would invariably have some sort of effect on the team’s attack but Arsenal’s passing was blunted because of Bayern Munich’s exceptionally marking off the ball. It also confirmed that The Gunners still lack a player who can spot gaps in an opposition defence bar Santi Cazorla (and the speed of Theo Walcott) and he had to be shunted out wide to find creative balance. As such, the onus fell on Aaron Ramsey as the “spare” midfielder who could spring out of the defensive block and instigate forward movements. He did just that when he was involved in creating Arsenal’s opener but after the third minute, Bayern’s midfield made sure he was not to break free into space again.

Arsenal should have made the switch earlier to move Cazorla centrally but it appeared as if Wenger was waiting to ride on the crest of momentum that a late goal would bring and that, hopefully, would spark the winner.  Laurent Koscielny’s header on the 85th minute didn’t provoke such a reaction but Arsenal were still able to exit with their heads held high. The defence performed magnificently under the inevitable quality that FC Hollywood possess in attack while Lukasz Fabianski not only pull-off some brilliant saves, but was the vocal organiser that the back four needed to defend perform as it did. But a word on Fabiasnki’s shot-stopping: his technique is probably surer than Wojciech Szczesny’s (Wenger frequently compliments that side of his game) and as such, the fumbles and mis-parries that Szczesny’s recent displays has been littered with, were eliminated.

Failure might have been herioc and glorious and some pride restored but ultimately, elimination by a “technicality” leaves many regrets, tracing back to a fortnight ago in London where not conceding was of paramount importance. But it may also go as far back to the summer where the squad was stripped of a “game changer” for the first time Arsene Wenger’s reign. Arsenal had everything else last night.

Arsenal put to the sword by Bayern Munich’s game intelligence

At the stroke of half-time, Bayern Munich had the chance to go an unassailable three goals up instead of the 3-1 scoreline it eventually finished. The Germans had possession of the ball at the back before they quickly switched it forward to the on-rushing Philip Lahm. As the full-back picked up the ball, Jack Wilshere stretched his arms out as if to say “how did that happen.” Bayern Munich might have felt the same sense of bewilderment when Mario Mandzukic flashed a header wide from Lahm’s cross.

However, it was the story of Arsenal’s night. And Bayern Munich were generally more clinical when good chances fell their way. It also summed up the gulf in intelligence. Bayern Munich had a plan and understood their game much clearer than Arsenal did. In a way, the selection of Theo Walcott up front typified that. Arsenal are at their best when they bump passes quickly off each other, usually off an inverted pivot, as is the feature of most of their second-half fightbacks – and for a period here, they did just that. But the deployment of Walcott centrally meant they had to find a different way to get through, typically by looking to spring the striker in behind. That proved too difficult against an expert Bayern defence. They nearly got Walcott through three times in the first fifteen minutes and as such; we might have been talking about how well it worked. As it turned out, the best chance Arsenal created from open play was when Olivier Giroud struck from Walcott’s swung cross.

There was an inevitability about it all when Bayern Munich raced to a two-goal lead. First Toni Kroos opened the scoring with an excellent half-volley and then Thomas Müller bundled the ball over the line when Wojciech Szczesny should have held. Arsenal would have been made aware of the enormity of the task ahead and conceding early dealt a massive blow to their plans. The truth is, one day practice could never be enough preparation and whatever structure they had at the start of the season, supposedly the Steve Bould influence, has inexplicably disappeared. Indeed, at times Arsenal looked over-prepared, if you can say that, tried too hard to be switched on and organised, that they forgot to track runners. They became too narrow and especially let the full-backs run free. For Bayern’s third, Mandzukic and Lahm combined again, this time successfully, as Mandzukic forced in a cross from the FC Bayern captain.

The difference in football intelligence was apparent. Bayern Munich didn’t just let Arsenal pass the ball – The Gunners had 55% possession at the end of the game and Per Mertesacker to Mikel Arteta was the most bountiful combination (29 passes). But they made it hard to pass through them, creating a wall of black shirts, each one marking a man and zone. It’s not if Arsenal can’t do this; in the season of 2010/11, when Arsenal beat Barcelona at the Emirates, they defended with a combination of high-pressing and the Dutch principle of “through-marking” which Bayern displayed.

This season, there seems almost an acceptance that Arsenal can’t defend that way. Perhaps because the effect we saw it have on their potency at the start of the season when Arsenal drew twice against Sunderland and Stoke. Perhaps also, like the Brazil team of 1970, they’re a team not “characterised by strong marking,” said the coach Mario Zagallo. So “we brought our team back behind the line of the ball.” But then, Arsene Wenger’s side are not as good an attacking outlet as that team. “It looked like we could come back to 2-2, but unfortunately we conceded another goal,” said Wenger. “The 3-1 was a big blow for the team. From that moment on, you could see that we might even concede one more because we didn’t keep our structure anymore.”

