Review: The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong

By now, you’ve probably all seen the video; Harry Redknapp is forced to defend himself against an angry fan over his supposed favouritism of 17-year-old Frank Lampard – his nephew – over other, supposedly more talented graduates of the academy system. When Redknapp argues that Lampard is better than those players, the angry fan disagrees, to which Redknapp replies that football “is a game of opinions. You’ve got a right to your opinion and I’ve got a right to my opinion.”

For a long time, this is how football operated – and still does – largely based on instinct and intuition. Over time, this has created accepted truths in the game, truths that only now we find out aren’t entirely correct. For example, that a team is most vulnerable after scoring (in fact, this is the moment they are less likely to concede); that more shots on target means better a chance of winning (actually it’s true only 50-58% of the time) and that the manager has a big influence on where their team will finish in the league (only 15%).

The revelations are probably not groundbreaking, although that’s what Chris Anderson and David Sally promise in The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong. But they are certainly thought-provoking and highlight the edge, should you use it properly, that data can give teams.

The book is littered with some great examples. Such as how Manchester City adjusted the way they took corner-kicks to win the Premier League in 2011/12, and appropriately, it was a header by Vincent Kompany which confirmed the title. The next season, Manchester United did the same thing, profiting from Robin van Persie’s in-swinging deliveries to score the most goals from set-pieces in the way to the championship. And how Roberto Martinez went against the grain to miraculously keep Wigan Athletic in the Premier League. But these are contradicted later in the book, which only goes to show why the interpretation data is an art rather than a science. Football is a fluid game and as such, actions cannot be isolated and for teams to get an edge, they will have to learn to master it. Wigan went down the next season because they didn’t have the quality to win games, often passing for passing sakes, while relying massively on Shaun Maloney’s free-kicks. And that actually, corner-kicks are largely wasteful as only 0.02 of the total corners taken resulting in goals. (Actually, the numbers are similar to the research I did on open play crosses, and later by Jan Vecer, which would have been a better topic).

The best managers and teams realise that data is one tool among many which can back up the way you think about the game. That’s what Arsène  Wenger does and actually, many of the revelations in The Numbers Game make you wonder if the Frenchman actually ghost-wrote the book himself!

Of course, Wenger was one of the first to embrace statistics. As coach of Monaco in the late 1980’s, he would use a program developed by a friend, called Top Score, to judge players (the program would assign points to players depending on the actions they performed to give a final score). Nowadays, Wenger uses data to validate the way he thinks about the game. “Technical superiority can be measured,” he said in 2008 for Total Youth Football Magazine. “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.”

One can envisage a similar scenario from last season where those numbers might have been of use. It concerned Aaron Ramsey and his form in the middle of the season which was so poor; it was hard to find a place for him in the team. But an injury to Mikel Arteta transformed his season, giving him a chance in a new defensive-midfield position. This was a great risk by Wenger because Arsenal don’t usually win without Arteta (their success rate is 23% when he doesn’t play) and Ramsey’s confidence was so low he couldn’t surely replicate Arteta’s smooth passing. But Wenger realised the psychological effect that getting more touches of the ball could have on Ramsey and sure enough, his confidence increased. From losing the ball through hesitation, miscontrol or dispossession 4.8 times a game, it decreased to 2.7 times per match after the 5-1 win over West Ham United in January. If the passing speed figures were readily available to us, surely they’d show an improvement. Nevertheless, Ramsey indicates that that was the case: “I’m feeling good. My confidence is coming back and I’m getting stuck in more, winning more balls back and doing more with the ball as well, moving it around quickly,” he said after the West Ham win.

In the last season too, Arsenal began to learn mastering their own luck.In The Numbers Game, Anderson and Sally reveal that 50% of a match is down to luck. The other 50% means that Arsenal already have won half of the match through their superiority but random variation can swing it the other way or towards their favour. Certainly for the first-half of the season, Arsenal’s’ play was riddled with so many mistakes that it undermined their their ability to win matches, and it wasn’t until they rectified their defensive shape that they saved their season. Indeed, the extra focus on the defence concurs with what was said at the end ofThe Numbers Game: that keeping a clean sheet helps a team more than scoring lots of goals does. “That’s where we’ve improved the most,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. “It’s very important for the confidence of the team that we have such a [defensive] stability. As I said many times, we are an offensive team, but you are only a good offensive team if you have a good defensive stability. In the last two months that was much better.”

Data might help Wenger make informed decisions on whom to purchase in the transfer window. But as The Numbers Game suggests, it’s often better to improve your worst player than to buy a superstar.” In that case, the fans have always been right in regards to their belligerent stance on players which they perceive as being “deadwood.” However, it’s not as if Wenger is in disagreement with them. He was quick to discard Andre Santos, while Sebastian Squillaci, Marouane Chamakh, Andriy Arshavin and Denilson found that they were quickly cast aside (but harder to sell) when performances deteriorated or they didn’t fit the system. And he’s always maintained, rightly so, that he would not simply buy just to make up the numbers – often to the chagrin of supporters paradoxically – but only once a player proves he has the “super-quality” to improve the squad.

One such player who fits the bill is Gonzalo Higuain, and his arrival is notable because it’ll change the way Arsenal play. Firstly, it means they have the goalscorer they’ve desperately been looking for since Robin van Persie left the club. Last season, they tried to compensate by getting goals all over the pitch. It worked – to a degree but the team fell desperately short when looking for a game-changer. Last season for Real Madrid, Higuain goals won more points than any other Arsenal player. On it’s own that doesn’t mean he’s the right choice. In The Numbers Game, they suggest Chelsea should have signed Darren Bent instead of Fernando Torres. That’s only half-correct; Torres has blundered but Bent has shown he hasn’t got the attributes that Chelsea required. Higuain, though, improves Arsenal because his style (through his ability to stretch defences thus creating more space for the team) is one that could make Arsenal’s system. However, that’s an area that can’t easily be quantified by stats. We just have to trust Arsène Wenger’s judgement on it.

NB: There are a couple more interesting points that I could have added. For example, how Wenger is correct in rigidly sticking to his belief that the best time to make a substitution is on the 70th minute mark to try and win a game (although as The Numbers Game points out, if Arsenal are losing, he should consider making changes as early as the 58th minute). And more so when he removes certain players after a certain period all the time because their returns start diminishing rapidly (as he did for Dennis Bergkamp later in his career).

Also another interesting stat: Olivier Giroud has the worst pass accuracy of any outfield player in the Arsenal side (64%) and even lower than the goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczeszny (66%). As Sally and Anderson ascertain, football is game of turnovers and the ball changes sides 380 times per match (or 190 times per side). Arsenal’s average is 175 times but if Olivier Giroud fails to make them stick, then it’s preventing further attacking plays from developing. Perhaps, with the signing of Higuain, Wenger doesn’t really feel the need to have a striker in the build-up. Which is very much unlike Wenger sides in the past.

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Ten conclusions to make from Arsenal’s season 2012/13

1. Arsenal find defensive efficiency…

Arsenal’s season can broadly be separated into three parts, illustrated by the way their pressing has varied. Initially they didn’t press much, instead concentrating on discipline and shape as Steve Bould supposedly sprinkled his expertise on the team. (Although it’s arguable how much influence he had on Arsenal’s tactics and rather, the reactive approach we saw at the start of the season was dictated by the relative newness of the team). In any case, Arsene Wenger felt this style needed altering and for the next three months, Arsenal struggled to find any consistency. Sometimes they pressed, sometimes they sat off, and Wenger even admitted the way were set up was influenced by their opponents. In the final months, Arsenal finally settled on a more proactive approach, pressing up the pitch when the team lost the ball but if they didn’t win the ball back within the next three seconds, they retreated into their own half and started again.

