Swansea 3-2 Arsenal: The Gunners beaten at their own game

henry-djourou-swanseaThe match was billed as an encounter between two aesthetes – “Old Arsenal” and “New Arsenal” – but this win was all Swansea City’s own. Arsenal weren’t just beaten; they were beaten at their own game. Yet, it would do disservice to Swansea to say that they are Arsenal-lite; they did what Arsenal normally do but at times they did it better. WhenArsenal were beaten by Barcelona in the Champions League last season, Arsène Wenger spoke of their “sterile domination” and in a way, it’s something Arsenal have been unable to achieve and Swansea did. They may have ultimately profited from lapses in the defence but it was their fantastic ball retention – like Barcelona, which at times, was extraordinarily casual – and voraciousness when they lost it, which suffocated Arsenal’s play. “I like to coach my players to manage pressure with the ball,” manager Brendan Rodgers said afterwards. “In the last few minutes they were able to play some nice little triangles to get out of trouble and launch some attacks of our own.”

Wenger later bemoaned defensive frailties and some “unbelievable chances” missed but in regards to the former, at least, he might have seen it coming. The Gunners have gotten through a torrid start through strong team spirit to defend more securely but sooner or later, the gaps would be shown again unless they become more cohesive as a unit. In particular, they owe much thanks to Mikel Arteta, who has steadied the ship and before this fixture, had not missed a game since his début, ironically against Swansea. Perhaps they haven’t progressed as much as they thought they had following the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United but Mikel Arteta is single-handedly papering over the team’s cracks. (Robin van Persie has performed miracles with his goalscoring exploits and we must be be appreciative of that, but in terms of team performances, Arsenal haven’t much improved in 2011. Indeed, once Arteta slotted in, it was then the team was transformed from the cavalier to more controlled).

Arteta presence was sorely missed on Sunday although he wasn’t the only significant absentee – Arsenal’s full-back woes have been much documented and notably, Ignasi Miquel was caught out twice up the pitch for Swansea’s two goals. Yet, if Swansea would still have retained the same measure of possession if Arteta had been playing, because he too was non-existent in the second-half against Fulham, his positioning was Arsenal’s biggest loss. As a result, poor Yossi Benayoun was drafted in out of position as a central midfielder and the Isreali was found wanting defensively. Often he was attracted higher up the pitch or towards the left. Indeed, Benayoun has often been a drifter which has as much irked his previous coaches as well as endeared himself to them. He’s a tactical anarchist, making hay with his superb off-the-ball movement but that would normally be on the flanks. Andre Villas-Boas couldn’t find a space in either position so he cast him off to Arsenal where he has only started out wide twice (excluding Carling Cup), making one assist and has been called upon twice in central midfield. The ramifications of playing Benayoun in a makeshift position was that it caused imbalances to Arsenal’s team. Normally, Arteta would play closer to Alex Song but on this occasion, Arsenal’s defensive screener was often isolated. With Benayoun tending to drift left, it meant Aaron Ramsey had to drop ever deeper to close the gaps and in the end, he was culpable for two of Swansea’s goals, fouling for the penalty and then dawdling on the ball. (Arsenal were increasingly exposed in transitions and the drastic tracking-back proved fateful).

a-v-swansea

<Figure 1> With Benayoun constantly tending to drift to the left, it created an imbalance which Aaron Ramsey sought to plug. As a result, he was unable to press up the pitch as normal and Arsenal suffered on the break whenever both got forward.

