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.”

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The Mailbag: The King returns, Wenger’s tactical acumen and Arsenal’s pressing issue.

Some people say this feature only serves to massage my oversized ego but I say it allows me to talk about Arsenal’s most current issues in one post. We’re hoping this can be a regular feature so please feel free to debate below and I’ll likely join in below the line too. Thanks!

Q: Where will Thierry Henry play (off the bench)? And what will be his likely impact? Will he simply replace Gervinho in his now famous left to centre role, or is there something else in stall for Thierry? @Sleepy_Nik

A: Firstly, we must start with a caveat; we musn’t expect too much from Thierry Henry. Moreover, how on earth can anyone displace Robin van Persie right now in the form he’s in? Also, I expect Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain to be given more of a chance and the upcoming game against Leeds United might indicate whether he’s ready. But Thierry Henry comes in when Arsenal require more quality and he still has that. (It must be remembered that it’s more than a year now since he’s been almost injury-free and free of the pain of the Achilles injury that dogged his last year at Arsenal and subsequently affected some of his impact at Barcelona.)

Henry has been brought in to essentially replace two players – Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho – which indicate that an additional attacking signing may still be a possibility. It’s unlikely, though, that he’ll walk into the team because Arsène Wenger has complete trust in the recently maligned Andrei Arshavin having played him in the most games for Arsenal last season. Rather, Henry will be involved mainly in rotation but most importantly perhaps, he’ll be the inspirational figure that Arsenal have so desperately needed in the past.

With Henry, what’s important is not where he’ll play – Wenger envisaged Henry doing more creating had he stayed on at Arsenal rather than relying on pace. (Incidentally threading passes to Jose Antonio Reyes with whom he had a great rapport with on the pitch). He has the chance to do that now in either a “false9”role or as that famous left to centre role instead of in a 442. Henry’s legacy won’t be tainted just because he has come back after his peak for a two month spell. Robbie Fowler returned toLiverpoolin 2006 and although he was not the same player as he once was, the little bit of quality that evokes old memories are the ones that shine through greatest. Besides, it’s not often you get to see your heroes return and that should bring great joy to Arsenal and football fans.

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Q: For reasons I have never grasped, many people consider Arsène Wenger as slightly tactically inept. Why? And is there some truth to it? @Anserine

A: That myth seems to have originated from his “pre-Invincibles” years and in particular, his unwillingness to make substitutions for tactical reasons. It’s true, his changes are primarily scientific, taking off players like Dennis Bergkamp on 70 minutes because he knew his intensity wouldn’t last beyond that and usually making like-for-like substitutions. But theirin lies the misunderstanding of Wenger because it’s not that he’s tactical inept or incapable of making radical decisions, it’s that his management style is about trusting the expressionism of his players and  the ability to find solutions themselves. That was particularly the case when in charge in his early years and especially of the legendary unit in 03/04 (although the argument is also valid that he could have done more in Europe, tactically). Nowadays, you’ll see more tactical decisions from Wenger and that usually happens when you have a team who’s still learning and still not so confident in their abilities to find solutions as the team is now/has been after the break up of the Invincibles. (Indeed, you have to look back at the Champions League run of 2005/06 to see the beginning of a more hands on approach from Wenger).

When Wenger first stated coaching, he was more meticulous until he gradually realised the players were, indeed, the real game-changers. As Youri Djorkaef once noted at Monaco, Wenger was always about “tactic, tactic, tactic,” although he added: “He would only say two or three things. Positive things, tactical things. He was the only coach in France who worked this way,” highlighting the scope the manager left for players to innovate. Perhaps, though, it’s best to end on Robert Pires’ tweet on Wenger: “Tactically you work a lot. And Wenger makes you work on your qualities. He is perfect.”

Q: It seems like Arsenal struggle more with scoring than conceding. Do you agree and how can they fix it?@MalcolmSouth

What a refreshing thought! Although it’s probably true that Arsenal should be judged more on their attacking play. In terms of whether Arsenal “struggle more with scoring than conceding”, I think it boils down to the type of chances they have and consequently allow opponents to have. Because Arsenal attack with such fervour, they leave more spaces at the back and thus the chances that they concede tend to be of higher quality i.e. more space, time, attacking with speed. (Although their big weakness still remains aerially). In comparison, Arsenal’s chances often have to be manufactured or squeezed therefore their chances tend to be closed down more quickly, need to be processed quicker etc. However, in saying that, Arsenal could be more clinical.