Lukasz Fabianski says the new-found defensive stability owes a lot to improved communication and teamwork amongst the players and certainly, it’s encouraging to see that the players took responsibility to address their poor form in the middle of the season. Tactically, the availability of Tomas Rosicky made a massive difference as not only does he bring stability to the team with his passing, but his energy sets the tempo for the collective pressing. And at the back, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny ended the season strongly while Mikel Arteta finally found a partner in Aaron Ramsey. Credit too, must also go to the coaching staff for harnessing the potential in the group when for a moment; it looked to be running dry. Wenger reverted to a pragmatic approach a design based on efficiency, greater organisation and communication at the back, and very reliant on taking what little chances the team creates. It wasn’t always pretty but it was certainly efficient.

2. …but does it come at a cost?

Did Arsenal really play attractive football this season? The assertion alone would hurt Wenger but for a manager who sees football as an art form, it’s an important point. Certainly their passing was crisp but you could probably count the most aesthetically pleasing performances on one hand (wins against Reading, Swansea, Southampton and Liverpool amongst the best). And my God, there were a number of insipid displays this season (and the cup defeats to lower league sides were unprecedented). But Arsenal did play some good stuff, even if it did come in patches. In fact, I’d go as far as to say some of their second-half performances in the middle of the season, especially when they fell behind, were some of the best we’ve seen for a long time.

Of course, it’s much easier to do so when the opponents essentially give up all attacking ambition and Arsenal are forced to up the tempo. But when they did – that’s matches against Liverpool (2-2), Swansea (2-2 and 1-0 in the FA Cup, and Chelsea (1-2) – it was exhilarating even though it was short-lived. (One move sticks in the mind. It came against Liverpool and it ended with Lukas Podolski felled to the floor exclaiming a penalty, but the lead up to get there was magnificently composed as Arsenal pinged the ball up the left touchline, one touch at a time to each other’s feet with unbelievable accuracy. One wonders how good the team could be if they could produce this level of football more consistently. Actually, it reminded me of the 2007-08 team, who were probably the 2nd best team Wenger created but only remained for two seasons. Robin van Persie reminisced how they used to practice kicking the ball between each other as hard as possible to perfect their passing and control under intense pressure).

But those moments were few and far between. In the end, Wenger stumbled on a formula that worked. Yes, it was a bit mechanical but Wenger has proved it can work in recent seasons: in 2006 when they went all the way to the Champions League final, in 2007/08 and in spells in 2010/11. But the team has to achieve it more consistently over a season.

The seed was probably planted in January when Wenger signed six of his Brits on long-term deals. Because, he said when he committed the players to the club, that the “technical stability is important and the game we want to play demands a little bit of blind understanding. Therefore it is important that we keep the same players together.” Arsenal have their best chance of doing so this summer and in the process, ensure a way of playing is developed between his core group of players.

3. Aaron Ramsey adds clever to his tireless running

He may well wear the number 8 on the back of his shirt, but Mikel Arteta admits he has to forget about that side of his game. “Before I used watch the likes of Iniesta and Xavi,” he said. “And in my mind I always think about them, but now I have to stop that side. People may not understand why I don’t go forward more but this is my job, it wouldn’t be good for the team.”

Now Arteta takes inspiration from the likes of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets and Michael Carrick and last season, he performed the holding role superbly this. However, he has been waiting for somebody worthy enough to take the number 8 mantle all season and finally; there might be a credible candidate.

Out from the rubble after the home defeat to Bayern Munich emerged Aaron Ramsey and Arsenal have not looked back ever since. They went 11 games unbeaten from the second week of March to the end of the season to secure fourth place, and Ramsey proved crucial. The stats back him up: Ramsey averages 104 touches per 90 minutes and 83 passes per 90 minutes; attempts a tackle every 30 minutes and has an 89% success rate and runs the most in the side.

Indeed, his running has become cleverer too, often moving wide to create an overload or bursting beyond the first line of press so that the defence can easily bring it out.  In short, he’s the all-action that more and more teams have nowadays (Michael Cox of ZonalMarking.net calls them the Super 8s). The two best, Javi Martinez and Ilkay Gundogan, competed against each other in the Champions League final.

Ramsey’s breakthrough helped liberate Arteta who before then was the sole entity that separated defence from attack. He performed admirablynevertheless, but with Ramsey alongside him, Arsenal never looked better.

4. Santi Cazorla is central to Arsenal’s plans

The selfless way in which Santi Cazorla ended the season almost makes you forget just how good he was at the start of the campaign. Indeed, he had to alter his game twice for Arsenal in the season; the first, when he joined the club, as he was deployed in what was at the time, an unfamiliar role just behind the striker. He certainly gave no impressions as such when the season kicked-off and he started incredibly, asserting himself as the hub of creativity that Arsenal were built around. But that was also the team’s problem because at times – especially during a bleak period in the middle of the season – they were too reliant on the Spanish schemer.

Cazorla’s best performance was probably in the 3-1 win in October against West Ham United, showing just why he has the best passing figures in the final third of any player in the top 5 leagues. As ever, he glided across the pitch to always end up in dangerous positions but it’s remarkable to see just how high he played in that match: almost on level with Olivier Giroud. Actually, Wenger deserves a lot of credit for the tactical foresight to play Cazorla as the “second striker” and in the game, unsettled West Ham’s defence by starting high up, moving backwards to receive the ball and then bursting forward unexpectedly to get into good scoring or passing positions. That’s how he got his goal in the game, picking the ball up on the edge of the area and letting fly with his left-foot.

It was when Tomas Rosicky returned to the side that Arsenal could share the burden of creativity and Santi Cazorla was shifted to the left wing. He was less explosive from the side but he was no less influential, often drifting infield and getting into positions that he only knew how to get to, yet was still Arsenal’s chief playmaker. It will be interesting to see how Arsenal share the responsibility to create next season; fielding Cazorla in a roaming role on the left allows Wenger to name another creative midfielder in the line-up. Yet, Cazorla is so good that he must surely be central to Arsenal’s plans next season.

5. Thomas Vermaelen might have to accept being third best

In this year’s edition of the Indian Premier League (a cricket tournament which brings together the best players from around the world to play with stars of the domestic game), 4 out of the 8 teams did something almost unheard of in sport: they dropped their captains. In football, there is a similar mystique about the captain’s armband – that it is not merely a cloth but deifies the person that wears it. Except this season, Arsenal went against that standard and they too dropped their captain. And their fortunes turned for the better.

In a way, Thomas Vermaelen was scapegoated for Arsenal not finding any consistency defensively for 3/4s of the season. Wojciech Sczcesny was also dropped out of the side but was abruptly put back in. Vermaelen, however, was the standard bearer for Arsenal’s newly-placed emphasis on shape, following the appointment of Steve Bould as coach. He talked about it extensively throughout the season, saying the team needed to be more compact when pressing. But he failed to influence any real change and when Wenger brought in Laurent Koscielny, it seemed to indicate a lot of the improvement was about communication.* Even so, Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have proven to be a more complementary partnership (and in any case, didn’t Wenger say that “we have three good centre-backs”?). Anyway, when the season starts over again in August, Thomas Vermaelen, the Arsenal captain, shouldn’t automatically expect a starting place.

* Actually, Vermaelen might have dropped out of the starting line-up much sooner, but Wenger kept him in because he felt his stature as captain, not to mention his left-footedness, would help ease Naxto Monreal into the side quicker. But as shown in the 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, Vermaelen’s notorious impetuousness  –  a part of his game which we had thought captaincy had reigned in – was self-perpetuating, and in the end, Monreal didn’t know whether to push up and hold his line. Suffice to say, Spurs punished Arsenal twice because of his (understandable) hesitancy.

6. Shared goalscoring a real success

Arsenal fans have been spoiled by great strikers in the past. In the season gone by, however, they’ve just been treated to one. And it’s been an admirable job done by Olivier Giroud, one that he should never had been forced to do by himself but Wenger probably persisted with him for so long because of the type of striker he is. He can do everything.

Giroud’s technical (for a big man), can hold the ball up and bring others into play, runs the channels well and works very hard. That means it carries little risk for a team that is still adapting to each other mainly. As such, acts Giroud as bit of a buffer, lessening the impact of this adjustment period by taking hits for the team as they strive to find better balance and understanding. By the same token, that’s probably why Wenger is willing to overlook some of his deficiencies – namely his goalscoring, which fans are understandably less forgiving of (only three goals away from home; two of those outside London but in the Champions League) – if Giroud makes the team play.

