Norwich 1-1 Arsenal: Injuries upset precariously balanced system

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“We are so unpredictable in what we are doing; even for me at the back sometimes it looks a bit weird! Sometimes we lose balance but sometimes it is really good so we have to keep going and focus on our game, especially defensively.” ~ Per Mertesacker

I’ve been trying to figure out Arsenal for a while now. Despite my twenty-two year association with the club (that is, the first game I recall watching them in – Cup Winners Cup in ’95), the last ten years have left me most perplexed. It’s not the lack of titles; I’ve come to terms with the mitigating circumstances following the move to the Emirates and subsequently, the wizardry to keep Arsenal competitive that Arsene Wenger has performed. But rather, it’s the playing style which, despite adding back-to-back FA Cups in the last two seasons, Wenger has had to be innovative – unorthodox actually – to keep Arsenal playing the same way that won trophies in his early years, and to challenge more convincingly.

I often hark back to the above quote from Per Mertesacker to assure me that even those in the best positions can find what happens on the pitch sometimes confusing. At this point, I realise that the answer lies in a case study of Arsene Wenger but he places such an unerring faith in autonomy and freedom of expression on the pitch such that nuances of the team’s tactics are as much a product of symbiosis as it is moulded by hand.

That’s evident by the rapid progression of Hector Bellerin from reserve-squad to starter, or Francis Coquelin, who has shaped Arsenal’s tactics the moment he stepped into the first-team last December. It’s a progression which has been a joy to watch and indeed, it’s not usually this discernible to see a footballer grow as we have witnessed with Coquelin, gaining more confidence game-by-game, becoming “more available” as Wenger says, “and [available] more quickly when our defenders have the ball. He blossoms well.” You can say the same thing about Nacho Monreal, where confidence has shaped him such that he seems unflappable at the moment but, because he started his Arsenal career so well but had a blip in between, we already knew his quality. Plus at that time, he played alongside Thomas Vermaelen so it’s understandable.

Coquelin’s injury has had people trying to work out ways to replace him without upsetting the balance of the side too much. However, an analysis by Chad Murphy, a professor of political science, deduces that Coquelin is near impossible to replace like-for-like because the actions he performs are commonly shared by wingers, not defensive midfielders. He’s a unique player, somebody who passes fairly infrequently considering the position he plays but is actually very press resistant because his dribbling out of tight areas is so good. Yet, therein lies Arsenal’s problems, and why Coquelin’s absence will be hard-felt, because Arsene Wenger has built a system reliant on the characteristics of certain key players – not necessarily robust concepts. And generally, once he finds a system that wins, he grinds it to the ground such that any slight change to that formula can cause Arsenal to stutter – until of course, somebody else makes their relative mark on the team.

Mathieu Flamini is the present incumbent of the holding midfield role and in the 1-1 draw against Norwich City; we got a glimpse of just what he can offer to the team in what is probably the twilight of his Arsenal career. Ironically, just as he was looking to make his stamp on team, The Gunners lost two key players to injury, adding to the uncertainty we’re likely to get in the coming weeks. Those losses proved telling, particularly when you focus on the passivity Arsenal displayed for Norwich’s equaliser. Because the thing with Arsenal’s defending, and probably what is the nezt step for Murphy’s analysis, is that it’s reliant on speed – or what Manuel Pellegrini describes as “defending with pace”.

Wenger teams have always been distinguished by this trait but usually when going forward; for this team, it’s probably more a hallmark going backwards, in terms of how quick the defenders recover (and the back-four, apart from Mertesacker are rapid) and the distances they cover when the team loses the ball. In that regard, the two key players are Laurent Koscielny, who departed the game early with a groin injury, and Coquelin of course. They tend to bail Arsenal out a lot of times from average defending situations frankly, by being aggressive, winning the ball back quickly and playing on the front foot. That’s what Flamini tried to replicate in midfield but what Gabriel failed (though he tends to be good at that kind of reading of play) with the missed interception before Lewis Grabban finished for Norwich .

Overall, The Gunners weren’t unduly threatened but there is a sort-of half-hearted press that they use even against the weaker opponents that puts them in situations where they invite teams at them. I would describe it as a 4-4-2 shape for the most parts with Ozil dropping off once the ball is played behind him. (That ambiguity – is Ozil a striker or a midfielder in the press? – sometimes puts Arsenal into trouble). It’s sort of a zonal-man-marking system where the team moves left and right, and backwards and forwards as a unit but when the ball enters a respective player’s zone, they look to aggressively man-mark that player. Certain players might have more freedom of how aggressively they close down an opponent such as Ramsey or Mertesacker who tend to push out, and sometimes abandon the shape in an attempt to win the ball back quickly – see video below.