The other effect this had on Arsenal was that they were unable to press effectively, as usually, it’s Ramsey who gets close to van Persie. In this instance, Benayoun’s naturalistic tendencies saw him push higher leaving Ramsey somewhat tactically lost. Only in a 10 minute period before half-time did Arsenal look more organised and they pressed Swansea in possession well (this being Arsenal’s best spell of possession as well). [Click here for Chalkboard]

After this seventh defeat (as if compartmentalising is needed at this stage) Arsenal’s league objectives took a huge battering. It’s not just in defence they look jittery; the attack hasn’t sparkled without the divine intervention of van Persie. Theo Walcott got his goal while Andrey Arshavin also bagged an assist but the two wide men can still seem a bit disassociated and that was more the case as Swansea squeezed their involvement out of the game. Perhaps then, there are few holes in Arsenal’s philosophy. Arsène Wenger can certainly learn a few things from Swansea who treated the ball with a a calmness and tranquillity as if strolling through the Irish farmlands. Arsenal on the other hand, looked anxious to exert their game when in the past, it would have been expected to come naturally. Wenger said they showed a “lack of appreciation of the ball” and this graphic below might tell it’s own story.

arsenal-times-graphic

Note: We used an imperfect measure to rate the quality of chances Arsenal create and concede per match (Chance Quality Index). Against Leeds, Arsenal created an average chance quality of 5.3/10 and conceded an average quality of chance 6.5/10. As Wenger said, they created better chances against Swansea at 6.4/10 but also conceded at a similar rate at 6.6/10. OPTA don’t measure quality of chance as it’s interpretative so we implore you guys to help develop this further. (At the moment, it’s rudimentary rating of chances out of ten).

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Fulham 2-1 Arsenal: As it happened

FULL TIME: FULHAM 2-1 ARSENAL: Arsenal just didn’t turn up in the second-half. They were unable to keep the ball as Fulham came out of the blocks after the break with a lot of urgency and deserved at least a point. The winner, however, came after serious pressure and Zamora fired in a poor header by Squillaci. Djourou looked devastated when he was sent off  and that changed the game completely. In truth though, Arsenal were always open, even when they were the better side in the first-half. However, they failed to really muster a good attack in the second-half and that’s down to the way Fulham came out. They pressed, pushed men forward and the attacking players used the fulcrum of Zamora fantastically, especially Ruiz.

AHMAD: “An alarming trend this season that has been brought up before has been the inability of some of England’s better teams to control matches from start to finish. An underlying explanation for this could be the inherent nature of the Premier League’s frantic pace.” > A frighteningly prescient comment at half-time and as it turned out, Arsenal were unable to control the game. The team was pushed back by Fulham’s wing-backs while Arteta and Song were just unable to find an out-ball. Could Wenger have reacted better? There seemed little wrong with his changes to give technical reassurance to Arsenal’s play but perhaps the 4-3-3 which looked broken was too obvious. Fulham were always going to attack and maybe, another strike partner may have benefited the isolated van Persie.

PS: It wasn’t a foul by Djourou.

92 mins: ZAMORA 2-1: Why bother?

90  mins: Arsenal have looked vulnerable from crosses, which has been unlike them this season.

88 mins: Ruiz is harshly offside when through on goal.

Robin van Persie magic needed. But, with ten men, Arsenal might have to settle for 1-1. Hang in there.

85 mins GOAL 1-1 SIDWELL!: Szczesny does a De Gea and flaps at that one a bit. The ball falls for Senderos who heads across for Sidwell to head home. Fulham will feel they can win this now. Arsenal just want Squillaci off.

Sebastian Squillaci was mint for Monaco in 2004 in their Champions League run to the final. Hasn’t quite recovered from then.

OH NO! DON’T WATCH NOW! SEBASTIAN SQUILLACI COMES ON FOR ARSENAL!

10 minutes for Arsenal to survive as Ramsey fills in at right-back.

78 mins: DJOUROU SENT OFF!: Djourou leans slightly across Zamora and the Fulham striker falls just outside the area although he nearly times his fall right. Two yellows = red. Simple maths.

75 mins: Yossi Benayoun to come on and give Arsenal “stability” on the ball. Much needed because Fulham sense something that resembles a goal but it probably won’t be judging by their shooting tonight. [JINX!] Gervinho goes off. Lo and behold! Ruiz shoots and Szczesny wonderfully saves!

71 mins: BORING, BORING, ARSENAL. They keep the ball for two minutes before Gervinho puts on second gear, drives at Fulham but not-so-unexpectedly shoots wide.

