Arsene Wenger has always been wonderfully inventive with who he casts in the role of Arsenal’s defensive midfielder, and sure enough Francis Coquelin’s pathway to the side has been no less remarkable. We know the story by now: on another non-descript loan in his fifth year at the club, Coquelin was recalled amidst an injury crisis in midfield. He wasn’t expecting to play because things don’t just happen like that, but little did he know that Wenger had birds watching every pass, tackle and mistake that he made, and each favourable/unfavorable report sent back to headquarters served to shape his very future. Luck had played his part too, but when everything down to the last detail concerns a man like Wenger, luck will eventually favour you.
A place had opened up in the side for Coquelin because of injuries – and also because, as Martin Keown revealed during Arsenal’s 2-0 FA Cup win over Hull City, Wenger was looking for someone that could provide the snarl and aggression that Mathieu Flamini did, but more crucially, play more proactively, pushing the team up the pitch. Coquelin did this, reinvigorating the side through the way he did things simply: winning the ball back and passing it quickly. At the same time, other pieces began to align: Mesut Ozil returned from injury back to his favoured position, Olivier Giroud came back like a dog unleashed, and Arsene Wenger could chose from a settled squad.
These things all come together to explain Arsenal’s unbeaten run which began in February and ended at the start of the week, against Swansea. What it showed that finding attacking chemistry takes time and continuing on the Coquelin theme, as does somebody who bends to the will of the side. As Tim Stillman writes for Arseblog, “for Wenger, the defensive midfielder is usually the last piece of his puzzle.” Yet, as we found out in the 1-0 defeat to Swansea, Coquelin is still some way from the perfect fit. He’s as good as Arsenal have got – a halfway house between Mikel Arteta and Flamini – though to be truly “The Answer”, he needs to add more subtlety to his game.
In that game, Coquelin was constantly found wanting as the outlet in possession at the back. In fact, he’s the exact opposite: a decoy when Arsenal have the ball in defence, looking to shuffle opponent midfielders this way and that to open up space for the centre-backs to pass through. Indeed, after the 3-1 win over Hull City, Wenger praised the way Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker stayed composed with the ball at the back, patiently waiting for an opening to develop. Coquelin by contrast, rarely took responsibility for this and in an opening 35 minutes, when Arsenal assumed a two-goal lead, he only made 9 passes. Against Swansea he was more involved yet hardly the pivot that you need when defences are set. Wenger, though, is inventive in that regard when details his midfielders to push up the pitch, to force the opponents back so that Arsenal can play as much as possible in their half. I expand on this tactic in my most recent Arseblog column.
In that game, he also asked Ozil and Santi Cazorla, in addition to Ramsey, to drop deeper for the ball and use their 1v1 ability to get into space or play the pass through. It will be interesting to see how this tactic will develop; whether it was the players who initiated this move by being drawn to the ball or Wenger is trying to draw the opponent’s backline out simultaneously – a la PSG – to play the ball over the top (thus the recent recasting of Theo Walcott up front).
Though the big issue is the role of Coquelin. Does he take it on himself to become a more nuanced midfielder? Because he is a far more subtle player than given credit for; his first-touch is clever which he uses to get out of trouble, while he has two good feet. And we haven’t seen his reaction if opponents press Arsenal up the pitch. Does he continue to follow the same movements away from the ball carrier? The call for him is not to become a playmaker but if he doesn’t get on the ball enough, then Arsenal’s fluency can suffer, especially if other attacking players, Ozil or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain say, are forced to come towards the ball and away from the goal. As Johan Cruyff used to say, if the holding midfielder is not involved in the build-up, then he becomes a “block”, stopping you from passing the ball out effectively. More pertinently he adds, “if you bring the ball out well initially, then you’ll play well. If you don’t do that then there’s no chance of playing well.”
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.
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.
– Kroos’s excellent pass set up the key moment in the match – Bayern Munich’s “sterile” domination a by-product of their technical superiority – Wenger needs to improve his side’s ball-retention to really kick on
In the end, Arsenal’s Champions League aspirations were cut down to size by one glorious pass by Toni Kroos. The Bayern Munich midfielder, picking the ball up 10-yards outside the penalty box, lifted it over a static Arsenal defence who could not help but stand and watch, as if somebody had stopped time and simply placed the ball in the air and restarted time again. Arjen Robben, who initially played the pass to Kroos, was alive to the opportunity and pounced on the give-and-go, trapping the ball superbly and inducing Wojciech Szczesny into a foul. David Alaba missed the subsequent penalty but it was clear, having seen out Arsenal’s early storm, that the game would turn on that sending off and that one superb moment of vision from Kroos.
It’s not that Arsenal didn’t have the quality to get back into the game but that piece of inventiveness in a way, already highlighted the technical edge that Bayern held over Arsenal, at least at face value. It’s true that Arsene Wenger’s side could harbour much regret from the 2-0 defeat, especially from the way they started the game and then should have had the lead when on eight-minutes Mesut Ozil horribly messed up from the penalty spot. Still, Arsenal’s gameplan was working superbly for the first 15-20 minutes, unsettling Bayern on the ball and breaking quickly. They had lots of joy down the right, especially with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and then the targeted flick-ons from Yaya Sanogo and Bacary Sagna. But then, the game starting to settle into an ominous pattern: Bayern Munich increasingly began to monopolise possession and play the game outside Arsenal’s box. There were sporadic moments to attack after that but the crucial thing for Arsenal was that there were chances on the break; something which was taken away from Arsenal after the red-card before half-time. (To put into context how the game was taken away from Arsenal in the second-half, Bayern Munich completed 494 passes after the break. By comparison Arsenal managed just 38).