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For much of the game, though, it must be noted that Arsenal were very comfortable. It was after Alexis departed through injury, however, that the team lost a little spark and that is worrying because he is one of two players that push defenders backwards (the other being Theo Walcott), and also, the partnership between him and Ozil generates much of Arsenal’s attacking thrust. Arsenal tend to slant their play towards the left-side, with Alexis stepping five or six yards infield and Ozil floating wide to create overloads. Against Norwich, Monreal was also an important figure going forward, and again, it’s the understanding he has with Alexis that has become a key part of Arsenal’s game. Indeed, both full-backs actually got forward a lot in the match and that was facilitated by a subtle change to Arsenal’s build-up play from the back.

Again it involved Flamini, who tended to drift to the flanks to support the full-backs in possession, thus liberating them going forward. Whether this was accidental or not, it’s hard to say, but Flamini specialises in this kind of movement when Arsenal have the ball at the back. Certainly, it falls in line with Arsene Wenger’s strategy of using the ball-winning midfielder as a decoy, dragging opposition midfielders away with him, to create space for the centre-backs to pass through the midfield to either one of the attacking players or Cazorla who drops deep. This tactic tends to be used against teams who don’t press and indeed, Norwich camped 10 players behind the ball for the majority of the game. The intention is that then, it lures those teams to commit one or two players to the press – going against their gameplan really – so that Arsenal have a bit more space in the middle. Norwich didn’t really budge so Arsenal decided to use the sides of the pitch more in a bid to stretch their opponents. In the example below, you can see Flamini urging Monreal forward as Norwich narrow and Arsenal nearly score.

I find it oddly fascinating to watch this tactic because it goes against the textbook which is to ask one of the deep midfielders to drop in between the two centre-backs to stretch the play. With Arsenal generally resisting the urge to do that, it creates a game-within-a-game, with the midfielders battling with opposition midfielders off-the-ball to follow them. People argue that against the top teams that press, Arsenal would be found out. That hasn’t really been tested because when Arsenal play those teams, they tend to drop off themselves thus playing mainly on the counter-attack. The one time it did work was against Manchester United, when Arsenal blitzed them in the first half-hour, using their ambiguous midfield positioning to confuse United’s marking scheme and Cazorla tending to drop-off in between the centre-backs to pick up the ball. Indeed, his importance in the build-up must be stressed because Wenger calls him the “guide”, because he directs Arsenal’s play from the back rather than dictates, and the team-mates know when they pass it to him, he can get them out of trouble because of his quick-dribbling. That’s one of the reasons why Coquelin will be sorely missed, as together the pair created a unique partnership in the heart of the midfield. Hopefully now, Arsenal can find a different balance.

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Arsenal 2-0 Montpellier: On Giroud, Podolski’s movement

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Arsène Wenger’s tactical reputation has been predicated on his insistence on playing the game one way: “his way”. But on Wednesday night against Montpellier, he showed why that perception of him may be a little misguided.

First was the use of Olivier Giroud. At his best, he was the complete striker, delivering two assists, one which was a deft chip over the defence to Lukas Podolski; the other a more routine knock-down. But there was the other side of his game which suggests Arsenal would be foolish to completely rely in Giroud to lead the attack. His distribution was erratic and when he dropped deep, he didn’t always find his team-mate. Wenger says Giroud “still has some work to do” balancing both sides of his game.

However, there is a good reason for Arsenal to stick faith with Giroud to be their focal point. In recent matches, he has been decisive, not necessarily with goals but also with assists (although he has now scored five goals in his last nine matches. His previous eight only yielded one goal). In a sense, Giroud’s goal record is a bit like Thierry Henry’s when he first signed, if you allow me to get carried a *little* away. The Arsenal legend had struck only once in his first twelve league games yet ended up at the end of the season as the team’s top-scorer with seventeen. Giroud may not end up with that many and it’s likely, the goals will be shared but there is scope for a purple patch. And like Henry, whoPhilippe Auclair chronicled in his biography Thierry Henry: Life at the Top, Wenger had little choice but to build his team’s playing style around his talismanic striker. This version of his Arsenal could thrive playing with Olivier Giroud.

Wenger wants to use Giroud as a “target man”. That may sound like a compromise of his established ideals but it’s not. Because Wenger, contrary to common belief, abhors possession for the sake of it. Rather, a team’s dominance is measured by the chances it creates to the ones it concedes. Thus, the more of the ball Arsenal has, the more chances it can create.

With Giroud pushed higher in the second-half against Montpellier and told to stop furrowing for possession deep, Arsenal proceeded to be more effective. They played the ball forward quicker with runners beyond, something which they fail to do in the first-half and that’s where we must add a caveat comes; Arsenal must find their fluency again with the ball at the back because in recent games it’s undermined their effectiveness. When they play the ball quickly, they’re deadly as Spurs with ten men found out.

“Giroud is good when he plays completely on the offside line,” said Wenger. “Sometimes when he doesn’t get the ball enough he wants to come deep. That is not his game. When he is a target man and uses his link-up play, he is fantastic because he can win in the air, he can score with his feet and can be a complete striker.”

Suddenly Giroud makes a lot of sense: in a side who pass the ball accurately in the final third and a striker who wins most of his duels, it could work really, really well.