Robin van Persie has had 94 shots this season (the next top-scorer, Demba Ba has 62) but that figure is arbitrary because van Persie is still as clinical as most strikers, converting 18% of his shots (which is a respectable figure). But you’ll have to look at the type of chances he has, often creating chances himself. Of course, looking at the QPR game, he could have scored more than the one goal but then you’ll see that he created at least two chances with his dynamic dribbling and one more that was headed wide. All in spite of a lack of space. It’s not unexpected then, that the goal he scored, was the easiest; a gift from the QPR defence.

Often people ask how Arsenal can improve: the three striker system is placed so Arsenal can be more dynamic and goalscoring coming from more than one source although that is not the case yet. Nevertheless, it must be looked at the role Theo Walcott and Gervinho have in Robin van Persie’s goals. Not having full-backs as much affected Arsenal’s play as they help stretch the play while the return of Jack Wilshere is welcome as his drive and the ability to play through passes is missing. Aaron Ramsey may have improved on the later but he’s hesitant to change the emphasis of Arsenal’s attacks by running with the ball as Wilshere is due to misgivings of his pace. (Ditto Mikel Arteta thus Alex Song’s runs have been key).

As Wenger once said, “the measure of football is the ratio of chances created to to chances conceded” therefore he’ll be the harshest judge of Arsenal’s attacking play.

Q: What advice you would give Wenger to deal with the high pressure Arsenal seem to struggle with?@Darren_V_

It’s true Arsenal have often struggled with high pressure, most spectacularly in the Champions League, although how they got through with one game to spare is a wonderment! What Wenger tends to do is push his central midfielders up the pitch to give his centre-backs more time on the ball. Which is a valid tactic although it doesn’t really answer the question because if they are still pressed, the centre-backs won’t have many options. Arsenal don’t play long-balls so spreading the play laterally is not really the solution. Rather, they could learn from Barcelona and spread the play sideways although that comes with more risk.

The issue, as Backwards Gooner highlighted recently is whether you see it as a problem at the back or at the front. Wenger, against Fulham, saw it at the front so he took of his two under-performing wide players – the two players who should have gave Arsenal a speed outlet but didn’t – in favour of those who keep the ball better – Yossi Benayoun and Tomas Rosicky. It didn’t really work either way because The Gunners were unable to stem Fulham’s attacks and thus they were punished. In that situation, I would have taken a radical option and put on Marouane Chamakh so Arsenal get an out-ball. In one sense though, this Arsenal side has a tendency to be pushed back and thus, Wenger will have to find solutions to correct that problem. Arsenal have looked better when there’s rotation between the midfield to drag opponents out and that remains their most obvious and easiest to implement solution.

<Figure 1: Van Persie passes received v Fulham>Arsenal were unable to respond to Fulham’s second-half pressure and as shown by the passes to van Persie, were unable to get the ball out of the back effectively.

Arsenal 1-0 Everton: Robin van Persie’s bolt from the blue gives Arsenal the win

Sometimes, the textbook way isn’t always the right way. That’s what David Moyes and Everton found out and in the end, they were outdone by a stunning volley from Robin van Persie. The goal didn’t look like coming in the second-half – while Robin van Persie had one of his most ineffective games yet this season – and that was due to the turnaround in tactics by Moyes.

Everton actually rode their luck in the first-half as Arsenal contrived to spoil good openings. First Theo Walcott delayed too long a pass to Gervinho before it was cut out while Aaron Ramsey chipped over when he could have finished first time. The positive to take from it though, from The Gunners perspective, was that they were able to pick gaps through a normally bullish Everton defence but lacked polish in the execution. That made it a frenetic first-half in comparison to the second, which Arsenal lumbered through before van Persie’s goal. That the goal came as it did was surprising although the build up consisted of what Arsenal did well in the first-half; quick interchange in central midfield before a blink-of-an-eye pass to find the run of a striker. Robin van Persie’s movement was brilliant; his strike even better but the pass that led to the goal will continue to go underrated. Though, the fact that it came from Alex Song shouldn’t be a surprise considering he attempted 7 through-passes in the game and the figure is a great testament to how far he has come. It wasn’t just the urgency he brings in possession, he has a balletic-like grace which covers the field and breaks up many opposition attacks. Proof that his unassuming style goes unnoticed, The Sun only gave Song a 7 for what we see as a man-of-the-match performance while the more visceral impact of Walcott and van Persie saw them receive 8 and 10(!) respectively.

