Alex Song perfects the art of the lofted through-pass

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.

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Aaron Ramsey can look back at a solid season

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.

For extra reading, here’s my piece on Ramsey for Arsenal Insider.

Ramsey’s passing v Chelsea

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).

Five points on Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United

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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.

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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.

Aaron Ramsey has been central to Arsenal’s progress

Speaking just after Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in October, Aaron Ramsey acknowledged he can – or rather, must – get better. “I have produced some good performances so far and maybe just need to be a bit more consistent throughout games,” he said. This was after a North-London Derby in which he came under a lot of flak despite scoring the equaliser for Arsenal. One of the criticisms was that his passing was unnecessarily ambitious – an absurd argument it might be felt, considering this was Arsenal but Arsenal was also going through one of the roughest times in its near history. However, after the defeat, we wrote that the team “was still searching for their identity” but since then, they have gone on an eight-game unbeaten run in the league.

Aaron Ramsey’s role in that sequence has been largely unheralded. It’s not that he hasn’t been pivotal – Mikel Arteta and Alex Song have been more so in the middle – and he’s made important contributions. A clever dink to find Gervinho in the 5-3 win over Chelsea capped off a brilliant performance after which Michael Cox of ZonalMarking.net hailed Ramsey as a better prospect than Jack Wilshere. He’s Wenger’s go-to man as well, usually tasked with tactical briefs before the match or at half-time with the main objective of taking the game “by the scruff of the neck.” The first signs of that were against Bolton Wanderers when he was pushed higher more closely resembling the formation to a 4-2-3-1 shape as Wenger sought to take advantage of Ramsey’s energy; the Welshman covers the most amount of ground in the Premier League. The same tactic was deployed against Tottenham, where he scored his first goal and the other time against Marseilles where he got his second. Perhaps that’s natural to give instructions to a young player as Ramsey as older heads need less guidance but once again it highlights the detail of the role he is playing.

In recent games, Aaron Ramsey has been pushed higher from the start of the match and there might be a few reasons for that. Perhaps, Arsenal have gotten over their fears at the start of the season and are more confident that they can remain secure for the majority of the match. Essentially though, this was perhaps Wenger’s preferred set-up, having one of the midfielders in a three push up further forward so the formation can flit in-and-out of a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. With Ramsey, they can win the ball higher as he did in the lead up to Arsenal’s winner at Norwich City. It’s a tactical role and that’s likely to be the case against Manchester City. It’s not exactly the “free” role that Cesc Fábregas played last season but it has some similarities. Ramsey’s through passing has progressively gotten better and not just making five assists in all competitions, he also has five pre-assist (as in the pass just before the actual assist). Ramsey also often presses higher than Robin van Persie and is the first to back him up. His brief, at many times, is to mark the first-passer in midfielder (he did so up against Luka Modric) and against Manchester City, that is likely to be the in-form Gareth Barry. But in a battle of two 4-2-3-1’s, it’d be movement that will be key and that’s where Aaron Ramsey’s drive might be crucial.

Because neither side is likely to play with recognised full-backs – or at least on the correct side (although Micah Richards, if fit, will be a huge threat) – therefore the game will probably be split into two obvious defensive/attacking splits. The four Arsenal defenders will mark and follow the four City attackers while Ramsey just might be the one who finds a bit of space. Knowing the full-backs won’t provide the same attacking thrust as Andre Santos and Carl Jenkinson did earlier this season, Wenger might feel he can afford to take the risk and commit an extra body forward because he’ll have enough back anyway. Such highlights the trust Wenger’s has in Aaron Ramsey and the confidence that he can deliver in the biggest game this season.

Predicted line-ups

Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny – Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Arteta, Song, Ramsey – Walcott, Gervinho, Van Persie.
Subs: Almunia, Rosicky, Arshavin, Frimpong, Chamakh, Benayoun, Miquel.

Man City (4-2-2-2): Hart – Richards, Lescott, Kompany, Zabaleta – Toure Yaya, Barry – Silva, Milner – Aguero, Balotelli. Subs: Pantilimon, Dzeko, Johnson, Savic, Nasri, Toure, De Jong.

Arsenal 2-1 Borussia Dortmund: Alex Song helps Gunners to overcome Dortmund’s pressing

Of all the things riding on the match, Alex Song’s dignity in the dressing room was the least obvious. But his bet with Andre Santos proved to be the catalyst to produce one Arsenal’s all-time great assists and send Arsenal through to the knock-out stages.