68 mins: Bryan Ruiz has been like a ballerina. Gliding and pirouetting. And swishing his long hair like a girl. His chipped pass, first at 66 minutes is headed wide by Dempsey while another one finds the American but it’s offside.

66 mins: Arsenal not so dominant around their own box now as they were in the first-half.

64 mins: Walcott’s impotency and his failure to track Riise sees him go off for Rosicky. Arsenal can’t keep the ball out the moment so that change should kill two birds.

63 mins: Senderos has always been dangerous for Arsenal whether he’s on the team or not. Szczesny rushes out to claim a corner which Senderos just about heads wide. Close shave.

62 mins: Djourou slide tackles Riise and is then visibly holding his groin. Or shall I say PENIS! He’s later booked for his, ahem, tackle.

Coquelin reminds me of Drilbur. He’s a pokemon. Judge for yourself.

60 mins: Arsenal wanted a penalty on van Persie. Not given. Steve Sidwell than has a shot that went over. Also not given but for what, I’m not sure.

57 mins: Fulham keeping the ball well but lacking that spark. Arsenal need to make more of their breaks. 56%-44% possession to Fulham.

50 mins: Riise has been getting forward with alarming regularity and his cross is disappointingly headed over by Sidwell.

SECOND HALF: That Moussa Dembele is quite unflappable in possession, isn’t he? He dances his to the edge of Arsenal’s box before his pass is squeezed only through to Arsenal’s goalkeeper who shall remain untyped.

Man of the first-half: Aaron Ramsey.

Arsenal’s good use of the pitch can be shown by where they’ve won their take-ons. Fulham, on the other hand, have had some joy breaking and the narrowness of Arsenal’s defending – because Fulham also like to cut inside – can be shown by their take-on chart:

Twitter @Orbinho: “HT Stats: Fulham v Arsenal. Shots 9-16. On target 1-9. Passing Accuracy 83%-85%. Fouls 3-6. Duels Won 50%-50%. Possession 47%-53%.”

HALF TIME: That sound is Senderos heading over the bar and thus ending a pulsating half. Both teams playing some cracking football; Arsenal have had plenty of chances and their 4-2-3-1 looks a bit open but it’s allowing them to weave pretty patterns. Likewise for Fulham actually but they’ve been less explosive going forward and in van Persie and Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal have the game’s two attacking stand-out players. Laurent Koscielny has been superb all season and here again, given a test by Booby Zamora. His goal separates the sides. Fulham 0-1 Arsenal.

44 mins: Brede Hangeland and Philipe Senderos striding forward looks as comortable as Per Mertesacker striding forward but that’s what’s been happening. On the one hand, Arsenal are getting space to break but Fulham can also compress play by pushing up.

“Let’s give up tracking runners for a bit.” This has been pulsating stuff; attack and counter-punch. But with finesse.

Fulham have a Michael Jackson statue. Just laugh at that for a moment.

34 mins: Robin van Persie looking threatening as always and is giving Senderos the runs everytime he has the ball. His shot is tame though.

33 mins: Alex Song makes a great tackle on Ruiz. Arsenal looking a bit vulnerable on the break down the channels.

It’s attack vs defence for Arsenal at the moment. They are leaving four players up and defending with the rest. And when they get forward, any number of options can be found.

31 mins: Ruiz is allowed to use his right foot and comes forward as Arsenal back off. And off. His shot is just wide. Close shave.

30 mins: Some of Arsenal’s interplay is impressive. Fulham surviving due to getting back in numbers.

Coquelin leaves his left-back position with gay abandon. Just watch him pop up at the bottom of your screen. And he’s not trying to sell you a Russian bride.

Ahmad (again. Spread it out a bit guys!): “A lot of Fulham’s attacking play focused out wide which makes sense considering our makeshift fullbacks. The space between Djourou and Mertesacker is looking especially vulnerable as highlighted by the chance created only a few minutes ago. Also, I cannot wait for Gervinho to add a finishing touch to his game. Frustrating to see him miss so many chances after getting into wonderful positions.”