Podolski-Cazorla

The other facet of Wenger’s tactical acumen is one which we often take for granted as fluidity. That usually involves making subtle alterations to player’s roles as opposed to wholesale formation changes. It’s less easy to understand this say, when he uses a player typically unsuited to a certain role, such as Aaron Ramsey on the right. But the idea might be one such as what he did against Manchester City this season when Arsenal drew 1-1, where Gervinho, playing up front, was allowed to take up the positions which Ramsey vacated to try and get behind with runs from that side. In Lonely at the Top, Auclair talks about a subtle change he noticed to Arsenal’s layout in one game which he said Ray Parlour’s positioning high up the field made the system look like a skewed 4-3-3. Henry proceeded to him explain why Wenger adapted their shape on that occasion. Likewise, Ray Parlour used to drop back when playing with Marc Overmars on the other side, so the Dutchman could play close to the strikers.

Against Montpellier, we saw Wenger continue on with an experiment which he started against Schalke 04 in the previous Champions League game at the Emirates. In that encounter, Wenger was banned from the touchline and as such, the experiment lasted more than it needed to. In fact, it was a bit of a disaster. The idea was to ask Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski to switch positions at various phases of the match, in the hope that it confuses Schalke’s defence and allows the respective players to attack with a degree of unpredictability (see image). It didn’t work because The Germans defended particularly stoutly and Arsenal’s passing just failed on that day.

There was a chance to resurrect that tactic against a Montpellier side lacking in confidence and any attacking bite themselves. Wenger, though, waiting until half-time to apply the change, asking Podolski to get closer to Giroud – who had also been instructed to play higher up the pitch – and when he did, the ever-willing Cazorla would fill in. It was a success this time: Podolski was in the box for the first goal, in which the cross came from his side. And when Podolski scored his goal, Cazorla ensured he back covering.

I’m unsure to what degree you would constitute these movements as instinctive movements; as by-products of Arsenal’s fluid game. But the fact that it didn’t happen besides this 20-25 period hints that it was planned. Indeed, we’ve often seen interchange between Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski this season but not necessarily in the same vein. It’s often in-game, through quick passes between each other (and a full-back overlapping). Here, the interchanges seemed triggered by different phases of play. When the ball when out, they’d switch. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops, if indeed it does.

: Podolski’s positioning in the second-half became more central, drifting closer to Olivier Giroud while Santi Cazorla, especially in the period between 60-75 minutes, slanted to the left-hand side.
: Podolski’s positioning in the second-half became more central, drifting closer to Olivier Giroud while Santi Cazorla, especially in the period between 60-75 minutes, slanted to the left-hand side.

Schalke 04 overload their right to hurt and stop Arsenal

Uchida

Arsenal’s season so far may be summed up by the quibbles in agreeing a contract with Theo Walcott. Last night, though, it was another striker converted to a winger who made the difference. Jefferson Farfan, playing on Schalke’s right, created the goal that secured 2-0 victory and was a constant menace with his running. The Peruvian showed great promise as a youngster playing as a striker, attracting the attentions of Arsene Wenger, but coach Huub Stevens, who managed him at PSV Eindhoven, took him with him and has since used him mainly as a dangerous winger. Together with Atsuto Uchida, they were a thorn in the side of Arsenal.

Schalke overload the right

Schalke’s success mainly came from the right-hand side where they could double up and at times, even triple up on Andre Santos who had a bad game. It wasn’t necessarily all his fault; he was left suicidally isolated from much of the game and had to contend with the late runs of Uchida – who should normally be picked up by the left-winger – and Farfan’s touchline-hugging.

So strong were Schalke on that side that 50% of their attacks came from the right. It probably wasn’t a predetermined tactic to exploit Santos but it was most certainly a concious one – they just have better players on that side.

Focusing down the right-hand side wasn’t just an attacking move; it was also a defensive one as Schalke knew Arsenal are also best when combining down their left. Therefore, whenever Arsenal picked up the ball on that side, Marco Höger shuffled towards his right to close the Gunners down. Indeed, he isn’t necessarily Schalke’s first-choice midfielder – that’s spot goes to Jermaine Jones – but considering hisgood performance in the weekend against Borussia Dortmund, Huub Stevens made a deal with his two midfielder that he will give both players a half each. Höger would begin the first and set the tempo of high pressing and Jones would simply pick up where he left off in the second-half. It’s probably fair to say Höger didn’t all succeed; Stevens was unhappy at the “passive” start Schalke made (although he praised the organisation) but after 30 minutes, the Germans finally got into the game and imposed their true style. When Serge Gnabry lost the ball in the lead up to Schalke’s second, it was Roman Neustädter who nipped in with the interception and Jermaine Jones who lead the charge for the counter-attack.

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Cazorla-Podolski

If Schalke are clearly stronger attacking down their right, then Arsenal have their most fruitless passages of play when attacking down their left-hand side. However, that was also part of their problem at The Emirates.

If anything, Arsenal tried to get too much out of the Cazorla-Podolski dynamic that has been the most visible feature of their play this season. That they persisted, though last night, was quite baffling considering Schalke were constantly marauding down that flank while Arsenal seemed more preoccupied getting correct certain idiosyncrasies of their game.