Arsenal ended the season using Podolski as the focal point. He performed solidly if not spectacularly making an addition up front inevitable. Which raises a lot of questions. If Podolski ended the season as the second striker, surely he will end the next season as the third. Because considering how little the 2nd choice striker has played in recent seasons – Podolski got just four games up front and Marouane Chamakh just one start before – that means he’d mainly be used as a left-winger again (where he played well) or perhaps Wenger has designs for a 4-4-2?

Pleasingly, though, goalscoring was shared between the side showing the attacking potential the team has. But there is no doubt that a consistent focal point (despite the arm-waving and the focal pointed-ness that Giroud brings) will improve Arsenal immeasurably so credit must go to the players for picking up the slack. In orderv that goes Theo Walcott with 21 goals, Giroud with 17, Podolski 16 and Cazorla with 12. Well done.

7. To be the best, you must beat the best

If you add sixth placed Everton to the list, Arsenal only won seven points in ten games against the best teams in the league. I don’t think it’s crucial to come out on top of the mini-league – although it’s never good to finish bottom – but it’s a good indicator of quality.

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8. Kieran Gibbs shines

For one moment last season, the left-back position was the most talked about position. Andre Santos’ confidence inexplicably dropped, Thomas Vermaelen looked very uncomfortable in the role when he filled in while Kieran Gibbs’ injury niggles were a concern. In late January, Arsene Wenger recruited a bona fide quality left-back in Naxto Monreal and thus started an engrossing battle for places in the ensuing months.

For a while, it looked like Monreal was leading, testament to the way he adjusted to the English game. But as Wenger gave chances for both players in alternating matches to stake their claims, Kieran Gibbs took his game to another level and has arguably surpassed his Spanish team-mate. Going forward, Gibbs has always been quick but his recovery speed is now an essential form of defence going back. There are subtle differences to the way Arsenal build up from the left to the right, and whoever plays there must show unexpected bursts of pace. Both left-backs do that well but Gibbs perhaps does it better.

9. Jack Wilshere has too much attacking potential

There was a period in the season when Jack Wilshere looked unstoppable. It was a pity then, that at the time, The Gunners were going through a stinky spell of form. He was thrown in straight away after recovery from injury against QPR at home and was then sent-off in the next match against Manchester United. But his attacking potential grew more evident as the matches were thrown at him. In various games, he drove Arsenal forward, played killer balls and glided past opponents and was fouled a lot. There’s an assertion that he’s too “English” in nature to play the Arsenal way. Bull. He’s just very young and needs to channel his talents better in a tactical framework. Wenger can help him do that.

10. Wojciech struggles but he’s still a key player

In the final managerial move of the season, Arsene Wenger pulled Wojciech Szczesny out of the side to allow his brain to recuperate. The reasoning seemed strange at the time but there was no doubt that Szczesny was going through a bad spell of form. However, it turned out to be an inspired move for a number of reasons. Firstly, as talked about and as Wenger once said, goalkeeping is the one position where there is “negative stress” and the culmination of errors had taken it’s toll on Szczesny. Secondly, it was a crucial time in the season so Wenger brought in Lukas Fabiasnki, a player who was fresh in the mind but also fighting for his Arsenal future. The run of five games might have just convinced Fabianski to remain at the least for one more season and maybe even beyond. Thirdly though, it gave Szczesny a taste for what it’s like to be in competition for places because in two-and-a-half seasons he’s been number one, he’s never been under any real pressure for his spot. Putting Fabianski in goal for a few games gave Szczesny a taste for potential life on the bench but when he came back, he produced one of the saves of the season when he denied Loic Remy against QPR to secure a crucial three points.

Review: Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top

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Normally, nostalgia is evoked by watching a movie, looking at photos or merely by way of conversation. It’s not, however, normal for someone to come back and do exactly the same thing again. That’s how it felt when Thierry Henry returned to Arsenal in the January of 2012 and, against Leeds United in the League Cup, scored in exactly the same way that he had made a trademark.

Starting from a position on the inside-left channel, Henry darted inside to receive a pass from Alex Song. When the ball landed at his feet, the angle was fairly tight; improbable even to some players as defenders encircled him. But Henry, as we learnt in Philippe Auclair’s biography of the French Striker, Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top, had perfected the art on the training fields of Monaco with then fitness coach, Claude Puel [Page 52]. The open body shape, leaning awkwardly to his left and with almost all of his weight transferred to one foot, and hitting the ball on the bottom-right corner to achieve maximum deviation away from the goalkeeper. When he scored, I gathered this is how it might feel for Napoli fans to see Diego Maradona once more pirouette on the centre-circle. Or for Manchester United fans, seeing Eric Cantona lift his famous collar again.

Of course, that might just be the romantic in me. After all, Henry had played his last game for the club back in 2007, only some four seasons ago. And he came back a year-and-a-half before signing on loan for Arsenal as a Barcelona player with credentials still strong. (The Arsenal fans gave him a rapturous applause when he came on at the Emirates Stadium and then booed him when he touched the ball, somewhat acknowledging the danger he can cause. On an aside note, the first 20 minutes from Barcelona was the most breathtaking and relentless exhibition of football I have ever seen).  But at that age, there was a doubt that he would only be a hologram of the player we remembered; the power, the grace, the athleticism, the absolutefuckingbrilliantness – what of that would remain? Thankfully those fears, how ever much was not already engulfed by excitement, were allayed. Arsène Wenger used him sparingly in only moments he could be absolutely effective (his winner away to Sunderland cannot be overstated) and his goal against Leeds United, as Auclair tells Gunnerblog.com, came “to be the defining image of his relationships with Wenger, the club, and the club’s fans.”

That magical night in January is the somewhat reluctant ending toLonely at the Top because, while the book predominately charts how the love affair with Arsenal came to be, Henry’s story develops into another, less savoury tangent; that of his image in his own country. Whatever reservations the French public had of Henry’s character – the botched transfer to Real Madrid early on in his career certainly didn’t help (although he quickly recoiled those scepticisms with his ability on the pitch), or his aloofness off it – that all came to a head after the “Hand of Gaul” incident which cost lowly, plucky and thus loveable, Ireland a place in the World Cup. France’s subsequent failure in the tournament and the “shameful” bus strike midway through saw Thierry Henry, among others, come under severe criticism. Here, the book switches to a more serious tone and Auclair provides a wonderful, if precautionary, dissection of modern France and it’s relationship with the national team; one that is not limited to one country it must be said, but France’s seems a bit of a watershed.* One of the reasons why Henry might have been as criticised as he was, was that he was seen as a talisman of a mediocre France side and when the time came “when the foolishness of others gave him the chance of being a hero”, Henry did nothing. (Henry’s place in the selection was previously in doubt anyway, as Raymond Domenech admitted in his memoirs, Tout seul: Souvenirs, that he ended up picking Henry for “emotional reasons” as he couldn’t bear to face the impending uproar from the public – who saw Henry as a talisman and leader of a leaderless group before and after the tournament – were he not taken).

*Auclair’s explanation of France’s tolerance to nationalised citizens and its value of supranationality helps understand why Wenger had traditionally, before now it seems, ignored a player’s passport when making transfers.

If that seems at odds with the image of Henry we have on these shores, it’s because Auclair wants to make you aware of the dichotomy “between the troubled image of Henry in his own country, and his status as a genuine hero for Arsenal fans.” His route to the latter might be less sensational but it is no less straightforward. In fact, much of it is owed to hard work, as Henry when converted back to a striker at Arsenal, would practice his finishing for hours on end to the mockery of his teammates because he was horrible initially, and the faith of his father and coaches in his formative years before Wenger (Gérard Houllier and Jean Tigana at Monaco most well-known). Wenger, though, had the foresight – or hindsight one might even call it, to use him in the position he played as a teenager.