From ArsenalColumn Twitter:  “When Arsenal attack, they have Fulham really compressed. Aaron Ramsey’s drive and pressing setting the tone for Arsenal.”

GOALMOUTH SCRAMBLE: Ramsey shoots, Song shoots, Gervinho shoots. Nothing goes in. Mayhem.

GOALAZO!!!!! KOSCIELNY 1-0 21 mins: Arsenal win a corner and after much pontificating around the box, Ramsey dinks in a wonderful cross and the hesitating Fulham defence watches on as Koscielny places his header in the corner.

Both teams have a certain outlet. Zamora keeps on drifting left, which may or may not be because it’s Coquelin’s side. He did so at The Emirates too. Arsenal finding joy through pressing high up and then feeding Gervinho. Well, as joyful as it can be.

15 mins: Zamora can’t get onto Riisse’s cross. Senderos or Hangeland heads over. I can’t tell.

13 mins: Murphy gives the ball away  – we think he can be pressured on the ball. Gervinho goes on a run that only he’s capable of before falling over and unconvincingly trying to claim a penalty. Senderos caught him like Tiote caught Gervinho. Touch and go in more than one definition of the term.

Arteta under a LOT of pressure at the moment.

10 mins: Arsenal look more narrow in the centre with Arteta and Song very close to each other.\Arteta dispossessed by Sidwell a nd the ensuing break sees Zamora test Szceszzzzny. Well held though.

8 mins: Gervinho shoots not-too-unexpectedly over from close to goal. Should have scored or gotten closer. But we expected that not to happen.

Ahmad: “Should be interesting to see Coquelin at left-back up against Ruiz.. Last time out, I thought he gave a promising display coming off the bench.” He’s already sauntered into the centre-forward position and is having a bit of a grappling battle with Ruiz. Interesting.

5 mins: Arsenal are a shaken for a minute. The Fulham are in full voice and Zamora showed good feet to make a chance than he didn’t have.

3 mins: Johan Djourou has been uncharacteristically high up the pitch in unfamiliarity territory. Aaron Ramsey has a shot poked straight at Stockdale. Good start. My fingers hurt already.

1 min: Arsenal already caressing the ball like Chantilly lace before the ball falls to Gervinho. But his shot goes not-too-unexpectedly over.

Gunslinger: “This will be tough i hate craven cottage the games are always too close. I feel gervinho will be the key”
M. Gordon: “I am guessing Stockdale has the game of his life. But I am intrigued by Coquelin in that left back position.”

Some tactical thoughts: Dembele and Dempsey are Fulham’s in-form players. In particular, Dembele and his anus, hold the ball very well and they along with Bryan Ruiz should play around Bobby Zamora. The England striker hasn’t had the best relationship with his coach, Martin Jol, at times resembling a father and a son who’s rejected his dad’s farm and chose University instead. Also, there’s sexual tension too. Growl.

Here’s what happened last time: http://arsenalcolumn.co.uk/2011/11/28/eight-points-on-arsenal-1-1-fulham/

Silly season is very much underway as a number of Arsenal teams were “confirmed” before we were airlifted the official teams to our secret headquarters in the sky. Alas, Robin van Persie does start indicating that for Arsenal, it’s “serious season” and if he, and they, because let’s face it, van Persie IS Arsenal at the moment, can get through this congested fixture schedule, then a deserved week’s rest beckons. Here are the teams:

Fulham: Stockdale, Kelly, Hangeland, Senderos, J Riise, Dembele, Murphy, Sidwell, Ruiz, Zamora, Dempsey. Subs: Etheridge, Baird, Orlando Sa, Gecov, Duff, Hughes, Frei.

Arsenal: Szczesny, Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Coquelin, Song, Arteta, Walcott, Ramsey, Gervinho, van Persie. Subs: Almunia, Rosicky, Squillaci, Arshavin, Chamakh, Benayoun, Miquel.