Technically, this Bayern Munich side is probably somewhere in between the two ball-hogging Barcelona sides which entertained Arsenal at the Emirates in 2010 & 2011, and the Bayern side which Arsenal faced last year. Indeed, in those matches, those teams found out that they couldn’t dominate The Gunners for the full ninety-minutes and as such, there was valid reason here for Arsenal to harbour great regret.
Yet, it was Bayern Munich’s superior technical quality – something that’s ingrained in their mentality much deeper than just being able to pass the ball accurately – which allowed them to assume the tie away from Arsenal.
In the past, Wenger has talked about this as sterile domination (most recently he has said this about Southampton, saying that their possession, in Arsenal’s 2-0 win in November, was an “illusion”); or in other words, passing the ball for passing sake. But for those sides, sterile domination isn’t an aim: it’s a by-product of their voraciousness to be better than the rest at manipulating the ball. In that sense, it’s a grave error for Wenger to continue dismissing the necessary-evil(?) of sterile domination. It forces teams back, and provokes teams to play, at 0-0, in a way that seems inherently defensive (anti-football even in some cases), and it makes it harder to counter-attack against them. Of course, in recent times, there’s been a movement against possession-fixated sides that has been used to great effect called counter-pressing, most devastatingly used by Bayern Munich in the Champions League against Barcelona. Arsenal have tried to adopt those methods to some degree this season and indeed, before the red card in this match.
The most piercing comment of the match was not, however, Wenger’s indignation of the triple-punishment that his side suffered after Robben’s “play-acting” but rather, the approach that he revealed pre-match that they were going to take, which was to defend first. That was him accepting that Bayern are the better side, which in itself is not new information, however, it should put to bed the notion that when two possession-based attacking sides meet, we’re likely to see a festival of goals. Indeed, it’s more likely we’ll see one team defend for large periods and the other try to weather the storm – and possibly after going a goal down, forced to react. That in itself is a bit of a regret: we rarely ever see two sides defined by possession go toe-to-toe on equal footing for the whole match: one is usually a cut above the other. The last I remember seeing such a game was in 2010 when Argentina defeated Spain 4-1 in a friendly with near 50-50 possession each. Other similar encounters, Arsenal’s 2-1 win at the Emirates in 2011 against Barcelona saw Arsenal only accrue 36% of the ball. That, though, after weathering a first-half Barca storm and then having to go Catenaccio in the aggregate defeat away. (Pep Guardiola’s Bayern against Tata Martino’s Barcelona might be the closest we come to seeing possession v possession).
Richard Whittall, editor of The Score, makes a similar point. When you see two sides like Arsenal and Bayern Munich, and then the comprehensive way Arsenal in which were erased from the match red-card after, you wonder why a team as technically proficient as The Gunners couldn’t react. Yet, it’s often forgotten that possession football is diverse – as diverse as the game itself – and usually the best teams are the ones who cultivate possession. In his piece, Whittall uses the example of Manchester City’s defeat 2-0 defeat to Barcelona, saying:
And yet ten minutes in last night, the illusion there is a single, homogeneous style in build-up play in Europe was undone by the clear juxtaposition of the lanky giants in Blue taking on the upright, two-touch-and-go efficiency of the boys in red and purple (what are Barca’s colours, exactly?). One of these teams was not like the other. One of them didn’t belong.
If that seems a little harsh an analogy to use on Arsenal, a team who under Wenger have captivated the world for over 15 years, consider Pep Guardiola’s dismissal of interchangeability and fluidity as a tactic. In a way, he could be dismissing Arsene Wenger’s style which is to grant players the freedom to move around the pitch when in the attacking-third. On the training ground, that’s cultivated by small sided games of 5v5, 7v7 etc. to encourage spontaneous combination play or by drills such as one called “through-play” whereby the team lines up as it would in a normal match but without opponents, so that the players can memorise where team-mates are intuitively and pass the ball between them. For Wenger, the main focus is on expressionism and autonomy. The importance of possession is preached of course but keeping the ball must have a means: patience is only tolerated to an extent.
Guardiola’s approach, however, is more scientific, more hands-on. Players must see the pitch as a grid, each occupying a “square” and making sure each one is filled. He says moving the ball is more important than the man moving as that’s the best way to work opponents. Thomas Muller explains: “It isn’t about having possession just for the sake of it, that’s not the concept. It’s about using possession to position the team in the opposition’s half in a way that makes us less liable to be hit on the break.
Guardiola’s methods are not to be used as a stick to beat Wenger with: he deserves to have faith in the way he works, while his Arsenal side is one that continues to play better football than most. Indeed, at 11 v 11 he had realistic reasons to expect that Arsenal could win this game. However, there are teams that are taking the game to new levels now, and watching the way Bayern Munich stretched the pitch, time after time creating overloads and opening up half-spaces, it’s little wonder that Arsenal weren’t able to get back in the game after Szczesny saw red.
**NB: Pep Guardiola after the match: “Today we again saw that it all depends on possession. We should have fought harder during the first ten minutes. It’s a question of personality; you need to want the ball. We are not a great counterattacking team, as we don’t have the physical requirements for that. We always need to have the ball, that’s what it boils down to.”
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.
Mikel Arteta might be well placed to comment on Arsenal’s unfulfilled potential. He was in the Everton team that was thrashed 7-0 inMay 2005 by an Arsenal side that gave the most compelling argument for football as an art form. More relevantly, though, it was an Arsenal side which featured an amalgamation of the “Invincibles”, and a sprinkling of potentially world-beating youngsters who supposed to carry the club through the move to the Emirates. On that day they were devastating and even though the title was already relinquished to Chelsea, there was a feeling that there was enough talent on show to ensure they deliver more trophies in the future.