First-half  to second-half: Everton’s approach

Good technique, though while widely accepted as an essential weapon, is rarely seen as a game-changing factor in the grand scheme of a result. Having good technique usually means simply being able to control the ball easily, weigh passes appropriately or maintain one’s balance when shooting. Occasionally, however, technique is the difference between winning and losing. Robin van Persie’s expert strike came as a sucker-punch to Everton as it undid all their hard-work to correct their faults in the first and after that, they never had the energy to get back in it.

Truthfully, though, they should have been out of it in the first 45 minutes as they simply allowed Arsenal too much room. It wasn’t meant to happen that way but the way modern footballers have been programmed tactically, it happened habitually. David Moyes wanted Everton to play compactly and thus squeezing the space for The Gunners in their half. But to remain compact, it means the team moving together as a unit and as the textbook says, that means the defence has to push up. We all know by now, however, that to play against Arsenal, you cannot give them space behind and Everton did that constantly in the first-half. Phil Jagielka and Johnny Heitinga were unable to get close when the ball was played quickly around the corner but fortunately for them, they weren’t punished. In the second-half, however, they dropped deeper and that extra 5m they had spare, they were able to survey the threat better and anticipate the passes. That figure is shown by the dramatic rise in interceptions, which was only at a lowly 7 in the first, going up to 17 in the second. Denying Arsenal of that out-ball down the channels, Everton were able to frustrate Arsenal and prevent them from finding any fluency.

David Moyes said: “The high line wasn’t necessarily the plan but we wanted to limit Arsenal and that means midfielders have to go and get close to Arsenal’s midfielders. If you do that then the back four have to move up too. We wanted to disrupt Arsenal’s passing and win the ball early. If we came and parked the bus you would be saying why did we not have a go, well we did, and if you do that you are always going to give Arsenal some opportunities.

“We tried to get at them,” he added. “I thought we got into some great positions to make opportunities, great positions to deliver crosses and we either never delivered them or never completed the move.”

<Figure 1> Everton failed to get compact in the first-half and simply allowed Arsenal too much room to play through the middle and into the channels. As a result, their interception count was at a low 7. In the second-half, they dropped deeper and were able cut off Arsenal play and frustrate them. To highlight the effectiveness of the change, Phil Jagielka made all five of his interceptions in the second-half. Linked to Arsenal in the summer, does his preference for the deeper game indicate why Arsenal weren’t fully convinced by him?

First-half  to second-half: Arsenal’s approach

While it may fall down partly to Everton’s tactics that Arsenal looked more potent in the first, their expert ball rotation also allowed them to dominate as they did. Aaron Ramsey was given a “free role” to get to the end of Arsenal’s attacks and roam around the front-line for the ball. It was a typically energetic performance from the Welshman and it’s interesting that Arséne Wenger has pushed him up higher in the last few games. It’s a tactical role as he often has to mark the first midfielder to stop the pass out of the defence but, in the coming games, the role might have just become more important.

<Figure 2> The effectiveness of Arsenal in the first-half in comparison to the second can be displayed by the passing received charts of Ramsey. In the opening period, he as able to roam around the pitch in search for possession, rotating eith his teammates before getting on the end of moves. In the second-half, his movement remained almost exclusively to the middle showing how Everton disrupted Arsenal’s fluency.

The reason why Wenger is more willing to push him up the pitch might be due to the lack of penetration provided by the full-backs. Of course, being central defenders by trade as they are, getting forward and providing the width can only be expected to be a secondary duty so extra drive has to come from elsewhere. Therefore, Wenger feels he can afford to take the risk and commit an extra body forward because he’ll have two cautious full-backs back anyway. As a result in this encounter, Everton were able to get plenty of room down the flanks, getting into a number of one-on-one situations but failing to deliver dangerously. (Everton made more crosses than Arsenal but were poor on one-on-ones, only getting past 3 out of 8 times in wide areas).