The inclusion of Aaron Ramsey was supposed to give Arsenal that solidity. Instead, for all his efforts, he was outshone by his opposite number Javi Martinez. Ramsey couldn’t assert himself as the spare man in midfield, often outnumbered when he received the ball. In contrast, Martinez, signed for €40m, even had the opportunity to get forward a few times, read play superbly (one interception from a pass by Mertesacker stuck in the mind) and alternated well with Bastian Schweinsteiger. Actually, Ramsey and Martinez’s stats ended up very similar: both made 6 interceptions and their passing accuracy were in the seventies. But as a collective, FC Bayern was far superior.

The movement of goalscorers Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos were superb too although Arsenal gave considerably more time on the ball. Kroos has a curious way of playing which had ITV Sport commentator, Andy Townsend saying he’s “never seen him dominate a game.” What he didn’t see is the way that he gets into positions which allow others to profit, often dropping deep in the first-half to receive possession, or moving to the left side to create an overload and then switching the ball quickly to the other side. Müller describes his style as “ready for action, unorthodox and efficient.” And he also highlighted what sets the top sides apart in the Champions League, something which was the talk in Germany when Borussia Dortmund crashed out of the tournament last season. “In the Bundesliga, you could say we lack concentration sometimes,” says Müller. “But when it is the round of 16 in the Champions League, everyone is really fired up and focused. We know how important these games are, as you don’t have much time to make up for mistakes.”

Arsenal certainly realised that end the end of the game, chasing an equaliser when not conceding was arguably more important. But the tie might have been over before it began because Arsenal hadn’t adequately readied themselves psychologically. When Philip Lahm bypassed Jack Wilshere late in the first-half, it encapsulated their problems. “We sort of questioned ourselves in the first half: ‘Can we really live with it?” he said. They couldn’t. Bayern’s game intelligence was simply too much.

Five points on Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal

1. Bacary Sagna typifies Arsenal’s defensive performance

The referee had barely put his lips to the whistle when Bacary Sagna punched both arms in the air and let out a cry of both jubilation and relief. Wojciech Szczesny crashed to the floor and held the ball tightly to his chest, knowing that all three points were finally secure. Sunderland had just pelted their 48th cross into the box and a little less than that many long passes, and Arsenal survived them all. When one of them did get through, however, Arsenal had Szczesny to thank (he also made some crucial punches to go with his saves), some wasteful finishing – and Titus Bramble.

It was one of Arsenal’s most impressive defensive performances to date this season, certainly from a last-ditch perspective with Bacary Sagna typifying the fight. This was an important game for him as recently, his form has come into question. Certainly it’s not been of the same high standards he had set in his last five seasons but then again, watch how Carl Jenkinson coped when deputising during the 1-0 win and then see how much of a bitch it is to play right-back for Arsenal.

With Laurent Koscielny a late withdrawal through injury, Sagna had to slot in at centre-back and was excellent. Last week, we talked about how good he is in the air (despite his 5 ft 9 frame) and against Sunderland, the stats bore that out. He won six out of ten of his aerial challenges, and cleared the ball 15 times, 11 of which were with his head. In the second-half, those skills were increasingly asked to come to the fore but in the first-half, with Sunderland playing wider and on the floor, he could use his knowledge of the full-back position to help Jenkinson.

That’s not to say the whole of the game was a war of attrition. Arsenal were so comfortable in the first-half that they should have scored more, playing some beautiful football in the process. But things started to dissipate when Carl Jenkinson was red-carded and Arsenal were forced increasingly back. But they were still a danger in the second-half, particularly on the break and actually at times even with ten men, passed the ball with relative comfort. However, it proved more difficult to hang on as time passed and Arsenal – and Sunderland too – spurned decent openings.

After the red-card, Aaron Ramsey moved to right-back and performed admirably against the dangerous Stéphane Sessègnon. Arsene Wenger waited until the 87th minute to make his final substitution, when Ignasi Miquel replaced Theo Walcott, as Arsenal were still a threat on the counter-attack and they switched to a 5-3-1. They held firm despite the growing number of balls that were now entering the box and when Szczesny grabbed the ball with the last cross of the game, they knew that they secured the win that they deserved.