Robin van Persie scored the first goal in that game, and he started alongside Philipe Senderos, Ashley Cole and Jose Antonio Reyes while Cesc Fàbregas and Mathieu Flamini both came on as substitute. Now, however, Van Persie is the last that remains of “Project Youth” and this summer, he revealed that he wants to leave the club.
In a sense it’s understandable although some say he owes the club a little bit more loyalty for the time he spent on the treatment table – ironically, the one thing that probably stopped him from leaving earlier. The Arsenal project he was bound to was predicated on success and the premise was simple: “stay here,” it said to players, “and you may not make the best money in the world, but you will win trophies in a thrilling style.” Van Persie only has an FA Cup to show for it.
Losing Van Persie now would be unprecedented – although there are signs that he may yet stay – because Arsène Wenger rarely lets anyone go at their peak. Nevertheless, he’s acted quickly to ensure that there is no repeat of the Cesc Fàbregas/Samir Nasri saga that plagued the club last summer. Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud have joined the club as potential replacements. Yet, while Wenger continues to strengthen, there is a feeling that Arsenal are not completely over the damage that was caused when their two star midfielders left last season. Because, it must be remembered that Arsenal played some of their best football in the final year Fàbregas and Nasri spent at the club – playing a dynamic and integrated brand of football which was supposed to be the benchmark for coming seasons – culminating in the famous 2-1 win over Barcelona. Wenger was adamant that they would stay – nay, he somewhat naively convinced himself that they would stay – so when they did decide to leave, he was suddenly forced to scavenge the market for world class players who could replace them. It was too late in the transfer window to realistically do that thus the rebuilding has effectively started this season. The signing of Santi Cazorla puts Arsenal back on the technical plane that they were when Fàbregas and Nasri were at the club. Now all Wenger needs is Jack Wilshere to return from injury.
In the meantime, that most important of roles is being fulfilled by Mikel Arteta and from there – just in between Alex Song and the playmaker – he gives Arsenal definition. His passing is as unerring as the neatness of his hair and his positional play provides Arsenal the structure when they press while acting as the reference point when they have the ball. And being the best midfielder in the Premier League outside of the established Champions League clubs before he signed, he might have felt he had earned that trust in his technical ability.
Joined by another Spaniard, not insignificantly – Santi Cazorla – Arsenal are just starting to find their balance which is why the other, most important piece of the puzzle – Robin van Persie – must not leave. Finally he gets what he craves – a midfielder with a special eye for a pass because, as he tells Henk Spaan for FT Magazine, a team’s playmaker and the striker must “form a two-in-one unit”. Last season, Van Persie displayed a bit of frustration at Aaron Ramsey’s tendency to procrastinate in possession (although he praised his running) and for a while seemed reinvigorated by Tomáš Rosický.
The injury to the Czech midfielder has seemingly thrown a spanner in Wenger’s pre-season plans; “Rosicky did fantastically well for us at the end of the season, so it is a big blow,” he said of his injury. And listening to how Rosický performed the playmaker role last season, it’s easy to understand why. “When we have the ball I am starting quite close to Robin [van Persie] up front, and after that I can come a bit deeper and stretch the pitch out,” Rosický said. “I can’t say for sure whether this has made the whole difference, but I would certainly agree that what the boss is asking [of me] at the moment suits me nicely.”
This is how Arsène Wenger seeks to find the balance in his midfield. The number 10 starts as a typical playmaker but as the play unfolds, merges in with the other midfielders so that he is hard to pick up. In pre-season, the tactic didn’t go exactly to plan as Wenger found he didn’t have the personnel to execute it smoothly. Against Malaysia XI, Arteta nor Francis Coquelin felt comfortable pushing into the space whenever Abou Diaby dropped back. In the second-half, there was a much better understanding between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chuks Aneke in the advanced midfield role. Against Manchester City they were overrun to ever really test the dynamics while they again underperformed versus Kitchee SC. Abou Diaby, the constant in each of the first-halves, though, did display powerful drive and give-and-goes that will benefit Arsenal. And it should dovetail well with Cazorla who is – not unsurprisingly – one of the best one-touch players in the game. In the long run, he might play as the playmaker expected to replicate the decisiveness and penetration Fàbregas showed but in the immediate term, he replaces the massive impact Yossi Benayoun made at the back-end of last season.
Santi Cazorla comes into the side with intense pressure from the outset and even higher expectations. But Arsenal, stronger after last seasons travails, are seemingly back on the path to building the team that Arsène Wenger always wanted.
Karthik Venkatesh (KV) argues why Sergio Busquets is one of this generation’s most important players. Oh, and why that also makes him the perfect foil to the the sitcom character, Barney Stinson.
Sergio Busquets is the ultimate ‘Bro’ on the pitch. His game is so astonishingly altruistic that he can be fittingly compared to the perfect ‘wingman’ who will do his all to set you up with that girl of your wildest fantasies. Once he gets the ball, it seems like all he does is greet the ball and say; “Hello! Have you met my genius friend, Xavi?” Here are three good reasons why Sergio Busquets is an extremely vital cog in the Barca team and the foremost ‘team player’ in the world today.
The prime reason for Sergio Busquets’ near perfect passing success rate is that he knows where to pass to even before he receives the ball. His awareness of the players around him is extraordinary, enabling him to complete the process of choosing and executing in a matter of seconds. In the game against Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey, Busquets took an average of 1.6(!) seconds to complete a pass. In some cases, he dispatched the ball within a heart attack causing 0.4 seconds. His game is mostly about releasing the ball quickly and it is fair to say that he has more than achieved the goal. In the recently concluded La Liga season, Busquets completed 91.9% of his passes successfully.