Picking the ball up slightly to the left of Borussia Dortmund’s half – in a position Santos himself may have expected to have been – he went on a slaloming run down the touchline, taking on three men before delivering a pin-point cross onto the head of Robin van Persie. The goal came just after Dortmund had cranked up the pressure after the interval and Arsène Wenger was grateful to Alex Song for breaking free from the remits of his trade. “Song did something exceptional for a defensive midfielder,” he said after. Song, though, revealed it was a wager with Santos which inspired him but more tellingly, gave an insight to the strength of Arsenal’s dressing room at the moment. “What’s important is not what I did,” said Song. “It’s what the what team did tonight. We had a good result. Before the game, I said to André [Santos]: ‘Tonight I will score or I will give an assist,’ and he said: ‘No chance.’ It was that sort of challenge you give each other before a game.”

For Arsenal fans, Alex Song’s all action displays are nothing new and they feel he deserves greater recognition for his consistency in the holding role. Of course, that role has been made easier this season – as Jack Wilshere also did last season – because of the arrival of Mikel Arteta. Nonetheless, Song still rose to the occasion and in the second-half – after the whole team had been given an unrelenting test in the first – came up with a number of important blocks and interceptions. His glide means he doesn’t need to slide to win the ball back and because he stays on his feet, Arsenal are able to attack as soon as he makes a tackle. He made 5 in fact while also executing 7 interceptions, showing how important he is to the way Arsenal functions.

It’s a more functional Arsenal this season; sort of a halfway house between pragmatism and the romanticism of the past and it’s proving to be the perfect blend. Initially, though, the cautiousness of Arsenal’s approach play was exposed as Dortmund hounded them in possession. However, they were patient to ride through the storm, particularly in the first 15 minutes and their passing was excellent in the second-half. The tempo was increased while Dortmund tired after their excursions against Bayern Munich in the weekend, and Arsenal finished them off with the efficiency normally typical of German opponents. Commendably, Jurgen Klopp was unwilling to attribute the loss of Mario Gotze and Sven Bender through injury as turning points but it did massively impact on their strategy. Bender in particular, sets the tone for the high pressing to work, as he backs up the work of the forwards by aggressively getting tight to the opponent’s central midfielders. As a result, Arsenal suffered early on in that area.

Jurgen Klopp’s tactics must be commended; he has the look of a genius and his side buzzed around the pitch like the particles in the Hadron Collider. The 4-2-3-1 morphed into a 4-4-2 off the ball and the wall of pressure they created stopped Arsenal from passing it through the centre. Ultimately though, both sides wanted to play through the wings; Dortmund were threatening at first but Arsenal’s defending around the box continues to impress. Wenger’s side, however, remained patient and they knew if they were able to get the ball to Walcott and Gervinho, they had every chance of exposing Dortmund’s impetuousness off the ball. The big difference between the two attacks, though, turned out to be van Persie and there was no doubt he was going to get the goals. Klopp promised to stop the striker by stopping the supply to him but the nature of van Persie’s play was an altogether unfamiliar threat. In the end, Klopp’s words seemed to resonate the same mixed feeling of awe and resignation that van Persie has inflicted on his opponents in his amazing run. “But Robin van Persie, wow, what a performance, what a player,” said Klopp. “He’s certainly one of the best in Europe. I’ve hardly ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box.”

Some Chalkboards…..

1. Dortmund’s pressing

Borussia Dortmund’s pressing in the first 15-30 mins will have been familiar to Arsenal fans in more ways than one. While it has drawn comparisons with Barcelona’s rapid spell of pressure at the Emirates in 2009, it more closely resembles Arsenal’s efforts which worked so successfully for two-thirds of last season. Shinji Kagawa presses alongside Robert Lewandowski to make a 4-4-2 when closing down  – similar to what Cesc Fábregas had been doing – and behind them was a unit who defended through “through-marking;” (i.e. by getting tight to stop the passes from reaching their targets). Sven Bender did that particularly well and as such, his removal from the game, from a defensive viewpoint, can be seen as a turning point. Dortmund created a first line of pressure that stopped Arsenal from passing the ball into the centre of midfield.