2. Selection gets the best out of fantastic three

With the way the early decisions went, on another day Sunderland’s wanton intimidation might have ruffled Arsenal. They pressed Arsenal up the pitch and sometimes left a foot in the challenge longer than necessary. But Arsenal’s response wasn’t just to fight fire with fire – indeed, by 20 minutes; they had committed 7 fouls to Sunderland’s 2 – but they simply upped the pace of their passing where it didn’t look possible. Jack Wilshere was the drive and seemingly acted as the resistor as he rebuffed challenge after challenge and when he was on the ball, Arsenal passed faster and faster. Soon, they were rebounding one-twos off each other and got into full flow.

It was perhaps fitting then, that when Arsenal did score, it featured the three players that look unstoppable at the moment with the ball at their feet: first Jack Wilshere, who took three players out with his burst, then Theo Walcott as he spun and played the ball back and finally Santi Cazorla who applied the finish. It was probably no accident too that the goal featured a combination between the three players because the selection to put them on the same line was to encourage them to get on the ball more. Actually, the line that they played on wasn’t a straight one, it was slanted.

Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 saw Cazorla on the left, asked to cut in and link-up with the central midfielders thus allowing Walcott the freedom to play high up. At times, it looked like a 4-2-2-2 but Walcott didn’t get in behind as a wide striker might be expected to – probably because the way Arsenal were set up forced the play to become narrow quickly. Instead, he found space when Arsenal quickly switched emphasis from left to right and he could dart inside his full-back. Walcott had two early chances and of course, the effectiveness of the freedom he was given to move was best demonstrated by his pass to set up Santi Cazorla coming in from deep.

In the second-half, Arsenal’s formation didn’t actually change that much despite the red card. Walcott still buzzed about with freedom, as did Cazorla who ended up wherever he felt he could be dangerous. That liberty wasn’t limited to just an attacking capacity, though, because Cazorla also worked hard defensively to cover the gaps. The one blemish to his performance, though, was that he was so wasteful, failing to hit the target with his four other shots. Nevertheless, it was an impressive performance from Arsenal in attack despite the profligacy. What would have been equally encouraging though, was that not only are Arsenal playing beautiful football again, but they are now more difficult to rough up.

3. Olivier Giroud needs to add robustness to his game. Or something like that

Olivier Giroud does a lot of things. He can hold the ball up, combine quickly with his team-mates, win headers, make poacher-like runs towards the near-post and create chances. The problem is, because he can do all of these things, when he’s not doing at least one of these things well, it’s easy to criticise him. Last week, against Stoke, he was better as a creative fulcrum but when the chances were presented to him, he wasn’t greedy enough to take them. He was afforded the same level of opportunities against Sunderland but he was once again the wall which Arsenal bounced passes off. Except this time, they didn’t really stick and the passes of his own were often very ambitious (who’s heard of a striker who attempts four through balls! – though only one was successful). But Giroud deserves a bit of slack; he’s doing a commendable job as the only recognised striker.

4. Arteta still the main man

When Sunderland began the game by pressing Arsenal up the pitch, it looked like they might pose Arsenal familiar problems when they’re closed down high up the pitch. Alfred N’Diaye in particular harassed Mikel Arteta and his discomfort when marked tightly looked like it might rear it’s ugly head. It’s not that Arteta is not able to manoeuvre away from opponents; his close control is superb. But rather, Arsenal’s strategy to push the midfielders up the pitch and isolate the centre-backs so they have more time on the ball, looked like it might be vulnerable. But like the rest of the half, Arsenal grew more comfortable and Arteta once again showed why he’s indispensable to Wenger. Tactically, he was superb, hassling Sunderland in a gritty early period and was a calming presence when the team went down to ten men. He had Aaron Ramsey alongside him this time and the presence of the Welshman even allowed him to get forward and show his effective, and under-used, burst to get away from opponents.

Ramsey may harbour hopes of making Arteta’s position his own in the near future but whatever he brings to the side with his passing (although his tendency to dwell was almost exposed at one point), he’s not ready to replace in stature.

5. Sunderland should just wing-it

Martin O’Neill’s managerial reputation may be a little over hyped. As a player, he was a nippy little winger who played on the right side for Brian Clough’s NottinghamForest. He’s taken on that style as manager where his teams’ have generally focused on wing-play and getting crosses into the box. But he might have to realise that it’s part of his side’s problem as well.