Sergio Busquets performs a key role as the “pivote” of the team, playing in between defence and attack. This role involves carrying out a number of tasks. In the defensive phase, Busquets crucially moves into space to cut off passing lanes for the opponent, forcing him to play the least dangerous pass. He uses his sharp anticipation skills to win the ball back by intercepting it in midfield and immediately transfer it to a well positioned teammate. His primary function is to ‘receive and release’ and he performs this task flawlessly due to his astute reading of the game and tactical intelligence.
He plays an extremely crucial role in attack also. The basic foundation of Barcelona’s tiki-taka style of play is creating triangles. Busquets, being an imperative component in midfield, moves into space when his teammate has the ball to form triangles and increase passing options. The spontaneity with which he carries out this task is critical to the circulation of the ball and a ‘destroyer’ in midfield would retard the flow of circulation, unlike Busquets. Also, when in possession of the ball, Barcelona morph into several formations ranging from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, and Busquets dropping deep in between the center backs is the trigger which changes the structure. When he drops in between the center backs, they are allowed to move laterally and cover space out wide. This in turn pushes Daniel Alves higher up the pitch, meaning the right winger cuts inside to make use of space vacated by Messi dropping deep, increasing the number possibilities of attack. Watch how Sergio’s off the ball movement from CDM to CB causes a chain reaction which eventually leads to a goal. “Xavi and Iniesta are the most creative midfielders in the world, but, above all, there is Busquets,” says Javier Mascherano, who is highly regarded to have a keen eye on the beautiful game. “He has the talent to play for any team anywhere in the world, but he’s made to play for this team. Literally, he’s the perfect guy. He robs the ball, he has superb technical skills and brings tactical order. I watch him and try to learn from him.”
Selfless Playing Style
Barcelona, a team obsessed with attacking football and scoring goals, scored a whopping 114 goals in the league last season. Only one of the 114 goals was scored by Sergio Busquets (1goal and 1 assist), a stat which belies the fact the he is a major force in the Barca midfield. Of his one goal, Sergio Busquets jokes that that is an error on his part: “I made a mistake once.” Always preferring to not hog the limelight, Busquets is the ultimate team man, focusing on plugging gaps and covering space, instead of venturing forward and having fun with the likes of Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas. Statistics show, for example, that Dani Alves, nominally Barcelona’s full-back, spends more time in the opposition half than his own. “The coach knows that I am an obedient player who likes to help out and if I have to run to the wing to cover someone’s position, great,” he says. “I genuinely enjoy watching the full-back run up the pitch and going across to fill in. I spend the game calculating: how many on the left? How many on the right?”
Standing 189cm tall, Sergio Busquets standing between his Barcelona teammates looks like Gulliver amidst a bunch of Lilliputians. As comfortable in a scrap as with the ball at his feet, Sergio is ever ready to leap to the defense of his teammates, putting himself in the dangerous situation of getting carded. The perfect amalgam of intelligence and the ability to do the dirty work for others sets him apart from his more famous and celebrated teammates. When questioned about the style of his game, Busquets says: “My only obsession is not to lose the ball and to give my all, make sure I leave it all on the pitch. I am here to help. I have to be intense.” Del Bosque agrees: “He is an example of generosity, always thinking of the needs of the team rather than himself.”
If Barney Stinson, the serial womaniser in the television series “How I Met Your Mother”, ever notices Sergio Busquets doing his job for either Barcelona or Spain, he would at once convince/beg Sergio Busquets to accept the coveted position of being Barney Stinson’s wingman. Even if he has to only utter the lines, “Hi! Have you met my friend Barney?” and leave, Sergio will do it so perfectly that Barney’s efficiency, just like Busquets’ passing efficiency, will touch the ninety percent mark. Such is the effectiveness and impact of Sergio Busquets, the unheralded hero of modern day football.
At the turn of the century, Andrea Pirlo, the bright young hope of Italian football, led the Italian under-21 team to European glory. Playing behind the strikers as a “trequartista”, Pirlo was one of the best players of the tournament, contributing with a number of assists and goals. His exploits as captain, didn’t fail to go unnoticed as managers across Italy earmarked him as the next great no.10 to don the blue of Italy. Life was seemingly nice and sunny for young Andrea; he completed a dream move to Inter Milan but in three years at the club, he failed to make the breakthrough. Because ahead of him, competing in the same position, he found the celestial Roberto Baggio – one of the finest playmakers all time – and as a result, Pirlo was loaned back out to his first club, Brescia.
Shunted and abandoned, it looked like was all doom and gloom for one of Italy’s great young talents. But little did he know that all these events would lead to quite possibly the most important conversation of his life with Carlo Mazzone, the coach at Brescia at the time. This is how the conversation unfolded, in the words of Mazzone: “I was managing Brescia when Pirlo still considered himself a “mezzapunta” (attacking midfielder). I told him to play in front of the defenders, because he had vision. ‘But I like goals,’ he told me, unconvinced. ‘You score four or five a year,’ I replied. ‘Play in this position and you’ll score even more. Let’s try it for two weeks. You’ll be a base playmaker.’ “I told him to play two games without asking questions. Afterwards he told me: ‘I feel very comfortable here. I get the ball all the time.’ He found out how it worked. If I’d told him I was going to play him as a libero ahead of the defenders, he’d have run away terrified! Calling him a base playmaker convinced him.”
Twelve years later and Andrea Pirlo is considered as one of the greatest players of his generation. In his position as the deep-lying playmaker (or base playmaker as Mazzone likes to call it), he is almost peerless, performing the role in a way that must be considered unique in the modern game. But what is it precisely that he does which makes him the supreme playmaker right now? Below, Karthik Venkatesh (KV) tries to decipher the “Andrea Pirlo Code”.