Arsenal had their own strategy to evade the press and as a result, perhaps they didn’t mind the fact the middle was blocked. Arteta and Song pushed up instead of dropping deep to pick up the ball therefore affording the centre-backs more room in the build up. Arsenal had plenty of ball in their own half but struggled to unsettle Dortmund’s pressing. It was not until the second-half when Arsenal passed the ball quicker that Dortmund’s pressing became less effective.

The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager last season. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

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Only 22% of Arsenal’s play came through the middle due to Dortmund’s pressing and compactness. Their season average through the middle is 34%.

2. Arsenal’s defensive plan

Alex Flynn, the author of Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub, said on twitter that “Arsène Wenger has no defensive plan B.” Which is quite an oversight from someone who has “analysed” Arsenal extensively during Wenger’s reign because it is quite evident he has changed his defensive strategy this season, and has done over the last few years. The change sees Arsenal dropping into their own half instead of aggressively searching for the ball and their improvement has become more noticeable as the season has progressed. Initially, they failed to get to grips with it but their defensive security has gradually improved and their defending around the box – bar the mistake at the end – is now more solid.

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In Arsenal’s first European match last season, they pressed more aggressively and won the ball back higher up the pitch. As such, it echoes Dortmund’s tactics last night and highlights the marked difference in Wenger’s defensive plan this season.

3. Explosive Gunners

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Jurgen Klopp bemoaned the lack of directness in Dortmund’s attacking play and that can be shown by the amount of times they attempted to take an Arsenal defender on. Without the magical feet of Götze, Dortmund lacked dynamism on the wings. Arsenal in comparison have plenty although they were far more successful on the less clogged left-hand side. Both sides, however, attempted the same amount of crosses at fourteen each.

4. The joy of Robin van Persie

What’s even more impressive about Robin van Persie is that he runs so much – as much as midfielder would. Last night, he covered 11252 metres – the 2nd highest for Arsenal. I watch him and think “Arsenal don’t press that intensely yet his figures so high. Why is that?” And that’s because he works so hard to get back into position when the team defends, acting as the reference point while his movement off the ball is stunning, always working the central defenders. Klopp says he’s rarely ever encountered a player like him and in the second-half, once Arsenal took the lead, van Persie used his intelligence to move around the pitch and allow the faster Theo Walcott and Gervinho to profit on the break.

Arsenal owe their resurgence to one man: Mikel Arteta

Such is the measure of trust and confidence Mikel Arteta conveys, he didn’t even need to have a medical at Arsenal. True, The Gunners were in a desperate situation come the final day of this summer’s transfer window but with his unfortunate injury record in the past two years, it came at a risk Arsène Wenger knew was worth taking. “It was highly stressful, full of uncertainty,” Arteta tells Guillem Balagué of how his transfer unfolded in Champions Magazine. “At three o’clock I thought I was an Arsenal player, by six it had broken down and I said, ‘That’s it, I’m staying [at Everton].’ At 8:30pm I went through it all again. By then there was no time to do a medical, no one around who could establish my condition, so I jumped in the car, went to the offices and they just had to trust what I told them. If it turned out there was a problem, I’d have been responsible.”

In a sense, signing Mikel Arteta was the safe option. He already knew the Premier League and his rich footballing heritage meant he could integrate seamlessly to Arsenal’s play. But he was also “safe” in the sense that Arsenal needed a midfielder who could balance out the vagaries of their expansive style. They already had a Cesc Fàbregas replacement – two in fact in Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey – but what was required was a “between-the-lines” player; someone who maintained the flow in centre. Wenger has always wanted one; Filipe Melo and Yann M’vila have been most recently linked while Gilberto, Flamini, Denilson, Diaby and Wilshere have all played that role but it’s Arteta, though, who looks perfect in the position.  “He’s [Arteta] a really important player in our team,” said Wenger. “He is the player between Song and [Aaron] Ramsey or [Tomas] Rosicky. That gives us continuity. When we need to keep the ball he can do that. With Jack [Wilshere] missing he is really a player who allows you to keep the ball when it is needed.”

My first impression upon seeing Mikel Arteta in an Arsenal shirt – apart from how even more handsome he looked in the club’s colours in comparison to the blue of Everton – was that “he knows how to defend in a 4-3-3.” And sure enough, in the first minute of Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Swansea, he won the ball back twice to instigate forward momentum to emphatically confirm my suspicions. His stubborn positioning on the left of Arsenal’s midfield was a refreshing sight, neither attracted to the bright lights of opposition goal nor too risk averse to get forward, it was the perfect balance.