The key to Santi Cazorla’s game is that he plays with freedom, gliding across the final third and making clever, vertical runs to get into space. Podolski on the other hand, thrives whenever Cazorla gets near him, attempting to use his quick passing and low centre of gravity to play little give-and-goes. The problem was, Cazorla too often started wider than Podolski an as such, it became a case of the two players getting too close to each other. And instead of Podolski making runs in the channels inside of left, he was only really able to get through on the outside.

There might have been two reasons that contributed towards this: 1) Schalke defended so well around their box that Arsenal’s joy could only come from the wide-areas but just as Norwich denied them, so did they. 2) With Aaron Ramsey drifting inside anyway, areas on the right side that Cazorla usually likes to operate were already occupied. However, this point is slightly a moot one. Because, like the dynamic with Podolski, Cazorla could still have drifted wide. Indeed, on a couple of instances he did link-up with Ramsey, it looked promising. It might be, though, that Cazorla prefers to pick up the ball with his body angled to play hence his predilection to slanting to the left.

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It was defensively, though, that the Cazorla-Podolski dynamic affected the team the most. With Podolski given freedom of sort to drift inside and then Cazorla take up his position out wide, it often left no one getting back to help Santos. Indeed, Santi Cazorla was asked increasingly to drop back as the two interchanged in the attacking phase yet neither really wanted to get back to defend. At one point, Cazorla threw up his arms at the absence of a player filling in while Thomas Vermaelen seemed to signal to Francis Coquelin to cover. The young midfielder often did but with Steve Bould’s creed defending in two banks of four, he was perhaps unwilling to sacrifice the base that two central-midfielders give, therefore the onus was on one of Podolski or Cazorla to get back. It often left Arsenal a mess positionally down the left flank.

Arsenal’s problems

Arsenal’s problems are well documented; it seems like everyone has an opinion. Except, Arsenal’s AGM this morning shed little light on the problems with playing staff beyond the need for a new striker. At various points against Schalke, Arsenal tried three players different players up front with Podolski often interchanging to take up the second striker or centre-forward position. It was though, Gervinho, who played the role for most of the match with little impact. His movement was uncertain and jerky while his take-ons were often unsuccessful. The Ivorian looks better as a forward when drifting in between the left centre-back and the left-back as he did v Manchester City and he started that way until Arsenal began to play more down their left.

It might be worth a punt now for Wenger to go back to what was his Plan A and use Lukas Podolski as a number 9. Certain they could do with his individuality and spontaneity around the box which is lacking throughout the team, let alone up front. Indeed, that touches on the wider issues of what really is Arsenal’s problem. That their play is too predictable at times and that was   summed up by the way they tried to force Cazorla to interact more with Podolski. It might be that Cazorla tried to force it on himself. But that may be futile because the relative freedom that the team played with at the start of the season stemmed from the unfamiliarity they had with each other and thus, established patterns were still yet to be formed. It’s dangerous for Arsenal to fall into habits that are too obvious.

It’s probably too early to expect too much out of Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky and even Theo Walcott considering he has one foot on the way out. But the fact it, they give Arsenal something different to break out of the passive passing. Against Schalke, that was the problem; because they lacked penetration, that drive (perhaps a chance now for Ramsey to play in the middle given that he made some good runs?) they needed to pass the ball even better than they are now and hope that that may open up space (indeed, after the Norwich defeat, Mikel Arteta preached more “patience” with the ball). In the meantime, though, Arsenal will have to find the resolve within themselves to get out of this period of impotency.

Five points on Arsenal 1-2 Wigan Athletic (and more!)

As Thomas Vermaelen made the pass forward, he ran into space making sure he did a double-take to check who’s around him. Not for any Wigan Athletic players, though – they were long camped in their own half by now. But for Alex Song, who was lurking to the right of the centre-circle. Vermaelen wanted him to fill him as he embark on another one of his runs up the pitch and why not? He had already scored one. However, as much as his constant forays forward are a weapon for Arsenal, they’re also a debilitating influence and Song’s reaction indicated that. The Cameroonian midfielder was reluctant to constantly drop back for what he felt was a disruption to the team’s structure and an inefficient use of personnel. In the end, Vermaelen neither went up or stayed back, continuing to remonstrate with Song.

If that moment on 65 minutes encapsulated Arsenal’s lack of cohesion in the 2-1 defeat to Wigan, it also did their desperation because they gave everything. The trouble was, Wigan gave more. And in a season when The Emirates finally felt like their own, this was one of Arsenal’s worst performances at their new home. But to phrase it that way round is to do a disservice to Wigan who outwitted and outran Arsenal to deliver a famous – and important – win.

For a moment, it didn’t look like they would quite hold on as Arsenal lay siege to the Wigan goal, despite taking a quite breathtaking two-goal lead. But they did, defending resolutely to block chances that came at them and in the second-half, they were so expertly organised that they never gave Arsenal a real chance on goal. And to put into context just how brilliant they smothered Arsenal attacks, they were also a threat at the other end, delivering 7 shots on target – the most by any away side at The Emirates this season.