Five points on Arsenal 1-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers

Arsenal+v+Wolverhampton+Wanderers+Premier+qpAauNO4tN8l

Since Mick McCarthy was charged for fielding a weakened team against Manchester United in 2009, he hasn’t been the same. Not just that he won’t roll over again against “stronger” opposition so easily but he’s rarely had to make the same drastic reshuffle to his pack. Because it was he who was one of the first to highlight the importance of rotation to the mainstream media so it’s slightly strange he hasn’t been pressed to do so (though that may be because Wolves play much less matches than top Premier League sides). “I read an article where Carlo Ancelotti had said that the risk of injury in one game is 10%,” said McCarthy justifying his changes in that infamous game. “And then that goes up to 30% or 40% if another intensive game follows in three or four days. We believe that anyway, but that came from the Milan Lab research centre set up by AC Milan.”

Indeed, that’s been the trend in the Premier League this season; unforced rotation has almost non-existent amongst the top clubs this season because they’ve just been unwilling to deviate from a formula. Arséne Wenger may have thought about resting Robin van Persie had his team played on the same day as everybody else but the dropped points from his closest challengers gave Arsenal an window of opportunity they had to take. One of those changes saw Yossi Benayoun slot in on the right, making only now, his first league start for Arsenal as Wenger finally budged on his three striker system. Nevertheless, Benayoun was detailed to play more of a direct style instead taking a creative role although he still contributed with the assist for Arsenal’s only goal. But, such has been their luck this season, Wolverhampton equalised though a fortuitous goal and then survived an onslaught in the final third of the game as goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey performed heroics to deny Arsenal.

1. How the changes saw Arsenal shape up

As mentioned Benayoun started on the right although he constantly swapped positions with Gervinho throughout the game. Tomas Rosicky also began the game and much of early impetus came through him. As Ramsey has, Rosicky undertook a energetic role although with a bit more finesse and was unlucky that some of his through passes did not find their men. Indeed, the front men started so dangerously in the first thirty minutes but in lacking that conviction in the final third, it always gave Wolves hope, even if they hardly saw any of the ball. At the end of the game, as Arsenal threw everything forward, it wasn’t necessarily creativity that suffered although Wenger might not have saw it that way; they just could find a way past Hennessay. Wenger on the other hand felt Arsenal betrayed a bit of their technical philosophy and they should have kept a calmer head. Perhaps that’s why Benayoun was taken off even though he might have been the type of player which suits that occasion. Benayoun had a pass accuracy of 61% and although he created two chances, his care-free approach saw him replaced.

<Figure 1> Yossi Benayoun’s game is certainly laden with risk as he seeks to attempt the killer-option. He may have been partly inaccurate but it presents Arsenal a different option; one which none of the wide players have. The issue is, will Wenbger deviate from his three striker ploy?

2. Robin van Persie more dangerous as the orthodox striker

Van Persie has an extraordinary goalscoring record this season but he’s also taken a ridiculous number of shots. Against Wolves, van Persie attempted 12 shots with five on target. He should have probably scored and he looked more dangerous, as he has all this season, playing up the pitch. His movement was fantastic and as well as getting behind on more than a number of occasions, he dragged the Wolves defence all-over the pitch. On the other hand, his link-up play can be erroneous as a heavy touch and too much time on the ball can retard his impact. His spontaneity has been his biggest strength and while he was unable to use it to his full advantage and he became desperate after the break, he was still Arsenal’s best chance of winning.

<Figure 2> Van Persie pass received and shots attempted.

3. When nothing goes right, nothing goes right for Arshavin

Andrey Arshavin isn’t having the best of relationships with the fans; his introduction was met with groan and bemused looks and some things he attempted achieved the same reaction. He had one snap shot, showing the unpredictability Wenger was banking on. His chalkboard below isn’t so interesting except that what failed, happened on the right; the rest was accurate. It probably shows that he is not a crossing type – that of which he attempted at the end of the game from the right – while he mostly looks to play quick and go’s inside – the ones on the left. His position echoes another substitute’s, Marouane Chamakh, who again failed to make an impact. His time is ticking.

<Figure 3>Andrey Arshavin’s peculiar pass chart.