<Figure 3> Again, the compactness of Everton in the second period can be shown by where Theo Walcott recieved his passes. In the first, and Everton playing a high-line, he was played in more often behind the defence. However, in the next period, he was forced to drop deeper in search of possession.

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.

Five points on Arsenal 3-0 West Bromwich Albion

Arsenal crept out of the negatives for goal difference this season and into the positives for the first time, and for that they can say they have finally moved on from their disastrous start. The victory was more symbolic than being noted for the actual performance which was once again dominant without having to hit second gear. The Gunners added vigour to victory and while Robin van Persie was a major influence in all three of the goals, it was very much a collective endeavour.

West Bromwich Albion, on the other hand, looked a level below and they never got close to giving Arsenal a challenge. They had injuries but credit must go to Arsenal for suffocating the play and then giving themselves the comfort of a two-goal lead at half-time. The rest of the match was elementary as Mikel Arteta wrapped up the win.

1. “In the modern game, the only formation is 9-1”

The most impressive thing about Arsenal’s resurrection is not just how results have improved; it’s the way they have made visible steps to be more solid as a team. On Saturday, with the selections of Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny at centre-back as well as two attacking full-backs, it indicated Arsenal would attack as a team and defend together. In terms of physical make-up, the defence was barely indistinguishable to the attack – Gervinho and Vermaelen could easily mistaken for the wrong positions if you didn’t know who they were – and indeed, Vermaelen popped up with the second goal. Arsène Wenger knew he was going to face a defensive side (although he did expect West Brom to be more potent on the break) so he chose a team that he felt would stand the best chance of breaking them down. His team did and in comfortable fashion too.

2. Where would Arsenal be without van Persie Arteta?

Talks of a one-man team are unfair on an Arsenal side who are improving each week, even if they are reliant on Robin van Persie to finish off the moves. However, it might be fair to say The Gunners can as much owe their revival to the twinkle toe passing of Mikel Arteta as much as van Persie’s goals. Yes, van Persie’s goals are more tangible to the end result but Arsenal have markedly looked a better team since the arrival of Arteta from Everton. The Spaniard has helped bring stability in midfield, recycling possession expertlyto give Arsenal the control they were lacking in the earlier games and he has stoked up an excellent partnership with Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey. It’s argued his passing can often be too passive but in keeping it moving, he’s dragging opponents around to create space and to help sustain the pressure. He’s in the top ten of most passes per game in Europe – the only player in the league. Arteta’s played nearly ninety minutes every match since and he deserves a rest; it’s just as well there’s an international break around the corner….

3. The modern centre-back pairing

Arsène Wenger’s comments on the importance of centre-backs to Arsenal’s attacks before the game, more than just being very insightful, seemed to be a thumbs-up for Koscielny and Vermaelen as the first choice pairing. He officially put down the benching of Per Mertesacker as tactical, opting for mobility but Arsenal’s game relies on nimble movement and unfortunately for Mertesacker, he falls just short of his two team-mates. To be fair, the German has proved surprisingly adroit on the ball and in the games he has played, has had more passes than Koscielny. That may just be down to Arsenal’s bias down the right-hand side (see figure 2) but Wenger can rotate his centre-backs when the circumstances demand it, safe in the knowledge than any of his three can do a good job.

Against West Brom, however, Koscielny and Vermalen showed why they are Arsenal’s best partnership, aiding Arsenal’s possession game with precision passing into the midfield. But most impressive was their acute reading of play which helped squeezed the play in West Brom’s half. They constantly won the wall back quickly, helping to restart attacks as soon as they broke down, something arguably less achievable if Mertesacker had played.

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The urgency Vermaelen instilled in Arsenal’s game is shown by his interceptions which were higher than any other Arsenal player. Two were in the opponents half and his impetousness is infectious.

NB: We didn’t see how Arsenal’s defenders cope when pressed because West Brom weren’t able to close them down up the pitch but it’s important to note Wenger’s tactics when that happens. He usually pushes his midfielders up at the start of the build up to give the centre-backs time and space on the ball. It’s worked to varying success, though; Arsenal do look better when Song and Arteta rotate to drop deep to pick up the ball rather than Song on his own because it makes them harder to mark. Nevertheless, Arsène Wenger has indicated what could be a potential strategy for clubs against them and is taking steps to ensure his team is fully prepared.