Arsène Wenger had no answer. Or rather, he had no answer to the circumstances that befell his side, conceding two early goals. He said before the match, when asked about how he will counteract Wigan’s 3-4-3/5-4-1, to just “watch the game”and certainly, he would never have expected to fall behind that quickly. But to credit Wenger in his own unique way, he never used that as an excuse and you wouldn’t expect him to, after the way in which Arsenal have clawed back deficits this season. But it surely affected Arsenal’s gameplan and by the start of the second-half, just as they did against Milan, they ran out of energy. Indeed, it also highlighted just why it’s dangerous to draw too many conclusions from this good run of form because such an intensity – especially after conceding – is hard to sustain. Arsenal have been at their best when their emotionally-charged – which indicates a strength of character in a different sense as they’ve also managed to retain a level of control – but Wigan was the type of game which a different mentality was required. The use of Yossi Benayoun might even be an indication that Wenger is not drawing too much from this run too for next season except for breeding confidence and developing an understanding of a certain game plan and Benayoun allows them to achieve that. (Wenger talks of his application and work-rate but in all reality, is only being used to get them to third place – he’s unlikely to stay on).

The substitution of Benayoun on 60 minutes confirmed to some what they already felt about Wenger’s in-game management; that it’s his weakness. Certainly, it’s not that Gervinho entered the fray although he too was ineffective – and the fans wanted Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – it’s that it probably shouldn’t have been Benayoun that went off. Theo Walcott just could not get into the game. The lack of space in front and the shape Wigan deployed meant it stopped Bacary Sagna from overlapping and that affected Walcott’s influence. Another one of Wenger’s subs, and one which there was little to argue about, Aaron Ramsey, couldn’t also make an impact. The Welshman’s passing was slow and in his recent run of games, he’s not been able to show the energy he did earlier this season. Certainly he was affected by the relatively new, and important, role he was playing filling in for Mikel Arteta and as a result, his pressing and positioning suffered. When Oxlade-Chamberlain did enter the field, he did in central midfield and proceeded to try to do too much. His runs often led to blind alleys (showing how much Arsenal miss Jack Wilshere’s drive) and he probably needed a powerful player like Song to alternate with. He went slotted into centre-back, replacing Johan Djourou who had a fine game if a bit anxious on the ball giving Wenger no choice but to sacrifice him.

That Wenger pointed to a lack of players that could make a “difference” despite having the bulk of his attacking players on, showed just how well Wigan defended and how Arsenal still have a lot of work to be done. It’s been a fine run but that can’t hide deficiencies or areas that need improving. It seems The Gunners can’t seem to find a balance between their typical “gung-ho” style and playing a little bit cautiousness from the start – and they were punished for that. And strength-in-depth will be key next season, especially if they want to play with this intensity, however, Arsenal just could not find a way past Wigan even if they threw everything at them.

1. The effect of Vermaelen’s runs

Thomas Vermaelen has so much natural talent: He’s good on the ball, mobile, strong in the air and plays with a determined attitude but there are habits to his game that he must iron out. In the recent defeat to QPR – which they lost by the same scoreline – his impetuousness ultimately conceded the two goals and while he can’t be claimed to be directly at fault here, his constant forays forward at times, did have a domino effect on the team’s structure. Because that meant Song couldn’t be used higher up the pitch and often moved away from the middle where he should be as he was needed to fill in, while Andre Santos was often forced narrow so Arsenal could remain compact. Wenger may have allowed Vermaelen to continue bombing forward because he felt there was little inspiration in the team – he admitted that after the game – and it’s been a huge weapon for The Gunners, but Arsenal might have been more effective with a more orthodox structure. In the second-half, most of the play was going down the left and perhaps if Song was allowed to sit as an orthodox holding midfielder, it would have allowed Santos the freedom to bomb forward. But everything Wenger did tried, doomed to fail; the players had expended too much energy and had no ideas to Wigan’s organisation.

2. Arsenal’s pressing in the first-half without Arteta

Arsenal might be excused for feeling hard done by when conceding the first goal because it effectively came with ten men and that the man who was injured in the lead up, Mikel Arteta, was supposed to be the one tracking Franco Di Santo. But for the second they were punished when they did have ten men – Arsenal unable to make the change quick enough and after neat skill from Victor Moses, bundled the ball in. Arsenal’s gameplan altered drastically in the space of two minutes meaning they had no choice but to go for it. As a result, their pressing suffered as Aaron Ramsey wa still adjusting to the intensity. In the first-half, The Gunners were too open when pressing and particularly when the ball was played early from the back. Tomáš Rosický pressed alongisde Robin van Persie almost as a 4-4-2 – as he normally might do although with a bit more recklessness – and Alex Song followed. Aaron Ramsey did neither. He was the spare man in the midfield and the one who would drop into space as Arteta might. As a result, Wigan had plenty of space in between which, although they didn’t profit from after, gave Arsenal a few problems.