4. Aaron Ramsey: a viable full-back option?

As Arsenal chased the winner, they dropped Aaron Ramsey into full-back. His first contribution after his immediate arrival was to drive at the Wolves defence, nearly putting in Robin van Persie. He was later playing at right-back and was able to provide the passes and drive Johan Djourou was not. Certainly this was against backs-to-the-walls opposition therefore Wolves were unable to test his defensive game but with wing-backs being an important part of Arsenal’s play, perhaps is not such a far-right option.

5. Wolves defend in a pack

Wolves deserve some praise – if indeed most. Arsenal played well but ultimately failed to break through and that must go down to some brave defending and a little bit of luck. A moral victory may be that they forced Arsenal to crosses and not enough ground play in the final quarter of the game. Nevertheless, the defence and crucially, Wayne Hennessey, got in the way for Arsenal.

Aaron Ramsey has been central to Arsenal’s progress

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

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

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

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

Predicted line-ups

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

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

Arsenal 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.

Eight points on Arsenal 1-1 Fulham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Johan Djourou’s passes in either half.

4. Walcott impresses as a winger

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

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

5. Bobby Zamora didn’t fancy Per Mertesacker

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

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Bobby Zamora picked the ball up mainly on the left.

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

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

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8. Van Persie the creator

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Arséne Wenger’s side are still searching for their identity

Begrudgingly, Arséne Wenger may have to accept progress has been made despite facing defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. Arsenal didn’t play like second-best but the difference in confidence was evident between the two sides; Tottenham with a ruthless ambition about their forward play and Arsenal, nervy and twitchy around the box. When Spurs took the lead, there was an uncertainty about Arsenal’s attacking play. Both their most direct players – and both carrying knocks before the game – were withdrawn, making you wonder why they both started.

In a previous era, both Yossi Benayoun and Andrey Arshavin might have expected to start but by the time they entered the field, it was felt there was little time for a patient approach. In the end, Per Mertesacker was thrown in as an auxiliary striker to try and save the game. If it’s not an indication of the sign of the times, that Arsenal desperately want to add to their trophy drought thus adjusting part of their game, it may be that they are still trying to find their identity.

With their creative heartbeat ripped out when Cesc Fábregas departed in the summer, Aaron Ramsey has had to take a central role. In the middle of a change in formation – which has subsequently reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 – injuries and a number of fresh faces, he has had to carry the burden of creativity the greatest. Against Tottenham, Ramsey looked better, attempting inject some penetration and urgency to Arsenal’s attack. Ultimately, it proved to be errant as he committed more than his usual amount of stray passes and one in particular proving to be fatal, as his pass out to touch essentially started Tottenham’s winner. But his attempts to bring purpose to Arsenal’s play must be commended because this side still looks like one which is still trying to discover what they are; what avenues they will exploit and at what tempo they will do so.

It’s perhaps significant that Arsenal’s last three games have seen goals come when the objective is fresh in their minds (discounting Shrewsbury). Against Olympiacos, The Gunners struck early while against Bolton and here at Tottenham, they scored first after the break. Aaron Ramsey, in particular, seems to benefit from that extra direction (which makes it more apparent the need for more influential figures on the pitch) because in both games, he was pushed instructed closer to Robin van Persie and the impact was instant. (Ramsey’s impact after the manager’s words reminds me of the introduction of Lucas Leiva for the captain, Steven Gerrard in a Merseyside derby. Benitez took off his iconic captain because he felt his instructions to calm the game down can be transmitted better to someone close to him rather than in the heat of the battle).

Robin van Persie’s effectiveness has also suffered as Arsenal attempt Arsenal to search their soul. He was so dynamic last season because the side’s keep-ball suddenly allowed him to spring into a bit of space or release someone behind but with Arsenal deploying two wingers in the classical sense, he has had to play more orthodoxly. Playing close to the defender isn’t typically his game nor is waiting patiently for a cross but he says he’s had to adjust. On the other hand, stretching play, as Gervinho and Theo Walcott did even if they were passive, offered Arsenal’s more angles to pass the ball which they did well. However, they also looked good coming in off the flanks, attempting a couple of good efforts, which poses the thought why Benayoun or even Oxlade-Chamberlain couldn’t have started. It’s easy to look back retrospectively I guess.