Analysing Andrea Pirlo’s role
Andrea Pirlo is a smart man. He uses his strengths to add his own spin to the deepest midfielder role. He possesses arguably the game’s best long ball, unparalleled vision and a sophisticated technique. Despite being the deepest midfielder, he bagged the most number of assists in Serie A (13) for Juventus last season. As soon as he receives the ball, Pirlo begins a mini-game, where the objective is to provide the pass that finds his teammates with a large amount of space and less number of opponents to get past. He starts a routine process that involves the following:
Technique: Pirlo started out behind the strikers and a pre-requisite for playing in the hole is high technical ability. He uses this to hold on to the ball and assess passing options on the move. Zbigniew Boniek, the former Poland player and coach, who is definitely in awe of Pirlo’s ability to not lose the ball, says,”To pass the ball to Andrea Pirlo is like to hide it in a safe.”
Pirlo finds a way out when he is pressed: When being closed down, if he is unable to create space for himself or his teammates through dribbling, he uses the short pass wisely and chooses the safest pass. Being the key player in the team’s midfield, he often attracts more than one opponent and he immediately finds a free player close by. He doesn’t retard the flow and keeps the ball circulation going. But beware, Pirlo sacrifices a marginal drop in passing percentage to try and attempt adventurous passes over the top. That is probably the greatest difference between Pirlo and the other deep-midfielders. (Pirlo has completed 354 of his 459 attempted passes (77%), and has a forward passing accuracy of 76%).
The long ball is his deadliest weapon: Once he finds space even for a split second, he is lethal and doesn’t miss the opportunity to use the long ball to set up one-on-one situations for the striker. He is probably the quickest in the world to spot a run from his teammates. Against England, Pirlo attempted a staggering 30 long balls!
The master of the switch: Pirlo switches play to the wings excellently. One of his common moves against England was the pass to Federico Balzaretti down the left flank (who surprisingly found lots of space as England neglected pressing the full backs high up). They are highly effective in that the player who receives the ball finds himself in oodles of space and generally encounters at most one opponent facing him directly. “Today, I’d say the greatest passer is Juventus’s Andrea Pirlo,” says Sandro Mazzola for Champions Magazine. “His footballing intelligence exploits angles and avenues others just don’t see. Then his exceptional technique enables him to flight the pass brilliantly over distance, and to weight every delivery even when under pressure.” And as an interesting aside note, he adds: “It fills me with pride – and pains me a little – to recall that I spotted him when he was just a teenager at Brescia Calcio and convinced Internazionale Milano to sign him up.”
Assists the assister: Other than having the highest number of assists in Serie A, Pirlo will most probably also have the highest number of ‘pass before an assist.’ He is always on the look-out for the pass that will empower his teammates and lead to a goal.
Chance creator: Andrea Pirlo is a high C.Q.I chance creator. His pass to Balotelli against England was one of the highest we have ever recorded.
Goal scorer: One must not forget that Pirlo is a high caliber free kick taker and he also has a great shot that can beat the best of keepers.
Here is a flow chart which roughly summarizes Pirlo’s game:
How do you stop Andrea Pirlo?
To completely isolate and nullify Pirlo’s impact is close to impossible. But what can be done is mark him closely and deny him the space to exert his game. As you can see from the flow chart, you can limit him to safe short passes by restricting the amount of space he gets (like how Park Ji Sung did for Manchester United in their 4-0 win in 2010), but he will still hurt you by quickly circulating the ball and getting it to players further forward. Pirlo has his downsides too. He’s not so physical built as modern footballers are these days so there is an incline that he can be pushed aside by far stronger teams. Nevertheless, he almost always negates this with an amazing balance and ability to shield away multiple opponents at once off the ball (at times, bordering on nonchalance). Pirlo’s defensive contribution in terms of tackles and interceptions is modest at best, but one must take into account that he is shrewd when it comes to positioning and does a great job just by occupying the space in front of defenders. Against Spain in the final, Pirlo will obviously see far less of the ball, but he will be a dangerous threat on the counter with his ability to hit long passes behind Spain’s high line.
Why don’t more teams use a Pirlo-esque player in deep-midfield?
There aren’t many players in the world who have the skill set that Andrea Pirlo possesses. To use those skills in a deep position and still exert total control over the game requires a great understanding of the role and few players can match him in that regard. Xabi Alonso and Paul Scholes spring to mind, but they have far fewer assists when compared to Pirlo and they are more of instigators, whereas Pirlo is well and truly the playmaker of the team. Another caveat is that, Pirlo usually requires players like Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and De Rossi (who has been splendid this tournament, possibly Italy’s second most important player) to do the defensive job and offer drive higher up the pitch. Pirlo is only as good as his midfield partners. (To add to that, Italy use a “magic square” formation in the middle which is exclusive to specific midfield functions. As Michael Cox notes, the player who is expected to be the “trequartista”, Ricardo Montolivio, is not and is asked by Cesare Prandelli to get back to make an extra central midfielder in defence).
At Arsenal, we have many players who can perform that role. Denilson, once described by Le Boss as a cross between Tomáš Rosický and Gilberto Silva is talented enough to play that role. Besides being suspect in his positioning, he has a long way to go as he doesn’t quite have the vision and long passing required to be the playmaker of the team. Mikel Arteta has proven to be one of the best midfielders of the season and Alex Song has shown that he too is more than capable of doing the job, with his dribbling, and who can forget those exquisite chipped passes over the top for Robin van Persie. But the best bet is our very own ‘Spanish’ player, Jack Wilshere who possesses all the required attributes like vision, technique, passing, positioning and quick decision making to succeed in that role. But is it an intelligent decision to not use his skills higher up the pitch? Probably not, but he is the closest Arsenal can get to Andrea Pirlo, the most stylish and yet, the most important player in the world.