O’Neill has just brought in Danny Graham and the expectation is that he’ll partner Steven Fletcher up front thus giving Sunderland another body to aim crosses at. Except crossing is a highly inefficient strategy – only about 1.7% of all crosses lead to goals. That’s not to say it should be eschewed altogether but as a primary tactic, it’s not to be relied upon. Because it’s effectiveness is determined by a lot of factors: the amount of crosses you put in, the number of players in the box, the quality of the delivery and your teams’ mentality. And sometimes that’s not enough. Sunderland might be better off adding a little dexterity to their play and mixing it up with their crossing game. Indeed, Sessegnon frequently got the better of Nacho Monreal and then Carl Jenkinson that it seems a little bit of a waste that his other team-mates can’t match his skill, and that his only option was to just fling it in. And indeed, after the 48thcross that Sunderland failed to convert, you’d have expected somebody of Martin O’Neill’s calibre to have recognised that.

Seven points on Arsenal 1-0 Stoke City

1. Arsenal revert back to type to win

In the end, it was probably appropriate that Lukas Podolski scored from a free-kick. Because it was a game in which Arsenal struggled to create chances through their established way of playing, as Stoke defended deep and forced Arsenal to try and find a different way to score – usually through crosses. And it generally did work, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Olivier Giroud and to a lesser extent, Laurent Koscielny, spurning good chances from corners. However, the best chance Arsenal did create in the first-half actually came from a quick, flowing move which started with Giroud dropping deep and then spinning away from his marker wwith a deft touch and ended with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s shot tipped wide.

If chances few and far were created through an extended passing move, it’s not as if Arsenal played badly. It’s true, that for the most part they were a bit ponderous, with Abou Diaby tending to slow down play. But when he got into the mood, like the rest of his Arsenal team-mates, and played like they can with quick give-and-goes and getting runners beyond quickly, some of Arsenal’s play with a joy to watch. It wasn’t quite as scintillating as their performances in the second-halves against both Liverpool and Chelsea where I can’t overstate enough, just how good it was. Put it this way, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Arsenal ping the ball one-touch accurately to feet like that.

So perhaps it was apt in the end that Lukas Podolski did score because when he and Santi Cazorla both came on, it gave Arsenal something different. Or rather, got them playing the way they normally play. Which is a bit worrying in a sense because it suggests that they’re still very reliant on a core XI of players but make no bones about, this is the way Arsenal must play. They were probably too reliant on wing-play for 60 minutes of the game as Arsene Wenger chose to go with two wingers because he knew Stoke would defend narrow, and as such, their most potent outlet was Theo Walcott on the right. Lukas Podolski, on the other hand, is another striker that Arsenal like to play on the wings but he is different to Walcott in that he’s not so direct. Actually, he fits in imperceptibly to Arsenal’s give-and-go style and his partnership on the left side with Cazorla, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere looks so potent at the moment.

2. Assured début for Monreal

There could be no greater culture shock for Nacho Monreal than Stoke City for his English league debut and fears whether he could mix it with the physical stuff were allayed when he bloodied Jonathan Walters in an unfortunate clash of heads. Actually, it was probably the type of collision a rookie would make but for everything else, Monreal looked very assured.

He started the game cautiously but grew more confident in the second-half and played in some telling crosses. At £8m, Monreal is not just a back-up; he’s someone in full ownership of his career and will challenge Gibbs for a starting berth from the off. His passing was neat here, which is what you’d expect from a Spaniard (although his first club, Osasuna, were noted for being the most Stoke-like team in La Liga). It’s tactically, though, which he might be a step up for Wenger as he is positionally sound and is built a bit like a centre-back, giving balance to both sides of defence.

Monreal v Stoke

3. Improved defensive display (but it was only Stoke)

How can one explain the difference in performances which can see Arsenal defend as securely as they did here and so jittery in their last few matches? Thomas Vermaelen says they have started recent matches cautiously as they chose to sit and examine opponents’ approaches but as we’ve found out, it’s often proved costly in first-halves. At least it would be easier against Stoke, if that’s even possible to say, because everyone knows how they play. And indeed, Wenger admitted that his side prepared mentally for this test which saw them hardly conceded anything from set-pieces. Of course, Stoke City are a different team away than they are at the Britannia Stadium and often, they were pushed so far back by Arsenal that they couldn’t build out with long passes.

If anything, it hints at Arsenal’s problems being psychological, both from a defensive viewpoint and an attacking one. Because going forward, it demands a certain level of understanding and intuition, and defensively, a lack of confidence often pervades the team and its fans. It’s gotten to the point where nervousness has become self-perpetuating, and The Emirates can be a difficult place to play. However on Saturday, the fans were fully behind their team.