Arséne Wenger’s primary tactic was to regain control of the North London derby, which in recent seasons has somewhat been wrestled away from them, in terms of possession and he got that right on Sunday. Francis Coquelin and Mikel Arteta gave positional security as well as technical although the lack of a creative figure to aid Ramsey hurt the team. Wenger indicated before the game that was to be the main way of stopping Tottenham from exploiting from transitions, saying: “It’s down to our quality and to how well we defend. And even better, how much we will have the ball.” However, their pain was as much self-inflicted as it was dealt by their opponents because the two goals they conceded came from the restart i.e two throw-ins. Spurs took advantage from Arsenal’s lapse of concentration and relative meekness when pressing (although, to be fair, it’s getting better) to score twice.

In Wenger’s attempts to make Arsenal more dynamic, he’s willing to let the three forwards stay up the pitch and that means behind them, there are three midfielders who mark zonaly and a back four who want to pick up their men. Bearing that in mind, perhaps it was inevitable that Rafael van der Vaart was to add to his his three goals in two derbies. For his goal, he dragged Kieran Gibbs inside with his movement which then opens up space for the ball to be switched out to the vacant right-hand side. By moving infield, van der Vaart is passed on by Gibbs to the midfielders to make – who are already overwhelmed for space – and the Dutchman is thus allowed to run into the box unmarked. There were arguments that Bakary Sagna could have done more to stope the run but he was too occupied by a man – Gareth Bale – highlighting how difficult to pick up (and deadly) intelligent running can be. Again, my assertions that Ramsey played well was because he tried to bring that threat to Arsenal and as well as getting the goal, got into a couple of promising positions in the box.

03sZf<Figure 1>I stand alone: Aaron Ramsey may have been criticised for a few misplaced passes but he tried to instill into the side, some urgency. His passing was higher up compared to against Bolton and linked more with the wide forwards.

As Wenger said afterwards, it was a case of “two steps forward and one step back”. The side showed progress although more than ever, Arsenal’s season may depend on how much the “cult of the coach” can inspire his side. As Barney Ronay writes in the 25th Anniversary issue of When Saturday Comes magazine; “Football has changed and so have footballers. The game is now a more regularised affair. At a certain level – below the very best and above the second rate – players are relatively indistinguishable in terms of athleticism and basic skills. And so football has become more chess-like, more a matter of the location and exploitation of momentary weakness.” This has elevated the primacy of the manager in the modern game and Wenger must inspire his players accordingly. But if football is also becoming more regularised and technique and conditioning reaching a plateau, perhaps it’s the mind that can really elevate a team. In that respects, it’s no wonder the best team at the moment is Barcelona, using each other as extensions of the mind to create an all-dominating team. Next to them is Manchester United, a side seemingly un-fazed by the mental hurdles that face them even when the side’s average age has plummeted this season. “We have yet to tap the full potential of the mental aspect of the game,” says Louis van Gaal when asked by Champions Magazine, how football could change over the next decade. “Mental preparations, visualisation and imagination offer the best chance for change.”

Arsenal must persist with this technical approach; it’s their defence as much it is their attack. Indeed, they have to. If Wenger commits to a passing game, steps must be ensured to make it better each season and not fixate disproportionately on other trivial matters. Gervinho speaks about having to adapt to the “Arsenal way” if he is to succeed at the club and at times in the system he has looked like an interloper; an incorrigible maverick. It’s not Arsenal’s style playing two wingers – or at least, they still don’t know if they can play a way that can afford them to. Arsenal dominated by possession, and that, despite the defeat, Wenger must cling onto as a sign of progress.

With competition in the league becoming more intense and the recent financial results confirming the need to qualify for Europe, Arsenal’s position in the Champions League is in danger of compromise. We scorn to use the word “crisis” but if it’s not an identity crisis, Wenger must stop it becoming an existential one.