3. Wigan’s back five restrict Walcott

Wigan suffered an onslaught in the first-half, in particular, and survived with only conceding one goal against. Yet, their strategy of defending deep and sacrificing a midfield player for a centre-back probably invited that. Nevertheless, while it set up for a display of defensive fortitude, it stopped one crucial area of Arsenal’s game from developing; that of the overlapping runs. Theo Walcott, above all suffered as he was unable to manufacture any space to run in behind. Not only did Wigan double up on the flanks – they tripled up – and the one opportunity he did get, Walcott might have been aggrieved that it didn’t lead to more as Maynor Figueroa looked to have fouled him when closing in on goal. Behind him, Victor Moses did a brilliant job occupying Sagna and denying him the chance to get forward. Indeed, the threat Moses posed behind the full-back was a constant danger.

4. Arsenal’s attack sides in both halves

When Arsenal are at their best – or close to it – it can be indicated by the side they favour most: often the right-hand side. In the first-half, while they lay barrage to the Wigan goal, they mostly slanted to the right and were able to create combinations just inside of that area. Rosický in particular, revelled and it’s noticeable that his impact waned in the second-half when Arsenal’s play was scattered, if anything leaning towards the left. That’s not a patch on Santos who had a solid game contrary to common conception – because he also had to fill for Vermaelen – but because Arsenal have less associations on the left. Santos has no direct in-between midfielder playing in front of him – Arteta, Song and Ramsey are often biased towards the right – and that’s why Benayoun is key to this layout. The give-and-goes that were required to break down this Wigan defence never materialised. Rosický, who has been key to making Arsenal dynamic and penetrative with his turn and drive, couldn’t play off the pockets that are normally created though combinations and as a result, their best player of the first period, suffered.

Rosicky was superb in the first-half, linking play and providing the impetus. But he tailed off in the second as Arsenal lost fluidity following substitutions and energy. As a result, most of his play was scattered compared to the first period where he could revel in the combination play particularly out on the right – where he crossed for the assist.

5. Ramsey’s passing

This might be interesting to know RE Ramsey (who made most passes for Arsenal tonight). WARNING: Old quote.

Wenger: “If I know that the passing ability of a player is averaging 3.2 seconds to receive the ball and pass it, and suddenly he goes up to 4.5, I can say to him, ‘Listen, you keep the ball too much, we need you to pass it quicker.’ If he says ‘no’, I can say look at the last three games – 2.9 seconds, 3.1, 3.2, 4.5. He’ll say, ‘People around me don’t move so much!’ But you have the statistics there to back you up, too.”

Six points on Arsenal 2-1 Newcastle United

1. We’re witnessing the real Arsenal now

Some of the crowd left early but for the rest who stayed, there was a sense of expectedness about Arsenal’s last-minute winner. It came in the fifth minute of injury time as Thomas Vermaelen bundled in a cross from Theo Walcott; never mind that it came from the right-hand side or that Vermaelen constantly got forward, this was another example of Arsenal’s mental strength. With the victory, Arsenal have become the first Premier League side to win four consecutive matches having fallen behind initially. Perhaps, it’s not the most desired recognition because it means Arsenal have teething issues within but for a club which hasn’t consistently faltered in the final stages in the last few season, this shows a quality which Arsenal have, in the past, lacked.

But back to the deficiencies and it seems The Gunners can’t seem to find a balance between their typical “gung-ho” style and playing a little bit cautiousness from the start. Indeed, it must be noted that when they went unbeaten in eight games from October to mid-December, Arsenal typically won by low scores, usually delivered by Robin van Persie. Against Newcastle United, van Persie wasn’t required to be at his best (although his movement continues to be superb) and it was the same against Milan but Arsenal still produced a performance of great character and substance. Perhaps Arsenal are finally coming to their own with only 3rd place to concentrate on. Because now they can take the risks that their play wants as they know they have more recovery time if they expend all their energy. And certainly, it showed as Arsenal pressed more proactively against Newcastle than they generally have this season, usually winning the ball higher up the pitch.

In the match programme, Arsène Wenger said that Arsenal “can play at a pace that, arguably, nobody (else) can sustain” and as we’ve seen this season, that involves taking full advantage of the side’s speed. In a sense, the game reasserted the new way Arsenal  look to break down sides now, shorn of a central creative figure like Jack Wilshere of Cesc Fábregas, as they’re always looking for the quick release behind otherwise, everything goes down the flanks. Theo Walcott was superb, dovetailing with Bacary Sagna while van Persie’s movement was always sought, either from a ball over the top or through by Alex Song or a cross from out wide. But the reason why Arsenal have found such a holistic style this late in the season, might probably fall down to the fact that the team is now settling into habitual patterns and the cautiousness that we saw early season, having stemmed from a certain unfamiliarity with each other. Because, as much as the signings might have been reactionary, it takes a lot more time and integration to alter mindsets and get a team to properly know each other and finally, Arsenal look in tune.