The transformation was metamorphic as it wasn’t entirely natural. Henry needed a lot of convincing at first and there even seemed to be a bit of science about it. That owes much to the analytical mind of Henry as Auclair reveals, especially of his knowledge of the game (the striker says he relished playing against Italian defenders like Alessandro Nesta as his game was too quick for them which helps explain his success against them although conversely, my memory of him was that he struggled against the opposite: of pacy, intelligent anticipatory centre-backs such as William Gallas/Ricardo Carvalho or Ledley King). Henry is also capable of being self-critical – self-aware even – to the point of being obsessive, cosying up to certain journalists to make sure that not only does he survive, but his legacy thrives.

Two months before Henry rejoined Arsenal on loan from New York Red Bulls, his legend was crystalised when a statue was unveiled of him celebrating a fine solo run from his own half before scoring against Tottenham Hotspur in 2002. (The design of which I have a bone to pick because, whilst artistically perfect, it didn’t capture Henry in his usual swagger, his grace: the features that defined him as statues are meant to capture). That might go down as one of Henry’s finest performances but certainly not his defining moment. Indeed, Lonely at the Top fails to underpin one defining moment which might be to Henry’s detriment but certainly not the book’s. There are plenty of great moments; his hat-trick against Liverpool at 2-1 down when Arsenal’s “Invicible” status was yet to be confirmed was probably his best. A personal favourite was his double away at Internazionale to win 5-1 which only further confirmed to me and Arsenal fans of his untouchable status. But he was more than just a goalscorer which is why it’s said “Wenger owes as much to Henry as Henry does to Wenger.” His assist before the assist against Aston Villa (drifting to the right this time, beating two or three defenders before playing a wonderful “banana” pass to Dennis Bergkamp – whose deft touch was just as deadly – found Ashley Cole) best encapsulates how Henry was the system.

As I neared the conclusion of Lonely at the Top, I couldn’t help but feel the real star of the book wasn’t actually Henry but Auclair himself. That’s not meant to be an indictment of Henry’s interestingness, although at first, he doesn’t seem like the most obvious candidate for a biography. Indeed, Auclair prefers to describe this as a “biographical essay”, an apt description of a unique account of Arsenal’s greatest player. It’s a brilliantly written book with great distance between the writer and its subject, and Auclair’s insight genuinely adds to the narrative of Henry’s career when with others, it might get in the way (the use of statistics however, does get tedious at times). At the end of it, Auclair won’t make you love Henry more, but you will certainly have a deeper understanding of him. And as such, love him more because we get to appreciate that what we got wasn’t the Henry after the debacle of South Africa 2010, but 8 years of greatness. When he returned and scored against Leeds, and then the adulation he received; perhaps we are the wisest of all when judging Thierry Henry.

Thierry Henry: Life at the Top by Philipe Auclair is available at all good bookstores. (Actually, “good” is harsh because all bookstores are good. I especially like the ones owned by middle-aged men with ponytails. Which is all of them, really).

2011/12: Arsenal Season Review

At 34 minutes, it seemed like the balance of power had indubitably shifted towards the white of North London. 34 minutes later, it appeared as if it had never moved. That’s how quickly Arsenal’s season had changed because if they had lost to Tottenham Hotspur – and they were already trailing 2-0 – they would have been an unassailable 13 points behind. But somehow, and dumped out of two cup competitions beforehand, they summoned extraordinary resources to not only comeback and win 5-2, but to claw back the deficit in the league table.

It many ways it was the defining match of the season – certainly, it was the Emirates Stadium’s most “signature moment” since it opened in 2006 – because it displayed the best and worst of Arsenal – their frailties and their strengths – in 90 exhilarating minutes. To be fair, there have been a lot of those matches which is why this has been such a frustrating season. Yet, for all of Arsenal’s supposed deficiencies, they find themselves in a better position than last season. Looking forward to next season and there’s a different sense of optimism and that might be down to the “panic-buys” that Arsène Wenger made last summer. Because with it, it imbued a mental strength that was once lacking and if Arsenal can make the necessary technical additions, they can challenge for trophies next campaign.

And that might be the biggest regret for Wenger because his team haven’t been able to exert their style on opponents as they have in the past. Wenger begrudgingly admits that that the team is a “little bit less good than last year with possession of the ball” and while talk of “philosophy” implicitly imbues it with a kind of moral superiority that tends to irritate, but in the case of Arsenal and Wenger, it’s everything. He ended the season with Tomáš Rosický orchestrating Arsenal attacks and tellingly, he opted for the fleet-footed artisan he borrowed from Chelsea, Yossi Benayoun, on the left,  putting an end to the mercurial three-striker tactic that he led with.

As per usual, it’s not just in attack where Arsenal have been unable to find the right balance because for the fourth season running, the defence has increased the number of goals it has conceded. But in this case, it’s not easy to recommend solutions because Arsenal are just inherently too complicated. Their rapid and intense brand of football is resource-heavy thus creating undue strain at the back. Wojciech Szczęsny has been criticised in the recent run for his save percentage, 64% (the fourth lowest in the Premier League – average 69%), but it’s down to the quality of chances Arsenal allow teams (more space, less men back, counter-attacks) thus the probability of scoring is higher. It’s evident, then, that Arsenal could improve on their organisation at the back although it’s not just a matter of the back four; the whole team is culpable. The two goals Arsenal conceded on the last day to West Bromwich Albion displayed the route of their problems as failure to press up the pitch allowed their opponents to play it from the back early and exploited spaces behind. The back-four attempted to push up and squeeze the space but the lack of pressing ultimately undid Arsenal. Put simply, you cannot play a high defensive line without closing down because it invites the opposition to make passes through the backline.

This season has seen Wenger increasingly delegate defensive responsibilities to Pat Rice. Earlier this campaign that was a necessity as Arsenal essentially required new recruits such as Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos to adjust quickly but one wonders whether the compartmentalisation had some effect on the cohesion of the team. Certainly, by separating the defenders and the attackers in training meant less time to practice moving up and down the pitch together but that would surely be picking at bones. Arsenal did it in their Champions League run of 2005/06 when Martin Keown was given hands-on access to improve the defence. Put simply, the strategy of relaxed pressing from the front has been all wrong. Last season, Jack Wilshere and Alex Song where able to set platform for Arsenal to press together and they were backed up by the Dutch system of “through-marking” to retain a shape. This season, there has been less structure although they began to get it right when they went on a good run towards the end of the season and especially in the 1-0 win over Manchester City where each midfielder was designated a man.

However, there are plenty of positives to take from the season too although you can’t help but not avoid the caveats. Robin van Persie has delivered on a virtuoso season, scoring 37 goals in 48 appearances although the next highest scorer behind him was Theo Walcott with 11. The winger himself has had a better season than given credit for and van Persie has taken it on himself to acknowledge that impact by the measure of his assists. Alex Song too, who has come to the fore creatively, especially when Arsenal were deprived of any first-choice full-backs and everything had to come through the middle. Backed up he has been by the astute Mikel Arteta who has in a sense, liberated him. In defence, Laurent Koscielny established himself as one the Premier League’s finest centre-backs despite the chaos that often surrounds him while Rosický has finally found the form he seemed to have lost five years ago.

With Arsenal, the same caveats always apply but in this season, they have become masters of the unexpected. And as such, there is always cause for optimism for 2012/13. “My target is to get back to that level (The Invincibles side of 2003/04),” says Arsène Wenger. “I feel we are not far from coming back to fight for the championship, and let’s hope we can show that next season.”

Aaron Ramsey can look back at a solid season

It can be hard to deconstruct the impact that Aaron Ramsey has made this season because it came at a time when Arsenal were at their worst. But when the team began to improve, Ramsey was central to it in an unheralded manner. His drive was crucial at an aesthetically bleak period in Arsenal’s season, especially when they lacked full backs and everything was forced to come from the middle. Thus his role was hard to define, because it flitted in between a playmaker and a box-to-box midfielder (and at times, a second-striker because he was often asked to press with Robin van Persie). He passed the ball neatly and before falling out of the team midway through the season, Ramsey was in the top 6 for chances created in open play in the league. But Arsenal found their best – and most fluid form – when he went out of the side and Tomáš Rosický came in. Suddenly, the dynamics of the midfield changed. Arsenal played at a higher tempo and displayed a ruthlessness that was unrecognisable in the first-half of the season.