Sandro Mazzola is talking about Andrea Pirlo. The former Internazionale forward, who played exclusively for the club between 1960-1977, spotted Pirlo as a teenager at Brescia (and not Mircea Lucescu as Wikipedia states) and convinced the club to sign him. The midfielder, he says, is the greatest passer in today’s game and in particular, he is talking about the lofted, weighted pass. “Pirlo’s footballing intelligence exploits angles and avenues others just don’t see,” Mazzola tells Champions Magazine. “Then his exceptional technique enables him to flight the pass brilliantly over distance, and to weight every delivery even when under pressure.”
This season, it’s been Alex Song who has joined him in mastering the art of the lofted pass. But while Mazzola may be talking about the high pass as a means of switching the emphasis of play, usually from side to side — after all, he did start his Inter career under Helenio Herrera where the short, lateral pass which pervades the modern game, was scorned and saw West Germany dominate through the accurate, long passing of Günter Netzer and then Wolfgang Overath — there’s arguably a greater skill Song and Pirlo have perfected; that of the lofted through-pass.
This season, both players have made 24 assists between them and are among the highest exponents of the through-ball in Europe. Yet, while it may be expected of Pirlo, it’s not so much of Song who has come to the fore for Arsenal with his defence splitting passes in the absence of Cesc Fàbregas. “He has improved his technique of transmission,” said Arsène Wenger. “When he arrived here, the passing of his longer balls was not the best. But he was worked on that, improved on that and now he can combine vision with technique.”
There are three passes of Song that stand out; his assist against Everton in December which made everyone – neutrals that is – take note of his special ability and he repeated the trick against their Merseyside rivals, Liverpool, with another deft pass. Both were finished emphatically by Robin van Persie. The third one against Blackburn, though, is not an assist but it demonstrated perfectly, just how much of a weapon he’s been to Arsenal in opening up defences as he floated the ball onto path of Theo Walcott to cross. Nevertheless, he managed to produce a carbon copy of that pass in the 3-0 win over Aston Villa which directly did lead to a goal.
Song’s not all about chipped passes though. His best assist is probably neither of the above. That came against Borussia Dortmund when, looking as if he had run into a cul-de-sac with three defenders converging on him, he deployed another little unbeknownst weapon in his armoury, clever footwork to jinx between them. His cross after was perfect as van Persie (again) guided a header in. And he’s shown he can keep it on the ground too; he played a sumptuous pass between a trio of perplexed Blackburn defenders to find Gervinho in the 4-3 defeat and did well to ignore him away to Norwich City, instead threading it to van Persie. The other five of his eleven league assists have come against Tottenham (a left footed cross to Aaron Ramsey), Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion (both to Andre Santos), Wolverhampton Wanderers and Norwich at home. (Note: he also floated the pass that led to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League but for a ricochet off a defender as he dribbled with it, it might not stand as Song’s assist).
Alex Song might nominally play as the enforcer but last season, he showed he’s becoming the complete link between the defence and attack for Arsenal.
It can be hard to deconstruct the impact that Aaron Ramsey has made this season because it came at a time when Arsenal were at their worst. But when the team began to improve, Ramsey was central to it in an unheralded manner. His drive was crucial at an aesthetically bleak period in Arsenal’s season, especially when they lacked full backs and everything was forced to come from the middle. Thus his role was hard to define, because it flitted in between a playmaker and a box-to-box midfielder (and at times, a second-striker because he was often asked to press with Robin van Persie). He passed the ball neatly and before falling out of the team midway through the season, Ramsey was in the top 6 for chances created in open play in the league. But Arsenal found their best – and most fluid form – when he went out of the side and Tomáš Rosický came in. Suddenly, the dynamics of the midfield changed. Arsenal played at a higher tempo and displayed a ruthlessness that was unrecognisable in the first-half of the season.
Yet, that’s not to say Aaron Ramsey doesn’t quite fit. He does. Although, in his first full season, he’s still learning about his own game as much as we’re finding out how best to utilise him. In the recent 0-0 against Chelsea, Ramsey ended up with a 97% passing accuracy which indicates that he had little trouble replicating Mikel Arteta’s role just to the side of Alex Song – but he did, especially in the first-half. His passing, while accurate, was slow thus failing to implant the same tempo Arteta does. And while he managed to find a team-mate with the majority of his passing, it tells a wider story of Ramsey’s style; he’s methodical – almost excruciatingly so – weighing up all potential options so much so that he often eschews the simple pass and by the time he’s decided, the risky pass passes him by. That sometimes leads him to cede possession sloppily – against Chelsea, Ramsey lost the ball five times through being tackled or by bad control. As a result, he can seem cumbersome on the ball but there is far more talent in his noggin than he’s been given credit for.
Arsène Wenger has been able to get the best out of him through a bit of guidance. In a few matches earlier this season, Ramsey made an immediate impact after being given his half-time instructions (Bolton, Tottenham, Aston Villa FA Cup and off the bench against Marseille) while at the start of matches, Wenger always looked to push him up the pitch in order to profit from his energy.
Rosický now assumes the position behind van Persie and since his recall to the starting line-up, Arsenal haven’t played better. But it also shows how Arsenal’s style has subtly changed over the season. Because for half a season, shorn of key creative figures, Arsenal played more vertically, more through the wings but what pervaded their play was an overriding sense of cautiousness dictated by the bad start they made. (They pressed deep in their half, while looking back at their run of eight games unbeaten from October to mid-December, it’s notable Arsenal almost exclusively dealt in low scores). Since their path became clearer – essentially just gunning for third place – Arsenal have been able to re-adjust their game back to the way they want to play. The tempo is higher as is their pressing while the use of a “half-winger” on the left-side has given the team more balance. “Since then [defeats to Fulham/Swansea],” Wenger said, “we have more options and a bit better plan. That has allowed the team to feel more confident.”