2. Arsenal profit from a right-side bias

Tactically, much of Arsenal’s success came from the flanks, especially on the right-hand side. Arsenal gave a glimpse of that tactic early on, by aiming goal-kicks at Bacary Sagna and twice he freed Theo Walcott behind. The focus on that side – as it has been for much of the season – was paying off as Jonas Gutierrez was often forced all the way back and even as the defensive winger, he was not getting any joy out of it. Theo Walcott dovetailed with Sagna superbly as they constantly took on their man and aimed in crosses – most encouragingly, low ones too. On the other side, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, couldn’t force himself into the game as Tomáš Rosický – the midfielder who tends to drift left – was similarly dragged to the right. Indeed, it was more discernible on Monday night that Arsenal favour the right side because of the pace of their attacks but this season, the majority of play has tended to operate towards that side. (The season  average is at 37% for attacks origination from the right, and 30% from the left).

3. Van Persie scores when he wants

Arsenal only needed a minute to cancel out Newcastle’s goal with Robin van Persie putting the finishing touches to a equally swift move. Actually, it required three touches to be precise and each one was as devastating as it was expert; his first was to kill off Theo Walcott’s fizzing cross and open up his body, his second to take it away from the defender and the third, a powerful shot into the corner. The nature of Arsenal’s winner overshadowed the quality of the first and again van Persie showed why he is the best striker in the world at the moment. Indeed, his evolution is slightly going against convention in the fact that he’s playing more conventionally because the two best players in the world, Ronaldo and Messi, have scored all their goals unorthodox roles. It must be admired then, how van Persie has refined his game to resist his natural urges to continually drop deep and now all his instincts have gone towards getting onto the final ball. His movement was superb – wizardy almost – as he continuously spun off his marker to find space. Michael Williamson will attest to that when he was beaten for the first.

4. Newcastle’s approach

Considering that Newcastle United won so many aerial duels (19/28 although Demba Ba never won it in the box and while when they did, it was through a predetermined set-piece aimed at Williamson), it poses the question why they didn’t play two forwards. Of course, that would mean ceding a centre-midfield which they probably wouldn’t have won any way but it would have always gave them an outlet to get away from the battle in the centre. Cheik Tiote did a good job moving the ball and closing Arsenal down but whenever  he did get it forward, attacks often broke down straight away. And that’s because Arsenal squeezed the play well and won the ball back quickly. However, by choosing to go one forward and Gabriel Obertan operating off Ba, they played into Arsenal’s hand as Laurent Koscielny in particular, got to the ball first  constantly while, as we’re going to find out, it meant Vermaelen could get forward often without being a danger to his team (although the winner came when Newcastle switched to a 4-4-2).

5. Alex Song and Mikel Arteta switch roles

As Arsenal looked to press higher, Alex Song was used mainly in a box-to-box role. The truth is, that has been almost his default role this season as he has delivered some telling assists while Mikel Arteta dropped back naturally to pick up possession. But here, Song clearly started off with the brief to try and win the ball back higher up. Arteta on the other hand, kept the ball moving from deep, completing a weighty 52 passes in the first half. In the second half, Song dropped back while Arteta probed. But the Spaniard rarely uses his passing to penetrate and for a while, it looked like his technical ability would be better suited in a more advanced role. As it was, Song broke from his shackles and gave the drive for the move that eventually led to the winner.

6. Thomas Vermaelen leads the way forward

Barcelona’s use of midfielders in the backline points to a wider trend – that of a move to a purer game. Defenders are now required to have an almost faultless technical ability as they tend to have most of the ball and thus start attacks. With Vermaelen though, the centre-back offers more than playmaking because he’s also a goal-threat. So often in the game, he pushed up looking for that space to run into while Song dropped back. And often he was forced to abort his run as Newcastle blocked off the space. But he broke forward in the last minute – strode rather – while the rest ran full-bloodedly into the box. His movement is often superb and it’s no surprise that he found the ball at the back post unmarked – he already has two to his name from such runs and assisted Arteta against Wigan. Indeed, with Arsenal’s game seeking to give as much space to the centre-backs in the build up and the fact that they are usually the “spare” man, it can be such a dangerous weapon. Of course, it carries it’s inherent weaknesses but when you can get forward unmarked – and let’s face it, the striker will rarely track the centre-back – it can be a match-winner. Which it turned out to be.

Wing-wizards prove the difference for Arsenal against Blackburn Rovers

The writing was on the wall for Blackburn Rovers even before Gaël Givet’s red card effectively ended the contest for them – as early as the first minute in fact. Theo Walcott found it too easy to creep behind the defence and receiving Francis Coquelin’s pass, he was able to slide in a cross for Robin van Persie to score. This is what happens when everything falls into place for Arsenal and despite the brief aberration that was Morten Gamst-Pedersen’s equaliser, this was as perfect as Arsenal have played this season. Perhaps it’s not possible to read to much into a defeat of the league’s worst defence; the kind of beleaguered opponents that Arsenal thrive upon and should dismantle given their style. But they certainly did just that anyway.