Yet, that’s not to say Aaron Ramsey doesn’t quite fit. He does. Although, in his first full season, he’s still learning about his own game as much as we’re finding out how best to utilise him. In the recent 0-0 against Chelsea, Ramsey ended up with a 97% passing accuracy which indicates that he had little trouble replicating Mikel Arteta’s role just to the side of Alex Song –  but he did, especially in the first-half. His passing, while accurate, was slow thus failing to implant the same tempo Arteta does. And while he managed to find a team-mate with the majority of his passing, it tells a wider story of Ramsey’s style; he’s methodical – almost excruciatingly so – weighing up all potential options so much so that he often eschews the simple pass and by the time he’s decided, the risky pass passes him by. That sometimes leads him to cede possession sloppily – against Chelsea, Ramsey lost the ball five times through being tackled or by bad control. As a result, he can seem cumbersome on the ball but there is far more talent in his noggin than he’s been given credit for.

Arsène Wenger has been able to get the best out of him through a bit of guidance. In a few matches earlier this season, Ramsey made an immediate impact after being given his half-time instructions (Bolton, Tottenham, Aston Villa FA Cup and off the bench against Marseille) while at the start of matches, Wenger always looked to push him up the pitch in order to profit from his energy.

Rosický now assumes the position behind van Persie and since his recall to the starting line-up, Arsenal haven’t played better. But it also shows how Arsenal’s style has subtly changed over the season. Because for half a season, shorn of key creative figures, Arsenal played more vertically, more through the wings but what pervaded their play was an overriding sense of cautiousness dictated by the bad start they made. (They pressed deep in their half, while looking back at their run of eight games unbeaten from October to mid-December, it’s notable Arsenal almost exclusively dealt in low scores). Since their path became clearer – essentially just gunning for third place – Arsenal have been able to re-adjust their game back to the way they want to play. The tempo is higher as is their pressing while the use of a “half-winger” on the left-side has given the team more balance. “Since then [defeats to Fulham/Swansea],” Wenger said, “we have more options and a bit better plan. That has allowed the team to feel more confident.”

Thus the role of Rosický is different to the one Ramsey played because while Ramsey was once the instigator, primarily used highest up the pitch for his energy, Rosický is the natural playmaker. His passing has given Arsenal greater impetus and often, it’s him they build attacks round. Certainly, chance creation is still plural but whereas once the midfield was noted for it’s rotation, Rosický is overwhelmingly now the spearhead. The Czech captain expands: “I am in the advanced position of the three, looking to get in between the opposition’s midfield and defence,” says Rosický. “When we have the ball I am starting quite close to Robin [van Persie] up front, and after that I can come a bit deeper and stretch the pitch out. I can’t say for sure whether this has made the whole difference, but I would certainly agree that what the boss is asking [of me] at the moment suits me nicely.”

As the season draws to a close, Ramsey has flitted in and out of the squad and that may mean taking a back seat and learning from the little master, Tomáš Rosický. Certainly, the recent deployment of Ramsey on the left-side indicates so which Arsène Wenger says is for “the education of the player”, to help his movement and ability to get “into little pockets”. But even if Ramsey doesn’t end the campaign as the central starter, he can nevertheless be satisfied with his involvement this season and can look back proudly at the contribution he has made to help get Arsenal to where they are right now.

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

Ramsey’s passing v Chelsea

Using this video here, I attempted to work out how long Ramsey takes to pass the ball after he receives it (implored by this comment here). The stopwatch starts as the ball is passed to him (as this helps gauge his ability to survey the situation) and stops as it’s released. Most passes are received in midfield but the ones which involve a different activity, are described.

First-half Average: 2.27 seconds

Passes: 2.7 secs, 3.4, 2.8, 1.5, 4.5 (dispossessed), 0.5, 6.0 (attack down right and cross cleared), 4.0, 2.0, 6.0, 1.5, 2.3, 3.8, 3.8 (wins tackle and release), 3.5, 1.7, 1.8, 1.5 (collects loose ball), 2.8 (dispossessed), 1.5, 3.2, 1.5, 1.4, 2.8 (dispossessed), 1.9 (wins possession and release), 1.3, 1.2 (give and go in attack), 3.0 (wins possession and releases), 0.6 (start of counter-attack), 1.9, 0.8 (receives throw), 1.2 (pass from wide).

Second-half Average 2.0 seconds

Passes: 1.7 secs, 1.5, 1.2, 0.4, 0.3, 1.3, 3.6 (build up wide leading to Gervinho run in box) , 0.7 (bad touch/loss of possession), 0.9, 3.4 (pass from wide), 2.36 (chance created – long pass to van Persie), 4.5 (pass back to ‘keeper), 1.4, 1.1 (switch play to release full-back), 2.8, 2.7 (pass from wide under pressure), 0.7 (start of counter) – 4.5 (release Gervinho down touchline – end of counter), 2.14 (switch play to release full-back), 1.4 (pass to van Persie), 2.7 (switch play to release full-back), 1.8 (loss of possession in tight area), 3.1, 1.6, 2.8, 2.7 (switch play to release full-back), 0.4 (miscontrol), 2.5, 1.3, 2.5 (dribble and counter), 1.6 (switch play to release full-back), 2.7 (ball falls to feet after clearance outside opposition box).

Arsenal 2011 v The “Invincibles”

We’ve heard it before. Comparisons between players, although in this case, teams, of two distinct generations are futile. There are different rules; different environmental factors that make each era unique thus rendering the debate obsolete. Take the recent domination of Barcelona for example. If it weren’t for the volcanic eruption that forced Pep Guardiola’s side to travel by bus before the semi-finals to Inter last year, they may well be sitting on top of a Champions League hat-trick right now. Nevertheless, their success in the last three years is almost unparalleled and should put them close to the top of the footballing pantheon. How high up, though, is open to debate and even then, it will probably remain inconclusive.

Barcelona are not as innovative as the great Ajax side of the mid-1960’s to early-70’s of whom they are clearly inspired by. (Indeed, how much scope is there to innovate when in South America they regard the high-intensity pressing of Holland as the last, great tactical innovation). But Barcelona’s style does fly in the face on current convention. Despite the liberalisation of the offside law, they are one of the few sides who play an aggressive offside trap and have popularised the current trend of pressing from the front. Also, their emphasis on technique came at a time when the fixation on speed and power was at its greatest. It’s a style mixed with the best of old and new. So rarely can it be said that a football team wins on its own terms; that they do it by doing exactly what they want to do. Barcelona is that one team.

Of course, it’s more difficult to innovate now because football has probably reached a summit in terms of what can be achieved naturally. Ajax were able to do this because there was more scope to differentiate in the past — and as scientific rationing became more possible —   but that shouldn’t be used as an argument against them: they did it in spite of any environmental disadvantages.

If this shows the difficulties of comparing two clubs of two distinct eras, in the case of Barcelona and Ajax, separated by the best part of forty years, then what about teams only separated by a mere seven years? Indeed, that’s the situation we have now with Arsenal.

With their recent troubles to add to the trophy cabinet, fans naturally hark back to more fruitful days for inspiration and there are two eras which are most frequently revisited. The George Graham era, although delivering six trophies in nine years and emphasising on the promoting from within, was more mechanical than it is now meaning any attempts to implement key properties of the side requires a drastic change of style. (Although the organisation they displayed could help the current side on their set-piece woes). Arsenal’s most successful period is undoubtedly between 2001 and 2005, most especially the season of 2003-2004 of which they went unbeaten. That team was divine, joining those two supposedly mutually exclusive entities of art and pragmatism. The passing was rapid, the understanding was telepathic and the accuracy unerring. Couple that with a ruthlessness and doggedness to see out matches, it made for a legendary unit. Well, in the league that is because — and it remains the greatest blotch on their legacy — that that legendary group never progressed beyond the quarter-finals in Europe. Maybe it was the way the “Invincibles” played that made them too open against the brutal efficiency of the European game. Or was it a psychological thing, seemingly coasting in the group stages, especially at home, but faltering when the pressure was ramped up? Indeed, can it be purely coincidence that Arséne Wenger’s most successful foray into Europe came only in 2005-06 after switching to 4-2-3-1 for Champions League encounters?