“[Traditionally] when you play against a 4-4-2 the two strikers stop your centre-backs so the full-backs get the first ball from the goalkeeper,” said Wenger. “If your full-back gives ball back to the keeper or cannot get out of a tight situation you have to kick the ball forward.

“Against a 4-5-1, the trend now, the two centre-backs become more important as the full-backs are ‘blocks’ and the centre-backs get more of the ball. So the quality of their passing becomes very important.”

4. Another word on Arsenal’s wing-play

It’s a little bit strange to say that the wide forwards have been crucial to Arsenal’s game because, at the same time, they’ve yet to deliver as it’s been hoped. That’s probably down to the nature of the wide player as they generally tend to flit in and out of games because their space is often squeezed. Wenger has tried to keep their involvement going at all times by swapping sides when their impact wanes but we should note the differences of Gervinho and Theo Walcott’s roles. Gervinho is almost expected to be a striker tucked in on the left therefore he’s often left up the pitch so Arsenal can knick a goal on the break (although I feel he’s actually better on the right). Walcott, on the other hand, is given a more orthodox box-to-box winger role with Wenger admitting he’s instructed to do more defensive work. In a sense it’s like the front three at Barcelona; Villa on the left plays more direct and closer to Messi while Pedro hugs the touchline and covers for the right-full back.

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Van Persie has admitted he has had to refine his game due to the increased number of crosses coming his way and against West Brom, The Gunners plundered in 34 crosses. Arsenal’s play was also generally skewed towards the right – the first image showing the passing in the first-half. Overall this season, Arsenal attack from the right 35% of the time compared to 31% from the left but that figure increases to 37% at home, with attacks from the left going down to 29%.

5. West Brom offer limited threat

If there’s one negative from the game, it’s the way Arsenal dropped their intensity levels in the second-half. The lead never looked in doubt but Arsenal could afford to learn from Barcelona by taking the sting off games with their possession. That’s how they defended in the first-half, suffocating the play in West Brom’s half so much so they didn’t concede a shot. In the second-half, however, Arsenal relented and offered West Brom a small peek back into the game – The Baggies were allowed to get runners forward around the box – but their threat was minimal. The lack of a focal point may have affected West Brom’s game but this was Arsenal’s easiest opponent yet.

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West Brom had 10 shots in the game, all in the second-half. In the first-half they had none and you can see by the pass graphic how Arsenal squeezed their passing by not allowing them to penetrate the final third.

NB: A shout out also to the ever improving pair of Carl Jenkinson and Aaron Ramsey, who, due to time constraints, I couldn’t write about. But you can add your thoughts below should you wish.

Five points on Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal

In the end, it was the similarities between the two sides which resulted in such an open encounter. Which is strange to say considering past meetings when Arsenal and Chelsea face has been decided by their differences.

The millions pumped in by Roman Abramovich already indicates an uneven playing field and on the playing field the contrast is evident; it’s usually a battle between aesthetes and results, between romanticism and pragmatism. However, this season’s hiring of Andre Villas-Boas – the deviator from Jose Mourinho’s team of brutal perfectionists – indicates that Abramovich wants to change that image. And in Saturday’s encounter at Stamford Bridge, Villas-Boas attempted to go toe-to-toe against Arséne Wenger for attacking football but ended up looking a bit naïve. Here are some observations from the 5-3 win over Chelsea.

1. High line + lack of pressing = recipe for openness

The defending of both sides presented another opportunity to belittle the use of a high-line but it was the combination of that – and not on it’s own – and a lack of pressing which led to a hectic encounter. Put simply, you cannot play a high defensive line without pressing because it invites the opposition to make passes through the backline. Both sides did that constantly and getting the wide men beyond the back four was a common sight but it was Arsenal in the second-half who reacted, getting tighter to stop the passes out wide and playing a bit deeper (see figure 1). Chelsea, on the other hand, continued to allow Arsenal to get through.

 

03HjS<Figure 1>Arsenal allow Chelsea to pass it deep in the first-half with relatively little pressure but that only invites Chelsea to exploit through the channels. In the second period, The Gunners drop deeper and get tighter, blocking the combination play out wide from developing.