For Arsène Wenger, it was the perfect response to their profligacy previously against Bolton Wanderers and given that the team’s game is based on confidence, Arsenal should take every positive from the 7-1 win. However, there was another part of this win which would provide Wenger with every inch of satisfaction and it was the contribution of the wide men.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott were superb, stretching the play before cutting into Blackburn like a pair of flying daggers. They played slightly differing roles, giving Arsenal a balance they had before lacked. Oxlade-Chamberlain, on the left, showed dexterous footwork allied with the ability to see the penetrative pass. Walcott, though, prefers to kill through subtle movement, darting off the right flank to deliver decisive passes. Indeed, the wide area has been a problem position for Arsenal in that it hasn’t delivered what they’ve wanted. Gervinho has got into great positions before inexplicably suffering from frequent bouts of nervousness; Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fearlessness is a marked contrast. And that Arsenal’s play has become more vertical, it’s forced Walcott into a more orthodox winger role. At least recently, Arsenal have shown visible steps to improve their ball retention. Here though, everything fitted into place as Walcott delivered three assists and he was rampant in creating for chances, evidently boosted by the presence of an overlapping full-back. Meanwhile Chamberlain – some regard as the player Walcott was supposed to be – showed his all-roundedness by scoring two goals, some fantastic footwork and a great understanding already with Robin van Persie.

It might be notable that the terminology Wenger uses to describe the system fluctuates, often in the same press conference, sometimes as the team playing with three “strikers” or “wingers”, highlighting the dual role. If the creative part of the game has slotted into place, the goalscoring hasn’t. Saturday – or rather, Wednesday night following the 0-0 draw with Bolton – might be the turning point. “[Sharing the goals around] was a problem I faced in all the press conferences at the start of the season,” said Wenger. “If he doesn’t score, who scores, you know? It was right, I couldn’t deny that. But I always felt that if you look at our numbers the trio of Gervinho, Walcott and Van Persie were involved in all the goals so they are more the providers because we play with two wingers. But the wingers can score as well, like today. It is something that is needed and we need some more goals from midfield as well.”

If there’s one affect the ideological slant has had on Arsenal’s play, it’s been their ability to keep the ball for sustained periods but here they had a lot of the play in the opponent’s half. That gave a great platform for the front three to revel and by keeping those wide players high up the pitch, it gave the midfielders a constant outlet behind.  Blackburn manager, Steve Kean, explains: “It is very very difficult to affect the game against a side like Arsenal, they keep possession really well, they kept their wide players wide all game and that made it difficult for us.”

Arsenal-v-Blackbrun

Arsenal 2-1 Bolton: Arsenal’s second typified the effectiveness of the team’s game plan. By keeping two wingers up the pitch, Blackburn’s full-backs were forced to play narrow. But, with Arsenal keeping the ball so well and creating space by dragging defenders around, they were able to get behind with alarming frequency. Song was superb in aiding that part of the game, often threading key through-balls to the forwards.

But while it might have been a game where everything went their way, it wasn’t the case for Tomáš Rosický who looked visibly frustrated at some of the things he tried to pull off. A kicked bottle summed his mood as his shot at 6-1 was deflected wide. It wasn’t a bad performance by the Czech; he showed the fluidity he brings to the side and was brilliant as Arsenal responded to Blackburn’s equaliser. In fact, Rosický’s role was a great “decoy” role as he roamed across the pitch to create space for his team-mates. Indeed, in the lead up to Arsenal third, Rosický’s part was understating as he was felled playing a quick one-touch pass for van Persie to free Oxlade-Chamberlain to score. Perhaps a bit of his anxiety came from seeing his other attacking peers make a direct contribution to the goals and sensing that extra penetration may set him apart from his rival in the position, Aaron Ramsey. Nevertheless, in midfield, Mikel Arteta and Alex Song once again set the platform and all game, they instigated and probed. Song, in particular, gives Arsenal a drive that they have missed following the injuries to Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby but his forte has since becoming his ability to play the ball round the corner as it is, the attack-braking tackles. Below the chalkboard shows how often he tried the pass behind, failing on four occasions but finding his man with a through-ball, three times (which is actually a large amount by any footballer).

Alex Song passes

On song – and with Alex Song’s passes – Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott can be a formidable foil for Robin van Persie who got his 22nd league goal with a hat-trick. He took home the match ball but the day belonged to Arsenal’s wing-wizards as they put The Emirates in a spell with their performance. It’s as David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, told SI.com: “the two wingers are creating waves while Van Persie dances and plays in the splashes that they make.”

Seven points on Arsenal 1-0 Queens Park Rangers

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

1. Wright-Phillips v Arteta

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

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

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

2. Full-backs stay back

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

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

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

3. Francis Coquelin at left-back

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

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

4. How Arsenal chances were created

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

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

3. Set-piece

4. Robin van Persie

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

5. Theo Walcott makes great runs but fails to deliver

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

6. Per Mertesacker continues to show his quality

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

7. Robin van Persie has the last laugh

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