That they dominated in the league should come as little surprise. There was no great challenge to Arsenal and Manchester United’s duopoly so the notion that they could go unbeaten was not as fanciful as it initially seemed. Also, back then, mid-to-lower table teams would dare to approach Arsenal with some semblance of ambition so as good as Arsenal were with the ball, they were as much forced to retreat to the edge of their own box as they did creating rapid triangles up the pitch. That they were so good on the counter-attack, you could argue, owed as much to the tactics of their opponents who would offer more space as opposed to the overly-cautious way they approach Arsenal now.

It’s not to be understated how much of an effect the disparity of finances between top and bottom clubs has had on the tactics in the Premier League and that perhaps remains the massive difference between the tactics of the current Arsenal side and “The Invincibles” and why fans can’t demand Arsenal play the same ways as they did then. So with that in mind, what would happen if both teams played each other? Never mind that it’s chronologically impossible to pit both sides at their peak without the use of a time machine  – and even that, we’d imagine would bring them back horribly deformed. But we have, nevertheless, set-up a hypothetical meeting between the two teams played over two legs to try and decipher what may happen. The Invincibles using the same line-up that defeated Liverpool 4-2 in that magical encounter at Highbury and the current Arsenal side, sending out the team that that defeated Barcelona 2-1 last season. The managers, of course, would be Arséne Wenger but with slight personality differences; the one in charge of the 2004 side will be more relaxed, keeping his dark side better in check. The 2011 version, on the other hand, is unafraid to show his emotions and is often seen venting his anger at the nearest water bottle.

“The Invincibles” (4-4-2):Lehmann – Lauren, Campbell, Toure, Cole – Ljungberg , Vieira(c), Gilberto, Pires – Bergkamp, Henry.
Subs: Shaaban, Keown, Clichy, Edu, Reyes, Wiltord, Kanu.

Arsenal 2010/11 (4-2-3-1): Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy – Song, Wilshere – Walcott, Fábregas(c), Nasri – van Persie,.
Subs: Almunia, Rosicky, Denilson, Squillaci, Arshavin, Gibbs, Bendtner

The Rules: The first leg will be played at Highbury and the second leg at the Emirates Stadium with away goals only counting after extra time. Both sides are allowed to use only three subs and the referees ignoring the fact that there are two Gaël Clichys because it is thought unlikely that he would be sent on for the “Invincibles” side. If, in the unlikely event that the two Clichys do in fact enter the pitch at the same time, the officials have set aside a rule in which both managers can call up any well-known historical figure: Abraham Lincoln and most amazingly, Charles Babbage, were put on standby. The only slight playing rule change concerns the interpretations of the offside laws; at Highbury, the old law states that a player is only offside if he is “gaining an advantage by being in that position.” The new rule, brought in at 2005 and to be used at The Emirates, stipulates that the individual must be “interfering” with play to be deemed offside.

The Match

Rumours that Patrick Vieira tried to rile Cesc Fábregas in the tunnel but failed to get a reaction out of him are unfounded nevertheless the teams were immaculately led out. The Invincibles were sent out in a 4-4-2 with Dennis Bergkamp playing off Thierry Henry and the two wide men looking to support them as often as possible. Behind them, Vieira and Gilberto formed a solid midfield base that allowed the attacking players to get forward with assurance as their primary job was to help retain the shape of the team in and out of possession. Arsenal of 2010/11, meanwhile, had more of a 4-2-3-1 shape: Cesc Fábregas had the main creative duties in front of a double pivot of Alex Song and Jack Wilshere while Robin van Persie played as a focal point of the attack, allowing Theo Walcott in particular, to take up a forward role by drifting inside from the right.

With five minutes on the clock gone, a pattern of the game was quickly emerging. Arsenal of 2010/11 had plenty of the possession but were finding it difficult to break into the Invincibles penalty area. Neat give and go’s around the box were a frequent sight but the claustrophobic feel of Highbury meant their attacks often found a brick wall. Gilberto Silva and Vieira were making their presence felt and the latter in particular, was already looking in imperious form. With every attack the Invincibles were able to soak up, they could quickly feed the ball to Thierry Henry on the break who looked to profit from the gaps Arsenal’s full-backs left. It was from this situation that The Invincibles were able to create the first chance of the game as Henry’s pass in field saw Robert Pires dart in from the left but his shot was blocked by an alert Laurent Koscielny. The Invincbles were growing in confidence and sure enough – and not notoriously known for being quick starters for nothing – they forced a save out of Wojciech Szczesny. Dennis Bergkamp, picking the ball up from the right, picked a gap between Arsenal’s two centre-backs who were trying to play a high line and Henry, seemingly destined to score, shot straight at the goalkeeper’s legs.

It was a hectic start to the game and Arsenal of 2010/11 finally started to gain their composure again and following a crunching tackle by Alex Song on Pires, they almost scored a great goal; Bakary Sagna bursting forward and playing a one-two with van Persie before his lay-off for Fábregas was well held by Jens Lehmann. Jack Wilshere had a token effort from outside the box soon after fly over the crossbar.

After the furious opening exchanges, the game now settled and after a spell of possession for the Invincibles, they tried their luck down the right with Fredrik Ljungberg but he couldn’t connect to Henry’s through-ball. Arsenal continued passing the ball around and their possession pushed the Invincbles deeper but little did they know it would became a double-edged sword. The possession killed off the influence of Vieira on the ball but he only ever needed a couple of passes and the Invincibles were away. There was ample space on the counter and after a couple of failed bursts from Ashley Cole, they soon scored. Dennis Bergkamp again picked the ball up from deep and played a superb pass to the right for Ljungberg. The Swede had Clichy backtracking before his cut back found Henry at the edge of the box. The Frenchman took one touch to his right before hitting powerfully and accurately in the bottom corner. The goal was just rewards for their superior tactical acumen, soaking up Arsenal’s attacks before hitting them devastatingly on the break.

Cesc Fábregas was becoming more desperate now for an equaliser and his link-up with van Persie looked Arsenal’s best bet for a goal. He found the Dutchman with a great pass on the edge of the box and as he swivelled and opened up his body for a left-foot shot, the ball cannoned off the post. “Just my luck,” thought van Persie and he was again involved with another chance, this time for Nasri who cut in from the left but his tame shot was straight at Lehmann. Arsenal were sensing a goal but before half-time they conceded another one instead, Vieira rising to meet a corner from the right to make it 2-0. Arséne Wenger was furious and he was motioning for his wide-men to try and get behind more but with the Highbury pitch more condensed than they are used to, Walcott was frozen out of the game. His crosses almost always found an Invincibles shirt while Nasri, tying Lauren in knots at times, failed to deliver the crucial pass. It was becoming congested and that’s how the second half continued.

Fábregas was instrumental in everything Arsenal threw forward and he should have scored himself when Walcott’s low cross was met crisply towards the far corner but Lehmann somehow tipped wide. Wenger – the one with the bottle – was ready to summon Marouanne Chamakh but was conscious that he may lose his shape as it was only the first leg so the arrival of Andrei Arshavin was imminent. But soon enough the pressure told and van Persie, looking dangerous when picking the ball from deep and testing the mobility of Gilberto, picked up a pass from Fábregas to power a shot into the top corner. Suited and calmer-looking Wenger reacted and sent on Edu and Reyes for Bergkamp and Pires and the five-man midfield finally began to exert some influence on the game. Reyes was looking potent every time he ran at Sagna and on the 89th minute, he was the one who looked to have put the tie beyond doubt when he latched on to a pass from Edu before using the run of Henry as a decoy to arrow into the bottom corner. 3-1 to the Invincibles and game over it looked but not before Arshavin wasted a couple of good chances. The handshake from both managers was firm but never quite convincing; they both knew there was still 90 minutes to play.