From a tactical perspective, Wenger says defensive frailties are a consequence of “our philosophy.” It’s true; attack is a form of Arsenal’s defence, not necessarily in the form of pressing but when the team keeps the ball, it keeps trouble away from their goal. However, it’s when they lose the ball that sometimes Arsenal are not adequately prepared. Often both full-backs push forwards at the same time while Arsenal style anyway, demands resources to be committed to the attack quickly, exposing the backline.

Arsenal’s style is inherently risky but not anymore so than Barcelona, who achieve equilibrium by pressing intensely and strategically while suffocating opponents by religiously keeping the ball. Arsenal’s Champions League opponents, Bayern Munich actually play very similar but while he difference can even be amounted to a 3-5% possession variation or better players, they are probably just better at controlling the nuances of attacking play than Arsenal. Indeed, a study in the 1960’s from the labs of Dynamo Kiev says that “a team that makes errors in no more than 15 to 18% of its acts is unbeatable.” You do this by making the pitch as big as possible when you have the ball and as small as possible when you don’t. Arsenal achieved the latter against Stoke but need to do it more consistently if they are to be more competitive.

4. Arteta still the man

Often managers have their favourites and it’s undeniable that Mikel Arteta is Wenger’s. Arteta represents exactly what Wenger wants from his midfielders tactically: someone that can pass the ball and tackle, and from his position, Arteta is his eye on the pitch. His return meant Aaron Ramsey was the one to miss out who some might say unluckily so. But whatever impressions he might have made with his passing, positionally Ramsey is not as advanced as Arteta. That was shown against Liverpool where, despite completing more than 100 passes in successive league games (Arteta made 105 out of 116 against Stoke) he was a bit late in sensing the danger. That could be shown by his positioning when the two goals were scored. For Suarez’s goal, the ball took an unfortunate nick off him as he rushed back to help out when Thomas Vermalen mis-kicked the cross. And when Henderson broke through, his slide tackle was a bit unnecessary as Arsenal had men around the Liverpool midfielder, but felt he had to because of the desperateness of the situation. (His energy, however, brings an interesting dynamic and might even replicate Mathieu Flamini in importance in time).

What Ramsey might have going for him ahead of Arteta is his passing range and what I liked about him in that role is that he collects the ball in between the centre-backs, forcing them to spread wide. This makes it harder for opponents to press Arsenal. (When Arteta plays, he tends to push up when Arsenal have it at the back and that puts more onus on the centre-backs, especially Per Mertesacker who the opponents want to have the ball). What Arsenal did well, however, against Stoke with Arteta and Diaby, was that both midfielders alternated dropping deep for possession so whatever plans Stoke had getting tight to them on the ball, was made more difficult.

Arteta can also be criticised for being a bit too passive with his passing which is a bit unfair because he made the most final third passes yesterday. Indeed, Arsenal’s style, which is about rebounding quick one-touch passes in the final third like a puck between hockey sticks, gives the impression that it should always be fast and forward moving. What Arteta probably understands is that it’s not always possible and sometimes, moving the ball back and across is equally as effective in creating space.

5. Giroud needs to be more greedy

Might Arsenal rue not bringing in another striker in the transfer window? That’s the impression Olivier Giroud gave at times, especially when he incomprehensibly headed across goal from a corner-kick when he should have tried to score. His touch was graceful at times, dropping deep to link up play or acting as the pivot for the midfielders to play around. But he lacks the goal-scoring instinct or the explosive moment that could make something out of nothing for Arsenal. Alas, Podolski’s goal probably postponed such tedious discussions of needing another striker but to avoid it in the future, Giroud might need to add a greedy streak to his game.

6. Theo Walcott continues to make an impact on the game on a stunning level

That’s it. Granted, his direct contribution to the result was winning a free-kick but he was brilliant throughout on the right of the attack, which might actually be his best position. Nevertheless, the key is seemingly to let him play to his ego, let him take free-kicks and corners however wild they might be. Thierry Henry did the same thing at the start.

7. Sagna’s lack of form exaggerated

His form has come into question recently but Wenger remains forever grateful to Giles Grimandi for bringing Bacary Sagna to his attentions. He can do everything and as such, at 29 years old, Arsenal would be foolish to not offer Sagna a final, big contract. A downturn in performance is probably just a blip – just ask Patrice Evra what they were saying about him this time last season. But Carl Jenkinson must be pushing Sagna close, especially in these types of matches where opponents sit deep and his crossing can come to the fore. But Sagna brings height and tactical understanding, especially when Walcott is granted the freedom that he has been given recently. As such, Sagna’s lack of form might be a little exaggerated: his role in the side has been adjusted slightly recently. Even so, he’s still a very important player to Arsenal.