Arsenal’s results have steadily improved with Arteta in the team but just as importantly have the performances also improved. Wenger describes his team as “more controlled and less cavalier” and that solidity can be attributed to the Spaniard’s calming influence. His tactical acumen is superb and he was known at Everton for having technical discussions with the manager, David Moyes. On the pitch, his attention to detail can be as unerring as the neatness of his hair. Arteta’s passing accuracy is over 90% and he is in the top ten of most the passes in Europe, completing 76.7 successful passes per game. That statistic has been criticised by some who say it’s a false masturbation of his numbers, (no doubt forged from the frustrations of watching Denilson in past seasons), as it shows his passing can often be too passive. But those who make that argument also miss the point of Arsenal’s style because by keeping it moving, he’s dragging opponents around to create space and to help sustain the pressure. Not coincidentally, other parts of Arsenal’s game has improved to complement his style; the defence are better at winning the ball back higher up the pitch thus allowing Wenger’s side to play as much of the match as possible in the opponent’s half of the field. It’s as much a defence as it is an attack. Nevertheless, a player creating 2.5 chances per game can’t really be termed as conservative.

Arteta’s presence has helped shaped the dynamics of Arsenal’s midfield. No longer is Alex Song burdened with the lone duty of bringing the ball out from the back but alongside Arteta, he is given freedom to break forward to aid attacks if needed. It’s true that Jack Wilshere also did this last season and in a way, his absence is just as influential Cesc Fàbregas’s departure, but the layout of the midfield has moved away from the double pivot to a rotating three. Which is important to distinguish because the way Arsenal open up teams now is not limited to one person as it was with Fàbregas. Creative duties are shared, and build up tends to be more patient before a sudden – and occasionally intermittent – release puts a team-mate through: Usually Robin van Persie. Then there’s Aaron Ramsey who, after a difficult start, has begun to flourish and again, we might have to thank Arteta for it. He’s not burdened with having to collect the ball deep, as he might have earlier this season and certainly he did alongside Tomáš Rosický, and he has started to have more of an effect up the pitch. The Welshman has four league assists to his name and is a near ever-present, missing one game.

It’s been said Arsenal are a one-man team and Robin van Persie’s goals don’t do much to disprove that notion but every other statistic suggest Arsenal are more of a team than they have ever been. Sometimes you will find one person who is so perfect for the team that their presence lifts everyone around them and makes the system click. Naturally, Mikel Arteta is doing it in his quietly spectacular way.

Eight points on Arsenal 2-1 Sunderland

Isn’t it nice to have normality for once? In a sense, this was a typical Arsenal home performance. They dominated the first quarter of the match and for all the world looked like their technical superiority will run wild before a chronic aberration before half-time contrived to throw open the game. The rest of the match is then played in the attacking half as Arsenal push forward in search of the winner. Robin van Persie provided it and also opened the scoring, taking his tally in 2011 to 23 goals in 25 games. It’s a fantastic return but one that highlights the imbalances of this Arsenal side, namely the reliance on their captain. Here are some observations from the 2-1 win over Sunderland.

1. Little Mozart pulls the strings

Arsenal showed great link-up and interchange in the first 25 minutes and much of the reason why was the ambiguity the midfield three played with. Mikel Arteta often dropped deep to pick up the ball thus allowing Alex Song to push up while Tomáš Rosický roamed. As a result Sunderland found it difficult to mark. They matched up in the centre in terms of formations, both sides playing a variant of the 4-3-3 although Sunderland’s was much more defensive; a 4-5-1 in fact. Rosický in particular, revelled from the extra movement around him and was key in the first goal. He gave Arsenal an urgency on the ball and as displayed by his passing graphic, made a number of passes in the final third. It’s a shame he couldn’t sustain it but that was perhaps expected, having come off a gruelling international schedule. Nonetheless, his replacement, Yossi Benayoun, showed spark after coming on. Most encouragingly though, is Rosický’s with Arteta which looks very impressive.

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2. Reliant on Robin?