2nd Leg

The bigger, continental style Emirates Stadium was a little more demanding for the Invincibles and for the first thirty minutes they found it difficult to get going. Both teams were unchanged and Wenger was beginning to rue the decision not to start Reyes on the left of a 4-5-1. Arsenal monopolised possession once again and before half-time, won a penalty when Jack Wilshere was felled after neat work with Fábregas. The captain stepped up and slammed the penalty down the middle.

Ashley Cole was The Invincible’s best player in the 2nd Leg and his late runs were a constant threat. He teed up Henry for one chance before lurking in the box himself but his shot was parried by Szczesny. Arsenal sent on Chamakh for Wilshere thereby dropping Fábregas deeper alongside Song and they continued to pepper the Invincbles box with failed crosses. Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure were imperious and cleared everything that was thrown at them.

The problem for the Invicibles was that their 4-4-2 was outnumbered by Arsenal’s three-man midfield and that meant they struggled to get an out-ball to Henry. Wenger eventually altered things and brought on Reyes to run at Sagna down the left and it so nearly worked. His understanding with Henry offered a tantalising vision of what could be achieved in the future and he seemed to thrive off the confidence he gave him. Henry dropped deeper for the ball and he kept on finding Reyes with his superbly timed diagonals and soon the same men combined to put the game beyond doubt. Reyes laid off Henry after good work from Pires to slot home. Arsenal scored straight after through van Persie but their dependence on him and Fábregas was becoming more and more apparent over both encounters. Nasri and Walcott were more involved than they were in the first leg but without taking some of the burden off their two main men, it is evident that Arsenal will struggle to make the final hurdle. Chamakh had one final chance to take the game into extra-time but he headed wide. When the final whistle sounded, Arsenal reluctantly accepted that they were beaten by the more canny side.

While they held most of the possession, Arsenal of 2010/11 became unstuck against old-fashioned resilience and organisation and their lack of experience told in the end. However, there are some positives they can take out of the encounter and it’s that they dominated a very good side over both legs. Their style is more suited to Europe but if they can add a couple more robust individuals they can be a force in the league for the next coming years. The Invincibles showed again why they are a great side as their football bordered on the impossibly quick at times and defended astutely. However, there is room for improvements despite their 4-3 aggregate win; they can learn better, how to counter-act possession hungry teams and their formation was found out to be too outdated. They do, nevertheless, possess plenty of talented back up such as Reyes and Clichy and if they can let them mature in the presence of experienced individuals, the future is definitely bright. The move to a new stadium in the next three years certainly signals exciting times for the Gunners but Wenger must handle the transition delicately and there’s no better manager for it.

The last word of the game was left to Man-of-the-Match, Patrick Vieira who had wise words for his conquers: “There is a big difference between the Arsenal team now and the one I played in,’ he said (in an actually interview with the Daily Mail). “It was a big, physical team. We could play as well but I honestly believe that the Arsenal team now are playing better then we ever did. The difference is we put silverware on the sideboard. That is what people remember, not how you play. Only Barcelona play (like that) and win silverware….Maybe now Arsenal lack the physical aspect. You need a balance to win trophies.”

Arsenal’s team of 2000-2010

–         Firstly, as you may have noticed, the decade ended at the start of last year (although some dispute otherwise). So that’s why we’ve aptly renamed the Arsenal XI of the Decade to Arsenal XI from 2000-2010. That’s technically eleven years. We’ve published our matches of the decade last season if you want to take a look.

–         Secondly, we all realise when creating such a list, there will always be a natural bias to the “Invincibles” side of 2003-04. After all, they are the best Arsenal team. Ever. But trophies are not the only measure of success. The clever clogs amongst yourselves will probably say that you wish you knew that before you signed up to Arsene Wenger’s post-Highbury “project” but let’s not be facetious. This XI consists of players who have performed consistently to the Arsenal cause. So no one season wonders – Matheiu Flamini may be the first to enter your mind although he did have two good seasons; the other being an impressive run at the left-back position in the season The Gunners made the Champions League final.

–         In true Arsene Wenger fashion, the players are slotted into a 4-4-2. As ever the wide players are not “prisoners of their position” and that is particularly appropriate once you see who we have at right-midfield. And yes, he has played there for Arsenal.

GK: Jens Lehmann
2003-2008 (147 appearances)

For a while, Lehmann looked like he wouldn’t be considered an Arsenal great. He was part of the unbeaten Arsenal side but was often regarded as the weak link in their success. His frequent calamities were appropriate of a time after David Seaman’s retirement when nothing seemed to be going right between the sticks. But he gradually grew more serene and that, seemingly, was enough to hide his faults. In his defence, Lehmann’s initial troubles in adapting to the league may have been due to European style which encouraged goalkeepers to come off the line as opposed to England, where ‘keepers are chiefly stoppers. But he still made more mistakes than he should have.

That saying, his eccentricities was part of his charm and in a strange way, gave his defence a sense of assurance because they knew he would take responsibility. In particular, he was very assertive at coming out from corner-kicks as this was considered to be Arsenal’s main weakness, the whole in the Death Star if you’d like. His penalty save against Villarreal in the Champions League semi-final stands out as his greatest individual moment but he just as quickly ruined it all in the final. With 18 minutes played, Lehmann, all too predictably rushed out at the feet of Samuel Eto’o to earn himself a red-card and leave Arsenal having to fend off Barcelona with ten-man: Mission impossible almost. Still, despite the attendant rashness, he was a class goalkeeper and during Arsenal’s 2006 Champions League run, he was Europe’s best goalkeeper at that point, going 853 minutes without conceding a goal. A record that still stands today.

RB: Bakary Sagna
2007-present (118 appearances)

He’s not even Arsenal most successful right-back; Emmanuel Eboue is ahead of him if finals and trophies are a measure of success. That honour goes to Lauren. But he IS Arsenal’s best right-back and for that reason, Bakary Sagna deserves his place in the eleven.

Sagna was a relative unknown when he signed in 2007 and there were doubts about whether the side needed him. Eboue was there. But he soon dispelled such reservations with a rapid transition as the league’s best right-back in his debut season. Defensively, he is at his best but despite his forward limitations, Sagna keeps going. And going. And going. To be fair to him, he has improved in his delivery, making five assists last season but his value is that he remains as reliable at the back as ever.

CB: Sol Campbell
2001-2006 (135 appearances), 2009-2010 (11 appearances)

Crossed the short North London divide amid much controversy and found immediate success with a League and Cup double in his first season. Sol Campbell was just the powerhouse defender Arsenal since Tony Adams and Martin Keown were already queueing up to pick up their pensions. Luckily for The Gunners, Campbell had let his contract at Tottenham run out and as the rules of the Bosman Transfer state, he was free to leave for any club he desired. He chose Arsenal and never looked back. A goal in the Champions League final was scored in a losing cause but ultimately got what he craved for with the move: trophies and European football. He was a rock and Arsenal evidently looked weaker without him, effectively conceding the 2002-03 title due to his absence through injury. But he was there when Arsenal won the championship in 2004 and at what better place to seal the glory than at Tottenham’s ground. The metaphorical middle finger was well and truly up.

Campbell returned to the club for one more season in October 2009 and was never once exposed by the high-line they played, even at the age of 35. We are, however, going to overlook him absconding like a baby from Highbury at half-time after a horror show against West Ham which sandwiched between his two times at the club. Probably a trait he learnt at Spurs.

CB: Kolo Toure
2002-2009 (226 appearances)

In his first season at Arsenal, Kolo Toure looked like an excitable puppy and sure enough, Wenger let him play in such a way. He was frequently let off the leash as a substitute, usually on the right of midfield but sometimes at right-back and he just kept running and running. Somehow, Wenger was able to channel that energy and Toure established himself as a defender of great maturity. He developed a solid partnership with Sol Campbell, helping Arsenal to that fabled unbeaten season as a ball-playing, adventurous centre-back.