The lack of pressing can be displayed by the goals. For the opener, Arsenal dropped off and allowed John Terry to play a diagonal wide to Juan Mata and his resulting cross was met by the unmarked Frank Lampard. He was afforded a free run at goal because Arsenal sat off early on in the build up and when the long ball was played, the midfield was left marking space, ignoring Lampard’s run. In the second-half, The Gunners got much tighter and stopped those runs having any effect. Chelsea, however, didn’t react and the goals they conceded were of a similar vein. They were often too late to close down and Arsenal were able to get runners beyond. Vitor Pereira, Porto’s new coach and Villas-Boas’ number two last season, says he most differs from the Chelsea manager in their philosophies in the defensive; Villas-Boas is more passive while Pereira is much more aggressive at winning the ball back.

AC Milan set the benchmark under Arrigo Sacchi in the late eighties/early nineties playing a high defensive line (even if the offside laws were favourable) because of their structural pressing. Both Arsenal andChelsea may have tried to be compact in their own halves but their relaxed closing down ensured both sides invited each other forward. Nevertheless, it’s a balance that not only they have had trouble with this season; Manchester United have allowed the most shots because they don’t press intensely AND play a deep line, affording space for opponents between midfield and defence. Manchester City have perhaps got this balance most right, having at least five men back at all times.

As The Short Fuse put it so well on Saturday, “playing a high-line without pressure, though, is hazardous at best and defensive suicide at worst.”

2. The new Arsenal arrives

If it wasn’t instantly obvious how Arsenal would adjust after Cesc Fábregas early on in the season because their passing was soporific and not incisive, it was made apparent here. They played with lots of speed when in possession while Gervinho and Theo Walcott were the perfect foils for Robin van Persie. Arséne Wenger is willing to keep his three forwards up the pitch in order to make Arsenal more dynamic and while it may leave them defensively exposed at times, it can make them devastating at times. Chelsea do the same thing but the difference between the two sides were shown; The Blues’ front three are more crafty and creative while Arsenal, with van Persie in particular, can be unpredictable and erratic but were brutally effective.

03HrS.png<Figure 2> Arsenal v Chelsea successful/unsuccessful dribbles

3. Laurent Koscielny shines once again

Another game and another excellent performance by Koscielny. His rise has been remarkable and it seems he has finally adapted to the vagaries and subtleties of the Premier League. On Saturday, he made dominant showing, most impressively making 8 interceptions. His partnership with Per Mertesacker works because they complement each other well as the stopper and the sweeper which allows Koscielny to use his intelligence to get into position. If, as expected, Thomas Vermaelen comes straight back in, Koscielny may have to adapt his game because the two are very similar. They are Arsenal’s two best central defenders but is it the best partnership? (We think so).

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<Figure 3> Koscielny interceptions

4. Mikel Arteta gives Arsenal stability

If it wasn’t instantly obvious how Arsenal would adjust after Cesc Fábregas early on in the season because their passing was soporific and not incisive, it is now because of Mikel Arteta. It’s true, he would rather keep it simple than play defence-splitting passes – his pass for van Persie was his first assist – but by keeping the ball moving, he helps Arsenal sustain the pressure. His defensive work can also go understated, by not only helping Arsenal to recycle the ball from the back but also holding his position and allowing Alex Song (for Andre Santos’s goal) to add drive going forward and Aaron Ramsey to revel higher up. The Welshman made his best performance to date and you can’t help but feel it was made possible by Arteta’s presence.

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<Figure 4> Mikel Arteta’s pass completion was at 94%.

5. Arsenal keep Mata quiet…sort of

There was much talk about how Johan Djourou would cope with Juan Mata but it turned out to be a team responsibility. In the first-half, he was fantastic, drifting all over the pitch (although he left his team horribly exposed in defence) and in particular, doubling up on the right. However, in the second-half, Arsenal got tighter and stopped him from getting space on the flanks. The Gunners blocked the easy pass to the flanks and Mata’s influence waned. Apart from his brilliant strike to make it 3-3 that is.

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<Figure 5> Juan Mata’s involvement in both halves. Notice, in the first-half, how his involvement was purely creative, drifting into pockets to get on the ball. In the second-half, he was more frustrated. He still had his only two chances in the game late on and could have added to his belter has his shot not be cleared off the line.

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.