There are some statistics which suggest Robin van Persie has had to play more orthodox this season (such as no. of dribbles, dispossessed) although they’re not as revealing as his main stat; the goals he has scored. 51% of Arsenal’s league goals in 2011 have come from the Dutchman and he looked Arsenal’s best chance of scoring on Sunday. He’s crucial to the way Arsenal play but the team might not be as reliant on van Persie as the statistics seem to suggest. That’s because Arséne Wenger simply hasn’t given as much game time to his other strikers, tending to stick to what works. And that means more minutes – and invariably goals – for van Persie.

3. Mikel Arteta: the new Denilson

But only better. Arséne Wenger may have searched long and hard for a replacement for Cesc Fábregas but his most taxing search has been looking for a second-function midfielder to give security to Arsenal when they attack. After Gilberto, Flamini, Denilson, Diaby and Wilshere have all played that role while Melo and M’vila had been heavily linked and Arteta is the newest name on the list. He gives Arsenal “technical security,” as Wenger said after the 1-0 win over Swansea but he has measured his sharp passing with discipline, something which Arsenal sorely need.

Replace Denilson with Arteta in this quote Wenger made in 2009 of the Brazilian on loan at São Paulo but make sure you repeat the caveat “only better” when you finish.

Denilson Arteta gives us stability. Because we’re a team that goes forward, we need to win the ball back in strong positions and he contributes to that. He’s a good passer and keeps it simple – which is always a sign of class.”

4. Arsenal’s biggest flaw

Sunderland came back into the game with 25 minutes gone and by the end of the half, could have went into the interval leading. Lee Cattermole’s header was superbly blocked by Wojciech Szczęsny after Sebastian Larsson had equalised and it came after a period of sustained pressure by Sunderland. They pressed Arsenal higher and effectively man-marked their midfielders ensuring any space to be found had to be hard earned. Not coincidentally, Arsenal’s pressing game relaxed – and it seems it’s a common occurrence in this part of the match this season – and this invited Sunderland at them. Arsenal’s biggest flaw has been their relaxed pressing – which in fairness has gotten better each game – which focuses on shape first before closing down. Sunderland felt that if they got tighter to Arsenal and press their midfielders, they could turn the game into a scrap. They succeeded in this period – and thankfully in this period only – to trouble Arsenal although it might be stressed, fairly sporadically. The boos at half-time seem to suggest otherwise, though.

03Q2LArsenal’s passes when they dominated in first-half (0-25mins) and when Sunderland pressed (25-45mins)

 5. Laurent Koscielny remains unsung

The player with the best aerial success in the Premier League? Tick. Arsenal’s heading woes may be well documented but Laurent Koscielny stands on the shoulders of giants in this regard….ahem, excuse the pun. His overall aerial success rate was at 86% before the game (12/14) and against Sunderland, he won 6 out of 7 of his challenges. He’s just as good on the ground too, often nipping in to steal the ball and making crucial interceptions but his covering of the full-back was his most impressive contribution on Sunday.

6. Carl Jenkinson’s party trick

He likes to cross it and he’s very good at it too, putting real bend and whip to his deliveries at the most times. Just as well Arsenal are the footballing equivalent of Ronny Corbett in the box.

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7. Emphasis on forward three after Cesc departure/Wilshere injury

In Wenger’s attempts to make Arsenal more dynamic, he’s willing to let the three forwards stay up the pitch. That means there can often seem to be a disjointedness between Arsenal’s attack and midfield – which is heightened greater by Cesc Fábregas’s departure. But because no-one, apart from Alex Song, perhaps, is fully comfortable making through-passes, the playmaker role is now shared. Dynamism then, is expected to come from the forward three who are given more license to move around the pitch. So far, Gervinho and Theo Walcott are yet to fire but ifthe three striker ploy works, as they tried in pre-season, it could be deadly.

8. Sunderland had van Persie’s free-kick coming

Without Jack Wilshere, Arsenal have lacked that somebody to suddenly change the impetus of an attack down the centre. In past games, Alex Song has attempted to replace his drive has but overall on Sunday, as a team, Arsenal showed more willingness to run at defenders. They constantly won free-kicks at the edge of Sunderland’s box due to the Black Cats’ incessant tactical fouling – which I’d argue is as bigger evil than diving. Arsenal won 12 free-kicks in their opponent’s half and used four different takers – Arteta, Walcott, van Persie and Santos – to try and take advantage. Van Persie’s superb free-kick – the 2nd best of the day however – was just deserts for Sunderland’s persistent fouling to stop potentially more  damaging danger from materialising.