Thus the role of Rosický is different to the one Ramsey played because while Ramsey was once the instigator, primarily used highest up the pitch for his energy, Rosický is the natural playmaker. His passing has given Arsenal greater impetus and often, it’s him they build attacks round. Certainly, chance creation is still plural but whereas once the midfield was noted for it’s rotation, Rosický is overwhelmingly now the spearhead. The Czech captain expands: “I am in the advanced position of the three, looking to get in between the opposition’s midfield and defence,” says Rosický. “When we have the ball I am starting quite close to Robin [van Persie] up front, and after that I can come a bit deeper and stretch the pitch out. I can’t say for sure whether this has made the whole difference, but I would certainly agree that what the boss is asking [of me] at the moment suits me nicely.”
As the season draws to a close, Ramsey has flitted in and out of the squad and that may mean taking a back seat and learning from the little master, Tomáš Rosický. Certainly, the recent deployment of Ramsey on the left-side indicates so which Arsène Wenger says is for “the education of the player”, to help his movement and ability to get “into little pockets”. But even if Ramsey doesn’t end the campaign as the central starter, he can nevertheless be satisfied with his involvement this season and can look back proudly at the contribution he has made to help get Arsenal to where they are right now.
Using this video here, I attempted to work out how long Ramsey takes to pass the ball after he receives it (implored by this comment here). The stopwatch starts as the ball is passed to him (as this helps gauge his ability to survey the situation) and stops as it’s released. Most passes are received in midfield but the ones which involve a different activity, are described.
First-half Average: 2.27 seconds
Passes: 2.7 secs, 3.4, 2.8, 1.5, 4.5 (dispossessed), 0.5, 6.0 (attack down right and cross cleared), 4.0, 2.0, 6.0, 1.5, 2.3, 3.8, 3.8 (wins tackle and release), 3.5, 1.7, 1.8, 1.5 (collects loose ball), 2.8 (dispossessed), 1.5, 3.2, 1.5, 1.4, 2.8 (dispossessed), 1.9 (wins possession and release), 1.3, 1.2 (give and go in attack), 3.0 (wins possession and releases), 0.6 (start of counter-attack), 1.9, 0.8 (receives throw), 1.2 (pass from wide).
Second-half Average 2.0 seconds
Passes: 1.7 secs, 1.5, 1.2, 0.4, 0.3, 1.3, 3.6 (build up wide leading to Gervinho run in box) , 0.7 (bad touch/loss of possession), 0.9, 3.4 (pass from wide), 2.36 (chance created – long pass to van Persie), 4.5 (pass back to ‘keeper), 1.4, 1.1 (switch play to release full-back), 2.8, 2.7 (pass from wide under pressure), 0.7 (start of counter) – 4.5 (release Gervinho down touchline – end of counter), 2.14 (switch play to release full-back), 1.4 (pass to van Persie), 2.7 (switch play to release full-back), 1.8 (loss of possession in tight area), 3.1, 1.6, 2.8, 2.7 (switch play to release full-back), 0.4 (miscontrol), 2.5, 1.3, 2.5 (dribble and counter), 1.6 (switch play to release full-back), 2.7 (ball falls to feet after clearance outside opposition box).
The best play of the encounter was a defensive tackle but it’d go almost untalked about after the melodrama which preceded Manchester United’s equaliser. Just after he had created the equaliser, the lively Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was taken off and replaced by Andrey Arshavin. Cue the Emirates crowd to collectively spit out their dummies and after Danny Welbeck had won the game for Manchester United, the substitution took symbolic value as the Arsenal team was jeered off at the end. However, that probably wasn’t the most pivotal substitution as almost straight after, Sir Alex Ferguson reacted and sent on Park Ji-Sung to replace Rafael. Antonio Valencia shifted to right-back and his driving run was more difficult to deal with with more space. The Ecuadorian squeezed into the box, played a one-two before finding Welbeck to score the winner.
It’s not the first time Arsenal have conceded so quick after they had regained a foot-hold in the match; they did it only last week against Swansea City and the way The Gunners switched off momentarily was reminiscent of the defeat to Tottenham. The second-goal came from a quickly taken free-kick and Arsenal never quite organised themselves to deal with the overload United created on the left for the opener. Arsenal’s goal, though, was a sweeping move, perhaps highlighting just how Arsenal have changed and it all originated from a tackle. Laurent Koscielny’s brash certainty that he would return with the ball when others would have panicked one-on-one in the box with Rafael was outstanding; his tackle even better without losing balance and he capped it off by having the composure to find Tomas Rosicky. He played it to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chamberlain reversed passed to Robin van Persie and the Dutchman squeezed in at the far post. It was the classic break-away goal, from back to front in 16 seconds and actually originated from a counter of United’s own. Here are some observations from the game.
1. United profit from left-side bias
Arsenal actually started the better side and for twenty minutes, dominated possession. The rotation in the midfield was better than it had been in recent games with Rosicky checking his forward runs to stay disciplined to the left side of Alex Song (as Mikel Arteta might have done). It seemed part of this decision, as it is not Rosicky’s game to stay back, stemmed from Arsène Wenger’s preoccupation of not allowing Manchester United any space out wide. It worked for a while although more due to Arsenal’s keeping of the ball. But, they dropped off halfway through the half and United started to work space out wide. In particular, with Antonio Valencia stretching the pitch on the right, it opened up play on the left. Luis Nani threatened while Patrice Evra always provided good support but it was with Ryan Giggs helping out did United ultimately cause damage. Arsenal eventually stumbled on Theo Walcott to defend their right hand-side but with his goalscoring agenda and Arsenal themselves biased slightly to their left, United were able to overload that side for their first goal.