LB: Ashley Cole
1998-2006 (156 appearances)

Left the club in acrimonious circumstances but he did so, unlike many, as the world’s best in his position. However, Ashley Cole almost never made it Arsenal. Having been sent out on loan to Crystal Palace as a youngster, he was called back after Sylvinho was unable to get his work-permit renewed and forcibly, was elevated to the first-team. Cole snatched at the opportunity like a tramp on a loose bag of chips and made the role his own. Marauding up-and-down the left flank, he was Arsenal’s answer to Roberto Carlos and ensured the left-back role wasn’t just a secondary position. His goal against Aston Villa remains one the club’s best team goals highlighting just how deadly the full-back can be in the modern game. Defensively, he was just as good and Arsenal fans perhaps, still take pride in the fact that he is one of the few that can stop Cristiano Ronaldo and we just as much cheered whenTheo Walcott tore him a new one in the recent 3-1 win. Cole may have been a problem child and a naughty boy but he was our problem child and naughty boy.

RM (sort of): Cesc Fabregas
2003-present (201 appearances)

Cesc Fabregas seemingly encapsulates what Arsenal is about since the “Invincibles” team broke up. Skilful, spontaneous and confident in possession – the type of player that makes Arsenal a joy to watch – but letting him mature without the presence of such big name players left a bit of fragility in him that can occasionally frustrate. Indeed, that is the argument some have made against Wenger’s handling of the transition. That the youth, fluidity, intelligence, pace and swagger in possession – have effectively taken over the team. And the other qualities that made them great – ruthlessness, power, organisation and experience – have been seen as an after-thought.

But that also displays the delicacy of the project the team has embarked upon and this season, we are finally starting to see it bear fruit. Cesc Fabregas has been influential, even when he is absent through injury, and in past seasons, has almost single-handedly carried the team forward. Fabregas sees things that others don’t and plays the through pass as if it was his first step as a baby. Last season, he made 13 assists, a fantastic feat which is made the more amazing considering he scored 15 goals also. He is more robust now and direct – as shown by his impact in the 2010 World Cup finals and Euro 2008, regularly coming off the bench to change his country’s flow from the lateral to the dynamic. We have done a whole analysis of his time at Arsenal so head over and read it there, because frankly, we can write so much more about the talismanic midfielder.

In this list, Fabregas comes in right midfield, a position he has not played since his first full season in the senior side. It’s probably fair to say we can all agree he deserves his spot in this XI but where to put him considering the rest of the players to come? Right-midfield adds balance to the side and because he is such a genius, you can bet on him to make a great impact from the position.

CM: Gilberto Silva
2002-2008 (170 appearances)

Gilberto Silva’s brilliance was his simplicity. Initially he couldn’t stop scoring which, rather prematurely, because of his late runs, drew comparisons with Fredrik Ljungberg but that just underlined his underrated all-round ability. He soon settled, however, and became the wise head in midfield who kept the side ticking with his get and give efficiency.

The fact that Gilberto came into a winning side on the back of a World Cup triumph helped him settle and he was a key component in the “Invincibles” side. His altruistic style was needed most when Patrick Vieira departed and the midfield needed a composed figure to guide them forward. Gilberto rose to the occasion and was the glue that held the structure together as Arsenal agonisingly lost to Barcelona 2-1 in the Champions League final. Wenger summed up his value to the team best when he said: “what I like was the fact that he kept things simple. He can play all across the midfield but the holding role just in front of the defence is what he does best.”

CM: Patrick Vieira (Captain)
1996-2005 (279 appearances)

Put simply, Patrick Vieira was a monster of a specimen when he first set foot in the Premiership. He was a player of great physical presence but one who could also match that with an unerring technique and lung bursting stamina. Such traits allowed him to dominate the league for the remaining years and he was the driving force of the Arsenal team from the heart of midfield. Vieira’s success lent itself to a spate of imitators looking to recreate a similar profile of the player, some successful, others not so, such as Manchester United’s Eric Djamba-Djemba.

Injuries and speculation about his future perhaps limited his influence in the later years but was still impressive when he did play. He captained The Gunners to their historic unbeaten triumph, scoring the goal that sealed the title.

LM: Robert Pires
2000-2006 (189 appearances)

It may be difficult to fathom now that Thierry Henry had ever taken a backseat to any such attacking player during his eight years at the club but in the 2001-02 season, he did. To Robert Pires. Pires looked uncomfortable in the way he ran with the ball but there was something poetic about the way he moved. His hair swishing up and down against the wind; his arms almost stiff when running as if to ensure the maximum balance and he took ever so timid steps with the ball at his feet. For that one season, Pires was perhaps the best player in the world but that season was also prematurely hacked down to size in March against Newcastle. That didn’t stop him, however, scooping the PFA player of the year award and the way his team-mates acknowledged his contribution to the title win by smiling gleefully at the player on the podium, spoke louder than words ever could. Pires scored an amazing 62 league goals from left midfield, a thought unthinkable to some at that time and reinvented, on the face of it, the simple position of the winger.

CF: Dennis Bergkamp
1995-2006 (316 appearances)

You’d have to be Groundskeeper Willie to conclusively prove Dennis Bergkamp’s intention in video form when scoring Arsenal’s greatest goal ever, but at 5 seconds in in video clip, we can attest the only space he could have exploited was to the left of him. His finish in the 2-0 win against Newcastle was labelled a fluke by some but only a genius could have produced a goal when there looked like there was nothing on. Somehow he manufactured the space to turn past Nikos Dabizas with a balletic pirouette before slotting past Shay Given.

It was this type of operational mastery that set the Dutchman apart and his spacial awareness ensured he was at the hub of most of Arsenal attacks in their most successful era. His contribution to Arsenal’s 7-0 win over Everton once again highlights that vision and particularly the third goal. As we pick it up, we see Bergkamp running into the space in front of the box but as the ball reaches him, he is instantly surrounded by four defenders. However, with one flick of the boot, he cuts open the defence and frees Patrick Vieira to chip home. His ability to squeeze and double the size of the pitch set him apart in a generation.

No player in the Premier League era has given as much visceral joy as Dennis Bergkamp. Here was a player who always seemed a step ahead of his opponents and perhaps the only player in the world whose brain was conjoined to his right boot.

CF: Thierry Henry
1999-2007 (254 appearances)

2000-01: 17 goals, 7 assists. 2001-02: 24 goals, five assists. 2002-03: 24 goals, 23 assists. 2003-04: 30 goals, 8 assists. 2004:05: 25 goals, 14 assists. 2005-06: 27 goals, 6 assists. 2006-07: 10 goals, 4 assists.

Thierry Henry may have been Arsenal’s greatest individual player but the statistics paint him as one of the best team players also. Amazingly, he never quite got the European recognition he deserved despite scoring a hat-trick against both Inter and Roma in 5-1 and 3-1 wins respectively, and both in away matches. And let’s not forget the way he tore apart Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu with a terrific solo goal on the run to the final. [EDIT] Henry has actually been named in UEFA.com’s team of the year a five times but a podium finish is perhaps scant consolation for a brilliant goalscorer – yes – but also a supreme team player.

In his pomp, he was a stallion of a striker. Gracefully fast and explosive in front of goal, Henry terrified defenders with the ball at his feet. He ended as Arsenal’s highest ever goalscorer with 226 goals in 380 appearances. A phenomenal feat from a phenomenal player.

Honourable mentions: Lauren (2000-2007 – 159 appearances), Fredrik Ljungberg (1998–2007 – 216 appearances), Silvain Wiltord (2000-2004 – 104 appearances).

And finally, a wholly irrelevant XI but one that reserves a special place in your memory. (Romantic XI): Lehmann; Luzhny, Campbell, Gallas, Cole; Hleb, Fabregas, Edu, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry