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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Seven points on Arsenal 1-0 Queens Park Rangers

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

1. Wright-Phillips v Arteta

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

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

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

2. Full-backs stay back

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

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

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

3. Francis Coquelin at left-back

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

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

4. How Arsenal chances were created

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

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

3. Set-piece

4. Robin van Persie

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

5. Theo Walcott makes great runs but fails to deliver

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

6. Per Mertesacker continues to show his quality

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

7. Robin van Persie has the last laugh

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

Eight points on Arsenal 1-1 Fulham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Johan Djourou’s passes in either half.

4. Walcott impresses as a winger

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

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

5. Bobby Zamora didn’t fancy Per Mertesacker

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

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Bobby Zamora picked the ball up mainly on the left.

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

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

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8. Van Persie the creator

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal 1-0 Swansea: Arteta helps Gunners rebuild

“Beleaguered Arsenal need to rediscover their sense of fun,” was the Guardian’s headline and rather than dwell on the obvious inhibitions Arsenal played with, Paul Hayward may be right. The Gunners were soporific in their passing in the 1-0 win over Swansea; no longer does the ball move up the field like a puck rebounding from stick to stick like the great Russian ice-hockey teams, rather it jerks and every so often twitches to life. Mikel Arteta initially gave Arsenal a bit of spark and his attempts to keep Arsenal passing and moving with short, snappy passes were not confidently received. The thing is, with the swift to a 4-3-3 and with Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri having departed, Arsenal are like a halfway-house. They use three strikers — as part of Arséne Wenger’s remit to make the side more dynamic — and two creative midfielders – possibly one less than the side needs.

Robert Sweeney of Santapelota likens Arsenal to the scattered approach of Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona team in the two years prior to Pep Guardiola’s appointment in 2008. He writes on twitter; “And it’s curious how since 2009 Arsenal have resembled that late-Rijkaard side; lackadaisical, periods of possession without penetration [and] defensively flacid. But the craziest thing is that even the 2006-08 Arsenal side, supposedly in transition were more imposing more imposing than Barça Dec 06-May 08. Let alone this current Arsenal lot. [Is] the transition is getting worse?”

Perhaps it’s a bit harsh considering it was written after Arsenal’s humiliating and confusing 8-2 defeat to Manchester United but it does highlight the difficulties in finding a balance. In that respects, Arteta and Yossi Benayoun are probably more crucial signings than any defensive ones if we are to believe the rhetoric Arsenal are an “attacking” side. As Wenger said after the game, Arteta gave the team a “technical security” that they have perhaps lacked this season while Benayoun comes into a position Arsenal don’t have: wide creative. It’s telling that Wenger banks a lot on the return of the player who most resembles his ideals; Jack Wilshere with a glide and technical accuracy that represents the new Arsenal. With that in mind, here’s some thoughts on the win over of Swansea.

1. Arteta gives Ramsey security

My first thought after seeing Mikel Arteta in the red and white was that “he knows how to defend in a 4-3-3.” Indeed after a couple of crucial interceptions high up the pitch, he showed just how he might be Arsenal’s most important signing. His passing we all know about but his defensive work is often understated and it should give Arsenal much needed balance in the formation.

In possession, he often rotated with Ramsey, allowing the Welshman to get forward and vice-versa. Both players like to drop deep to pick up the ball so it allowed more fluidity with the ball. However, the upshot of this is that one of those players must take up the position “between-the-lines” and get close to Robin van Persie. Thus far this season, Arsenal haven’t done this as well as the last, as the forwards have often been left isolated and the team lacking a player to link up the midfield and attack. Against Swansea, the partnership of Arteta and Ramsey, plus the roaming of Andrei Arshavin (although you can argue, in doing so, the Russian often got into Arteta’s way) helped address that issue somewhat but you can’t help but feel the play is still a bit clunky and uncertain in the final third.

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<Figure 1> Arsenal’s rotating midfield. In the 4-3-3 — which it may be useful to distinguish as a 4-1-2-3 — Arteta and Ramsey can alternate responsibilities to get forward. Here, when one drops back, the other pushes forward. The average touch positions also showed how this worked as both of them where shown to have most of the touches very central as opposed to either side of Emmanuel Frimpong.

Ramsey is not a natural playmaker — he’s someone who prefers to knit play rather than penetrate defences — therefore the willingness of Arteta to dominate playmaking duties, takes some of the burden from him to create. In the second-half, in an attempt to get the second — and expected killer goal — Wenger reverted to a 4-2-3-1, trying to get Ramsey closer to van Persie. Arsenal’s play became less structured; that was probably most evident when Benayoun came on and tried to link up between the lines but found it too unorganised to be fully effective.

2. Robin van Persie in a more orthodox role

One of the players most impacted by an unfixed playmaker in the side is Robin van Persie. The forward has been unable to perform to the effectiveness he did last season when he scored 21 goals in 23 appearances but it’s hard to pin down exactly why. Andrei Arshavin says it’s the lack of creative players which has impacted on his form. “Watching the Udinese match,” said Arshavin. “I said to [Nicklas] Bendtner that now we have no one so comfortable with passing the ball to Robin van Persie or who ideally utilises the qualities of the other forwards.”

Indeed, his assertions do have some credence. Without Cesc Fábregas getting close to him, he has been unable to work off another team-mate and instead is playing higher up. It is perhaps significance that Barcelona’s legendary winger Charly Rexach, Johan Cruyff’s former assistant, feels Fábregas is best as close to the striker as possible as a mediapunta, the role he is playing now to much success and van Persie now is feeling the full affect of his departure.

Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel van Persie is not making the most the situation at Arsenal by not dropping deep enough to create space. There’s perhaps a hesitancy if no one is making the runs beyond him and indeed, Arsenal’s play has often tended to narrow earlier on in the build up as the wide players are strikers therefore their natural tendencies is to look central.

Van Perise works best as a nine-and-half; working the channels between the centre-backs and the full-backs, dropping off when needed but if the middle is already congested, he will tend to hold his position. Against Swansea, he tried to take the position of Arshavin who regularly cut in off the flanks but it’s notable he’s always looking for the run in behind. Walcott was usually crowded out so that option wasn’t available enough.

Playing strikers on the flanks should in theory work as it would encourage him to drop deeper more so there’s perhaps a frustration issue here. While the fact that Arsenal’s play tends to narrow early may mean he hasn’t the option or the space to play as a false nine as regularly as he would like. The return of Gervinho as someone who more naturally stretches play should bode him well as the pair have linked up well in the few matches this season and in pre-season too.

3. Per Mertesacker makes comfortable start

It concerned everyone of Per Mertesacker’s relative lack of pace and indeed, the German’s action indicated even he had reservations. Everything he did, he did in trying to compensate for his lack of speed. He ran flat out every time just to ensure he didn’t but once he gets used to the intensity of the game, he should prove an astute signing. Swansea was perhaps the perfect game to get used to the speed of the league as their passing is soporific but they have a unexpected turn of pace that would keep him on his toes. And he did that well through good positioning and reading of play although he was twice flat-footed when the ball was crossed in. One tackle particularly stood out as it was every bit from the Tony Adams text book; as Swansea came rushing out from a quick break, he out of a sea of shirts, remained calm and poked his foot at the ball to nick it away. His pace is still a concern and will be targeted therefore onus may be on Sagna to tuck in whenever possible. It’s notable that the partnership between Mertesacker and Koscielny was more flat than Arsenal’s centre-back pairing normally, playing in a line rather than one ahead of the other. Maybe that was the Per Mertesacker effect as Wenger said, “when a Germans talks, you listen.”