2. What do the central midfielders do?
The absence of full-backs to provide support and the three striker system puts the central midfielders in a precarious position. Is their duty primarily to create or to hold position? Of course, over the course of the game, it flits in-and-out but Arsenal looked cautious with what they did in the first while United looked confident and executed their functions quicker in comparison. In the second-half, they didn’t seem so inhibited by a contrast of instructions and pushed higher up the pitch as they naturally prefer.
One issue this season has been the split of roles between midfield and attack. Clearly, Wenger’s tactic is to leave dynamism part more to the front three – and in a sense the goalscoring too – while the midfield plays a supporting role. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s involvement in the build up from the left-hand side helped bridge that gap between attack and midfield as it is something two “natural” wingers do not give. And while Aaron Ramsey also provides a double function, Jack Wilshere’s drive in the centre has been greatly missed. (Ramsey’s graft has not come without pain; he has been dispossessed 68 times, followed by van Persie at 61 but it shows Ramsey is not necessarily playing as a midfielder but somewhere in between. Only Paris’ Nene has been dispossessed more in the Top 5 leagues in Europe. Via Whoscored.com)
“I agree we are a little bit less good than last year with possession of the ball,” said Wenger in the Daily Mail. “But it’s down to the structure of the team a little bit, because we play this year with two wingers who are real wingers. And, you know, we are as well a bit more vertical than last year and a little less possession [based]. When we played for a long period with Gervinho, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott we were dangerous, basically, always through our wings, but a little less in control possession wise.”
3. Arsenal push up in the second-half
At half-time in the Champions League Quarter Final in 2009/10, Arsenal pushed their defensive line up the pitch 10m to counter Barcelona. The result saw them concede two quick goals in similar fashion but also saw them rally to draw the game. In some ways, it was the same here. The midfield pressed higher, making it more a 4-3-3 (or 4-1-4-1) than the slanted 4-2-1-3 it was in the first-half, and the back line got tighter to the strikers. As a result, Arsenal squeezed United’s play (although they did leave space behind) and had the better of the opportunities up until their goal. The upshot of this however, was Manchester United looked threatening every time they broke and could have scored with one of the Welbeck chances. Culann Davies (@CWDailyGooner) cites Laurent Koscielny as key to setting the blueprint for Arsenal’s increased intensity and certainly, once they can free Thomas Vermaelen from left-back, they will have an impetuous centre-back pairing to aid their collective game. As Koscielny stated in the programme: “It also helps our attackers if we win the ball in the opposition half, so we need to work hard in all areas.”
Rosicky slanted his play towards the left in the first half (part of the reason for United’s dominance on the other side), performing a more disciplined role. However, as Arsenal pressed higher, Rosicky was more able to initiate attacks
4. The Ox looks best on the left
It’s not Wenger-like not to attack but his substitution to take of Oxlade-Chamberlain for Arshavin was a bit naive. He felt Arsenal could win the game – which is a fair ambition – but knowing Arsenal’s insecurities, he should have played it more safe. Yossi Benayoun would have given Arsenal more control through possession while still possessing the killer pass option. But also, because he is a popular player amongst the group, would probably have not drawn such a reaction from van Persie.
Van Persie was probably most discontent with the sub because it came in a period in the second-half where his movements were beginning to be understood – van Persie had made some fantastic runs in the first half which were not found. Chamberlain was himself, errant in the first-half while Walcott never got into the game telepathically or technically. But in the second, and playing mainly on the left, Chamberlain was able to get into central areas (a bit Gareth Bale-like if wanting to be sacrilegious) more often. Indeed, as a winger who’s job it is to stretch play, he can’t get involved as much on the right even though he was still very dynamic in the chances he got. Wenger eventually settled on Chamberlain at wide left and he gave Arsenal a balance.
On the other hand, Walcott has seemed to have suffered not being able to get behind. Van Persie is playing closer to a centre-forward’s role this season and this has restricted Walcott to an orthodox role.
Chamberlain’s passing in the first half show him unable to get involved effectively although his running did create two chances. In the second-half, he was able to roam more centrally and created Arsenal’s goal.
5. Arsenal good enough to finish fourth but…
Bemoaning a mass injury crisis is a fair excuse if for one season but to oversee it for two or three years, is poor strategic planning. In regards to the full-back position, Wenger knew before January both Andre Santos and Carl Jenkinson would be out for most of the season therefore a short-term option should have been drafted in. But just as much an oversight might be in the central midfield where two key midfielders, Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, were set to miss much of the season. Crucially, it’s in a position Arsenal lack; the Arteta role. Tomas Rosicky performed admirably to check his enthusiasms although that invariably drew Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick forward with time on the ball; nevertheless, his passing is always a plus. Indeed, one of the criticisms levelled at Arsène Wenger last season was that he failed to make use of the squad in the final stretch of the season and already this season, there is talk of fatigue. Arteta has been relied upon to stay fit, and amazingly he has, for the bulk of the campaign and he’s proven crucial. Somewhat bafflingly, however, Yossi Benayoun hasn’t been used as often as his talents deserve while Park Chu-Young is actually a better player than his anonymity has made of him. The athleticism of English football, though, has set him back considerably.
The unwillingness to change has shown Arsenal to have a tactical inflexibility although one option, Marouane Chamakh, has always been available as a Plan B on the bench. Indeed, the problem might be the players are too similar rather than a lack of depth and that’s why Wenger’s pining his hopes on injured players returning. Arsenal have the squad to get fourth place but we might not see it.